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Online Event 18 August 2020: German and British perspectives on the Battle of Britain

Members of SWWRG may be interested in a joint talk on the events of 18 August 1940 from both the British and German perspectives. Researchers Anne Hughes and Katherine Quinlan-Flatter will present their research, and take questions from the audience from 14:00 to 15:00 BST. Register free here.

This event is run by the War and Conflict Subject Specialist Network, managed by Imperial War Museums with the kind support of Arts Council England and Art Fund. Sign up to the Network free here.

Drawing on contemporary German newspapers, Katherine Quinlan-Flatter’s research provides a different perspective on the much-mythologized events of the ‘people’s war’ in the United Kingdom including Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Here, she examines the beginning of the Blitz in August and September 1940 as reported in the German press, providing a sense of the propaganda machines at work in both nations:


The Enemy is Listening

Katherine Quinlan-Flatter

During an air raid over the ports of the Thames east of London on August 24, 1940, German bombs fall for the first time on the city’s suburbs. The bombing is the result of a navigational error by pilots aiming for military targets, who are unaware that they are flying over the city. More than 100 civilians are killed and 300 injured, prompting an immediate retaliatory attack by the British on the following night over Berlin. In total, 103 RAF planes are involved in the raid over Germany on August 25, with about half dispatched to the German capital. However, not all planes reach the city, and the 22 tons of bombs dropped there also cause less damage than intended.

Zerstörung Krankenhaus: British bombs destroy a wing of a hospital in north Germany (Der Führer, Sept. 11, 1940)

Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe continues heavy attacks on airfields and aircraft factories in south-east England. On September 2, the press reports that 86 enemy planes have been shot down, while only 23 own planes are missing. “The English propaganda machine is attempting to convince its people that the German attacks are causing only minor damage”, the papers complain. “Although the English themselves are witness to the impact of the raids”. The British Ministry of Information is apparently loath to issue details of the attacks: “The enemy is listening”. Ridiculous, scorns the German press, the whole world knows exactly when and where the raids are taking place, from the reports of the German Armed Forces High Command.

Berliner Sportpalast: Hitler speaks at the Berlin Sportpalast on September 4, 1940 (Der Führer, Sept. 5, 1940)

Following three further attacks on Berlin over the next few days, Hitler decides on a concrete programme of retaliation. In his speech on September 4 at the Berlin Sportpalast, the Führer vows, to the roaring cheers of the crowd, “to wage this battle until the enemy completely collapses".

“Not only the enemy”, declares Hitler, “but even many of our own people can barely comprehend the brilliance of our operations and the speed of the events. England will disintegrate”. From now on, the Führer decrees, the Luftwaffe will specifically target London.

The Luftwaffe has one distinct advantage over the RAF – they are flying from the French coast, while the British have a 930-kilometre flight from London to Berlin. The Germans can thus carry out attacks on London late into the night and start out early again the next morning. On September 5, an air-raid warning interrupts Churchill’s speech in the House of Commons. Although the Speaker initially requests MPs not to leave the chamber, the drone of the German engines soon makes it impossible to continue and MPs are forced to take refuge in the bomb shelter.

The Luftwaffe attacks London and other English towns in devastating raids from September 7. “This is the retaliation for the nightly pirate flights against non-military targets in the Reich”, declares the press, who deride the cowardice of the RAF in flying under the cover of darkness.

“There is one single huge cloud of smoke from the city centre of London to the Thames estuary”, reports Germany’s newspapers, and records 31 enemy planes shot down, with only 6 own planes missing. However, the English propaganda channels are once again attempting to conceal the increasingly devastating impact of the German bombs and report only attacks on airfields in Kent and military objects in north-east England, criticises the German press. September 7 sees five air-raid alerts in 24 hours, with 10.5 hours’ duration. The London night sky is stained red from the fires on the south bank of the Thames, public transport has virtually come to a standstill. In the sky above London’s sea of houses, a lone German plane draws a swastika in smoke in the sky.

By September 8, over one million kilograms of bombs have been dropped over England in retaliation for the RAF bombs, claims the press. Targets outside London include Chatham, Liverpool, Manchester, Cardiff and Bristol.

Flaksplitter: A pilot removes an anti-aircraft gun splinter from his boot (Der Führer, Sept. 11, 1940)

September 10 sees six air raids over London, resulting in heavy fires in the city, directly in the vicinity of the Guildhall and St. Paul’s Cathedral, “where all the nerve fibres of the English Empire converge”, reports the press. Apparently, the English propaganda machine is asserting that the Germans are targeting only the poor proletariat in the East End, but that is where the docks and factories are located, the German press explains. In addition, the affluent West End is being equally attacked – it is also home to many important military targets.

Churchill’s plan is failing – instead of demoralising the German people, he is only reinforcing their will to win, according to the press. On September 13, Buckingham Palace is hit by five bombs, injuring three members of the royal staff. Downing Street is also struck, as is the House of Lords. The night alarms ended at 7.32 a.m., but at 8.40 a.m. the sirens began to wail again. The attacks are almost interminable and annihilating.

September 15 is dubbed “Battle of Britain Day” by the English, who report 175 German planes shot down (later information reveals the actual figure to be less than 100). This is a record, says London, proving the Germans’ attack strategy a failure. However, the German papers report a very different story. Docks and storage facilities have been successfully attacked, with fierce air combat over London. 60 enemy planes have been brought down, with only 20 own losses. In the last week, declares the press, London has had 70 hours of full air alert. It cites the Swedish newspapers, who have called the ongoing London attacks “The Dunkirk of the civilian population”. This does not correlate with the optimistic parole of the English press, write the papers. Sweden’s “Stockholms Tidningen” reveals that public transport is no longer functioning in many places, and numerous residential areas are in ruins – the damage is enormous. A number of gas, water and electricity works have been destroyed, as is a part of the telephone network.

The press report of September 17 records four successful attacks on the previous day, despite bad weather. The all-clear for the night attacks is issued at 7.36 a.m., but the next alert already commences at 9.59 a.m. The Ministry of Information, however, announces that the Luftwaffe has been repelled at the coast, and Duff Cooper, its chief and the subject of numerous German propaganda assaults, reports 125 German planes shot down.

On September 17, Hitler postpones Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of Britain “for an indefinite period”. The Blitz, as it now being called by the British, continues until May 16, 1941, claiming the lives of 43,000 civilians and destroying or damaging over a million homes.

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