WhenSeptember 7, 1940 to May 10, 1941

WhereGreat Britain and Northern Ireland

WhoGerman Luftwaffe under Air Marshal Hermann Goering (1893–1946) versus the Royal Air Force (RAF) Fighter Command under Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding (1882–1970) and after November 1940 Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Fighter Command William Sholto Douglas (1893–1969)

WhyThe Luftwaffe’s preceding operation, the Battle of Britain (June–October 1940), had not brought the Royal Air Force to its knees, nor had it caused the British government to inquire into armistice terms as French leaders had done in June 1940. The Blitz (short for Blitzkrieg, or “lightning war”) was German punishment for Britain’s refusal to surrender.

WhatThe Blitz was the Luftwaffe’s sustained strategic bombing of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Ninety thousand sorties were flown, and over 60,000 tons of bombs were dropped on British targets. For 57 nights straight, 200 or more German bombers dropped high-explosive and incendiary bombs on the British capital, London, targeting the “Square Mile,” the heart of the city. Across the coun­try many civilian and industrial targets faced similar mur­der­ous 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. (By contrast the Allied bomb­ing raid on just one German city, the large port and industrial center of Hamburg, during the last week of July 1943 (Operation Gomorrah) killed 42,600 civilians, wounded 37,000, and practically leveled the city.)

OutcomeGreat Britain “stood alone” during these bleak eight months of the Blitz: The United States would not enter the war against Germany until Decem­ber 1941. 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. Indeed, the Blitz did not prevent Britain from turning out fighter air­craft at a rate of a thou­sand a month. After several weeks of unsus­tain­able air losses, Hitler tabled his planned amphib­i­ous and aerial inva­sion of Britain, Operation Sea Lion. By the time the last 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 invasion threat had passed, and Hitler’s attention was directed east­wards to the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), here­to­fore a neutral nation. But an undefeated Britain in the West meant Hitler would be facing a war on two fronts come the following month, June 1941. Heavy losses over Britain of skilled Luft­waffe air­crews (by one German account, nearly 7,700, of which 925 became British pris­oners of war) and air­craft (more than 3,000) were keenly felt on the Eastern Front.

First Day of the London Blitz, September 7, 1940