“If they… attack our cities, we will erase theirs!”
– Adolf Hitler, Sept. 4, 1940.
By Scott Addington
THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN was entering its 45th day on Aug. 24, 1940,
During the night phase of the operation, a formation of German bombers became lost somewhere over southern England. Unable to locate their objective and fearing the very real prospect of becoming dinner for the planes of RAF Fighter Command, the crews hastily jettisoned their bombs and sped for home. Little did the fliers realize they had just dropped their payloads right onto the city of London. Nine civilians were killed in the mishap.
The Air War Widens
Up to that point in the German air campaign, England’s cities were largely untouched. To the British, the attack represented an entirely intentional and very serious escalation of the war. Prime Minister Winston Churchill immediately ordered the RAF to retaliate in kind against Berlin.
The following night, 81 British bombers set out to strike the capital of the Third Reich. While only 29 aircraft reached the city and no civilians were killed, the attack was an affront of monumental proportions to Hitler – one that was to be answered in kind.
Yet in his desire to settle the score, the Nazi dictator, had become sidetracked from the more vital strategic goal of destroying RAF Fighter Command – a necessary prerequisite for his planned amphibious invasion of the United Kingdom, Operation Sea Lion.
Nevertheless, on Sept. 4, Hitler announced his intentions to reduce London to rubble in a frenetic speech at the Berlin Sportspalast. (See above for audio of the speech accompanied by a cinematic dramatization)
“If the British air force drops two, three or four thousand kilos of bombs, then we will drop 150,000, 180,000, 230,000, 300,000, 400,000 kilos, or more, in one night,” he thundered. “If they… attack our cities, we will erase theirs!”
The message was loud and clear: The United Kingdom was about to get Blitzed.
London in the Bombsights
Shortly before 4 p.m. on Sept. 7, more than 300 German bombers, along with 600 fighters, came roaring up the Thames Estuary heading straight for the London dockyards. Within minutes, the raiders were raining thousands of bombs indiscriminately down onto the area, smashing buildings, destroying homes and inflicting massive damage. As dusk fell, the sky above southeastern London was thick with smoke from hundreds of blazes. At approximately 8 p.m., a second wave of planes arrived. Over the next eight hours, it would seem to many Londoners as if the entire city was in flames. By morning, nearly 450 civilians were dead and another 1,600 injured. Panic panic gripped the population as the whole of Great Britain went on full alert in preparation for the Nazi invasion that was surely about to begin.
German troops never ended up landing on British soil, yet the horror was only beginning for Londoners. The Blitz, as it would soon be known, would continue for 256-days.
The second night of the campaign saw 200 planes repeat the previous day’s bomb run — this time they targeted power stations and railway hubs. Another 412 Londoners died while 747 were seriously injured. Churchill visited the hardest hit areas in the East End the following day.
Day three saw 370 more civilians die and a whopping 1,400 injured. That same day, King George VI himself ventured out to see the devastation for himself.
By the fourth day, the RAF sortied its bombers to give it back to Berlin. This time, the crews had explicit instructions: under no circumstances were the planes were to return to Blighty with their bombs, regardless of whether the target was located or not! That night, Berliners got a taste of the Blitz for themselves. Even Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’ garden received a direct hit.
Day after day, the raids continued, with London bearing the brunt. Both Hitler and and his corpulent Reichsmarschall were convinced that the inhabitants of England’s capital would soon near the breaking point. They were convinced that if the Great Wen gave up the fight, panic would spread out across the rest of the country, making a subsequent invasion a breeze.
But Londoners were tough. It would take more than a few Nazi bombers to break their spirits.
To hide from the devastation, many residents took refuge below street-level in the relative safety of the Underground. At first, local authorities discourage residents from hiding in the subways, yet every night thousands of people flocked to Tube stations across the city. Elsewhere, people with gardens constructed what became known as Anderson shelters – hastily dug slit trenches with corrugated iron roofs that were covered in earth. In almost every town and city, brick and concrete civil shelters were excavated to provide for the rest of the population. Strict ‘blackouts’ were enforced nightly in order to confuse the enemy bombers.
Despite such countermeasures, the Luftwaffe found it quite easy to pinpoint London; they simply followed the Thames right into the heart of the city.
For the rest of September, the bombers appeared over the city at dusk. For 24 nights straight, the Luftwaffe dropped 5,300 tons of high explosives on the capital. Fires raged, roads were smashed, telephone systems destroyed, gas and water mains cut, and hospitals, schools and homes were reduced to rubble. The casualties were staggering. By the end of the month, 5,730 civilians had been killed and 10,000 were injured.
By October, many were hopeful that the raids would soon taper off. On Oct. 6, just one bomb fell on the city. Yet the night of the 15th was as bad as ever. A full moon lit the way for more 400 bombers. In all, German planes dropped more than a thousand bombs on the city. As many as 430 Londoners died and at least 900 were injured.
Eventually, London endured 57 consecutive nights of bombing. A brief respite came on Nov. 3 when no German planes struck the city. But within two days, they were back. Residents would enjoy only one more night without an air raid that whole month.
Despite their frequency and ferocity, the German air strikes would ultimately prove to be a bust.
Counting the Cost
In their efforts to soften up the British population for invasion, the Luftwaffe spread its wings even further targeting major ports, manufacturing and supply hubs and population centres. Cities like Liverpool, Swansea, Portsmouth, Glasgow and Hull all found themselves in the crosshairs.
On the night of Nov. 14, 1940 Coventry suffered a particularly brutal visit by 515 bombers from Luftflotte 3. The raid, which saw 500 tons of bombs dropped in a single night, was intended to damage the city’s manufacturing and industrial infrastructure; in the end much more was destroyed. As many as 36,000 incendiary bombs fell on the city setting off more than 200 separate fires. Worse, water mains across the city were ruptured, making fire fighting efforts nearly impossible. In all, an estimated 4,300 homes and two-thirds of the city’s buildings were damaged or destroyed. The death toll topped 568.
Before Hitler called of his bombers in 1941, the Blitz claimed around 40,000 British lives and injured 40,000 more. Approximately 1.4 million people were left homeless. Amazingly, despite the damage inflicted, Germany had little to show for nearly nine months of continuous air attacks. Britain’s cities were in ruins, but the country’s will to fight was strong. Worse, the Blitz cost the Third Reich 2,400 of its much-needed aircraft.
On May 21, 1941, Hitler suspended his attacks on Britain. The Fuhrer was planning something big in the east and his air force would spearhead a new offensive: Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. It was a move that would ultimately lead to his downfall.
Scott Addington is the author of several books on military history including Heroes of the Line, D-Day: A Layman’s Guide, The Great War 100: The First World War in Infographics. In 2009, Scott cycled the entire Western Front trench system to raise money for the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal. He lives in Hampshire, England. Follow him on Twitter.