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World War II
The Blitz


A GREAT TERROR ON LONDON

KNOWN AS THE BLITZ

Blitz MemorialOn 30th August 1940, the German News Bureau announced to London "The attacks of our Luftwaffe are only a prelude. The decisive blow is about to fall."

For once, the German propaganda machine spoke the truth. At 4.56pm on the fine, late summer afternoon of Saturday September 7th, London's air-raid sirens, later to be known less than affectionately as "Moaning Minnies", announced the arrival of 375 German bombers and supporting fighters. They came up the Thames to London from the sea and set the London docks ablaze. As darkness fell, the fires burnt fiercely all over East London, and illuminated the efforts of a London Fire Brigade that was to have no rest for almost two months. This was the beginning of the London Blitz, and the only mass daylight raid of a campaign of terror that was characterized by the undaunted spirit of the civilian population. Although the daylight bombers were gone by 6pm that evening, the fires were still burning fiercely when the night raiders arrived to inflict more damage at 8.10pm.

The raid lasted until 4.30am. Seemingly endless sticks of incendiary bombs and high explosive rained down. By dawn London had nine major conflagrations: huge spreading areas of flame, nineteen fires that would normally have called for thirty pumps or more, forty ten-pump fires, and nearly a thousand lesser fires, any one of which would have made the front pages in peace time. Thousands of houses in the inner suburbs along the Thames were destroyed or damaged in one night. Some 430 men, women and children were killed and 1,600 were seriously injured.

The next night, the German bombers came again, this time attacking the ancient square mile of the City of London, financial capital of the world, as well as the London docks. For nine and a half hours, 200 bombers droned overhead, causing no less than twelve conflagrations, putting the railway network to the South of London out of action and destroying hundreds of houses. A further 412 civilians were killed, and 747 were seriously injured.

On Monday night, 370 were killed and 1,400 injured. On Tuesday a similarly frightening trail of destruction was left by another mighty raid. But on Wednesday London began to fight back, as the anti-aircraft batteries in the middle of the great sprawling city opened up with their reassuring racket. No aircraft were destroyed, but casualties were fewer and damage reduced.

Every single night for the rest of September the bombers came, the fires burned, and the death toll mounted. By the end of the month, 5,730 people had been killed and nearly 10,000 badly injured. Roads were cratered, telephone systems crippled, gas mains fractured, electricity supplies destroyed. Hospitals all over Greater London were damaged, some severely.

October seemed to produce a lessening of the scale of the attack. On the 6th, only one bomb fell. But still the bombers came every night, people died, and homes burned. The 15th's full moon was to prove hard on Londoners who had already endured almost six weeks of continuous bombing. Over 400 bombers arrived and dropped more than a thousand bombs: 430 were killed, 900 badly hurt. The pattern, the grisly monotony, continued until the nightly raiders left after their attack on the night of November 2nd, the 57th consecutive night of the Blitz. Wearily, London fought its fires, sought its dead, picked through the rubble and waited for nightfall to bring the next lot. But miraculously the raiders did not come. The spell was broken.

There were, in fact, only three nights in November when London was not bombed. Once again, the German crews celebrated the time around full moon with the biggest raid of the month, on the 15th, but, on the previous night, another terrifying raid had been directed, not against the capital but against Coventry, an attractive Midlands city in the industrial heartland of England. We now know that Churchill had been told in advance of this raid, because the secret intelligence center at Bletchley Park had been able to decode monitored Luftwaffe orders with its captured German "Enigma" coding machine. Despite this terrible knowledge, Churchill had been unable to increase Coventry's defenses or give warning, lest the Germans discovered that the Allies were able to decode their signals. The priceless secret of "Ultra", as the decoding operation was known, was somehow preserved, not only until the end of the war, but for decades after it. Few intelligence operations in history have been so successful, or have yielded so much strategically valuable information. But that was no comfort to the people of devastated Coventry, who, on 14th/15th November 1940, lost their cathedral, their homes, and, in many cases, members of their families.

By the end of November 1940, 12,696 civilians in the London area had died, about 20,000 had been seriously injured, and approximately 36,000 bombs had fallen on England's capital. After November, the German Command realized that the strategy of total destruction and the crushing of Britain's will simply could not work, and the pattern of bombing became more widespread, though no less destructive. There were great fire raids on the City of London in December, and more raids in January 1941, but the force of the London Blitz was for the time being spent. Across Britain, the raids continued until May 1941, by which time 40,000 British civilians had been killed, 46,000 had been seriously injured, and over a million homes had been destroyed or damaged. In the Battle of Britain and the Blitz combined, the Luftwaffe had lost 2,400 aircraft, without achieving any of its objectives.


 

 


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