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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

London: Churchill's Bunker and the Blitz

On our last day in London, our hostess has had to return to Beijing, and Chris serves as our guide for a walking tour of the western end of downtown London, including the Millennium Bridge (no, the Death Eaters did not knock it down!); the London Eye, a ‘temporary’ Ferris wheel that was too popular to take down; Big Ben and Parliament, built as the British Empire was approaching its zenith and Westminster Abbey.
The Tomb of Elizabeth Regina I in Westminster Abbey

I could go on just about indefinitely about the Abbey, which hasn’t been a center of monkish life now for a very long time.  It was by far the most impressive site we visited, with everyone from Edward the Confessor, who started building it, to Geoffrey Chaucer, who is buried within not for his seminal literary contributions, but because of his holy work as an ecclesiastical tax collector, and Isaac Newton, buried there.  And those who are not interred (Lord Byron, Longfellow, Winston Churchill, and William Shakespeare) are memorialized.  It is the English pantheon of greats, and we spent all morning examining the tombs.  And here, not far from the charter house where daily instruction of the monks was conducted we found the missing pyx, a large nondescript chest the contents of which are not even displayed. 

Our last stop in London before we must fly off to Paris is also all about the underworld.  It is a bunker underneath Whitehall, the sprawling palace that houses many of the executive functions of the British government.  It was here that Winston Churchill and the War Cabinet would retreat during the London Blitz.  Almost everyone knows about Winston Churchill’s bulldog defiance in the face of Nazi aggression as Britain fought alone against the Germans for nearly a year in 1940-1941.  That has everything to do with our decision to visit this destination on our short list of London sites. Fewer are aware of how this came about.  Many of the key decisions that led to this dramatic confrontation were made long before the battle itself.

Another famous Zeppelin!

The beginning of this story lies in World War I, when military aviation was just getting off the ground, so to speak.  It is London’s dubious distinction to be the recipient of the very first systematic air attacks on a civilian population center.  These were conducted by German zeppelins between 1916 and 1918, and succeeded in killing about 550 civilians, doing an estimated 1.5 million Pounds sterling damage, and diverting British air assets from the skies over France.  Given the technology of the time, zeppelins often couldn’t even reach London, let alone select specific ground targets.  They were so bulky that they could not face stiff headwinds.  When weather conditions permitted, which was seldom, they flew over and dropped their very modest bomb loads over the targeted city.  But the psychological impact of being unable to prevent penetration of home air space by these silent giant phalluses (the largest zeppelins were over 450 feet long) and the arbitrary nature of death from above terrified the London populace. The zeppelins psychological impact greatly exceeded the modest damage they inflicted relative to the magnitude of both countries war efforts, but they presaged a dramatic expansion of attacks directed against civilian populations in World War II.  Eventually, the British used incendiary bullets to attack the zeppelins.  This was a flaming success, given that the Zeppelins were filled with hydrogen gas.  In 1918, the Germans withdrew their surviving airships from strategic bombing missions and started using the first 4-engine bombers to bomb London instead.  After the Hindenburg disaster in Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937, the unsound practice of filling airships with hydrogen was discontinued in favor of helium.  The US Navy used helium filled airships for naval scouting and antisubmarine warfare during World War II.  Now they are used primarily for advertising and aerial television coverage of sporting events.  Strategic bombing by lighter-than-air dirigibles was only a tactical success, but the idea of direct attacks on civilian populations was just getting started.

Between the wars, the Royal Air Force and Home Office conducted studies of the possible impact of strategic bombing, as such air attacks came to be called.  It was theorized by the British, American and Italian air enthusiasts that factory production could be destroyed directly from the air with ‘precision bombing’ and civilian populations terrorized into demanding that their governments surrender by attack from the air alone called ‘terror bombing.’  As a defense, Britain formulated the first civil air defense plan. At the outbreak of World War II, Britain hustled its children out of the big cities into the countryside, developed and installed primitive radar stations to detect incoming raids, set up civilian aircraft spotters and developed communications to centralize and coordinate all the reports so that high performance fighter aircraft could intercept incoming bombers and disrupt the raids. They also implemented plans to use the London subways as shelters in the event of air attack.  The command bunker we are about to visit is a part of those foresighted air defense plans. In America, the US Army Air Corps asked for and received the funding for huge four-engine strategic bombers designed, with typical American simplicity, to carry the war directly to the enemy. They would be big enough to carry massive bomb loads long distances, and well-armed enough to shoot their way through enemy fighters.  In the actual event, all of these innovations would see use in World War II.

