Digitally mapping the Second World War: regional representation, distant reading, and public engagement with the archives

Dr. Laura Blomvall
University of York

Bombing Britain

The Luftwaffe's bombs reached every corner of United Kingdom. The first bombs of the war were dropped in the Firth of Forth on October 16, 1939, one month and thirteen days after Britain and France declared war on Germany. The Blitz – a period of heavy, almost nightly bombing – lasted for eight months between September 1940 and May 1941. The last V rockets and air raids were conducted as late as March 1945: the last V rockets recorded in the HO 203 files (Ministry of Home Security: Daily Intelligence Reports)[1] made landfall in Little Oakley, Great Wakering and Great Wigborough in Essex, Batchworth in Hertfordshire, and Iwade in Kent on March 29, 1945. Between this period many cities in the United Kingdom, from Coventry to Exeter, from Belfast to Glasgow, from Swansea to Liverpool, as well as London, experienced devastating attacks, killing approximately 60,000 civilians.[2]

The writing of the period bears witness to the ubiquity of wartime bombing. The American poet H.D., who lived in London during the war, opens her 1942 poem The Walls Do Not Fall with the word "incident"[3]– the official wartime euphemism for bombing – to paint an image of the pervasiveness of air raids: "An incident here and there, / and rails gone (for guns) / from your (and my) old town square".[4] Bombing Britain: an air raid map shows for the first time in cartographic form how bombs, dropping "here and there", covered the expanse of the British Isles. If the Zeppelin planes at the end of the First World War anticipated the damage aerial warfare could be capable of inflicting, this isolated shock on the home front is different from the normalisation of air attacks during the Second, when the trauma of this violence became interwoven with the everyday lives of citizens around the country.[5] The home front becomes a violent battlefield and home streets are transformed into materials of war, with "rails gone (for guns) / from you (and my) old town square", militarizing the domestic spaces and interior lives of civilians.

In the HO 203 files the word "incident" appears over 1,500 of times: it indeed appears "here and there" in the text. Bombing Britain translates these "incidents" into an interactive map to represent for the first time the war's impact for the entire country – not just isolated cities or regions – situating each attack in the wider context of the bombing patterns throughout the war.[6] Guy Woodward, who has written a book-length study on Northern Ireland during the Second World War, has noted how "it is striking that London and the south-east of England, geographically closest in Britain to the European theatre of war, also provided the setting for many of the events which dominate British wartime mythology of the early years of the conflict such as the evacuation of Dunkirk, the Blitz in London, and the Battle of Britain".[7]

However, the cultural and critical emphasis on London and the South East, which frequently omits, elides, and marginalizes violence experienced in other regions, is not just a problematic aspect of contemporary representations of the war. This skewed geography was beginning to take shape during the war itself: it was knitted with the lived experienced of the Blitz. The press referred to Merseyside, the second biggest target after London, merely as the "north west" – a source of resentment for the local population, who felt their suffering was not nationally recognized.[8] Similarly, Bristol felt neglected when they were identified only as "a town in the west country" for several days after big attack on November 25, 1940, as Juliet Gardiner has observed:

Bristol was not identified by name in the national press for several days; the morning after the raid, the Bristol Evening Post spoke of "comparatively few casualties", and of course it was not permitted to print the numbers of those killed or injured, nor to identify streets or buildings by name, which was frustrating for a city anxious to know the extent of its devastation. Most galling was the fact that newsreels shown in Bristol cinemas in the days following the raid showed film of the Coventry blitz, with a sententious commentary on the plight and pluck of Coventarians, but no mention of what had happened in Bristol only ten days later. Although Bristol did not suffer so many deaths as Coventry, in the macabre taxonomy of war the city ranked sixth, with 1,159 deaths, fewer than London, Liverpool and Merseyside, Birmingham, Clydeside and Coventry, but more than Manchester, Swansea, Belfast and other major cities – yet for several days Bristol was identified only as "a town in the west country".[9]

Gardiner's account is supported by another file contained in War, State and Society, called "Conditions in selected blitzed towns: findings by 'Mass Observation Group' attached to the Admiralty, 1941", which describes the public mood in Bristol following the aftermath of the same air raid:

[T]here is more depression in Bristol than in any other area studies in recent months. There is some quite open defeatism…. There is less laughter and cheerfulness in Bristol than in Southampton or other places at equivalent periods after main raids.[10]

In the Bombing Britain project, geocoding The National Archives' HO 203 files had the explicit aim of widening regional representation and countering narratives that marginalize, exclude, or elide experiences of war outside the South East. The argument underlying the map emphasizes the locality and totality of the Second World War: while bombs were dropped in every part of the United Kingdom, the regional experiences were distinct, disparate, and diverse.[11]

