Churchill's Blitz Rallying Cry
In early September 1940, what historians call the “Battle of Britain,” the air war between British and German warplanes in the skies over Britain and the English Channel, shifted to the air assault on London and other British cities known as “The Blitz.” Hitler’s Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering persuaded the Fuhrer to attack British cities at night. Germany had failed to gain control of the air in daylight battles with the Royal Air Force (RAF), which caused the postponement of “Operation Sea Lion” — the planned invasion of Britain.
Between Aug. 24-Sept. 6, 1940, wrote biographer and historian Martin Gilbert, “at least 600 German aircraft massed in attack each day,” in a continuing effort to destroy British warplanes and airfields. “[T]he German air attacks on the airfields of South and South-East England,” Gilbert explained, “gained in intensity and effectiveness.” But British fighter pilots, in Winston Churchill’s words, “remained unconquerable and supreme.” The heroism and endurance of the British airmen in the Battle of Britain was immortalized by Churchill when he told the House of Commons: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” British bombers also struck industrial targets in Berlin, taking the war to Germany and its citizens.
Churchill recalled in Their Finest Hour, that the “German air assault on Britain [was] a tale of divided counsels, conflicting purposes, and never fully accomplished plans.” He noted that Hitler had “abandoned a method of attack” that had caused Britain “severe stress.” This was deliverance for the RAF and its airfields, which were strained to the limit by the German air war, and all but put an end to Hitler’s invasion plans, but it signaled the beginning of immense destruction and suffering for Londoners and residents of other cities in Britain.
On the evening of Sept. 7, 1940, more than 200 German bombers attacked London. “Not an invasion force by sea,” wrote Martin Gilbert, “but a new assault in the air” descended on British cities. “It was an assault,” he noted, “that was to bring the whole of Germany’s bomber strength against British cities and civilians.” That first massive air assault killed more than 300 Londoners and injured more than 1,300 others. The first three nights of the German bomber attack went unopposed. It was only on Sept. 10 that Londoners saw searchlights brighten the night sky and cheered as anti-aircraft guns tried to shoot the German bombers out of the sky. Churchill was forced to hold meetings in the Cabinet War Rooms, located in a basement annex near No. 10 Downing Street — today a historical museum.
On Sept. 11, 1940, Churchill broadcast to the nation. He called the night air assaults on London “barbarous attacks.” He reminded Britons that the effort by Germany to gain control of the air had “failed conspicuously.” He told the nation that for Hitler to “try to invade this country without having secured mastery in the air would be a very hazardous undertaking.” He warned, however, that German invasion preparations were continuing.
Summoning history to explain the situation faced by Britain which then faced Germany alone, Churchill said:
[W]e must regard the next week or so as a very important period
in our history. It ranks with the days when the Spanish Armada
was approaching the Channel, and Drake was finishing his game
of bowls; or when Nelson stood between us and Napoleon’s Grand
Army at Boulogne . . . but what is happening now is on a far
greater scale and of far more consequence to the life and future of
the world and its civilization than these brave old days of the past.
After explaining the ongoing preparations to meet such an invasion, Churchill turned his verbal wrath on Hitler. “These cruel, wanton, indiscriminate bombings of London,” he said, “are . . . a part of Hitler’s invasion plans.” Hitler, Churchill continued, wants to “terrorize and cow the people of this mighty imperial city.” But Hitler, Churchill said, does not know the “spirit of the British nation.” He does not know the “tough fiber of . . . Londoners . . . who have been bred to value freedom far above their lives.”
Churchill called Hitler a “wicked man, the repository and embodiment of many forms of soul-destroying hatred,” who has “resolved to try to break our famous island race by . . . indiscriminate slaughter and destruction.” Instead, Churchill said, what Hitler had done was to “kindle a fire in British hearts, here and all over the world, which will glow long after all traces of the conflagration he has caused in London have been removed.” By bombing London, Churchill continued, Hitler “has lighted a fire which will burn with a steady and consuming flame until the last vestiges of Nazi tyranny have been burnt out of Europe, and until the Old World — and the New — can join hands to rebuild the temples of man’s freedom and man’s honor.”
London was bombed almost every night for the next two months, and numerous times thereafter. The Dec. 29 raid used high explosive and incendiary bombs, which burned much of the city. On Dec. 30, Churchill telegraphed to President Franklin Roosevelt that Germany “burned a large part of the City of London last night, and the scenes of widespread destruction here and in our provincial centres are shocking.” Churchill visited the burning ruins, and told FDR that, “the spirit of the Londoners was as high as in the first days of the indiscriminate bombing in September.” Other British cities—Bristol, Cardiff, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Southampton, Swansea, Birmingham, Coventry, Manchester, and Sheffield—were subjected to German terror bombings. The Blitz lasted until May 1941, when Hitler turned his sights on Soviet Russia. More than 40,000 British civilians were killed in The Blitz. And Londoners would be subjected to further terror bombings when Germany developed and used the V-1 and V-2 rockets later in the war.
In the midst of The Blitz, it was said: “Britain can take it.” The British people showed incredible fortitude in withstanding the terrible onslaught from the air. And their leader, Winston Churchill, in the words of Edward R. Murrow, “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”