Friday 7 September 2012

The first day of The Blitz

The East End ablaze Sept 7th 1940 (National Archives)
Much has been written about Saturday, September 7th 1940, including more than one post on this blog but in these, we have tended to concentrate on individuals rather than the action as a whole. 

Over the years, some writers and historians have suggested that the Luftwaffe's change of tactics from attacking the RAF's airfields to bombing British cities saved the RAF's bacon and thus saved this country from defeat. The truth is somewhat different; the RAF was far from defeated at the time of Hitler's change of tactics, and whilst the respite from the bombing of Fighter Command's airfields was no doubt very welcome, there is no reason to suggest that the RAF could not have carried on for some time, if not indefinitely. Having said that, the change in the focus of the German attacks was very much to the advantage of the British; it did give the RAF the chance to operate without fear of being attacked on the ground. However, it is doubtful if the citizens of the East End of London would have appreciated the German change of tactics. 

The reason that the RAF were not in as much trouble as we have sometimes been led to believe stems from faulty tactics. Under Goering's leadership, if a particular target was attacked and seriously damaged on one day, it was a wasted effort to return the next day and compound the damage and potentially destroy it. Instead, a different set of targets was selected and attacked the following day; in other words, the Luftwaffe never pressed home their attacks on the RAF's airfields and other important targets such as the Chain Home Radar stations located along the South Coast. The only airfield put out of action for any length of time was RAF Manston, which was of questionable value in any case due to it's proximity to the French Coast and which was temporarily abandonded as much for tactical reasons as due to the inability of the ground crews to repair the damage. Likewise, the Chain Home Station at Ventnor was put off the air for seven days but was repaired before the enemy could press home further attacks on the other stations. Plenty of RAF stations were attacked and seriously damaged, notably Kenley, Biggin Hill, Middle Wallop and many others but were never put out of action for more than a few hours and once the craters were filled in, were back in action again.

So, to September 7th; to understand why London was attacked, we need to wind the clock back a few days to August 24th, the same day that RAF Manston was evacuated. The pattern of the day's raids was similar to what had passed previously, with many of the RAF's airfields being attacked as well as Manston. There was also a serious daylight raid on Portsmouth but it was during the night that the event occurred which was to have such a profound effect on the future course of the Battle of Britain. On this night, a small force of HE111s from KG1 had been seeking to attack the oil refineries at Thameshaven, located in the Thames Estuary. Given Hitler's strict orders that London was 'off limits', this was a very risky target indeed being, in 1940 terms at least, located within a stone's throw of the capital. Although the weather was fine, the bombers missed their target and instead of jettisoning their bombs over open countryside in Hertfordshire, as the crews thought, they instead fell upon the City of London, the first falling on Fore Street, near Moorgate shortly after midnight on the 25th. 

Churchill at once ordered reprisals on Berlin, even though Bomber Command was ill equipped at that time to reach this distant target. So it was that the following night, a force of some 81 Hampdens and Wellingtons attempted to attack Tempelhof Airfield and the Siemens Works close by. Berlin was covered in cloud and the bombers could not locate their targets. They dropped their bombs anyway, causing minimal damage and injuries. Six of the bombers failed to return but the following night Bomber Command went out again, raiding other German cities as well as Turin and Milan. On the night of 28th/29th August, Berlin was once again the target and this time they struck civilian targets around Gorlitzer Railway Station, killing eight people. Hitler was furious and ordered the immediate targetting of London by the Luftwaffe. On the 4th September, Hitler made his now famous "He's coming, he's coming" speech at the Sportpalast in Berlin, in which he pledged to wipe British cities from the map.

Douglas Bader on the wing of his Hurricane (RAF Museum)
Goering decided to personally command the attack on London and he travelled to Cape Gris Nez on the French Coast in order to observe for himself his air armada as it crossed the coast en route for London. The day had begun for the RAF as previously, with airfields appearing to be the main target but by 4pm, it became clear that the target had shifted towards London and the radar plots picked up a huge formation moving towards the capital. Some 348 bombers, escorted by over 600 fighters moved inexorably along the Thames Estuary and by 4.30pm, the defending RAF fighters were making contact. 602 and 43 Squadrons were the first to engage the enemy but in the face of such overwhelming numbers, it was difficult for just two squadrons to break up the formation. More RAF squadrons joined the fray, including the famed Duxford 'Big Wing' under Douglas Bader. Soon the air fighting would involve over one thousand aircraft. 

The German bombers dropped their loads on the Royal Docks, West Ham, Poplar, Silvertown, Barking, Millwall, Limehouse, the Woolwich Arsenal, the Surrey Docks, Beckton Gasworks and many other places on the eastern side of London and soon huge fires were burning out of control as the bomber force turned for home, battered by the RAF fighters but on this occasion, by no means defeated. The huge fires started would act as a beacon to the night bombers, for this time the Germans would indeed press home their attack.

At 8pm, the sirens sounded again as a  further 247 bombers returned to stoke the fires and this time the raid lasted until about 5am the following morning. When the all clear finally sounded, some 330 tons of high explosives had been dropped as well as 440 incendiary cannisters, leaving some 400 Londoners dead. The Lufwaffe had not had everything their own way and had lost forty one aircraft to the RAF's twenty three but these had all been during the daylight portion of the raid; at this time, the Luftwaffe could bomb at night with relative impunity, for the RAF's night fighting capability was still in it's infancy and the anti-aircraft guns could only blaze away in hope with radar guidance.

The bombers returned the following night, leaving behind them another 437 Londoners killed. The Blitz on London had begun and would continue with little respite until the following May.

London would survive; London and Londoners could take it and the civilian morale, far from being destroyed as Hitler and Goering had forecast, actually hardened and the overwhelming urge from the British public was for the RAF to return the compliment on German cities. This they would do starting in 1942 although, like the British public, the German public also proved to be remarkably resilient under fire.

By the end of the war, some 30,000 Londoners had perished as a result of enemy air attacks, this representing about half of the total number incurred across the whole of the United Kingdom. In Germany, in excess of 305,000 civilians died as a result of Allied air attacks.
Lest we forget.

Published Sources:

The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2000
The Myth of the Blitz - Angus Calder, Pimlico 1991
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster, Tri Service Press 1990

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