Archives and distant reading

Wartime intelligence reports from September 1939 to April 1945, when the HO 203 files end, can seem like dry reading. These Ministry of Home Security files collate intelligence reports from the UK's twelve civil defence regions twice a day.[12] The 4,093 reports provide 6,539 pages of dense lists of locations, types of bombs, minutes of raids, and numbers of casualties. Vivid anecdotes are few and far between, although there are some exceptions. In report 832, an air raid warden from Orpington witnesses what was thought to be a new type of bomb and described it as "resembling Chinese cracker explosives" followed by "a strong smell of sulphur" after the explosion.[13] (In a later report, these "Chinese cracker explosives" were identified as tracer shells fired by the ground defences.)[14] Another vivid report describes a whiskey distillery that catches fire from a bomb, burning £300,000 worth of whiskey overnight – a sum in 1941 that would be worth close to £15,000,000 today.[15]

This is not to say the archives do not benefit from close reading. The reports, as they accumulate into thick volumes over the war years, betray some of the deeper anxieties driving this act of institutionally documenting wartime Britain: how fast can a military factory recover full operation after being hit by a bomb? How can the government measure the mood in cities after heavy civilian casualties and sudden increase in the number of the homeless? Where can additional firefighters be sourced when entire streets, boroughs, and cities are engulfed by fire?[16] Optimism about British morale is undermined by the accumulation of casualties, spontaneous abandonment of cities, and the running record of people listed as casualties "due to shock", painting a much more ambivalent and mercurial picture of wartime mood. As Richard Overy notes, "[b]ehind the rhetoric of 'we can take it' the social response to German bombing was complex and fractured".[17] The National Archives' wartime government records present an intersection between citizens and the wartime institutional structures for their management, bearing traces of frequent tension between the two as well as traces of the "complex and fractured" social response to bombardment. Indeed, it is this response that often drives the government's act of record-keeping itself.

Figure 1. A heat map of United Kingdom, 1939–1945. The color red shows the density of air raids and the color purple represents numbers of total casualties (injured and killed).

When digitally mapped, the density and spread of pinned locations communicate in seconds the scale of devastation these volumes document over thousands of pages. Viewing the data in a single-color heat map format, the entire United Kingdom appears dyed in intense red, with the South East looking like an intense scarlet lake. When the heat map measures numbers of casualties instead of numbers of air raids, the picture changes to show different patterns of numerical density: Belfast, which did not show as a hot spot for air raids, shows as a hot spot for casualties; the county of Kent, a zone of heavy aerial bombardment in the first heat map, disappears as a significant location for casualties next to cities like London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Coventry, Glasgow, and Bristol. In some ways, the correlation between numbers of casualties and urban centers with dense populations seems hardly ground-breaking. However, as a tool for communicating instantaneously what Gardiner called "the macabre taxonomy of war"[18] – a ranking of British cities by casualty numbers – Bombing Britain is unique and unparalleled.

The map's ability to communicate data from historical archives is also a good introduction to "distant reading" in an age of digital archives and primary source collections. Franco Moretti defined distant reading as "a condition of knowledge", as "it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text".[19] In the context of historical archives – as opposed to literary texts – the practice of distant reading facilitates an analysis of wartime files by focusing on "units" both smaller and larger than the volumes of archived reports. Bombing Britain enables the user to filter results by region, by casualty count, by date range, or by metadata information. In this way, the user can examine correlations of different units of the entire text without reading the volumes in a time-consuming linear way.

For example, filtering results to include all attacks that were caused between 5 and 6 people injuries in Scotland during the war produces twelve results, facilitating a closer investigation of the correlation between two types of data: in 1940, an attack on Orkney Islands, Lossiemouth, Peterhead, Monifieth, Leith, Granton in Edinburgh, and Ardeer, and, in 1941, an attack on Lopness, Innerwick, and Paisley and two separate attacks on Aberdeen. If the user has access to the War, State and Society digital resource, they can then examine the archival evidence behind each of these attacks. For example, the Granton, Edinburgh entry in the archives reads:

No. 11 Region (Scotland)
EDINBURGH (0025): Several I.B. [Incendiary Bombs] fell in the Granton district causing a fire at a fish shop and damaging 6 houses. Six people were slightly injured.

Interacting with archives in this way shows how digital mapping can creatively combine distant and close reading, combine global patterns with local detail. It is this marrying of research into textual detail with spatial analysis of big data that can make possible fresh engagement with public memory of the Second World War.

