1940: “The news from Britain was ominous. Herman began to have trouble getting to sleep at night. He would lie in bed for hours, his mind a jumble of worries, watching the dawn light creep through his apartment window. He could not banish thoughts of his mother and sister trapped in London while German planes thundered over the English countryside, their bombs a nightly rain on the capital city.”

The Blitz, the sustained bombing of Britain by the Nazis, began as the result of a German mistake. Starting in late June 1940, the German Air Force began bombing military targets, primarily airfields and radar stations, in order to weaken British defenses before the intended invasion of the island nation. On August 24, a Luftwaffe nighttime raid that meant to target RAF airfields just south of London drifted off course. They mistakenly dropped their bombs on the center of London, killing civilians. The public was outraged and Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered Berlin to be bombed the next evening.

Now the Germans were outraged. On September 4, Hitler declared in a speech, “When they [the British] increase their attacks on our cities, then we will raze their cities to the ground.”

On September 7, German planes came in two waves to drop bombs on London. The first wave of almost 350 bombers escorted by 617 fighters dropped fire and explosives on London for 2 hours. At 8:00 p.m., another wave of the Luftwaffe arrived, led by the glow of burning buildings. This second attack lasted until after 4:00 a.m. The waves of Luftwaffe bombers continued to arrive, wave after wave, for 57 consecutive nights. After two months of around-the-clock bombing, the air attacks continued, only somewhat less often, for another six months.

Besides London, numerous bombing raids targeted ports such as Liverpool, Bristol, and Plymouth and industrial centers, including Birmingham and Manchester. One of the most devastating attacks was in November on Coventry, an industrial city in the center of England. Birmingham was also hit to devastating effect, only five nights after Coventry was flattened. In addition to high explosive bombs, the Germans dropped parachute mines and incendiaries, which caught fire and burned at 2,500 degrees Centigrade.

The defense of cities, including London, depended on a variety of tactics. Radar and spotters in outlying areas were used to detect enemy approach and get the word to an early warning system that set off loud, wailing sirens. Anti-aircraft guns, aided by powerful searchlights at night, did not need to score a direct hit. Their shells were designed to explode at a certain height and send out a spray of shrapnel. However, falling shrapnel caused countless casualties on the ground. Barrage balloons that resembled huge floating whales were designed to make the bombers fly higher which would, hopefully, make it more difficult for them. Each balloon was anchored to the ground with a steel cable, usually with an attached mine, which could ensnare and explode a low-flying plane. 500 barrage balloons floated over London by the end of the Blitz.

Meanwhile, civilians took shelter underground— either in large communal shelters or prefabricated backyard shelters. A government shelter policy saved many lives. Anderson shelters to be installed in back gardens were issued free to poor families and at a minimal cost to families who could afford a fee. Still, it was necessary to have a back garden where the shelter could be sunk four feet deep and piled over with earth. The city poor seldom had the needed garden space, so Anderson shelters were mainly issued to the middle class.

Many residents of London left the city for the countryside, or at least sent their children away through a government-sponsored evacuation program. For those who remained in the city, the underground subway system provided 15 miles of shelter. During the first weeks of the Blitz, these massive underground tubes and stations were locked at night. The government feared their relative safety would entice citizens to stay there rather than return to work during the day, thus paralyzing the city. But by the end of October 1940, 250,000 Londoners were homeless. The Underground was opened and organized as a nightly safe (though crowded) haven for the people of London.

During and after heavy bombing, the civil defense workers and air raid wardens were indispensable. They helped people into shelters, and after a raid, they were often the first on the scene. These heroic men and women, mainly volunteers, carried out first-aid, put out small fires, and organized emergency response. They would spend hours digging through rubble in an effort to save people trapped beneath.

The horrific Luftwaffe bombing of London on May 10, 1941, is usually considered to be the last of the Blitz, but many also view it as the worst. 3,000 Londoners were killed in that single night. During the total 8 months of the Blitz, over 43,000 British civilians were killed, more than half of them in London.

But the terror did not end in May. In June, the Germans started sending V1 missiles to London. These winged, pilot-less flying bombs were a new invention in 1941. Nicknamed “Doodlebugs” or “Buzz-Bombs” because of the characteristic buzzing noise they made as they approached, they flew until they ran out of fuel, silently dropped to earth, and exploded on impact. People who heard the buzz of a Doodlebug overhead waited and listened. The impending silence was far more terrifying and the final explosion, if nearby, meant death.


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