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Why Did the Germans Launch the Blitz Against Britain?

Why Did the Germans Launch the Blitz Against Britain?

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Before the outbreak of World War Two, there was significant debate about the threat posed by bomber aircraft and new aerial tactics during any future conflict.

These concerns had been raised by the aggressive use of the Luftwaffe during the Spanish Civil War. The conflict saw the tactical co-ordination of air and ground troops and the razing of several Spanish cities, most famously Guernica.

Fears abounded that hostilities would have a far more devastating effect on the home front in any forthcoming conflict. These fears played a significant role in the British desire for peace during the 1930s, and consequently the campaign to continue appeasing Nazi Germany.

He is a German Luftwaffe ace with 81 confirmed victories on the Eastern front. Now a 95-year-old veteran, Hugo Broch will soar into the skies in a Spitfire.

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The Battle of Britain

After the Nazis invaded Poland, they turned their attention to the Western front. They stormed through the French defences, circumventing the Maginot Line and attacking through Belgium.

The Battle of France ended quickly, and the Battle of Britain followed soon after.

The latter saw Britain’s Fighter Command take on the Luftwaffe in a struggle for air superiority over the Channel and south-east England. At stake was the possibility of a German invasion, codenamed Operation Sealion by German High Command.

The Battle of Britain lasted from July 1940 until the end of October. Having been underestimated by the chief of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, Fighter Command inflicted a decisive defeat on the German air force and Hitler was forced to suspend Operation Sealion indefinitely.

A point of no return

The Germans, suffering unsustainable losses, switched tactics away from attacking the beleaguered Fighter Command. Instead, they launched a sustained bombing campaign against London and other major British cities between September 1940 and May 1941.

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The first major bombing raid against London’s civilian population was accidental. A German bomber overshot its original target, the docks, in thick fog. This showcased the inaccuracy of bombing in the early part of the war.

More significantly, it served as a point of no return in the escalation of strategic bombing for the remainder of the war.

Bombing raids over cities were almost exclusively conducted in the hours of darkness after the end of the summer to reduce losses at the hands of the RAF, which did not yet have sufficient night-fighter capabilities.

Captain Denis Robinson’s Spitfire, shot down in Dorset during the Battle of Britain. The pilot survived, despite not bailing out. Credit: Victor Tumkin / Commons.

The attacks resulted in as many as 180,000 Londoners spending their nights in tube stations during the autumn of 1940, when the attacks were at their most extreme.

By the end of the year, 32,000 ordinary people had died amongst the fires and rubble, although such numbers would be made to look paltry in comparison with the bombing raids conducted against Germany and Japan later in the war.

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Other port cities across Britain, such as Liverpool, Glasgow and Hull, were targeted, together with industrial centres in the Midlands.

The Blitz left hundreds of thousands of civilians homeless and inflicted damage on many iconic buildings. Coventry Cathedral was famously destroyed during the night of 14 November. In early May 1941, an unrelenting attacks resulted in damage to buildings across central London, including the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London.

Children sit on the ruins of a house in the East End during the Blitz. Credit: Sue Wallace / Credits.


Germany expected the bombing campaign, amounting to fifty-seven consecutive nights between September and November, to crush British morale. On the contrary, the British people, on the whole, were galvanised by the bombings and the underlying threat of German invasion. Many people signed up for voluntary service in one of the organisations set up to help remedy the devastating effects of the Blitz.

In a show of defiance, many attempted to go about their daily lives ‘as usual’. As a consequence, by Churchill’s first anniversary in office Britain had emerged from the Blitz with far greater resolution than when he had taken charge in the ominous climate of May 1940.

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Blitz, the German word for 'lightning', was applied by the British press to the tempest of heavy and frequent bombing raids carried out over Britain in 1940 and 1941. This concentrated direct bombing of industrial targets and civilian centres began on 7 September 1940, with heavy raids on London.

The scale of the attack rapidly escalated. In that month alone, the German Air Force dropped 5,300 tons of high explosives on the capital in just 24 nights. In their efforts to 'soften up' the British population and to destroy morale before the planned invasion, German planes extended their targets to include the major coastal ports and centres of production and supply.

The infamous raid of November 14 1940 on Coventry brought a still worse twist to the campaign. 500 German bombers dropped 500 tons of explosives and nearly 900 incendiary bombs on the city in ten hours of unrelenting bombardment, a tactic later emulated on an even greater scale by the RAF in their attacks on German cities.

The British population had been warned in September 1939 that air attacks on cities were likely and civil defence preparations had been started some time before, both on a national and a local level. Simple corrugated steel Anderson shelters, covered over by earth, were dug into gardens up and down the country. Larger civic shelters built of brick and concrete were erected in British towns and a blackout was rigorously enforced after darkness.

The night raids became so frequent that they were practically continuous. Many people who were tired of repeatedly interrupting their sleep to go back and forth to the street shelters, virtually took up residence in a shelter. This gave rise to a new spirit of solidarity and community.

Londoners took what seemed to them an obvious and sensible solution to the problem and moved down in their thousands into the tube stations. At first, this was actively discouraged by the government. However, this popular action held sway and it was a common sight for a traveller on the Underground in wartime London to pass through a station crowded with the sleeping bodies of men, women and children and their belongings.

The main air offensive against British cities diminished after May 1941, with the change of direction of the German war machine towards Russia. However, sporadic and lethal raids, using increasingly larger bombs, continued for several more years.

Why did Hitler start the Blitz?

Why did Hitler start the Blitz? By mid 1940 Hitler had control over mainland Europe. His next target was Britain. The Blitz was night time bombing raids on British cities, especially London, during the month of September in 1940. On average the Germans dropped 250 tonnes of bombs each time. The Blitz was a very difficult time for the people of Britain and in London alone nearly 13,000 people were killed. There were a number of reasons for the Blitz. The first being the failure of the Battle of Britain. Hitler's fears of not having control over Britain led to beliefs that Britain would eventually become a base for his enemies to attack him from. . read more.

The RAF lost many planes and pilots but the Luftwaffe suffered even greater losses. Eventually Hitler realised he could not destroy the RAF meaning Operation Sealion would not work. Hitler's new plan for Britain was the Blitz. Because the Battle of Britain had failed, Hitler thought that by bombing the British into submission he would then be able to invade them. Another reason for Hitler starting the Blitz was to disrupt British economy and industry. From November 1940, the Luftwaffe began to concentrate on other British cities. This was an attempt to focus more on damaging British industry. Coventry was hit the worst with over 20 important factories destroyed. . read more.

This is just one example of what was happening to the British people. Hitler's hopes were that they would be in such a state of panic and depression that they would want to surrender to the German regime. Revenge was the final reason for the Blitz. "Hitler regarded the bombing of Berlin (25th august 1940) as a disgrace." Hitler thought that by bombing British cities he would be extracting revenge for the bombing of Berlin in August of that year. This was Hitler's chance to get even. These reasons were all part of Hitler's war aims to take over Britain. His main reason for the Blitz was the failure of the Battle of Britain. Had this not failed then Operation Sealion would have been successful and the Blitz would never have happened. 510 words Anna Townsend . read more.

