Not since the end of the First World War had London experienced such terror from above. In that war, German Zeppelin raiders had approached in the darkness of the night, waiting in the shadows, ready to rain chaos on the towns and citizens below. The final attack didn’t come until the 5th August, 1918 (the commander of the German Naval Airship Department was killed in this last raid), and by then the Zeppelin airships had made 48 raids and killed 556 British citizens, while their aeroplanes had made 59 raids and killed 857.
From the outset of World War Two, Britain had been expecting a great German air assault on its soil. It was this fear that drove mothers to evacuate their children from the big cities, and that led the government to enforce a blackout, issue gas masks, and distribute Anderson shelters. Whitehall predicted that an enemy bombing campaign against Great Britain, with up to 700 tonnes of bombs being dropped every day, could kill 600,000 civilians and injure over 1.2 million.
The deadly tactics and attacks of the German Luftwaffe had proven hugely successful during the invasion of Poland in 1939, causing Warsaw to surrender after two and a half weeks of continuous bombing. Later, the Luftwaffe used its bombers and Stuka dive bombers, fitted with ‘Jericho trumpets’ that screeched when diving for a target, with great, terrifying, psychological effect as they carpet bombed Holland to the hasten a surrender.
While plans for ‘Operation Sea Lion’ – the invasion of Britain – and the preliminary air battle were taking shape, the Luftwaffe was not of course idle. From its captured airfields it harassed Britain by night, and from July the 10th, 1940, onwards it waged increasing war by day against British shipping in the Channel. Germany sent 120 bombers and fighters to strike at the British convoys, while 70 more bombers attacked dockyard installations in South Wales.
At this stage of the war Britain had fewer fighters than the German Luftwaffe, 600 to 1,300, but it had the advantage of an effective radar system, and British planes like the Spitfire could make much tighter turns than the German ME 109s could.
The ‘Phoney War’ was now over, and the Battle of Britain was about to begin. The name ‘Battle of Britain’ is taken from a Winston Churchill speech, in which he said that: “The Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin.”
On the 13th of August, Hitler heated things up a bit and unleashed the main offensive, called ‘Adlerangriff’ (Eagle Attack), which was initially against air bases, aircraft factories and radar stations in south-eastern England. To defend the country the British mustered more than 600 frontline fighters to the locality, and Fighter Command employed squadrons of durable and heavily armed Hawker Hurricanes. Britain also had the faster and more agile Supermarine Spitfires up its sleeve, saved for use against the bombers’ fighter escorts. Thanks to their superior equipment, the British actually had the advantage against the German bombers, which were mostly lightly armed, twin-engine planes like the Heinkel He 111 and Junkers Ju 88. These aircraft were very vulnerable in daylight, and also lacked the bomb load capacity to strike fatal blows. Even more vulnerable to being shut down was the once-feared Junkers Ju 87 ‘Stuka’ dive-bomber, and the German premier fighter – the Messerschmitt Bf 109 – was operating at the limit of its flying range, so that it could only provide brief long-range cover for the bombers. By the end of August, 1940, the Luftwaffe had lost more than 600 aircraft and the RAF just 260.
As the days passed, with the Luftwaffe constantly in action over the skies of Britain, the pilots and staff of the RAF, who were suffering from sheer exhaustion from fighting day and night, realised that the battle couldn’t go on forever. Doubt was beginning to enter their minds.
On the 24th of August the Luftwaffe took the pressure up another notch with a large raid of 100 aircraft, which advanced towards Dover, Ramsgate, Thames Estuary and East London area. It was broken up, but the bad news did not stop there; as soon as the bombers started their return journey, a radar station detected another large formation building up over Cherbourg. This time the target was London itself. London was NOT to be attacked except by personal order of Goring, according to the express instructions of Adolph Hitler.
Londoners so far in the war were used to simply hearing local gunfire, seeing the vapour trails of dogfights in the skies above, learning about the war in newspapers and on the radio, and reacting to the occasional air raid siren, but all was about to change. The public was in for a new experience, the like of which it had not seen since the last Gotha night raids of 1918, and this was one was to be far more frightening and deadly, causing greater loss of life and property.
