Gert Jan Kocken

Depictions of London 1939-1945

Depictions of London 1939-1945

“Oh well, if England wants war, it will have it,” Hitler told the Romanian foreign minister Gafencu in April 1939. He continued:

We shall fight ruthlessly, to the end, with no consideration. We have never been as strong as we are now. … So on what do they rely to hold us in check? Their air force? They may perhaps succeed in bombarding a few towns, but how can they measure up to us? Our Luftwaffe leads the world, and no enemy town will be left standing!

But after all, why this unimaginable massacre? In the end, victor or vanquished, we shall all be buried in the same ruins; and the only one who will profit is that man in Moscow.

Despite these concerns, Hitler secretly informed his military staff that he planned to invade Poland while keeping its allies England and France out of the war:

There is therefore no question of sparing Poland, and we are left with the decision: to attack Poland at the first suitable opportunity.

Conflict with Poland … will only be successful if the Western Powers keep out of it. If this is impossible, then it will be better to attack in the West and to settle Poland at the same time.

If Holland and Belgium are successfully occupied and held, and if France is also defeated, the fundamental conditions for a successful war against England will have been secured. England can then be blockaded from western France at close quarters by the Luftwaffe, while the Navy with its submarines extend the range of the blockade. Consequences: England will not be able to fight on the Continent; daily attacks by the Luftwaffe and the navy will cut all her lifelines; Germany will not bleed to death on land.

Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, had long tried to avoid war with Germany, but on 1 September 1939 Hitler invaded Poland, forcing him into war. Chamberlain addressed his nation in a radio broadcast two days later:

This morning the British ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a
final note stating that, unless we heard from them by eleven o’clock that they were
prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would
exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that
consequently this country is at war with Germany.

We and France are today, in fulfilment of our obligations, going to the aid of
Poland, who is so bravely resisting this wicked and unprovoked attack on her
people. … The situation in which no word given by Germany's ruler could be
trusted and no people or country could feel themselves safe has become intolerable.
And now that we have resolved to finish it, I know that you will all play your part
with calmness and courage.

Now may God bless you all. May He defend the right. It is the evil things that we
shall be fighting against – brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and
persecution – and against them I am certain that the right will prevail.

With England and France coming to Poland’s aid, Hitler’s hopes of annexing Central-European territory without outside interference were shattered. His new aim was to “win as much territory as possible in Holland, Belgium, and northern France to serve as a base for the successful prosecution of the air and sea war against England.” Denmark and Norway were invaded first, in April 1940. Then, on 10 May, Germany started the Battle of France, a rapid conquest of the Low Countries and the greater part of France.

Victory at All Costs

On the first day of the Battle of France Winston Churchill succeeded Chamberlain as prime minister. Churchill had been a fierce critic of Chamberlain’s strategy of appeasement and in his first speech to the House of Common, on 13 May 1940, he stressed his willingness to fight Hitler:

I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: it is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: it is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.

Churchill clashed with Viscount Halifax, the foreign secretary, who wanted to enter peace talks with Hitler. Halifax and the French government hoped to settle with Mussolini (who had not declared sides yet) and use his influence with Hitler to stop the war. In return for peace Hitler would be offered German-speaking French territory and a free hand in central and eastern Europe. Churchill disagreed and told the War Cabinet:

We must take care not to be forced into a weak position in which we went to signor Mussolini and invited him to go to Herr Hitler and ask him to treat us nicely. We must not get tangled in a position of that kind before we had been involved in any serious fighting.

Churchill settled the argument when he told the War Cabinet on 28 May:

I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duty to consider entering into negotiations with That Man. … And I am convinced that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.

Soon after the War Cabinet rallied behind Churchill, Mussolini decided to enter the war on the German side. Meanwhile Hitler continued to look for ways to pressure Britain into agreeing on a negotiated peace. Churchill, however, was preparing his nation for a prolonged war, telling the House of Commons in June:

We abate nothing of our just demands; not one jot or tittle do we recede. Czechs, Poles, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians have joined their causes to our own. All these shall be restored.

The Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”

Operations Sea Lion and Eagle Attack

Convinced that Britain would be unable to withstand a full-scale German attack, on 19 July 1940 Hitler ordered preparations for an invasion:

As England, in spite of her hopeless military situation, still shows no signs of willingness to come to terms, I have decided to prepare, and if necessary to carry out, a landing operation against her. The aim of this operation is to eliminate the English Motherland as a base from which the war against Germany can be continued, and, if necessary, to occupy the country completely.

