The Worst Raid

10-11 May 1941

By Alex Nunn

The worst air raid on London during the Blitz took place on 10-11 May 1941. Destruction was spread out all over the city, with German bombers targeting all bridges west of Tower Bridge, factories on the south side of the Thames, the warehouses at Stepney, and the railway line that ran north from Elephant and Castle. With Hitler’s attention focused on preparations for Operation Barbarossa - his ill-fated foray into Russia commencing on 22 June 1941 - the first phase of the Blitz came to an end. Raids became much less common and many chose to take their chances in their homes rather than wait it out in the bomb shelters, where the sound of every explosion was amplified by the close concrete walls.

London had taken everything Hitler could throw at it since the previous September and was still standing. One Australian living in London said of Londoners at the time:

Nothing in the air, on the earth and on the water scares them. They get annoyed but they never get scared. I honestly believe that if 100 Nazi Paratroopers came down tonight in Piccadilly Circus they would start queuing up to see how our Commandos are dealing with them.”

Originally, Hitler had begun bombing England in preparation for the German invasion. The plan - Operation Sealion - was originally scheduled for 11 September 1940. To Hitler’s surprise, the RAF held its own against the Luftwaffe and the invasion was postponed. As of 17 September the invasion was postponed indefinitely, but Hitler continued with air raids to terrorize and demoralize the population. In the first four months of the Blitz more than 13,000 were killed and tens of thousands wounded in London. But the carnage was far from over. In retaliation for RAF bombings of Bremen, Hamburg, and Berlin earlier in the year, Hitler ordered his Luftwaffe Generalfeldmarschall Hugo Sperrle, a man later charged with war crimes at Nuremberg, to execute a retaliatory strike on London.

The Luftwaffe flew over 500 sorties to London on the night of 10 May, the full moon lighting their snaking path along the Thames. The German pilots had 15 minutes to locate and bomb their targets once they reached London, but still the bombing lasted nearly seven hours, starting at 11pm on 10 May and continuing until the all-clear sounded at 5.50am the next morning. British anti-aircraft batteries and RAF nightfighters managed to shoot down 33 planes, but despite their best efforts,10-11 May 1941 was one of the most destructive raids of the war.  

The House of Commons, one of the best-known landmarks in Westminster, burned that night. In the House, the raging fire caused the roof to collapse. William Sansom, a volunteer fireman, remembered that:

in the morning there was nothing left of the famous House but a charred, black, smouldering, steaming ruin. The Bar no longer stood to check intruders. The Speaker’s chair was lost. The green-padded leathern lines of seats were charred and drenched. The ingenious, ingenuous, most typical gothic innovations of the old period had gone for ever; and with them the Chamber, its Press Gallery, its Strangers’ and Ladies’ galleries.” (William Sansom: Westminster in War, 1947).

The whole of Westminster suffered that night, the larger incidents taking place at the District Line Railway near Ebury Street, Hallam Street, the House of Commons, New Bond Street, the Queen’s Hall, St. Clement Danes, the Turner Buildings and Westminster Abbey. The destruction:

was noticeable in the morning air…an invisible veil of plaster-dust hung its odour over the air of every street, bombed or not bombed, for Westminster was impregnated with it.” (William Sansom: Westminster in War, 1947).

The night of 10-11 May 1941 marked the last major raid of the Blitz. It inflicted the highest number of casualties of any single night raid of the London Blitz: 1,436 Londoners killed and over 2,000 others seriously injured. 

During the first eight months of the Blitz over 1,000 high explosive bombs, 55 heavy oil canister fire bombs, 11 parachute mines, and thousands of incendiaries fell over Westminster. A lull followed the night of 10-11 May. However, destructive night bombing raids would resume with the Little Blitz from January to April 1944. The assault on the capital culminated in the V-Weapons campaign from June 1944 to March 1945.

Photo:Turner Buildings, Herrick Street, 11 May 1941
Photo:Bomb damage to District Line Tube at rear of Ebury Street
Photo:Bomb damage to Hallam Street (South) and Duchess Street
Photo:The House of Commons Chamber after the raid of 10-11 May, 1941
Photo:Bruton Street and New Bond Street, 11 May 1941
Photo:St Clement Danes on fire, 11 May 1941
Photo:Westminster Abbey: Interior damage, 11 May 1941
Photo:View of Royal College of Surgeons from Portugal Street
Photo:Old Compton Street 10/11 May, 1941
Photo:Park Lane, 11 May 1941
Photo:Eaton Square bomb shelter facing NW, 11 May 1941
Photo:Eaton Terrace, 1941
Photo:Alexandra Hotel Central Staircase
Photo:Carlisle Street, 11 May 1941
Photo:St. Martin's Lane Sub-Station, 11 May 1941
This gallery was added by Alex Nunn on 15/07/2011.
Comments about this page

For graphic accounts of the last major raid on London 10/11 May 1941, including many of the incidents illustrated above, refer to 'The City That Wouldn’t Die' by Richard Collier, published in 1959, "written in a compelling style as befits a journalist with the Daily Mail amongst other publications. Collier skilfully selects various participants, both on the British and German sides and follows their stories through this night of nights". It is available to read online at: http://www.archive.org/details/citythatwouldnot010963mbp More recent and following a similar format is 'The Longest Night: Voices from the London Blitz' by Gavin Mortimer published in 2005. "Part military history, part chronicle of survivors' memories and part moving tribute to London, the result is reminiscent of Richard Collier's The City That Would Not Die, but is a captivating and important contribution in its own right...Mortimer's dramatic renderings of what Londoners and German and British military men experienced make for compelling nonfiction".

By Hugo Eatwell
On 16/08/2011

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