On that terrible day the Luftwaffe targeted East London, in theory for its oil deposits at the docks, but a number of bombs missed their intended target and ended up falling on the built-up areas and homes of the district.
For the people of London the battle began in earnest, as they experienced for the first time the night sky glowing red with the fires of bombed houses and factories, the sounds of the explosions and human cries of terror and despair, in the course of what has been described as “the world’s worst assault from the air”. Over 1,200 houses were destroyed and damaged in attacks, though it was reported that Hitler was genuinely furious when he was told what had happened.
That same day the War Cabinet and Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided to order an immediate attack by Bomber Command on the German capital of Berlin, and on the next night more than 70 planes took off to pummel the city. Winston Ramsey, in his publication ‘The Blitz – Then and Now Volume’, states that: “This was a reprisal raid for the sudden attack on London. We wonder now as to whether this was a good move or not, for the bombing of Berlin only provoked the Luftwaffe into a series of regular raids on the British capital.”
Hitler was furious at the British retaliation, and in a broadcast to the German people he stated that: “Should the Royal Air Force drop 2,000 or 3,000 kilograms, then we will now drop 300,000, 400,000, yes, 1,000,000 kilograms in a single night. And should they declare they will greatly increase their attacks on our cities, then we will erase their cities.”
It was then decided in Nazi Germany to focus on bombing Britain's industrial cities in daylight to begin with, and then the city of London. The first major raid in this regard took place on the 7th of September, 1940, now known as ‘Black Saturday’, and it was a huge shock for the Londoners. It was a lovely sunny day when, at 16.43, the air-raid sirens started and a 12-hour attack was launched on the capital, with the ‘all clear’ sounded at 05.00 on the 8th of September. In that raid, 1,600 people had been seriously wounded and 430 killed.
The night raids became so frequent as to be almost continuous. Every night bar one for 10 solid weeks, from the 7th of September to the 14th of November, London was attacked prolifically by an average of 160 bombers. According to figures, between August, 1940, and May, 1941, over 43,000 civilians were killed.
Hitler believed that the Luftwaffe’s strategic aerial bombing raids would disrupt production, break morale, and beat Britain into submission. He aimed to increase the fear factor by ordering more and more night raids, causing the country to lose sleep and become weak.
Britain didn’t just roll over and surrender though; instead, it developed a ‘Blitz spirit'. The country protected itself by enforcing the blackouts and using shelters. Corrugated steel Anderson shelters, covered over with earth, were dug into gardens all over the country, and larger brick and concrete civic shelters were also put up in British towns.
Apparently many people who were fed up of losing sleep, going back and forth to the street shelters, took up residence in those shelters. Londoners moved down in their thousands to the tube stations, and far from breaking them, this experience fostered a spirit of community and camaraderie.
The bombing did not achieve its intended goal of demoralising the British and forcing surrender, nor did it severely damage the war economy, and the eight months of bombing never seriously hampered British production.
By May, 1941, the threat of an invasion of the United Kingdom had passed, and Hitler had turned his attention instead to the invasion of Russia and ‘Operation Barbarossa’.
The effects of the Blitz were still shocking though, and it is believed that around 60,000 people lost their lives, 87,000 were seriously injured, and 2 million homes were destroyed. Without air-raid shelters, the casualties would have been a lot worse.
Terror from the skies continued later on in the war, thanks not to the Luftwaffe this time, but to a new and unmistakeable ‘drone’ from the skies, the German secret weapon: the V1 flying bomb, a pulse jet powered predecessor to the cruise missile.
German Command hoped that the repeated and consistent use of V1 flying bombs (also known as doodlebugs) would eventually force a British surrender, with London bombed out of existence and other major industrial centres severely damaged. They were sorely mistaken, however, since there were never enough V1s to launch consistent attacks, and of those that were launched just 25% reached their intended targets, thanks to the efforts of British Intelligence.
Can any of your family members remember what life was like during World War Two at the time of the Blitz? Did any of them serve in the RAF? Are you looking for more information? Why not visit Forces War Records to search our wealth of records.