The German military leadership viewed invasion as a last resort in case Britain would continue to interfere with Hitler’s plans. It would be “the final act in an already victorious war” carried out only after containing the Royal Navy and defeating the RAF. Churchill thought that a German invasion “would be a most hazardous and suicidal operation” and told the War Cabinet not even to prepare for it. He did, however, use “the great invasion scare” as a way of “keeping every man and woman tuned to a high pitch of readiness”.

The Luftwaffe grossly underestimated the strength of the RAF and projected that achieving air supremacy would take two to four weeks. Hermann Göring, the commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, was convinced that the strategic bombing of England alone would be enough to force Churchill into peace negotiations. Part of the reason why he pressed for a bombing campaign was that it could greatly enhance the standing of the Luftwaffe, and himself.

The first air battles between Germany and Britain took place over the English Channel in July and early August 1940. The Luftwaffe attacked British convoys, laid naval mines, and gauged England’s defences. Göring limited the attacks to military targets:

The war against England is to be restricted to destructive attacks against industry and air force targets which have weak defensive forces. ... The most thorough study of the target concerned, that is vital points of the target, is a prerequisite for success. It is also stressed that every effort should be made to avoid unnecessary loss of life amongst the civilian population.

On 1 August Hitler gave Göring the order for Operation Eagle Attack, a larger series of air assaults focused on the RAF itself. Between 12 August and 6 September the Luftwaffe launched 53 raids on air force facilities and planes in the south of England. Results were mixed and Operation Eagle Attack failed to clear the way for a seaborne invasion. Instead, the RAF and the Luftwaffe locked in a sustained strategic bombing war in which the distinction between military, industrial and civilian targets grew increasingly blurry. In a speech to the House of Common on 20 August, Churchill said:

There is another more obvious difference from 1914. The whole of the warring nations are engaged, not only soldiers, but the entire population, men, women, and children. The fronts are everywhere. The trenches are dug in the towns and streets. Every village is fortified. Every road is barred. The front line runs through the factories. The workmen are soldiers with different weapons but the same courage.

The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

The London Blitz

Days after Churchill’s speech German night bombers accidentally hit a residential area in central London. Churchill and the War Cabinet immediately ordered a retaliatory strike on Tempelhof Airport in Berlin. The bombing of their capital took the Germans by surprise and infuriated Hitler. He told the crowds at the Berlin Sportpalast:

Wherever they see a light, they drop a bomb. I did not answer for three months because I was of the opinion that they would ultimately stop this nonsense. Mr. Churchill perceived this as a sign of our weakness. You will surely understand that now we are giving our answers night after night, and this at an increasing rate. And should the RAF drop 2,000, or 3,000, or 4,000 kilograms of bombs, then we will now drop 150,000, 180,000, 230,000, 300,000, 400,000, yes, one million kilograms in a single night. And should they declare they will greatly increase their attacks on our cities, then we will erase their cities! We
will put these night-time pirates out of business, God help us!

Seeking retaliating, the Luftwaffe shifted its focus from gaining air supremacy to bombing enemy cities. Hans Jeschonnek, the Luftwaffe’s chief of staff, was much in favour of this change, but Göring believed it would have been better to stick with the original plan. When he asked Jeschonnek if he thought Germany would cave in if Berlin were wiped out, he said: “Of course not! British morale is more brittle than our own.” “That is where you are wrong,” Göring replied.

Large-scale attacks on British cities started on 7 September 1940. Nearly 1,000 German aircraft crossed the Channel to attack London and other urban centres in an assault known as the “Blitz” (from Blitzkrieg, or lightning war). German planes bombed London for 57 consecutive nights, killing more than 40,000 civilians and destroying or damaging over one million houses. Tens of thousands of Londoners slept in special underground shelters and parts of the tube system at night, descending in the late afternoon and emerging at dawn. The British government feared that they might develop “deep shelter mentality” and be too scared to come out during the day. But the people of London proved resilient and continued their daily lives as best as they could. Churchill was taken by their unwaveringness. After touring the ruins of East End London on 8 September he remarked to an aide: “Did you hear them? They cheered me as if I’d given them victory, instead of getting their houses bombed to bits.” A few days later he addressed the nation in a radio broadcast:

[Hitler] has lighted a fire which will burn with a steady and consuming flame until the last vestiges of Nazi tyranny have been burnt out of Europe, and until the Old World – and the New – can join hands to rebuild the temples of man's freedom and man's honour, upon foundations which will not soon or easily be overthrown.

In other cases, panic and chaos followed the raids. In the night of 14 November the medieval city of Coventry was hit by 30,000 incendiary bombs, one of the biggest and most concentrated attacks by the Luftwaffe thus far. It was the first raid during which special pathfinder aircraft with electronic navigational aids would fly ahead and set alight several targets, which would then serve as beacons for the rest of the bombers. Also new was the combination of high explosive bombs, blockbuster bombs, and incendiary bombs, which created a firestorm that consumed Coventry Cathedral and many other buildings. In total 41,500 homes were damaged and over 2,300 destroyed completely; half the city’s population fled to surrounding areas.

