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Gilbert: Remembering the Blitz

09/02/10 7:55AM By Peter Gilbert
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(HOST)  The word Blitz has many meanings. Next week, we observe the 70th anniversary of one of them. Here's commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert to explain.

(GILBERT) Blitz is the German word for lightning; we see it pop up in many different contexts: To football fans a blitz means one or more players rushing the quarterback when the ball is snapped. Their rush, the name suggests, is as fast as lightning. In the poem known as "'Twas the Night before Christmas," the two reindeer are named Donder and Blitzen - meaning in German, Thunder and Lightning. At Dartmouth College, the e-mail system is called Blitzmail, but it's being replaced this year with another, cheaper system.

But the two most famous uses of the word come from World War II. One is Blitzkrieg. Krieg is German for war, and so Blitzkrieg, or lightning war, was a nickname for the German army's approach in the first several years of the War: rapid, surprise attacks by concentrated forces - tanks, infantry, artillery, and air power - to break through defensive positions and capture territory and soldiers with stunning speed. That's what happened when Germany invaded both Poland and France.

The other term is the Blitz - the name of Germany's eight-month, sustained bombing campaign of London and other British cities. It began seventy years ago next Tuesday, on September 7th, 1940. That afternoon, Germany sent nearly 900 bombers and fighter escorts over London, and more that night.

The Blitz began by mistake, and it continued because of one of Hitler's famous temper tantrums. In July 1940, Hitler's air force, or Luftwaffe, started bombing not cities, but British air fields, radar stations, and plane factories - the goal being to destroy the Royal Air Force and establish air supremacy, so that Germany could then invade England. The Luftwaffe very nearly succeeded. RAF pilots were being lost at an horrific rate in the so-called Battle of Britain. That was why Prime Minister Winston Churchill said of the outnumbered RAF pilots that "Never have so many owed so much to so few."

Then, in late August, several German bombers accidentally dropped their bombs on parts of London. In retaliation the next night, the British bombed Berlin. Hitler was furious and ordered that London and other British cities be bombed day and night. Children in urban areas were evacuated to the countryside, and thousands took shelter at night in London's underground tube stations. While the Blitz was intended to break the will of the British people, it had the opposite effect - and, more importantly, it eased the pressure on RAF airfields - exactly when the RAF was at the absolute breaking point. For Germany, then, the Blitz was an enormous tactical blunder. Had their attacks remained targeted on Britain's air force and air defenses, Germany might very well have controlled the skies over England, making invasion possible. By May 1941, having failed to gain air supremacy, Germany shelved its plans for invading England. 55,000 British civilians had been killed or wounded in the Blitz, but England itself had dodged a bullet.
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