Digitally mapping wartime files can drive the function of the archive itself as a repository of public and institutional memory, as theorized by Jacques Derrida in Archive Fever: "[i]s the psychic apparatus better represented or is it affected differently by all the technical mechanisms for archivization and for reproduction, for prostheses of so-called live memory".[21] As a technological extension of the lived memory of war, digital mapping can act not only as a mechanism for "archivization and reproduction", but also as an interrogation of the archives' ability to extend public memory in the digital age.

Digitally mapping war

In her wartime home front novel, The Heat of the Day, published in 1948, Elizabeth Bowen wrote how the Second World War was difficult to contain on maps: "War's being global meant that it ran off the edges of maps; it was uncontainable".[22] Bombing Britain shows the war within the borders of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland; being part of a home front archive, it does not show the "world" in the Second World War. Indeed, in some ways this reflects a wider problem with digital mapping: the attempt to contain the uncontainable, to convey the extremity of the lived experience of war within the map's representational limits. Gabriel Hankins has summarized some of the problems inherent in digital mapping in the humanities:

geographic information systems (GIS) and their re-articulations in spatial representations have been seen as particularly dangerous for use in critical contexts…. Digital maps should always be seen as provisional, problematic, contaminated: they are useful to think with and against, but not to ground our histories on.[23]

In Hankins's view, digital mapping and critical thinking are intrinsically at odds: their visual forms embed contested histories that have become invisible due to the map's familiar appearance, a familiarity that hides how maps lie to us, or, perhaps more accurately, how we lie with maps, as Mark Monmonier has shown.[24] Todd Presner, David Shepard, and Yoh Kawano have succinctly stated the problem with maps as human products – and thus also as products of human aspirations, political aggressions, anxieties, and fantasies: "[m]aps are visual arguments and stories; they make claims and harbor ideals, hopes, desires, biases, prejudices, and violences".[25]

Some of these "violences" uncomfortably resonate with Second World War aerial bombardment: the bird's-eye view of the bomber echoes the total cognitive command over physical landscape that maps make possible. Patrick Deer has eloquently explained the cognitive shift the aerial perspective enables, and its military implications: "[t]he aerial perspective offered a new vantage point on the modern battlefield, restoring once more the oversight of the strategists, but there was a price: the new technology had also called into being a new and terrible space of war on the Home Front".[26] The aerial perspective of the bomber created a new modern war where the home front became vulnerable to violence from above. The dangers of mapping include its ability to reproduce complex structures of feeling embedded in this aerial perspective. A map, like an airplane, provides a view of regions, cities, and streets from above. The speed at which a user can view the entire impact of the six years of the war parallels the speed and dominance of the military plane with the command over physical landscape its elevated position facilitates. The air raids on the map are symbolized by small circles, which, like the ant-size of people and houses when viewed from an airplane, can breed a sense of unreality, where the physical bodies of the injured and killed civilians are no longer seen or engaged with in their human size. Many of the over 32,000 circles on the map represent children who never grew up, communities who lost their homes, entire families wiped out by a single bomb.

This is one of the reasons why close reading the archives while using the map to view the impact of the war from a distance is so crucial. By interacting with the archives, the user can read snapshots of the human stories behind the map's geographically organized catalogue of violence, which stops the reality of war from hiding behind the euphemism of data visualisation. In the fifteenth entry listed under the pin on Newcastle – recording the explosion of a bomb on May 30, 1941 – four people are counted under "killed":[27]

At 2015 the ground collapsed in Tarset Street in the BYKER District of NEWCASTLE near a house bombed on the 6th. A boy attempted to rescue a little girl who had fallen into the hole, but was overcome by fumes. A further rescue attempt was made by two A.F.S. [Auxiliary Fire Service] men, but with a similar result. The four bodies were later recovered by a third man. No coal gas was present, and it is believed that the gas was carbon monoxide resulting from a bomb explosion.[28]

Wartime deaths are violent, messy, and unpredictable. Civilians are killed not only from the direct impact of bombs, but also from fumes, from collapsing buildings, from landslides, from fires, from drowning in basements after burst water pipes, from falling into potholes in streets fragmented by bombardment. "The main purpose and outcome of war", as Elaine Scarry emphasized, "is injuring": "to alter (to burn, to blast, to shell, to cut) human tissue".[29] Traces of this violence are present in the archival material, which absorbs the injuries of war in statistics – but often, the statistics themselves are stretched under the weight of counting the number of dead and injured in response to the war's sheer scale of violence. In July 1941, fatal casualty figures in Hull were revised downwards from 132 to 110 because "the figure, given previously, was based on the number of partial remains".[30]

Wartime archives attempt (and frequently fail) to accurately and consistently catalogue injury and death. It is in this gap – the space between archival evidence, an abstract map, and a consciousness of what the circles on the map symbolize – that users can gain a deeper understanding of the costs of modern war. By articulating these relations, Bombing Britain is aligned with the principles behind "thick mapping" in the Digital Humanities:

