On This Day: WW2 Blitz begins over London

Julian Gavaghan
On This Day: WW2 Blitz begins over London

SEPT 7, 1940: The Blitz began in on this day in 1940 – with the Germans going on to bomb Britain’s capital for 57 consecutive nights and later devastating other cities.

The first Luftwaffe attack began at 4pm with an incendiary device being dropped on a grocer’s shop on Southwark Park Road, south east London.

A total of 348 German bombers - escorted by 617 fighters – unleashed their deadly cargo as far west as Putney, although the East End was hit hardest.

More than 430 people were killed with 1,600 badly injured after 12 hours of bombing that marked the end of direct Luftwaffe attacks on the RAF in the Battle of Britain.

[On This Day: Wartime rationing ends]

The air raid, during which German planes used the light of the moon and the Thames to guide them, left Londoners deeply shocked and caught military chiefs off guard.

But historians have since judged the Blitz – meaning “lightning” in German – to have been one of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s biggest blunders.

It allowed the RAF, which had lost more than 1,500 aircraft, to reinforce and maintain air supremacy, which ensured Germany could not launch an invasion by sea.

Also the bombing, which left a total of 43,000 dead and destroyed thousands of buildings, did not cause the collapse of civilian morale that Hitler had hoped for.

A British Pathé newsreel, titled London Carries On, shows the renowned “Blitz Spirit” adopted by Britons in the face of nightly terror.

Londoners were seen walking by shops that remained open despite smashed windows, while a café with a bombed out kitchen prepares its food on the pavement.

Flashes of humour – and propaganda – also marked the newsreel, notably a joke about a couple in a park typing a letter the man’s boss to inform him of their new address.

But the deadliness was also shown, with Nazi bombers being filmed in formation followed by the aftermath of fires raging and gutted churches, homes and factories.

Also to encourage civilians, the remains of shot-down bombers were also filmed along with the troops manning anti-aircraft guns, which in reality had a limited effect.

In a bid to reduce the death toll, 3.5million children – including 1.4million from London – were evacuated to the countryside.

In November, Germany began bombing elsewhere in Britain – with 16 cities being hit by major raids where more than 100 tonnes of bombs were dropped in a single night.

Outside London, Liverpool – the main cargo port during the war - was the worst hit, with a death toll of more than 4,000.

Birmingham and Plymouth also suffered eight major air raids, with Bristol heavily targeted on six nights, Glasgow five, Southampton four and Portsmouth three.

But the Luftwaffe chose Coventry as the location to inflict its most devastating attack of the war when 515 bombers attacked it on November 14, 1940.

The industrial city, which had previously suffered 17 small raids, saw two thirds of its buildings and a third of its factories destroyed during a massive firestorm.

[On This Day: Winston Churchill loses election after Labour landslide]

In the centre, only the 295ft spire of St Michael’s Cathedral survived the onslaught by 500 tonnes of high explosives and 36,000 incendiary bombs.

Incredibly, only 568 people died – from a population of 238,000 - after few public shelters were destroyed.

In London, which accounted for half of the Blitz’s death toll following 71 major raids, some of the worst incidents took place in shelters.

Such tragedies drove increasing numbers of people to seek refuge in Underground stations.

American TV presenter Jerry Springer, whose parents were Jewish refugees from Germany, was born at Highgate Station during an air raid.

However, the Tube’s deepness did not always guarantee the safety of those seeking shelter.

[On This Day: Moon landings]

Two of the worst wartime tragedies took place on the Underground, with 239 people dying at Balham and Bethnal Green stations during air raids.

And, although the majority of victims were working class, German bombs were no respecter of high society either.

Indeed, Buckingham Palace was palace was bombed a total of seven times, with the Queen Mother once saying the damage allowed her to “look the East End in the face”.

The Blitz ended in May 1941 after the Luftwaffe withdrew all but one of its squadrons as the Germans prepared to invade Russia instead.

But bombing continued throughout the war, albeit on a smaller scale and even today unexploded bombs are still routinely found in Britain’s cities.