As the world goes through another of history’s life-and-death struggles, it may be at least comfortable to acknowledge that today’s crisis is neither new nor unsolvable. History has recorded the nature of most past events when it seemed that life itself was on the line. It may have seemed so, but, looking back, it never was. Or, at least, it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen either because the issue just dissolved, or “spent itself,” or because the men and women of the time resolved it themselves.
Either way, humanity has tripled since the year of the Blitz, 1940, both the year of my birth and the year when it seemed to nearly everyone that civilization itself was about over. Or, as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once put it, “ …if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age.”
Few reading this remember the time, nor do I. But it was real, and those involved felt it and believed it. The cause wasn’t a virus nor an epidemic. It was an ideology, two countries, two peoples, and, ultimately, two men. Technically, it was bombs, airplanes, fires, and, above all, willpower and the fight to live.
Churchill also called it the world’s “darkest hour” and saluted the men who fought it over British skies as those to whom “…never was so much owed by so many to so few.” The “few” were pilots of the Royal Air Force (RAF), numbering in the hundreds, who fought Hitler’s “Luftwaffe” (Air Force), through 1940 into 1941 in what history has recorded as the “Blitz” (German for “lightning”).
Operation “Sealion,” as Hitler called the planned invasion of Great Britain, was to have been preceded by an airborne attack necessary to permit the German Navy to transit the Army to British shores, the first invasion attempt since 1066. With the confidence borne out by Germany’s sudden conquest of France and most of western Europe (April through June), it appeared that western civilization was, in fact, “on the ropes.”
Meanwhile, the United States remained under the constraints of a series of tight “neutrality” laws that both reflected the mood of the country and prohibited only “cash and carry” transport of any material to the British Isles. President Franklin D. Roosevelt did everything possible to circumvent these, intervening personally to veto legislation that would have restricted any U.S. involvement in war except an outright Nazi invasion.
In March 1941, Roosevelt secured Senate passage of Lend-Lease aid to Britain (with the help of his defeated Republican opponent Wendell Willkie), but by then the Blitz was over and the planned German invasion already canceled “indefinitely.”
Technically, the first day of the Blitz came shortly after the fall of France. While sporadic airborne raids (“nuisance”) had occurred before, the first strategic German offensive began on July 10 and was concentrated on the convoys, ports, airfields, and factories of southern England. These were intended to remove any obstacle to invasion, but, when RAF resistance proved too formidable, the Luftwaffe began to attack the British “spirit,” i.e. morale.
On September 7, it began with London, first with daily then nightly raids. By the time the entire air assault was over (May 11, 1941), Londoners were hit on 71 occasions, most famously 56 nights in a row until the greatest hit, December 29. This was the worst assault on any city in human history, 136 bombers, hundreds more fighters, 100,000 bombs dropped in a few hours, 1500 total fires. It was called the worst disaster since the “Great Fire of London” (1666).
While it is beyond my talents to describe what it was like on that night alone, famous American war correspondent Ernie Pyle was there:
“Into the dark shadowed spaces below us, while we watched, whole batches of incendiary bombs fell. We saw two dozen go off in two seconds. They flashed terrifically, then quickly simmered down to pin points of dazzling white, burning ferociously … The greatest of all fires was directly in front of us. Flames seemed to whip hundreds of feet into the air. Pinkish-white smoke ballooned upward in a great cloud, and out of this cloud there gradually took shape … the gigantic dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. St. Paul’s was surrounded by fire, but it came through. It stood there in enormous proportions, growing slowly clearer and clearer, the way objects take shape at dawn. It was like a picture of some miraculous figure that appears before peace-hungry soldiers on a battlefield.”
Almost every major city was hit, many several times, as follows: Exeter (13), Liverpool (8), Birmingham (8), Plymouth (8), Bristol (6), Glasgow (5), while others (Coventry, Belfast, Portsmouth) were bombed at least one to three times. The total death toll was about 50,000, with whole cities demolished.
COVID-19 is horrible and tragic. But it is a few months old (here). We still remember 9/11/01, which lasted several minutes. How would America survive nearly a full year of death and destruction all over, in New York, Washington, Boston, Miami, Chicago, Denver, Dallas, LA, San Francisco, Seattle, etc.?
Months after the Blitz, America lost 2,400 lives and several ships and planes at Pearl Harbor, where two hours of bombing took place 2,000 miles away from the mainland, in the mid-Pacific, against a “territory.” Nor did the enemy have the slightest intention, nor the capacity, to hit the continental U.S. (although that was not apparent at the time).
The result was a national unity seen neither before nor since. Together with Britain, we won the war.
Where are we today? Does America have an RAF, a Churchill? What will the present crisis produce?
Where do the several “isms” that dominate the culture fit in? Will racism, sexism, and white nationalism finally do us in?
Is the United States united?
Is Great Britain great?