In This Article Battle of Britain and the Blitz

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Official Histories
  • Historical Background
  • The Battle of Britain
  • The Blitz
  • German Air Force Strategy
  • British Defenses
  • The Leaders and the Led
  • The Social History of the Blitz
  • Propaganda, Culture, and Public Opinion
  • City Reconstruction
  • The “Myth” of 1940

Military History Battle of Britain and the Blitz
by
Richard Overy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0158

Introduction

The Battle of Britain and the Blitz were two central moments in the British war effort during World War II. They have usually been treated as distinct campaigns, but they are linked by the fact that the German Air Force conducted a continuous eleven-month offensive against Britain from July 1940 to June 1941. Historians nevertheless have persisted in separating them, and the structure of the bibliography here reflects that distinction. Both topics have generated serious academic interest only since the 1990s; prior to that the literature was dominated by popular accounts and memoirs and by the official histories, written in the 1950s. Popular accounts, memoirs, and picture books still predominate The Battle of Britain is of more limited interest historically than the Blitz, though the reasons for German failure have generated considerable debate. The Battle, however, has come to play a central part in British memory of the conflict as the moment when Hitler’s Germany was defied and invasion averted. The Blitz is a more complex story. German strategy in pursuing the long bombing offensive against British ports and industrial cities has been examined less carefully than other strands of German strategy, partly because its achievements were modest, partly because historians have focused far more on the preparations for the large war against the Soviet Union. The Blitz history focuses instead on the British social, cultural, and political experience under the impact of bombing, and on the significance and effectiveness of British civil defense. Bombing in the Blitz and elsewhere in Europe symbolized the conduct of total war, in which civilian communities were in the front line as much as the armed forces. The ethical implications of this change in the character of modern war and the limits of legally permissible violence are a significant aspect of the study of wartime bombing. Historians have also been interested in this case in more fundamental questions about how civilian society coped with the social, material, and psychological impact of bombing and what averted more serious political crisis. In particular, the so-called myth of the Blitz, which since the war maintained that British society pulled together, eroded class differences, and withstood the damage with a collective stoicism, has been subjected to careful critical scrutiny. The last section in the bibliography deals with the development and function of the “myth” since 1945 as an important element in British historical identity and public history.

General Overviews

The Battle of Britain and the Blitz both fit into a wider literature on the evolution of air warfare in the 20th century and in particular the link between air power and total war. The best introduction to this relationship is Buckley 1999, but there are solid introductions to the history of air warfare in World War II in Murray 1999 and Overy 2006, which give extensive coverage to both the Battle and the German bombing offensive. The wider history of air warfare across the 20th century, which contributes to an understanding of the development of air defense systems and the changing nature of bombing technology, tactics, and strategy, has a rich literature. Olsen 2010 and Pape 1996 are among the most useful in charting these changes, but Werrell 2009 supplies an up-to-date history of bombing that puts the Blitz in particular into perspective. The common assumption in the literature is that air power is a defining feature of modern war whose utility and effectiveness have improved over time. A skeptical critique of those assumptions can be found in van Creveld 2011, but there is also a growing literature critical of the bombing campaigns in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. In response to the high civilian losses and damage to the civilian milieu brought about by bombing in these conflicts, there is now an extensive literature on the ethics and legality of bomb attack on civilians, a literature in which the edited book Tanaka and Young 2009 can be regarded as the best introduction.

  • Buckley, John. Air Power in the Age of Total War. London: UCL Press, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of the few books to place air power in the context of total war, as an instrument designed to assault both the home front and the fighting front. This is an excellent introduction to the evolution of the air weapon and its use.

  • Murray, Williamson. War in the Air, 1914–1945. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999.

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    A standard account of the development of the air weapon and its use in the period of the World Wars, the book benefits from generous illustration and useful statistics.

  • Olsen, John, ed. A History of Air Warfare. New York: Potomac, 2010.

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    A useful and up-to-date set of essays by a number of prominent air-power historians covering all the major uses of air power during the past century, it is a good summary for anyone starting out to examine the impact of aircraft on modern war.

  • Overy, Richard. The Air War, 1939–1945. 3d ed. New York: Potomac, 2006.

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    One of the first general histories of the air war, first published in 1980 and reissued twice. The book covers not only the air campaigns but also technology, leadership, economics, and organization of air forces.

  • Pape, Robert. Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    A clear analysis of the nature and limitations of the bombing wars on the past century, the book explores critically the ways in which air power has been exercised and explains its strategic purpose.

  • Tanaka, Yuki, and Marilyn Young, eds. Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History. New York: New Press, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of the most important of the books on the ethics of bombing and damage to civilian life, the essays include studies of international law in relation to bombing and the arguments for and against using nuclear weapons.

  • van Creveld, Martin. The Age of Airpower. New York: Public Affairs, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    An essential critical view of the air-power century, the book explores each of the major air campaigns and the claims made for them and shows the gap between expectation and reality. This is a useful introduction to all the debates surrounding air power.

  • Werrell, Kenneth. Death from the Heavens: A History of Strategic Bombing. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    An essential addition to the literature on bombing in which the operational, ethical. and strategic issues raised are explored more widely than in Murray 1999 or Buckley 1999.

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