Sandy Hook

Sandy Hook

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

London Blitz

Listen to the air raid sirens in this first video while reading the introduction. It creates a realistic backdrop for the eerie horror Londoners experienced during the Blitz in World War II.

The Blitz began on the night of September 7, 1940 with the non-stop bombing of London by the German Luftwaffe. This first onslaught lasted for 76 consecutive nights and would destroy many towns and cities across the country before ending on May 10, 1941. Over 43,000 civilians, half of them in London, were killed by bombs and more than a million houses were destroyed or damaged in London alone.

The London Blitz, 1940*

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 blasted London until 6:00 PM. Two hours later, guided by the fires set by the first assault, a second group of raiders commenced another attack that lasted until 4:30 the following morning.

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.

"They came just after dark... "

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:

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.

The guns did not make a constant overwhelming din as in those terrible days of September. They were intermittent - sometimes a few seconds apart, sometimes a minute or more. Their sound was sharp, near by; and soft and muffled, far away. They were everywhere over London.

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 tey were pink instead of silver. And now and then through a hole in that pink shroud there twinkled incongruously a permanent, genuine star - the old - fashioned kind that has always been there.

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).
*Source: "The London Blitz, 1940," Eyewitness to History, 2001




  1. My parents lived through the Blitzkrieg -- not in London but in one of the smaller industrial cities further north. London must have been much worse, since they actually got evacuees from London up there.

    The only reason London didn't end up looking like Dresden was that the Germans didn't have the kind of bombing capability that the western Allies developed later on -- and the fact that the British were using radar to co-ordinate air defenses.

    As for forcing the British to come to terms by breaking morale, that shows how little Hitler understood his adversaries. By that time, people knew how the Nazis were behaving in occupied countries. No matter how bad the bombing got, everyone knew the results of surrender would be worse.

  2. Infidel: I have enormous respect for the British and have been wondering if we Americans would have the same grit under such horrendous circumstances. I often think that one of the reasons our country is always so eager to go to war is simply because we haven't had to fight one within our own borders since the Civil War. We have no clue, period. And we are soft and we are a bit on the spoiled side. Actually, we just don't know how good we have it.

  3. Speaking strictly from a military technology point of view I am thankful Hitler was an idiot. Even with the smaller bombers the damage and death was massive. Had he perfected the V-1, V-2, and not gone off on the wrong track with atomic research I shudder to think what might have happened.

  4. BB: It's kind of scarey what damage these idiots can do. That's why I'm getting so worried now. But you're right.

  5. Thanks so much for doing the research and putting together a package like this! I visited St. Paul's a few years ago, and was quite moved at seeing remnants of the attacks, and learning that the cathedral was used as an air raid shelter during the Blitz. It's amazing that it held up. Of course, cathedrals across Europe were used to protect people from our attacks, too, so I guess that's a common use for large, stone buildings.

  6. Pauka: Well, they don't seem to be able to turn sinners into saints, though. ; )

    Tom: Thank you.

  7. Nocturnal Greeting's Leslie!

    What an intense piece/ compilation! I havent been to Londontown in age's ...back when I stayed there in 86/ 87 though ... year's after this event ... they actually still had structure's/ building's around town that were still unrepaired or not demolished, I recall, from the bomb damage ... not though in place's like the Bank District/ Central ... but in more ... let's say financially modest area's such as South London's Brixton or whatever. I reckon Hitler did create alot of job's too, heh?

    Goodnight Leslie ....

  8. Correction: Pauka should be Paula!

    RC: That's a bit sick.

  9. I was stationed at RAF Lakenheath in the mid 1970's, leased to the USAF by the British. Lakenheath was originally a "dummy" base in WW2- a decoy, next door to RAF Mildenhall which was HQ for the the RAF. Lakenheath had balsa wood "planes" and hangars that could have been used as movie sets, all to draw fire from the Germans and diverting fire power from the real base at Mildenhall. Ironically, today Lakenheath is the much larger and important base, but Mildenhall remained a command center.

    Even in the 1970's you could find bunkers and abandoned artillery and machine gun nests around East Anglia (where I lived for those two years), in even the smallest towns you could see where there were once homes and businesses that had been destroyed during the blitz.

