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Today in history... beginning of the Blitz

12:00am | & News

Londoners had their first taste of Hitler's "total war" when more than 337 tons of German bombs were dropped on the capital on September 7th, 1940.

It was the opening day of what would become known as 'The Blitz' – a concentrated nine-month campaign of terror by Hitler's Luftwaffe (air force) against not just London but 16 other British cities.

Taking its name from 'Blitzkrieg' – the Nazis' term for 'Lightning War' – the large scale bombing of British cities marked a major tactical switch for Hitler. Throughout the summer of 1940 he had become increasingly frustrated at his Luftwaffe's failure to break the RAF and gain air superiority over Britain. Doing so would have paved the way for a full-scale invasion, codenamed Operation Sea Lion, but the brave fighter pilots of the RAF repeatedly rebuffed air attacks in their Spitfires and Hurricanes.

By September the 'good weather window' which was vital for an invasion by sea was already beginning to close. Hitler decided instead to break the British people and force them into submission. His so-called 'strategic bombing' of major British cities was aimed not only at disrupting industry, but at destroying the will of the people, wearing them down until surrender seemed the only option. But he had massively underestimated his enemy's resolve.

On Saturday September 7th, the Luftwaffe unleashed its first wave of heavy bombing raids on London, the leading aircraft reaching the skies over the capital in late afternoon. About 300 bombers attacked the city for more than 90 minutes, concentrating their efforts on the densely populated East End, along the River Thames by London Docks.

Hundreds of fires soon set the entire docklands area alight and as night fell the blaze could be seen from 10 miles away. It served as a beacon for a second wave of bombing, beginning around 10-30pm and lasting a full eight hours to the dawn of the following day. As terrified Londoners sought shelter wherever they could, the whole city seemed to shake and the noise was deafening.

Many people headed for stations on the London Underground where they were mostly safe from the devastation above. But in one case, described as a million-to-one chance, a bomb fell directly through the 3ft by 1ft ventilation shaft of a tube station, killing about 14 people and injuring many more.

Civil Defence volunteers fought alongside firemen in desperate attempts to control the fires but as dawn broke the extent of the devastation was revealed. And it was only the beginning, with systematic bombing of the capital continuing for the next 57 consecutive nights, and spreading to other cities including Birmingham, Liverpool, Plymouth, Bristol, Glasgow, Southampton, Portsmouth and Hull.

In total London was attacked 71 times over a period of 267 days from September 1940 to May 1941. Almost 450 civilians were killed on the first day of the London Blitz alone and by the time the campaign ended in May 1941 the UK-wide death toll stood at an estimated 43,000, with around 140,000 more injured. More than a million homes had been destroyed, together with factories, warehouses, office blocks, public buildings and churches, including Coventry Cathedral. Remarkably, London's St Paul's Cathedral escaped virtually unscathed.

One thing which remained intact was British morale, if anything strengthened by what were seen as Hitler's cowardly attacks. And despite the damage wrought, the campaign ultimately proved disastrous for the Luftwaffe too.

On the first day of the London Blitz it lost 88 aircraft, four times as many as the RAF. The slower and less manoeuvrable bombers were easy prey to the RAF's fighter pilots, who exacted a heavy price on the Luftwaffe. By the end of The Blitz it had lost hundreds of aircraft and, more importantly, almost all of its experienced aircrew. Raw replacements were increasingly reluctant to set out on increasingly dangerous missions which seemed to be having little effect.

The final decisive engagement in the Battle of Britain had come on September 15th, when a large scale daylight raid was effectively repulsed by the RAF, inflicting heavy losses on the Luftwaffe.  Although a few smaller raids followed, by early October 1940 the Battle of Britain was over, with the Luftwaffe switching to night-time bombing raids to reduce its losses.

If Hitler had known just how close the RAF was to breaking point in September 1940, he would have redoubled his efforts to win superiority in the air. Ironically it was his switch of tactics to Blitz bombing which gave the RAF desperately needed breathing space and a chance to rebuild.

By May 1941, Hitler had abandoned his plans to invade Britain, turning his attention instead to Russia and the Eastern Front. He had thrown everything he had against the little island of Britain and the will of its people, and failed to break either. But the price he paid in trying weakened him for the rest of the war and gave new hope to his enemies elsewhere in Europe.


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