The Blitz

Photo:Blitz landscape

Blitz landscape

Copyright Westminster City Archives

By Ronan Thomas

2010 saw the seventieth anniversary of the Blitz, the systematic attempt by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany to bomb the British people into submission from September 1940 to May 1941.

'The Blitz' - the phrase derives from the German word 'Blitzkrieg' ('lightning war') - is remembered as a national ordeal which marked all who endured it. Heavy air raids took place on British cities for over eight months, from 7 September 1940 to 11 May 1941.

These were followed by smaller scale air attacks in the so-called 'Lull' of 11 May 1941 to 21 January 1944, the 'Little Blitz' of 21 January to 19 April 1944 and the final V-Weapons campaign of 13 June 1944 - 29 March 1945.

During 1940-1945 an estimated 60,000 British civilians were killed by aerial bombing (43,000 from September 1940 to May 1941). Approximately 71,000 were treated for life-threatening injuries and over 88,000 others were less seriously injured. Whilst London was bombed the most heavily - nearly 30,000 died and around 50,000 were seriously injured - devastating raids also took place on eighteen other British cities, towns, ports and industrial production centres. These included: Coventry, Cardiff, Swansea, Belfast, Tyneside, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Hull, Southampton, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Glasgow, Clydeside, Nottingham and Exeter.

For four and a half years Britain endured the physical and psychological consequences of air attack: fear, shock, the loss of loved ones, deprivation, comprehensive destruction of property and the potential of defeat.

In London, over one million buildings were destroyed or otherwise damaged as the most formidable air force in Europe, the Luftwaffe, dropped its ordnance across the capital (approximately 18,000 tons of high explosive). Londoners’ nerves were shredded, but their collective will to resist was not broken. A ‘Blitz Spirit’ of solidarity and defiance – encouraged by wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill – sustained both capital and nation during the darkest moments. A popular documentary film of October 1940 was entitled ‘London Can Take It!’, a phrase which became the beleaguered capital’s watchword.

Battle of Britain to the Blitz

The onset of the Blitz coincided with the culmination of the Battle of Britain (10 July-31 October 1940) in which Hitler’s Luftwaffe tried and failed to achieve air superiority against the Royal Air Force (RAF) prior to a planned German invasion of the British Isles.

After eight months of ‘Phoney War’, following the outbreak of hostilities on 3 September 1939, stunning German victories in France and the Low Countries resulted in the British Army’s retreat to and evacuation from Dunkirk (Operation Dynamo, 26 May - 4 June 1940). Following the fall of France in June, as new Prime Minister Winston Churchill rallied the British people in the defence of their island and Empire, Hitler launched a strategy of economic blockade. Luftwaffe dive bombers struck British merchant vessels in the English Channel. During July, over 30,000 tons of British shipping were sunk. Air attacks were also launched against British ports, raw materials and food storage infrastructure and aircraft production centres. 

In early July, Hitler directed his military staff to assess the feasibility of an invasion of southern England. German Navy and Army strategists came up with separate, theoretical plans, although Hitler’s Air Minister and Luftwaffe commander, Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, was initially sceptical. Hitler - at this stage hoping to pressure Britain into a negotiated, compromise peace - offered a ‘last appeal to reason’ on 19 July. Churchill refused, having decided that the geo-strategic and moral price for such an accommodation was too great for Britain to pay, whatever the intimidation. His oratory convinced Britain’s government and people to fight on, against the odds. Unable to weaken Churchill’s resolve, Hitler agreed to a plan to destroy the RAF prior to a seaborne invasion of Britain (Operation Sea Lion).

Sea Lion was scheduled for mid-September 1940, whilst weather remained favourable. The invasion plan was predicated on the swift achievement of German air superiority following destruction of British radar stations, airfields, fighters and naval forces in the English Channel. From their newly-seized airfields on the French coast, flight time for German fighter aircraft across the Channel to Dover was six minutes. Goering was confident that the RAF could be defeated in a month.

In the subsequent Battle of Britain Goering dispatched an air armada of some 2,500 German aircraft – of which around 1,000 were fast and well-armed Messerschmitt ME-109 fighters - in massed daylight attacks. Their aim: to destroy the RAF’s airfields and sweep its numerically inferior Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire fighters from the skies.

The Luftwaffe effort to achieve air superiority failed. Despite intense, effective (and close to overwhelming) German bombing of RAF airfields during August, the tide had turned by 15 September. The final outcome was the product of British strengths, the advantages of island geography and German tactical errors.

Facing the aerial onslaught, Britain relied on a vital chain of 21 radar (Radio Direction Finding or RDF) stations, a highly proficient air defence control system (directed by Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding and Air Vice Marshal Keith Park), visual reporting from Royal Observer Corps posts, radio eavesdropping and a network of acoustic detectors. What followed was an existential struggle for command of southern British airspace.

Guided by Dowding and Park’s air defence system, a force of some 600 Hurricanes and Spitfires from No.10, 11 and 12 Groups, RAF Fighter Command doggedly defended the skies over southern England, inflicting serious losses as well as suffering many of their own. Although RAF intelligence overestimated the number of opposing Luftwaffe aircraft and there was a perilous shortage of British, Commonwealth and Allied pilots, the RAF was defending home territory. British fighters were able to land, rearm and refuel during battle and were deployed flexibly to satellite airfields when operational runways suffered bomb damage.

Radar gave the RAF a critical advantage. In southern England the chain of high and low level radar tracking stations - with ranges of between 80-100 miles and 20 miles respectively - alerted RAF Fighter Command Headquarters at Bentley Priory, Stanmore, London. This strategic planning hub analysed the threat to Britain from all incoming aircraft. Here, radar information was assessed and hostile formations identified, in most cases before they had left France and crossed the English Channel. In Bentley Priory’s underground Operations and Filter Rooms aircraft numbers, direction, altitudes and likely type were confirmed, plotted and mapped. Orders were then telephoned to Group headquarters controllers and on to individual sector stations, airfields and squadrons. The nerve centre for intercepting all Luftwaffe attacks on south eastern England and the capital was RAF No.11 (Fighter) Group Headquarters, at RAF Uxbridge, north west London. Built in 1939, its underground Operations Room - coordinating area fighter readiness and deployment - was a key element in the RAF’s defensive response during the Battle of Britain.

