The Blitz

Photo:Blitz landscape

Blitz landscape

Copyright Westminster City Archives

By Ronan Thomas

It is now 70 years since the start of the Blitz, the systematic attempt by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany to bomb the British people into submission from September 1940 to May 1941.

'The Blitz' - the phrase derives from the German word 'Blitzkrieg' ('lightning war') - is remembered as a national ordeal which deeply marked all who endured it. Heavy air raids took place on British cities for over eight months, from 7 September 1940 to 11 May 1941. This was followed by smaller scale air attacks in the so-called 'Lull' of 11 May 1941 to 21 January 1944, the 'Little Blitz' of 21 January to 19 April 1944 and the final V-Weapons campaign of 13 June 1944 - 29 March 1945.

During 1940-1945 some 60,000 British civilians were killed by aerial bombing (43,000 from September 1940 to May 1941). 71,000 were treated for life-threatening injuries and over 88,000 others were less seriously injured. Whilst London was bombed the most heavily - nearly 30,000 died and 50,000 were seriously injured - devastating raids also took place on eighteen other British cities, towns, ports and industrial production centres. These included: Coventry, Cardiff, Swansea, Belfast, Tyneside, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Hull, Southampton, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Glasgow, Clydeside, Nottingham and Exeter.

For four and a half years Britain endured the physical and psychological consequences of air attack: fear, shock, the loss of loved ones, deprivation, comprehensive destruction of property and the potential of defeat.

In London, over one million buildings were destroyed or otherwise damaged as the most formidable air force in Europe, the Luftwaffe, dropped its ordnance across the capital. Londoners’ nerves were shredded, but their collective will to resist was not broken. A ‘Blitz Spirit’ of solidarity and defiance – encouraged from 10 May 1940 by wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill – sustained the capital and the nation during the darkest moments. A popular documentary film of October 1940 was entitled ‘London Can Take It!’, a phrase which became the beleaguered capital’s watchword.

Battle of Britain to the Blitz

The onset of the Blitz coincided with the culmination of the Battle of Britain in September 1940, in which Hitler’s Luftwaffe tried and failed to achieve air superiority against the Royal Air Force (RAF) prior to a planned German invasion of the British Isles.

After eight months of ‘Phoney War’, following the outbreak of hostilities on 3 September 1939, stunning German victories in France and the Low Countries resulted in the British Army’s retreat to and evacuation from Dunkirk (26 May - 4 June 1940). Following the fall of France in June, as Churchill rallied the British people in the defence of their island and Empire, Hitler launched a strategy of economic blockade. Luftwaffe dive-bombers struck British merchant vessels repeatedly in the English Channel. During July over 30,000 tons of British shipping were sunk. Air attacks began on British ports, raw materials and food storage infrastructure and aircraft production centres. Hitler - at this stage hoping to pressure Britain into a negotiated peace - offered her a ‘last appeal to reason’ on 19 July. With Churchill's refusal, Hitler agreed to a plan submitted by his Air Minister and Luftwaffe Commander, Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, to destroy the RAF prior to a sea-borne invasion of Britain: Operation Sea Lion.

Sea Lion was scheduled for mid-September 1940, whilst weather remained favourable. The invasion plan was predicated on the swift achievement of German air superiority following destruction of Britain’s naval forces in the English Channel and the RAF's radar stations, airfields and fighters. From their newly-seized airfields on the French coast, flight time for German fighter aircraft across the Channel to Dover was six minutes. Goering was confident that the RAF could be defeated in a month.

In the subsequent Battle of Britain, from 19 July-31 October 1940, Goering dispatched an air armada of 2,250 German aircraft – of which over 1,000 were fast and heavily-armed Messerschmitt ME109 fighters - in massed daylight attacks with the intention of destroying the RAF’s airfields and sweeping its numerically inferior Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire fighters from the skies. The concentrated Luftwaffe effort to achieve air superiority failed. Despite intense German bombing of RAF airfields throughout August, the tide had turned by 15 September. The final outcome was the product of British strengths, the advantages of island geography and German tactical errors.

Supported by a vital chain of radar (RDF) stations, the Royal Observer Corps and a proficient air defence control system directed by Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding and Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, a force of around 600 Hurricanes and Spitfires from 10, 11 and 12 Groups, RAF Fighter Command doggedly defended the skies over southern England, inflicting serious losses as well as suffering many of their own. Although there was a perilous shortage of pilots, RAF fighter aircraft losses were replaced rapidly and aircrews rotated for rest, two advantages which the Luftwaffe did not enjoy in the summer of 1940. Instead, Luftwaffe intelligence reports overestimated British losses. For his part, Goering issued a series of contradictory tactical air directives as the Battle ebbed and flowed, including an order to his ME109 fighter squadrons to fly at slower speeds to escort his bomber force. This meant that these highly-effective aircraft – whose range over southern England was also limited by fuel constraints – could not operate to their full potential and dominate the air battlefield. Denied air superiority, as well as lacking sufficient naval strength in the Channel, Hitler postponed Operation Sea Lion indefinitely on 17 September and finally called it off on 12 October.