This student written piece of work is one of many that can be found in our AS and A Level Modern European History, 1789-1945 section.

London is devastated by German air raid

On the evening of December 29, 1940, London suffers its most devastating air raid when Germans firebomb the city. Hundreds of fires caused by the exploding bombs engulfed areas of London, but firefighters showed a valiant indifference to the bombs falling around them and saved much of the city from destruction. The next day, a newspaper photo of St. Paul’s Cathedral standing undamaged amid the smoke and flames seemed to symbolize the capital’s unconquerable spirit during the Battle of Britain.

In May and June 1940, Holland, Belgium, Norway, and France fell one by one to the German Wehrmacht, leaving Great Britain alone in its resistance against Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s plans for world domination. The British Expeditionary Force escaped the continent with an impromptu evacuation from Dunkirk, but they left behind the tanks and artillery needed to defend their homeland against invasion. With British air and land forces outnumbered by their German counterparts, and U.S. aid not yet begun, it seemed certain that Britain would soon follow the fate of France. However, Winston Churchill, the new British prime minister, promised his nation and the world that Britain would “never surrender,” and the British people mobilized behind their defiant leader.

On June 5, the Luftwaffe began attacks on English Channel ports and convoys, and on June 30 Germany seized control of the undefended Channel Islands. On July 10–the first day of the Battle of Britain according to the RAF—the Luftwaffe intensified its bombing of British ports. Six days later, Hitler ordered the German army and navy to prepare for Operation Sea Lion. On July 19, the German leader made a speech in Berlin in which he offered a conditional peace to the British government: Britain would keep its empire and be spared from invasion if its leaders accepted the German domination of the European continent. A simple radio message from Lord Halifax swept the proposal away.

Germany needed to master the skies over Britain if it was to transport safely its superior land forces across the 21-mile English Channel. On August 8, the Luftwaffe intensified its raids against the ports in an attempt to draw the British air fleet out into the open. Simultaneously, the Germans began bombing Britain’s sophisticated radar defense system and RAF-fighter airfields. During August, as many as 1,500 German aircraft crossed the Channel daily, often blotting out the sun as they flew against their British targets. Despite the odds against them, the outnumbered RAF fliers successfully resisted the massive German air invasion, relying on radar technology, more maneuverable aircraft, and exceptional bravery. For every British plane shot down, two Luftwaffe warplanes were destroyed.

At the end of August, the RAF launched a retaliatory air raid against Berlin. Hitler was enraged and ordered the Luftwaffe to shift its attacks from RAF installations to London and other British cities. On September 7, the Blitz against London began, and after a week of almost ceaseless attacks several areas of London were in flames and the royal palace, churches, and hospitals had all been hit. However, the concentration on London allowed the RAF to recuperate elsewhere, and on September 15 the RAF launched a vigorous counterattack, downing 56 German aircraft in two dogfights that lasted less than an hour.

The costly raid convinced the German high command that the Luftwaffe could not achieve air supremacy over Britain, and the next day daylight attacks were replaced with nighttime sorties as a concession of defeat. On September 19, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler postponed indefinitely “Operation Sea Lion”–the amphibious invasion of Britain. The Battle of Britain, however, continued.

In October, Hitler ordered a massive bombing campaign against London and other cities to crush British morale and force an armistice. Despite significant loss of life and tremendous material damage to Britain’s cities, the country’s resolve remained unbroken. The ability of Londoners to maintain their composure had much to do with Britain’s survival during this trying period. As American journalist Edward R. Murrow reported, “Not once have I heard a man, woman, or child suggest that Britain should throw her hand.” In May 1941, the air raids essentially ceased as German forces massed near the border of the USSR.

By denying the Germans a quick victory, depriving them of forces to be used in their invasion of the USSR, and proving to America that increased arms support for Britain was not in vain, the outcome of the Battle of Britain greatly changed the course of World War II. As Churchill said of the RAF fliers during the Battle of Britain, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Operation Barbarossa And Germany's Failure In The Soviet Union

In August 1939, as Europe slid towards another world war, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression treaty. The Nazi-Soviet Pact came as a complete surprise to other nations, given the ideological differences between the two countries. It ushered in a period of military co-operation which allowed Hitler to ignore western diplomatic moves and invade Poland. Stalin's forces then attacked from the west and completed the subjugation and partition of the Polish state. For the next year and a half Germany also benefitted economically from the arrangement, with Russia exporting grain and oil in return for manufactured goods.

Soviet cooperation allowed Hitler to expand his plans for European domination. In May 1940 the Blitzkrieg rolled westwards and France was conquered in six weeks. But peace with Russia would not last. Hitler had always wanted to see Germany expand eastwards to gain Lebensraum or 'living space' for its people.

After the fall of France Hitler ordered plans to be drawn up for an invasion of the Soviet Union. He intended to destroy what he saw as Stalin's 'Jewish Bolshevist' regime and establish Nazi hegemony. The conquest and enslavement of the Soviet Union's racially 'inferior' Slavic populations would be part of a grand plan of 'Germanisation' and economic exploitation lasting well beyond the expected military victory. Regardless of recent economic and political co-operation, the Soviet Union was regarded as the natural enemy of Nazi Germany and a key strategic objective.


On 18 December 1940 Hitler issued Führer Directive 21, an order for the invasion of the Soviet Union. The German military plan called for an advance up to a hypothetical line running from the port of Archangel in northern Russia to the port of Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea – the so-called 'A-A line'. This would bring the bulk of the Soviet population and its economic potential under German control.

After a five week delay while operations in Greece and Yugoslavia were completed, Operation 'Barbarossa' - named after the all-conquering Medieval Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I - was launched on 22 June 1941. Over three and a half million German and other Axis troops attacked along a 1,800-mile front. A total of 148 divisions - 80 per cent of the German Army - were committed to the enterprise. Seventeen panzer divisions, formed into four Panzer Groups, formed the vanguard with 3,400 tanks. They were supported by 2,700 aircraft of the Luftwaffe. It was the largest invasion force to date.

The German forces were split into three army groups, each with a specific objective. Army Group North was to head through the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and take Leningrad. Army Group South would attack into the Ukraine towards Kiev and the Donbas (Donets Basin) industrial region. Between them, Army Group Centre's objective was Minsk, Smolensk and then Moscow itself. Hitler expected these all to be attained in approximately ten weeks.

The Soviets had massed large forces on their western frontier, but they were under orders not to provoke the Germans. Although mistrustful of Hitler, Stalin did not believe that he would attack so soon, despite the ominous German build-up and a stream of intelligence warnings. He had some 5 million men available immediately and a total of 23,000 tanks, but the Red Army was still unprepared when the Germans struck.

