On this day in 1940, 300 German bombers raid London, in the first of 57 consecutive nights of bombing. This bombing “blitzkrieg” (lightning war) would continue until May 1941.
After the successful occupation of France, it was only a matter of time before the Germans turned their sights across the Channel to England. Hitler wanted a submissive, neutralized Britain so that he could concentrate on his plans for the East, namely the land invasion of the Soviet Union, without interference. Since June, English vessels in the Channel had been attacked and aerial battles had been fought over Britain, as Germany attempted to wear down the Royal Air Force in anticipation of a land invasion. But with Germany failing to cripple Britain’s air power, especially in the Battle of Britain, Hitler changed strategies. A land invasion was now ruled out as unrealistic; instead Hitler chose sheer terror as his weapon of choice.
British intelligence had had an inkling of the coming bombardment. Evidence of the large-scale movement of German barges in the Channel and the interrogation of German spies had led them to the correct conclusion-unfortunately, it was just as the London docks were suffering the onslaught of Day One of the Blitz. By the end of the day, German planes had dropped 337 tons of bombs on London. Even though civilian populations were not the primary target that day, the poorest of London slum areas-the East End–felt the fallout literally, from direct hits of errant bombs as well as the fires that broke out and spread throughout the vicinity. Four hundred and forty-eight civilians were killed that afternoon and evening.
A little past 8 p.m., British military units were alerted with the code name “Cromwell,” meaning the German invasion had begun. A state of emergency broke out in England; even home defense units were put to the ready. One of Hitler’s key strategic blunders of the war was to consistently underestimate the will and courage of the British people. They would not run or be cowed into submission. They would fight.