Dowding and Park’s air defence control system obviated the need for standing patrols and ensured that RAF fighters were vectored into position and mostly waiting for each Luftwaffe assault. British aircraft losses were replaced rapidly: RAF fighter factory production exceeded that of Nazi Germany during the Battle. Some RAF aircrew were rotated for brief periods of rest, an advantage which the Luftwaffe did not enjoy in the summer of 1940.

At the same time, as the Battle ebbed and flowed, serious flaws in German tactics emerged. Despite some initial success, Luftwaffe raids failed to knock out the RAF’s crucial radar station chain. Luftwaffe intelligence reports consistently overestimated British losses and airfield damage and underestimated both the RAF's actual fighting strength and British aircraft production capacity. Goering issued a series of contradictory air directives, including an order in September to his ME-109 fighter squadrons to fly at slower speeds to escort his bomber force more closely. This meant that these highly-effective aircraft  - their fuel range already limited to 30 minutes over southern England and a mere 10 minutes over London - could not operate to their full potential and dominate the air battlefield. Denied air superiority, as well as lacking sufficient naval strength in the Channel, Hitler postponed Operation Sea Lion indefinitely on 17 September and finally called it off on 12 October.

The RAF had won a critical defensive victory. In daylight it had decisively held the enemy off, although the margin had been narrow and the Luftwaffe was far from defeated. 2,937 British, Commonwealth and Allied aircrew from RAF Fighter Command fought in the Battle, of whom 544 were killed. 915 British aircraft were destroyed. Against this, the Luftwaffe lost 2,662 aircrew killed with over 6,000 others wounded or taken prisoner. 1,773 German aircraft were destroyed.

For the first month of the Battle of Britain London was largely unaffected, except for periodic siren alerts and rigorous blackout regulations (in force since 1 September 1939). From August until early September 1940, residents in London‘s outer suburbs were treated to an extraordinary display of criss-crossing vapour (‘con’) trails, high in the skies above them, as the rival air forces vied for supremacy over Kent, Essex, Surrey and Sussex.

But Churchill had few illusions as to what was coming. During the 1930s many in both government and general public assumed that an air campaign against British cities would cause catastrophic damage. As former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin put it in 1932: ’the bomber will always get through’. In 1937 Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, head of RAF Fighter Command, advised that London might endure no more than two weeks of sustained aerial bombing before civilian panic led to probable defeat. Since 1939, the government had developed worst-case plans to deal with over 600,000 fatalities and over 1.2 million serious injuries (25,000 bombing-related casualties in Britain per day). In September 1939 around one million children were evacuated from London and from cities across Britain. Poison gas attacks on London and on other British urban areas were also expected (44 million gas masks had been issued to British civilians between late 1938 and September 1939).

On 15 August, Croydon, on the outskirts of the capital, was hit in a daylight raid. Further raids took place on outer London on 18-19 August and 22-23 August. On 24 August German aircraft bombed the city centre in error, despite Hitler’s standing orders to the contrary. The British retaliated, raiding Berlin on 25-26 August and 29-30 August. Strike followed counter strike. German bombs fell on North and East London and Essex on 28-29 August. On 7 September 1940, the Luftwaffe turned comprehensively on London, in the process taking pressure off the RAF's airfields. The intention: destroy the epicentre of Britain's trade and war economy, wear down civilian morale and force Churchill's government to sue for peace. A new chapter in Britain’s wartime experience was about to unfold.

The Blitz begins

The Blitz proper lasted from 7 September 1940 to 11 May 1941, eight months (243 days and nights) of sustained air raids on London, culminating in an all-out raid on 10-11 May 1941. Attacks were also intensified against provincial British ports, cities, and industrial centres from mid-November 1940 to May 1941 in an attempt to complete Britain's economic blockade and devastate her inward supply facilities and production capabilities.

The Blitz began with a mass daylight raid on London's docks and the East End from 5pm on 7 September 1940 (‘Black Saturday’). 348 German bombers, escorted by 617 fighters, dropped 625 tons of high explosive bombs and thousands of incendiaries. A second bomber wave continued bombing into the early hours of 8 September. 436 civilians were killed; 1,600 were seriously injured. Nine miles of London’s docklands, oil and gasworks, wharves and closely-packed warehouses from Tower Bridge to Woolwich were set ablaze.

From 7 September to 2 November - 57 consecutive nights - London was bombed without respite. The Luftwaffe conducted daylight raids on the capital until rising RAF fighter interception rates forced a shift to night attacks only (from 29 October). In the Blitz’s first month, 5,730 Londoners were killed and over 9,000 seriously injured. From 7 September to mid-November, an estimated 28,000 high explosive bombs and tens of thousands of incendiaries were dropped on London. 3,759 unexploded high explosive bombs (UXBs) had been dealt with in London by the end of September alone. In the event, poison gas attacks on London and other British cities were not carried out. The Luftwaffe eschewed the use of gas - on grounds of ineffectiveness and the likelihood of British reprisal in kind - although concerns over its potential persisted well into 1944.

During the first weeks of the London Blitz, Luftwaffe bombing was concentrated on the East End, on its narrow tenements, riverside docks and warehouses. So much so that the British government was at first seriously concerned by the possibility of domestic insurgency. Soon, bombs dropped on the West End showed that the pain would be shared by all Londoners. After Buckingham Palace was bombed on 13 September 1940, Queen Elizabeth was prompted to remark: “I am glad we have been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face”. Equally, the diarist and politician, Harold Nicolson, pointed to this issue in his diary entry for 17 September 1940:

“Everybody is worried about the feeling in the East End, where there is much bitterness.... Clem (Clement Davies MP, Liberal Party leader from 1945-1956) says that if only the Germans had had the sense not to bomb west of London Bridge there might have been a revolution in this country. As it is, they have smashed about Bond Street and Park Lane and readjusted the balance".

