Reprisals

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A year has passed since my article on the debate in Britain over whether to bomb German civilians in reprisal for the Blitz was published. Under the Australian Journal of Politics and History's self-archiving policy I can now upload my own copy of the final, peer-reviewed text for anyone to read for free. So here it is. And here is the abstract:

In Britain, popular memory of the Blitz celebrates civilian resistance to the German bombing of London and other cities, emphasizing positive values such as stoicism, humour and mutual aid. But the memory of such passive and defensive traits obscures the degree to which British civilian morale in 1940 depended on the belief that if Britain had to 'take it', then Germany was taking it as hard or harder. Contrary to the received historical account, opinion polls, Home Intelligence reports and newspaper letter columns show that a majority of the British supported the reprisal bombing of German civilians by Bomber Command. The wartime reprisals debate was the logical legacy of prewar assumptions about the overwhelming power of bombing; but it has been forgotten because it contradicts the myth of the Blitz.

AJPH's attitude to self-archiving is more generous than some journals I could name. Or at least it was -- its RoMEO entry doesn't seem to suggest 12 months as a standard embargo period, if I'm reading it right, but (maybe) 24. There's nothing I can see about it on AJPH's website either, so maybe it has got worse in the meantime. Hopefully not. In any case, my agreement says what it says.

8 Comments

One of the most intriguing things to emerge from my post-blogging of the Blitz a few years ago (but which sadly didn't make it into my Blitz article) was the notion of reprisals after notice, that is to say, of publishing a list of German cities which would be bombed intensively until the Luftwaffe ceased attacking British cities. This attracted some support from newspaper columnists and the public as a middle way between humanitarian restraint and all-out reprisals, and I've suggested that 'it was strategy from below, folk strategy', since it was 'not part of the official public discourse on the bombing war'.

But it was part of the official private discourse on the bombing war. On 11 September 1940, the Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, Air Marshal Charles Portal, wrote to the Air Staff proposing that twenty German towns be warned by radio that they were targets, with one to be bombed after each indiscriminate Luftwaffe raid on London. Other options for attacking German civilians were canvassed, for example that they be bombed without any no warning.1 Peter Gray notes that on that same day the War Cabinet discussed the same proposal:

Discussion followed on a suggestion that we should threaten Germany with reprisals by bombing any one of twenty German towns (to be named) if the indiscriminate bombing of London continued.2

The decision was that the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, 'consider the question of reprisals at some future date', but that 'for the present our bomber force should continue to be used to attack military targets'.3
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  1. Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945, vol. 1 (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1961), 153-4. 

  2. The National Archives, CAB 65/9/9, W. M. (40) 247, War Cabinet conclusions, 11 September 1940. See Peter Gray, The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945 (London and New York: Continuum, 2012), 171. 

  3. CAB 65/9/9. 

Quite some time ago I promised to write more about J. M. Spaight's Volcano Island (published in 1943 but written late in 1942). I probably should do that at some point. Such as now.

Here I want to look at what he has to say about area bombing. He quite unapologetically uses this phrase, even calling one section 'The legitimacy of area bombing'.1 Given the opprobrium which now attaches to the term, it is a little startling to see it used in a defence of British bombing policy. It does seems to have been used more descriptively during the war, at least at first. The very earliest use I've been able to find was in the British press in December 1940, and referred to the resumption of German 'Blitz' tactics:

The return to mass raiding was not carried out on anything like the 'Coventrating' manner -- there was no attempt at area bombing of the different London districts, all of which had their share at varying periods of the night.2

However, 'area bombing' here apparently refers not to merely indiscriminate bombing (which the Gloucestershire Echo's headline asserts the Germans have admitted to). Instead it is concentrated in both time and space, as at Coventry (hence 'Coventration'), which actually describes what Bomber Command later tried to (and often did) achieve quite well. This might be an isolated example; the term doesn't seem to start cropping up again until late 1942, just about when Spaight was writing: in September the Devon and Exeter Gazette noted that 'The R.A.F. will continue its "area bombing" by night, while the famous Flying Fortresses will take up the attack by day with precision bombing'.3 By March 1943, Richard Stokes MP could ask in the House of Commons if 'instructions have been given to British airmen to engage in area bombing rather than limit their attention to purely military targets?' (only to be told by Sir Archibald Sinclair that 'The targets of Bomber Command are always military, but night bombing of military objectives necessarily involves bombing the area in which they are situated').4
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  1. J. M. Spaight, Volcano Island (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1943), 67. 

