A myth of the Blitz?

I'm giving a talk at the XXII Biennial Conference of the Australasian Association for European History, being held in Perth this July. It's a big conference with some big names (e.g. Omer Bartov, Richard Bosworth, John MacKenzie), and there's an appropriately big theme: 'War and Peace, Barbarism and Civilisation in Modern Europe and its Empires'. My talk will be about the reprisals debate in Britain during the Blitz. Here's the original title and abstract:

'Bomb back and bomb hard': A myth of the Blitz

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. This 'Blitz spirit' is still called to mind during times of national crisis, for example in response to the July 2005 terrorist bombings in London.

But the memory of such passive and defensive traits obscures the degree to which British civilian morale in 1940 and 1941 depended on the belief that if Britain had to 'take it', then Germany was taking it as hard or even harder. As the Blitz mounted in intensity, Home Intelligence reports and newspaper letter columns featured calls for heavier reprisals against German cities. Propaganda, official and unofficial, responded by skirting a fine distinction between reporting the supposedly heavy bombardment of strictly military targets in urban areas and gloating over the imagined suffering of German civilians. That the RAF's bombing efforts over Germany at this time were in fact wildly inaccurate and largely ineffective is beside the point: nobody in Britain was aware of this yet.

In this paper I will try to restore a sense of these forgotten aspects of the 'Blitz spirit', and attempt to locate their origins in pre-war attitudes to police bombing in British colonies and mandates, and in reactions the predicted knock-out blow from the air which dominated popular perceptions of the next war in the 1920s and 1930s.

A more recent and abbreviated version:

'Bomb back and bomb hard': the reprisals debate during the Blitz

It is often argued that there was little enthusiasm in Britain for reprisals against German cities in retaliation for the Blitz, unlike the First World War. There was in fact a serious contemporary debate about whether enemy civilians could or should be targets of bombing, which I will show derived from the prewar and wartime public understanding of the potential and proper use of airpower.

As these perhaps show, my thinking on the reprisals question is changing a bit, which is not surprising since I'm still researching it. What I plan to do over the next few weeks is to do some of my thinking out loud by way of blogging -- appropriately, since I became interested in this topic while post-blogging the Blitz. So watch this space!

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://airminded.org/copyright/.

35 thoughts on “A myth of the Blitz?

  1. Peter L. Griffiths

    I am sure you will not forget to mention that the German bombers of British cities mostly flew from French airfields.

  2. An interesting topic, Brett, and I suspect one that'll be hard to nail down - good luck.

    Peter L - that's utterly irrelevant. Please stop trotting your hobby horse here.

  3. Post author


    I doubt I will mention something that is at once both well-known and irrelevant.


    Sadly, yes.


    Yes, hard to nail down, especially in only 20 minutes! The best I can do is to 'complicate' the problem, to show that there is more to it than is usually assumed. I plan to write an article for publication later where I can address the question more fully.

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  5. What's the presenting a paper equivalent of the German fighter pilot's "Hals- und Beinbruch" or the actor's "break a leg"? May your pages get renumbered?

    Anyway, hope it goes well, and you slay - sorry, justified reprisals - 'em.

  6. Edward Nugee

    Those who did not live through the War should be very careful before passing judgment. As a schoolboy throughout I knew of the destruction wrought by the Luftwaffe on London, Coventry, Sheffield and other cities, a nd indeed some, like Sherborne, Dorset, which were not cities nor closely involved in the war effort (in the Sherborne raid in October 1940 we had a bomb outside the back door which blew all the doors shut and a bomb outside the front door which blew them all open again, leaving the locks etc hanging in the door frames; smashed bottled fruit with bits of shrapnel; and a friend having tea with us who, having gone home, was back ten minutes later saying there was no house left for her to go to). We seemed to be nearly helpless; so when Bomber Command started bombing German cities, like the first 1000 bomber raid on Cologne which I remember well, it is not surprising that the majority took only satisfaction from the fact that we were getting a bit of our own back. And I am sure that the policy of unconditional surrender, together with Hitler's Gotterdammerung policy of taking everything down with him, Marshall Aid, a reaonably efficient Allied Military Government and a good man in Konrad Adenauer, is the main reason why post-war modern Germany is for the most part free of the Prussian militarism and the widespread anti-Semitic feelings that permeated it before the War and has taken its place among the leading democracies of the world..