    That's good question about whether we could handle that kind of warfare in the United States. The Greatest Generation could, I'm not so sure any subsequent generation would be able to. We're so into quick fixes and instant gratification, like war or economic difficulties that can be won or alleviated during an hour long TV episode.

    Nice job really did your homework!

  10. Something I said was "sick" Leslie? may I ask what?

  11. I mean ... I complimented you on the posting ... that was intended to be respectful, not repulsive.

  12. Hugh: Hell, if we Americans had to go through something like that today, not all but many - especially the fundamentalists who don't believe in social justice - would slam the shelter door in the face of someone who needed to get in when the sirens went off. Can you imagine 76 consecutive nights of bombs and sirens?

    RC: Your comments are always respectful. Maybe I misinterpreted this: "I reckon Hitler did create alot of job's too, heh?"

  13. GUEST COMMENT: This is a comment left by CAPT. FOGG in response to my cross-post on The Swash Zone and I think it is well worth sharing here. It touches on what we've been talking about.
    "the Gedächtniskirche on Kurfürstendamm in Berlin."

    What remains of the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church sticks up like a rotten tooth today. My first trip to Germany in 1965 was shocking for the amount of damage still visible, but at age 20 I thought the war was so long ago as to be all but irrelevant. East Germany at the time still had rubble piled up everywhere, bullet holes on walls. . .

    My parents' house in Windsor - in sight of the castle - had a garden shed made from the reinforced concrete bomb shelter that proved too hard to demolish.

    Right after our dearly beloved 9/11 attack, the reaction of the British was on my mind as a jarring contrast to the way the idiot Bush handled it. One has to compare the toughness of the Brits with the hysteria of Americans. One has to weigh Churchill's stirring " we will never surrender" speech to Bush's "we goan smokimout - wegoan gettim."

    And remember the British had the armed might of the most powerful country in Europe to face down. We had some raggedy lunatics hiding in a cave with small arms and cell phones.

    The Brits moved on, toughed it out. We still feel sorry for ourselves. We still are running around the barnyard like headless chickens.

  14. Hi Leslie,
    I'd read once that it was Hitler's decision to switch the attacks from airfields to the cities, strongly opposed by the Luftwaffe. Had the Luftwaffe continued bombing the airfields and eliminated all the radar, the Battle of Britain might have turned out different.
    Great post, and thank you for the comments on mine.

  15. As a small child, I climbed to the first crotch of the flimsy chinaberry tree to watch for bombers. I learned my first baby dance moves to the Big Bands and, later, memorized the crooner's tunes to entertain the grownups. At 12, though, I picked up my father's Photographic History of World War II. At that point, for me, the romance stopped dead. I still have that book. I don't want to forget what war really looks like.

  16. Oso - don't remember hearing that but I've probably forgotten most of what I've read about WWII. It's a damn scary thought. Email me or twitter me when you post on MM, so I don't miss one of your good postings.

    LouLou: Interesting story and I can relate. When I was in HS, I just happened to check out William Shirer's "Berlin Diary." For the next 25 or so years I read everything I could about WWII - Germany before and during the war, the Holocaust and the entire European theatre. My admiration for the British and for those who survived the Nazi occupation, who fought in the resistance, and for those who had the courage to hide Jews and other "undesirables" is boundless. In the context of today, with all the hate we're seeing, I can't envision that many Americans would be unselfish and courageous enough to help hide, house, feed, much less save, another human being.

  17. Re: Capt. Fogg's guest comment. I'd be the last one to discount the courage and steadfastness of most Britons, Londoners especially, during the blitz and throughout the war. Nor will I ever endorse George W. Bush as some kind of latter-day Churchill – a ludicrous thought if there ever was one.

    I do think this needs saying.

    OK, Americans were rattled by the 9-11 attack. I will point out that our British cousins in 1940-1941 knew what was coming, where it was coming from and usually when it was coming. From the time Coastal Command and air observers all over southern Britain signaled incoming bombers, reported aircraft types and counts, triggering siren and radio alerts, people had warning to head for the shelters. Those who did not go underground often had the encouragement and great satisfaction of seeing Jerry brought down by defending fighters or AA fire.