  2. Gloucestershire Echo, 9 December 1940, 4

  3. Devon and Exeter Gazette, 25 September 1942, 4

  4. HC Deb, 31 March 1943, vol. 388, col. 155

5 Comments

[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

The current conflict in Gaza has attracted much media attention for the so-called Twitter war being fought between the IDF and Hamas, or, more precisely, between the @IDFSpokesperson and @AlqassamBrigade accounts and their respective followers. Insults are traded back and forth, photos and videos of rocket attacks and air strikes and their purported results (sometimes quite horrific, be warned) shared and retweeted many times over, bloggers take up virtual arms on behalf of one side or the other. @IDFSpokesperson tweets a graphic claiming that 'Hamas' goal is to kill civilians'; @AlqassamBrigade one claiming 'In Children's Day: Israel killed 26 Palestinian children!' This present form of propaganda war is sometimes (not always) presented as something new. Certainly the speed of communication and the ease by which it can be accessed by anyone who is interested is remarkable, but nothing ever looks completely new to a historian.

During the Blitz, for example, British newspapers and magazines were the medium by which both British and German propaganda messages regarding the mutual bombing war were passed to readers so that they could judge for themselves. In September 1940, The Listener noted that 'German broadcasts continue to claim that only military objectives are being attacked' by the Luftwaffe.1 By contrast, the Zeesen radio station was reported to have claimed that:

British pilots have received instructions to avoid carefully any kind of military objective and to concentrate instead on terrorising the German civilian population.2

As it was broadcast in English, this message was clearly directed at the British people themselves. Normally only those who owned a radio and were listening in on the right frequency at the right time would have received it, perhaps along with a few others by word of mouth. By reprinting it, The Listener was sharing it with a much larger audience (circulation was around 50,000 in 1939 but had risen to 129,000 by 1945). By reprinting it without editorial comment, it was trusting its readers to draw the right conclusions.
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  1. Listener, 19 September 1940, 404. 

  2. Ibid. 

What was the response to the Canterbury Baedeker raids? There was actually surprisingly little direct comment in the British press, but the major theme was to reaffirm that British raids on German cities were not reprisals but attacks on legitimate targets; whereas German raids on British cities were not even reprisals but merely spite. In a leading article, the Times, said of the RAF's attack on Cologne that 'the airmen who demolished military targets hard by were able, by German admission, to spare the cathedral', whereas

The authors of the so-called 'reprisal' raid on Canterbury, having for its sole objective the destruction of historic buildings of great beauty, stand self-condemned.1

Similarly, in the opinion of the Western Daily Press:

While it is easy to perceive a poetic justice in what Germany is now going through, it is not for the purpose of exacting vengeance that the mammoth raids of the R.A.F. are being conducted. Unlike the Germans, who make targets of our cathedrals, we are not interested in destroying the antiquities of the Reich. But we are interested in the centres of German war production, and it against these that the heaviest onslaughts will be directed.2

For the Gloucester Journal, while Bomber Command's attacks are indeed the 'fulfilment of the open warning, long since given, that every ton of bombs dropped on Britain shall be returned in ten-fold measure to the Hun', they 'are much more than mere reprisals [...] They are part, an integral and essential part, of the vital battle of supplies, by which the ultimate issue of the war will be decided'.3 The Bishop of London, Geoffrey Fisher, speaking before the London Diocesan Conference, thought the RAF's raids justified:

Canterbury and Cologne had each in its own country a very special place in religious life and sentiment. Canterbury had no military significance; Cologne, as a centre of war industries, had, and its destruction on a large scale was legitimate and a legitimate cause for satisfaction.