The Germans got off to a good start, with the panzer groups quickly pushing towards their objectives and Russian forces falling apart in confusion. They were greatly helped by the Luftwaffe's bombing of Soviet airfields, artillery positions and troop concentrations. The Germans quickly established air superiority. On the first day alone 1,800 Soviet aircraft were destroyed, most of them on the ground. Army Group North, under Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, plunged towards Leningrad, with General Erich Hoepner's Panzer Group 4 in the lead. Russian forces in this sector were thinly spread and the panzers covered 500 miles (804 km) in three weeks. By mid-July they were only 60 miles (96 km) from their objective.

Army Group Centre, under Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, also made rapid progress. By 28 June Panzer Group 2, led by General Heinz Guderian, and General Hermann Hoth's Panzer Group 3 had encircled three Russian armies and captured over 320,000 men in the Bialystok-Minsk pockets. The two panzer groups then pressed ahead, linking up on the far side of Smolensk on 27 July in another double envelopment. Two more Russian armies were trapped and destroyed, and another 300,000 troops taken prisoner.

Army Group South, under Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, had the furthest to go and his attack also faced the stiffest Soviet resistance. Most of the Russian armour was on this front. But by early July von Rundstedt had pushed out beyond the pre-1939 Polish frontier. General Ewald von Kleist's Panzer Group 1 was slowed by Soviet flanking attacks as it headed for Kiev, the capital of Ukraine and key to the coal-rich Donets Basin. On 8 August the Germans surrounded two Soviet armies, capturing 100,000 men in the Uman pocket, and reached the Dnieper River. The naval port of Odessa on the Black Sea was also besieged.

Up to this point all seemed to be going well, the only major problem being the time needed for the infantry to catch up with the panzers and mop up pockets of Russian defence. But Soviet resistance was now stiffening, despite catastrophic losses. A German salient around Yelnya, south-east of Smolensk, was recaptured in a costly but successful counterattack.

Meanwhile, Army Group Centre's supply situation was becoming critical. Hitler decided to halt the advance on Moscow and reinforce Army Groups North and South. Hoth's Panzer Group 3 was sent north to support the drive on Leningrad while Guderian's tanks were despatched to help Army Group South take Kiev. The German High Command protested vigorously. The panzers were only 220 miles from Moscow. But Hitler regarded the resource-rich Ukraine as more important. On 21 August he ordered that the conquest of the Crimea and the Donets Basin be given priority.

The Soviets were completely fooled by German moves. Five Soviet armies were trapped in a vast salient around Kiev. As usual, Stalin refused to sanction a withdrawal before the pocket was sealed. By the end of September Kiev had fallen and over 650,000 Russian troops killed or captured. The Germans pushed along the Black Sea coast and into the Crimea, laying siege to Sevastapol. In October Kharkov fell, but by now the Germans were exhausted. The fighting had severely depleted their ranks and supply lines were stretched to the limit. For now, the southern front stayed where it was. In the north too, German forces had reached their limit. In September, with the aid of their Finnish Allies, they cut Leningrad off from the rest of Russia, but lacked the strength to take the city. Instead, Hitler ordered that it be starved into submission. The epic siege would last 890 days.


Hitler now decided to resume the battle for Moscow. On 2 October he unleashed Operation 'Typhoon'. He believed the Russians had been fatally weakened and lacked the strength to defend their capital - one more push would see it fall and victory would be his. But the Red Army had been reinforced. Almost a million Soviet troops were in place, although they had few tanks and aircraft left. A multi-layered ring of defences had been thrown around the capital and its citizens had been mobilised. The German offensive was carried out by a reinforced Army Group Centre, comprising three infantry armies and three panzer groups - 1 million men and 1,700 tanks. However the Luftwaffe was weak after over three months of sustained operations. And the weather was beginning to turn.

Once again the initial assault was a success. The panzer divisions stormed ahead and over 600,000 Russian soldiers were captured in two more huge encirclements near the cities of Bryansk and Vyazma. The Russians were down to about 90,000 men. But as they reached the approaches to Moscow, the German formations slowed to a crawl. Autumn rains had turned the dirt roads into rivers of mud. It was the Rasputitsa - the 'quagmire season' - and wheeled and horse-drawn transport became hopelessly stuck. The Germans chose to temporarily halt operations.

In mid-November, with the temperature dropping and the ground now frozen hard, the panzers attempted a final pincer attack around Moscow itself. The delay had given the Soviets time to bring in further reinforcements, including reservists and troops from Siberia and the eastern borders. The northern German pincer was the most successful and got within 12 miles of the city. German officers could see the Kremlin buildings through their field glasses. The Germans also tried attacking in the centre, along the Minsk-Moscow road. On 2 December a reconnaissance unit got within 5 miles of Moscow. Though tantalisingly close, this was the limit of the entire advance. The depleted German units were exhausted and frozen into inactivity in the deep snow.

On 5 December the Soviets launched a surprise counter-offensive. The Germans were forced into a retreat, despite Hitler's call to defend every foot of ground. Guderian and several other senior generals who advised withdrawal were sacked. The Russians succeeded in crushing various German formations in encirclements of their own. The Luftwaffe struggled to operate but performed vital work ferrying supplies to cut off units and harrying the Russian advance. Army Group Centre was pushed back up to 150 miles from Moscow. A furious Hitler dismissed the commander-in-chief of the German Army, Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, and appointed himself in his place.

Watch the invasion unfold

Watch the invasion unfold


Operation 'Barbarossa' had clearly failed. Despite the serious losses inflicted on the Red Army and extensive territorial gains, the mission to completely destroy Soviet fighting power and force a capitulation was not achieved.

One of the most important reasons for this was poor strategic planning. The Germans had no satisfactory long-term plan for the invasion. They mistakenly assumed that the campaign would be a short one, and that the Soviets would give in after suffering the shock of massive initial defeats. Hitler had assured the High Command that 'We have only to kick in the front door and the whole rotten edifice will come tumbling down'. But Russia was not France. The shock value of the initial Blitzkrieg was dissipated by the vast distances, logistical difficulties and Soviet troop numbers, all of which caused attritional losses of German forces which could not be sustained.


Hitler's input has been heavily criticised, not least by his generals at the time. Moscow was always a more important objective to the German High Command than it was to Hitler, who was more concerned with destroying Soviet field armies and capturing vital industrial resources. His switching of the main thrust from the central front to Leningrad in the north and Ukraine in the south was to an extent militarily sensible given the weakness of Army Group Centre after the Smolensk battles and the threats to its flanks. Indeed, the diversion actually worked in the Germans’ favour since it surprised the Soviets and resulted in the destruction of huge Soviet forces around Kiev. But it also threw away Germany's only real chance of outright victory.

The early capture of Moscow would have had an undeniable psychological impact and may have been the tipping point. Guderian in particular believed that using the panzers in traditional encirclement battles played into Russian hands and gave them chances to bring forward fresh reserves. He had advocated an all-out drive on the capital. But when Hitler resumed the assault with Operation 'Typhoon' it was too late. The German Army was now fatally weakened, the weather had worsened and Soviet reinforcements had arrived.