The major dissenter from all of this emphasis on strategic bombing was the Luftwaffe.  The German Air Force was designed primarily as a supporting arm for ground operations.  The Germans did not invest in heavy bombers with the kind of payloads, range or armaments to systematically attack enemy production facilities or civilian populations, nor to penetrate far into enemy airspace unescorted by fighter cover to protect them from interception.  So when Poland succumbed surprisingly rapidly to the German blitzkrieg, Germany and Britain found little means to directly grapple with each other through the air.  Britain had too few heavy bombers to launch major raids against Germany, and the Luftwaffe, the German air force had no planes that could reach Britain from Germany. They were conserving their planes for an all out assault on France.  A so-called “phony war” ensued between the autumn of 1939 and the spring campaigning season of 1940, and all sides fumbled about for a peace while preparing for an expected German assault on France.  All hell broke loose on May 10 with the German invasions of Holland and Belgium, and very quickly, France succumbed to the same tactics that had defeated the Poles.  By mid-July, France had surrendered, and Vichy government had been established, and the Germans occupied Norway and all of the west coast of the continent, and faced the strategic problem of how to persuade the British, who Hitler had never desired to fight anyway, to surrender. 

Despite having an air force that was poorly designed for large scale terror bombing and lacking a specific doctrine for terror attacks, the Germans experimented with the technique of bombing civilian targets during the Spanish Civil War.  On April 26, 1937, they hit the Basque town of Guernica, resulting in widespread public outcry, exaggerated claims by casualties by the Basques, and inspiring Pablo Picasso to the painting of the same name.  Guernica was displayed for the first time in July of 1937 at the Spanish pavilion of the Paris World’s Fair and was immediately received as a highly effective use of cubism to reflect the horror of the bombing helpless civilians.   This painting is viewed by many as one of the masterworks of the 20th Century.  A tapestry knock-off hangs today in the United Nations Headquarters in New York.  None of this much deterred the Germans; they would massively bomb Warsaw to hasten the Polish Surrender in October of 1939, and Rotterdam in early May of 1940.  But when they began their air attacks on Britain, they had no plan to bomb civilian targets.

Also on May 10, 1940, the Neville Chamberlain government collapsed, and Winston Churchill, an intransigent critic of previous British policy towards Hitler and fascism, became Prime Minister.  In his first six weeks of office, he faced the imminent possibility that Britain would have to fight alone against Germany.  Among his very first bellicose speeches to the public, he declared “The Battle of France is over and the Battle of Britain about to begin.”  And that is the name that stuck to the very first military campaign in history fought exclusively between aerial forces.  In mid-July, the French signed a separate peace with Germany and Britain found herself standing alone against a German military machine that now seemed fully invincible.  Churchill vowed the Britain “would never surrender.”  Most outside observers had grave doubts.  The Germans had captured French airfields that would allow the Luftwaffe to concentrate within striking range of Britain.
Winston Churchill flashing his signature "V for Victory"

Hitler’s problem in trying to force a British surrender was two-fold.  With no significant navy, the Germans could not invade England unless they could achieve air superiority by driving British aircraft from the skies.  The German air force needed to be able to attack the Royal Navy without the fear of interception by British fighters in order to protect their own vulnerable landing craft and barges that would be carrying their army to British shores and supplying them while they overwhelmed the British Army.  With an air force designed for coordinated ground operations, it was going to be difficult to force a British surrender by strategic bombing alone. The German strategy started by trying to tease the Royal Air Force fighter planes into coming out to stop Luftwaffe attacks on shipping in the North Sea and English Channel.  This failed when the Germans found too few interceptors responding to seriously cripple the RAF.  Unbeknownst to the Germans, the British could use radar to see these raids forming up, and committed their fighters sparingly.  Also, the German dive bombers that had been a holy terror against ground targets during the blitzkrieg on land were slow and clumsy in air-to-air combat.    The German’s then shifted to attacking RAF interceptor air fields directly, trying to destroy fighters on the ground and interfere with their control and maintenance.  This strategy was much more effective, but still seemed too slow given the need to control the skies for an amphibious assault on England.