Unlike conventional approaches to mapping, which tend to be positivistic and mimetic, these practices of thick mapping in the Digital Humanities place a primacy on experiential navigation, epistemologies of representation, and the rhetorics of visualization.[31]

What Anne Burdick et al. call "experiential navigation, epistemologies of representation, and the rhetoric of visualisation" have been at the heart of this project from the beginning. How do we communicate the impact to the Second World War to different audiences, including scholars, students, librarians, archivists, and members of the public? How do we help users navigate not only the data of war, but also the archival evidence underpinning that data? How do we make the map visually persuasive, while also creating a critical space for reassessing public memory of war? Bombing Britain: an air raid map is a product of these questions and an attempt to convey vividly how the bomb does not discriminate in the devastation it causes in whatever region, city, town, or village it falls.

Dr. Laura Blomvall recently completed a PhD at the University of York and is the lead researcher in Bombing Britain: an air raid map, a collaborative research project between Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, University of York, and The National Archives, with funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council distributed through the White Rose College of Arts and Humanities. Her research specializes in lyric poetry, the Second World War and late modernism, and she has written widely on various aspects of twentieth-century lyric poetry. Some of her previous publications include the book chapters "Hughes and Feminism" published in Ted Hughes in Context (Cambridge University Press, 2018), "The influence of Ted Hughes: the case of Alice Oswald" published in Ted Hughes: Nature and Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and an article forthcoming from Journal of Modern Literature titled "'Yet the frame held': poetic form and the bombing of London during the Second World War". She has also worked as the editor of the poetry magazine Eborakon.

[1] For more information on the HO 203 files, see the "Methodology" tab.

[2] Süss (2014, 6-7). Süss references British civilian deaths Dear and Foot (2001, 1135). This casualty figure is much lower than the 380,000 civilians killed by Allied bombing in Germany.

[3] For a longer discussion about the significance of the word "incident" in wartime discourse and writing, see: Blomvall (forthcoming).

[4] H.D. (1973, 1).

[5] For more information on the social and cultural response to Zeppelin attacks, see: Freedman (2004, 47-62).

[6] There are other excellent interactive maps based on different regions and cities: Bomb Sight: mapping the WW2 bomb census, a collaborative project between the University of Portsmouth and JISC led by Dr. Catherine Emma (Kate) Jones, geocoded London bomb census records from September 1940 to May 1941 [last access 1 August 2019]; and the West Yorkshire Archive Service geocoded all bombs that dropped on West Riding of Yorkshire on the night between March 14 and 15, 1941 in West Riding ARP Bomb map [last access: 1 August 2019]. Unlike these maps, Bombing Britain covers the entire United Kingdom for the six years of the war.

[7] Woodward (2015, 9). Woodward also alludes here to the work of Calder (1991).

[8] Gardiner (2010, 201).

[9] Gardiner, (2010, 213).

[10] HO 199/442.

[11] For more information on British national identity during the war, see: Rose (2003).

[12] Northern Ireland was ambiguously accommodated within this civil defence regional structure: sometimes, attacks on Northern Ireland were listed under region 10 ("North Western"), which covers Merseyside, Lancashire, Cheshire, Westmorland and Cumberland (the last two now Cumbria); at other times under a new number, 13; or just under a "Northern Ireland" heading, without being attached to any civil defence region number. We have used 13 as the civil defence region number for attacks on Northern Ireland. The other location not consistently accommodated is Surrey, which is sometimes listed under region 6 ("Southern") with Hampshire, Oxfordshire, Bedfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, and at other times under region 12 ("South Eastern") with Kent and Sussex.

[13] HO 203/05.

[14] HO 203/05.

[15] HO 203/08 and HO 203/08.

[16] For an overview on logistics of the response to home front bombing, see: Overy (2013, 126-196).

[17] Overy (2013, 126).

[18] Gardiner (2010, 213).

[19] Moretti (2000). Available at Last access: [23 July 2019].

[20] HO 203/04.

[21] Derrida and Prenowitz (trans.) (1996, 15).

[22] Bowen (1948, 308).

[23] Hankins (2018, 569-585, 576).

[24] Monmonier (1991).

[25] Presner, Shepard and Kawano (2014, 15).

[26] Deer (2009, 73-74).

[27] For anyone interested in reading the archives that the map data and pins connect to, please visit The National Archives (

[28] HO 203/08. The air raid on Newcastle on May 6, 1941 is recorded in the 13th entry on the same data circle.

[29] Scarry (1985, 63-64).

[30] HO 203/08.

[31] Burdick et al. (2012, 46).


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