London, England · July 10, 1940

On this date in 1940, less than one month after France’s 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 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 invasion of England.

A German inva­sion force pro­jected at 20 divi­sions strong was assembling in ports on the con­ti­nent even as Luft­waffe fighters and bombers began their 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, the RAF lost 106 pilots and 208 fighter air­craft, with no hope of replacing the lost planes quickly. Against the RAF’s 570 Spit­fires and Hurri­canes in Southeast England, the Luftwaffe deployed nearly 3,200 aircraft.

On the night of August 25, 1940, the RAF bombed Ber­lin, shocking Hitler and his mili­tary coterie. (Goering had assured Hitler that an air raid on the Nazi capi­tal was out of the ques­tion.) In retali­a­tion Hitler ordered the Luft­waffe to con­cen­trate on bombing Eng­lish cities. Between the start of the “Blitz” in Septem­ber 1940 and its end in May 1941, British civil­ians en­dured the harsh reality of air raid sirens, sudden death, raging fires, and collapsing business and apartment buildings.

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. The Luft­waffe lost 56 air­craft (bombers and fighters) to the RAF’s 26. By the time the Blitz ended with­out a Ger­man vic­tory in mid-1941, Sea Lion had been replaced by another ambi­tious and equally fu­tile opera­tion in the plan­ning stages, Opera­tion Barbarossa, the German in­vasion and occupation of European Russia.

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. Undated photo

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: The RAF’s Finest Hour. Narrated by Charlton Heston