The RAF had won a critical defensive victory, although the margin had been narrow. 3,080 aircrew from RAF Fighter Command fought in the Battle, of whom 544 were killed. 915 British aircraft were destroyed. Against this, the Luftwaffe lost 2,662 aircrew killed with over 6,000 others wounded or taken prisoner. 1,773 German aircraft were destroyed.

For the first month of the Battle of Britain London was largely unaffected, except for periodic siren alerts and rigorous blackout regulations (in force since 1 September 1939). From August until early September 1940, Londoners in the capital's suburbs were treated to an extraordinary display of criss-crossing vapour (‘con’) trails in the skies above them, as the rival air forces vied for supremacy over Kent, Essex, Surrey and Sussex. But Churchill had few illusions as to what was coming. Since 1939, the government had developed worst-case plans to deal with over 600,000 fatalities and over 1.2 million serious injuries (25,000 bombing-related casualties in Britain per day). In September 1939 around one million children were evacuated from London and from cities across Britain. Poison gas attacks on London and on other British urban areas were also expected (44 million gas masks had been issued to British civilians between late 1938 and September 1939).

On 15 August, Croydon, on the outskirts of the capital, was hit in a daylight raid. On 24 August, London entered the firing line, directly. German aircraft bombed the city centre in error, despite Hitler’s standing orders to the contrary. The British retaliated, raiding Berlin on 25 August. On 7 September 1940, the Luftwaffe turned on London. The intention: destroy the nerve centre of Britain's trade and war economy, wear down civilian morale and force Churchill's government to sue for peace. A new chapter in Britain’s wartime experience was about to unfold.

7 September 1940 - 11 May 1941

The Blitz proper lasted from 7 September 1940 to 11 May 1941, eight months (243 days and nights) of sustained air raids on London, culminating in an all-out raid on 10-11 May 1941. Attacks were intensifed against provincial British ports, cities, and industrial centres from mid-November 1940 to May 1941 in an attempt to complete Britain's economic blockade and devastate her inward supply facilities and production capabilities.

The Blitz began with a mass daylight raid on London's docks and the East End from 5pm on 7 September 1940 (‘Black Saturday’). Over 250 German aircraft dropped 625 tons of high explosive bombs and thousands of incendiaries. The attack persisted into the early hours of 8 September. 436 civilians were killed; 1,600 were seriously injured. Nine miles of London’s docklands, wharves and closely-packed warehouses from Tower Bridge to Woolwich were set ablaze.

From 7 September to 2 November - 57 consecutive nights - London was bombed without respite. The Luftwaffe conducted daylight raids on the capital until rising RAF fighter interception rates forced a shift to night attacks only (from 29 October). In the Blitz’s first month, 5,730 Londoners were killed and over 9,000 seriously injured. From 7 September to mid-November, an estimated 28,000 high explosive bombs and tens of thousands of incendiaries were dropped on London. 3,759 unexploded high explosive bombs (UXBs) had been dealt with in London by the end of September alone. In the event, poison gas attacks on London and other British cities were not carried out.The Luftwaffe eschewed the use of gas - on grounds of ineffectiveness and the likelihood of British reprisal in kind - although concerns over its potential persisted well into 1944.

During the first weeks of the London Blitz Luftwaffe bombing was concentrated on the East End, on its narrow tenements, riverside docks and warehouses. So much so that the British government was at first seriously concerned by the possibility of domestic insurgency. Soon, bombs dropped on the West End showed that the pain would be shared by all Londoners. After Buckingham Palace was bombed on 13 September 1940, Queen Elizabeth was prompted to remark: “I am glad we have been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face”. Equally, the diarist and politician, Harold Nicolson, pointed to this issue in his diary entry for 17 September 1940:

“Everybody is worried about the feeling in the East End, where there is much bitterness.... Clem (Clement Davies MP, Liberal Party leader from 1945-1956) says that if only the Germans had had the sense not to bomb west of London Bridge there might have been a revolution in this country. As it is, they have smashed about Bond Street and Park Lane and readjusted the balance".

If the largest percentage of German bombs dropped on London fell on the East End, the City of London and the docks, the capital’s West End and its suburbs also suffered, extensively. This was illustrated by the experience of the City of Westminster, a London borough amalgamated in 1965 with its neighbour, St Marylebone, but in 1940 a discrete municipal entity. Over 1,100 City of Westminster residents were killed during the London Blitz and 2,500 others seriously injured. The borough witnessed its first (minor) bomb incident when incendiaries fell on Belgravia on 30 August 1940. 

Many iconic buildings in City of Westminster and St Marylebone were badly damaged during the first three and a half months of the Blitz (September to December 1940). These included: Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, Whitehall, The National Gallery, BBC Broadcasting House (Portland Place W1), Marble Arch, Green Park, Sloane Square and Trafalgar Square Underground Stations. Also struck were Leicester Square, Regent Street, Victoria Street, Petty France, Dolphin Square SW1, Pimlico, Millbank, Savile Row W1, Madame Tussauds, Baker Street, (Marylebone), five department stores on Oxford Street (John Lewis, Selfridges, Peter Robinson, Bourne and Hollingsworth and DH Evans), Soho and Piccadilly.