  7. Post author

    It's not really a matter of passing judgement, but of trying to find out what people did think at the time. The basic argument by subsequent historians (including some who lived through the Blitz) was that the British people did not want reprisals on German civilians, and those who did had not experienced bombing themselves. I argue here, in my AAEH paper, and an article I'm currently writing, that in fact this is a serious understatement of the demand for reprisals. As you say, it's quite that understandable that people would have wanted to feel that Britain was striking back (pace the argument over how best to strike back), but the claim that they didn't makes them seem more morally virtuous, in a turning-the-other-cheek sort of way. A small part of the myth of the Blitz, I feel.

  8. dedonarrival

    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 .

  9. Bodie

    Big claim there, Dedonarrival. Especially calling out an historian for "such ignorance." An historian, I might add, whose purview is aerial warfare.
    So you'll forgive me if I question you in much the same way I'd question an undergraduate paper. What are your sources? Not permitted: Google, YouTube, Wikipedia, David Irving. Permitted: actual, proper, peer-reviewed works, and/or primary sources.
    I'll ready my red pen.

  10. Post author


    You might have done me the courtesy of assuming I already know something about the topic of Britain and strategic bombing, especially since as the post said I was due to speak on it at a history conference; not to mention the PhD etc. So if I have a different understanding of that topic, maybe it's not that I'm ignorant but just that I have come to a different, perhaps wrong but still considered conclusion than you have. So why don't you present some evidence and try and persuade me? As Bodie says, just telling people to Google something is not a historical argument.

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  12. Peter L. Griffiths

    The Blitz happened because of a British intelligence failure of the 1930s when the construction of airports in Northern France was not seen as a threat to this country.

  13. Peter L. Griffiths

    No Brett, I think you should stick to your advanced Kangaroo Studies, and leave the Blitz to those who experienced it.

  14. Ian

    Oi Ref. - red card!
    Surely "airport" gives the wrong impression - most of these were grass fields, from which 1940's aircraft could operate with ease, at least in summer. If enlargement was necessary, it was a couple of days work with saws, axes and shovels.
    All you need then is a handy railway line for supplies and a nearby chateau for the officers

  15. Post author


    Thanks for the gratuitous insult, but I'll take my PhD in history over your lived experience any day of the week, given that it leads you to the demonstrably absurd belief that nobody knew then or later that the Luftwaffe's bombers were flying from France, not Germany. And given that you were 10 in 1940, what special insight does that give you into British intelligence failures in the 1930s? As far as I know, the Air Ministry was not in the habit of taking schoolboys into its confidence.

    But okay, I'll bite. Let's assume that, although you haven't provided any evidence whatsoever, that there was in fact a British intelligence failure regarding the construction of airfields in northern France in the 1930s. Let's then ask what would the British have done, had they realised the existence of this dire threat. Presumably, then, they would have expanded the RAF. They would have continued to develop new, improved fighters and bombers. They would have built airfields of their own in southern England. They might have created a sophisticated command and control system to coordinate air defence. They might even have invested in some sort of early warning system. In other words, they would have done pretty much exactly what they did do. So, once again, no, that's not why 'The Blitz happened'. As you were advised last time (not just by me), you need to go and do some actual research.


    Good point! The more usual term in this context would be 'airfield' or maybe 'aerodrome', neither of which has the more substantial connotations of 'airport'.

  16. Alan Allport

    I just googled "Advanced Kangaroo Studies" to see if it was an actual educational option in Oz, and I'm a little disappointed to discover that it isn't. You people aren't even trying ...

  17. Peter L. Griffiths

    With regard to your comment of 22 June 2014, one important example of people not knowing that the German bombers came from France is AJP Taylor's book English History 1914-1945 which goes into some detail about the blitz but never mentions that the German bombers came from France.