If the largest percentage of German bombs dropped on London fell on the East End, the City of London and the docks, the capital’s West End and its suburbs also suffered. This was illustrated by the experience of the City of Westminster, a London borough amalgamated in 1965 with its neighbour, St Marylebone, but in 1940 a discrete municipal entity. In 1939 Westminster's population was estimated at around 120,000, with between 450,000-500,000 others passing through the West End each day and evening. During the Blitz over 1,100 City of Westminster residents were killed and 2,500 others seriously injured. The borough witnessed its first (minor) bomb incident when incendiaries fell on Belgravia on 30 August 1940. 

Many iconic buildings in City of Westminster and St Marylebone were damaged to varying degree during the first three and a half months of the Blitz (September to December 1940). These included: Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, Whitehall, The National Gallery, BBC Broadcasting House (Portland Place W1), Soho and Piccadilly. Bombs fell on Marble Arch, Green Park, Sloane Square and Trafalgar Square Underground Stations. Also struck were Leicester Square, Regent Street, Victoria Street, Petty France, Dolphin Square SW1, Pimlico, Millbank, Savile Row W1 and Madame Tussauds waxwork museum on Baker Street in Marylebone. On the night of 17-18 September 1940 five West End department stores on Oxford Street were hit: John Lewis, Selfridges, Peter Robinson, Bourne and Hollingsworth and DH Evans.

In daylight and night raids during 1940-1941, an average of 28 high explosive bombs fell per 100 acres in Westminster. Westminster districts - particularly Pimlico, Soho and Millbank - were struck by incendiary and high explosive bombs, parachute mines ('land mines' in contemporary parlance) and V1 flying bombs (from June 1944). V2 Long Range Rockets also hit Westminster and St Marylebone during September 1944 to March 1945.

Attack and defence

The German bomber fleet sent against London was composed of waves of twin-engined Heinkel HE-111, Dornier Do-17 and Junkers JU-88 aircraft from Luftflotten (Air Fleets) Two and Three, based in northern France and the Low Countries. They were accompanied by ME-109 fighters by day but flew unescorted to the capital by night. From October to November 1940 – the so-called ‘Messerschmitt Month’ - ME-109 fighters were given new roles as fighter-bombers, flying in daylight at higher altitudes to evade interception and dropping 250kg (550lb) bombs on parts of London, including Waterloo Railway Station. The Luftwaffe also used several Junkers JU-86P high-altitude bombers (with pressurised cabins for operations up to 40,000 ft) for daylight photo-reconnaissance.

The number of Luftwaffe aircraft sent against London and other British cities in the first months of the Blitz averaged 200-300 bombers per raid, some flying multiple sorties. This rose to over 400 in individual night raids from October 1940, to over 600 (London, 16-17 April 1941) and to over 700 (London, 19-20 April 1941).  

The bombers flew to the capital up the Thames Estuary or directly in over Kent and Sussex guided by Knickebein (‘crooked leg’), X-Gerat and Y-Gerat on-board navigation aids. These systems - variants of the pre-war Lorenz navigation aid - used powerful directional radio beams transmitted from separate locations in occupied France. Directed by a radio tone on their headsets, Luftwaffe pathfinder bomber crews 'rode' these beams until they converged over London. On moonlit nights, the aircrews also used the glistening ribbon of the Thames or glinting railway lines as reference points. During the heaviest raids, navigation was elementary: the red glow of the burning capital was visible from sixty miles.

In September 1940, Luftwaffe pilots were equipped with maps demarcating specific districts in London to avoid (mostly street addresses of neutral embassies) and those areas to target deliberately. The latter included the City of London (finance and economy), key transport hubs (railway termini), official government buildings (many in Westminster) and the docks. During late 1940-1941, this element of precision ceased. London was designated an ‘area target’ to be saturated at night from high level. 

Once over London, German pathfinder bombers dropped parachute flares to illuminate whole streets, followed by canisters ('bread-baskets') of incendiary bombs. The vast majority of bombs dropped during the Blitz were incendiaries. Each German bomber could carry as many as 700. When released, the canisters split open, scattering dozens of small 1kg (2.2lb) incendiaries filled with a Thermite (magnesium) mixture which ignited on impact. Lodged in roof spaces, often inaccessible to firemen, they burned fiercely. Subsequent bomber waves were guided in by the incendiary fires burning in the streets below. 

Next, the bombers dropped hundreds of high explosive bombs of varying power, ranging from 50kg (110lb) to 2,500kg (5,500lb) - including delayed-action types - as well as oil-incendiary bombs and highly destructive, 8-ft long 1,000kg (2,200lb) SC1800 parachute mines, which drifted down indiscriminately until their timer fuses detonated. Containers of 2kg (4.4lb) SD2 butterfly anti-personnel mines were also unloaded on London. From early 1944, during the period of the 'Little Blitz', Luftwaffe aircraft dropped new 50kg (110lb) and 250kg (550lb) phosphorous incendiary bombs.  After releasing their bomb loads and heading home to their airfields in France and the Low Countries, the German raiders swept back east over Essex and the Thames Estuary or south over Kent, Surrey and Sussex.