The destruction was so extensive that Goebbels coined the word “Koventrieren” (to Coventrate), meaning to reduce something to rubble. Similarly, in one instance staff at the British Air Ministry measured the project number of deaths among German workers in “Coventries”, a unit equal to 22,515 expected casualties. The British also talked of “laying on a Rotterdam” when in 1944 they were outlining a plan for “the obliteration of the visible sign of an organised Government” by dropping 2,000 tons of bombs on the centre of Berlin.

Terror Raids

Raids that caused great damage to residential districts would become more common as the war endured. In May 1940 the War Cabinet had already approved the strategic bombing of German targets where civilians might be casualties, as long as they were suitably military objectives. In early December Churchill secretly approved a new bombing policy that condoned “terror raids” on German cities. The first of such attacks were the RAF raids on Mannheim, which started the same month and would continue throughout the war, destroying nearly two-thirds of the city in the process.

Hitler responded with large-scale attacks on cities that were ports or shipping centres. Of all the British cities Hull was hit hardest: 95% of its houses were damaged. Hitler defended the counterattacks in his address to the Reichstag in May 1941:

All my attempts at reaching an understanding, particularly with England, nay even permanent friendly cooperation, were foiled by the wish of a small clique, who, either out of hatred or for material reasons, refused any German suggestion of agreement and did not conceal their intention or desire of war. The driving personality behind this mad and devilish plan of starting war at any price was Churchill and his accomplices.

My peace offer was alleged to be a sign of fear and cowardice. The European and American warmongers again succeeded in blurring the sanity of the masses, who cannot gain by this war. They succeeded in awakening new hopes by lying statements, and finally, with the help of a public opinion directed by their press, made the people continue the fight.

My warnings against night bombing of the civilian population advocated by Mr. Churchill were interpreted only as a sign of German impotence. This most bloody dilettante in history seriously thought he could regard the Luftwaffe's forbearance over months as proof of its inability to fly by night. … I am not surprised that these warnings had no influence on Mr. Churchill. What does the happiness of other people, what does culture, what do buildings mean to this man? At the very beginning of the war he said that he wanted war, even if the towns of England should be reduced to rubble and debris. Now he has got this war.

Churchill told the House of Commons in July:

[I]f tonight the people of London were asked to cast their vote whether a convention should be entered into to stop the bombing of all cities, the overwhelming majority would cry, “No, we will mete out to the Germans the measure, and more than the measure, that they have meted out to us.” The people of London with one voice would say to Hitler: “You have committed every crime under the sun. Where you have been the least resisted there you have been the most brutal. It was you who began the indiscriminate bombing. We remember Warsaw in the very first few days of the war. We remember Rotterdam. We have been newly reminded of your habits by the hideous massacre of Belgrade. We know too well the bestial assault you are making upon the Russian people, to whom our hearts go out in their valiant struggle. We will have no truce or parley with you, or the grisly gang who work your wicked will. You do your worst and we will do our best.”

Hitler and Churchill thus committed themselves to a series of retaliations in which both sides were increasingly willing to target civilians. A British staff paper dated 23 September 1941 described the purpose of the RAF’s area bombardments of cities:

The ultimate aim of an attack on a town area is to break the morale of the population which occupies it. To ensure this, we must achieve two things: first, we must make the town physically uninhabitable and, secondly, we must make the people conscious of constant personal danger. The immediate aim, is therefore, twofold, namely, to produce (i) destruction and (ii) fear of death.

Dehousing

After a winter that saw decreased bombardments on both sides, the RAF made mass-scale terror bombing its central aim in early 1942. In early February the British government issued the Area Bombing Directive, ordering the RAF to attack the German workforce and the morale of the German populace through bombing cities and their inhabitants. This strategy was supported by the so-called dehousing paper, which apprised Churchill of the following:

In 1938 over 22 million Germans lived in 58 towns of over 100,000 inhabitants, which, with modern equipment, should be easy to find and hit. … If even half the total load of 10,000 bombers were dropped on the built-up areas of these 58 German towns, the great majority of their inhabitants (about one-third of the German population) would be turned out of house and home.

Investigation seems to show that having one’s home demolished is most damaging to morale. People seem to mind it more than having their friends or even relatives killed. At Hull signs of strain were evident, though only one-tenth of the houses were demolished. On the above figures we should be able to do ten times as much harm to each of the 58 principal German towns. There seems little doubt that this would break the spirit of the people.