In daylight and night raids during 1940-1941, an average of 28 high explosive bombs fell per 100 acres in Westminster. Westminster districts - particularly Pimlico, Soho and Millbank - were struck by incendiary and high explosive bombs, parachute mines ('land mines' in contemporary parlance) and V1 flying bombs (from June 1944). V2 Long Range Rockets also hit Westminster and St Marylebone during September 1944 to March 1945.

Attack and defence

The German bomber fleet sent against London was composed of waves of twin-engined Heinkel HE111, Dornier Do17 and Junkers JU88 aircraft from Luftflotten (Air Fleets) Two and Three, based in northern France and the Low Countries, accompanied by ME109 fighters and ME110 fighter-bombers by day but flying unescorted to the capital by night. From October to November 1940 – the so-called ‘Messerschmitt Month’ - ME109 fighters were also given new roles as fighter-bombers, flying in daylight at higher altitudes to evade interception and dropping 250kg (550lb) bombs on parts of London, including Waterloo Railway Station. The number of aircraft sent against London and other British cities in the first months of the Blitz averaged 200-300 bombers per raid – some flying multiple sorties - although this rose to over 400 in night raids from October 1940.  

The bombers flew to the capital up the Thames Estuary or directly in over Kent and Sussex guided by Knickebein (‘crooked leg’) and X-Gerat on-board navigation aids. These systems used powerful directional radio beams transmitted from separate locations in occupied France. Directed by a radio tone on their headsets, Luftwaffe pathfinder bomber crews 'rode' these beams until they converged over London. On moonlit nights, the aircrews also used the glistening ribbon of the Thames as a reference point. During the heaviest raids, navigation was elementary: the red glow of the burning capital was visible from sixty miles.

In September 1940, Luftwaffe pilots were equipped with maps demarcating (in red) districts in London to avoid (mostly street addresses of neutral embassies) and those areas to target deliberately. The latter included the City of London (finance and economy), key transport hubs (railway termini), official government buildings (many in Westminster) and the docks. During late 1940-1941, this element of precision ceased. London was designated an ‘area target’ to be attacked at night from high level. 

Once over London, pathfinder German bombers dropped parachute flares to illuminate whole streets, followed by canisters ('bread-baskets') of incendiary bombs. The vast majority of bombs dropped during the Blitz were incendiaries. Each German bomber could carry as many as 700. When released the canisters split open, scattering dozens of small 1kg (2.2lb) incendiaries filled with a Thermite (magnesium) mixture which ignited on impact. Lodged in roof spaces, often inaccessible to firemen, they burned fiercely. Subsequent bomber waves were guided in by the incendiary fires burning in the streets below. 

Next, the bombers dropped hundreds of high explosive bombs of varying power, ranging from 50kg (110lb) to 2,500kg (5,500lb) - including delayed-action types - as well as oil-incendiary bombs and highly destructive, 8-ft long 1,000kg (2,200lb) SC1800 parachute mines, which drifted down indiscriminately until their timer fuses detonated. Containers of 2kg (4.4lb) SD2 butterfly anti-personnel mines were also unloaded on London. From early 1944, during the period of the 'Little Blitz', Luftwaffe aircraft dropped new 50kg (110lb) and 250kg (550lb) phosphorous incendiary bombs.  After releasing their bomb loads and heading home to their airfields in France and the Low Countries, the German raiders swept back east over Essex and the Thames Estuary or south over Kent and Sussex.

Right from the start of the Blitz, these effective tactics threatened to overwhelm the capital’s defences. The air defence of London at night was a story of many deficiencies. In September 1940, only 90 batteries of manually-guided 3.7 inch, 4.5 inch, Vickers Mark VIII 3 inch, 2-pounder and 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft ('ack-ack' or AA) guns were available in the capital’s parks and at key concentrations in the suburbs along the bombers’ routes. This number was rapidly increased to 264 and their deafening barrages boosted Londoners’ morale. Yet, along with attempted interceptions by Bristol Blenheim, radar-arrayed Bristol Beaufighter and Boulton Paul Defiant night-fighters, the anti-aircraft response was broadly ineffective. During 1940-1941 the night loss rate of German bombers was a mere 1.5%. 264 batteries were still not enough and their range predictors proved imprecise. Falling anti-aircraft shells exploded or fell unexploded in London's streets, causing civilian casualties and diverting scarce bomb disposal team resources.

The corollary to this was that the heavy barrages, effective up to around 20,000 feet, accompanied by manually-operated and, later, electrically-directed searchlights, forced the German bombers to fly at higher altitudes, further denuding their targeting ability. Thousands of barrage balloons, tethered by steel cables, were also deployed to deter low-flying German aircraft and became a familiar sight in British cities, ports and next to factories. Large smoke canisters, designed to obscure Britain's cities and towns from air attack (in the event of a confirmed invasion) were held in reserve. Under the leadership of Dr R.V. Jones, Churchill's Assistant Director of Intelligence, the British learnt to disrupt the German bomber Knickebein navigation aids with their own radio countermeasures. From 1943, the nation's AA defences improved markedly, with the introduction of radar-controlled guns and new anti-aircraft rocket batteries.

