On this day in 1940, 300 German aircraft raid London, in the first of 57 consecutive nights of aerial bombardment. This bombing “blitzkrieg” (lightning war) would continue until May 1941. 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 English air power, especially in the Battle of Britain, Hitler changed strategies. A land invasion was now indefinitely delayed as unrealistic; instead Hitler chose sheer terror as his weapon of choice.
Described as the first major military campaign fought entirely by air forces, the primary objective of the Huns was to compel Britain to agree to a negotiated peace settlement. In July 1940 the air and sea blockade began, with the Luftwaffe mainly targeting coastal-shipping convoys, ports and shipping centers, such as Portsmouth.
On August 1, the Luftwaffe was directed to achieve air superiority over the RAF with the aim of incapacitating RAF Fighter Command; 12 days later, it shifted the attacks to RAF airfields and infrastructure. As the battle progressed, the Luftwaffe also targeted factories involved in aircraft production and strategic infrastructure. Eventually it deployed terror bombing on areas of political significance and on civilians, hence the Blitz.
Anticipating this new strategy through intelligence, a state of purposeful emergency broke out in plucky Britain; even home defense units were put to the ready. This resolution was nearly super-human, given the state of hostilities; total British civilian losses from July to December 1940 were 23,002 dead and 32,138 wounded, with one of the largest single raids launched December 19, 1940, in which almost 3,000 civilians died. Of some 2,927 flyers deployed in Britain’s defense, 510 perished; a mere five RAF pilots known as “The Few” are still with us.
One of Hitler’s key strategic blunders of the war was to consistently underestimate the will and courage of the British people; with the culmination of the concentrated daylight raids, Britain was able to rebuild its military forces and establish itself as an Allied stronghold, an enormous aircraft carrier made of earth, later serving as a base from which the liberation of Western Europe was launched.
They would not run or be cowed into submission. They would fight, and in the end, they would win