WWII: The London Blitz Of 1940

An account of the London Blitz of 1940 that was designed to break Britain's spirit. Includes eyewitness accounts.

After a year of war, Adolf Hitler was ready to contemplate an attack on Britain. But, by August 1940, the heavy losses suffered in the Norwegian campaign had reduced the German fleet to the strength of one pocket -battleship, four cruisers, and a dozen destroyers. The British Home Fleet, based on Scapa Flow was much stronger than this, making an invasion by sea a less than inviting prospect. In the skies above the English Channel and the North Sea however, it was a different story. The Luftwaffe had numerical strength and, if they could gain ascendancy over the air, then an invasion would be feasible.

If the German's were able to get through to English soil, things would be rather bleak for the British. At the time of the French Armistice in June, 1940, the British Army in Britain totaled some 26 divisions, of which 12 had been formed recently and were not yet fully trained or equipped. Only 25 of the 600 tanks, which were in action in France, were back in Britain. This is the impression that Sir Alan Brooke had of the Southern Command when he took control on June 26th;

"The main impression I had was that the Command had a long way to go to be put on a war footing . . . The more I see of conditions at home, the more bewildered I am as to what has been going on in this country since the war started. It is now ten months, and yet the shortage of trained men and equipment is appalling "¦ There are masses of men in uniform but they are mostly untrained: why, I cannot think after 10 months of war. The ghastly part of it is that I feel certain that we can only have a few more weeks before the boche attacks."

Brooke soon took on control of the entire Home Forces. He desperately tried to shore up British defenses with what little was available to him. He went so far as to requisition guns from military museums and war memorials. The Drury Lane theatre contributed a dozen rusty old rifles - even cutlasses from the navy of Nelson's day were distributed to the local defense volunteers.

To Brooke's great relief, the American's agreed to provide Britain with 500,000 rifles and 900 75-millimeter guns, each complete with 1,000 shells. By September 17th, Brooke had the following home defense forces at his disposal:

29 Divisions and 8 independent brigades, six of which were armored. These forces included two Canadian divisions. However, the potential Nazi invaders outnumbered them at least four to one. Grand Admiral Erich Rader had spent the winter of 1939-40 studying the problems that would have to be overcome if his Fuhrer ordered him to transport the German Army across the English Channel. On May 21, 1940, Rader presented his findings to Hitler. He then waited for word on whether the invasion would proceed. Hitler, however, was preoccupied with the war to the east and gave no definite reply one way or the other. However, on July 16th, he signed his famous directive N0. 16 -"˜Operation Sea Lion.' The preamble to that document shows that, even at that late date, Hitler did not regard invasion as inevitable. It stated:

"Since England, in spite of her apparently hopeless military situation, shows no sign of coming to terms, I have decided to prepare a landing operations against England, and, if necessary, to carry it out. The aim of this operation is to eliminate the British homeland as a base for the further prosecution of the war against Germany, and, if necessary, to occupy it completely."

The implementation of Hitler's Order No.16 - the invasion of England - took the following four phases:

Phase One (July 10 to August 7)

German attacks on shipping and coastal ports. The German's fighter tactics proved superior. Throughout this time the British concentration was on raising pilot strength and building up for the battle ahead.

Phase Two (August 8 to 23)

German attacks on radar stations and forward fighter bases. The RAF suffers heavy losses and pilots suffer from extreme fatigue.

Phase Three (August 24 to September 6)

German attacks on aircraft production and inland fighter bases. British pilot losses and fatigue reach desperately high levels.

Phase Four (September 7 to 30)

German attacks on London in a final effort to destroy British air power. After a climax on September 15th, the Nazi's postpone "˜Operation Sea Lion' indefinitely.

Up until around September 6th the scales of battle were firmly tilted in favor of the Luftwaffe, even though they had lost - since August 24 - 378 aircraft compared to 262 for the British. The German losses were shared between the fighters and the bombers, whereas the entire British losses came from Fighter Command. It's less than 1,000 pilots were constantly in action and desperately in need of rest. But, then the entire picture suddenly changed.

On the evening of August 24th, A German Bomber formation accidentally bombed some non-military targets in London. Winston Churchill immediately ordered reprisal attacks on non military German targets in Berlin. This prompted a furious response from Hitler, who ordered that a blitz campaign of bombing start immediately on London. This began on September 7th, when a massive 330 tons of bombs were dropped on London.

The bombing of London continued for 57 consecutive nights. While it caused devastation in that city, it meant that the grinding pressure was taken off the RAF. The British were soon recovered from the Losses received over the previous months and had quickly gained the upper hand over the Luftwaffe, destroying some 380 aircraft for a loss of just 178 of their own. The bravery and tenacity of the RAF pilots prompted Churchill to utter perhaps his most famous words ; "˜Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owned by so many to so few.'

As mentioned, the German switch of objective from British fighter bases to mass daylight raids on London lost them the Battle of Britain. But the human cost to Londoners was enormous. What follows are diary excerpts from a survivor of the Blitz:

"Shortly after we'd gone to bed there was a violent explosion as a thousand pound bomb landed about a quarter of a mile away. . . the next morning we learned that London was still standing. Miles of East End houses had been destroyed, however, and thousands of people were homeless. . . Germany's main aim was to spread alarm and despondency by knocking out all the saloons and pubs. . . a bomb landed in the middle of the street and there was a shower of glass and debris from the houses on either side. The whistles blew and A.R.P workers and special police deputies were on the job almost immediately."

Despite the chaos that was being rained down on their city, Londoner's were determined to carry on life as usual. The diary account continues . . .

" The next morning the sky was blue and innocent. If you hadn't seen the craters and the wreckage, you might have thought that you dreamt it. Traffic was normal, the shops were full, old ladies sunned themselves in the park, and soldiers and their girlfriends strolled down Piccadilly Square arm in arm. I lunched at the Berkeley restaurant. Suddenly there was a bang. The room shook as a time-bomb exploded a few blocks away. A pretty girl in a saucy hat turned to the young army subaltern with her, and said, in a voice that rang across the restaurant: "Did you drop something."

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