On September 7th 1940, during WW2, approximately 350 German bombers appeared in the sky over London and carried out the first bombing raid in what became a sustained air campaign against the capital. Over 450 Londoners died that day. The Blitz had started.
The battle for air supremacy over England, described by Winston Churchill as the ‘Battle of Britain’ had been waging since July 10th. The German war machine had overrun France and the Luftwaffe had started targeting British coastal shipping and ports as a prelude to an invasion of Britain. They had been thwarted by intercepting British Fighter aircraft from Fighter Command, so the Germans switched their attacks to target British airfields, radar stations and aircraft production. The young pilots of the Royal Air Force, outnumbered and outgunned, took to their Spitfires and Hurricane fighters and though constantly on the backfoot, refused to be beaten.
One night in August, a German bomber, probably by mistake, dropped its bombs on London, . Winston Churchill immediately ordered the RAF to carry out a reprisal raid against Berlin and though not particularly successful (only an elephant in Berlin Zoo was killed) it incensed Hitler so much, that he ordered the German Luftwaffe to stop attacking British airfields and concentrate on bombing London instead.
For the next consecutive 57 days, London was pounded mercilessly, sometimes by day but increasingly by night, as London lacked adequate night-time defenses and the Nazis knew that the psychological fear of attack in the dark was greater.
A complete blackout was immediately imposed by the Government. Windows were covered at night and cars were not allowed to put their headlights on. (This led to many traffic accidents which the authorities tried to counter by reducing the speed limit to 20mph and painting white lines on the roads to help drivers and pedestrians). The smoking of cigarettes or cigars outside was banned and the blackout was enforced by wardens who could fine anyone for breaking the rules.
While thousands of children had successfully been evacuated from the city, defences in London to safeguard the civilian population were totally inadequate at the beginning of the war. The Government had not adopted a large-scale policy of building public shelters to protect people from bombardment (like they did in Germany), preferring instead to rely on semi-private initiatives such as the building of ‘Anderson’ family shelters, made of corrugated iron, in people’s gardens. It was only when the bombing raids became ever more intense that they made the Underground Stations available for people to shelter in. It was a common sight for people traveling on the tube to pass through a station crowded with the sleeping bodies of men, women and children and their belongings. This decision to open the underground to around 60,000 Londoners every night, ultimately led to thousands of lives being saved.
The stoicism displayed by Londoners in enduring the bombing, known as the ‘Blitz spirit’, became a rallying cry and left a deep impression on American commentators – who helped persuade the American public through radio broadcasts, that Britain was far from beaten. ‘Keep calm and carry on’ became the familiar slogan.
The German’s ruthless bombing campaign then targeted other parts of Britain including the industrial cities of Coventry, Birmingham and Liverpool, to try and destroy the country’s war effort and the morale of the people.
Over 40,000 civilians were killed in the devastation, almost half of them in London, where more than a million houses were destroyed or damaged.
During the Spring of 1941, British Air defences began to improve. Numbers of searchlights, anti-aircraft guns and barrage balloons (which forced the German bombers to drop their bombs from a greater height and therefore not be so accurate) increased and were now radar-controlled to improve accuracy. Intercepting fighter planes were fitted with their own radar to find targets. German aircraft losses went up from 28 in January to 128 in May.
The Blitz went on for eight months in total until May 1941, when the Germans suffering from increasing losses, realized they had failed to stop British war production or break the spirit of the people and turned their attention to Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia.
It is of little doubt that Hitler’s decision to alter the German strategy of attacking British airfields to bomb London and other British cities, ultimately turned out to be a disastrous one for the Nazis. It meant that the Royal Air Force was able to recover, increase production of its fighter planes and defeat the Germans in the first air war of WW2.
Churchill went on to say about the pilots of the Royal Air Force that “Never was so much owed, by so many, to so few”.
But for the people of London unfortunately, the German bombing of the city was not over. It was to return in 1944 to devastating effect.
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