Right from the start of the Blitz, these effective tactics threatened to overwhelm the capital’s defences. The air defence of London at night (coordinated by AA Command, part of the Royal Artillery) was a story of many deficiencies. In September 1940, only 90 batteries of manually-guided 3.7 inch, 4.5 inch, Vickers Mark VIII 3 inch, 2-pounder and 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft ('ack-ack', AA) guns were available in the capital’s parks and at key concentrations in the suburbs along the bombers’ routes. This number was rapidly increased to 264 and their deafening barrages boosted Londoners’ morale. Yet, along with attempted interceptions by Bristol Blenheim, radar-arrayed Bristol Beaufighter and Boulton Paul Defiant night-fighters, the anti-aircraft response was largely ineffective. During 1940-1941 the night loss rate of German bombers was a mere 1.5%. 264 batteries were not enough and their range predictors proved imprecise. Falling anti-aircraft shells exploded or fell unexploded in London's streets, causing civilian casualties and diverting scarce bomb disposal team resources.

Nevertheless, the heavy barrages (effective up to around 20,000 ft), accompanied by manually-operated and, later, electrically-directed searchlights (effective up to around 12,000 ft), forced the German bombers to fly at higher altitudes, further denuding their targeting ability. Thousands of barrage balloons, tethered by steel cables, were deployed to deter low-flying German aircraft and became a familiar sight in British cities, ports and next to factories. Static water tanks - to ensure a backup supply for fire pumps during air raids - were erected in many city centres. Large smoke canisters, designed to obscure Britain's cities and towns from air attack (in the event of a confirmed invasion) were also held in reserve. Under the leadership of Dr R.V. Jones, Churchill's Assistant Director of Intelligence, the British learnt to disrupt the German bomber Knickebein navigation aids with their own radio counter-measures (the so-called ‘Battle of the Beams’).

From 1943 the nation's AA defences improved markedly, with the introduction of radar-controlled guns, proximity fuse shells and new anti-aircraft rocket batteries.

Britain responds, then endures

Across Britain, the Blitz of 1940-1941 witnessed a huge demand for national Civil Defence workers, both voluntary and conscripted. In September 1939, hundreds of thousands of Britons of all backgrounds had volunteered for civil defence service. As compulsory military service drew off men aged 18-41 (September 1939), then women aged 19-30 (December 1941), then men up to the age of 51 (1942), the need for additional manpower became urgent. Over 1.5 million Britons (200,000 in London) were enrolled as volunteer Air Raid Precaution (ARP) wardens. 95,000 (23,000 in London) were recruited as novice firemen into the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS). Fire-watching was made compulsory in Britain from January 1941 and - until early 1945 - dereliction of duty was punishable by fines or imprisonment.

Many other Britons volunteered for service as nurses, in the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) and Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), as car, ambulance and mobile crane drivers, motorcycle dispatch riders, communications staff, medical orderlies and stretcher bearers. Others worked in Heavy and Light Rescue crews, utility worker groups, decontamination teams and for public transport and the police. Nationally, by December 1943, almost two million civilians were serving in the ARP, NFS (National Fire Service), Ambulance and Police services. A grand total of 16.5 million British men and women were engaged in essential civilian war work by June 1944.

After basic training, these civilians were responsible for keeping Britain going. After their normal working day they reported bomb incidents, watched for and fought small and more serious fires, treated the injured, enforced blackout regulations, gave out information, ran temporary Rest Centres and mobile canteens, assisted in the rescue of trapped bomb victims from the mangled ruins of city buildings and the removal of the dead to mortuary vans. Subsisting on monotonous food rations (strict rationing was imposed across Britain from 8 January 1940), they also conducted poison gas and incendiary bomb precaution exercises, took censuses of local buildings, guided civilians to safety, roped off streets and controlled access, helped to clear debris (three million tons required clearance in London alone by 1945), reported damage, kept order in public air raid shelters and in London’s Underground stations and rehoused the homeless.

Official censorship - and press self-censorship - ensured that the precise details of each bomb incident were obfuscated, even if the damage was obvious to the naked eye. The prevailing British public response to the nightly air raids - as revealed in government surveys of civilian opinion in London and other cities - was one of general fatalism, that survival was largely out of one's hands. By late October 1940, the public’s fear of invasion was also receding. Socialite Lady Diana Cooper, who experienced the Blitz in London’s Park Lane and worked in a YMCA canteen on Parliament Square, wrote to her son on 20 September 1940: ‘Comfort we have to find in the argument that only one thing matters - not to be overcome’. As the Blitz unwound this attitude, plus the public-spiritedness of civilian volunteers and conscripts, was tested - to the limit.

As night followed night during 1940-1941, civil defence members and city inhabitants in London and elsewhere were confronted by shocking sights and sounds. The spine-tingling, stomach-churning wail of air raid sirens. The distinctive, sinister drone of enemy aircraft engines. The whistle of falling high explosive bombs, their ear-splitting detonation and lethal blast waves. The metallic tinkling sound of incendiaries dropping onto rooftops before igniting in a white-green flash. The dazzling finger beams of searchlights and pounding anti-aircraft guns. The deafening roar of collapsing buildings. Choking smoke and dust. Blasted streets strewn with heavy debris, masonry rubble and shrapnel. Flying shattered glass, inflicting lacerating injuries. The urgent bells of passing emergency vehicles. The menace of unexploded ordnance. Ripped-open utility capillaries: burst coal gas and water mains, ruptured sewers, severed telephone lines, sparking mains electricity and broken overhead tram and trolleybus wires. The searing heat of major fires out of control. Flood damage from fire service water hoses. Corpses and body parts found entombed under smashed brick, metal and wood in destroyed houses and shelters. Dazed and injured civilians requiring first aid and the furtive activities of looters.

