London, England July 10, 1940

On this date in 1940, less than one month after France’s humil­i­ating capit­ula­tion to Nazi Germany and just 10 days after the Germans had seized Great Britain’s Chan­nel Islands of Jersey and Guern­sey off France’s Brittany coast, Luft­waffe air­craft based in occu­pied France began a relent­less aerial cam­paign tar­geting the lone Euro­pean hold­out against the German jugger­naut. Adolf Hitler’s aim in the four-month Battle of Britain (July 10 to Octo­ber 31, 1940) was to destroy the Royal Air Force (RAF) Fighter Com­mand, ravage British radar defenses, and gen­er­ally pre­pare the way for Operation Sea Lion (Unternehmen Seeloewe), the Wehr­macht’s amphib­ious and air­borne inva­sion of England. Before the Battle of Britain ended, hun­dreds of British and German airmen and thousands of British civilians would be dead or injured.

A German invasion force projected at 20 divi­sions strong was assembling in ports on the con­ti­nent even as Luft­waffe fighters and bombers began their relent­less aerial cam­paign of destruc­tion—which Air Marshal Her­mann Goering assured Hitler would be suc­cess­ful in a matter of weeks. The RAF dis­abused both men of that notion even as it took a ter­ri­ble beating: In just over a week of close-in combat, the RAF lost 106 pilots and 208 fighter air­craft, with no hope of replacing the lost planes quickly. Against the RAF’s 570 Super­marine Spit­fires and Hawker Hurri­canes in South­east England, the Luft­waffe deployed an armada of nearly 3,200 air­craft con­sisting of hun­dreds of Messer­schmitt single-seat Bf 109s and two- and three-seat Bf 110 fighter-bombers along with hundreds Heinkel He 111 and Dornier Do 17 twin-engine bombers.

On the night of August 25, 1940, the RAF bombed two Berlin districts, Kreuzberg and Wedding, shocking Hitler, his mili­tary coterie, and the nation. (Goering had assured Hitler that an air raid on the Nazi capi­tal was out of the ques­tion. Germans, always enjoying a rich irony, started calling air raid sirens “Meyer’s [or Meier’s] trumpets” after learning of Goering’s boast that people could call him “Meyer” [a common surname in Germany] instead of by his real name should bombs ever fall on German cities.) Out of pique Hitler ordered Goering’s Luft­waffe to retal­iate—to con­cen­trate on bombing Eng­lish cities. Ener­getic and devas­tating as it was, this was a major tacti­cal error on Hitler’s part because it meant RAF air­fields, air­craft, hangars, and barracks were no longer his main target, and as a conse­quence it allowed Britain’s mili­tary to rebuild and strengthen its defenses. Between the start of the German “Blitz” in Septem­ber 1940 and its end in May 1941, it befell the gene­ral popu­la­tion to endure the harsh reality of German air raids, air raid sirens, sudden death, raging fires, and collapsing industrial, business, and apartment structures.

The worst destruction the Luftwaffe inflicted occurred on Septem­ber 15, 1940, now known as Battle of Britain Day, the day Goering had hoped to elimi­nate the RAF from English skies. German bombers pounded the British capi­tal day and night, as well as the ports of Bristol, Cardiff, Liver­pool, and the manu­fac­turing cen­ter of Man­chester. Nearly 200 RAF fighter planes tangled with enemy air­craft over London, while 300 fighters defended the air­space over southern England. The Luft­waffe lost 56 air­craft (bombers and fighters), with 2 missing, to the RAF’s 29. The hard-fought Battle of Britain was some­what of a draw, though, the British losing approx­i­mately 1,643 air­craft to the Germans’ 1,686. (The Luft­waffe seriously over­esti­mated the number of British kills, which led the Germans into thinking RAF Fighter Com­mand was on its last legs, or nearly so.) By the time the mur­der­ous follow-on Blitz ended with­out a German vic­tory in mid-1941—actu­ally, it was Germany’s first defeat in the war—Sea Lion had been replaced by another ambi­tious yet equally futile opera­tion in the plan­ning stages, Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion and occupation of European Russia. Hitler would live to regret his deci­sion that the Soviet Union would be an easier opponent than Great Britain to defeat.

The Blitz, September 7, 1940, to May 21, 1941: Hitler’s Follow-On Campaign to the Failed Battle of Britain

Blitz-damaged street in London. Undated photoFirefighters put out a blaze after a 1941 London air raid

Left: Office workers make their way through a debris field as they go to work after a heavy air raid on Lon­don. During the eight-month Blitz, Lon­don suffered 71 major air raids—major meaning at least 100 tons of bombs were dropped. Other metro­pol­i­tan areas experi­enced at least 56 major air raids. All told, the Blitz cost around 41,000 lives and may have injured another 139,000.

Right: Firefighters put out a blaze in London after a 1941 air raid. The Luft­waffe dropped around 45,000 short tons of bombs during the Blitz, dis­rupting pro­duc­tion and trans­port, reducing food sup­plies, and shaking Brit­ish morale. How­ever, the Germans’ hoped-for effect from their aerial cam­paign never materi­al­ized. Brit­ain was never moved to nego­ti­ate an armi­stice, nor was war pro­duc­tion deci­sively weakened. Mate­rial U.S. assis­tance more than made up for temporary war and food production shortfalls.

Homeless East London children, September 1940Blitzed London residential street

Left: Children of a London suburb, made home­less by the ran­dom bombs of Luft­waffe night raiders, wait out­side the wreckage of what was their home, September 1940.

Right: A street of ruined houses in London. Though mili­tarily in­ef­fective, the Blitz caused enor­mous damage to Britain’s housing stock. Many sites of bombed buildings, when cleared of rubble, were cul­ti­vated to grow vege­tables to ease war­time food shortages and were known as “victory gardens.”

Women salvage prized possessions, London 1940Civilians shelter in a West End London subway station. Undated photo

Left: Women salvage prized possessions from their bombed house, including plants and a clock.

Right: A London Underground station serves as an air raid shelter during the Blitz, an all-to-common scene.

The Battle of Britain, July 10 to October 31, 1940. Produced by U.S. War Department. Part of Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight” Series