Stukas in formation in April 1940. Stukas terrorised servicemen and civilians across Europe. They were withdrawn from the Battle of Britain in mid-August after being savaged by the RAF's Hawker Hurricanes.

Germany bombs British towns and cities

July - August 1940

The Luftwaffe carried out raids on British urban targets for two months prior to the start of the Blitz, with the loss of over 1,000 civilian lives.

Photo: Stukas in formation in April 1940. Stukas terrorised servicemen and civilians across Europe. They were withdrawn from the Battle of Britain in mid-August after being savaged by the RAF's Hawker Hurricanes. (Getty Images)

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The Battle of Britain
The Battle of Britain

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German aerial bombing

Fear of aerial bombing had gripped 1930s Europe. In the spring of 1939, Whitehall predicted an enemy bombing campaign against Britain in which 700 tonnes of bombs could be dropped every day that could kill 600,000 civilians and injure 1.2 million.

This may seem fanciful now but the attacks by Fascists forces – including the Luftwaffe ― on the undefended civilians of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War in 1937 were still fresh in the mind. Hundreds were killed, and the success of the raid informed the Luftwaffe’s future aerial warfare tactics.

Once World War Two had started, a now 'bloodied' Luftwaffe used aerial bombing to great effect throughout their advance through Europe. As well as using air power to overwhelm military forces they also attacked civilian targets. During the invasion of Poland in 1939, houses were deliberately bombed to force refugees onto the roads and create chaos. Warsaw finally surrendered after two-and-a-half weeks of continuous bombing.

In Rotterdam, Holland, in May 1940 carpet bombing was used to hasten a surrender. The use of air warfare had a terrifying psychological effect. For civilians it was akin to being hunted by mechanical birds of prey. The Stuka dive bombers were fitted with wailing 'Jericho trumpets' that screeched as the planes went into their terrifying low dive. Refugees and fleeing civilians were also strafed with machine gun fire.

British preparations

This hadn’t gone unnoticed at RAF Fighter Command, and Air-Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, head of Fighter Command, was furiously working to set up his radar system and keep enough planes back from combat on the continent to defend Britain from aerial attack.

On the ground, meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of children were evacuated in the first autumn of the war. It wasn’t just the cities the children were moved from – also fearing an invasion by sea, the government moved many children from coastal towns. However, as the Phoney war set in and bombs did not immediately begin raining down as many expected, many children returned home to their families.

Daylight raids begin

The first daylight raids began in Britain at the beginning of July 1940. On the first of the month 15 people were killed in Wick in Caithness when German bombers attacked the town’s aerodrome. On 9 July, 27 people were killed in Norwich during attacks on factories and iron works. There were more attacks throughout July including raids on Newport, and, as the month wore on, many towns on the South Coast were badly hit as the Luftwaffe targeted the Channel ports and their defences as part of Operation Sealion.

Southampton was badly bombed from June onwards and the International Cold Storage Depot in the city burned for over a week. Coventry was bombed in both July and August with the loss of several dozen lives. Liverpool, Wrexham, Bradford and Birmingham were attacked as well as intermittent raids on London.

Central London is accidentally bombed

The situation changed on 24 August when the Luftwaffe – accidentally, it’s now believed – dropped bombs on central London instead of the docks. Nine people were killed. Until this point, it is largely thought that civilian deaths had been collateral damage during the bombing of strategic industrial targets and from bombs scattered off-target to make a hasty getaway.

By the end of August, however, over 1,000 civilians had been killed by bombings and Churchill had already begun to think about an 'absolutely devastating exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland'. After the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk, bombing was the only way to open up a new offensive front.

So, on 24 August, Churchill and the War Cabinet decided to order an immediate strike by Bomber Command on Berlin. The following night more than 70 planes flew out to attack the heart of Nazi Germany.


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