The past is always present in England and never more so than this month, when Londoners recall the 70th
anniversary of The Blitz,
as they called the massive Nazi bombings that began on Sept. 7, 1940, and continued for 57 consecutive days and nights. Beginning in November the bombings spread to a score of other cities, continuing the strategy of Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, to shatter the morale of the British people. The bombings continued for eight months, killing more than 43,000 civilians, half of them Londoners, and destroying or damaging a million buildings in London alone.
But the British did not break. In London last week I read about a poll taken during the height of the Blitz about the greatest concern of Londoners. "Weather" came in first with "general news about the war" second. "Air raids" were a distant third. This was at a time when hundreds of horrifying bombs were raining down on London. Then and now the resilience and sustained courage of ordinary people seems amazing. The myth of the Blitz has Londoners waiting it out in the city's underground. Thousands did, but the vast majority of Londoners stayed in their homes or used makeshift shelters in their gardens.
The raids the first night destroyed the London docks, killing more than 400 people and severely injuring another 1,600. On Dec. 29 incendiary bombs dropped on London caused 1,400 fires, creating a firestorm. This was the night that St. Paul's Cathedral was hit. "St. Paul's was surrounded by fire, but it came through," wrote the great American war correspondent Ernie Pyle, then assigned to London. "It stood there in its enormous proportions -- growing slowly clearer and clearer, the way objects take shape at dawn. It was like a picture of some miraculous figure that appears before peace-loving soldiers on a battlefield."
Worse was to come. On Jan. 11, 1941, more than 100 people were killed in an underground station that took a direct hit. On March 19, a repeat raid of the docks and the East End killed 750. On April 16, bombs killed 1,000 people and started 2,000 fires. On May 10, 550 German bombers dropped 700 tons of bombs and thousands of incendiaries, killing 1,500 people and destroying the House of Commons. It was the most destructive -- and final -- raid of the Blitz.
And yet for all the carnage that it caused, the Blitz is remembered as a stupendous military failure for Germany and a triumph for Britain, then all but alone in fighting the Hitler regime. Not only did the terror bombings fail to break the morale of the British people but they gave a needed respite to the undermanned Royal Air Force. In the two months before the Blitz, the Luftwaffe had targeted RAF airfields and radar stations in preparation for what was supposed to be the invasion of Britain. The RAF was losing pilots and planes at an unsustainable rate. The shift to the bombing of civilian targets enabled the RAF to recover. In Britain today, September is remembered not only as the anniversary of the Blitz but as the culmination of the air war known as the Battle of Britain, in which the RAF prevailed. This was the combat that Winston Churchill famously described: "Never in the field of human combat was so much owed by so many to so few."
Fittingly, at this historic distance, it is not only The Few who are honored but The Many: the civilians who endured in London and other British cities. When the Blitz ceased, as Hitler prepared for the fateful invasion of the Soviet Union that would eventually turn the tide of war against him, London was already rebuilding its shattered roads and bridges.
The end of the Blitz did not mark the end of Nazi aerial attacks on Britain. The Luftwaffe had been swept from the skies by 1944, but the Germans had developed pilotless V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets that took up where the bombers had left off. Another 9,000 civilians were killed in London and southeast Britain, bringing the civilian death toll to more than 51,000. These later deaths seem especially senseless and are mourned and remembered, but it is the Blitz that is being recalled with special horror and fascination this month in London.
This week the Westminster Council marked the anniversary of the Blitz by releasing rare and newly discovered color film
shot by an air raid warden in the 1940s. It was found in an attic and shown on BBC News almost as if it were a current event.