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The Bombing of London during World War II

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The extensive sustained bombing attacks on Britain were initiated and performed in the course of World War II by Nazi Germany between the years of 1940 and 1945. The most intense bombardment, which started in June 1940 and continued until May 1941, became known as The Blitz. The consequent sporadic raids that occurred between 1941 and 1943 developed into the so-called ‘Baby Blitz’ of November 1943 – January 1944, and the final campaign with the use of highly destructive flying V1 bombs and V2 rockets lasted from June 1944 to March 1945.

The Blitz resulted from a drastic historical accident that happened on the 24th of August, in 1940, when German night bombers, which were initially aiming for RAF airfields, deviated from their course and haphazardly destroyed several residential centers in London and killed civilians. The attacks of RAF Fighter Commence were performed in order to achieve German air superiority by means of bombarding the RAF airfields together with the supporting industries, and the English Channel ports and convoys. However, the event of August 24th marked the beginning of an extensive bombing of the British Isles, during which London alone was attacked 71 times and more than 100 tons of incendiaries and high explosives were dropped on the capital of Great Britain (Parotti).

Since the first attack that took place on September 7th, 1940, London was bombarded for 57 consecutive days. The Blitz was intended to facilitate the subsequent German invasion of Britain, which was a part of the operation Sea Lion. However, it failed to accomplish this mission and resulted in the Allied bombing campaign against Germany. Contemporary scholars argue that the Blitz made no strategic difference due to the fact that the Luftwaffe did not develop nor follow a coherent long-term strategy for eradicating British warcraft industries. Furthermore, Nazi aircraft was not properly equipped or otherwise prepared for carrying out a strategic long-term air campaign, being inefficiently armed, having a reportedly poor intelligence on British industry and capabilities and thus, often being unable to locate the targets. The Blitz was expected to cause damage to civil morale and destroy people’s will to fight by demolishing residential centers, industry and communications. However, the efficiency of German aviation in operational and tactical terms proved to be inconsequential due to the evident lack of systematic policy to the air raids of 1940 - 1941 (“The Bombing of Britain 1940-1945”).

Nazi attacks were geographically diverse, but the majority of them were confined to London. The Blitz was also a German effort to enforce the blockade of Britain through the combination of submarine, naval and air warfare used to interrupt essential Transatlantic supplies. The first main raids were aimed at industrial areas in the East parts of London and the docklands that lined along the River Thames. On September 13th, 1940, German bombs hit Buckingham Palace and almost killed King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, who were currently in residence. Altogether, in the course of World War II the Palace has suffered nine direct bomb hits and survived them all. However, during the air raid on September10th, 1940, the private Royal Chapel on the territory of Buckingham Palace was destroyed (Johnson 52).

The Blitz greatly disrupted everyday lives of the Londoners. It destroyed important infrastructure industries such as water and gas pipelines and sewers, along with major railways and roads. Nevertheless, Londoners widely demonstrated their courage, determination, resilience and perseverance, rapidly repairing the city’s infrastructure and continuing to live their everyday lives despite the ongoing destructing bombardments. According to the historical evidence, it eventually became common practice for London cinemas to continue running films and for the audience to remain in their seats during the raids (Moshenska 93).

One of the most notorious raids that took place during the Blitz was the raid of December 29th, 1940. The City of London being the focus of the bombarding, the majority of bombs were dropped on the area between Aldersgate, Cannon Street, Cheapside and Moorgate. Sixteen beautiful churches, built by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London were decimated. St. Paul’s church miraculously survived the bombing and this event was witnessed and eloquently described by one of the most popular World War II correspondents, Ernie Pyle. Furthermore, 31 out of the 34 guild halls were destroyed on this day. As a result of destruction of Paternoster Row, which was a center of publishing industry of London, around 5, 000 000 valuable exemplars of books were lost. Although almost the third part of the City of London was completely demolished, the majority of important businesses streets, such as Lombard and Cornhill Street, survived the bombing and such important structures as the Stock Market and the Bank of England were not hit at all (Reed 131).

On May10th, 1940, German bombs hit Kingsway, Westminster and Smithfield. They killed almost 3,000 civilians and fell on the Tower of London, the Law Courts, Westminster Abbey, the House of Commons and a number of London’s notorious museums. However, in the process of rebuilding and restoration of London, some amazing discoveries were made within the ruins. Among these were Roman relics at Austin Friars, Roman wall at Cripplegate , a St. Vedast’s Gothic doorway, a previously unknown underground chamber below St. Mary le Bow, and a valuable ancient arch at All Hallows Church, which dates back to the seventh century (Mortimer).

