Specialists in London
Wartime Guided Walks
For large periods of the Second World War, London and Londoners were in the front line, at times under daily and nightly attack and for the most part, calmly carrying on with their daily lives despite the threat of their homes being destroyed and the real possibility of being killed or injured in a raid, or suffering the nightmare of being trapped under the rubble of one's own home or workplace.
The threat of bombing became real once France had fallen in June 1940 as this gave the opportunity for the Luftwaffe to use the captured French and Belgian airfields, thus bringing London and most British cities within range of their bombers. From July to September, the Luftwaffe concentrated resources on bombing the RAF's fighter airfields as a prelude to a planned invasion of England in the autumn of 1940. There were also sporadic air raids on a small scale on Birmingham and Liverpool in August 1940 but London was declared 'off limits' by Hitler in the hope that he could still bring Britain to the negotiating table. However, on August 24th, some German aircraft allegedly strayed over London due to a navigational error and bombed parts of The City, Bethnal Green, Hackney, Islington, Tottenham and Finchley, prompting a retaliatory raid on Berlin the following night by the RAF.
As a reaction to this, Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to switch its attacks to the sustained bombing of London and in so doing, ironically relieved the pressure on the RAF Fighter Command and effectively, in the longer term ensured Germany's defeat in the Battle of Britain.
The periods when Britain was under air attack take four distinct phases:
This covers the period from 7th September 1940 (Black Saturday) to the night of 10th/11th May 1941 and included a period from 7th September 1940 of 57 consecutive nights when London was bombed. On the first day alone, over 400 Londoners were killed and over 1,600 injured.
The raids varied in intensity and of course, other cities were attacked as well, but it was always London that the Luftwaffe returned to and always London that bore the brunt. The night of 10th/11th May 1941 saw the heaviest raid on London, when 515 bombers dropped over 900 tons of bombs on the city, killing 1,364 and seriously injuring over 1,600.
Although Londoners weren't to know it at the time, this was the last major raid on the city for over a year but by this time, some 21,500 Londoners were already dead.
Although there were sporadic attacks by small numbers of aircraft in the meantime, London remained quiet until early to mid 1942, when in retaliation for the RAF's bombing of the historic city of Lubeck, Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to attack Britain's historic cities such as Bath, York, Norwich, Exeter and Canterbury.
In addition to these heavy raids outside the capital, London was also harassed by so-called ‘Tip and Run’ raids usually undertaken by fighter-bomber aircraft operating singly or in small numbers. The Baedecker raids lasted until about June of 1942 whilst the ‘Tip & Run’ attacks continued sporadically throughout 1943, by which time a further 1,600 people had been killed across the country.
In late 1943, Hitler again ordered the mass bombing of southern England and as a result, the Luftwaffe gathered some 500 aircraft to carry ‘Operation Steinbock’ as it was officially named. The raids were never of the same scale or intensity as before, mainly because most of the experienced bomber crews had been lost over Russia and in other campaigns.
On 21st January 1944, the Luftwaffe bombed London employing over 440 aircraft in the process. However, due to the lack of experienced crews and the greatly improved British night fighters and other defences, the raid was an utter failure, with only a fraction of the bombs dropped actually landing on London.
These raids continued for another three months, by which time the Luftwaffe had been comprehensively defeated, having fewer than 90 serviceable bombers and 70 fighters remaining in Western Europe by the time of the Normandy invasion in June 1944.
THE VENGEANCE WEAPONS
On 13th June 1944, shortly after the Allied invasion of Europe at Normandy, the first V-1 flying bomb fell on Bethnal Green.
In the months that followed, over 9,000 were launched from their ramps in France and Holland and of those fired, 2,515 actually reached London, with the rest being shot down by Anti Aircraft guns or by the RAF, with some also brought down by the balloon barrage.
Despite this impressive defence, another 6,184 Londoners were killed, with nearly 18,000 more being injured.
The first V-2 rocket fell on Chiswick on 8th September 1944. These frightening weapons were launched from mobile sites in Holland and there was absolutely no warning of them or defence against them. Over 1,100 of these rockets were fired at Britain and they killed 2,754 people in London alone.
As the Allies advanced into North West Europe, the V-1 launch sites were gradually overrun and the V-2's mobile launch sites were forced out of range of London. The last V-2 landed on a house in Orpington on 27th March 1945, killing the occupant, whilst the last V-1 fell harmlessly in open countryside in Hertfordshire two days later. It was all over.
London had been a front line city from one year into the war until almost the end of it and by this time, in the region of 60,000 civilians had been killed in Britain, about half of them in London.