  18. Alan Allport

    Within English History 1914-1945's 719 pages, Taylor devoted five paragraphs to the Blitz - a not unreasonable economy of detail, given how much ground he had to cover. And you know what? It's true - he doesn't specifically, literally, say that 'the German bombers came from France.' But immediately following his account of the Blitz is a description of the Battle of the Atlantic, and there he does point out that the Kriegsmarine was able (to its great benefit) to use captured French Atlantic ports. So you know what? I think the little tinker knew all about those airfields. Perhaps he just thought it so obvious as to not need spelling out.

    I love this thread ...

  19. Post author


    I love this thread ...

    It's certainly outstanding, in one way or another.


    What Alan said, and I would also point out that nowhere does Taylor actually claim that the German bombers came from anywhere else, so it's just your inference that he didn't know they came from France (and Belgium, the Netherlands, and very rarely Norway, if we're being pedantic). As has been suggested to you more than once by now, it was a completely obvious fact that was as well-known in 1940 as in 1965, which is why sometimes people didn't actually come out and say it. But nevertheless there are plenty of examples of people who actually did come out and say it. Here are some from wartime newpapers:

    • 'The Luftwaffe sends its bombers and bomb-carrying fighter planes mainly from air bases in Northern France, Belgium, and Holland, when Britain is to be raided.' -- Leonard Armstrong, 'Hitting the hide-outs of the Luftwaffe', Sunderland Echo and Shipping Gazette, 28 January 1941, p. 2.
    • 'But why should the Luftwaffe have remained grounded for two nights while the R.A.F. have continued their longer and infinitely more exacting flights to attack German territory? Because in all probability their airfields in occupied France have been completely disorganized by the constant punch of the R.A.F.' -- 'Luftwaffe again grounded', Derby Evening Telegraph, 19 December 1940, p. 1.
    • 'Of the Italian aircraft which tried to raid Great Britain from France in conjunction with the Luftwaffe we brought down twenty.' -- 'Luftwaffe goes to aid of Italy', Press and Journal (Aberdeen), 3 January 1941, p. 1.
    • 'Two fighter pilots who flew over to France during the night found an aerodrome with 20 bombers on the ground.' -- 'Beaufighters proving nightmare to Luftwaffe', Daily Mail (Hull), 15 March 1941, p. 6.
    • 'Saturday night's victim, states the Air Ministry news service, was a JU 88 bomber, which the Havoc crew caught flying near its base in Northern France.' -- 'Three sergeants, three trips, three "downed"', Courier & Advertiser (Dundee), 5 May 1941, p. 3.

    This is from an official Air Ministry publication, aimed at a popular audience: 'Between the 8th August and 31st October, 2,375 German aircraft are known to have been destroyed in daylight. This figure takes no account of those lost at night, or those, seen by thousands, staggering back to their French bases, wings and fuselage full of holes, ailerons shot away, engines smoking and dripping glycol, undercarriages dangling -- the retreating remnants of a shattered and disordered Armada.' -- The Battle of Britain: An Air Ministry Account of the Great Days From 8th August-31st October 1940 (London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1941), p. 34. This pamphlet also includes a number of maps showing German aircraft flying from France to attack Britain.

    Those examples are all accounts published during the war which refer to German (and Italian) bombers flying from French airfields to attack Britain. So it was perfectly well-known at the time. And it wasn't forgotten or suppressed after the war either. Here's Winston Churchill himself: 'During June and early July the German Air Force revived and regrouped its formations and established itself on all the French and Belgian airfields from which the assault had to be launched, and by reconnaissance and tentative forays sought to measure the character and scale of the opposition which would be encountered.' -- Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, Vol. 2: Their Finest Hour (London: Penguin, 2005 [1949]), p. 283.

    Examples could be multiplied indefinitely. But I doubt that would make any difference. I pointed out another example to you back in 2011, which you acknowledged at the time, but here you are again, insisting that the Luftwaffe's use of French airfields was not known or was covered up at the time, was not known or was covered up after the war, and is not known or is being covered up now, a position contrary to all evidence and reason.

  20. Peter L. Griffiths

    With regard to Alan Allport 12 July 2014, my own count of AJP Taylor's references to the blitz is on about 15 pages, including mention of his source Basil Collier whose works need to be investigated. The gross neglect of the blitz by English universities particularly as local history is to be deplored.