The authorities’ primary civil defence concerns were public shelter, protection, population dispersal and rehousing after property destruction. During the Blitz, over 2.25 million British people were made homeless (1.5 million in London). Pre-war plans to construct a series of deep underground public shelters - for the envisaged primary target, London - had still not been acted upon when the Blitz arrived. In October 1940, the government finally agreed to build eight such shelters in London (each designed to accommodate between 4,000-8,000 people). But the pace of construction was slow: the first deep shelters were not completed until mid-1942. Instead, Londoners sought refuge from the nightly air raids in brick surface and underground street shelters, in trench shelters in city squares and parks, in the basements of large public buildings, offices or under railway arches. 27% of Londoners relied on corrugated steel Anderson shelters in back gardens. Many others simply stayed at home, taking cover in the most secure parts of their houses: under staircases, in cellars or in Morrison indoor shelters (mass-produced sheet steel cages). Key government buildings - including many across Westminster and Whitehall - were protected against high explosive bomb blast by banks of sandbags. One-man steel shelters were also provided for ARP wardens and staff members at important transport hubs and roof observation points.

Each public shelter in London was administered as efficiently as local circumstances permitted. Many required tickets, each were maintained with varying degrees of sanitation. Some, like the Tilbury Shelter in Stepney E1, became notorious for overcrowding and lack of basic facilities. Others, such as the underground shelter of the Savoy Hotel (Strand) and the basement Turkish Bath and gymnasium of the Dorchester Hotel (Park Lane), hosted society grandees in comparative style. Elsewhere in Westminster, large public shelters were operated in the Methodist Central Hall, Trafalgar Square and in dozens of the borough’s garden squares.

4% of Londoners (177,000 people) sheltered in 79 Underground stations – such as Aldwych in Westminster - across the London Tube network. Initially, the authorities attempted to prevent Londoners occupying the stations during the nightly raids. Under public pressure, they were forced to reconsider and soon each station was regulated by ARP wardens, London Transport staff and volunteers. Each acquired a familiar nighttime routine. After the power was switched off, people slept on the platforms and in the tunnels on the tracks. Apart from platform sleeping spaces or prefabricated bunks, most Underground stations offered chemical lavatories (in others just buckets behind screens), refreshments, even library facilities. As an example, City of Westminster libraries donated 2,000 books for use in their borough shelters.

Shelterers in the London Underground stations - memorably captured by wartime artists such as Henry Moore and Edward Ardizzone – may have felt safer but they were by no means free from danger. From September 1940 to May 1941, 198 civilians were killed in Underground stations across the city. Several stations took direct hits. These included: Marble Arch (17 September 1940, 20 killed), Trafalgar Square (12 October 1940, 7 killed), Bounds Green (13 October 1940, 19 killed), Balham (14 October 1940, 68 killed) and Bank (11 January 1941, 111 killed). On 3 March 1943, 173 died in a stampede at Bethnal Green Station. In the City of Westminster, Green Park Station was also badly damaged and on 12 November 1940 bombs fell on Sloane Square Station, hitting a passing train, wrecking the platforms and killing or seriously injuring 79. All mainline overground termini in London, 23 other railway stations, 12 trolleybus and tram stations and 15 bus stations were hit during 1940-1945. London Transport reported 181 staff deaths in the Blitz and over 9,000 separate damage incidents.

Regional Blitz

The Blitz witnessed concerted night bombing of British regional cities, industrial and aircraft production centres and the main ports which supplied the British population from the sea. German air raids were subsequently launched across Britain to smash munitions production and to support the U-boat campaign from 1940-1943 against allied merchant shipping convoys sailing from the United States and Canada (the ‘Battle of the Atlantic’). On 14 November 1940, Coventry - a centre for aircraft, weapons and automotive production – was devastated by 440 German aircraft in a twelve-hour attack. 500 tons of high explosive bombs and over 30,000 incendiary bombs were dropped. 568 people were killed, 1,256 were seriously injured.

In November, raids were made on Birmingham and in December on Merseyside, Southampton, Sheffield and Manchester. On the night of 2 January 1941, 100 German bombers attacked Cardiff in a ten-hour raid, dropping 14,000 incendiaries and hundreds of high explosive bombs. 165 were killed and 427 seriously injured. On 3 January, Bristol received similar Luftwaffe attention: 149 were killed with over 300 injured.

The campaign against the provinces and port cities was unrelenting: Portsmouth (10-11 January 1941, 68 killed, over 160 injured), Swansea (19-22 February 1941, 219 killed, 260 injured), Cardiff (26 February, 3 and 4 March 1941 and further raids between 12 March and 11 May 1941), Plymouth (20-21 March 1941, 591 killed). Bristol, Portsmouth, Southampton, Birmingham, Coventry, Clydebank, Tyneside were all bombed again heavily from mid-March to April 1941. Belfast was raided on 7-8 April, 15 April and 4 May 1941, inflicting over 700 fatalities. On 8 May it was Nottingham's turn. From April to May 1941, Hull and Liverpool. During April 1941, the British government estimated that over 6,000 British civilians had been killed in air raids.

Apex of destruction

In London, the Blitz became ever more destructive as 1940 ended. A major raid took place on 8 December 1940: German bombers dropped over 380 tons of high explosive bombs and at least 115,000 incendiaries. 250 Londoners were killed and 600 more seriously injured. In the West End a parachute mine badly damaged Portland Place W1, including BBC Broadcasting House, for a second time.

On 29 December 1940 the centre of the City of London was consumed by fire after German aircraft delivered over 20,000 incendiaries and 120 tons of high explosive. 160 civilians were killed. 14 firemen died and 250 of their colleagues were injured fighting over 1,400 major incendiary blazes. The Guildhall and eight Wren churches were burnt out and five mainline rail stations suffered direct hits. The area around St Paul’s Cathedral became a sea of flames, although the Cathedral itself was saved by the strenuous efforts of its own firewatchers and a seemingly Providential change in the weather.

From 11-19 January 1941, London was attacked a further four times. During March West End buildings were again struck during raids, among them Buckingham Palace and the Café de Paris nightclub on Coventry Street W1 (killing swing dance band leader Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson and 34 others).

