[Cross-posted at Cliopatria.]
I know. Writing about Wikipedia is so 2006. And yes, finding errors in Wikipedia articles is not exactly difficult. But I have a bee in my bonnet which needs releasing.
There is a misconception that the Blitz started on September 7, 1940. Bombs began dropping the night of September 6 and continued for the full day of the 7th and on into the morning of the 8th. Saturday 7th was the first full day and has officially and erroneously become known as the day the Blitz started. Hermann Göring launched bombers and the first bombs caused damage the night of September 6.
Quoted in the The Manchester Guardian is Göring's communiqué:
Attacks of our Air Force on objectives of special military and economical value in London, which began during the night of September 6, were continued during the day and night of September 7 with exceptionally strong forces using bombs of the heaviest caliber.
A witness recalled the evening of Friday September 6, 1940:
My name is John Davey. I was born on December 27th 1924 in South Moltom [sic - Molton] Road, Custom House, West Ham, and a couple of miles from the Royal Docks. In September 1940, on the Friday evening of the weekend the docks were first blitzed, I was sitting with my friend in his house. At about 7 p.m. there was a series of explosions and the shattering of glass. We ran into the road and saw at the end a flame that shot into the sky, seeming to light up the whole area. My friend and I and lots of others ran towards the fire.
—BBC, WW2 People's War
The first damage to property on September 7 was recorded at eight minutes past midnight, a grocer’s shop at 43 Southwark Park Road, SE16.
It has long been the accepted, but erroneous, view that the London Blitz lasted 57 consecutive nights starting on September 7 1940 and ending November 1. In actuality September 6 makes 57 nights and not September 7. The historian AJP Taylor wrote of such an error:
… it is the fault of previous legends which have been repeated by historians without examination. These legends have a long life.
This is really quite silly. Yes, it's true that the accepted date of 7 September 1940 as the start of the London Blitz is a bit misleading, since there was a non-trivial amount of bombing before that date (e.g. see here). Judging from contemporary press accounts, 7 September certainly seemed to mark an important change in German bombing strategy, but more one of quantity than quality -- almost more an inflection point than a turning point. In retrospect we tend not to see it that way, which is fine. But we could recognise that -- leaving aside the eventual reification involved in the name 'the Blitz' itself -- the 'start of the Blitz' was less clearly defined then than it seems now.
But this is not what the Wikipedia article is talking about. Instead it chooses an equally precise date for the start of the Blitz, 6 September, and says that this is more accurate than 7 September. Somehow, it seems, every historian since 1940 and every witness who wrote about it at the time or later has somehow forgotten that 'Bombs began dropping the night of September 6 and continued for the full day of the 7th and on into the morning of the 8th'. The citations for this are just two. One is from the Manchester Guardian (9 September 1940, 2), a reprint of a Luftwaffe communiqué vaguely claiming attacks on London beginning on the night of 6 September and 'continued during the day and night of September 7'. This is a source which should be used with caution: did the Guardian quote the communiqué accurately? Did the Luftwaffe communiqué tell the truth? What sort of 'attacks' were carried out on the night of 6 September, lone raiders or formation raids? Then there is an account from a Blitz eyewitness taken from the BBC's WW2 People's War site. He says that the first raids on the Royal Docks took place on the Friday evening of that weekend, that is 6 September. Well, he was living in West Ham at the time, so he would know, wouldn't he? But this is account written down over sixty years later. Whether it was Friday night or Saturday night seems like something which one could be mistaken about after all that time. And doesn't this one account need to be balanced against others?
The only other evidence given is that the first bomb damage recorded in London on 7 September occurred shortly after midnight. This fits in with the narrative here of continue bombing throughout 7 September. But was it continuous? Only on a naive reading. The source given for this is an excellent spreadsheet published by the Guardian. Note that it only gives data for the one day, so we can't compare it to a typical pre-Blitz night, or what happened on the supposed first day of the Blitz, 6 September. But even so it shows that the raid (which is certainly known to historians) in the early hours of 7 September was only moderate at best. Around 50 bombs were recorded up to around 2.30am, with only another 20 or so falling in the next twelve hours (with gaps of up to two hours between them), and about 15 in the two and a half hours after that. That takes us to just before 5pm which is when the bombing really starts to escalate: there are nearly 760 bombs recorded in the 7 hours until midnight (and it didn't stop then, either: that's just when the Guardian's spreadsheet does). So if you are going to start counting individual bombfalls, there was definitely a big quantitative change on the evening of 7 September.
The icing on this cake is the totally pointless quote from A .J. P. Taylor's The Origins of the Second World War. Yes, historians do sometimes repeat 'previous legends [...] without examination'! So what? This is not evidence that it has happened here. And note the artful use of this quote: Taylor has written 'of such an error'. A careless reader might think that Taylor is talking about this 'error', when of course he's not (he's on about pre-war diplomacy).
Isn’t it rather exciting to be in on the correction of a widespread, albeit small, but important corner of recorded history?
I swore I would never again but the Sept 7 inaccuracy was too important to leave uncorrected; it did my ego some good too.
Once again an historical inaccuracy, this time an error in arithmetic, has been perpetuated for decades.1
The thing is, this is not the Wikipedia way. One of the cardinal rules of Wikipedia is No original research:
Wikipedia does not publish original research. The term "original research" refers to material—such as facts, allegations, ideas, and stories—not already published by reliable sources. It also refers to any analysis or synthesis of published material to advance a position not advanced by the sources.
The Blitz article -- at least this section of it, which has been there for nearly three months now -- fails to uphold this principle. The idea that the Blitz began on 6 September seems to have appeared out of thin air: it is not already published by reliable sources (whether they be right or wrong). Nobody says this, and even if they did, it would be wrong in this case to choose them over everybody else who chooses 7 September. There's nothing wrong with original research -- I'm quite fond of it myself -- but it's not what an encyclopedia is for. And if you're going to do it, do it right.
Of course, this being Wikipedia I should just roll up my sleeves and go to work editing the article myself. That's also the Wikipedia way. But I've tried that before and come up against stubborn editors who refuse to let go of their misconceptions. Wikipedia has its own processes for judging original research disputes. If I had much faith in the system I'd use it. And this is only the most egregious example (at least to my mind). So instead I'm going to post this here and hope that the 'Romanian plane' effect will work to my advantage.
It seems another 'source' for this insistence on 6 September as the start of the Blitz is a paper by Peter Stansky, author of a book called The First Day of the Blitz. But nowhere does Stansky say the Blitz started on 6 September -- he actually says 'The Germans selected September 7, "Black Saturday," to start the Blitz' -- instead, judging from the Talk page the Wikipedians seem to be counting backwards from Stansky saying the Blitz lasted 57 nights. Or something -- the numbers don't match what Stansky says and at this point I've given up trying to understand where this whole idea came from. ↩