Britain responds, then endures

Across Britain, the Blitz of 1940-1941 witnessed a huge demand for national Civil Defence workers, both voluntary and conscripted. In September 1939, hundreds of thousands of Britons of all backgrounds had volunteered for civil defence service. As compulsory military service drew off men aged 18-41 (September 1939), then men aged up to 51 and women aged 19-30 (December 1941), the need for additional manpower became urgent. Over 1.5 million Britons (200,000 in London) were enrolled as volunteer Air Raid Precaution (ARP) wardens. 95,000 (23,000 in London) were recruited into the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS). Fire-watching was made compulsory in Britain from January 1941 and - until early 1945 - dereliction of duty was punishable by fines or imprisonment.

Many other Britons volunteered for service as nurses, in the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) and Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), as car and mobile crane drivers, medical and ambulance orderlies, stretcher bearers, in Heavy and Light Rescue crews, as utility workers, in decontamination teams, in public transport and the police. Nationally, by December 1943, almost two million civilians were serving in the ARP, Fire (NFS), Ambulance and Police services. A grand total of 16.5 million British men and women were engaged in essential civilian war work by June 1944.

After basic training, these civilians were responsible for keeping Britain going. After their normal working day they reported bomb incidents, watched for and fought small and more serious fires, treated the injured, enforced blackout regulations, ran mobile canteens, assisted in the rescue of trapped bomb victims from the mangled ruins of city buildings and the removal of the dead to mortuary vans. Subsisting on monotonous food rations (strict rationing was imposed across Britain from 8 January 1940), they also conducted poison gas and incendiary bomb precaution exercises, took censuses of local buildings, guided civilians to safety, roped off streets and controlled access, helped to clear debris (three million tons required clearance in London alone by 1945), reported damage and kept order in public air raid shelters and in London’s Underground stations.

As the Blitz unwound, the public-spiritedness of both volunteers and conscripts was tested - to the limit. Night after night during 1940-1945, civil defence members and city inhabitants in London and elsewhere were confronted by shocking sights and sounds. The spine-tingling, stomach-churning wail of air raid sirens. The distinctive, sinister hum of enemy aircraft engines. The whistle of falling high explosive bombs and their ear-splitting detonation. The metallic tinkling sound of incendiaries dropping onto rooftops before igniting in a white-green flash. The dazzling finger beams of searchlights and pounding anti-aircraft guns. The deafening roar of collapsing buildings. Choking smoke and dust. Blasted streets strewn with heavy debris, masonry rubble, shattered glass and shrapnel. The urgent bells of passing emergency vehicles. The menace of unexploded ordnance. Ripped-open utility capillaries: burst coal gas and water mains, ruptured sewers, severed telephone lines, sparking mains electricity and broken overhead tram wires. The searing heat of major fires out of control. Flood damage from fire service water hoses. Corpses and body parts found entombed under smashed brick, metal and wood in destroyed houses and shelters. Dazed and injured civilians requiring first aid and the furtive activities of looters.

The authorities’ primary civil defence concerns were public shelter, protection and population dispersal. During the Blitz, over 2.25 million British people were made homeless (1.5 million in London). Pre-war plans to construct a series of deep underground public shelters - for the envisaged primary target, London - had still not been acted upon when the Blitz arrived. In October 1940, the government finally agreed to build eight such shelters (each accommodating 4,000 people). But the pace of construction was slow: the first deep shelter was not completed until July 1944. Instead, Londoners sought refuge from the nightly air raids in surface and underground street shelters, in trench shelters in city squares and parks, in the basements of large public buildings, offices or under railway arches. 27% of Londoners relied on corrugated iron Anderson shelters in back gardens. Many others simply stayed at home, taking cover in the most secure parts of their houses: under staircases, in cellars or in Morrison indoor shelters (mass-produced sheet steel cages). Key government buildings - including many across Westminster and Whitehall - were protected against high explosive bomb blast by banks of sandbags.  

Each public shelter in London was administered as efficiently as local circumstances permitted. Many required tickets, each were maintained with varying degrees of sanitation. Some, like the Tilbury Shelter in Stepney E1, became notorious for overcrowding and lack of basic facilities. Others, such as the basement shelter of the Dorchester Hotel on Park Lane, hosted society grandees in comparative style. Elsewhere in Westminster, large public shelters were operated in the Methodist Central Hall, Trafalgar Square and in dozens of the borough’s garden squares.

4% of Londoners (177,000 people) sheltered in 79 Underground stations – such as Aldwych in Westminster - across the London Tube network. Initially, the authorities attempted to prevent Londoners occupying the stations during the nightly raids. Under public pressure, they were forced to reconsider and soon each station was regulated by ARP wardens, London Transport staff and volunteers. Each acquired a familiar nighttime routine. After the power was switched off, people slept on the platforms and in the tunnels on the tracks. Apart from platform sleeping spaces or prefabricated bunks, most Underground stations offered chemical lavatories (in others just buckets behind screens), refreshments, even library facilities. As an example, City of Westminster libraries donated 2,000 books for use in their borough shelters.