Much worse was to come. A large raid - 130 tons of high explosive and 25,000 incendiaries dropped - took place on 8 March 1941. 100 tons of high explosive and 16,000 incendiaries fell on the capital on 15 March. On the night of 19 March, 470 tons of high explosives and 122,000 incendiaries struck the East End and the docks. Over 1,700 people were killed or seriously injured. Additional very heavy night raids on London took place on 16-17 April 1941 (890 tons of high explosive and 151,000 incendiaries dropped with 1,000 killed) and on 19-20 April 1941 (1,000 tons of high explosive and 153,000 incendiaries dropped with 1,200 killed).

The Blitz reached its crescendo on 10-11 May 1941 when German aircraft wrought unprecedented destruction across the city. Under a full moon, 505 Luftwaffe bombers attacked the capital, unloading 711 tons of high explosive and 86,000 incendiaries. 1,436 Londoners were killed and 2,000 others were seriously injured (the highest number inflicted in a single raid during the London Blitz). At least 2,000 separate incendiary fires were started. 10,000 buildings in London were either obliterated or badly damaged.

In Westminster these included the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, St John's Church, (Smith Square), St Clement Danes Church (Strand), the Queen’s Hall (Langham Place), St James's Palace, Piccadilly, Eaton Square, Park Lane, St Martin's Lane, Pimlico, parts of Soho, Mayfair and Knightsbridge.

Elsewhere, bombs rained down on the docks, the East End, the City of London, Marylebone, Waterloo, Holborn (including the British Museum), King's Cross, Lincoln's Inn and Gray's Inn, Chelsea, Lambeth Palace, St Thomas's Hospital, the Tower of London, Paddington, Kensington, Hammersmith, Elephant and Castle, Nunhead, Peckham, Bermondsey, Greenwich and Hackney.

Major disruption was caused to London's transport infrastructure: all but one mainline railway terminus and four bridges across the Thames were temporarily closed. In total, 700 acres of the capital were burnt down or pounded into rubble.

By mid-May 1941, German aircraft had dropped over 18,000 tons of high explosive bombs and hundreds of thousands of incendiaries on the capital. Yet, London was a huge target. Prime Minister Churchill calculated that the city could absorb great punishment (possibly for years) as he tried to secure direct American entry into the war.

Respite came as Hitler turned eastwards. By May 1941 the Nazi leader was finalising his grand strategic plan: the invasion and defeat of the Soviet Union. This invasion – Operation Barbarossa – was launched on 22 June 1941, diverting many German aircraft from attacks on Britain. The nation breathed a sigh of relief.

11 May 1941 - 21 January 1944: 'The Lull'

Luftwaffe bombers continued to attack British cities but from mid-May 1941 to late January 1944 the number and intensity of raids dropped dramatically. This two and a half year period became known as ‘The Lull’. Nevertheless, this phase included sporadic raids on London (as on 27 July 1941) and the so-called ‘Baedeker Blitz’ raids of April to June 1942. These were individual attacks on provincial English cities and towns conducted in reprisal for RAF bombing of the undefended German Baltic port cities of Lubeck (28 March 1942) and Rostock (23-24 April 1942).

The Baedeker raids were reputedly carried out after Luftwaffe commanders consulted the 1937 edition of the ‘Baedeker’s Great Britain' tourist guidebook (each target was selected if it had been awarded three stars).The following cities and towns were raided: Bath, Canterbury, Exeter, Norwich, York, Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge, Great Yarmouth and Ipswich. 1,637 people were killed and 1,760 were seriously injured.

During the rest of 1942 and during 1943, the Luftwaffe carried out a series of precision air raids on port cities (such as on Cardiff on 30 June and 2 July 1942, 7 May and 17-18 May 1943) and so-called 'tip and run' attacks. These were fast, low-level raids on coastal towns and on specific military and industrial targets. Focke-Wulf FW-190 fighters, modified to carry 500lb bombs, were sent on strafing sorties against southern England (including London from January 1943). Further raids on the capital took place on 17 and 20 January, 3 March, 17 June, 7 October and 7 November 1943.

21 January 1944 - 19 April 1944: The 'Little Blitz'

From January to April 1944, substantial German air raids resumed in the so-called ‘Little Blitz’ (or ‘Baby Blitz’). London and south east England were singled out for attack in retaliation for British saturation bombing of major German cities, particularly Berlin. In this new conventional bombing offensive - Operation Steinbock - the Luftwaffe devoted 524 aircraft for further night raids on London, including Junkers JU-88S, Junkers JU-188, Dornier Do-217, Messerschmitt ME-410 and Heinkel HE-177 bombers. Around 460 aircraft from this force were airworthy.

During four months of raids – fourteen on London (seven on Westminster) and others on Bristol, Hull and Cardiff - approximately 1,500 people were killed and almost 3,000 seriously injured. In London, people flocked again to the Underground stations, as they had done in 1940-1941. Five out of eight new deep public shelters were also opened to the public.

On the night of 21-22 January 1944 the 'Little Blitz' began. 400 aircraft, flying in two waves, dropped 268 tons of high explosive bombs and thousands of incendiaries on south east England and London. In Westminster the Houses of Parliament (Parliament Square and Westminster Hall), the Embankment, Westminster Bridge, New Scotland Yard (Canon Row) and parts of Pimlico were hit by incendiaries. On 28 January, 285 bombers hit targets including the Surrey Commercial Docks, in the process causing major fires.

Additional air raids on London took place on 29 January and on 19, 20, 23, 24 and 29 February 1944. In a heavy raid on 19 February, the Luftwaffe dropped phosphorous incendiaries on Whitehall, hitting the 'Fortress', a reinforced concrete extension of the War Office. More damage was caused in Queen's Gate SW7 and in Pimlico. On 20 February, Whitehall was hit again after bombs fell on Horse Guards Parade and in St James's Park (damaging the Treasury, the Admiralty, the War Office and the Scottish Office). Windows were shattered in No 10 Downing Street. Churchill’s Assistant Private Secretary and wartime diarist, Sir John 'Jock' Colville, described the raid of 20 February as ‘a short, sharp blitz’. Hyde Park and Pall Mall were also struck. On 23 February bombs fell in St James's and Chelsea, and, on the following night, on parts of Soho. On 14-15 March, 100 German aircraft again dropped phosphorous incendiaries and high explosives across London. In Westminster, Hyde Park, Knightsbridge, Belgravia, Rochester Row, Monck Street, Cliveden Place and two churches in Medway Street and Flask Lane SW1 were all hit, set alight or damaged. On 21 March, Paddington Railway Station was bombed.