German intelligence failures played a large part on several levels. The Red Army had been viewed with distain, especially because Stalin’s purges of the late 1930s had removed thousands of its officers - albeit temporarily in most cases. Its poor performance against the Finns in the winter of 1939-1940 also encouraged the Germans. Soviet industry was deemed incapable of producing modern weapons. Most importantly, Russian troop numbers and fighting strength were continually underestimated, so that despite the losses inflicted in early encirclement battles, the Germans always faced yet more reinforcements. The High Command had only considered the Soviet western army groups in their planning, and the presence of reserve forces and uncommitted formations in the Russian interior or on the eastern borders were disregarded. Even after Operation 'Typhoon' ground to a halt in early December, the Germans still chose to believe that the Soviets had nothing left to stage a counterattack.


While the Germans underestimated the military potential of their opponents, they also exaggerated the capabilities of their own forces, most significantly the four Panzer Groups. The panzer divisions were the principal weapon of Blitzkrieg and at that time were far superior to the Soviets in training, leadership and tactical ability. But they were relatively weak in numbers and equipment.

German tank strength had been halved in 1940 so that the number of divisions could be doubled. Over half the tanks committed to 'Barbarossa' were obsolescent light tanks and Czech-built models, rather than the more capable PzKpfw III and IV. And there were virtually no reserves available. Hitler had so far refused to fully mobilise the German economy and so weapons production was inadequate. Even in mid-1941 only 250 new tanks were being built each month, insufficient to properly equip the army on the eve of a major new campaign, or keep up with the inevitable mechanical and combat losses. Hitler even chose to divert some of these to France and other theatres, when the demand was greatest in Russia.

The vast majority of the 10,000 or so Russian tanks facing the Germans in June 1941 were light BT series tanks or obsolete T-26 models. Huge numbers were destroyed in poorly planned and executed counterattacks. But Soviet tank development and production was already superior to that of the Germans. A new generation of tanks had entered service, namely the T-34 and KV-1. The T-34 in particular was a major leap in tank design and came as a complete shock to the Germans when it was first encountered in July 1941. It had sloping armour - which effectively doubled its strength - and a powerful 76.2mm gun. Its reliable diesel engine gave it a good range and turn of speed, and its wide tracks could cope with mud or snow. Russian industry was already gearing up to turn it out in huge numbers.

Less than a thousand T-34s were available at the start of 'Barbarossa' and most were squandered in piecemeal actions by half-trained crews. But the Red Army could absorb significant losses of equipment as well as men. The mass mobilisation of Soviet industry had been set in train, which included relocating vital tank, aircraft and munitions factories eastwards to the Urals. This huge logistical undertaking was already bearing fruit. It meant that despite the early defeats, the Soviet Union was far better prepared for a long war than the Germans, whose own production of tanks and other weapons would be feeble by comparison.


Logistics was another hugely important factor in the German defeat. No matter how fast or far the fighting formations advanced, they were dependent on timely supplies of fuel and ammunition. This became an ever greater problem as the army progressed deeper into Soviet territory and further away from its own railheads. Not only were the distances much greater than they had been during the French campaign, but the Soviet transport infrastructure was much poorer. German engineers struggled to convert the Russian railway gauge to one which their own locomotives and rolling stock could use. Meanwhile the multitude of lorries and horse-drawn wagons in which the supplies were transported were forced to negotiate Russian dirt roads, which became virtually impassable after prolonged rain.

The debilitating effects of the weather and terrain were not properly taken into account when planning the campaign. The numerous forests, marshes and rivers slowed the advance during the summer. The autumn Rasputitsa and the onset of the brutal Russian winter brought it to a halt during Operation 'Typhoon'. Tank and vehicle lubricants froze as temperatures plunged to record lows. Winter clothing supplies were held up in Poland, as fuel and ammunition took priority. If anything symbolises the failure of 'Barbarossa' it is the image of inadequately equipped German troops shivering in the snows before Moscow.


Perhaps the most important reason of all for the defeat of Operation 'Barbarossa' was the tenacious resistance of the defenders. The Germans completely underestimated the Soviet will to fight. Hitler's announcement that the war in the east was one of 'annihilation' and Stalin's astute call to defend 'Mother Russia' rather than his own regime gave the ordinary Russian soldier - no matter how coerced or badly led - every reason to battle to the death. Hitler's infamous 'Commissar Order', which sanctioned the execution of all captured political officers, also stiffened Russian resolve. The Russian soldier was found to be a hardy and implacable foe, and quickly gained the respect of the majority of German front-line troops. No western enemy would come close to the Soviets in sheer staying power.

Despite the failure and huge losses of 'Barbarossa', Hitler launched another major strategic offensive in June 1942, this time towards the Caucasus mountains and the oil fields of Baku beyond. Morale was still generally high and German forces maintained the capacity to inflict further massive losses on badly handled Soviet formations. In fact 1942 would be an even worse year than 1941 for the Russians. But the factors that caused 'Barbarossa' to fail now conspired to doom this new enterprise as well. As the German columns advanced across the seemingly infinite spaces of the steppe towards their distant objectives, including a city named Stalingrad, the victory in the East that had once seemed so certain receded even further from sight.

Your guide to the Blitz, plus 9 places affected by the bombings

From September 1940 until May 1941, Britain was subjected to sustained enemy bombing campaign, now known as the Blitz. Find out how it began, what the Germans hoped to achieve and how it severe it was, plus we visit nine places affected by the attacks

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Published: September 7, 2020 at 12:00 pm

From his vantage point in Normandy, Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring pointed his binoculars in the direction of the English coast. It was 7 September 1940, a fateful day in the history of the Second World War. Overhead close to 1,000 German bomber and fighter aircraft headed towards the English capital where they would shortly wreak devastation on the streets below.

This was the first day of the sustained bombing campaign against Britain, popularly known as the Blitz, which Adolf Hitler hoped would soon bring a stubborn enemy to its knees. That day Göring had made a confident broadcast on German radio: “This is an historic hour, in which for the first time the German Luftwaffe has struck at the heart of the enemy”.

The September raids were not in fact the first aerial attacks Britain had suffered in the war. There had been sporadic incidents of bombing since the previous October but these were small and infrequent, a far cry from the massed bombardment that Britain would face in late 1940 and early 1941.

For Germany, the Blitz was in part a recognition that Hitler’s plan to invade Britain that summer was failing. After the fall of France in June 1940 Britain had been all that stood in the way of victory for Germany in the European war. However, because of the strength of the Royal Navy, an invasion of the British Isles would be a highly risky gamble and one that Hitler was not prepared to take without first achieving aerial superiority.

Over the next few months the Luftwaffe clashed repeatedly with the RAF, hoping to win control of the skies. It was a close run thing but in the end it was the British fighters that emerged triumphant, inflicting heavy losses on their German counterparts. The legend of the Battle of Britain was born.

