Voices From the Blitz – Part 3

Part 2  Part 3

Three-quarter front nearside view of Manchester Corporation Leyland bus, fleet no 3235, reg no VR5755, which took part in the 1946 Victory Parade. The protective netting on the windows was added after the vehicle was transferred to London in 1940/41; by then the worst of the Blitz was over! Photographed by Topical Press, 7 Jun 1946

During the Blitz on London, drivers of city’s famous double decker red buses were given the authority to decide whether to stop and evacuate their vehicles during a bombing raid or keep going. (The buses had been painted over with a much darker color so weren’t actually painted red during the war.)

Because London was and remains such a huge city, one part could be under major attack while other parts were not being bombed at all. In an area not being bombed but close to a battery of anti-aircraft guns, the biggest danger was from falling shrapnel. These steel shards falling from the sky, the result of the anti-aircraft shells exploding at a fixed height, killed people on the ground all the time.

There are many stories of people rushing to get to their homes during a raid and through billows of smoke coming from the parts of the city being bombed, a London Transport bus would emerge on its regular route. It would stop and the people would get on as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on. Of course, diaries and memoirs from the time disclose that everyone was terrified, but the ethos of the time was not to show fear since everyone knew everyone else was afraid.

[Image courtesy of London Transport Museum.]

Key Allied Strategy World War Two Keep the Soviet Union in War


Overriding priority of Allies in World War Two  was to keep the Soviets fighting on our side since they killed over 80% of German soldiers who were killed in WW2.  Further 80% of the land battles in WW Two were fought on Soviet territory. Stalin reminded Churchill and Roosevelt of this many times and demanded we do something.

Allied military commanders along with President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the elected civilian leaders who controlled the Allied militaries, well understood that we had to keep the Soviets in the war. What did the Allies do? Two things:

1) undertake massive bombing of Nazi Germany. 2) ship astonishing amounts of critical supplies to the Soviets through some of the most dangerous shipping routes in the world both in terms of weather and German attacks. This article takes as its subject the bombing campaign.

It took several years to both train the crews and manufacture the planes to create the huge air forces required to mount a sustained and overwhelming strategic bombing campaign against Nazi Germany. These forces included RAF Bomber Command, the US 8th Air Force “the Mighty Eighth”  stationed in Great Britain and the US 15th Air Force stationed in Southern Italy.

Contrary to popular opinion of poorly informed people today, the Anglo-American bombing offensive against Germany was a brilliant success. Unfortunately, I hear many people, especially younger people, suggesting we should not have bombed Nazi Germany and its satellite countries as severely as we did.

Did we kill enemy civilians even though we didn’t want to? Yes, we did. How many? Writing in his history of the conflict, The Second World War, published in 1989, the late and very distinguished British military historian John Keegan says 593,000 German civilians lost their lives to Anglo-American bombing.

Did we reduce almost every city and even large towns in Germany to rubble? Yes, we did. Did we firebomb Hamburg, Dresden and other German cities and inflict terrifying deaths on innocent people and destroy beautiful cities. Yes, we did.

First and foremost, the Allied bombing offensive against Germany and Germany occupied Europe was the Second Front. D-Day was really the Third Front.

The Allied bombing offensive forced the Germans to withdraw almost all of their air units from the Eastern Front to defend German cities thus surrendering air superiority to the Soviets. Second, the deadly German artillery piece, the famous German .88 was critical to German defense against Soviet tank attacks. The Soviets would often attack the Germans with up to a hundred tanks. An .88 could range on the Soviet tanks long before they got within range of the .88 and an .88 crews could take out most Russian tanks before they got to German lines. That’s how superior the .88 was.

But the German .88 artillery piece was also the best anti-aircraft weapon the Germans had so they pulled a huge number of .88’s from the Eastern Front to bolster the anti-aircraft defenses of their cities, leaving German troops exposed to Soviet tank attacks without an effective defense, something the Soviets took advantage of. We sent Stalin a weekly binder of photographs taken of German cities bombed the week prior so he could see we really were doing something.

And as the Anglo-American bombing offensive continued to build, the Soviets noticed the weakening of German defenses. Additionally, the bombing offensive forced a massive re-allocation of ammunition. By mid-1943, the Germans were firing one-third of their ammunition production into the sky. And finally the bombing offensive was designed to force the Luftwaffe to come up and fight so we could destroy their air force before D-Day. And they did and we did.

As to the economic achievements of the bombing offensive, it is critical to note that the growth in German output occurred as the Allied bombing offensive ramped up and this is often given as a reason the bombing offensive wasn’t effective.

But those two facts have nothing to do with each other except they occurred at the same time. Yes, German war production increased dramatically as the bombing offensive began to take hold but for the following reasons: after the Stalingrad debacle in mid-January 1943, Hitler declared “total Krieg” and Goebbels made his famous “Total War” speech at the Berlin Sportspalast on 18 February 1943 – said to be his greatest speech. The power of Goebbels’ speech, the sense of desperation, and the mass hysteria of the audience reach across the decades and is disturbing in that regard.

Beginning in late Jan/Feb 1943 Speer was given plenipotentiary authority over all German industry which he brilliantly organized into a series of self-governing industry groups. Second, Hitler gave his permission for the closure of almost every business not critically necessary to the war effort. Such things as typewriters, draperies, hair curlers, perfume, most clothing, and really any consumer goods at all except for food and medical supplies.

This freed up a huge amount of productive capacity as well as a huge number of people who could either go into war production or into the armed forces. One of the other goals of the bombing offensive was to put a cap on German war production. We knew what they were capable of and while their war production increased substantially, it reached a plateau.