  21. Post author

    Back to your old tricks, I see, Peter -- ignoring nearly everything that has been said to you apart from one tiny and unimportant aspect and using that to go off on another unsupported and irrelevant tangent. What evidence do you have that English universities are neglecting the Blitz, whether as local history or not? (I note that Richard Overy, in his latest book The Bombing War, specifically notes that he found local archives in Hull and Newcastle to be extremely valuable.) If you do look at Collier, you'll find that he wrote a volume of the official history, published in 1957, which contrary to what you keep saying does acknowledge that the Luftwaffe operated from French airfields. Will you have anything to say about it, in that case? Do you have anything to say about the 7 sources I quoted in my previous comment which again all are perfectly open about the fact that the bombers came from France? Are you going to address the criticisms of your argument that 'The Blitz happened because of a British intelligence failure of the 1930s when the construction of airports in Northern France was not seen as a threat to this country', or provide any evidence whatsoever for it?

  22. The summary of the issues with Peter's 'point' re- French airfields are:
    1. It's not a secret
    2. It, in itself, is not important (it's like claiming Scotland was responsible for some RAF bases in 1940. Yes, and irrelevant.).
    3. It's important to Peter, but he has failed to engage with any of the discussion or evidence after his posts, and failed to convince anyone else in open discussion of its import.
    4. The end.

  23. Peter L. Griffiths

    In reply to Brett Holman's last paragraph of 18 July 2014, the proof of the British Intelligence failure of the 1930s was of course the blitz itself. British Intelligence presumably had the comforting thought that the French were our allies, so what could go wrong? After the French capitulation of June 1940, the Luftwaffe were very quick to perceive the significance of the French airfields in Northern France, in contrast to British Intelligence which was incredibly slow. It did not stop there, even after the War the cover-up continued with a reluctance to mention where the German planes came from, particularly to bomb ports in the West.

  24. "After the French capitulation of June 1940, the Luftwaffe were very quick to perceive the significance of the French airfields in Northern France, in contrast to British Intelligence which was incredibly slow. "

    On the contrary, British Intelligence was incredibly quick because it was reading dozens of deciphered Luftwaffe signals daily by this time and these were explicit about Luftwaffe units establishing themselves on French bases in June and July 1940. The decrypts are all there in the National Archives (start with file HW5/1 and work your way through the series). I know because I've read them.

  25. Post author


    To paraphrase Alan, are you for real? As I predicted, you've once again ignored nearly everything I've said in my last comment and in previous comments. To address what you did say, no, the Blitz itself is not 'proof' of any intelligence failure in the 1930s. You apparently have little grasp of what historical evidence actually is. You need to actually look at Air Ministry (or whoever) records to see what intelligence they actually had, and what conclusions they actually drew from it. For all you know, they were perfectly aware of the airfields being built in northern France. For all you know, they were very concerned about them. You haven't looked. (See also Nick's comments on the archival evidence for 1940, which completely contradicts your claims.) But as a matter of logic, whether or not the Blitz happened doesn't depend on any alleged intelligence failure. You can have perfect intelligence but lack the capacity to act on it, or be prevented from doing so. In fact, as I argued back in June (but to which you characteristically did not respond), it's difficult to see what else the Air Ministry or the RAF could have done to guard against this French menace -- nearly everything they did to defend against the danger of an attack from Germany also helped to defend against an attack from France. So you need to explain exactly what you think Britain should have done differently to counter the threat of northern French airfields? Should it have invaded France? Bombed Paris? Allied with Nazi Germany? Or what?

