London, England April 16, 1941

This night and early the next morning in 1941, when London’s his­toric St. Paul’s Cathe­dral was bombed and damaged, marked the start of the final phase of the Blitz (Septem­ber 7, 1940, to May 21, 1941), which reached its climax on May 10 with a deadly raid that hit the House of Com­mons, West­minster Abbey, and the British Museum and left a third of Lon­don’s streets impassable, 1,400 civilians dead, and 1,800 injured.

Over a period of almost 37 weeks, the British capi­tal was attacked 71 times. Other cities were also tar­geted, among them Bir­ming­ham, Liver­pool, Coven­try, Bris­tol, Glas­gow, Man­chester, South­ampton, and Ports­mouth. Upwards of 43,000 civil­ians were killed in the air cam­paign, and figures for the injured run as high as 139,000. For this Her­mann Goering’s Luft­waffe paid in spades: 3,363 air­crew and 2,265 air­craft lost (summer 1940 to May 1941).

The Blitz did not pave the way for Opera­tion Sea Lion, the planned German inva­sion of Britain, any more than did the earlier aerial Battle of Britain (July 10 to Octo­ber 31, 1940). By May 1941 Adolf Hitler’s stra­tegic priori­ties had shifted from bombing Britain into suing for peace and ending the war to building up the German Wehr­macht (armed forces) for an inva­sion of the Soviet Union—Oper­a­tion Barba­rossa. As a result of the change, two thirds of the Luftwaffe was transferred to Eastern Europe.

Hitler’s air offensive over Britain had failed for any number of reasons. One was London’s sheer size: its nine million people—one-fifth Britain’s popu­la­tion—sprawled over 750 sq. miles. “It’s an awfully big city,” exclaimed one German air­man who made regular bombing runs to London and was exas­per­ated seeing so much of the embattled city still standing night after night after night. Another was the Luft­waffe’s poor intelli­gence about things British and its unfocused stra­tegy: Bomb popu­lation centers or military air­fields? Bomb wea­pons factories? Bomb distri­bution net­works and ports? Throw into this mix the incom­petence and neglect that cha­rac­teri­zed the German air arma­ments indus­try, saddled with a fleet of load-limited medium bombers that had been built to support a land-based army now unable to deliver knock­out blows to a large indus­trial island nation—all this helps explain Britain’s ability to slog on until Japan’s fateful Pearl Harbor misstep that upset the Axis apple-cart.

It was the shock of December 7, 1941, that pro­pelled the U.S. over the edge and into armed con­flict with Germany’s Axis ally in the Asia Pacific area, Japan. And as of Decem­ber 11, 1941, following Hitler’s reck­less declara­tion of war on the United States, into armed con­flict with Ger­many as well. Two years later the tide of global war was turning against both aggressor nations.

The Blitz, Germany’s Strategic Bombing of Great Britain, September 7, 1940, to May 21, 1941

The Blitz: St Paul’s Survives, December 29, 1940The Blitz: RAF fighters vs. Luftwaffe over Parliament’s Big Ben, London 1940

Left: The Great Dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, undamaged, ringed by clouds of smoke rising from the burning city of London. John Topham’s iconic photo­graph was taken on Decem­ber 29, 1940. St Paul’s Cathedral was struck four times during the Blitz: in Septem­ber, Octo­ber, and Decem­ber 1940 and in April 1941. Another British land­mark—Bucking­ham Palace—was damaged on Septem­ber 15, 1940, in Ger­many’s largest-to-date bombing run since launching the Blitz a week earlier.

Right: The London sky above Big Ben and the Houses of Parlia­ment following a bombing and dog­fight between British and German warplanes in 1940. The island’s key defenders—its RAF pilots, dubbed “The Few” by Prime Minister Win­ston Chur­chill—never numbered more than four­teen hun­dred. For much of the air battle, the Luft­waffe main­tained the initiative and enjoyed a 4-to-3 advan­tage. It would be a close call right to the end. “The victory of ‘The Few’,” in the view of military historian John Keegan, “was very narrow.”

The Blitz: London firefighters, 1941The Blitz: Ruined houses in London

Left: London firefighters putting out a blaze caused by German incen­di­aries in front of a bombed-out building 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. Sub­way stations sheltered as many as 177,000 civilians at night and 1.5 mil­lion women and children were evacuated from London.

Right: A street of ruined houses in London. More than one million London houses were destroyed or damaged and close to 20,000 killed during the 267 days of the Blitz. By con­trast the Allied bombing raids on the large North Ger­man port and indus­trial cen­ter of Ham­burg during the last week of July and the first week of August 1943 (Oper­a­tion Gomor­rah) delivered the single most terrible blow suffered by any Euro­pean metrop­olis since the beginning of the war, killing 42,600 civil­ians, wounding 37,000, and razing three-quarters of Germany’s second-largest city.

The Blitz: Children of an eastern suburb of London made homeless by the BlitzThe Blitz: Coventry bomb damage, mid-November 1940

Left: Three children of an eastern suburb of London made home­less by the Blitz sit in quite accep­tance of their situ­a­tion. 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, killing 554 people and seriously injuring 865, almost all of them civil­ians. It is said that the series of horri­fic Anglo-Amer­i­can raids on Ham­burg in July–August 1943 did a great deal to lift morale in Britain, whose citi­zenry had seen Coven­try, London, and many other English urban centers attacked and bombed with the heavy casualties and much destruction.

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