Winston Churchill was in his element, playing the defiant stalwart, but for all his stirring oratory he had little choice.  It was at this point that he declared that “never in the course of human events had so many owed so much to so few.”  The RAF interceptor pilots were carrying the burden of defending Britain on their backs, often flying three missions a day and men, machines and airfields were wearing out.  At the worst point for Britain in this battle, the RAF was losing 10% of its strength per week.  At this rate, the German goal might actually be achieved.  In fact, both sides thought they were winning because in the heat of combat, pilots tended to overestimate their successes.  The RAF was taking a terrific toll on the Luftwaffe too, and the Germans were losing aircraft and pilots faster than they could replace them.
RAF Spitfire interceptors - some of the 'few' to whom so much was owed.

The Germans had little accurate information on how well they were doing, and their impatience proved their undoing.  Desperate to complete the destruction of the RAF in time to launch their invasion before bad weather precluded a landing, the Germans again switched strategies, and began the Blitz—first during daylight, and then, as losses mounted, they switched to evening bombing of British cities, primarily London.  London was raided for 76 straight nights.  They inflicted damage far beyond the zeppelin attacks of World War I, over 25,000 civilian deaths in London alone, and over a million homes destroyed or damaged.  The psychological strain of hiding in the crowded tube, listening to the fall of the bombs and firing of the anti-aircraft guns, worrying if your home would still be intact after the raids can only be imagined.  After this close attention to London, the Germans expanded attacks so that all British population centers were raided.   Even with almost 45,000 deaths between September 1940 and May of 1941, British war production increased during the period, British morale was unwavering, and Winston Churchill’s radio speeches lost nothing in defiance.  One of the great lessons of World War II is that terror bombing of civilians was relatively  ineffective at damaging war production, or provoking regime change, at least until nuclear weapons were employed.  Later in the war, The RAF and United States Army Air Force would launch several raids that created firestorms in German target cities and resulted in greater devastation and loss of life in a single evening than Germany would inflict during the entire Blitz. These had no noticeable effect on German war production, which didn’t stop increasing until 6 months before the end of the war when Allied armies were almost on the western border of Germany and critical German resource centers had been overrun.
St Paul's Cathedral, a symbol of defiance during the Blitz

This decision to switch to strategic bombing meant that the Germans had lost a close campaign. They simply lacked the tools to gain air superiority over the British coastline. Even with air superiority, it was by no means assured that the German Army could have been landed and supplied in Britain and the British Army defeated, however the decision to bomb London meant that the RAF would never be driven from the skies.  In early October, Hitler scrapped all plans for invading England and turned his attention east to his long awaited confrontation with Soviet Russia.  But nighttime bombing of London would continue throughout the war, much reduced in May of 1941 as the Germans moved most of their bombers east for the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.  However the terror bombing continued at reduced levels in 1941 through 1943 until the Germans’ developed V-weapons and launched attacks on London using these.  V-1 and V-2 cruise missiles resulted in another 12,000 deaths and 35,0000 other casualties.  Even when the Blitz was over, the War Cabinet would need their relatively safe facilities for the duration of the European War.
A replica of a V-1 on its launcher
A V-2 rocket.  The "V" here is from the German word for revenge

The first thing we learned on this tour was just how relative that safety turned out to be.  Although there was a concrete slab over most parts of the bunker ceiling, a good 500lb bomb hit could have taken out the British war cabinet!  The quarters were close, not well ventilated, everyone smoked and a blue haze permeated the deliberations.  Sleeping facilities were provided, but in a crawl space so low that even women had to stoop to negotiate them.  Privacy was at a minimum, and many told stories of embarrassment at meeting colleagues while half clothed and half asleep.  There was great pressure from overwork.  A corps of opinionated alpha personalities meant that discussions were often heated, although the British are proud that Churchill always eventually submitted to the military professionals despite his penchant for dramatic operations on the periphery of the campaigns.  While the post-war impression of the Anglo-American Alliance was initially that of a well-oiled machine, the wartime debates between the US and their British allies were actually quite fractious, and the same is true of the British internal strategic discussions before the US entered the conflict.  The intense pressure of meeting in this quarters for 79 straight nights is readily imagined.
The War Room in Churchill's Bunker