With an invasion seemingly unlikely, Hitler switched his focus to the bombardment of British cities. This was to have the dual purpose of damaging Britain’s infrastructure and weakening civilian morale. Furthermore, on 25 August, British bombers had raided Berlin, and it is likely that the Blitz was also partly motivated by revenge.

London received the brunt of the initial attacks, being bombed for 57 consecutive days at the start of the onslaught. Other cities did not escape, however, with ports and industrial centres also selected for destruction. The bombers came over in waves several hundred strong and because they flew by night it was very difficult for British defences to prevent them getting through.

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Preparations had been made for air raids including the distribution of Anderson air-raid shelters, evacuations of civilians to the countryside and the establishment of the Air Raid Precaution organisation, but nonetheless there was significant loss of life. Despite government efforts, many people were without effective shelters and so underground alternatives, notably tube stations, were commandeered for this purpose.

In May 1941 the main phase of the Blitz ended. By this time British air defences, aided by developments in radar, had improved, meaning the Luftwaffe was suffering heavier losses during the raids. Perhaps more importantly Germany was about to embark on the invasion of the Soviet Union and needed to divert resources to the east.

What is clear is that the Blitz did not achieve either of its objectives. British production was impaired but nothing like enough to knock the country out of the war. And while the population was undoubtedly shaken, civilian morale held up remarkably well in the face of the bombs.

Air raids, albeit on a smaller scale, continued throughout the Second World War. Towards the end of the conflict the British people faced a new menace when the Germans began launching V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets at the country. These weapons arrived too late to shift the direction of the war but were still able to inflict a great deal of suffering.

Around 60,000 British civilians were killed by German air raids in the war and countless buildings were damaged. But the legacy of the Blitz is not just limited to broken walls and bones. “It has become part of the mythology of the war,” says Dr Jeremy Crang of the University of Edinburgh. “The Blitz has come to represent the indomitable spirit of the British people against the odds and, along with the evacuation from Dunkirk and the battle of Britain, forms one of the planks of Britain’s ‘finest hour’.

Words by Rob Attar. Historical advisor Dr Jeremy Crang, co-editor of The Burning Blue: a New History of the Battle of Britain (Pimlico, 2000)

Your quick guide to the Blitz

What was the Blitz?

The Blitz was a sustained bombing campaign against Britain launched by the Germans towards the end of the Battle of Britain.

What does Blitz mean?

The word Blitz is an abbreviation of the word ‘Blitzkrieg’, meaning ‘lightning war’.

When did the Blitz begin and end?

The main phase of the Blitz began on 7 September 1940 and ended in May 1941, though Germany continued with sporadic bombings until 1945.

A series of German raids in 1942 targeted historic cities and were nicknamed ‘Baedecker raids’ after the German guidebooks of that name.

Was London the only city targeted during the Blitz?

No, although London did endure 57 consecutive nights of bombings. Other cities targeted included Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Southampton and Swansea.

How many people died in the Blitz?

Between September 1940 and May 1941, 41,480 people were killed, says Richard Overy, of whom 16,755 were women and 5,184 were children.

During the entire war, 60,595 British civilians were killed by enemy action in the UK, writes Daniel Todman, of whom 7,736 were children.

How many German bombs were dropped on Britain?

German bombers dropped 58,000 tonnes of bombs in 1940 and 1941.

Nine places in Britain affected by the Blitz

St Dunstan’s Church, London

Where the first bombs fell

Long before the Second World War began the British authorities were deeply concerned about the possibility of air raids in a future conflict. “The bomber will always get through,” former prime minister Stanley Baldwin had warned back in 1932. The Spanish Civil War had shown the potential for aerial destruction and, by the time Britain went to war with Germany, many feared a catastrophe. Two years earlier it had been estimated that 1.8 million might be killed or injured in a 60-day attack.

The people of Britain would have to wait a year to find out whether their worst nightmares would materialise. On 7 September 1940 the Blitz got under way when two waves of German bombers dropped their loads over London, killing or wounding 2,000 people and igniting the largest fires the city had seen since 1666.

Then, as on several future occasions, the docklands in London’s East End were the principal target. The district of Stepney took a savage mauling on that first day of the Blitz. Bernard Kops, who lived locally in 1940, later said: “That day stands out like a flaming wound in my memory. Imagine a ground floor flat crowded with hysterical women, crying babies and great crashes in the sky and the whole earth shaking”.

During the Blitz many buildings in Stepney were reduced to rubble but the church of St Dunstan and All Saints survived with only its windows destroyed. The church is one of London’s oldest, dating back to at least the tenth century, although the main structure is chiefly late medieval. Today one of its stained glass windows recalls the Second World War, with an image of Jesus rising above the ruins of Stepney after the Blitz.

Chislehurst Caves, Kent

Where people hid from the bombers

This ancient cave complex has been gradually dug out of the rock over the course of several thousand years. Up to the early 19th century Chislehurst was mined for chalk and after that it became a popular tourist attraction, which it still is nowadays. During the Second World War, however, the caves became very popular for an entirely different reason.

Londoners living through the Blitz were in desperate need of shelter. Hundreds of thousands of households had been provided with Anderson shelters by the government but these offered limited protection and were only available to those with gardens. The indoor Morrison shelter was not distributed until March 1941. So as the skies filled with bombers night after night, huge numbers of civilians sought to find alternative places of safety.

In this spirit Chislehurst Caves became a giant impromptu air-raid shelter. So many Londoners took advantage of its caverns and passageways that special trains had to be put on to transport them all there. Some even took up residence, as an observer noted in November 1940. “We were told to go to the inner caves: but they had been filled by regular visitors – who had commandeered positions weeks before. Some had taken possession of cut out rooms, and curtains were fixed in front and behind… there were tables, cooking stoves, beds, chairs behind the curtains. Bombed out families live there permanently and the father goes to work and returns there and the mother goes out to shop and that is their home.”

How dangerous was ‘Blitz Spirit’?

The stoicism of the British people in response to the Luftwaffe raids of 1940–41 is seen as heroic, but their defiance resulted in needless deaths, says Richard Overy.

“The popular slogan that the bomb that killed you ‘had your name on it’ is not just a Blitz myth, but is recorded in wartime diaries and eyewitness accounts,” he writes. “After a flurry of sheltering in the first weeks of the Blitz in September 1940, Londoners developed a growing insouciance…”

Bethnal Green Tube Station, London

Where a tragedy of the Blitz occurred

One obvious place to shelter from the Blitz was London’s underground network, deep below the city. Initially the government sought to prevent the stations being used for this purpose but the weight of popular pressure was such that the authorities were compelled to back down. As many as 177,000 people hid from the bombers in tube stations where they were sometimes supplied with beds and toilet facilities by the authorities.

