Is that war?

While looking at the American journalist William Shirer's Berlin Diary for my earlier post on the wooden bomb tale, I was intrigued to see that immediately after the start of war in September 1939 he simultaneously expected, hoped and feared that there would be an immediate, large-scale air attack on Berlin, by either Poland or Britain and France. This is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it shows that the idea that war would begin with an aerial knock-out blow was widely-shared and not confined to Britain. (Clearly, Shirer initially believed that the psychological strain of air-raid alerts alone would be tremendous - though soon enough he was sleeping through them!) Secondly, that Shirer could believe that Britain's air force (not to mention Poland's!) was capable of attacking Berlin in force at this stage suggests that it was extremely difficult for even well-informed civilians to form accurate perceptions of the relative strengths and abilities of air forces (indeed, this was a hard enough task for professionals). The bombers should always get through - so where were they? His exasperation at their absence (as well as the inaction on the Western Front) shows through in the later entries. Shirer was apparently unaware that there was virtually nothing that Allied air forces could do in practical terms, save for brave but ineffectual gestures like the Wilhemshaven raid or leaflet drops over the Ruhr region. He does show more awareness that Britain and France may also have been constrained by their own dread of what German bombers would do to them (as Goering indeed threatened).

I've excerpted the relevant parts of Shirer's early diary below; the source is William L. Shirer, Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941 (Melbourne: George Jaboor, 1942), 160-8.

1 September 1939:

Almost through our first black-out ... We had our first air-raid alarm at seven p.m. ... The lights went out, and all the German employees grabbed their gas-masks and, not a little frightened, rushed for the shelter ... No planes came over. With the English and French in, it may be different to-morrow. I shall then be in the pleasant predicament of hoping they bomb the hell out of this town without getting me. The ugly shrill of the sirens, the rushing to a cellar with your gas-mask (if you have one), the utter darkness of the night - how will human nerves stand that for long? ... Curious that not a single Polish bomber got through to-night. But will it be the same with the British and French?

2 September:

Hitler has cabled Roosevelt he will not bomb open towns if the others don't. No air-raid to-night. Where are the Poles?

3 September:

But the war has seemed a bit far away to them [the Berliners] - two moonlight nights and not a single Polish plane over Berlin to bring destruction - and the papers saying ... that the Polish air force has been destroyed ... Third night of the black-out. No bombs, though we rather expected the British and French.

4 September:

After midnight and no air-raid, even with the British and French in the war. Can it be that in this new World War they're not going to bomb the big cities, the capitals, the civilians, the women and children at home, after all? The people here breathing easier already. They didn't sleep much the first couple of nights ... The faces of the Germans when word came in late to-night that the British had bombed Cuxhaven and Wilhelmshaven for the first time! This was bringing the war home, and nobody seemed to like it.

9 September:

The second air-raid alarm of the war at four a.m. to-day, but I did not hear it, being engulfed in my first good night's sleep in ages ... Göring broadcast to-day ... he threatened terrible revenge if the British and French bombed Germany.

10 September:

One week after the Anglo-French declaration of a state of war the average German is beginning to wonder if it's a world war after all ... The British, it is true, sent over twenty-five planes to bomb Wilhelmshaven. But if it is war, why only twenty-five? And if it is war, why only a few leaflets over the Rhineland? The industrial heart of Germany lies along the Rhine close to France ... Yet not a bomb has fallen on a Rhineland factory. Is that war? they ask. The long faces I saw a week ago to-day are not so long this Sunday.

14 September:

All of us here still baffled by the inaction of Britain and France.

'Is that war?' It clearly wasn't the war they were expecting.

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7 thoughts on “Is that war?

  1. Chris Williams

    The Wilhelmshaven raids turned out to be a gallant gesture – but was the RAF expecting them to go that way? I’m under the impression that they were expecting a repeat of ‘Mitchell vs Ostfriesland’. Could be wrong, though, as ever.

  2. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Yes, you’re right, it wasn’t intended to be merely a gesture; it was about the most that Bomber Command could attempt given the politically-imposed restrictions. I think it is also true that there was an expectation that such a small raid could/would be much more effective than it was (of course debates about the effectiveness of bombers v. battleships had been raging throughout the interwar period, some airpower extremists thought that aircraft made navies obsolete).

    Incidentally, I watched The Lion Has Wings (1939) recently, which features a dramatisation of the raid, and it is strongly implied that at least one German ship had the stuffing knocked out of it. I guess the RAF had little else to boast about at that stage of the war …

  3. The ship was the cruiser Emden, she was damaged by a Blenheim that crashed, possibly deliberately, into the forepart of the ship.

    Further, re: Shirer and the mighty Polish Strategic Air Command, I would argue that a considerable percentage of reporters throughout history lack clue on at least one major field of their job :-)

    Look at this story, for example..

  4. Chris Williams

    Yes, that story had me raising an eyebrow – in fact it nearly had me feeling sorry for the mad old bat. “Dead bloke’s shrink makes unverifiable claims” is a far less striking headline, though, isn’t it?

  5. Brett Holman

    Post author

    That story seems plausible. Wait, is that the right word? No, I mean ludicrous – I always confuse the two!

    Alex: I don’t think the scenes in the film are referring to the Emden, or if they are they are grossly distorted. The ship is very definitely bombed rather than crashed into (and I notice the film shows that a submarine was hit as well). Now, the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer was also hit in the raid, but the bombs bounced into the sea without exploding, so the film is greatly exaggerating the actual results of the raid. I’ll post some captures on the front page, mainly because I can!

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