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 coun­try 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. 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 the belea­guered British Isles 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

St. Paul’s Survives, December 29, 1940London’s docks burning, September 7, 1940

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.

London firefighters following an air raidRuined houses in London following an air 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.

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. By contrast the Allied bombing raid on the large North Ger­man 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 in a series of one-two punches, first by high explo­sives and then by incen­diaries. Local rescue efforts stalled after British bombers cut electricity to a major portion of the city for two weeks.

Children of an eastern suburb of London made homeless by the BlitzCoventry bomb damage, 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.

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 with many war­time indus­tries, Coven­try was smashed: 75 per­cent of all buildings, 33 per­cent of all fac­tories, and 50 per­cent of all homes were destroyed by a combination of German high-explosive bombs and incendiaries.

Amateur Color Film of Destruction Caused by London Blitz, 1941 (Suggest silencing the projector’s sound)