The Blitz was supposed to break the British spirit during World War 2, but instead it strengthened Londoners resolve to fight back against Hitler and the Nazis. This month our Love London tour took us through the historic heart of London as we walked the streets and passed the locations of buildings that were razed during the trail of destruction left by the Luftwaffe as it attacked the City of London for eight months in 1940-1941. While many lives were lost, there were also tales of heroism and a true London spirit when ordinary men and women came together.
Our tour guide, David, captivated us all from the start as we stood outside Moorgate Tube station and looked at all of the new construction around us. When walking through the City of London and you encounter a street with mostly modern buildings, that is not simply an architecture style choice. It means you are standing in spot that was destroyed during the Blitz.
The Battle of Britian
Our first stop was near the Barbican Centre, the site of the first bomb dropping in August 1940. When the war began the previous year, the action took place away from London, mostly at sea, disrupting supply lines. etc. Despite nothing on the homefront the wartime rations and regulations were beginning, frustrating many of the British citizens. They considered it to be a “war of nothing”. In April 1940, the action really began as the Germans took over Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands.
The Battle of Britain began later that summer. The question is still debated today as to whether or not the Germans were ever really going to invade Britian. The intent, of course, was to take Great Britian out of the war, but how that was to be done is still unclear. Operation Sea Lion was put in place to attack Britian’s biggest asset, the Royal Navy. The presumption by the Germans was to destroy the navy by air power (Germany’s greatest asset) and weaken the British defenses. Dogfights with the Royal Air Force (RAF) began in July 1940. The Luftwaffe accompanying the bombers to destroy land targest – radar stations, airfields, etc. – didn’t have flexibility to compete with RAF.
Through out this Battle, Hitler ordered London not to be attacked. The target was to attack industrial infrastructure instead. On the night of 25 August 1940, the plan was to attack an oil refinery off the Thames. A few planes went further down and one dropped the first bomb on the Barbican. To this day it’s unknown if this was simply navigation error or a direct order from Goerring himself. In response, Churchill ordered Lancaster bombers to bomb Berlin and a new phase of the war began.
Blitzkrieg: The Blitz Begins
On 7 September 1940, the Blitzkrieg begins and the intensification of bombing commences. Incendiary devices were dropped throughout the East End. This began a pattern for the Blitz – incendiary devices set fires along the Thames to provide a path for the second wave of bombers to drop high explosive devices.
This was not an exact science as searchlights and barrage balloons forced the bombers higher making them less accurate in hitting targets. As a result, a field of fire was created as the first wave of bombers aimed for the London docks. A Luftwaffe pilot reported 54 separate fires within 30 minutes of the first bombs being dropped.
Thus began 57 nights of consecutive bombing in London. Civilians were not particularly targeted, but the first night saw 436 individuals killed and 1600 seriously injured. After the industrial East End, the City of London was the next target as the Germans wanted to stop the financial heart of Britian.
The Second Great Fire of London
On 29 December 1940, the second great fire to decimate London took place in what is considered the single worst night of the Blitz. Conditions were perfect for the Luftwaffe – a full moon, good visibility, a strong west wind, unusually low tide of Thames, a Sunday night in a commercial area so no one around to put out start of fires – and they sent out a force of 455 planes to drop incendiary bombs in London. A half square mile, from Moorgate to Canon Street and Aldergate to Old Street, was on fire. The one saving grace of that night is the second wave of bombers never made it out of France as the weather turned during the first raid.
Saving St Paul’s Cathedral
From the beginning of the war, Churchill stated that St. Paul’s was to be saved at all costs. It was constantly under threat and extensive lengths were taken to ensure its survival. A team of 350 volunteers – firefighters, architects and more – were appointed as fire watchers to protect St Paul’s. Each volunteer worked one evening a week. There were two shifts of 40 volunteers each night and they were stationed at three different levels of the building – one to fill buckets of sand and stir the water pumps; another to transport the buckets to the roof; and the last to patrol the rooflines and watch for any fires from the bombings. On the 29th of December, these volunteers were put to the test when 26 bombs and 300+ incendiary devices landed on St. Paul’s.
Symbols of Resistance
Because of nights like that, St. Paul’s became a symbol of resistance during the war. Much like Churchill himself, it was a symbol of the Blitz spirit that Hitler was never able to break. In reality, it reflected the spirit of the British people themselves – the do or die, good vs evil, herosim vs barbariansim, keep calm and carry on nature that exemplified the British fortitude during the war.
Towards the end of our tour, we stopped by another symbol of the resistance. This time it was the Bow Bells that played an actual role in helping the resistance on the continent during the war. In 1927, the BBC recorded the Bow Bells as part of the BBC world broadcast service. During the war, they became known as the sound of freedom and a key element of military intelligence. When the BBC World Service played the bells, the resistance knew to listen for coded messages to follow. The day before D-Day began a poem was read with a line to signal the invasion taking place next day and French resistance had their cue to begin acts of sabotage. Today the bells are silent, but they played an important role for many across the continent.