Like many other stations, Bethnal Green became a popular hideout. On 3 March 1943 it was the scene of a disaster. The worst stage of the Blitz was by then long finished but raids did still occur from time to time. That day air-raid warnings were heard and people hurried towards the station where they hoped to shelter. Exactly what happened next remains slightly unclear, however it seems that the firing of a new type of anti-aircraft gun caused panic and all at once a crowd of people surged forwards as they were descending the steps. In the resulting crush 173 people were killed and dozens more injured. Alf Morris, who was 12 at the time, later recalled the scene. “People were falling around me. I don’t know who they were, they were just falling. I went to move and couldn’t because they had trapped me. I couldn’t move at all. I was crying and screaming.”

Afterwards the survivors were told not to speak about what had happened and it was only gradually that the full story emerged. There is now a plaque at the station commemorating the incident.

How did Britons rebuild their lives after the Blitz?

The German bombing of Britain from 1940–45 exacted a terrible price, in lives lost, infrastructure wrecked and nerves shattered. Daniel Todman reveals how Britons rebuilt their lives, and their cities, in the aftermath of the raids.

“Psychiatrists reported that, although survivors of bad raids often showed signs of extreme shock, almost all of them recovered fairly quickly, without much more treatment than a kind word, a blanket and a cup of tea,” he writes.

“Those with more severe reactions to the horrors they witnessed, however, may have been discouraged from reporting by the media’s celebration of stiff-upper-lip endurance…”

Coventry Cathedral, Coventry

Where a city was wrecked

Two months into the Blitz, the German bombers began to target Britain’s other industrial cities in earnest. This new phase was announced in horrifying fashion on 14 November when 449 bombers emptied their loads onto the city of Coventry. It was the most concentrated attack yet carried out over the British Isles and the effects were so severe that the German propaganda machine coined a new English word: ‘Coventrate’, which meant to destroy a city from the air.

The raid cost 554 lives. The physical destruction was also great, including buildings with no military purpose such as hospitals. Coventry’s medieval cathedral sustained tremendous damage, as reported by Tom Harrisson, director of Mass Observation, at the time. “At each end the bare frames of the great windows still have a kind of beauty without their glass but in between them is an incredible chaos of bricks, pillars, girders, memorial tablets”.

In the aftermath of the war it was decided to let the ruins stand and construct a new cathedral close-by. The architect Basil Spence was commissioned to design the replacement structure, which was consecrated in 1962. Unlike so much of the postwar reconstruction, Spence’s cathedral is a majestic achievement, often held to be the architect’s greatest work.

St Paul’s Cathedral, London

Where a London icon survived

In 1940 London was bombed 126 times. The last great raid of the year on 29 December was also one of the worst. Incendiary bombs were dropped around the square mile of the City causing an inferno that was dubbed the Second Great Fire of London. That night photographer Herbert Mason took a photograph of St Paul’s Cathedral’s distinctive dome emerging out of the smoke. This picture was shown on the Daily Mail front cover two days later and is probably now the defining image of the Blitz.

Many of the buildings around St Paul’s were ruined during the war but Christopher Wren’s masterpiece (completed in 1710) avoided major damage, even though it was struck by 28 bombs. The cathedral’s survival owed much to a group of volunteers called St Paul’s Watch who took it upon themselves to douse incendiary bombs and prevent fires taking hold.

Close to the cathedral is The National Firefighters Memorial. This bronze sculpture was created by artist John Mills in 1991 to recognise members of the United Kingdom Fire Service who risked their lives tackling the blazes of the Blitz. The names of 997 who died in the conflict are inscribed on the memorial. More recently the names of firefighters killed in peacetime have also been inscribed on the monument.

Was the Blitz a ‘golden era’ for criminals?

Joshua Levine reveals how the German bombing of British cities in the Second World War created new opportunities for lawlessness.

“The range of offences committed during the Blitz, from breaches of regulations to cold-blooded murder, was wide,” he writes. “And while some were committed by inveterate wrongdoers, many were carried out by ordinary people reacting to opportunity…”

St Luke’s Church, Liverpool

Where a church recalls Merseyside’s pain

Britain’s ports enabled vital supplies to be brought into the country so it is little surprise that they were targeted in earnest by the Luftwaffe. Bristol, Portsmouth, Cardiff, Swansea, Plymouth and Southampton were all hit. Merseyside, then the country’s second most important port, endured a particularly torrid time, with almost 4,000 killed in the area between August 1940 and January 1942.

The most intense period of bombing in Merseyside occurred from 1–7 May 1941. This ‘May Blitz’ saw 870 tonnes of high explosives dropped on the area, resulting in 1,741 people being killed. Among the Liverpool buildings damaged in these raids was St Luke’s Church, which was the recipient of an incendiary bomb on 5 May. The late-Georgian church’s ruins were left as they were after the war to act as a reminder of the trauma of the Blitz. It is now popularly known as ‘the bombed-out church’ and also contains a memorial to the Irish potato famine.

Dalnottar Cemetery, Clydebank

Where victims of Scotland’s Blitz lie

Most of Scotland avoided serious damage in the Blitz. The main exceptions were Glasgow and the neighbouring Clydeside towns that served as hubs of industry and shipbuilding. In the spring of 1941 they were subjected to heavy raids by the Luftwaffe. One of the worst casualties was the small town of Clydebank, which was ravaged in successive nights of bombing on 13 and 14 March.

Clydebank had been earmarked as a potential victim at the start of the war and most of its women and children had been evacuated in 1939. However when the expected attacks failed to materialise many of the evacuees returned to a town that they hoped had been spared.

These illusions were shattered in dramatic fashion on the first night of the raids when 1,650 incendiaries were dropped along with 272 tonnes of high explosive bombs. By the end of the second night Clydebank had been devastated. It was reported that only seven of the town’s 12,000 houses escaped harm in the fierce bombardment. The number of dead was 528 and hundreds more were seriously injured. As it happened the industrial sections of the town were less badly damaged, meaning that the cost to British production was relatively limited.

Belfast, Northern Ireland

Where the Belfast Blitz is remembered

Belfast was spared the bombers for the first few months of the Blitz, but with its valuable shipyards and factories it was never likely to escape entirely. Yet the local authorities seemed reticent to prepare for this eventuality, which meant that Belfast’s air-raid precautions left a lot to be desired.

The Luftwaffe struck the city on three occasions in April and May 1941, wreaking havoc with high explosives, incendiary bombs and parachute mines. In total around 1,000 people were killed, most on the night of 15 April when the loss of life was significantly higher than after the attack on Coventry. “It was like an earthquake that night,” said resident Jimmy Penton. “The ground shook and the people squealed and yelled. They thought it was the end of the world.”

RAF Middle Wallop, Hampshire

Where British fighters took on the bombers

The British tried several tactics to stop the bombers getting through. Searchlights, anti-aircraft guns and night-fighter planes were all employed for this purpose, yet with limited success initially. Early in the Blitz it was taking an average of 30,000 shells to bring down a single Luftwaffe aeroplane.