At least William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury, while also not doubting that the RAF's attacks were legitimate -- here speaking specifically of Lübeck and Rostock -- added that 'proper satisfaction must always be accompanied by distress of soul at the misery and suffering inflicted thereby upon thousands of homes'.4
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  1. The Times, 3 June 1942, 5. 

  2. Western Daily Press (Bristol), 3 June 1942, 3. 

  3. Gloucester Journal, 6 June 1942, 6. 

  4. The Times, 9 June 1942, 2. 

2 Comments

Recentlyish, someone called dedonarrival left the following comment here on a post about the British demand for reprisal bombing of Germany in return for the Blitz:

Such gross ignorance. Google: British terror bombing and note when it started and when Germany retaliated with its twin engined medium bombers and range limited fighter escort .

I don't know who dedonarrival is; and they apparently never returned to read the responses. Not that they deserved much of one. But I thought I'd do what they suggested and Google British terror bombing to see what came up. Actually, most results refer to terror bombing of, rather than by, Britain, particularly the 7/7 attacks. So I added dedonarrival to the search terms to see if they had discussed this topic before, and it turns out that they (or someone with the same pseudonym) had. I found a comment on a New Statesman article about Hiroshima as a war crime which reads, in part:

2. 'It may be Inconvenient History but England rather than Germany initiated the murderous slaughter of bombing civilians thus bringing about retaliation. Chamberlain conceded that it was "absolutely contrary to International law." The Peoples' War, Angus Calder. London, Jonathan Cape, 1969.*

'Hitler only undertook the bombing of British civilian targets reluctantly three months after the RAF had commenced bombing German civilian targets. Hitler would have been willing at any time to stop the slaughter. Hitler was genuinely anxious to reach with Britain an agreement confining the action of aircraft to battle zones J.M. Spaight, CB, CBE, Principal
Secretary to the Air Ministry,
Bombing Vindicated.

'The inhabitants of Coventry, for example, continued to imagine that their sufferings were due to the innate villainy of Adolf Hitler without a suspicion that a decision, splendid or otherwise, of the British War Cabinet, was the decisive factor in the case.' F.J.P. Veale, Advance to Barbarism, p. 169.

Advice: mentioning such facts while grandads in the vicinity generally proves inexpedient.

Assuming it's the same dedonarrival, it at least shows where they are coming from; and makes some sort of argument which can be examined and critiqued. Moreover, as I'll come to later these quotes can be found elsewhere on the Internet being used for the same purpose, so they're worth treating seriously. Except for the fact that they're mostly bogus.
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3 Comments

As with the Lübeck and Rostock raids over a month earlier, the RAF's thousand bomber raid on Cologne on 30 May 1942 triggered reprisal attacks by the Luftwaffe (though in far smaller numbers than Bomber Command was able to muster). Another round of Baedeker raids, in other words. This time, however, there was only one target, Canterbury, the site of the Mother Church of the Anglican Communion, bombed on the nights 31 May, 2 and 6 June. In fact, in this period some towns received even heavier raids than Canterbury, such as Southampton and Poole, but are not usually considered part of the Baedeker Blitz, nor were they given then same publicity at the time. The reason for this is presumably that whatever their heritage value those places were also quite clearly valid military targets, whereas Canterbury equally clearly was not. And the Germans didn't claim they were 'a reprisal for the terrorist attack carried out by the British Air Force on the inner city of Cologne', as they did in Canterbury's case.1

So here I'll look at the press reports of the Canterbury raids. One of the first was in the Derby Evening Telegraph on 1 June, which reported that 'CANTERBURY IS HUNS' TARGET':

