Was Britain close to surrender?

After suffering defeat in the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe changed tactics and began bombing British towns and cities. This period of aerial attacks is known as 'The Blitz'. Though the British people stood strong in the face of those German attacks, how close were they to giving in? In this episode of IWM Stories, Senior Curator Ian Kikuchi answers that very question by looking at one the deadliest nights of the Blitz, the bombing of Coventry.

The Blitz. It shaped modern Britain.

Various oral histories: "There was the most horrifying screaming noise as the bombs came down". "You could see the planes come in, you could actually see the bombs being dropped". "There was a noise such as you couldn't believe". "Well I heard it go off". "I was very nervous".

So much of our history and our national identity comes from those long months of bombing.

Various oral histories: "We all flew down into the basement". "We could almost read by the red glow". "The Luftwaffe has come all that way and found my house".

In the face of endless death and destruction, the British people banded together and saw off the German attacks.

Various oral histories: "We we got used to it".

But how close did Britain come to surrender? And could the blitz have won the Second World War for Germany?

Well before we answer that question, a reminder to subscribe to the Imperial War Museums Youtube Channel for more videos just like this every two weeks.

So after the German failure to win air superiority during the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe changed tactics and began the bombing of British towns and cities. But what were they actually trying to achieve?

The German strategy in the Blitz is aimed to force Britain out of the war. For instance, it attacks ports such as Liverpool and also the east-end of London, hoping to disrupt the import of vital supplies and food and raw materials. It also attacks centres of arms manufacturing, so industrial cities and industrial centres hoping to cut off the flow of weapons to Britain's armed forces. And also the Luftwaffe hopes by inflicting death destruction on the civilian population it can perhaps break the will of the people to continue the war.

And in the years leading up to war, it really did seem like strategic bombing had the power to do that.

The people of Britain in the 1930s really saw the threat of bombing in quite apocalyptic terms. There was a widespread expectation that any war would begin with a massive aerial attack and that casualties would be suffered in their hundreds of thousands. People really thought about bombing in the 1930s in a similar way to the way people thought about atomic warfare or nuclear war in the 1950s.

So that expectation of bombing led to British preparations attempting to mitigate those huge losses. Those precautions provide many of the enduring images of the Blitz that survive to this day. Gas masks, Air-Raid Wardens, and of course the Blackout which tried to minimize all outdoor light to prevent German aircraft from finding their targets.

So, for example, it meant the dousing of streetlights and the covering up of cars headlights. So there's a certain irony in that the first few months of the Second World War far more people are killed by car accidents in the blackout than they are by enemy bombing.

People also needed safe places to stay during raids so there was a heavy investment in air-raid shelters.

The iconic kind of image of the air-raid shelter in Britain is the Anderson shelter. The Anderson shelter was a kit of corrugated steel which you would assemble in your back garden if you were lucky enough to have one. You dig it into the ground a few feet and cover it over with earth and it could withstand the blast wave from quite a near miss.

If you weren't lucky enough to have a garden at home you might be forced to use a communal shelter in a basement or cellar or even in a brick building out in the street.

So the shelter experience becomes one of the defining social experiences of the Blitz often this is an experience of physical discomfort, of cold and dark, of you know often physically quite unpleasant surroundings, but with a quite often a strong sense of camaraderie.

So Britain was prepared, but what were the raids actually like and were they enough to force Britain into submission? Well to answer that we're going to look at one of the deadliest nights of the blitz, the bombing of Coventry.

The experience of Coventry in the blitz has become kind of iconic of the experience as a whole. So Coventry is an industrial city in the midlands and in 1940 its population is about a quarter of a million. It's a city known for it's industry and it's manufacturing. So Coventry is an important munitions centre and it's a munitions centre that the Luftwaffe were well aware of.

This image from the IWM collection is a piece of German aerial reconnaissance showing a Morris factory and a Rover factory marked A and B where aeroplane engines were made on. The 14th of November the Luftwaffe arrived to hit those targets.

So the air-raid siren sounds over Coventry in the early evening around seven o'clock or so and on hearing that siren many people would have taken themselves out to their shelters, whether those were Andersons in their gardens or wherever else they were sheltering.

The first wave of bombers, guided by high-tech X-Gerät navigational beams, marked the target for the remaining bombers. Very quickly the centre of Coventry was a blaze of hundreds of fires, but for most of the population all they could do was wait it out.

In their shelters, they're hearing the noise of aircraft engines droning overhead, wave after wave, and as the bombs fall hearing those bombs in flight, hearing kind of bombs whistling and you would have been able to hear bombs exploding either near or far away. You'd find yourself just having to have to hope that they didn't come any nearer.

For those who worked in Civil Defence, the raid was an intense flurry of activity.

But the fires that were started at Coventry were so intense that firefighters are summoned from all over the surrounding districts. Within a couple of hours of the raid starting there were more than 200 fires logged in the central fire station and to the point that they weren't putting any more pins in the map. There are accounts by nurses of a never-ending stream of patients being admitted to the hospitals in Coventry and of hospitals themselves being damaged or having their windows blown out and so having to treat patients by candlelight or with windows blown out, you know, with bombs exploding all around. The raid on Coventry lasts all night long and the all-clear, that doesn't sound until six o'clock the following morning. So it would have been a long and I think fairly agonizing night in the shelter for many people of Coventry.