Churchill was a demanding boss who tended to be very hard on his secretaries and the typing pool, and he was melancholic and prone to alcoholism as well. Clearly he was hard to get along with much of the time. In the bunker we could see the transatlantic telephone where he conversed voice-to-voice with Franklin Delano Roosevelt; the intelligence center where Enigma decryptions were sent in from Bletchley Park, and the scrambled telephone lines to various military commands. Most dramatic of all were the maps of every British and American theater of operations in the war, and the one of the Atlantic Ocean had thousands of pin holes that were used for tracking every convoy bringing vital men and material to England, and every submarine attack by the German U-boat campaign to interdict them. My overall impression is how amazing it was that they could coordinate so huge an effort from so small, crowded and claustrophobia-inducing a space while bombs rained down overhead, and how primitive the technology was of the time. Back then, you may be assured that heavy telephones, massive teletype machines, pushpins, and stenography pools were the absolute state of the art. Needless to say, no computers were in evidence except at the ticket office! I have cyber power Winston never dreamed of, and no girls in the steno pool to leave in tears.

The Map Room showing the Atlantic Theater and banks of scrambled phones

Attached to the bunker is a museum devoted to Churchill’s life. I knew a good deal more about his political life and his role as a military leader than about his early history. He was a most indifferent student, and was somewhat starved for parental attention even by the standards of a British upper class that packed children off to boarding school at the first available moment. (No wonder his devoted and rather long-suffering wife Clementine maintained a furnished bedroom and slept with him there in the bunker. She was the only spouse to do this, and he must have greatly appreciated the support.) In his early years he was much more radical than his stalwart defense of empire would suggest. He had a rapacious wit and was prone to speaking his mind to say the very least. An example: “'You are drunk Sir Winston, you are disgustingly drunk. 'Yes, Mrs. Braddock, I am drunk. But you, Mrs. Braddock are ugly, and disgustingly fat. But, tomorrow morning, I, Winston Churchill will be sober.”


Winston's Bedroom in the bunker


He could be no less harsh with himself. His leadership during the period between the invasion of France in 1940 and the end of the war in Europe may have been inspiring and heroic, but Winston was scarcely satisfied. He bemoaned his failure to intervene and politically discredit Adolf Hitler before World War II started. His larger goal, to preserve the British Empire, was already beyond his reach when he took office. The expense of waging two world wars meant that European domination of the developing world was at an end. For all the veneration he received, he was promptly turned out of office before World War II was fully concluded. Although popular as a war leader, the British public, perhaps shaken by the privations of World War II, turned inwards, and did not think he would properly focus on domestic matters. After the chaos and deprivations of war, the British people wanted security. His victorious opponents, the Labour Party, erected the pillars of the modern social welfare state. Such were the deprivations of war that Britain would have to endure rationing until the mid 1950’s, and continued to fill bomb craters into the early 1980’s. Every once in a while, an unexploded bomb turns up, sometimes tragically adding to the casualty rolls of a war that ended 66 years ago.

We ended the day in a little neighborhood pedestrian mall eating Thai food right next to the road when we had the surprising opportunity to witness my worst-ever episode of road rage! A large car pulled up in front of our restaurant, and stopped in the middle of the one-way street. Two guys proceeded to start unloading an unassembled bookcase. Another car drove up behind, and after waiting for 30 seconds, that driver was half way out of his car, yelling obscenities and demanding that they move. After another minute of shouting, two huge guys were engaged in fisticuffs and wrestling right there on the street in front of several restaurants full of diners. I was floored. I have never witnessed such an exchange in America, and our companion noted that they had each looked around first for cameras. In London, there are cameras almost everywhere. But I was amazed to see British fighting when no soccer was involved. We would later see French people stuck waiting for unloading in the single lane streets of many cities without any similar displays. The French may or not be as blood thirsty as my charcuterierre, but they were a great deal more ready to accommodate other drivers… but not pedestrians.  When you set foot in a French street, you had best look both ways and keep your wits about you.

What guidance does all of this provide in looking for the right kind of life? The public is fickle? Freedom must be paid for? Beware the dangers of impatience? Certainly there are many lessons. As we left Britain, I did find myself wondering if I wasn’t looking at America’s future when we are no longer the dominant world power.


  1. A very insightful and fascinating read.

    Indeed, I'm sure one could glean a lot of lessons from history. I think that is the primary hope of historians so that the mistakes of the past are not reborn. Which, those are sadly plentiful as well.

