What was the Blitz, when did it start and how long did it last?

London was set ablaze in the first raid of the Blitz on 7 September 1940. James Hoare looks back on the eight months in the Second World War that proved that Britain had the Blitz spirit

Children sit in front of their bombed-out house in London's East End during the Blitz

When did the Blitz start?

On 7 September 1940, just over a year after the Second World War started, 348 German bombers with an escort of 617 fighters descended on London. The anti-aircraft batteries across the city coughed plumes of smoke against the onslaught, and the solitary silhouettes of RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes crossed the sky in retaliation. Over 30 minutes, the Luftwaffe poured the beginnings of an estimated 650 tons of high explosives and 800 incendiary bombs onto the city. Incendiaries burned white-hot, setting anything nearby alight and even melting steel. Like a beacon, the flames drew down the second wave of German bombers. Gas and water mains burst, starting fresh fires and starving firefighters of the means to combat them. As many as 500 Londoners were killed in ‘Black Saturday’ – the terrible start of the Blitz.

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What was the Blitz, and how long did it last?

The Blitz was the longest aerial bombing campaign in history, lasting over eight months, from 7 September 1940 to 11 May 1941. It was waged by Nazi Germany’s air force, the Luftwaffe, with the aim of terrorising the British public and eroding their support for the war effort. The name comes from the German term ‘Blitzkrieg’, meaning ‘lightning war’.

A view of the 'second Great Fire of London' during the London Blitz in World War Two on 29 December 1940 from the roof of St Paul's Cathedral
A view of the ‘second Great Fire of London’ on 29 December 1940 from the roof of St Paul’s Cathedral
Daily Mirror via Getty Images

Which cities were bombed in the Blitz?

London bore the brunt of the Blitz. Black Saturday was followed by a gruelling 57 consecutive nights of air raids. But the Luftwaffe also bombed strategically important cities across the UK. The ports of Liverpool, Hull, Plymouth, Bristol, Cardiff, Swansea, Belfast and Glasgow were bombed, along with the industrial heartlands of Birmingham, Coventry, Manchester and Sheffield. Almost every city touched by the Blitz has its own grim claim to fame. In one week in May 1941 Liverpool was hit by 681 German bombers dropping 2,315 high explosives, which caused 2,895 casualties and left as many as 70,000 homeless. In Hull, over 90 per cent of homes were damaged, while in Coventry on 14 November 1940 the city centre, its cathedral and half of its houses was flattened by 500 tons of high explosives and 30,000 incendiaries. Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels coined the word Coventrieren to describe the destruction of an entire city. In Belfast on 15 April 1941, some 900 people were killed and 1,500 injured in the deadliest night raid outside of London. Morgues were overwhelmed.

How many people died in the Blitz?

In total, 41,480 people were killed and 137,000 injured, with close to half of the casualties in London.

How did the Blitz affect life in Britain?

Despite the popular image of families clustered around the stove beneath the corrugated iron curve of an Anderson shelter or indulging in a cheery singalong on a packed Tube platform, an estimated 51 per cent of the British population lacked access to any kind of shelter from the Blitz.

Anderson shelters were sold in kits for £7 (approximately £275 in today’s money), and partially dug into the garden, with room for four people. Far from being cosy, they were cramped, damp and prone to flooding. How much safety they offered depended on how well they had been constructed, and they rarely survived a direct hit in the Blitz. Although they were issued for free to families earning less than £5 a week, many urban households lacked or shared gardens. The more robust Morrison shelter, named after the home secretary Herbert Morrison, was effectively a reinforced steel table allowing families to shelter from the Blitz within the home. It was introduced in March 1941 and was also available for free to low-income families, but was of no use to people who lived above ground level in overcrowded tenements built in the Victorian era.

Mr and Mrs Murray bed down for the night in an Anderson shelter during the Blitz in World War Two, October 1940
Mr and Mrs Murray bed down for the night in an Anderson shelter, October 1940
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/ Corbis via Getty Images

Local councils built boxy Blitz surface shelters out of brick, but these offered little safety and more than one tragedy was caused by a wall buckling with the shockwave from a nearby explosion and dropping the concrete ceiling on its occupants. If that weren’t reason enough to give them a wide berth, the dark corners made for a convenient public toilet during the day, and towards the end of the Blitz their occupancy was estimated at only 5 per cent!

Although they were the safest, the Government was wary of deep shelters because of the enormous expense they incurred, as well as the amount of manpower and raw materials needed, but its excuses focused on an unsubstantiated condition: ‘shelter mentality’. There were fears that once people entered the safety of a deep shelter, they would refuse to return to the surface.

The Government was also opposed to people sheltering in the Underground, but families went to their local stations, ignoring instructions to return home. In November 1940 it had to reverse its decision and during the Blitz the Underground sheltered an estimated 150,000 people over 79 stations.

What was the Blitz spirit?

“Hitler’s got to bomb us out of our dug-out before we move,” asserted one Londoner in the Norwood News of 27 September 1940. His wife added: “We shall carry on till further notice. Hitler isn’t going to get us down.” The defiant tone of continued in the Ministry of Information film London Can Take It!, which was widely shown in cinemas in the USA, and became known as ‘Blitz spirit’.

The truth was more complex. The Ministry of Information’s (MOI’s) weekly Home Intelligence Reports are the most accurate gauge of the national mood. The report of 18 December 1940 explains: “Immediately after a severe raid, one pats oneself on the back for one’s courage and endurance. There is, too, so much to be done that there is little time for contemplation. After a few days, the most acute problems have been settled, and the haloes have worn somewhat thin; realities have to be faced by those who have lost their homes, their jobs, or their businesses.”

It’s clear from the MOI that people reacted to the Blitz in a variety of ways, from despair, to panic, to fatalism, to grim determination and a desire to see Germany bombed in revenge. The suffering of towns and cities nationwide inspired a sense of camaraderie, and the enormous expansion of voluntary Civil Defence organisations gave many a feeling that they were doing their bit. By the time the Blitz came to a close an estimated 1.5 million people were involved in Civil Defence. Air Raid Precautions (ARP) wardens patrolled the streets, enforcing blackout regulations, escorting stragglers to safety, and administering first aid. The Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) supported those who had been bombed out of homes, ran canteens for firefighters, and are estimated to have helped 10,000 people every single night. The emergency services were bolstered by the Auxiliary Fire Service (who represented 90 per cent of our firefighting strength in 1940), the British Red Cross, St John’s Ambulance, the War Reserve Constabulary, the Home Guard and many others. Daredevil teens with bicycles were enlisted as ARP dispatch riders, and even Boy Scouts played a role, guiding fire engines through the streets.

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Why did the Blitz end?

The German military ended the Blitz because it had failed to shatter morale, and because of the need to concentrate resources for the invasion of Soviet Russia. Britain would be bombed again, but not as indiscriminately.