Shelterers in the London Underground stations - memorably captured by wartime artists such as Henry Moore and Edward Ardizzone – may have felt safer but they were by no means free from danger. From September 1940 to May 1941, 198 civilians were killed in Underground stations across the city. Several stations took direct hits. These included: Marble Arch (17 September 1940, 20 killed), Trafalgar Square (12 October 1940, 7 killed), Bounds Green (13 October 1940, 19 killed), Balham (14 October 1940, 68 killed) and Bank (11 January 1941, 111 killed). On 3 March 1943, 173 died in a stampede at Bethnal Green Station. In the City of Westminster, Green Park Station was also badly damaged and on 12 November 1940 bombs fell on Sloane Square Station, hitting a passing train, wrecking the platforms and killing or seriously injuring 79. All mainline overground termini in London, 23 other railway stations, 12 trolleybus and tram stations and 15 bus stations were hit during 1940-1945. London Transport reported 181 staff deaths in the Blitz and over 9,000 separate damage incidents.

Regional Blitz

The Blitz witnessed concerted night bombing of British regional cities, industrial and aircraft production centres and the main ports which supplied the British population from the sea. German air raids were subsequently launched across Britain to smash munitions production and to support the U-boat campaign from 1940-1943 against allied merchant shipping convoys sailing from the United States and Canada (the ‘Battle of the Atlantic’). On 14 November 1940, Coventry - a centre for aircraft, weapons and automotive production – was devastated by 440 German aircraft in a twelve-hour attack. 500 tons of high explosive bombs and over 30,000 incendiary bombs were dropped. 568 people were killed, 1,256 were seriously injured.

In November, raids were made on Birmingham and in December on Merseyside, Southampton, Sheffield and Manchester. On the night of 2 January 1941, 100 German bombers attacked Cardiff in a ten-hour raid, dropping 14,000 incendiaries and hundreds of high explosive bombs. 165 were killed and 427 seriously injured. On 3 January, Bristol received similar Luftwaffe attention: 149 were killed with over 300 injured.

The campaign against the provinces was unrelenting: Portsmouth (10-11 January 1941, 68 killed, over 160 injured), Swansea (19-22 February 1941, 219 killed, 260 injured), Cardiff (26 February, 3 and 4 March 1941 and further raids between 12 March and 11 May 1941), Plymouth (20-21 March 1941, 591 killed). Bristol, Portsmouth, Southampton, Birmingham, Coventry, Clydebank, Tyneside were all bombed again heavily from mid-March to April 1941. Belfast was raided on 7-8 April, 15 April and 4 May 1941, inflicting over 700 fatalities. On 8 May it was Nottingham's turn. From April to May 1941, Hull and Liverpool. During April 1941, the British government estimated that over 6,000 British civilians had been killed in air raids.

Apex of destruction

In London, the Blitz became ever more destructive as 1940 ended. A major raid took place on 8 December 1940: German bombers dropped over 380 tons of high explosive bombs and at least 115,000 incendiaries. 250 Londoners were killed and 600 more seriously injured. In the West End a parachute mine badly damaged Portland Place W1, including BBC Broadcasting House, for a second time.

On 29 December 1940 the centre of the City of London was consumed by fire after German aircraft delivered over 20,000 incendiaries and 120 tons of high explosive. 160 civilians were killed. 14 firemen died and 250 of their colleagues were injured fighting over 1,400 major incendiary blazes. The Guildhall and eight Wren churches were burnt out and five mainline rail stations suffered direct hits. The area around St Paul’s Cathedral became a sea of flames, although the Cathedral itself was saved by the strenuous efforts of its own firewatchers and a seemingly Providential change in the weather.

From 11-19 January 1941, London was attacked a further four times. During March West End buildings were again struck during raids, among them Buckingham Palace and the Café de Paris nightclub on Coventry Street W1 (killing swing dance band leader Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson and 34 others).

Much worse was to come. A large raid - 130 tons of high explosive and 25,000 incendiaries dropped - took place on 8 March 1941. 100 tons of high explosive and 16,000 incendiaries fell on the capital on 15 March. On the night of 19 March, 470 tons of high explosives and 122,000 incendiaries struck the East End and the docks. Over 1,700 people were killed or seriously injured. Further very heavy night raids on London took place on 16-17 April 1941 (890 tons of high explosive and 151,000 incendiaries dropped with 1,000 killed) and on 19-20 April 1941 (1,000 tons of high explosive and 153,000 incendiaries dropped with 1,200 killed).

The Blitz reached its crescendo on 10-11 May 1941 when German aircraft wrought unprecedented destruction across the city. Under a full moon, Luftwaffe bombers flew over 500 sorties against the capital, unloading 711 tons of high explosive and 86,000 incendiaries. 1,436 Londoners were killed and 2,000 others were seriously injured (the highest number inflicted in a single raid during the London Blitz). At least 2,000 separate incendiary fires were started. 10,000 buildings in London were either obliterated or badly damaged.

