Stories of the Battle of Britain 1940 – How Blitzkrieg Became the Blitz

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Stories of the Battle of Britain 1940

How Blitzkrieg Became the Blitz

7 September 1940. The London Blitz began in the afternoon of 7 September with the first mass daylight air raid on the docks area.

7  September 1940

This article is a guest post by Brett Holman, Airminded, used by means of a CC license. All further contributions are accepted with gratitude. If you wish to add to this blog, please contact the editor via an email link at the bottom of this page. – (Ed.)

The London Blitz began in the afternoon of 7 September 1940 with the first mass daylight air raid on the docks area. During the following night another wave of bombers guided by the fires set by the first assault continued bombing the city until 4:30 the following morning. For the next consecutive 57 days, London was bombed either during the day or night, and the intensive night bombing continued until May 11, 1941.

Fires over the East End and the Docks seen from the the London Bridge, 7 September 1940

[US National Archives]

The German bombing of London and other British cities between September 1940 and May 1941 is referred to as “the Blitz”, a contemporary term which, if not actually coined by the press, was certainly popularised by it. Blitz is short for blitzkrieg, German for “lightning war”, which was the label given to the spectacularly mobile armoured offensives, strongly supported by tactical bombing, which led to the rapid conquests of Poland and France. Sometimes it is suggested that it was inappropriate or inaccurate to apply a word having to do with fast-paced ground combat, involving Panzers and Stukas, to a fundamentally different type of warfare, a strategic bombing campaign lasting nine months in which no territory was exchanged and no soldiers even saw each other. For example, after noting the popular origins of blitz, A. J. P. Taylor added as a footnote:

Popular parlance was, of course, wrong. ‘Blitz’ was lightning war. This was the opposite.1

The Wikipedia page on the Blitz says:

The German military doctrine of speed and surprise was described as Blitzkrieg, literally lightning war, from which the British use of blitz was derived. While German air-supported attacks on Poland, France, the Netherlands and other countries may be described as blitzkrieg, the prolonged strategic bombing of London did not fit the term.

I’d like to suggest here that while it’s true that the Blitz wasn’t a lightning war, nonetheless it was a blitzkrieg. Confused? Hopefully I can explain …

Firstly, note that initially blitz and blitzkrieg were synonymous terms. So immediately after the first big raids on London on 7 September 1940, the Daily Express was already using the familiar term: ‘Blitz bombing of London goes on all night’.2 But at the same time, the Spectator was calling it a blitzkrieg:

The full purpose of the Blitzkrieg may have been more fully revealed by the time these lines are read. Its immediate object no doubt is to break morale.3

The term Blitzkrieg seems to have been more common at first, but after a month or so it was replaced by Blitz. I think this is significant, because it shows that the British didn’t think of the Blitz as something fundamentally different from blitzkrieg. It was the blitzkrieg, as applied to the attempted conquest of Britain — which, being separated from the Continent by the English Channel, obviously wasn’t going to play out in exactly the same way as it did in Poland and the West.

Interestingly, the word blitzkrieg was being thrown around even before the Blitz began: so in mid-August, in what we normally think of as the Battle of Britain, the New Statesman thought that

It is still too early to judge whether the steadily increasing severity of the air-attacks on this country marks the beginning of a Blitzkrieg or is the opening stage of a long process of beleaguerment.4

Since this blitzkrieg is posed as an alternative to a slow siege, it does at least imply speed. But it still doesn’t sound like the traditional blitzkrieg: where are the onrushing tanks, the surprise paratroop landings, the columns of weary refugees trudging along dusty country roads being strafed by Messerschmitts? The missing element is the anticipated German invasion of Britain, thought most likely to take place in mid-September. The Spectator thought that even though the RAF remained undefeated, a desperate Hitler could still attempt invasion without air superiority:

In such a scheme the intimidation of London would play a natural part, in the double hope that disorganisation might be created at the vital centre and forces be detached to defend the capital that should properly be deployed to repel aggression.5

So, in the Spectator’s view, London was not being bombed just to kill civilians or undermine morale, but to create chaos at a critical place and a critical time. A landing in Kent or Sussex could be only days away, and panic in London would greatly aid the invaders.

A view widely accepted both in Britain and Germany before the war was that indiscriminate bombing of cities would quickly undermine the morale of the civilian population, spreading confusion and anarchy. In fact, nothing of a kind happened during the Blitz; people quickly learned how to continue with their lives despite the bombing and destruction.

[US National Archives]

How is all this like the blitzkrieg? A leading article from the Manchester Guardian explains it best, even though it doesn’t mention the word:

By bombing London [Germany] aims at cutting off supplies, dislocating life and shaking the individual nerve, even (if her newspapers are to be believed) at driving the population out into the countryside — a success that she has had elsewhere but will not have with us — and at diminishing the military production of the country. The comparison is rough, but Hitler is trying to do in London as a prelude to invasion what, by bombing, parachutists, and troop carriers, he succeeded in doing at Rotterdam and the Hague as a support to the attack of his army from the east. Confusion on the ground produced by air attack is one ally that he desires for his army just as the actual defeat of the opposing air force — in Holland, as in Poland, he destroyed it — is another.6

So the blitzkrieg was being carried out against Britain, just as it had been against Poland, Belgium, Holland and France — only more slowly. Very roughly, here’s how the blitzkrieg was imagined in Britain in 1940:

  1. Destroy the defending air force and gain air superiority. In May 1940, the elimination of the Belgian Air Force in the first few hours of fighting, for example. From August, the Battle of Britain (though of course this was a German defeat).
  2. Attack cities and communications behind the front line from the air and disrupt the defence. In May, the bombardment of Rotterdam; also the masses of refugees streaming away from the front. In September, the Blitz.
  3. Advance rapidly with mobile ground and airborne forces to encircle and defeat the defending forces. In May/June, the Battle of France, including Sedan and the Sichelschnitt. In September, Operation Sealion.
  4. Victory!

So blitz is not a corruption of blitzkrieg as the latter term was understood in Britain at the time. Of course, as the Blitz wore on, autumn turned into winter and people realised that Hitler wasn’t coming — yet — the phrase took on a life of its own and came to refer exclusively to the aerial bombardment of cities by the Luftwaffe. But useful though this definition is, it unfortunately detaches the Blitz from the bigger picture and obscures the continuities and connections between it and the Battle of Britain, and Sealion.

I’ve disregarded the question of whether any of this bears any relation to the “real” blitzkrieg, or indeed the actual course of events; I’m interested in what people thought was happening more than what was actually going on. But it turns out that blitzkrieg is itself a problematic concept, and it’s problematic in quite an interesting way. I’ll examine that in a later post.

A symbol of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral emerges from the flames during

one of the most devastating raids on 29 December 1940.

[US National Archives]

  1. A. J. P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992 [1965]), 501.
  2. Daily Telegraph, 9 September 1940, p. 1; quoted in OED entry for ?blitz?.
  3. A decisive hour, Spectator, 13 September 1940, 260. Emphasis in original.
  4. The two blockades, New Statesman, 17 August 1940, 149.
  5. A decisive hour, 260.
  6. Manchester Guardian, 18 September 1940, p. 4. Emphasis added.
This article was first published at Brett Holman’s blog Airminded: Airpower and the British Society 1908-1941, June 2007


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