In 1940, instead of dropping its bombs on military positions such as aerodromes and naval bases, the German planes turned their attention on London and its population of 9 million people. Hitler planned to invade Britain and part of the reason for attacking London was not only to destroy business and commercial targets essential to the economic survival of the country but also to destroy the morale of the British.
So it was that at about five o'clock in the afternoon, on 7th September 1940, the first bombers arrived to drop incendiary bombs on the London docks. Incendiary bombs are used to start fires and it was the light of the docks aflame that guided the other bombers to their target even in the darkness of the night. In this way, bombing continued constantly throughout the night until 4.30 the next morning.
This was the start of the Blitz (from the German word 'blitzkrieg' meaning 'lightning war'). The Blitz fell upon all of London. Shops, offices, churches, factories, docks and suburban homes all found themselves victims. It was nine months before Londoners were able to enjoy a full night's sleep, free of air raids, free of sirens, free of the screaming shattering sound of bombs falling around them.
Sounds of the Blitz
One historian, who lived through the Blitz, describes the noises of the Blitz:
"First, there was the alert, a wail rising and falling for two minutes. There was not one siren but a series, as the note was taken up by borough after borough. Then, there was a heavy, uneven throb of the bombers. Then there were many noises. The howling of dogs; the sound of a high explosive bomb falling, like a tearing sheet; the clatter of little incendiaries on the roofs and pavements; the dull thud of walls collapsing; the burglar alarms which destruction had set ringing; the crackle of flames, a relishing, licking noise, and the bells of the fire engines".
Angus Calder 'The People's War' p196
Casualties in the Blitz
|First Night: 7th/8th September 1940
|16,000 seriously injured|
|From 7th September 1940 to New Year's Day 1941
||13,339 killed |
| 17,937 seriously injured.|
|Night of May 10th/11th 1941
|1,752 seriously injured|
For those who survived the horror-filled days and nights of the Blitz, many were faced with the tragedy of homelessness. Between September 1940 and May 1941, 1,400,000 Londoners were made homeless. In reality this meant that 1 in every 6 Londoners found themselves without a place to live. Those who lived in the poor areas such as the East End suffered particularly badly. Houses in these areas were in a bad state of repair to begin with and were destroyed easily by the bombs. By 11th November 1940, 4 out of 10 houses in Stepney had been damaged.
29th December 1940. The Second Fire of London
On 29th December 1940, 275 years after the Great Fire of London, a two-hour German attack started 1,500 fires throughout London. The Fire Brigade and the Auxiliary Fire Services worked around the clock. As many as 100 million gallons of water were used in a period of just 24 hours in the attempt to extinguish the uncontrollable fires, around 1,400 of these in the centre of the city itself. Although few people lived there, the firestorm still resulted in 163 deaths and widespread damage was done to offices and shops in the centre of London.
Britain took a most horrific revenge for the second Fire of London in 1945 when it created a terrifying night of fire in the German city of Dresden. It is thought that as many as 135,000 German civilians could have been killed in those fires.
London was not the only city to endure heavy bombing and widespread death and destruction. Among the other German targets were important industrial towns and ports such as Coventry, Birmingham, Hull, Bristol, Plymouth, Glasgow, Southampton, Manchester, Merseyside, Sheffield, Portsmouth, and Leicester. Parts of Kent and Surrey were also subject to bomb damage and the area was known as 'bomb alley' as it lay on the route to London for the German planes.