London, England • December 29, 1940
On this date in 1940, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt appealed to the nation in a radio “fireside chat” to support his proposal to strengthen the U.S. military in light of developments in Europe, the German Luftwaffe delivered a massive attack on London. Almost 3,000 civilians were killed in the overnight bombing.
The December 29th airstrike on the British capital was part of the Luftwaffe’s sustained strategic bombing campaign of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which the British public dubbed the Blitz (September 7, 1940, to May 10, 1941). The Blitz (shorthand for the German Blitzkrieg, “lightning war”) was Adolf Hitler’s punishment for Britain’s refusal to surrender their island to him during the Battle of Britain. For 57 nights straight, 200 or more German bombers dropped high-explosive and incendiary bombs on London, targeting its “Square Mile,” the heart of the capital.
Across the nation many civilian and industrial targets faced similar onslaughts—Liverpool, Cardiff, Bristol, Manchester, Belfast, Coventry, and Glasgow to name a few. More than one million London residences were destroyed or damaged, and more than 40,000 civilians were killed, almost half of them in London alone. (British urban dead would number over 60,000 when the war ended in May 1945.) During eight bleak months of being pounded from the air Great Britain stood alone and defiant. Not until December 11, 1941, would the United States enter the war on the side of Britain, and that was nearly a year away.
The Blitz never achieved its intended goals of either demoralizing British political and military leaders into capitulation or significantly damaging the country’s economy to continue the war. Roosevelt’s December 29 appeal, memorable for its line that the U.S. must become the “arsenal of democracy” for the nations standing up to Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan, was realized in the Lend-Lease Program, which kicked off in March 1941. The first delivery of supplies reached to the beleaguered British Isles in mid-year. (Food was the largest single category in 1941.) By the time the last of the Luftwaffe’s bombs had fallen on London on May 10, 1941, in a particularly savage climax to the Blitz (507 aircraft dropped 711 tons of bombs, killing or wounding more than 3,000 people), the threatened cross-channel amphibious invasion of England (Operation Sea Lion) had passed. Hitler’s attention now turned to the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), a mistake with grievous consequences.
The Blitz, Germany’s Strategic Bombing of Great Britain, September 7, 1940, to May 10, 1941
Left: London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, undamaged, ringed by clouds of smoke in this iconic photograph taken on December 29, 1940. The cathedral was struck four times during the Blitz: in September, October, and December 1940 and in April 1941.
Right: Surrey docks in flames on the Thames in Southeast London on the start date of the Blitz, September 7, 1940. During the course of the Blitz, over 100,000 tons of shipping was damaged in the Thames Estuary, 800 civilians were injured, and 400 civilians were killed. Between January and May 1944 the Luftwaffe assaulted Southern England in an operation codenamed Operation Steinbock (Unternehmen Steinbock), known colloquially as the “Baby Blitz.” The operation achieved very little other than wearing down the offensive power of the Luftwaffe. Steinbock turned out to be was the last strategic air offensive by the German bomber arm during World War II.
Left: Firefighters put out a blaze in London after an air raid during the Blitz in 1941. Less than halfway into the 37 weeks of the Blitz, the Luftwaffe had dropped more than 13,000 tons of high explosives and nearly 1,000,000 incendiaries on London. Bombs fell everywhere: on Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace (twice), on hospitals, theaters, the London Zoo, on rich and poor neighborhoods, and on arguably military and war-industrial installations.
Right: A street of ruined houses in London. More than one million London houses were destroyed or damaged and close to 20,000 Londoners killed during the 267 days of the Blitz. The city was scarred but not devastated because its great sprawl meant that the violence lacked concentration. By contrast the Allied bombing raid on the large North German port and industrial center of Hamburg (population 1.8 million) during the last week of July and the first week of August 1943 (Operation Gomorrah) killed 42,600 civilians, of which 7,000 were children or adolescents, wounded 37,000, and practically leveled the city in a series of one-two punches, first by high explosives and then by incendiaries: 9,000 tons of bombs in all. Local rescue efforts stalled after British bombers cut electricity to a major portion of the city for two weeks. One million Hamburgers fled the city, where in just eight days over 250,000 residences were destroyed. In the case of Hamburg, London, and every other European city that was at war and became the target of enemy bombings, the number of non-civilians (that is, combatants) killed was low.
Left: Children of an eastern suburb of London made homeless by the Blitz. Though militarily ineffective, the Blitz caused enormous damage to Britain’s infrastructure and housing stock.
Right: Coventry city center after 449 German bombers had dropped 530 tons of bombs on the night of November 14/15, 1940. With poor antiaircraft defenses for a city of nearly 240,000 people with many wartime industries, Coventry was smashed: 75 percent of all buildings, 33 percent of all factories, and 50 percent of all homes (4,300) were destroyed by a combination of German high-explosive bombs and incendiaries. To show for it, the Germans lost one bomber to antiaircraft fire.
Amateur Color Film of Destruction Caused by London Blitz, 1941 (Suggest silencing the projector’s sound)