The London Blitz, the massive German bombardment of the British capital, took place from September 7, 1940 to May 10, 1941. At first, it even lasted 57 nights in a row. The Luftwaffe bombs military objectives, roadblocks, docks. Then, later, it begins to target residential areas and decision-making centers. Among those targets are the Parliament building in Westminster and the royal residence, Buckingham Palace.
The Germans are convinced that the bombing of London will break the will of its inhabitants and cause such damage to England that a landing in the British Isles will not even be necessary – the country will capitulate and walk out of the war.
It’s a bad calculation. The British refuse not only to capitulate, but even to change their ways. In London, restaurants and pubs remain open, postmen deliver mail in the ruins, at the National Gallery, pianist Myra Hess gives concerts five days a week, at lunchtime.
The “Douhet Doctrine”
But where does the theory of “terror by the air”, supposed to bend the civilian populations of the enemy, come from?
The Italian Giulio Douhet (1869-1930) commanded a squadron during the First World War. When the Italian army was faced with the specter of defeat in the battles against the Austro-Hungarians, Colonel Douhet proposed, with the help of a force of 500 airplanes, to strike the towns in the rear of the enemy. But fortunately for the Austrians, he defends this idea with such fervor that he is court-martialed for having criticized the command and is condemned to a prison term.
In 1921, having become a general, he published his reflections under the title Airbending [Institut de stratégie comparée, Paris, 2007], which enters the history of military science as the “Douhet doctrine”. The latter is the basis of the argument in favor of aerial terror against civilian populations, in order to break their will to continue the fight. And the bombing of London is one of the first realizations of this doctrine.
Of Londoners’ morale between the nighttime bombings, American journalist and traveler Virginia Cowles writes: “Discussions revolve around one theme – where and how to sleep. Everyone has their own theory on this subject: some give the advantage to the cellar; others ensure that the loft or the roof are safer – you won’t be so crushed under the rubble that you can’t get out; still others recommend narrow trenches dug in the garden behind the house; there are even some who insist that it is better to forget all this and die comfortably in bed.”
Of the need for shelter
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