The Blitz came to London on September Saturday 7th 1940 and lasted for many days. The Blitz and what was known as ‘Black Saturday’ was the start in Britain of what Poland and Western Europe had already experienced – total war. This was when warfare deliberately included civilian populations. Ironically, the Blitz was the result of an accident by the Luftwaffe but it was an accident that was to have dire consequences for Britain and Nazi Germany.
On August 24th 1940 the Luftwaffe targeted oil depots to the east of London. In terms of what the Luftwaffe was trying to achieve – the destruction of Fighter Command – this would have been a legitimate target. However, a number of Luftwaffe bombers missed their intended target and hit homes in the East End of London. Hitler had always stated that under no circumstances was London to be targeted without his express permission. It seems that he was genuinely furious when told what had happened. On August 25th, Bomber Command on the orders of Winston Churchill flew a retaliatory raid on Berlin. This time Hitler was furious with the British response and in a broadcast to the German people he stated that the Luftwaffe would drop I million kg of bombs on London if that was what was required. Two weeks later on September 7th, the first raid took place.
‘Black Saturday’ was a huge shock for Londoners. The Luftwaffe arrived in the late afternoon during a day of very good weather when many Londoners were on the streets enjoying the sunny weather. The sirens first started at 16.43 at the start of a twelve-hour attack. The ‘all clear’ was sounded at 05.00 on September 8th. Few could have believed the damage done to London in just one raid. 430 people were killed and over 1600 were seriously wounded. Hospitals simply could not cope. During September 8th Winston Churchill visited the East End – where the raids had been concentrated to destroy the docks.
In the following raids – and they occurred without break everyday for two months – the Luftwaffe changed its tactics. On ‘Black Saturday’ it had flown during daylight and had encountered fighter aircraft of Fighter Command. After this, all attacks were at night, which meant that Fighter Command could not do anything to stop them.
On ‘Black Saturday’, just 92 anti-aircraft guns had protected London. Churchill immediately ordered a major improvement to the capital’s defences. Within 4 days the number of AA guns around London had doubled. The crews that manned these guns were ordered to fire at the attackers whether they had one in sight or not as this gave the impression that they, as defenders, were doing a robust job and it was considered that this was good for morale.
In the early days of the Blitz, the Luftwaffe’s preferred bomb was the SC-50 – a 50kg bomb that carried 25 kg of TNT. A Heinkell III carried 40 of these bombs. Not only did the 25 kg of TNT cause a major blast that damaged buildings, the shrapnel thrown of by the metal casing was deadly as in the initial stages of the explosion, metal shards came off at 7,000 mph and even the smallest of pieces of shrapnel were deadly.
Theoretically Londoners should have been safe from shrapnel as they should have been in shelters. However, this was not the case for the emergency services and those who volunteered to help out in an attack. Another cause of death was what was known as ‘Blast Lungs’. This was where a bomb blast sucked the air out of a victims lungs, causing the lungs to rise up within the rib cage and malfunctioning. The victim suffocated but usually suffered no obvious sign of physical harm. A survivor of the Blitz simply stated in later years:
“It’s hard to describe the horror."
That horror escalated when the Luftwaffe started to drop more powerful bombs on London. The SC-500 carried 250 kg of TNT. Four could be carried by a Heinkell III compared to forty SC –50’s. Their potential for destruction was huge. As the Blitz continued, SC-500’s were used in conjunction with incendiary bombs – a combination that was designed to terrify Londoners into forcing their government to surrender.
Londoners now took to the Underground that provided 15 miles of underground shelter. The reason why the government did not allow this at the start of the Blitz was because they feared that the people might develop ‘Deep Shelter Mentality’ – where the population would be too scared to come out of the Underground. By the end of October 1940, 250,000 Londoners were homeless.
However, the fact that Londoners refused to give in to the Luftwaffe was sufficient for Hitler to order an expansion of the bombing. In November 1940, the raids were expanded to encompass many other cities in the UK. The SC-1000 was designed to destroy factories. This was a bomb that was loaded with amatol – a mixture of ammonia nitrate and TNT. Its explosive capability was huge.
The SC-1000 was used en masse in the raid on Coventry on November 14th 1940 – ‘Operation Moonlight Sonata’. Heavy bombs such as the SC-1000 were dropped along with 10,000 incendiary bombs.
The only respite from the bombing occurred on Christmas Day 1940. On Boxing Day 1940, the raids resumed but with one difference – the Luftwaffe now put far more emphasis on incendiary bombs as opposed to high explosive bombs.
When an incendiary bomb caught fire it burned at 2,500 degrees Centigrade. German bombers carried incendiaries in ‘bread baskets’ with each one carrying 700 incendiaries.
On December 29th 1940 Hitler ordered a massive raid on London. The date chosen was deliberate. The River Thames was at its lowest. 100,000 incendiary bombs were dropped and fire fighters in the City area of London had to cope with temperatures in excess of 800 degrees Centigrade. A severed main water pipe did not help the fire fighters. What water the Thames could provide was used but it required fire fighters to crawl across mud banks to simply get to the water. Historian Juliet Gardner simply referred to December 29th as “a dreadful night".
The first four months of the Blitz had resulted in 22,000 deaths – much lower than the government had expected. A report in 1938 estimated that there would be as many as 2 million deaths. Why was the actual figure so much smaller than the projected one?
It is generally accepted that the shelter policy introduced by the government saved very many lives. In London the government had grudgingly allowed the Tube system to be used. In other cities, Anderson shelters were issues. These were given free to any family that had an income of less than £250 a year. Any family that had an income above £250 had to pay for one. Over three million Anderson shelters were issued. If they were built properly – and this required a three to four feet hole to be dug in a garden – they provided commendable protection from bombs even if they were damp and cold. The curved shape of the shelters allowed a bomb blast to travel around them while the earth piled on top absorbed shrapnel etc.
By February 1941, the raids on British cities had not achieved what the Nazi hierarchy had hoped for. Therefore they moved away from city centres and targeted ports in an attempt to starve Britain in submission. Belfast, Swansea, Plymouth, Clydeside and Liverpool were all bombed. When Churchill visited these bombed areas he stated, “I found their morale to be high."
On May 8th 1941, a retaliatory raid against Bremen and Hamburg was made in an effort to raise morale. 400 British bombers raided both ports. Both cities suffered much damage and many deaths. In his fury, Hitler ordered that London should suffer a raid like it had never suffered before. This raid was the last major bombing raid London suffered but it killed over 1500 people. Shortly after it Hitler switched his attention to the Soviet Union – Operation Barbarossa – and London was free from attack until the summer of 1941.
Just seven days after D-Day on June 6th 1944, a new bomb hit London. In this case, it was not delivered by an aircraft but just seemed to happen. It was the V1 – the ‘Doodlebug’. These were armed with 880kg of RDX – a very powerful explosive. On June 18th 1944, a V1 hit the Guards Chapel near Buckingham Palace and killed 121 people – the largest number of people killed by a single V1.