London, England May 10/11, 1941

Although it would not be known for over a month, the Luft­waffe raid on London on this night, May 10/11, 1941, brought closure to Nazi Germany’s 15‑month stra­tegic bombing cam­paign of Great Brit­ain and North­ern Ire­land. The British public dubbed the aerial campaign the Blitz (Septem­ber 7, 1940, to May 10, 1941), short­hand for the German word Blitz­krieg, “lightning war.” The Blitz was German leader Adolf Hitler’s punish­ment for Britain’s refusal to sur­render their isles to him the previous year during the Battle of Brit­ain (July 10 to October 31, 1940).

“There’s something big on tonight, sir,” were the first words Fighter Com­mand Head­quarters in Middle­sex, north of London, heard of the appear­ance of Heinkel He‑111 bombers crossing the English coast, this at about 10:45 p.m. on a well-lit Satur­day night in May 1941. A half hour before, radar stations along the Channel coast had been tracking huge bomber fleets with thousand-pound loads leaving air­fields in German-occupied France and Holland. The month before two heavy raids had struck London from the same fields. Tonight would mark Luftwaffe chief Her­mann Goering’s third maximum-effort raid in less than 30 days.

Twenty minutes after Middlesex Fighter Com­mand Head­quarters had received its initial dis­patch the first 550‑pound high-explo­sive bombs and incen­di­aries punched through Lon­doners’ roofs, igniting hun­dreds of small fires. Indi­vid­ual fires spread through bombed-splintered buildings and merged into major confla­gra­tions within minutes. Search­light beams scissored the night sky trying to locate the intruders. Anti­air­craft defenders were over­whelmed by the num­ber of enemy air­craft. Fire spotters and fire brigade men did their best to smother bombs with sand and direct water hoses on burning struc­tures, many nearing collapse as roofs and beams and upper floors cascaded down to the ground floor or into base­ments, turning walls and win­dows into deadly shrap­nel. All London was the target, from Thames ware­houses to busi­ness, indus­trial, and resi­den­tial dis­tricts to out­lying neighbor­hoods. The cries of the dying and wounded as they attempted to escape from the wreck­age all around them were drowned out by the sounds of explo­sions, raging fire­storms, crumpling buildings, and thou­sands of whirring fire pumps. Londoners and commun­i­ties up to 20 miles away were shocked as they witnessed the intensity and fury of the noc­turnal raid. From a dis­tance all London resembled one big red flame. Within the city itself the color of the flames resembled a kalei­do­scope of end­less colors depending on what burned: chemi­cals burned a bril­liant white and emitted little smoke, rubber a deep red giving off thick plumes of black smoke, etc.

The air raid lasted till daybreak Sunday, May 11. In fact, it lasted long enough for some returning air­crews to land, refuel, reload, and take off for London a second time. The last bomb the raiders dropped destroyed a por­tion of Scot­land Yard. It was 5:37 a.m. but who out­side the Obser­va­tion Corps that manned the coastal radar sta­tions knew that it would be the last bomb the enemy delivered? The all-clear sounded at 5:52, two minutes after the last intruding air­craft cleared the English coast. In all of 7 hours, 1,486 Lon­doners had been killed, 1,800 seriously injured, an esti­mated 11,000 homes destroyed, and over 12,000 people made home­less in a par­tic­u­larly savage climax to the Blitz that saw 505 enemy air­craft drop 708 tons of high-explosive bombs and over 86,000 incen­di­aries. About 2,200 fires were started. Across 700 acres of the city 2,000 of them burned out of con­trol and would con­tinue to burn for days after the raid. Damaged land­marks included the British Museum, West­minster Abbey, the 844‑year-old West­minster Hall, St. James Palace, Big Ben bell tower, and both houses of Parlia­ment. The British House of Com­mons was irre­triev­ably lost due to a fire. As tallied by the Germans, all the RAF had to show for its defense of the British capital were 14 downed bombers.