But the Luftwaffe bomber force was mauled and progressively depleted during the 'Little Blitz'. In four months, 329 aircraft were either lost or redeployed. Over 100 were lost to interception, ground defensive fire, crew inexperience and maintenance problems. Directed by Air Chief Marshal Roderic Hill, radar-equipped RAF De Havilland Mosquito and Bristol Beaufighter night-fighters exacted an ever-increasing toll on the remaining German formations. Reichsmarschall Goering also diverted squadrons to oppose the allied landings at Anzio, Italy, from 22 January 1944, and to support German occupation forces in Hungary from mid-March 1944.

The final raid of the ‘Little Blitz’ took place on the night of 18-19 April 1944. Thereafter, Goering devoted what was left of his bomber strength in France to preparations for the expected allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe.

The ‘Little Blitz’ was over. Casualties had been comparatively light. Yet those who lived through it remembered the extra strain on British civilian morale it caused. Winston Churchill’s youngest daughter, Baroness Soames, experienced the ‘Little Blitz’ at first hand in London whilst a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS):

Early in 1944, the enemy once more turned his attention upon the cities of this country, London being the chief target. Londoners accepted this resumption of the air raids stolidly, but people were just that much wearier; three years of the sheer slog of wartime life since the first Blitz had inevitably taken their toll. During the ‘Little Blitz’, the noise was truly appalling, most of it being caused by our own, much more formidable defences, and even a quiet night brought little rest to many thousands of men and women, who, after their day’s work, went home to do their stint as Air Raid Wardens and Firewatchers. Westminster was no more immune than other parts of London: on the night of 20 February 1944, Downing Street and Whitehall once again suffered bomb damage” (Mary Soames: ‘Clementine Churchill’, 1979).

13 June 1944 - 29 March 1945: The V-Weapons

Even as battered Britain glimpsed victory on the horizon, following the successful D-Day landings in north western France on 6 June 1944 (Operation Overlord), a final, vicious, air assault began: the V-Weapons. In a highly destructive offensive, from 13 June 1944 to 29 March 1945, Hitler launched new ‘Vengeance weapons' (‘Vergeltungswaffen’) against London. It was a campaign of retribution, in response to the ever more ruinous RAF saturation bombing of German cities (1940-1945). Over 3,000 V-weapons struck the capital and its suburbs. Almost 9,000 people were killed. At least 24,000 others were seriously injured.

The first were V1 flying bombs (known to Londoners as ‘Doodlebugs’).The V1s were pilotless bombs with a range of 149 miles (240km), powered by an Argus 109-014 pulse engine and launched by catapult from static ramps in occupied Europe. Design faults and RAF raids on their test facilities at Peenemunde, on Germany’s Baltic coast, (notably Operation Hydra, 17-18 August 1943) and on launch ramp sites in Northern France, delayed their use until June 1944.

Each V1 was divided into five sections: pulse engine, control compartment, spherical compressed air tanks, alcohol fuel tank and nose warhead. Each flew at around 400mph (645 kmph) and were guided to their targets by autopilot and gyrocompass. After launch from northern France or Holland, V1s could reach London in 25 minutes. They arrived by day and by night. A small nose airscrew (air log) measured a set range – every V1 sent against the capital was calibrated for the exact distance to Tower Bridge – after which the droning pulse engine cut out and the V1 dived down, silently and menacingly, onto London. Each V1 delivered a powerful warhead: 1,870 lb (850kg) of high explosive.

The RAF conducted photo reconnaissance flights to identify the V-Weapons infrastructure (Operation Crossbow), followed by USAAF raids. These were supplemented by a British military intelligence campaign of misinformation - directed by Dr R.V. Jones - as to where they were actually striking London, but until their launch ramp sites were overrun by the advancing allied armies, V1s badly damaged the capital.

The first V1 fell on 13 June 1944 on Bow, East London (6 killed). The public were first informed about the dangers from flying bombs on 16 June. Of over 10,000 V1s launched, approximately 9,251 were fired against London during an eighty day campaign. 7,488 crossed the south coast of England. 3,957 were shot down by anti-aircraft fire, by RAF fighter interception - by Hawker Tempests, Spitfires, Mosquitos and by Britain's first jet fighter, the 400mph (670km/h) Gloster Meteor - or hit the cables of barrage balloons tethered outside the capital. 

Around 2,500 V1s hit London (a rate of 50 to 100 a day in late June 1944). 6,184 people were killed with an estimated 17,981 injured. 18,000 homes (400 per V1) were destroyed by V1s with 137,000 damaged. In the final stages of the campaign, V1s were also air launched against Britain from Heinkel HE-111 bombers. The last V1 to hit Britain landed near Datchworth, Hertfordshire on 29 March 1945 (none killed or injured).

In the City of Westminster, from 18 June to 27 August 1944, thirty V1s killed 267 people, seriously injured 663 and otherwise injured over 1,000 others. V1 strikes - designated as  'robot' or 'fly' bomb incidents by the local ARP - are depicted on the borough’s Bomb Map with baleful clarity. They included Rutherford Street, Vincent Square, on 18 June 1944 (10 killed, 62 injured), Victoria Station (Hudson’s Place), on 25 June 1944 (14 killed, 82 injured), Cumberland Street, Pimlico, 30 June 1944 (13 killed, 165 injured) and Brompton Road SW1 on 3 August 1944 (6 killed, 29 injured). Pimlico was particularly badly hit, including Semley Place, Sutherland Terrace, Peabody Avenue, Winchester Street and Grosvenor Road. V1s also exploded on Constitution Hill, close to Buckingham Palace Gardens, on Wilfred Street SW1, on Brewer Street (Regent Palace Hotel Annexe), on Lower Sloane Street, on Rotten Row and in Hyde Park.