In Westminster these included the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, St John's, (Smith Square), St Clement Danes Church (Strand), the Queen’s Hall (Langham Place), St James's Palace, Piccadilly, Eaton Square, Park Lane, St Martin's Lane, Pimlico, parts of Soho, Mayfair and Knightsbridge. Elsewhere, bombs rained down on the docks, the East End, the City of London, Marylebone, Waterloo, Holborn (including the British Museum), King's Cross, Lincoln's Inn and Gray's Inn, Chelsea, Lambeth Palace, St Thomas's Hospital, the Tower of London, Paddington, Kensington, Hammersmith, Elephant and Castle, Nunhead, Peckham, Bermondsey, Greenwich and Hackney. Major disruption was caused to London's transport infrastructure: all but one mainline railway terminus and four bridges across the Thames were temporarily closed. In total, 700 acres of the capital were burnt down or pounded into rubble.

By mid-May 1941, German aircraft had dropped over 18,000 tons of high explosive bombs on the capital. Yet, London was a huge target. Prime Minister Churchill calculated that the city could absorb great punishment (possibly for years) as he tried to secure direct American entry into the war.

Respite came as the result of a change in German military strategy. By May 1941, Hitler’s attention had shifted to executing his grand strategic plan – the invasion and defeat of the Soviet Union. This invasion – Operation Barbarossa – was launched on 22 June 1941, diverting many German aircraft from attacks on Britain. The nation breathed a sigh of relief.

11 May 1941 - 21 January 1944: 'The Lull'

Luftwaffe bombers continued to attack British cities but from mid-May 1941 to late January 1944 the number and intensity of raids dropped dramatically. This two and a half year period became known as ‘The Lull’. Nevertheless, this phase included sporadic raids on London (as on 27 July 1941) and the so-called ‘Baedeker Blitz’ raids of April to June 1942. These were individual attacks on provincial English cities and towns conducted in reprisal for the British bombing of the undefended German Baltic port cities of Lubeck on 28 March and Rostock on 23-24 April 1942.

The Baedeker raids were reputedly carried out after Luftwaffe commanders consulted the 1937 edition of the ‘Baedeker’s Great Britain' tourist guidebook (each target was selected if it had been awarded three stars).The following cities and towns were raided: Bath, Canterbury, Exeter, Norwich, York, Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge, Great Yarmouth and Ipswich. 1,637 people were killed and 1,760 were seriously injured.

During the rest of 1942 and during 1943, the Luftwaffe carried out additional precision air raids on port cities (such as on Cardiff on 30 June and 2 July 1942, 7 May and 17-18 May 1943) and so-called 'tip and run' attacks. These were fast, low-level raids on coastal towns and on specific military and industrial targets. Focke-Wulf FW190 fighters, modified to carry 500lb bombs, were sent on strafing sorties against southern England (including London from January 1943). Further raids on the capital took place on 17 and 20 January, 3 March, 17 June, 7 October and 7 November 1943.

21 January 1944 - 19 April 1944: The 'Little Blitz'

From January to April 1944, substantial German air raids resumed on London in the so-called ‘Little Blitz’ (or ‘Baby Blitz’). Greater London and south east England were singled out for attack again in retaliation for British saturation bombing of major German cities, particularly Berlin. In a last major conventional night bombing effort - Operation Steinbock - the Luftwaffe devoted 524 aircraft for new night raids on London, including Junkers JU88S, Junkers JU188, Dornier Do217, Messerschmitt ME410 and Heinkel HE177 bombers. During four months of raids – fourteen on London (seven on Westminster) and others on Bristol, Hull and Cardiff - around 1,500 people were killed with almost 3,000 seriously injured. In London, people flocked again to the Underground stations, as they had done in 1940-1941 (deep public shelters were still not available).

On the night of 21-22 January 1944 the 'Little Blitz' began. 400 aircraft, flying in two waves, dropped 268 tons of high explosive bombs and thousands of incendiaries on south east England and London. In Westminster the Houses of Parliament (Parliament Square and Westminster Hall), the Embankment, New Scotland Yard (Canon Row) and parts of Pimlico were hit by incendiaries. On 28 January, 285 bombers smashed the Surrey Commercial Docks, in the process causing major fires.

Additional air raids on London took place on 29 January and on 19, 20, 23, 24 and 29 February 1944. In a heavy raid on 19 February, the Luftwaffe dropped phospherous incendiaries on Whitehall, hitting the 'Fortress', a reinforced concrete extension of the War Office. More damage was caused in Queen's Gate SW7 and in Pimlico. On 20 February, Whitehall was hit again after bombs fell on Horse Guards Parade and in St James's Park (damaging the Treasury, the Admiralty, the War Office and the Scottish Office). Windows were shattered in No 10 Downing Street. Churchill’s Assistant Private Secretary and vivid wartime diarist, Sir John 'Jock' Colville, described the raid of 20 February as ‘a short, sharp blitz’. Hyde Park and Pall Mall were also struck. On 23 February bombs fell in St James's and Chelsea, and, on the following night, on parts of Soho. On 14-15 March, 100 German aircraft again dropped phospherous incendiaries and high explosives across London. In Westminster, Hyde Park, Knightsbridge, Rochester Row, Monck Street, Cliveden Place and two churches in Medway Street and Flask Lane SW1 were all hit, set alight or damaged. On 21 March, Paddington Railway Station was bombed.

