On This Day

london blitz, britain blitz,thames river blitz
New York Times Paris Bureau Collection
View along the River Thames towards smoke rising from the London docklands after an air raid during the Blitz, Sept. 7, 1940.

On This Day: Nazi Germany Begins Blitz Attack of London

September 07, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Sept. 7, 1940, the Nazi Luftwaffe launched day and night raids on London, its first large-scale attack on a British civilian center. It marked the start of the Blitz, a nine-month campaign of civilian bombing designed to cripple British morale.

The First Night of the Blitz

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In the summer of 1940, Nazi Germany began a series of aerial attacks on Royal Air Force bases in Britain’s south coast in preparation for a potential amphibious invasion. The Nazi air force, the Luftwaffe, targeted primarily military and industrial targets, though it did occasionally bomb cities and towns. Nazi Fuehrer Adolf Hitler ordered that it not attack London, however.

On Aug. 24, during a night raid, the Luftwaffe accidentally dropped bombs on a civilian center near London. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill responded by launching on attack on Berlin; though the attack did almost no damage, it infuriated Hitler and Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering, who had claimed that Berlin would never be attacked.

On Sept. 4, after several other British attacks, Hitler angrily declared at a Berlin rally, according to The History Place, “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!”

Hitler therefore introduced a new strategy to defeat Britain. The Luftwaffe had been unsuccessful in its plan to quickly destroy the RAF; now it would target civilian centers in an attempt to break the will of the British people.

On the evening Sept. 7, over 300 Luftwaffe bomber planes led by over 600 fighter jets launched a raid on London. Later that night, guided by the multitude of fires they created, the bombers returned and bombed the city for eight hours. Nearly 450 people were killed in the attacks.

The Times of London reported on Sept. 9, “[T]he bombers did more damage, chiefly in working-class districts of East and South London, which were without military objectives. On all sides in wide areas of East London yesterday there were pathetic scenes; but the spirit of the people was still grand after 24 hours of deliberate terrorization.”

The Continued Blitz

The following night, the scenes of Sept. 7 were repeated. The Luftwaffe bombed London each night for 76 days (except for one night when the weather was bad). The bombings became part of everyday life for the people of London, who were forced to take cover in poorly built shelters or subway stations.

The Blitz was expanded to other cities in England, most famously Coventry, which was ravaged by a Nov. 14-15 attack. The attacks did end until May 1941, at which point more than 40,000 people had been killed (20,000 in London alone) and more than a million were left homeless.

Despite the devastation of the Blitz, the British were not coerced into surrendering. Accounts of the Blitz often emphasize the ability of the British people to pull together and withstand the Blitz in solidarity.

“The myth is that we all pulled together, that spirits were up as young and old, upper and lower classes muddled through together with high morale under the onslaught of the Nazis,” writes the BBC. “But the ‘Myth of the Blitz’ is just that—a myth. … It was a time of terror, confusion and anger. Government incompetence—almost criminal in its extent—displayed what was almost a contempt for ordinary people. It was time for the people to help themselves to the shelter they needed. It was a time of class war.”

Historical Context: Battle of Britain and World War II

The Blitz was a total failure for Hitler and the Nazi leadership. Not only did it fail to break British morale, it gave the RAF, which was straining to keep up with the Luftwaffe attacks, a chance to recover. The RAF repelled a major Luftwaffe offensive on Sept. 15 and forced Hitler to give up hopes of a land invasion.

Britain’s ability to survive the Battle of Britain and the Blitz helped turn the tide of the war. In June 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and in December 1941 the United States was drawn into the war by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Britain, the U.S. and the Soviet Union would eventually defeat Germany and the Axis Powers in 1945.

The findingDulcinea Web Guide to World War II links to the most comprehensive and reliable sources on the war.

Reference: Life During the Blitz

The St. Marylebone Society possesses color footage of the Blitz filmed by A.E. Reneson Coucher, mayor of the Marylebone section of London, between Sept. 7, 1940, and May 1941. It sat in an attic for seven decades before being uncovered by the Coucher family. The society also features oral history interview and art of the Blitz.

The BBC’s WW2 People’s War hosts an archive of more than 2,900 stories and 140 images of the Blitz contributed by the public.

The Museum of London tells the story of the Blitz through its collection of photograohs and objects.

The Times of London features a large archive of its stories during the Blitz.
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