Others fell on the Bayswater Road, in Kensington (Exhibition Road, Cromwell Road and Queen’s Gate); in W1 in Berkeley Square and on Conduit Street; in WC2 on Milford Lane, Shelton Street, Grange Court, Clements Inn and Wild Street (close to Drury Lane); in SW1 on Monck and Tufton Streets, into the Thames by the Victoria Embankment, by Millbank, opposite Charing Cross and on Hungerford Bridge. Six V1s hit the area around the Strand during 1944-1945. Two of the worst V1 incidents of the war took place in Westminster in June 1944, at Aldwych (46 killed) and at the Guards' Chapel, Wellington Barracks SW1 (121 killed, including 63 soldiers). More evidence of the horrendous destructive power of V1s came on 28 July 1944, when one hit Lewisham SE13 (killing 51 and injuring 151).

From 8 September 1944 to 28 March 1945, an even more advanced V-weapon was deployed against London: the V2. The world’s first ballistic missile, the V2 Long Range Rocket carried a one ton high explosive warhead and was fired from mobile launchers in Germany and from the occupied Low Countries. The 14-ton (12,900kg), 47-ft (14.3m) high V2s - built by slave labourers at underground sites in Germany and Poland - were powered by a revolutionary alcohol/liquid oxygen-fuelled rocket engine, had a range of 225 miles (325 km) and flew at supersonic speed (3,600 mph). V2s reached a height of around 50 miles (80 km) before descending to their target. They were guided by their own on-board gyroscope systems and by four external rudders on their tail fins. The first V2 was launched from Holland against Paris on 8 September 1944.

In London, no defensive response to the V2 was possible. British radar stations picked them up on their screens - for a 50-second window after launch - but their speed presaged the missile warfare of the future. After launch from occupied Holland or Germany, V2s could hit the capital in five minutes. Londoners did not hear them coming. There was no time to take cover.

The first V2 to hit London fell on Chiswick on 8 September 1944 (killing 3 and injuring 22). Thereafter, the majority landed in the East End, across south east London and in Essex and Kent. In Westminster and St Marylebone, V2s hit Duke Street, yards from Selfridges department store (6 December 1944, 18 killed, 39 injured) and Speakers' Corner, Hyde Park (18 March 1945, 3 killed, 81 injured). Another fell into the River Thames, east of Waterloo Bridge. A fourth exploded at high altitude over Victoria on 12 November 1944. 

In all, 1,054 V2s hit England (an average of five a day). 517 (an average of three per day) reached London. 2,754 people were killed with 6,523 injured. Each V2 damaged an average of 600-700 properties. The worst incident took place at New Cross SE14 on 25 November 1944 (160 killed). As with the V1, V2 targeting effectiveness was partially reduced by ongoing intelligence disinformation by Dr R.V Jones and his team. The last V2 launched against Britain hit Orpington, Kent on 27 March 1945 (killing one).

All Clear

When the war ended - on 8 May 1945 in Europe and on 15 August 1945 in Asia - Britain was literally ‘blitzed’. Physically damaged, psychologically exhausted - mixed with intense pride at victory - and economically crippled. The nation was virtually bankrupt, soon to be strictly mortgaged to an American loan negotiated by Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s new Labour government. This 1946 Anglo-American Loan Agreement was finally repaid in 2006, followed in 2015 by Britain’s last repayment on US loans outstanding from the First World War.

Many individual dreams and future hopes had been blighted by air raids forever. Hundreds of thousands of people in London and across Britain had lost everything, their homes and businesses gone for good. Bomb sites remained weed-choked, open spaces well into the 1950s and in some cases into the 1970s. Britain endured a period of prolonged peacetime austerity between 1945 and 1951. Food rationing remained in place until 1954. Only by 1957 could economists and politicians point to a return to prosperity.

70 years on, the Blitz still resonates: in the memories of those who experienced it at first hand and as powerful testimony for new generations uncovering the events of 1940-1945 for the first time. Fascinating perspectives on life during the Blitz in Westminster and beyond are to be found in the memoirs of Britain’s wartime leadership, astute military leaders such as Field Marshal Viscount Alanbrooke, government scientists such as Dr R.V. Jones, civil servants with literary ability, such as Sir John 'Jock' Colville, and dozens of wartime politicians, diarists and writers. These include: George Orwell, Graham Greene, AFS fireman William Sansom, Sir Harold Nicolson, Sir Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, Baroness Soames and socialite Lady Diana Cooper. Their eyewitness accounts are supplemented by the many (often visceral) written and oral recollections of ordinary Britons – living and dead- caught up the mass bombing of their country during the Blitz years.

Today, the public appetite for all aspects of Blitz history shows little sign of diminishing. Contemporary literature, websites, multi-media resources, school events, newsreel libraries, archive and museum collections, history books and popular television programmes all preserve the Blitz story. Its central position in British collective historical memory persists. 



This page was added by Ronan Thomas on 12/10/2010.
Comments about this page

I remember so vividly all you have written, I remember too how tired I always felt, the lack of sleep and having to go to work the next day.

By Pamela Hobbes (nee Denman)
On 03/02/2015

Fascinating read, so well put together. My mum was born in the East End, 1941.  This gave me a clearer insight as to what her younger years were like. Utmost respect to all our veterans x

By Cass
On 10/11/2018

My Parents and grandparents survived 2 world wars in the East end--my Dad was an air raid warden and then in 1942 joined the Royal Engineers in Africa with the 8th army------my parents told me  much about the blitz and surviving---must have been horrendous

By sheila E Wood
On 15/11/2021

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