As time progressed, the use of radar and the introduction of the Bristol Beaufighter enabled the defenders to make life more difficult for the bombers. Spearheading the attack was John ‘Cat’s Eyes’ Cunningham of the RAF’s No. 604 Squadron. He accounted for several German aircraft, earning both the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Distinguished Service Order for his efforts in 1941.

His morale-boosting achievements were trumpeted in the press where his remarkable ability to track down enemies at night was attributed to a diet of raw carrots. In reality, his secret was the Beaufighter’s airborne interception radar. RAF Middle Wallop was completed in 1940 and utilised as an RAF base for the remainder of the Second World War.

This article has been curated from content first published in BBC History Magazine, BBC History Revealed and HistoryExtra between 2009 and 2017

The Blitz and World War Two

The Blitz is the title given to the German bombing campaign on British cities during World War Two. However, the term ‘Blitz’ is more commonly used for the bombing campaign against London. After the failure of the Battle of Britain, the Germans attempted to bomb London into submission – a tactic used again with the V weapons campaign in 1944-45.

Flats destroyed by bombing

The huge fear generated by the Guernica bombing during the Spanish Civil War, convinced many people that a civilian population could be bombed into submission. The theory was that the population, in constant fear of a sudden and violent death, would put pressure on their government to surrender. If that government did not surrender, then the population would take to the streets, riot and overthrow the government. The whole point of a sustained bombing campaign was to destroy a nation’s morale.

By mid-September 1940, the Battle of Britain had been lost by the Germans. This was the first setback Hitler had received during World War Two. The Blitz on British cities – night-time raids as opposed to daytime to enhance the fear factor – was Hitler’s attempt to destroy Britain’s morale. The attacks started on September 7th 1940 and continued to May 1941.

London was especially badly hit. At the start of the campaign, the government did not allow the use of underground rail stations as they considered them a potential safety hazard. However, the population of London took the matter into their own hands and opened up the chained entrances to the tube stations. In the Underground they were safe from the high explosive and incendiary bombs that rained down on London night after night. With one or two exceptions, their confidence was rewarded. The City tube station was hit when a bomb went through the road and fell into it. Over 200 were killed.

“By 4.00 p.m. all the platforms and passage space of the underground station are staked out, chiefly with blankets folded in long strips laid against the wall – for the trains are still running and the platforms in use. A woman or child guards places for about six people. When the evening comes the rest of the family crowd in.” An eye-witness account.

To start with the government underestimated the potential use of the underground stations. The government estimated that 87% or more of people would use the issued shelters (usually Anderson shelters) or spaces under stairs etc. and that only 4% of the population would use the underground stations. Each night underground stations played host to thousands of families in London grateful for the protection they afforded.

Despite blackout restrictions, the Luftwaffe had a relatively easy way of getting to London. They simply had to follow the route of the River Thames – which also directed them to the docks based at the East End of the city. Each night, the first bombs dropped were incendiary bombs designed to give the following bombers the most obvious of markers. After the incendiary bombs, came the high explosives.

A barrage balloon over London

The government used its control over all forms of the media to present a picture of life going on as normal despite the constant nightly attacks. They did not show photos of people known as ‘trekkers’ – the families who would spend the night away from their homes, preferably in local woodland or a park where they felt safer from attack. Such photos were censored. An American film – “London can take it” – presented the image of a city devastated by bombs but one that carried on as normal. The narrator makes the point that “bombs can only kill people, they cannot destroy the indomitable spirit of a nation.”

However, we know that life was not quite as easy as propaganda showed. London could take it but only because there was little else they could do. Under wartime restrictions, people could not simply leave their homes and move elsewhere. The poorest in London lived in the East End and it was this area that was especially hit hard by bombing because of the docks that were based there. However, most of the families there could do little else except stay where they were unless specifically moved by the government. These families developed what became known as a ‘war-time spirit’. They adapted their lives to the constant night-time bombing.

By May 1941, 43,000 had been killed across Britain and 1.4 million had been made homeless. Not only was London attacked but so were many British cities. Coventry and Plymouth were particularly badly bombed but most of Britain’s cities were also attacked – Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool etc.

“When morning came we left the shelter and made our way home. There was no home. All that was left was a pile of bricks. We had nowhere to live except the shelter, and that was to be our home for six months.” A victim of bombing from Liverpool.

The defence of these cities relied on anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and an early warning system. The Royal Observer Corps played a vital role in this as many units were based on the coast and could inform the authorities in London of impending attacks. ROC units based on the West Coast could also given early warning of German bombers coming in from Norway. As Britain had no night-time fighters then, the bombers ‘only’ had to cope with AA fire and avoiding barrage balloons and searchlights.

Within the cities, the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) wardens, police and other services organised the emergency services after a raid. The AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service) played a vital role both during and after a raid in coping with the many fires caused by incendiary bombs. The part played by the Women’s Voluntary Service is well documented.

Britain also adopted a bombing campaign against German cities. ‘Bomber’ Harris, commander of Bomber Command, was a strong believer in aerial bombardment destroying a nation’s morale – hence the attacks. However, the same ‘war-time’ spirit shown in British cities during the raids, was also shown in German.

The Blitz on Britain was called off in May 1941. Hitler had a far more prized target. In the following month, Operation Barbarossa was launched – the attack on Russia. The huge military force needed for this attack included many bombers and two-thirds of the German military was to be tied up on the Eastern Front for the duration of the war.


On the afternoon of Thursday 12 December British monitoring stations detected X Verfahren (sometimes called X-Gerät) radio beams being laid across northern England and calculated that the likely target of the coming raid would be Sheffield. [1]

The yellow alert was received at 6:15 pm followed by the purple alert at 6:45 pm. The red alert was sounded at 7 pm. [1] The attack was made by three main groups of aircraft flying from airfields in northern France, including Cambrai. 13 Heinkel 111s from Kampfgruppe 100, the German Pathfinder unit arrived over the city at 7:41 pm and dropped 16 SC50 high-explosive bombs, 1,009 B1 E1 ZA incendiaries and 10,080 B1 E1 incendiaries. The first incendiaries were dropped over the suburbs of Norton Lees and Gleadless. [1]

The first main group was made up of three waves of 36 Junkers 88s and 29 Heinkel 111s. The second group was made up of 23 Junkers 88s, 74 Heinkel 111s and 7 Dornier 17s. The last group was made up of 63 Junkers 88s and 35 Heinkel 111s, a total of 280 aircraft. [3] At about 9:30 pm a line of bombs fell on Campo Lane and Vicar Lane, demolishing the West end of the Cathedral. At about 10:50 pm a 500 kg bomb fell on and destroyed the C&A and Burtons buildings opposite the Marples Hotel in Fitzalan Square. [4] At 11:44 pm, The Marples Hotel itself received a direct hit. The death toll there was 78 with all bodies recovered from the rubble. This was the single biggest loss of life in the attacks. Full details of the identities of the victims and the extensive police efforts made to ensure every one was identified are in the Sheffield City Archives. The myth that some bodies were left in situ is just that - the deceased were found in the cellar which was effectively a huge concrete box with deep encasing floors and walls. The location is beneath the carriageway outside the Marples building. [1] The majority of the bombs on this night fell on the City Centre or on residential districts with the last bombs falling at 4 am. [1]