    None of that applied in the sneak attacks perpetrated in 2001. The 9-11 attacks were not by carried out by uniformed airmen or soldiers. They were the underhanded work of sociopathic criminals. No war had been declared, as had happened after Germany invaded Poland in September, 1939, triggering treaty obligations and an ensuing "Phony War" period. No, in New York, in Pennsylvania and in Washington, D.C., civilians perished in a fiendish criminal murder rampage.

    Forgive us Americans for having been lulled into something of a false sense of security. That was true in part because of being surrounded by two oceans and two friendly neighbors. But there was another very understandable reason for Americans' pre-9-11 sense of security – and for their being rattled, a bit disoriented and for the first time in living memory feeling acutely vulnerable.

    You see, vulnerable wasn't something the people who successfully fought two World Wars and then at great risk and expense defended the free world for 40 years – spending more to do that than all the rest of the advanced industrialized Western nations combined – had ever expected to feel.

    I must also point out that while Britain did have "the armed might of the most powerful country in Europe to face down," the Scepter'd Isle was not left all alone to do that. Britain remained unconquered thanks in part to the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, Merchant Marine and Lend Lease, through 1941. Britain then benefited from all-out, whatever-it-takes, side-by-side support right through V-E day.

    Finally, I can't agree that we're still running around the barnyard like headless chickens." We might not be poetry in motion, but I think we're past the dumbstruck stage and at the point of coping reasonably well in this era of religious fanatics' criminality and terrorism.

  18. L.P., I just went to save a carefully written response to the guest comment by Capt. Fogg, one I spent some time and thought on. Instead of my comment being published, I was presented with a Google/Blogger error page informing me the "included URL was too long to process." There was no URL in my comment, which is now just gone. This isn't the first time this kind of thing has happened on Blogger, although the too-long URL is a new wrinkle.

    Excuse me now. I'm going to go chew on nails and spit out bullets.

  19. OK, I'm confused. I come back and as if by magic my comment is here, published. All's well that ends well, I guess.

  20. Leslie:

    One picture is worth a thousand words, but the words worked for me. I have some of Ernie Pyle’s war correspondence in “A Treasury of Great Reporting.”

    It’s hard to believe that throughout the days of the Blitz the U.S. had not yet entered the war.

    The closest we came to experiencing the Blitz was in movies such as “The Time Machine” and “Mrs. Miniver.”

    In the 1950s in Jackson, Miss., I recall the air-raid drills where we had blackouts and, you won’t believe it, large sacks of flour simulating bombs were dropped on the city.

    England stepped to our side much quicker after 9/11 than we did for it during this horror.

    Thanks for all the work you did in posting this. I will come back later and save all the comments to read as they should be very good!


  21. SWA, I get some strange dialog boxes popping up when I Blogger to comment. My suggestion is to write your response in a word processing format and save it. If the comment gets eaten, then you don't have to rewrite it. If it magically shows up, as mine have, no prob.

    Leslie, this was a well-written, well-researched article. I thank you for the time and effort you put into it. A PLUS!

    I don't mean to hijack your thread, but I do want to alert you and your readers who may have their own blogs to THIS.

  22. S.W. - I cannot speak for Capt. Fogg but I consider him to be one of the most intelligent bloggers around, so intelligent that I don't always understand what he's talking about, to be honest. I have enormous respect for him and wish I could write a tenth as well. I don't always agree with him but in this case I do.

    Your points are well taken but, speaking only for me, I’m not sure you can compare the two events, as horrific as they both were. The sheer longevity of the Blitzkrieg, and the number of deaths as the result of it, cannot be compared to 9/11. Yes, the Brits had a warning system in place and so they could get to shelters, but that didn’t save over 43,000 people (actually over 51,000 from bombs when the war finally ended) and millions of homes in London alone.

    Bombing civilian populations is a “fiendish criminal murder rampage” whether it’s a declared war or not and whether it’s carried out by uniformed airmen or soldiers or not. I don’t see the distinction in either case.

    It is true that we in this country have had a false sense of security for all the reasons you give. It is true that it came to an abrupt end on 9/11 during one day of the most unspeakable horrors in our nation’s history. One day out of over 1,800 days of unspeakable and unending horror.

