The appearance of German bombers in the skies over London during the afternoon of September 7, 1940 heralded a tactical shift in Hitler's attempt to subdue Great Britain. During the previous two months, the Luftwaffe had targeted RAF airfields and radar stations for destruction in preparation for the German invasion of the island. With invasion plans put on hold and eventually scrapped, Hitler turned his attention to destroying London in an attempt to demoralize the population and force the British to come to terms. At around 4:00 PM on that September day, 348 German bombers escorted by 617 fighters
This was the beginning of the Blitz - a period of intense bombing of London and other cities that continued until the following May. For the next consecutive 57 days, London was bombed either during the day or night. Fires consumed many portions of the city. Residents sought shelter wherever they could find it - many fleeing to the Underground stations that sheltered as many as 177,000 people during the night. In the worst single incident, 450 were killed when a bomb destroyed a school being used as an air raid shelter. Londoners and the world were introduced to a new weapon of terror and destruction in the arsenal of twentieth century warfare. The Blitz ended on May 11, 1941 when Hitler called off the raids in order to move his bombers east in preparation for Germany's invasion of Russia.
Ernie Pyle was one of World War Two's most popular correspondents. His journalism was characterized by a focus on the common soldier interspersed with sympathy, sensitivity and humor. He witnessed the war in Europe from the Battle of Britain through the invasion of France. In 1945 he accepted assignment to the Pacific Theater and was killed during the battle for Okinawa. Here, he describes a night raid on London in 1940:
They came just after dark, and somehow you could sense from the quick, bitter firing of the guns that there was to be no monkey business this night.
Shortly after the sirens wailed you could hear the Germans grinding overhead. In my room, with its black curtains drawn across the windows, you could feel the shake from the guns. You could hear the boom, crump, crump, crump, of heavy bombs at their work of tearing buildings apart. They were not too far away.
Half an hour after the firing started I gathered a couple of friends and went to a high, darkened balcony that gave us a view of a third of the entire circle of London. As we stepped out onto the balcony a vast inner excitement came over all of us-an excitement that had neither fear nor horror in it, because it was too full of awe.
You have all seen big fires, but I doubt if you have ever seen the whole horizon of a city lined with great fires - scores of them, perhaps hundreds.
There was something inspiring just in the awful savagery of it.
The closest fires were near enough for us to hear the crackling flames and the yells of firemen. Little fires grew into big ones even as we watched. Big ones died down under the firemen's valor, only to break out again later.
About every two minutes a new wave of planes would be over. The motors seemed to grind rather than roar, and to have an angry pulsation, like a bee buzzing in blind fury.
|Children sit among the rubble|
of their home September 1940
Into the dark shadowed spaces below us, while we watched, whole batches of incendiary bombs fell. We saw two dozen go off in two seconds. They flashed terrifically, then quickly simmered down to pin points of dazzling white, burning ferociously. These white pin points would go out one by one, as the unseen heroes of the moment smothered them with sand. But also, while we watched, other pin points would burn on, and soon a yellow flame would leap up from the white center. They had done their work - another building was on fire.
The greatest of all the fires was directly in front of us. Flames seemed to whip hundreds of feet into the air. Pinkish-white smoke ballooned upward in a great cloud, and out of this cloud there gradually took shape - so faintly at first that we weren't sure we saw correctly - the gigantic dome of St. Paul's Cathedral.
St. Paul's was surrounded by fire, but it came through. It stood there in its enormous proportions - growing slowly clearer and clearer, the way objects take shape at dawn. It was like a picture of some miraculous figure that appears before peace-hungry soldiers on a battlefield.
The streets below us were semi-illuminated from the glow. Immediately above the fires the sky was red and angry, and overhead, making a ceiling in the vast heavens, there was a cloud of smoke all in pink. Up in that pink shrouding there were tiny, brilliant specks of flashing light-antiaircraft shells bursting. After the flash you could hear the sound.
Up there, too, the barrage balloons were standing out as clearly as if it were daytime, but now
|Dec. 29, 1940 - St. Paul's Cathedral|
emerges from the flames during
one of the most devastating raids.
Below us the Thames grew lighter, and all around below were the shadows - the dark shadows of buildings and bridges that formed the base of this dreadful masterpiece.