Around the same time Arthur Harris was appointed as the new head of Bomber Command. Harris was a fervent proponent of mass dehousing, which he believed was an apt response to the German raids:

The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.

Harris increased both the size and the frequency of the of the RAF’s bombing raids. Massive numbers of airplanes were used to overwhelm German defences and showcase British aerial might. The success of these attacks was measured and presented in statistical terms using three criteria:

Tons of bombs claimed dropper per built-up acre attacked = ‘Effort’
Acres of devastation per ton of bombs claimed dropped = ‘Efficiency’
Acres of devastation per acre of built-up area attacked = ‘Success’

The first target of these large-scale raids was Lübeck, a moderate size city “built more like a fire-lighter than a human habitation”, according to Harris. A large portion of Lübeck, including much of its historic centre, was destroyed by the explosives and the subsequent firestorm. The first raid involving over 1,000 bombers was conducted in the night of 30-31 May. Within 90 minutes 2,000 tons of explosives were dropped on factories and residential areas. Göring was astounded: “It's impossible! That many bombs cannot be dropped in a single night!”

The bombings of Lübeck, Cologne and other German cities shocked the general public and enraged Hitler. In April he ordered that:

[T]he air war against England [is] be given a more aggressive stamp. Accordingly, when targets are being selected, preference is to be given to those where attacks are likely to have the greatest possible effect on civilian life. Besides raids on ports and industry, terror attacks of a retaliatory nature are to be carried out on towns other than London.

These orders were the impetus to a series of raids on old British cities of cultural significance. These attacks became known as Baedeker Blitz, after a German propagandist said: “We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide.” After the second raid, which affected nearly 20,000 buildings in in the city of Bath, Goebbels wrote:

[C]ultural centres, health resorts and civilian centres must be attacked... there is no other way of bringing the English to their senses. They belong to a class of human beings with whom you can only talk after you have first knocked out their teeth.

Over 1,600 civilians were killed in the Baedeker Blitz. For two years Britain and Germany continued their extensive bombing raids, both sides believing they would break the enemy’s spirit. Hitler intended to “repeat these raids night after night until the English are sick and tired of terror attacks.” In a similar vein, Harris said he could “knock Germany out of the war” by levelling its major cities. Allied leaders and officers suggested, without real evidence, that while British morale had remained general intact, the German people were less strong-willed and would “not stand a quarter of the bombing”.

Vergeltungswaffen

In the first months of 1944 the Luftwaffe conducted its last strategic bombing offensive, Operation Steinbock, also known as the Baby Blitz. After several months during which Göring had focused the Luftwaffe on defending Germany’s cities against British bombers, he decided on an offensive against southern England. From early January to late April, 31 major raids targeted various cities, including London, which was bombed fourteen times. Over 1,500 Britons were killed in the raids.

The Baby Blitz incurred suffered serious material losses on the Luftwaffe, which stimulated the Nazi leadership’s interest in alternative means of attacking Britain. This accelerated the development of the German Vergeltungswaffen (reprisal weapons). The first of these weapons was the V-1, which was designed for terror bombing enemy cities such as London. Also called the flying bomb, the V-1 was an eight-metre-long cruise missile flying at a speed of 640 kilometre per hour.

More than 9,500 V-1s were fired at cities in south-east England from launching sites along the French and Dutch coasts. The attacks were effective: between June 1944 and August 1944 the V-1s destroyed as many structures as conventional bombers did during the twelve months of the London Blitz. By October Allied forces had taken control of most launching sites in range of Britain, but another 2,448 V-1s were fired at Belgian cities before all remaining launching sites were overrun in late March 1945.

Near the end of the war the V-1 was succeeded by the V-2, an advanced guided missile with an operational range of 320 kilometres. Traveling at 3,550 kilometre per hour, the missile could not be stopped by anti-aircraft guns or fighters. The V-2 was based on American rocket designs and repurposed for military aims by a team led by Werner von Braun, a gifted young German engineer. Hitler was highly impressed by his work and hoped the V-2 would be the “miracle weapon” that would win him the war. In total 5,200 V-2 missiles were produced, each requiring approximately 13,000 hours of labour. Most of the work was done by slave labourers who worked in an underground factory. Their conditions were so dire that far more people died in the production of the V-2 than by its deployment.

The first V-2 attack was launched at Paris on 8 September 1944. In the next few months nearly 3,200 V-2s were fired, of which 1,610 at Antwerp and 1,358 at London. On 27 march 1945, a few weeks before the end of the war, the last V2 to hit London destroyed an apartment complex in East End. Altogether the V-2 strikes resulted in the deaths of between 7,000 and 9,000 people; in London approximately 2,750 civilians were killed and over 6,500 injured.