    The other aspect of 'are you for real' is your continuing and frankly baffling insistence that there was, in your words, a 'cover-up' regarding the fact that the Luftwaffe attacked Britain from French airfields. How many wartime newspapers do I have to quote to prove to you that this was not a secret in 1940-41 and was openly discussed in the press? How many official histories and official publications, wartime and postwar, do I need to cite to prove to you that the government was quite happy to publicly acknowledge this? How can you think that a partial and superficial reading of A. J. P. Taylor is proof of a cover-up rather than just the limitations of what was after all a general history, and how can you think this more impressive evidence than Churchill's own candid discussion of this issue in his memoirs of the war, which were sold and read around the world in their millions? Why do you, again bafflingly, not even acknowledge any of this contrary evidence, let alone critique it in any meaningful way? Why are you not taken aback even a little when experts on this period tell you that everyone has known all along about the French airfields? (I knew about them when I was a boy, for that matter. It was perfectly obvious from reading my grandfather's copy of the Paul Brickhill biography of Douglas Bader, Reach for the Sky, first published in 1954.) Why can you not admit that instead of there being a cover-up, that it's more likely that it's just that you didn't know?

    Fair warning: you have just one more chance to respond seriously to these questions (not just one, not tangentially). If you don't, then you will no longer be welcome here and all future comments from you will be deleted. I like to engage with the public on my blog, and I often learn things I didn't know before. But you're just wasting my time.

  26. Peter L. Griffiths

    My arguments are based on facts and on my own interpretaion of these facts. Other people's superstitions do not interest me in the slightest. For more details of the blitz from the French airport viewpoint, I can recommend the works of Henry L DeZeng IV. After 70 years, most British universities are incapable of linking French airport with bombed British city. The more historians produced by our universities, apparently the worse the quality of the local history. As previously I leave the showing of these remarks entirely to your discretion.

  27. Peter, I too can recommend Larry DeZeng's work, having corresponded with him for many years, but perhaps I might refer you to some of my own efforts, largely based on ULTRA decrypts, which clearly demonstrate the RAF's detailed awareness of German operations from French bases:
    http://www.ghostbombers.com/1940/LT/torpedo1.html (torpedo bomber trials from Lanvéoc-Poulmic, including the many logistical problems the Luftwaffe found there)
    http://www.ghostbombers.com/1940/KG100/kg100_1.html (pathfinder operations from Vannes)
    http://www.ghostbombers.com/1940/Coventry/cov_1.html (the Coventry Blitz and RAF countermeasures).
    The last of these also reinforces Brett's point about knowledge vs. the capacity to do anything with it: the 121 night fighters defending Coventry had no success at all. Nevertheless, on the night of the Coventry Blitz, some 53 Bomber Command aircraft were sent to attack Luftwaffe aerodromes in France and Belgium: Amiens/Glisy, Étaples, Cambrai-Nierguise, Douai, Beauvais, Vendeville, Le Culot, Dunkirk, Lendeville & Flers, Melun, Orly, Béthune-la-Buissière, Estrée, St. Pierre, Corbel, Rennes, Chartres, Knocke, Ivry-la-Cataille, Chartres and Châteaudun.

  28. Post author


    My arguments are based on facts and on my own interpretaion of these facts.

    You clearly have no idea what a fact is in the historical context. (Hint: it's not what you remember from when you were a child.) You equally clearly have no idea how to interpret facts in the historical context. (Hint: you don't simply make overdrawn inferences after reading a couple of books.)

    Other people's superstitions do not interest me in the slightest.

    What's a non sequitur? I never dreamed that you were interested in other people's superstitions, or in anything that anyone else has to say, for that matter. You've got your own superstitions, your own idées fixes (pardon my French).

    For more details of the blitz from the French airport viewpoint, I can recommend the works of Henry L DeZeng IV.

    I haven't read DeZeng's books. But I guarantee you that they contain no startling revelations about 'the blitz from the French airport viewpoint', BECAUSE EVERYBODY ALREADY KNEW THAT THAT'S WHERE IT CAME FROM. Everyone except you, that is.

    The more historians produced by our universities, apparently the worse the quality of the local history.

    Again this strange claim, introduced for (as far as I can see) no reason whatsoever. You never explained what you mean by this, let alone provided any evidence for it.

    As previously I leave the showing of these remarks entirely to your discretion.

    Very gracious of you, since you have no choice in the matter. In any case this statement is further evidence of your incapacity for close reading: I said 'all future comments from you will be deleted' if you fail to 'respond seriously to these questions (not just one, not tangentially)'. As you haven't, they will. You are now banned. Goodbye.


    Thanks for trying, and I hope Peter follows the links to your excellent site. But it won't make any difference.

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