Later on I borrowed a tin hat and went out among the fires. That was exciting too; but the thing I shall always remember above all the other things in my life is the monstrous loveliness of that one single view of London on a holiday night - London stabbed with great fires, shaken by explosions, its dark regions along the Thames sparkling with the pin points of white-hot bombs, all of it roofed over with a ceiling of pink that held bursting shells, balloons, flares and the grind of vicious engines. And in yourself the excitement and anticipation and wonder in your soul that this could be happening at all.
These things all went together to make the most hateful, most beautiful single scene I have ever known."
This eyewitness account appears in: Pyle Ernie, Ernie Pyle in England (1941), Reprinted in Commager, Henry Steele, The Story of the Second World War (1945); Johnson, David, The London Blitz : The City Ablaze, December 29, 1940 (1981).
How To Cite This Article:
"The London Blitz, 1940," EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2001).
'Why were the major cities of Britain bombed
by the Germans in 1940-1941?'
On 22nd June 1940, France fell, and Britain stood alone against Germany. Operation Yellow had been achieved and Operation Sealion, to invade Britain, was now Hitler's aim.. The Battle of Britain, Germany's attempt to defeat the RAF by bombing ports, airfields and radar stations. After several weeks of prolonged fighting the tide had turned against the RAF. And then, without warning, Hitler changed his tactics.
On the 7th September Hitler ordered an end to the daylight attacks on the RAF and instead sent the Luftwaffe on daylight attacks at first changing to entirely night-time attacks on London and other major cities of Britain. This was known as the Blitz (short for Blitzkrieg).
But why was this? Why this sudden change of tactics?
To understand this we must first look at what happened during the Blitz.
Although nearly every major city in Britain was bombed, London was by far the worst effected. During September 1940 it was bombed every night and an average of 250 tonnes of bombs dropped each time.
By the summer of 1941, when the Blitz finally ended, 43,000 people had been killed in air raids across Britain.
But despite the enormous casualties, Hitler's change of tactics was one of the biggest mistakes he made in the war. Those first three days of bombing cities rather than the RAF, from the 7th September to 10 ,gave the RAF time to prepare and when the Luftwaffe turned back to bombing them as well as the cities, the RAF were ready for them. It is likely that if Hitler had carried on with his former campaign, the RAF would have been completely defeated. So why did he not foresee this? What were the reasons in his change of tactics? AS always there are several reasons. Military and economical targets. This is perhaps one of the most obvious reasons behind the Blitz and at the time it was certainly the most publicised to the German people. Though the amount of focus given to this may have been exaggerated somewhat there were many military and economical targets in the cities bombed.
London is a good example of this. Many airplanes and weapons factories were situated to here. London was also the transport hub, having such major railway stations as Waterloo and Kings Cross. If these were hit it could destroy trade and movement of products.
In some ways this was a economical war as much as anything. Field Marshall Kesselring supports this view.
"Our main assignment now were the
disturbance of production and incoming supplies.
The underlying purpose was to slow down
British armament production and begin
a full-scale economic war. To destroy civilian morale
we began 'reprisal raids' at the same time"
And there is the another reason "To destroy civilian morale.' Note that all the cities bombed were densely populated, creating terror and houses were often near factories, so if the bomb didn't get the factories, it got the workers instead. Destroying civilian morale could have serious affects on the war effort, a demoralised British public could pressure the Government to surrender. The working class were believed to be near rebelling.
"… and workmen's dwellings were to be
methodically attacked in order to undermine
the working classes, who were believed to
be near revolt."
This was a British Government report on operation Moonlight Sonata. The bombing of Coventry, which was of the most intensely bombed cities in Britain. Though the bombing was not as major as London by far, the bombing was much more intensive in just one night 14th-15th November. Much of the inner city was completely destroyed and 506 people were killed, 432 injure, and 3000 homeless.
One reason for the Blitz, which is certainly a piece of propaganda, is a revenge for the bombing of Berlin. We know that this is a piece of propaganda because whilst one source says that
"the only bombs to fall within the city limits
damaged a summer house in the Berlin suburb…
and only two people were injured and
no deaths were recorded."
While Hitler says
"If they send over a hundred bombers
to bomb our cities… then we shall a
thousand to bomb theirs."
Revenge was the main reason given to the German Public, but as with most propaganda it was not the main reason, merely the on given to the German public.
And so, once again, the answer to the question 'Why were the major cities of Britain bombed?' I can not answer with just one reply, but instead with several.