No doubt the Cathedral, the Mother Church of England, was one of the enemy's chief objectives, but it is not proposed to assist the Germans by giving any information as to whether damage was caused to it or not.2

But since the article went on to describe 'One of the town's churches' as a 'burned out ruin', spire crashing into the ruins and all, it's possible that some readers drew the wrong conclusion and feared the worst. The morning papers the following day still weren't commenting on the cathedral's fate, in fact they largely avoided admitting that it existed at all (though they did mention that the Archbishop was safe, which would seem to imply the existence of his cathedral). Instead, the Daily Mirror focused on the human aspects of the raid, leading with the 75-year old woman said to have a 'spirit [...] typical of the Canterbury people':

She had been buried seven hours beneath 14 feet of debris, but she walked out. While soldiers were digging to free her she called out, 'I could do with a cup of tea, boys.'3

There were of course those who were not so lucky, including the town clerk, G. W. Marks, who was rescued from the ruins of his house alive but died in hospital. (Marks, who was Canterbury's ARP controller, was remembered in the West Country as he had been the chief assistant town clerk in Bristol.)4 Even though the raiding force was only about 25 aircraft, the Daily Express's report indicates fairly heavy damage:

In Canterbury a number of people were killed and injured, scores of homes, two rest centres, two banks, a school, several inns wrecked or damaged.

But it went on to say that 'by nightfall all homeless had been clothed, fed and removed in coaches to private homes or rest centres in other areas'. Lord Monsell, the local civil defence commissioner, sounded pleased: 'The area's mutual aid scheme has worked well'.5 Incidentally, the raid caused the sirens to sound in some parts of London, only 'the second night warning in the capital in seven months'.6
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  1. The Times, 2 June 1942, 4. 

  2. Derby Evening Telegraph, 1 June 1942, 1. 

  3. Daily Mirror, 2 June 1942, 5. 

  4. Bath Weekly Chronicle and Herald, 6 June 1942, 6. 

  5. Daily Express, 2 June 1942, 3. 

  6. Nottingham Evening Post, 1 June 1942, 1. 

1 Comment

In my reprisals article I argue that historians have, for the most part, underestimated popular support during the Blitz for counterbombing of German cities. I think Tom Harrisson, both during the war as head of Mass-Observation and after as author of Living Through the Blitz, had a lot to do with this. But there were no doubt other vectors. One is the contemporary psychological literature. In a discussion of the psychological effects of what he terms 'punishment' or Douhet-style bombing, Robert Pape argues that, as opposed to heavy punishment,

light punishment produces popular anger toward the attacker and, often, demands for reprisals [...] in both World Wars, British civilians who had not experienced heavy air attacks were more likely to favor an aggressive 'Bomb Berlin' policy than those who had.1

This is actually perfectly correct -- as far as it goes: people in blitzed areas were less likely to want reprisals than those in non-blitzed areas. As long as it is understood that a majority of people in blitzed areas still wanted reprisals (or at most were equally split on the question), which is what's usually forgotten.

Now Pape, who is not a historian but a political scientist, doesn't draw on Harrisson or other secondary sources for this point, but instead cites two scientific articles published shortly after the Blitz. So what do they say? The first is by Robert H. Thouless, a psychology lecturer at Cambridge, and appeared in Nature in August 1941. Most of the article is actually about the psychological problems among evacuated children and mothers, but towards the end he discusses the effects of air raids themselves. Here he says:

It was interesting to notice that while people in the most heavily raided areas were more critical and more depressed, they were nevertheless more active in A.R.P. work and saved more money than in less raided areas. They were also more inclined to reject the idea that we should undertake reprisal raids on German towns.2

Again this is probably fine as a general statement. But Thouless doesn't give a source other than 'Investigations in heavily raided areas other than London'.3 Moreover, he was reporting not on his own research but on a general discussion at a British Psychological Society meeting. As scientific evidence we should perhaps not place too much weight on it.