But the Luftwaffe bomber force was badly mauled during the 'Little Blitz'. In four months, 329 aircraft were either lost or redeployed. Over 100 were lost to interception, ground defensive fire, crew inexperience and maintenance problems. Reichsmarschall Goering then diverted squadrons to oppose the allied landings at Anzio, Italy, from 22 January 1944, and to support German occupation forces in Hungary from mid-March 1944. British aircraft, particularly De Havilland Mosquito night-fighters, exacted an ever-increasing toll on the attacking German formations. The final raid of the ‘Little Blitz’ took place on the night of 18-19 April 1944. Thereafter, Goering devoted what was left of his bomber strength in France to preparations for the expected allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe.

The ‘Little Blitz’ was over. Casualties had been comparatively light. Yet those who lived through it remembered the extra strain on British civilian morale it caused. Winston Churchill’s youngest daughter, Baroness Soames, experienced the ‘Little Blitz’ at first hand in London whilst a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS):

Early in 1944, the enemy once more turned his attention upon the cities of this country, London being the chief target. Londoners accepted this resumption of the air raids stolidly, but people were just that much wearier; three years of the sheer slog of wartime life since the first Blitz had inevitably taken their toll. During the ‘Little Blitz’, the noise was truly appalling, most of it being caused by our own, much more formidable defences, and even a quiet night brought little rest to many thousands of men and women, who, after their day’s work, went home to do their stint as Air Raid Wardens and Firewatchers. Westminster was no more immune than other parts of London: on the night of 20 February 1944, Downing Street and Whitehall once again suffered bomb damage” (Mary Soames: ‘Clementine Churchill’, 1979).

13 June 1944 - 29 March 1945: The V-Weapons

Even as battered Britain glimpsed victory on the horizon, following the successful D-Day landings in north western France on 6 June 1944, a final, vicious, air assault began: the V-Weapons. In a highly destructive offensive, from 13 June 1944 to 29 March 1945, Hitler launched new ‘Vengeance weapons' (‘Vergeltungswaffen’) against London. Over 3,000 of these hit the capital and its suburbs. Almost 9,000 people were killed. At least 24,000 others were seriously injured.

The first were V1 flying bombs (known to Londoners as ‘Doodlebugs’). The V1s were pilotless bombs with a range of 149 miles (240km), powered by an Argus 109-014 pulse engine and launched by catapult from ramps in occupied Europe. Due to design faults and a major RAF raid on 17-18 August 1943 on their test facilities at Peenemunde, on Germany’s Baltic coast, their use was delayed until June 1944.

Each V1 was divided into five sections: pulse engine, control compartment, ball-shaped compressed air tanks, alcohol fuel tank and nose warhead. Each flew at around 400mph (645 kmph) and were guided to their targets by autopilot and gyrocompass. After launch from northern France or Holland, V1s could reach London in 25 minutes. They arrived by day and by night. A small nose airscrew (air log) measured a set range – every V1 sent against the capital was calibrated for the exact distance to Tower Bridge – after which the droning pulse engine cut out and the V1 dived down, silently and menacingly, onto London. Each V1 delivered a powerful warhead: 1,870 lb (850kg) of high explosive.

Until their launch ramp sites were overrun by the advancing allied armies, V1s badly damaged the capital. The first V1 fell on 13 June 1944 on Bow, East London (6 killed). The public were first informed about the dangers from flying bombs on 16 June. Of over 10,000 V1s launched, approximately 9,251 were fired against London during an eighty day campaign. 7,488 crossed the south coast of England. 3,957 were shot down by anti-aircraft fire, by RAF fighter interception - by Hawker Tempests, Spitfires and by Britain's first jet fighter, the 400mph (670km/h) Gloster Meteor - or hit the cables of barrage balloons tethered outside the capital. Around 2,500 V1s hit London (a rate of 50 to 100 a day in late June 1944). 6,184 people were killed with 17,981 injured. 18,000 homes (400 per V1) were destroyed by V1s with 137,000 damaged. In the final stages of the campaign, V1s were also air launched against Britain from Heinkel HE111 bombers. The last V1 to hit Britain landed near Datchworth, Hertfordshire on 29 March 1945 (none killed or injured).

In the City of Westminster, from 18 June to 27 August 1944, thirty V1s killed 267 people, seriously injured 663 and otherwise injured over 1,000 others. V1 strikes are depicted on the borough’s ARP Bomb Map with baleful clarity. They include Rutherford Street, Vincent Square, on 18 June 1944 (10 killed, 62 injured), Victoria Station (Hudson’s Place), on 25 June 1944 (14 killed, 82 injured), Cumberland Street, Pimlico, 30 June 1944 (13 killed, 165 injured) and Brompton Road SW1 on 3 August 1944 (6 killed, 29 injured). Pimlico was particularly badly hit, including Semley Place, Sutherland Terrace, Peabody Avenue, Winchester Street and Grosvenor Road. V1s also exploded on Constitution Hill, close to Buckingham Palace Gardens, on Wilfred Street SW1, on Brewer Street (Regent Palace Hotel Annexe), on Lower Sloane Street, on Rotten Row and in Hyde Park.

