When did the Blitz start?

London was set ablaze in the first raid of the Blitz on 7 September 1940. James Hoare looks back on the eight months that proved that Britain had the Blitz spirit

Children sit in front of their bombed-out house in London's East End during the Blitz

London was unusually warm on 7 September 1940, the bricks still glowing deep red by the light of the fading summer and the sky a brilliant clear blue. The Second World War was just over a year old, but it still had surprises left in it. These were recorded in sobering detail by the London Fire Brigade, and are now held by the London Metropolitan Archives.

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Discover the full version of this article and more family history stories in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine September 2020

At around 5.30pm the air was filled by the roar of 348 German bombers with an escort of 617 fighters. The anti-aircraft batteries across the city coughed plumes of smoke against the onslaught, and the solitary silhouettes of Spitfires and Hurricanes crossed the sky in retaliation. Over 30 minutes, the Luftwaffe poured the beginnings of an estimated 650 tons of high explosives and 800 incendiary bombs onto the city. Incendiaries burned white-hot, setting anything nearby alight and even melting steel.

Like a beacon, the flames drew down the second wave of German bombers. Gas and water mains burst, starting fresh fires and starving firefighters of the means to combat them.

“I made a dive under my ambulance,” remembered Alan Fry, who recorded his memories with London Borough of Newham Heritage & Archives. “The next thing I know, the whole place came down on top of us. We were completely buried. One bomb had penetrated the back of the building. I could just see the daylight through the dust. I realised that I couldn’t walk properly – something had happened to my leg. My helmet had been blown off. I managed to crawl over to this hole. When I got out, it was chaos. Everything was alight.”

As many as 500 Londoners lay dead, victims of ‘Black Saturday’ – the terrible first day of the Blitz.

Rain of terror

It wasn’t Britain’s ability to wage war that was being targeted, but its morale. What would become the longest aerial bombing campaign in history – lasting over eight months, from 7 September 1940 to 11 May 1941 – had no other aim but to exhaust the public’s support for the war. To distinguish it from attacks on purely military targets, this was dubbed ‘terror bombing’.

At first the Luftwaffe attacked by daylight, but while this made the bombers’ targets easier to spot, it also made them easier targets too, and from November 1940 the Blitz was conducted by night. The first wave of planes targeted the infrastructure that the defenders depended on to save lives – gas and water mains, telephone exchanges, electrical substations and roads – then successive waves dropped incendiaries and high explosives.

Social status proved to be no defence. The Houses of Parliament were damaged on 14 occasions during the Blitz, while Buckingham Palace – a tempting target – was struck 16 times. On the night of 29 December 1940, described as “the second Great Fire of London” by a US reporter, the Square Mile was targeted and St Paul’s Cathedral narrowly escaped destruction when an incendiary lodged in its 17th-century dome. Just as lead began to melt, the bomb was dislodged and dropped to the ground where it was smothered with sand by firewatchers.

A view of the 'second Great Fire of London' during the London Blitz in World War Two on 29 December 1940 from the roof of St Paul's Cathedral
A view of the ‘second Great Fire of London’ on 29 December 1940 from the roof of St Paul’s Cathedral
Daily Mirror via Getty Images

Although the capital bore the brunt – Black Saturday was followed by a gruelling 57 consecutive nights of air raids – the Luftwaffe struck across the length and breadth of the UK. The ports of Liverpool, Hull, Bristol, Cardiff, Swansea, Belfast and Glasgow were bombed, along with the industrial heartlands of Birmingham, Coventry, Manchester and Sheffield. Almost every city touched by the Blitz has its own grim claim to fame. In one week in May 1941 Liverpool was hit by 681 German bombers dropping 2,315 high explosives, which caused 2,895 casualties and left as many as 70,000 homeless. In Hull, over 90 per cent of homes were damaged, while in Coventry on 14 November 1940 the city centre, its cathedral and half of its houses was flattened by 500 tons of high explosives and 30,000 incendiaries. Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels coined the word Coventrieren to describe the destruction of an entire city. In Belfast on 15 April 1941, some 900 people were killed and 1,500 injured in the deadliest night raid outside of London. Morgues were overwhelmed. In total, 41,480 people were killed and 137,000 injured, with close to half of the casualties in London.