Pape's second source is P. E. Vernon, an education psychologist working at the University of Glasgow. In an much more substantial article than Thouless's (though with the same title!) published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology in October 1941, Vernon drew on reports from more than fifty doctors and psychologists for their observations of the effect of bombing on the population at large, a methodology which he admitted to be not particularly scientific. But for his remarks on reprisals he appears not to have used this data:

Several surveys, including a Gallup poll, show that heavily bombed people are not generally in favor of reprisals. Rather it would seem that the comparatively safe urge the 'Bomb Berlin' policy.4

The 'Gallup poll' is presumably the BIPO opinion poll published in May. The other 'surveys' may include Mass-Observation data, since he says 'The most extensive investigations [of the psychological effects of bombing], most of whose results cannot be published until after the war, are those of T. Harrisson's organization -- Mass Observation'.5 If they did privately share data and ideas, Harrisson's influence may explain why Vernon misinterpreted the BIPO data, since it actually shows that heavily bombed people were, if anything, generally in favour of reprisals.


  1. Robert A. Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1996), 26; emphasis in original. 

  2. Robert H. Thouless, 'Psychological effects of air raids", Nature (16 August 1941), 184-5. 

  3. Ibid., 184. 

  4. P. E. Vernon, 'Psychological effects of air-raids', Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 36 (1941), 469. 

  5. Ibid., 457. 

2 Comments

One painful lesson I learned while seeing my Blitz reprisals article through to press was to stick. To. The. Bloody. Word. Limit! The article as accepted was well over and as a result I caused myself and the editors much grief while we worked to cut it down to an acceptable size. Never again.

Because they stood somewhat apart from the main argument of the article, the first cut I made was to delete two paragraphs addressing Tom Harrisson's theory, in his (generally invaluable) 1978 book Living Through the Blitz, about the demands by the British press for reprisals, which is effectively a conspiracy theory insinuating press manipulation as cover for Bomber Command's area bombing policy. Harrisson was co-founder and wartime head of Mass-Observation, and I think one of the main vectors of the idea that the British people didn't want reprisal bombing of German civilians, especially if they'd been bombed themselves (which as I argue in the article itself is, at best, misleading). In the first deleted paragraph I showed why his conspiracy theory doesn't make sense, and in the second I more tentatively (and much less convincingly, I think) gestured towards an explanation of why he came up with it. In relation to the published article, these paragraphs came just before the conclusion on page 406, and after the discussion of examples from the Mass-Observation archives of exactly the sorts of spontaneous demands of reprisals in blitzed areas that Harrisson explicitly denied ever happened. So these two paragraphs were also intended to help explain why he misrepresented the evidence in this way.

Since they stand on their own fairly well (the reference to Marchant is to the article she published from Coventry), I thought it worth posting the deleted paragraphs here, as a sort of teaser for the real article. I haven't changed the text, except to expand the bibliographic references.
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14 Comments

My peer-reviewed article '"Bomb back, and bomb hard": debating reprisals during the Blitz' has just been published in the Australian Journal of Politics and History, an invited submission for a special issue on the topic 'War and Peace, Barbarism and Civilization in Modern Europe and Its Empires'. It can be downloaded from here. Here's the abstract:

In Britain, popular memory of the Blitz celebrates civilian resistance to the German bombing of London and other cities, emphasising positive values such as stoicism, humour and mutual aid. But the memory of such passive and defensive traits obscures the degree to which British civilian morale in 1940 depended on the belief that if Britain had to 'take it', then Germany was taking it as hard or harder. Contrary to the received historical account, opinion polls, Home Intelligence reports and newspaper letter columns show that a majority of the British supported the reprisal bombing of German civilians by Bomber Command. The wartime reprisals debate was the logical legacy of prewar assumptions about the overwhelming power of bombing; but it has been forgotten because it contradicts the myth of the Blitz.

I'll put up a self-archived version here in a year (if I remember!)