Thursday, 22 July 2010

The worst attack was the last

So said Winston Churchill of the Luftwaffe's raid on London on the night of 10th/11th May 1941. Of course, this was not the last raid on London but it did prove to be the final raid of the 'First Blitz' as Hitler was turning his attention towards the east, towards his attack on the Soviet Union and he would need all of his resources for that ultimately self-destructive campaign.

The Luftwaffe never completely left London alone either, for although there was a welcome respite from the mass raids, there was always the threat of the 'lone raider' sent over to keep people's heads down and to test the air defences. The massed raids didn't start again until early 1944 and then were nowhere near the intensity of the great raids of 1940 and 1941, so much so that Londoners soon nicknamed these raids the 'Little Blitz' or 'Baby Blitz' hardened as they were by that time to air attack and all that came with it.

However, to return to May 10th/11th, this was the heaviest raid on London both in terms of the amount of bombs dropped and the intensity of the attack. The sirens sounded the alert at 11 p.m. and the final bomb was logged as falling at 5.37 a.m. and in that period of about 6 1/2 hours, something in the region of 700 tons of high explosive bombs and parachute mines plus 86 tons of incendiaries were dropped on London.

By the time the 'All Clear' sounded 1,436 Londoners were dead and 1,800 were seriously injured; nearly 2,200 fires were started, some 5,500 homes were destroyed with a similar number damaged beyond immediate repair and 12,000 people had been rendered homeless. From the attackers, 14 aircraft were shot down, a seemingly modest figure given the number of bombers involved but a foretaste of things to come for the Germans when they tangled with the always improving British defences on future raids.

However, mere statistics cannot convey the sheer terror and destruction this raid brought to London, neither can the words of a writer nearly 70 years down the line but perhaps the words of someone who was there at the time can; Reg Matthews was a General Post Office telecoms engineer who was there at the time and had been through all of the big raids - "There never was a raid like it. Another one like that and they'd have had us on our backs."

These words were echoed by countless Londoners who had been through what they hoped had been the worst of it - 'Black Saturday' September 7th 1940, December 29th 1940 when the City of London had burned and the two big raids in the Spring of 1941 to mark Hitler's birthday - 16th/17th and 19th/20th April. All of these raids had been bad enough and almost every other night there had been other attacks - 57 consecutive nights from 'Black Saturday' and precious few nights off subsequently.

Apart from the civilian deaths, many famous old buildings that had hitherto survived the Blitz were destroyed that night - The Queen's Hall in Langham Place famous for being the venue of the first Promenade Concerts in 1895 was lost forever. Cannon Street Station lost it's ornately glazed roof and station hotel. The House of Commons Chamber was burned and destroyed (today's version is a careful reconstruction) and Westminster Abbey badly damaged. The Royal College of Surgeons building in Lincolns Inn was hit and presented the rescuers with the strange task of rescuing parts of bodies preserved in alcohol. For every famous building hit, there were many other less well known but no less important buildings destroyed - the homes of scores of Londoners, resulting in the homeless figures mentioned previously. Another well known building to be bombed that night was St Clement Danes Church, one of Wren's masterpieces which was burned to a shell, although later restored as the Central Church of the RAF.

Today, outside St Clement Danes alongside the statue of Air Chief Marshal Dowding, Head of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, stands another likeness. This is of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris, who in May 1941 was soon to become head of Bomber Command and charged with taking the war to the Germans. On the night of 29th December 1940, the night of the 'Second Great Fire of London,' Harris had stood on the roof of the Air Ministry with the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal and had said quietly to him "They are sowing the wind, now they shall reap the whirlwind." This was the only occasion, Harris wrote afterwards, that he felt vengeful but whether it was the only time or not, Harris was true to his word. When he took over at Bomber Command in February 1942, he was soon to build a force capable of making the events of May 10th/11th look minor in comparison to the whirlwind unleashed on Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden and so many other German cities.

Published Sources:

The City That Wouldn't Die - Richard Collier, Collins 1959
Westminster in War - William Sansom, Faber & Faber 1957
Backs to the Wall - Leonard Mosley, Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1971
Bomber Harris, His Life and Times - Henry Probert, Greenhill Books 2003

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