On this night, December 29-30, 1940, the Luftwaffe unleashed one of the more deadly raids on the city of London during “The Blitz”, firebombing the capital and destroying a large segment of the city.
The Blitz was the name Londoners gave to the German bombing of England that took place between 7 September 1940 – 10 May 1941 and was short for the German word “Blitzkrieg” or Lightning War which the Nazis under Hitler had termed.
During the Blitz and the bombing of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, nearly 40,000 civilians were killed. London was bombed every night for 57 straight nighttime raids. Over a million homes were destroyed in London and much of the historic part of the city was burned to the ground.
On this particular night, the Nazis would drop over 10,000 incendiary bombs and create a firestorm that locals would call the “Second Great Fire of London.”
Background: The Germans began World War II by invading Poland in September 1939 but it wasn’t until the spring of 1940, that their army, the Wehrmacht would show how effective this Blitzkrieg was. In May and June, the Germans invaded Belgium, Holland, France, and Norway and quickly took all of them. Their army quickly dispatched the French and English troops who were woefully unprepared for war.
The British and French were bottled up on the coast and only a daring rescue of the troops at Dunkirk saved them from annihilation. Britain was preparing for the inevitable invasion by the Germans. Hitler’s plan, “Operation Sea-Lion” was dependent upon the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe to gain air superiority.
The Luftwaffe began by attacking the British airfields and anti-aircraft defenses. But instead of sweeping aside the heavily outnumbered RAF, the losses the Luftwaffe took were appalling. Just when the British were in danger of losing control of the air battle, Hitler blinked first. He switched the air attacks from the airfields to the cities and the Germans first bombed London on September 7. This allowed the British to recover, regroup and rearm. Operation Sea-Lion was canceled but the bombing of the British cities, especially London continued.
By October, the Germans decided to try to bomb the British into surrendering by attacking the cities and large population areas. This just steeled British resolve. The Germans were also hampered by poor intelligence. They knew little of the British industry and during the Blitz, British production increased rather than decreased. The German High Command couldn’t make up its mind to attack certain targeted industries, such as aircraft production, their supply chain or by targeting the civilian populace in terror bombing. This condemned the Luftwaffe to failure.
The Bombing of 29 December: On the attack on London, the Germans were using Kampfgruppe 100 (Bomber Group), at 1817 hrs, they sent 10 He-111s “Pathfinders” using incendiary bombs to light the way for the main force raid. The raid force consisted of nearly 150 bombers, mainly the He-111.
The raid lasted three hours and the Germans hit central London with over 24,000 high explosive bombs and 100,000 incendiary bombs. The firestorm created by the bombing burned more territory than the “Great Fire of London” in 1666, almost 275 years previously.
The devastation stretched from the south in Islington to the St. Paul’s Cathedral Churchyard. The Germans planned the attack around a particularly low tide on the river Thames so it would be harder for the British to fight the more than 1500 fires that were raging around the city.
More than 160 civilians died during the raid, although many more would die of their injuries later in the days that followed. Still, civilian casualties could have been much higher. A total of 14 firemen died fighting the fires and 250 were injured. Buildings completely destroyed in the firestorm included 19 churches, 31 guild halls and all of Paternoster Row. Paternoster Row was the center of the London publishing trade and an estimated 5 million books were lost in the fire.
Amazingly, St.Paul’s Cathedral was saved, due to the bravery of the British firefighters and the volunteers of the St. Paul’s Watch, over 200 civilians who volunteered to save the Cathedral. Winston Churchill urged the firemen to save the Cathedral at all costs.
The iconic photos of St. Pauls standing resolutely while London burns around it became a rallying point for British resistance against the Blitz.
Two footnotes should be mentioned, above it said the blitz lasted until 10 May 1941, that is when most of the front line German troops were pulled off the Western Front and sent east for “Operation Barbarossa” which was the Nazis invasion of the Soviet Union.
And the British would have a long memory. In February 1945, the British and Americans decided that the firebombing of Dresden may prove detrimental to the German morale.
In four raids over two days in February 1945, 722 heavy bombers of the RAF and 527 heavy bombers of the USAAF (United States Army Air Force) hit Dresden with a combined 3900 tons of high explosives and incendiary devices.
The resultant firestorm devastated Dresden and upwards of 25,000 civilians died of flames or by the scorching heat.
Many Germans considered what Britain and the US did in Dresden was a war crime.