When the citizens of Coventry emerged from their shelters the scale of the damage was immediately clear. One in 12 homes were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable. Two-thirds of homes were damaged and a third of shops. Every railway line in and out of the city was destroyed, as were the water and gas mains.

For survivors, it could be difficult to what to wash or even cook because there was no water pressure from people's taps. Of the human casualties, 568 people killed and more than 1,250 people injured. In a town or a city with a population of just under a quarter of a million, it would be very likely that most of the survivors would have known somebody who had been just directly affected.

The Saturday after the raid King George VI visited from Windsor and, owing to the food shortages in the city, he offered to bring his own sandwiches. The King obviously had served in the First World War and he described the Coventry that he saw when he visited immediately after the raid as being like like the Belgian town of Ypres. Like the destroyed city in Belgium on the western front.

So with all that damage done in just one raid could the Blitz have actually worked? Was Britain ever close to surrendering?

So if the goal of the Blitz was to bring about a British surrender then the Blitz never really comes close to succeeding in that. There's very little sign that the British people ever want to surrender as a result of the bombing. In the case of Coventry, there are reports in the early aftermath of people verging on panic and what I think we would call today you know signs of traumatic shock. And it's fortunate in the case of Coventry that there wasn't any follow-up raid, there wasn't a raid the next night and that helps to calm people's nerves.

The blitz is a distributed sort of national experience, although London is bombed very heavily and other cities are also bombed very heavily, it's an experience where the pressure continuously moves to other towns and other cities. Which means there's always an opportunity for kind of recovery and for people to gather their breath.

There's also the fact that this is a task that the German air force is not really well set up for. The German air force was largely designed for the purpose of tactical support of the army the paralysis of a national economy is not something they have the firepower to do. It's notable I think that the much larger air forces of Britain and the USA, when they begin their strategic bombing against Germany, also struggle to create the kind of economic paralysis that they aim to and that's with much more capable aircraft. There's never really any sign that even the most intense bombing such as at Coventry could cause a breakdown of morale sufficient enough to to make Britain abandon the war effort.

Though the Blitz failed to bring about a German victory it had a wide-ranging impact on much of British life.

So this image from our collection shows a bombed-out bus in the centre of Coventry. In the deep background, for example, there's a faint outline of a large building. That large building is a department store called Owen Owen. A very swanky, brand-new department store which had opened in Coventry only three years earlier and of course, barley three years later it's destroyed in the Blitz. When you look at the bus in the foreground you can see two headlamps and those headlamps have both got blackout covers on them. Noticing these little details reminds you of the bigger picture that even before the bombs fell the war had affected every aspect of day-to-day life.

And those bombs continue to shape British towns and cities to this day, especially places like Coventry.

So among the victims of the bombing of Coventry was its medieval cathedral and it stands as a ruin throughout the war years and indeed to this to the present day. But there's something in the survival of the cathedral spire, pointing skywards from whence its destruction came, that I think remains very inspiring and there is a sense I think in the ruins of Coventry of an impulse towards reconciliation. So Coventry Cathedral is widely twinned with other cities that have experienced aerial bombing and I think it's ruins stand as an absolutely unique memorial to the impact of the Second World War.

The Blitz

St Paul's Cathedral seen through smoke caused by a bombing raid on London in December 1940.
© IWM (HU 36220)
Remains of the 600-year-old St Michael's Cathedral two days after the devastating air raid on Coventry on 14-15 November 1940
© IWM (H 5603)
Second World War

The Blitz Around Britain

The 'Blitz' – from the German term Blitzkrieg ('lightning war') – was the sustained campaign of aerial bombing attacks on British towns and cities carried out by the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) from September 1940 until May 1941.
St Paul's Cathedral, rising above the bombed London skyline, is shrouded in smoke during the Blitz. The photograph was taken from the roof of the Daily Mail offices in Fleet Street.
St Paul's Cathedral, rising above the bombed London skyline, is shrouded in smoke during the Blitz. © IWM (HU 36220A)
The Blitz

10 Incredible Stories Of Bravery During The Blitz

The huge volume of explosives that were dropped by the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) on Britain during the Blitz called for incredible feats of bravery. Targeted aerial attacks on towns and cities began on 7 September 1940 and wrought huge devastation until they temporarily drew to a close in May 1941.

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Blitz Replica Pack
£8.00

Travel back in time and discover what life was like during the Blitz with this replica pack. 

Full of everyday memorabilia such as letters and leaflets, the Blitz replica pack is an excellent way to make history come alive for children and adults, as well as a useful aid for homework and lesson plans. 

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St Pauls During The Blitz Print
£6.00

This photograph was taken by Herbert Mason, a photographer for the Daily Mail during the Second World War.

On fire watch duty on the roof of the newspaper's headquarters, Herbert Mason was able to capture the most destructive Luftwaffe air raids of the London Blitz.

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The Blitzed Brits
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It's history with the nasty bits left in! Want to know what really happened in Dad's Army?  How to make a rude noise with a gas mask? Why the blitzed Brits ate chicken-fruit, sinkers and nutty? Discover all the foul facts about the Blitzed Brits.

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Total War
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Total War is an illustrated account of the most pivotal historical episode of the 20th century: the Second World War. It was not one single event, but rather the confluence of many simultaneous conflicts across the globe – on land, in the air, across the sea and beneath it.