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The Blitz - Bombing of London


The Blitz was the sustained bombing of Britain by Nazi Germany between 7 September 1940 and 10 May 1941, in the Second World War. While the Blitz hit many towns and cities across the country, it began with the bombing of London for 57 consecutive nights.

By the end of May 1941, over 43,000 civilians, half of them in London, had been killed by bombing and more than a million houses were destroyed or damaged in London alone. Adolf Hitler's aim was to destroy British civilian and governmental morale.

In 1944, the development of pilotless V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets briefly enabled Germany to again attack London with weapons launched from the European continent. In total, the V weapons killed 8,938 civilians in London and the south east.

1st Phase:

The first intentional air raids on London were mainly aimed at the Port of London, causing severe damage. Late in the afternoon of 7 September, 364 bombers attacked, escorted by 515 fighters. Another 133 bombers attacked that night. Many of the bombs aimed at the docks fell on neighbouring residential areas, killing 436 Londoners and injuring 1,666.

Few anti-aircraft guns had fire-control systems, and the underpowered searchlights were usually ineffective against aircraft at altitudes above 12,000 feet (3,600 m). Even the fortified Cabinet War Rooms, the secret underground bunker hidden under the Treasury to house the government during the war, were vulnerable to a direct hit. Few fighter aircraft were able to operate at night, and ground-based radar was limited. During the first raid, only 92 guns were available to defend London. The city's defences were rapidly reorganised by General Sir Frederick Pile, the Commander-in-Chief of Anti-Aircraft Command, and by 11 September twice as many guns were available, with orders to fire at will. This produced a much more visually impressive barrage that boosted civilian morale and, though it had little physical effect on the raiders, encouraged bomber crews to drop before they were over their target.

During this first phase of the Blitz, raids took place day and night. Between 100 and 200 bombers attacked London every night but one between mid-September and mid-November. Most bombers were German. Birmingham and Bristol were attacked on 15 October, and the heaviest attack of the war so far by 400 bombers and lasting six hours hit London. The RAF opposed them with 41 fighters but only shot down one Heinkel bomber.

By mid-November, the Germans had dropped more than 13,000 tons of high explosive and more than 1 million incendiary bombs for a combat loss of less than 1% (although some aircraft were lost in accidents inherent to night flying and night landing).

2nd Phase:

From November 1940 to February 1941, the Luftwaffe attacked industrial and port cities. Targets included Coventry, Southampton, Birmingham, Liverpool, Clydebank, Bristol, Swindon, Plymouth, Cardiff, Manchester, Sheffield, Swansea, Portsmouth, and Avonmouth. During this period, 14 attacks were mounted on ports excluding London, nine on industrial targets inland, and eight on London.

Probably the most devastating raid occurred on the evening of 29 December, when German aircraft attacked the City of London itself with incendiaries and high-explosive bombs, causing a firestorm that has been called the Second Great Fire of London. A photograph showing St Paul's Cathedral shrouded in smoke became a famous image of the times.

This night was quickly dubbed The Second Great Fire of London and destroyed an area arguably greater than that of the Great Fire of London of 1666. Some 1500 fires were started, including three major conflagrations. Whereas in 1666 the devastation was overwhelmingly within the City proper, in 1940 it extended far beyond. The largest continuous area of Blitz destruction anywhere in Britain occurred on this night, stretching south from Islington to the very edge of St Paul's Churchyard. St Paul's Cathedral itself was only saved by the dedication of the London firemen who kept the fire away from the Cathedral and the volunteer firewatchers of the St Paul's Watch who fought to keep the flames from firebombs on its roof from spreading.

A great source of further reading is the Times website:
On September 24, 1940, the Germans nearly stopped production of The Times for the first time since 1785.

The last major attack on London was on 10 May: 515 bombers destroyed or damaged many important buildings, including the British Museum, the Houses of Parliament and St. James's Palace. The raid caused more casualties than any other: 1,364 killed and 1,616 seriously injured. Six days later 111 bombers attacked Birmingham; this was the last major air raid on a British city for about a year and a half.

See our gallery for more pictures of London during the Blitz.

Bomb shelter in a London Underground station
Bomb shelter in a London Underground station

Herbert Masons iconic photograph taken 29 December 1940 published front page of Daily Mail 31 December 1940
Herbert Masons iconic photograph taken 29 December 1940 published front page of Daily Mail 31 December 1940

Bombed buildings in London
Bombed buildings in London