Apart from numerous residential centers that were extensively demolished during the Blitz, London was deprived of many other historically and culturally valuable architectural structures. Thus, two Sergeant’s-at-Law buildings located on the Fleet Street were destroyed during the bombing of 1941, St. Mary Aldermanbury church, which was built in 1668 on Gresham Street and survived the Great Fire of London of 1666 being consequently repaired by Wren, was also demolished. Montagu House, built between 1777 and 1781 to the design of a neoclassicist architect James Stuart for patroness of the arts, Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu, was sufficiently damaged by an incendiary bomb. The Gothic Inner Temple library built between 1827 and 1878 by Sir Robert Smirke together with an adjoining hall of 1868 by Sidney Smirke was also destroyed by bombs. Holland House of 1605, Haberdashers' Hall located in the City of London in Maiden Lane, the City of London Lying-in Hospital, the Carlton Club and the Brewers' Hall of mid sixteenth century were destroyed by bombs in 1940 and 1941. The Christ Church Greyfriars of 1687 was badly damaged during the Blitz; however its tower and some minor ruins remain until today. Great Synagogue of London, which was built between 1788 and 1790 by James Spiller and was the center of Jewish life in London, was destroyed in 1940 (Johnson 90, 120, 137). According to the estimations suggested by contemporary scholars, approximately 16, 000 of Londoners were killed during the Blitz and around 180, 000 civilians were injured (“The Bombing of Britain 1940-1945”).

In May 1941, Nazi Germany was occupied with Russian incursions, which necessitated a corresponding air cover. These events, supported by the depletion of German forces at Kursk, the destruction of the 6th Army at Stalingrad and the failure to secure oil wells in the Caucasus, which endangered the strategically significant Barbarossa Campaign, Germany was forced to eliminate the air raids on London, which resulted in the consequent decline of the Blitz.

Attempts to mount further air attacks on London continued during 1942 and 1943, but were not as sufficient or destructive as the raids during 1940 and 1941. These bombardments were retaliation for the bombing of the ancient German port cities of Rostock and Lübeck. November of 1943 was marked by the beginning of another Nazi aircraft campaign aimed at London. This campaign came to be known as the Baby Blitz and it proved to be unsuccessful. These raids did not cause any sufficient damage to London and its citizens, in comparison to the bombardment of 1940 - 1941.

On June 12th, 1944, the Luftwaffe carried out the first V1 flying bomb attack on London. These bombs were especially designed for the bombing of London and were fired from launch sites located along the Dutch and French coasts. Early in October 1944, Germans began another series of attacks using V2 rocket bombs, which continued through the autumn and winter months. While the rockets were not as accurate as the flying bombs, they were more deadly weapons, which caused damage over wide areas and made craters of 30 ft. deep. Much larger than that of a flying-bomb, a warhead of a V2 rocket bomb contained as much as 2,000 lb. of explosive. Its flight could not be intercepted and, moreover, the small platforms used as launching sites were hard to destroy by bombing. Most of the rockets that fell on London were fired from Holland. The weapon had a range of about 200 miles and ascended 60 or 70 miles during flight (Pictorial History of the Second World War 58). These bombing ended in 1944 and marked the subsequent defeat of Nazi Germany.

When analyzing the social response of Londoners to the bombing, it is important to point out its complexity. Although many historians, such as Angus Calder in his Myth of the Blitz, generally tend to describe it in terms of growing democracy and solidarity between different social classes, the actual response was sufficiently more socially and culturally fractured. Furthermore, this conventional view ought to be interpreted as a relative phenomenon. The middle-class Londoners usually had private gardens where they could afford to build separate air-raid shelters to protect their families during the bombardments. The wealthier people either had country houses which could be used as sanctuaries, or could move to the country and secure themselves with guest houses and money. Meanwhile, the representatives of the working class largely relied on public shelters, whose supply of provision was inadequate and the government was consequently pressured to sanction the use of the London Underground system as improvised shelters. Therefore, although evacuation is commonly perceived as a meeting of classes, the working-class children were often received by other working-class families, which eliminated the need and opportunities to break down any class barriers (Field).

The response to bombing in terms of cultural reaction was also diverse. The bombing encouraged widespread religiousness along with the growing importance of churches and their role in sustaining civilians under attacks. Furthermore, the bombing initiated the spread of rumors such as common belief that London Jews always were the first to reach the shelters and always kept the best seats. This view was endorsed by George Orwell during his visit to the shelters in 1940. Extensive German bombing also encouraged divergent cultural production such as photographs, pictures, poetry and literature. Artists tried to capture the overwhelming spirit of survival and disaster, which dominated in London during the World War II. One of the most famous artworks of the time is represented by the shelter drawings of the sculptor Henry Moore (Mayor 221).

London was continuously bombarded by German Luftwaffe starting from 1940 until 1945. Over those years, many people died and many buildings were destroyed, thus irreversibly changing both history and urban landscape of the city. As part of commemorative events marking the 70th anniversary of London Blitz in 2010, the disused Aldwych Underground station, which was one of London Underground shelters for the working class people, was opened to the public. Londoners remember and honor the events that shook their capital during the World War II and annually commemorate them by recreating and remembering the spirit of those dreadful years.

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