The ‘Darkest Hour’; directed by Joe Wright and starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill is an account of Churchill’s early days as Prime Minister, machinations in ‘Whitehall’ and the Dunkirk evacuation. The film is set over one month in May 1940. It concludes with success at Dunkirk and Britain resolved to stand strong over Nazi aggression. But, what happened next? This article describes the Blitz of London.
Adolf Hitler pushed ahead with his plans for the invasion of Britain during the spring/summer of 1941 – but there were no attacks on London. Hitler wanted to retain an undamaged capital for the Third Reich. Buckingham Palace was already marked out as it’s intended headquarters!
The Battle of Britain
By the summer of 1940, Hitler’s ‘Operation Sea Lion’ was in full swing. Hitler needed air superiority over the English Channel. This meant destroying RAF airfields in the south of England and the sources of aircraft production throughout the country. The enemy attacks started on 10 July 1940 and continued every day throughout summer – and so the Battle of Britain commenced. During the first 6 weeks, and despite the heroic efforts of hundreds of air crew, Britain was losing the battle – production and training couldn’t keep up with the loses of pilots and aircraft.
The break happened on 24 Aug 1940. A Luftwaffe pilot got lost and ‘accidentally’ bombed the east end, near the City of London. The following night, Churchill gave orders for the bombing of Berlin. It was a fateful, but necessary strategy. Churchill knew that Hitler would very likely retaliate by bombing London – and this would have two (calculated) side effects. Firstly, it would draw fire away from British airfields and factories (allowing them some recovery) and secondly the sight of London in flames may produce the political imperative for America to enter the war.
The Blitz of London
The Blitz of London itself commenced on 7 September 1940 and ran for 57 consecutive nights. Initial raids focused on the east end of London. Despite a widespread blackout, German bombers were able to follow the outline of the ‘Isle of dogs’ – and St. Paul’s Cathedral marked the destination. Raids targeted telephone exchanges, railway stations and industrial locations. On this evening, there were two raids; one at 4 p.m. and another at 8 p.m. Around 320 bombers and 600 enemy fighters took part that night – described as looking like ‘100’s of birds heading to the docks’. It was a dreadful path of destruction up the river Thames and into London – killing 450 people across London that night. At 8 p.m. British military units were alerted with the code name ‘Cromwell’ meaning the German invasion had begun. During that night there were 52 German fighters lost to 26 British fighters – despite heavy ground losses Britain was starting to win the battle in the air.
(Note: Read my father’s eye-witness account of this September night as a twelve year old. It’s at the end of this article; ‘Memories of the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz’.)
Hitler gave up Operation Sea Lion during October 1940 to concentrate his efforts on Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of Russia). The heavy bombing of London was to continue – but only as an attempt to reduce the morale of the British people. The principal target was St. Paul’s Cathedral. It became a national priority to ensure St. Paul’s was saved. Hundreds of fire-fighters maintained round the clock surveillance and firefighting operations.
The worst night of bombing was the 29 December 1940. Whilst fatalities were lower, destruction to the City of London was more significant due to the dropping of 25,000 incendiary bombs causing widespread fire. On top of 28 major fires and 1,400 smaller fires there were 6 ‘conflagrations’ (OED: An extensive fire which destroys a great deal of land or property). In the City this included, the Guildhall, three Livery Halls and six medieval churches. The last raid of the Blitz was on 10 May 1941.
The Blitz of London had lasted from the 7 September 1940 to 10 May 1941, and there had been 32,000 deaths across London. In the ancient (medieval) City of London, 25% of dwellings, 18 churches and 17 Livery Halls were destroyed.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
Today you can visit St. Paul’s Cathedral, the ‘epicentre’ of the Blitz of London. Behind the high altar is the American Memorial chapel. This is dedicated to U.S. servicemen who died while stationed in the United Kingdom during World War II. The stained-glass windows depict the American states and beautiful wood carvings represent the fauna and flora of the continent. On a table is a leather-bound book; containing a roll of honour with 28,000 names. Relatives can find the names of loved ones who gave their lives.
Another site with an American connection is the bombed out remains of St Mary Aldermanbury in Love Lane. Destroyed in 1666, Christopher Wren rebuilt it in Portland stone. It was gutted in the Blitz with only it’s walls remaining. In 1946, President Truman asked Churchill to speak at an event in Missouri. Churchill gave his ‘Sinews of Peace’ speech (‘From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic there is an iron curtain…’). This took place at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri on 5 March 1946. Subsequently, the church was shipped and reconstructed at Fulton, Missouri – where it stands to this day as Westminster College.
Memories of the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz
In September 1940, when I was twelve years old, after ten weeks of evacuation in Wolverhampton, Bucks (a schools government evacuation programme) my brother Derek and I returned home to Chingford, Essex just in time for the commencement of the Battle of Britain!! Apart from continuous air raid siren warnings our lives were not seriously affected (our bit of London was on the North East outskirts). Our schooling was though, due to constant short term closures and attendant erratic lessons. The main action we saw at this time were aircraft at 20,000 ft, mostly visible as criss-cross vapour trails and sometimes machine gun fire.
I well remember the bombing of the London docks, some distance from us but highly visible and audible due to the great fires that were started by the German bombers. The night time bombings (the ‘’Blitz’’) caused the really enormous disruption in our everyday lives. At first we visited the air raid shelters at each raid warning but as the number and weight of the air raids increased we would spend the whole night (and I mean every night) in the government provided ‘Anderson shelter’ (dad had to dig it in and erect it himself). We went into the shelter at six or seven every evening until the next morning. Bombs dropped in the Chingford area but none within half a mile of us until one night, during the winter, a land mine exploded across the street behind the row of houses opposite ours. I remember a great thundering explosion causing our shelter to vibrate and showering us with choking dust. The shelter saved our lives and we all survived, but people across the road did not. My father missed full exposure to the blast by a few minutes! Our house sustained the usual blast damage; front door half way up the stairs, most windows shattered, furniture embedded with glass splinters, curtains torn etc. Next morning, surveying the damage my father said; ‘’Well, we’d better all have a good breakfast!!’’
The night sky was full of frantic activity; aircraft engines, anti-aircraft fire (a battery was a mile away), searchlights, shrapnel falling and bombs exploding from time to time. After weeks of shelter nights we were again evacuated, privately this time due to my father’s efforts. We went to Little Harrowden, near Wellingborough, Northamptonshire where we remained for over a year, the whole family except dad; who continued working in London; the docks, East End, the lot.
NWM, July 2006
Image: Herbert Mason, Daily Mail photographer