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 com­pletely torched London’s City Dis­trict, or “Square Mile,” where much of the nation’s finan­cial trading and busi­ness trans­actions were carried out. The late-Decem­ber air­strike by 136 bombers, described as the second “Great Fire of London” by a U.S. reporter cabling an account back to his office (the orig­i­nal Great Fire dated to 1666), 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 (Septem­ber 7 to Novem­ber 2, 1941), 200 or more German bombers dropped high-explo­sive and incendiary bombs on London.

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 shifted to the east, to the Soviet Union. His stra­tegic gamble to anni­hi­late his oppo­nent in the east in one mas­sive battle, Oper­a­tion Bar­ba­rossa, which appeared so pro­mising when ini­tially launched, had the most grievous con­se­quences when his yearlong winning streak broke.

The Blitz, Germany’s Strategic Bombing of Great Britain, September 7, 1940, to May 10, 1941

St Paul’s survives Blitz, December 29, 1940London’s docks burning first day of Blitz, September 7, 1940

Left: London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, mostly unscathed, ringed by clouds of smoke in this iconic photo­graph taken on Decem­ber 29, 1940, from the roof of the Daily Mail building by the newspaper’s chief photo­grapher, Herbert Mason. Almost every building north and north­east of St. Paul’s was destroyed (the city recorded 1,500 fires), leaving row upon row of free-standing walls and fire-blackened ruins creaking in the wind. The cathe­dral was struck four times during the Blitz: in Septem­ber, Octo­ber, and Decem­ber 1940 and in April 1941. In the Decem­ber raid, the cathe­dral was hit by 28 incen­di­aries, causing the gigan­tic dome’s outer lead covering to melt. One enemy incen­di­ary bomb succeeded in punching half­way through the dome’s lead covering, the bril­liant white light of the sput­tering bomb giving the impres­sion that that the cathe­dral had been set ablaze. Mirac­u­lously, the bomb fell out­ward, slid down the out­side of the dome, and landed in the walk­way that circles the bottom of the dome. There it was easily dis­posed of by volun­teer mem­bers of St. Paul’s Watch. The “divine inter­ven­tion” was referred to as the “Miracle of St. Paul’s.”

Right: Surrey docks in flames east of Tower Bridge 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. (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 the last stra­tegic air offensive by the German bomber arm during World War II.

London firefighters following a Blitz raidRuined houses in London following a Blitz raid

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.

Children of an eastern suburb of London made homeless by the BlitzCoventry bomb damage following Blitz, mid-November 1940

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. An esti­mated one in six Londoners suffered home­lessness during the bombing campaign.

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)