Sunday, the second night of the Blitz saw the first use of a new German policy for their pathfinders. High-explosive bombs were no longer carried and were replaced by incendiaries. On this night the pathfinder force was made up of 16 Heinkel 111s that dropped 11,520 B1 E1 incendiaries between 7 pm and 7:50 pm. The 15 large fires and the numerous small fires started were visible from 150 km away. [3]

The main raid was carried out by 50 Heinkel 111s and 11 Dornier 17s. The raid finished at 10:15 pm. Many steelworks received hits, including Hadfields, Brown Bayleys and Steel, Peech and Tozer Ltd, although the damage was not serious enough to affect production. [1]

In total over 660 people were killed, 1,500 injured and 40,000 made homeless. 3,000 homes were demolished with a further 3,000 badly damaged. A total of 78,000 homes received damage. Six George Medals were awarded to citizens of Sheffield for their bravery during the raids. 134 victims of the raids were buried in a communal grave in City Road Cemetery. [1]

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth toured the city soon after the raids to inspect the damage and boost morale amongst survivors. Prime Minister Winston Churchill also toured the blitzed city, speaking through loudspeakers to a 20,000-strong crowd in Town Hall Square and giving his signature 'V' for 'Victory' V sign. [5]

Operation Crucible a play about the Sheffield Blitz by Kieran Knowles, has been performed in London, Sheffield and New York. [6] [7] [8] [9] [10]

What was Operation Sealion, Hitler’s planned invasion of Britain? And why was it cancelled?

Had it been successful, Operation Sealion would have completed Hitler’s domination of western Europe. How did Germany plan to invade Britain, why did it fail, and what might have happened if the invasion had worked? Historian Keith Lowe investigates…

This competition is now closed

Published: July 7, 2020 at 1:27 pm

What was Operation Sealion?

Operation Sealion was the code name for Nazi Germany’s planned invasion of Britain. It was supposed to take place in September 1940 and, had it been successful, would have completed Adolf Hitler’s domination of western Europe.

In the preceding months, the German Army had already swept across much of the continent. Western Poland had fallen early on, in the autumn of 1939. Denmark and Norway had been defeated six months later, in the spring of 1940. Then came Belgium, the Netherlands and northern France in May and June. British troops on the mainland had also been defeated: at Dunkirk they had been forced to abandon their equipment and retreat back across the Channel. On paper, therefore, the invasion of Britain was the logical final step.

How did Germany plan to invade Britain?

There were three aspects to the German invasion plan: the battle in the air, the battle at sea, and the amphibious assault on the British beaches.

The first and most important step was to neutralise the Royal Air Force: a cross-Channel invasion would be far too dangerous to attempt without first achieving command of the air. The head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goering, famously boasted that his planes could smash the RAF within just a few weeks. In mid-July, therefore, he launched a massive attack on British aircraft and airfields with the intention of destroying Britain’s capacity to defend itself. This was the beginning of the air battle that came to be known as the Battle of Britain.

The second prerequisite for an invasion was command of the sea. For the Germans this seemed like a far more daunting challenge. Though the Kriegsmarine had dozens of U-boats at its disposal, most of its big surface ships had already been sunk, damaged or worn out in the Norway campaign earlier in the year. Britain, by contrast, still had the largest navy in the world, which would in all likelihood destroy any invasion force even before it had the chance to land. The head of the Kriegsmarine, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, therefore drew up plans to distract the Royal Navy with a decoy attack in the North Sea. Then, by laying vast minefields in the Channel, he hoped to be able to protect German forces just long enough for the invasion to take place.

The final part of the plan was the invasion itself. The Germans had no specialised landing craft of the sort that the Allies would use in the Normandy landings four years later, so they assembled hundreds of river barges instead, which they planned to tow across the sea with tug boats. The first wave onto the beaches would consist of the infantry, whose job would be to secure the beach heads. Next would come the horses, tanks and other vehicles, along with vital supplies to help with the break-out from the beaches. In the meantime, airborne troops would also drop behind the British lines to attack the defenders from the rear.

From the very beginning, there were major differences between the various German commanders about how to go about this mammoth undertaking. The chief of the army general staff, General Franz Halder, wanted to treat the invasion as if it were a mere river crossing: he imagined landing 13 divisions along 190 miles of coastline between Lyme Regis and Ramsgate. Grand Admiral Raeder scoffed at such a notion, arguing that the only way to get across the Channel safely was to concentrate their forces on a much narrower front between Eastbourne and Folkestone. Halder argued back that concentrating all his men on just a few beaches, like Raeder wanted, would be “complete suicide”.

Why did the plan fail?

In the end these arguments were neither here nor there, because Germany failed to achieve any of their prerequisites for invasion. Despite Goering’s boasts, the Luftwaffe never managed to achieve command of the air. Against the might of the Royal Navy, winning command of the sea even for a short time also began to seem like a pipe dream. On 17 September, with the weather in the Channel becoming much more unpredictable, Hitler finally decided to postpone the invasion – indefinitely.

It is unclear whether Operation Sealion was ever a serious plan, or whether it was merely a ploy to put pressure on the British to capitulate. Hitler’s ultimate aim had always been to invade the Soviet Union. He much preferred to do so without having to worry about fighting Britain at the same time – but when it became clear that the British were not going to seek terms, he dropped his invasion plans and concentrated on his real objectives in the east.

On this podcast, Richard J Evans answers the biggest questions about the Third Reich:

What might have happened if Germany had invaded Britain?

People have been asking this question ever since the war. Dramatists have depicted every possible outcome of a German invasion, from the heroic resistance of the 1942 film Went the Day Well? to the murkier world of collaboration depicted in the 2017 BBC drama SS-GB.

In reality, however, it is extremely unlikely that any invasion would have got much further than the beaches and their immediate surroundings. When the Allies invaded Normandy in 1944, they had almost total control of both the air and the sea – and yet they still struggled to break out of their beachheads. After the war, German Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz admitted in his memoirs that, “I myself had no faith in the success of this invasion,” and claimed that Raeder agreed with him.

In 1974, the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst war-gamed Operation Sealion, and came to the same conclusion: while German troops might well have gained a small foothold on the coast, before long they would probably have been forced to surrender.

Keith Lowe is the author of The Fear and the Freedom: Why the Second World War Still Matters(Penguin, 2018) and the international bestseller Savage Continent, which won the PEN/Hessell-Titlman Prize and Italy’s Cherasco History Prize. His latest book, Prisoners of History, is published on 9 July 2020. You can find him on Twitter @KeithLoweAuthor.

Watch the video: #3 Το έπος του 1940: Η μάχη της Μακεδονίας ιστορία (July 2022).


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