    Americans should feel vulnerable. The whole rest of the world has been feeling vulnerable since the birth of modern weaponry. But should we make that extra move into the land of paranoia and carry it on ad-infinitum? Should hysteria be allowed to replace caution , decency and good sense?

    Yes, the U.S. provided aid to England and other Allies before we formally entered the war but it was mostly in the form of money (Lend Lease) and materials, which they certainly needed. Beyond that, I don’t remember or see evidence of the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and Merchant Marines being directly involved in helping Mother England until after we declared war.

    I think the protests over the building of mosques and the burning of the Koran are testimony to the fact that we are acting like a bunch of chickens with our heads cut off.

  23. Connection issues: Well, something goofy is going on. When I tried to post that last comment I got a connection error. I went out and came back in and there it is. But I had written it in Word just in case.

  24. BJ: Thanks and yes, England was much faster in coming to our aid after 9/11. They always have, unlike a country that begins with F.

    Shaw: You are most kind. I followed the link to your blog. That is utterly amazing and I urge everyone to link to it.

    While it is more a case of identity theft and maybe even trademark violation, there is something about copyright that people should know. The minute you create anything - text, photo, music, video, etc. - it is copyrighted. You don't have to register it but it is always a good idea to do so. This is OT and I'm not prepared to discuss it any further in this post. Maybe another day. :-)

  25. tnlib, comparison of the two events was Fogg's doing in the first place, not mine. I responded to what strikes me as a gratuitous, less than fully accurate and uncalled for slap at Americans.

    "Yes, the U.S. provided aid to England and other Allies before we formally entered the war but it was mostly in the form of money (Lend Lease) and materials, which they certainly needed. Beyond that, I don’t remember or see evidence of the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and Merchant Marines being directly involved in helping Mother England until after we declared war."

    U.S. merchant ships carried all kinds of goods to Britain, everything from bullets to bombers to battle tanks. U.S. Coast Guard and Navy ships worked the Atlantic Coast and out into the sea lanes to fend off German U-boats. They also escorted merchant ships between the U.S, and Britain, even before Dec. 8, 1941.

    Also, American volunteers joined the RAF and RCAF before the war. Yank seamen sailed on British merchant ships.

  26. S.W. - As I said, I could not speak for the good Capt. and, as I also said, I was speaking for myself. I think some of this "disagreement" is a matter of semantics and interpretation. Capt. Fogg is not in the picture. This is me speaking.

    You: "U.S. merchant ships carried all kinds of goods to Britain. . ."

    Me: the U.S. provided aid to England and other Allies before we formally entered the war but it was mostly in the form of money (Lend Lease) and materials."

    There's a reason I said "mostly" and I guess I think materials and goods are synonimous.

    "U.S. Coast Guard and Navy ships worked the Atlantic Coast and out into the sea lanes to fend off German U-boats. They also escorted merchant ships between the U.S, and Britain, even before Dec. 8, 1941."

    This is true but the goods/materials had to get there somehow and they had to be protected. And no doubt the Coast Guard's patrolling of Atlantic waters on our side of the pond were more for our own protection than to help England.

    "American volunteers joined the RAF and RCAF before the war. Yank seamen sailed on British merchant ships."

    This is also true.

    But none of this constitutes an all-out, side-by-side effort to aid England when they were in desparate need of our full-blown help.

    I have another historical time in our country that I'm going to feature shortly. The question will be: could we Americans of today stand and work together to survive a similar situation? Unless I see something to the contrary, I would have to say no. It will not be an attempt to "slap" Americans, although in some cases I wouldn't mind giving it an all out effort. Just like this piece, it will be a matter of observation and this writer's opinion.

  27. Incredible footage. I recognized the voice of Edward R. Murrow, the creator of broadcast journalism.

    Tom Degan

  28. Thanks for this Leslie, I was born in 1947 and the area I grew up in, the industrial Midlands of England, was hammered, Coventry almost wiped out in a night. What I remember as a young boy was bombed out buildings and men in uniforms, everywhere. It's good to be reminded that British cities didn't magically rebuild themselves the day after the war in Europe ended.