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

Heinkel He-111 bombers en route to EnglandLondon’s docks burning first day of Blitz, September 7, 1940

Left: A partial group of Luftwaffe Heinkel He-111 twin-engine medium bombers (nick­named “Flying Pencils”) wings its way toward a target some­where in England. Dorniers and Junkers Ju 88s joined the Blitz. Though the Royal Air Force bloodied the Luft­waffe during Battle of Britain (July 10 to Octo­ber 31, 1940), the enemy’s intense bombing of British cities con­tinued into the spring of 1941, with London taking great punish­ment during the Blitz. Across the nation many other civil­ian and indus­trial tar­gets faced similar on­slaughts—Liver­pool, Car­diff, Bristol, Man­chester, Bel­fast, Coven­try, and Glas­gow to name a few. Bombing failed to demor­alize the British into sur­ren­der or do much damage to Britain’s war eco­nomy; eight months of bombing never seriously ham­pered British war pro­duc­tion, which con­tinued to increase as did U.S. Lend-Lease sup­plies to Amer­ica’s Euro­pean allies. The greatest effect of Germany’s stra­tegic bombing cam­paign was to force the British to dis­perse the pro­duc­tion of air­craft and spare parts. British war­time studies concluded that cities gen­er­ally took 10 to 15 days to recover when hit severely.

Right: Wood and food supplies that had survived the hazar­dous jour­ney across the Atlantic went up in smoke at Surrey Com­mer­cial Docks on the Thames east of Tower Bridge in South­east London on the start date of the Blitz, Septem­ber 7, 1940. Thames fire­boats pumped water at the flames as paint on their ves­sels peeled off in the heat. Surrey Docks was a square mile of fire with 1,000 pumps trying to control it. During the course of the London Blitz, over 100,000 tons of shipping was damaged in the Thames Estuary, 800 civil­ians were injured, and 400 civilians were killed. Between January and May 1944 the Luft­waffe assaulted South­ern England in an oper­a­tion code­named Oper­a­tion Stein­bock (Unter­nehmen Stein­bock), known collo­quially as the “Baby Blitz.” The oper­a­tion—retal­ia­tion for British Bomber Com­mand’s ever-increasing air­strikes on German indus­trial cities—achieved very little other than reducing the cap­abil­ity of the Luft­waffe to repel the Allied inva­sion of Europe on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Stein­bock turned out to be the last stra­tegic air offensive by the German bomber arm during World War II.

Firefighters, Queen Victoria St., London, May 10/11, 1941 BlitzFalling façade, Queen Victoria St., London, May 10/11, 1941 Blitz

Left: Firefighters of the London Fire Brigade bravely battle a con­fla­gra­tion on Queen Victoria Street with water hoses during the deva­stating over­night air raid on the capi­tal city on May 10/11, 1941. Less than half­way into the 37 weeks of the Blitz, Luft­waffe hordes had dropped more than 13,000 tons of high explo­sives and nearly 1,000,000 in­cen­diaries on London. The number of bombers varied from night to night; for exam­ple: Octo­ber 6, 7 bombers; Octo­ber 15, 380. Using a scatter-gun approach, they dropped their deadly pay­load every­where: on West­min­ster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathe­dral whose dome domi­nated the sky­line, Bucking­ham Palace (9 times during the war), No. 10 Downing Street (the offi­cial home of the British prime minis­ter), the Tower of London (dating from 1086), the British Museum, on hos­pi­tals, thea­ters, churches, the London Zoo, on rich and poor neighbor­hoods, and on arguably mili­tary and war-indus­trial instal­la­tions. After Bucking­ham Palace had suffered a hit on Septem­ber 13, 1940, Queen Eliza­beth, wife of King George VI, remarked that damage to the queen’s apart­ments meant she could better empa­thize with ordi­nary citi­zens. So, too, could Queen Wilhel­mina of the Nether­lands, who was a guest at the palace.

Right: The façade of another building on Queen Victoria Street is cap­tured in mid-collapse in this startling image taken during the May 10/11, 1941, Blitz. German incen­diary bombs had burned out the inte­rior of the building and weakened it so that the exte­rior toppled spec­tac­u­larly while fire­fighters watched behind the rela­tive safety of a near­by exten­sion ladder (right in photo). London was for­tu­nate to have 6,000 regu­lar fire­fighters and 60,000 aux­il­iaries, plus tens of thou­sands of part timers—men and women who had full-time jobs as well.

Ruined houses in London following a Blitz raidChildren of East London suburb made homeless by Blitz

Left: 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.

Right: 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. Families who were “bombed out” were sent to so-called Rest Centers such as church halls.

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

Continue Reading