Despite the popular image of families clustered around the stove beneath the corrugated iron curve of an Anderson shelter or indulging in a cheery singalong on a packed Tube platform, an estimated 51 per cent of the British population lacked access to a shelter of any kind.

Anderson shelters were sold in kits for £7 (approximately £275 in today’s money), and partially dug into the garden, with room for four people. Far from being cosy, they were cramped, damp and prone to flooding. How much safety they offered depended on how well they had been constructed, and they rarely survived a direct hit. Although they were issued for free to families earning less than £5 a week, many urban households lacked or shared gardens. The more robust Morrison shelter, named after the home secretary Herbert Morrison, was effectively a reinforced steel table allowing families to shelter within the home. It was introduced in March 1941 and was also available for free to low-income families, but was of no use to people who lived above ground level in overcrowded tenements built in the Victorian era.

Mr and Mrs Murray bed down for the night in an Anderson shelter during the Blitz in World War Two, October 1940
Mr and Mrs Murray bed down for the night in an Anderson shelter, October 1940
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/ Corbis via Getty Images

Crushed by concrete

Local councils built boxy surface shelters out of brick, but these offered little safety and more than one tragedy was caused by a wall buckling with the shockwave from a nearby explosion and dropping the concrete ceiling on its occupants. If that weren’t reason enough to give them a wide berth, the dark corners made for a convenient public toilet during the day, and towards the end of the Blitz their occupancy was estimated at only 5 per cent!

Although they were the safest, the Government was wary of deep shelters because of the enormous expense they incurred, as well as the amount of manpower and raw materials needed, but its excuses focused on an unsubstantiated condition: ‘shelter mentality’. There were fears that once people entered the safety of a deep shelter, they would refuse to return to the surface.

The Government was also opposed to people sheltering in the Underground, but families went to their local stations, ignoring instructions to return home. In November 1940 it had to reverse its decision and during the Blitz the Underground sheltered an estimated 150,000 people over 79 stations.

“Hitler’s got to bomb us out of our dug-out before we move,” asserted one Londoner in the Norwood News of 27 September 1940. His wife added: “We shall carry on till further notice. Hitler isn’t going to get us down.” The defiant tone continued in the Ministry of Information film London Can Take It!, which was widely shown in cinemas in the USA.

The truth was more complex. The Ministry of Information’s (MOI’s) weekly Home Intelligence Reports are the most accurate gauge of the national mood. The report of 18 December 1940 explains: “Immediately after a severe raid, one pats oneself on the back for one’s courage and endurance. There is, too, so much to be done that there is little time for contemplation. After a few days, the most acute problems have been settled, and the haloes have worn somewhat thin; realities have to be faced by those who have lost their homes, their jobs, or their businesses.”

It’s clear from the MOI that people reacted in a variety of ways, from despair, to panic, to fatalism, to grim determination and a desire to see Germany bombed in revenge. The suffering of towns and cities nationwide inspired a sense of camaraderie, and the enormous expansion of voluntary Civil Defence organisations gave many a feeling that they were doing their bit.

Citizen army

By the time the Blitz came to a close an estimated 1.5 million people were involved in Civil Defence. Air Raid Precautions (ARP) wardens patrolled the streets, enforcing blackout regulations, escorting stragglers to safety, and administering first aid. The Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) supported those who had been bombed out of homes, ran canteens for firefighters, and are estimated to have helped 10,000 people every single night. The emergency services were bolstered by the Auxiliary Fire Service (who represented 90 per cent of our firefighting strength in 1940), the British Red Cross, St John’s Ambulance, the War Reserve Constabulary, the Home Guard and many others. Daredevil teens with bicycles were enlisted as ARP dispatch riders, and even Boy Scouts played a role, guiding fire engines through the streets.

With morale unshattered, the bulk of the German air power arrayed against Britain was withdrawn in preparation for the invasion of the Soviet Union. Britain would be bombed again, but not as indiscriminately.

The Ministry of Information concluded, “The Blitz was converted from a thing of terror to a symbol of pride and toughness. ‘Our Blitz was worse than yours – and look at us.’ ”

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Discover the full version of this article and more family history stories in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine September 2020