The History Place - World War II in Europe

About The Blitz

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 charred bodies.

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