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  3. The Blitz; terror in the skies over Britain
A black and white photo of a road in the centre of Coventry after the German air-raid of 14th November 1940. This is a scene of destruction. Only the facade of a few buildings remain standing. There is rubble everywhere. A large amount of people are walking through the space in the middle of the street.

The Blitz; terror in the skies over Britain

Before World War II there were growing fears over the aerial bombing of civilians. In 1940, this nightmare became a reality

Discover England and Wales on the eve of war with the 1939 Register

There had been a growing belief in military circles from the 1920s onwards that future conflicts would rely heavily upon aerial bombardment. By destroying centres of industry and supply, one power - it was increasingly thought - could overcome another without risking the loss of a single ground troop, and damage the morale of a civilian public to such a point where it lost its appetite for war completely.

By destroying centres of industry and supply, one power - it was increasingly thought - could overcome another without risking the loss of a single ground troop

Towards the end of the 1930s, this belief was firmly in the public consciousness. The bombing of civilians during the Spanish Civil War – most notably at Guernica – had shown the devastating effects aerial bombing could have on a population, and it seemed an inevitability that this would be a feature of any future conflict between major powers. By 1939, it was clear who these powers would be.

In order to make preparations for the bombing of Britain, a number of measures were devised. From February onwards, more than a million Anderson shelters were distributed amongst the population for air-raid protection. Plans were drawn up – and, in September 1939, put into action - to evacuate vulnerable individuals from cities, housing them instead far away from potential harm.

Black and white photo of a group of firemen at Queen Victoria Street, in London, during the night between the 10th and 11th May 1941. The firemen are in the back, spraying water with hoses to stop fires at the third-floor level on both sides of the street.
London firemen at work with hoses in Queen Victoria Street following a bombing raid and incendiary attack, 10-11 May 1941. Image: ©London Fire Brigade / Mary Evans Picture Library

On September 1st, 1939, the day that Germany invaded Poland and two days before Britain declared war, a blackout was imposed across the nation. From now until the war’s end, Air Raid Precaution wardens would patrol the streets, ensuring that not a glint of light escaped from houses, and that as little light as possible emanated from streetlights, headlights and so on. A major disruption to civilian life, the blackout proved one of the most unpopular war restrictions.

For almost a year, the British public waited for the bombs to come, but none did. This quiet before the storm was known as the Phoney War, a period of inactivity that lulled some into a false sense of security; several thousand evacuees were brought back to the cities in the belief that the potential danger of bombing was overstated.

This quiet before the storm was known as the Phoney War, a period of inactivity that lulled some into a false sense of security

Late in the afternoon of September 7th, 1940, this belief was proven to be false as hundreds of German bombers streamed across the Channel, targeting industrial cities and ports around the country. This raid shattered the silence of the Phoney War, catching Britain off guard. Hundreds died in the initial attack, and the ordeal was far from over. The bombing raids would continue for 57 consecutive nights, killing thousands and making many thousands more homeless in cities and centres of industry all over the country.

A black and white photo of the Surrey Docks in London at the height of the Blitz. The photo was taken at night, while the buildings were on fire. In the foreground, a crane is visible, with the flames right behind it.
Surrey Docks, London, burning during The Blitz, 1940. Image: Mary Evans Picture Library

The intended targets for destruction in this intensive bombing campaign – known as The Blitz, named after Germany’s ‘lightning war’, or Blitzkrieg, tactics for warfare – were not just physical. As predicted in the 1920s, a major power was using aerial bombardment as a means of shaking the public morale, taking away their appetite for the fight and weakening Britain’s war machine.

In fact, the British public were resolute. Huddled together in Anderson shelters, Morrison shelters, public shelters and underground stations Britons were galvanised by their shared experience of the air raids.

Britons were galvanised by their shared experience of the air raids.

Though it would be remiss not to mention the rise in burglaries and other crimes made easier by blackout, on the whole the nation was united against a common enemy. Far from lacking the gumption to continue, Britons still reminisce fondly about the days of the Blitz Spirit, when people came together and stood firm against unimaginable destruction.

A black and white photo of houses on Peckham Hill Road. The road has suffered bomb damage from the Blitz. There is a damaged car, rubble and a chair lying on the side of the road.

By the end of May, 1941, the Blitz was over. Germany’s tactics and equipment had been lacking, and the immediate threat of the invasion of Britain had passed. In cities like Glasgow, Coventry, Manchester, London and more over 40,000 people had lost their lives, but Britons had never lost their nerve.

Main image: A scene of destruction in the centre of Coventry after the German air-raid of 14th November 1940. Image: © Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans

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