Others fell on the Bayswater Road, in Kensington (Exhibition Road, Cromwell Road and Queen’s Gate); in W1 in Berkeley Square and on Conduit Street; in WC2 on Milford Lane, Shelton Street, Grange Court, Clements Inn and Wild Street (close to Drury Lane); in SW1 on Monck and Tufton Streets, into the Thames by the Victoria Embankment, by Millbank, opposite Charing Cross and on Hungerford Bridge. Six V1s hit the area around the Strand during 1944-1945. Two of the worst V1 incidents of the war took place in Westminster in June 1944, at Aldwych (46 killed) and at the Guards' Chapel, Wellington Barracks SW1 (121 killed, including 63 soldiers). More evidence of the horrendous destructive power of V1s came on 28 July 1944, when one hit Lewisham SE13 (killing 51 and injuring 151).

From 8 September 1944 to 28 March 1945, an even more advanced V-weapon was deployed against London: the V2. The world’s first ballistic missile, the V2 Long Range Rocket carried a one ton high explosive warhead and was fired from mobile launchers in Germany and from the occupied Low Countries. The 14-ton (12,900kg), 47-ft (14.3m) high V2s - built by slave labourers at underground sites in Germany - were powered by a revolutionary liquid-fuelled rocket engine, had a range of 225 miles (325 km) and flew at supersonic speed (3,600 mph). They were guided by their own on-board gyroscope systems and by four external rudders on their tail fins. The first V2 was launched from Holland against Paris on 8 September 1944.

In London, no defensive response to the V2 was possible. British radar stations picked them up on their screens - for a 50-second window after launch - but their speed presaged the missile warfare of the future. After launch from occupied Holland or Germany, V2s could hit the capital in five minutes. Londoners did not even hear them coming.

The first V2 to hit London fell on Chiswick on 8 September 1944 (killing 3 and injuring 22). Thereafter, the majority landed in the East End, across south east London and in Essex and Kent. In Westminster and St Marylebone, V2s hit Duke Street, yards from Selfridges department store (6 December 1944, 18 killed, 39 injured) and Speakers' Corner, Hyde Park (18 March 1945, 3 killed, 81 injured). Another fell into the River Thames, east of Waterloo Bridge. A fourth exploded at high altitude over Victoria on 12 November 1944. In all, 1,054 V2s hit England (an average of five a day). 517 (an average of three per day) reached London. 2,754 people were killed with 6,523 injured. Each V2 damaged an average of 600-700 properties. The worst incident took place at New Cross SE14 on 25 November 1944 (160 killed). The last V2 launched against Britain hit Orpington, Kent on 27 March 1945 (killing one).

All Clear

When the war ended - on 8 May 1945 in Europe and on 15 August 1945 in Asia - Britain was literally ‘blitzed’: physically damaged, psychologically exhausted (mixed with intense pride at victory), economically crippled, virtually bankrupt and mortgaged strictly to American loans negotiated by Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s new Labour government. Many dreams and future hopes had been blighted by air raids forever. Hundreds of thousands of people in London and across Britain had lost everything, their homes and businesses gone for good. Bomb sites remained weed-choked, open spaces well into the 1950s and in some cases into the 1970s. Britain endured a period of prolonged peacetime austerity between 1945 and 1951. Food rationing remained in place until 1954. Only by 1957 could economists and politicians point to a return to prosperity.

70 years on, the Blitz still resonates: in the memories of those who experienced it and as powerful testimony for new generations uncovering the events of 1940-1945 for the first time. Fascinating perspectives on life during the Blitz are to be found in the memoirs of Britain’s wartime leadership, astute military leaders such as Field Marshal Viscount Alanbrooke, civil servants with literary ability, such as Sir John 'Jock' Colville, and dozens of wartime politicians, diarists and writers including George Orwell, Graham Greene, William Sansom, Sir Harold Nicolson, Sir Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, Baroness Soames, Viscount Alfred Duff Cooper and Lady Diana Cooper. These accounts are supplemented by the many (often visceral) written and oral recollections of ordinary Britons – living and dead- caught up the mass bombing of their country during the Blitz years.

Today, the public appetite for all aspects of Blitz history shows little sign of diminishing. Contemporary literature, websites, multi-media resources, school events, newsreel libraries, archive and museum collections, history books and popular television programmes all preserve the Blitz story. Its central position in British collective historical memory persists. 

Ronan Thomas is a London-based journalist

 

This page was added by Ronan Thomas on 12/10/2010.
Comments about this page

i went through some of the V1 and V2 bombing. Did both stop all noise right before crashing? I have written a book about growing up in East London and then evacuated for six years to country foster homes. Title is Cockney Girl, published by DBJ Derbyshire Publications, Derbyshire. Am currently rewriting for an American audience. you did a good job. Please keep in touch. Can send you book if you wish.

By Gilda Haber
On 20/11/2013

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