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