    I can barely imagine the horror and claustrophobia that the British citizenry felt during the Blitz and the subsequent bombings that lasted through the duration of the war. Of course, the bombings that the Allies did on target German population centers were no less horrific. In particular, I always think of the bombing of Dresden, mostly because it was immortalized to me by Kurt Vonnegut's seminal novel Slaughterhouse Five. Needless to say, being in the target area of a bombing sounds very undesirable, but the solution would have been quite obvious to the children who were sent to the countryside far away from London: distance.

    As for the lessons mentioned in your closing statement, I would concur that every single one is worth learning.

    I trust in a person's judgment at the individual level. Through my communications and interactions with him or her, I calculate subconsciously the probability of he or she making intelligent decisions. The logistics of doing this with a large gathering of people is considerably suspect. Do I trust in the judgment of a mob? Never. It is fickle. It is a tide that can be stoked into hysteria for the personal gain of whomever is directing it.

    Although, I also wonder whether the story of what happened with Churchill in the aftermath of the war is indicative of a larger truth. Namely, that any society faced with deprivation, no matter how necessary, tends to become more insular as a result. With the recent economic crisis in the United States, "belts have been tightened" - a phrase synonymous with going without. Of course, the reasons for this distress are fundamentally different than what the British experienced during World War II, but I imagine that it will likely leave as lasting an impression on this generation as the infamous dust bowls alluded to in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath did to the Greatest Generation.

  2. This is certainly an interesting blog. It is well written, and the illustrations are great. You almost convinced me to go see Churchill's bunker next time I'm in London. I really enjoyed how you weave history and your travels.

    I am looking forward to your next installments.

  3. All I can say, Brian, is that your comments are very much in the spirit of my post.

    As strategic bombing campaigns go, The Blitz was a lightweight. The fire-bombing of Dresden you mentioned, and it was particulalry tragic as it was the capital of Saxony and a beautiful cultural center with only modest manufacturing in the city itself. A Wehrmacht training center outside that was not hit. Dresden was a very important communications center.

    In February and March of 1945, 16 square miles of Tokyo were consumed in a firestorm that killed roughly 100,000 Japanese, almost all of them civilians. 40-60% destruction of the core urban areas of Japan was the norm. By May, there were few industrial concentrations in Japan worth hitting with heavy bombers. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians died in this effort. The evidence is mixed as what finally motivated the Japanese to surrender. Strategic bombing; a nearly complete strangulation of Japanese merchant shipping by submarines, aerial attack and aerial mine laying played a role; the shock of atomic bombings, and the declaration of war and invasion of Manchuria by the USSR all played a part in overcoming a strong cultural reluctance to surrender.

    Advocates of strategic bombing note that rising Japanese and German industrial output until late in the war is the wrong metric to assess the efficacy of the bombing. They are surely correct that industrial output would have been higher absent the bombing. I think the argument that holds water is that production was not seriously degraded by a collapse of civilian morale. For Japan, production ground to a halt due to interdiction of raw materials. For Germany, the bombing and overrunning of oil centers was clearly effective at shortening the war.

    Whatever the flaws in strategic bombing theory, it has been the mainstay of American military policy since 1945. Nuclear deterrence and Mutually Assured Destruction are grounded in the idea that America's potential enemies would not risk the welfare of their civilians vulnerable to strategic bombing with nuclear weapons.

    I think, though, that the story of Britain after World War II has hopeful implications for the US after our financial Apocalypse. Britain has not returned to dominant power status after the decline imposed by the end of the Age of Imperialism. But she does posses a strong economy and a high standard of living. Certainly she was much aided in this by the discovery of North Sea oil. But I agree that this financial crisis will leave a lasting mark on our consciousness.

    Thanks for your gracious comment!

  4. Thanks Ana. The bunker also has a great museum on Churchill attached. It is not all military history.

    Churchill did get out of the bunker from time to time. I was impressed that Churchill traveled more than 100,000 miles to the various conferences (Quebec, Casablanca, Tehran, Potsdam and Yalta) where allied strategy was hammered out face-to-face. So we still have few more places to visit!

  5. Ah, you serve up a feast of history, spiced with your own unique wit and perspective- I feel like I've gorged after reading this one...
    Enjoying it all, and particularly liked your comment, "find myself wondering if I wasn’t looking at America’s future when we are no longer the dominant world power".... thanks for the many flavors of food for thought. xo-N

  6. N--Thanks for your gracious compliments, and for visiting, gorgeous!

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