The Blitz refers to the strategic bombing campaign
conducted by the Germans against London and other cities in England from
September of 1940 through May of 1941, targeting populated areas, factories
and dock yards.
The first German attack on London actually occurred
by accident. On the night of August 24, 1940, Luftwaffe bombers aiming
for military targets on the outskirts of London drifted off course and
instead dropped their bombs on the center of London destroying several
homes and killing civilians. Amid the public outrage that followed, Prime
Minister Winston Churchill, believing it was a deliberate attack, ordered
Berlin to be bombed the next evening.
About 40 British bombers managed to reach Berlin
and inflicted minimal property damage. However, the Germans were utterly
stunned by the British air-attack on Hitler's capital. It was the first
time bombs had ever fallen on Berlin. Making matters worse, they had been
repeatedly assured by Luftwaffe Chief, Hermann Göring,
that it could never happen. A second British bombing raid on the night
of August 28/29 resulted in Germans killed on the ground. Two nights later,
a third attack occurred.
German nerves were frayed. The Nazis were outraged.
In a speech delivered on September 4, Hitler threatened, "...When
the British Air Force drops two or three or four thousand kilograms of
bombs, then we will in one night drop 150-, 230-, 300- or 400,000 kilograms.
When they declare that they will increase their attacks on our cities,
then we will raze their cities to the ground. We will stop the handiwork
of those night air pirates, so help us God!"
Beginning on September 7, 1940, and for a total
of 57 consecutive nights, London was bombed. The decision to wage a massive
bombing campaign against London and other English cities would prove to
be one of the most fateful of the war. Up to that point, the Luftwaffe
had targeted Royal Air Force airfields and support installations and had
nearly destroyed the entire British air defense system. Switching to an
all-out attack on British cities gave RAF Fighter Command a desperately
needed break and the opportunity to rebuild damaged airfields, train new
pilots and repair aircraft. "It was," Churchill later wrote,
"therefore with a sense of relief that Fighter Command felt the German
attack turn on to London..."
During the nightly bombing raids on London, people
took shelter in warehouse basements and underground (subway) stations where
they slept on makeshift beds amid primitive conditions with no privacy
and poor sanitation facilities.
Other British cities targeted during the Blitz
included; Portsmouth, Southampton, Plymouth, Exeter, Bristol, Bath, Cardiff,
Birmingham, Coventry, Nottingham, Norwich, Ipswich, Sheffield, Manchester,
Liverpool, Hull, Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Newcastle and also Glasgow,
Scotland and Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Hitler's intention was to break the morale of
the British people so that they would pressure Churchill into negotiating.
However, the bombing had the opposite effect, bringing the English people
together to face a common enemy. Encouraged by Churchill's frequent public
appearances and radio speeches, the people became determined to hold out
indefinitely against the Nazi onslaught. "Business as usual,"
could be seen everywhere written in chalk on boarded-up shop windows.
By the end of 1940, German air raids had killed
15,000 British civilians. One of the worst attacks had occurred on the
night of November 14/15 against Coventry, an industrial city east of Birmingham
in central England. In that raid, 449 German bombers dropped 1,400 high
explosive bombs and 100,000 incendiaries which destroyed 50,000 buildings,
killing 568 persons, leaving over 1,000 badly injured. The incendiary devices
created fire storms with super-heated gale force winds drawing in torrents
of air to fan enormous walls of flames.
In London, on the night of December 29/30, the
Germans dropped incendiaries resulting in a fire storm that devastated
the area between St. Paul's Cathedral and the Guildhall, destroying several
historic churches. Other famous landmarks damaged during the Blitz included
Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and the Chamber of the House of Commons.
The Blitz climaxed in May of 1941, leaving 375,000 Londoners homeless.
However, the RAF, utilizing newly developed radar,
inflicted increasingly heavy losses on Luftwaffe bombers. British Fighter
Command was able to track and plot the course of German bombers from the
moment they took off from bases in Europe. RAF fighter planes were then
dispatched to attack the incoming bombers at the best possible position.
As a result, the Luftwaffe never gained air supremacy over England, a vital
prerequisite to a land invasion. Failure to achieve air supremacy eventually
led Hitler to indefinitely postpone Operation Sealion, the Nazi invasion
of England, in favor of an attack on the USSR. The Blitz came to an end
as Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe transferred to eastern Europe in preparation
for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the USSR.
In all, 18,000 tons of high explosives had been
dropped on England during eight months of the Blitz. A total of 18,629
men, 16,201 women, and 5,028 children were killed along with 695 unidentified