Since the Jacobite uprising of 1745 and Charles Edward Stuart’s march to Derby, mainland Britain has been spared large-scale fighting on its soil. The prevention of invasion, civil war or violent revolution provided a different historical experience here to that of both the United States and other European countries. Bombing during the Second World War, however, altered this pattern by bringing home to civilians the horrors of war.
Air attack during the Blitz in 1940 made London a battlefield, and Peter Stansky writes that fires started on the first day of bombardment exceeded in scope the Great Fire of September 1666. Even accounting for the change in London’s size between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, the comparison gives pause and helps explain why the Blitz looms so large in British public memory. Londoners responded to the Blitz with phlegmatic insouciance, taking pride in withstanding the worst attacks as if they were minor disruptions to routine. Revisionist accounts have qualified some aspects of this interpretation without ever refuting it or offering a plausible alternative.
The question of what it means to face catastrophic attack provides the starting point for Stansky’s The First Day of the Blitz. What prompts ordinary people to draw together and respond heroically under duress? The 11 September attacks on the World Trade Center in New York brought repeated comparisons with