“Hitler knows that he will have to break us on this island, or lose the war.” – British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
The first of the many bombing raids by Nazi Germany’s air force, the Luftwaffe, against civilians in London and other major cities — raids that collectively became known as “the Blitz” — began this week (Sept. 7) in 1940. By the time the raids ended in May of 1941, some 43,000 civilians had been killed throughout England, about half of them Londoners. The Blitz also caused untoward physical destruction as German bombs obliterated whole sections of cities.
And yet, ironically, the Blitz resulted from an accident and, doubly ironically, it probably saved England from defeat by the Nazis.
Before September 1940, the fighting between the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force (RAF) involved only military targets as they battled each other over the English Channel. The Battle of Britain, as it was called, was Germany’s attempt to gain air superiority over the Channel so that the German navy could invade England without being destroyed by Britain’s Royal Navy. Although, during the summer, the RAF had fought the Luftwaffe to a draw, by the end of August the constant waves of attacks that the Germans were able to sustain, the number of experienced RAF pilots being lost and the strain on RAF Fighter Command had brought the RAF to the breaking point. Had the Luftwaffe kept up the pressure, it might well have destroyed the RAF and won the Battle of Britain.
Then a funny thing happened. In late August, due to a navigational error, a German bomber inadvertently dropped bombs on London, causing heavy damage. It had not been ordered by either Hitler or Hermann Goering, the Luftwaffe commander, but when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill learned of the bombing, he immediately ordered a retaliatory strike on Berlin.
That strike, while causing little physical damage, caused tremendous psychological damage to Berlin’s citizens, who had been told by Hitler that no British bombs would ever reach them. Hitler, who probably had not known of the Luftwaffe’s earlier, mistaken bombing of London, immediately swore revenge and ordered an all-out bombing attack on civilian targets in London and elsewhere.
But such a shift in air strategy also necessitated a shift in Germany’s air resources. As a result, while civilians in London and other cities suffered relentless terror bombing, the RAF was given a reprieve from the ever-escalating Luftwaffe attacks of July and August — a reprieve it used to rebuild, rearm and refresh its dwindling supply of pilots. Thus by October of 1940, the RAF had won the Battle of Britain, making a German invasion of England impossible. Germany would “lose the war.”