Yes, we did literally bomb the German national railway almost out of existence. While relatively easy to repair, Speer estimated that by mid-1944 he needed a million railway workers just to repair the damage but only had 300,000.

It’s an interesting debate. Great Britain achieved the highest rate of economic mobilization of all the Western countries, mobilizing almost 55% of her population and economy for the war effort. The Soviets probably got to 80% mobilization since you only received rations if you worked or fought. But it is a mistake to think the Anglo-American bombing offensive didn’t succeed. It succeeded brilliantly because it kept the Soviets in the war and the Soviets lost between 27 million and 35 million men, women, and children in World War Two — at least 1/8 of their population. Military deaths alone were almost 15 million killed vs. 350,000 for the United States. Those figures alone will show you why the bombing offensive was so successful.

German Light Cruiser Königsberg

I have written about the German light cruisers previously including the Königsberg. The Königsberg was the first of the three ‘K’ class light cruisers built and so they are also referred to as Königsberg class according to naval tradition.

The K class light cruisers suffered from many design problems since they were designed and built in the late 1920’s and had to adhere to the strict limit’s imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. As the design problems became increasingly apparent, the duties of the ships were limited to compensate and they increasingly failed to serve in the role they were intended to.

The Königsberg served in the Baltic for the majority of the war as a glorified mine layer until being sunk in the Invasion of Norway. Collected below are the photographs of Königsberg during training.

Halftone reproduction of a photograph taken on the ship’s foredeck, looking aft, circa 1931. Crewmen appear to be preparing for physical training. Note the forward 15cm triple gun turret trained on the starboard beam.

Photograph taken on the ship’s after superstructure deck, looking aft, circa 1931. Crewmen are examining the ship’s battery of two 8.8cm anti-aircraft guns. Her Number Two 15cm triple gun turret is in the background, with a plaque on its face bearing the inscription “Lutzow”.

Halftone reproduction of a photograph taken on the ship’s after superstructure deck, looking aft, circa 1931. Crewmen are receiving gunnery instruction between the ship’s pair of 8.8cm anti-aircraft guns. Her two after 15cm triple gun turrets are visible in the background. Note the different heraldic shields mounted over the doors on the rear side of each turret.

Halftone reproduction of a photograph taken on the ship’s after superstructure deck, looking aft, circa 1931, showing gunnery drill with the ship’s two 8.8cm anti-aircraft guns. Her Number Two 15cm triple gun turret is in the background.

Two 8.8cm/45 FLAK L/45 during AA training in the 1920s.

Recent photographs of the German fleet at the naval parade in Swinoujscie on the Baltic Sea. View of the deck of the “Konigsberg” with the anti-aircraft guns and the operating crew with gas masks in April 1932.

[Images courtesy of the Department of the Navy – Naval Historical Center 1 and 2 and Wikimedia.]

Our CBS Radio News Man in Berlin Endures an Air Raid

As mentioned previously, one of the best sources of information about daily life in the Third Reich is Assignment to Berlin by Harry W. Flannery, a CBS Radio Correspondent sent to Berlin to replace William Shirer although their tenure overlapped for a few weeks so Shirer could show the ropes to Flannery.

On this particular evening, Shirer accompanied Flannery to the broadcast studio and the two men arrived early enough to dine at a nearby restaurant. They had just begun to eat dinner…

…when the alarm sounded. It was a startling, annoying, frightening sound, like the long drawn-out wail of a giant cat, rising and then falling … I listened to the first notes of the alarm and then resumed eating. I was planning to finish the meal, but Bill, as a veteran, cautioned me to act. ‘Better forget your dinner tonight,’ he said.

Although the broadcasting studio was across the street, Shirer insisted they leave immediately or we might get caught in the restaurant and not be able to leave and go to the studio. (It was illegal to be outside on the street during an air-raid). Flannery:

As we went into the street the anti-aircraft guns were already cracking. ‘Keep alongside the buildings,’ Bill cautioned, ‘and then, when we get to the best point, we’ll run as fast as possible across the street. The shrapnel is more to be feared than the bombs.’

Shrapnel, in this case referring to the fractured bits of the anti-aircraft shells, was a real danger during air-raids in World War Two. It was even more dangerous in areas where there were large concentrations of anti-aircraft guns such as Berlin. The Germans defended themselves with Fliegerabwehrkanone which translates as air defense cannon. That being too long a word even for Germans, they abbreviated it to “flak” which became the generic term for anti-aircraft fire in WW Two. If you have ever used or heard the expression, “I got a lot of flak,” that’s where it comes from.

B-24 emerges from flak area with its No. 2 engine smoking.
Henry Shrapnel

In an air raid on a major city like Berlin, few of the flak batteries would actually be firing at specific planes; rather they would be firing a pattern of shells set to explode at various heights creating a “box.” RAF bombers would have to fly through this “box” of exploding shells to reach their target. ‘Since what goes up, must come down,’ once the shells exploded, the fragments, or shrapnel, would fall back to earth. A small piece of a shell could easily kill you. Because of this, no one was allowed to be outside during an air raid. In various memoirs one reads not only of people being killed but of buildings sustaining heavy damage from falling shrapnel.

Like many words, shrapnel takes its name from a person, in this case, Henry Shrapnel (3 June 1761 – 13 March 1842), a British Army officer who served in the Royal Artillery. He invented a spherical exploding shell filled with musket balls (or shrapnel) which was designed to explode among enemy troops and kill lots of them. It worked quite well. Almost two-hundred fifty years later, Colonel Shrapnel has been forgotten but his name lives on as a description of deadly fragments caused by artillery shells.

[Image courtesy of Freshford.]