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The Blitz

On 15th August 1940 the Luftwaffe (German air force) bombed Croydon airfield on the outskirts of London by mistake. This was followed on 23rd August 1940 by the accidental bombing of Harrow, also on the outskirts of London. These raids went against Hitler’s direct instructions not to bomb London under any circumstances.

To take revenge, Churchill ordered the British RAF to bomb Berlin, the capital city of Germany, on 25th August 1840. Hitler was very angry. On 31st August 1940 he then gave orders for the invasion of Britain (codenamed ‘Operation Sealion’), although no date was set, and ordered a massive air-raid attack on London.

At about 4pm on 7th September 1940, over 350 German bombers and 650 German fighter aircraft flew across the English Channel. They dropped 300 tonnes of bombs on the docks and streets of the East of London in just two hours. Big bombs exploded with a loud bang and blew buildings apart, whilst small bombs called incendiaries started fires. At 8pm, another wave of bombers then attacked the city, guided by fires started by the earlier bombs. The fire fighters struggled to tackle the blazes from the huge rum warehouses in the area as they quickly burnt out of control. More than 450 people died and another 1,600 were injured.

London Blitz 791940

London was then bombed for 76 consecutive nights and about a third of the city was destroyed. Lots of other places in Britain were bombed by the Germans too, including industrial cities and ports: 
  • the medieval town centre and cathedral of Coventry was attacked on 14th November 1940;
  • Manchester was attacked on 22nd December 1940 for a full 36 hours turning the city into a raging fire storm;
  • out of about 12,000 houses, only seven remained undamaged in the town of Clydebank in Scotland following attacks on the nights of 13th and 14th March 1941;
  • Liverpool was attacked from 1st-7th May 1941 putting half of its docks out of action.

These heavy and frequent bombing attacks on Britain were known as the Blitz (from the German word ‘lightning’). To try and protect cities from being bombed, people in Britain:
  • flew large barrage balloons in the sky, held to the ground by a cable – enemy aircraft could not fly low for fear of hitting them;
Barrage balloons over London during World War II
  • shone powerful searchlights into the sky at night - to pick out enemy aircraft;
Anti-Aircraft Searchlight
  • built anti-aircraft batteries, such as the Redsands Fort in the Thames estuary – which fired at German bombers to try and bring them down;
Red Sands Maunsell Tower Restoration - geograph.org.uk - 180562
  • built pretend 'starfish' towns in the countryside and set them alight to divert the German bombers away from real cities.
'Starfish' Decoy Control Bunker on Liddington Hill - geograph.org.uk - 238767

It is estimated that 43,000 died during the Blitz across Britain. Thousands lost both their homes and possessions. Streets became covered in rubble, water pipes were shattered and electricity cables were damaged. The Bomb Disposal Squad had the dangerous job of putting out any unexploded bombs. In the chaos, looters found it easy to steal goods.

1944 London at War - V2 Rocket

Most people who survived the attacks were determined to carry on as normal though and show their ‘Blitz spirit’. Postmen scrambled through the rubble to make their deliveries, religious services were still held in bomb-out churches and shops put up notices boasting “business as usual”.

Children sitting amongst the rubble

On 10th May 1941, after a final air-raid attack on London which left much of the House of Commons in ruins, Hitler decided to halt his bombing campaign because he realised that it had failed to demoralise (weaken) the British people into surrender.