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The Beginning of World War II, 1939

London Goes to War, 1939

Blitzkrieg, 1940

Evacuation at Dunkirk, 1940

France Surrenders, 1940

Hitler Tours Paris, 1940

France in Defeat, 1940

Battle of Britain, 1940

The London Blitz, 1940

The Siege of Leningrad

Attack At Pearl Harbor

Attack At Pearl Harbor - the Japanese View

Attack At Pearl Harbor - The White House Reacts

The Bataan Death March 1942

The Doolittle Raid, 1942

The Battle of Midway 1942

Attack on an Arctic Convoy, 1942

Reconnaissance Patrol, 1943

Bombing Raid on Ploesti, 1943

The Bloody Battle of Tarawa, 1943

A GI's trip to London, 1944

The Nazi Occupation Of Poland

"Loose Lips Sink Ships"

Life and Death Aboard a B-17, 1944

Shot Down Over France, 1944

Sunk by Submarine, 1944

Normandy Invasion, 1944: On The Beach

Normandy Invasion, 1944: A Civilian's View

The Liberation of Paris, 1944

America's Front Line Soldier, 1944

Lindbergh in Combat, 1944

Inside a Nazi Death Camp, 1944

Rommel Commits Suicide, 1944

Patton Interrogates a SS General, 1944

Kamikaze Attack, 1944

Iwo Jima, 1945

Capturing the Bridge at Remagen, 1945

The Tokyo
Fire Raids, 1945

The Battle of Berlin, 1945

The War Ends in Europe, 1945

London Celebrates VE Day, 1945

Berlin in Defeat, 1945

Germany in Defeat, 1945

The 1st Atomic Blast, 1945

The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis, 1945

Hiroshima, 1945

The Sentencing
and Execution of
Nazi War Criminals,


The London Blitz, 1940

The appearance of German bombers in the skies over London during the afternoon of September 7, 1940 heralded a tactical shift in Hitler's attempt to subdue Great Britain. During the previous two months, the Luftwaffe had targeted RAF airfields and radar stations for destruction in preparation for the German invasion of the island. With invasion plans put on hold and eventually scrapped, Hitler turned his attention to destroying London in an attempt to demoralize the population and force the British to come to terms. At around 4:00 PM on that September day, 348 German bombers escorted by 617 fighters
Sept. 7, 1940 - the beginning of the
London Blitz
blasted London until 6:00 PM. Two hours later, guided by the fires set by the first assault, a second group of raiders commenced another attack that lasted until 4:30 the following morning.

This was the beginning of the Blitz - a period of intense bombing of London and other cities that continued until the following May. For the next consecutive 57 days, London was bombed either during the day or night. Fires consumed many portions of the city. Residents sought shelter wherever they could find it - many fleeing to the Underground stations that sheltered as many as 177,000 people during the night. In the worst single incident, 450 were killed when a bomb destroyed a school being used as an air raid shelter. Londoners and the world were introduced to a new weapon of terror and destruction in the arsenal of twentieth century warfare. The Blitz ended on May 11, 1941 when Hitler called off the raids in order to move his bombers east in preparation for Germany's invasion of Russia.

"They came just after dark... "

Ernie Pyle was one of World War Two's most popular correspondents. His journalism was characterized by a focus on the common soldier interspersed with sympathy, sensitivity and humor. He witnessed the war in Europe from the Battle of Britain through the invasion of France. In 1945 he accepted assignment to the Pacific Theater and was killed during the battle for Okinawa. Here, he describes a night raid on London in 1940:

"It was a night when London was ringed and stabbed with fire.

They came just after dark, and somehow you could sense from the quick, bitter firing of the guns that there was to be no monkey business this night.

Shortly after the sirens wailed you could hear the Germans grinding overhead. In my room, with its black curtains drawn across the windows, you could feel the shake from the guns. You could hear the boom, crump, crump, crump, of heavy bombs at their work of tearing buildings apart. They were not too far away.

Half an hour after the firing started I gathered a couple of friends and went to a high, darkened balcony that gave us a view of a third of the entire circle of London. As we stepped out onto the balcony a vast inner excitement came over all of us-an excitement that had neither fear nor horror in it, because it was too full of awe.

You have all seen big fires, but I doubt if you have ever seen the whole horizon of a city lined with great fires - scores of them, perhaps hundreds.

There was something inspiring just in the awful savagery of it.

The closest fires were near enough for us to hear the crackling flames and the yells of firemen. Little fires grew into big ones even as we watched. Big ones died down under the firemen's valor, only to break out again later.

About every two minutes a new wave of planes would be over. The motors seemed to grind rather than roar, and to have an angry pulsation, like a bee buzzing in blind fury.

Children sit among the rubble
of their home September 1940
The guns did not make a constant overwhelming din as in those terrible days of September. They were intermittent - sometimes a few seconds apart, sometimes a minute or more. Their sound was sharp, near by; and soft and muffled, far away. They were everywhere over London.

Into the dark shadowed spaces below us, while we watched, whole batches of incendiary bombs fell. We saw two dozen go off in two seconds. They flashed terrifically, then quickly simmered down to pin points of dazzling white, burning ferociously. These white pin points would go out one by one, as the unseen heroes of the moment smothered them with sand. But also, while we watched, other pin points would burn on, and soon a yellow flame would leap up from the white center. They had done their work - another building was on fire.

The greatest of all the fires was directly in front of us. Flames seemed to whip hundreds of feet into the air. Pinkish-white smoke ballooned upward in a great cloud, and out of this cloud there gradually took shape - so faintly at first that we weren't sure we saw correctly - the gigantic dome of St. Paul's Cathedral.

St. Paul's was surrounded by fire, but it came through. It stood there in its enormous proportions - growing slowly clearer and clearer, the way objects take shape at dawn. It was like a picture of some miraculous figure that appears before peace-hungry soldiers on a battlefield.

The streets below us were semi-illuminated from the glow. Immediately above the fires the sky was red and angry, and overhead, making a ceiling in the vast heavens, there was a cloud of smoke all in pink. Up in that pink shrouding there were tiny, brilliant specks of flashing light-antiaircraft shells bursting. After the flash you could hear the sound.

Up there, too, the barrage balloons were standing out as clearly as if it were daytime, but now
Dec. 29, 1940 - St. Paul's Cathedral
emerges from the flames during
one of the most devastating raids.
they were pink instead of silver. And now and then through a hole in that pink shroud there twinkled incongruously a permanent, genuine star - the old - fashioned kind that has always been there.

Below us the Thames grew lighter, and all around below were the shadows - the dark shadows of buildings and bridges that formed the base of this dreadful masterpiece.

Later on I borrowed a tin hat and went out among the fires. That was exciting too; but the thing I shall always remember above all the other things in my life is the monstrous loveliness of that one single view of London on a holiday night - London stabbed with great fires, shaken by explosions, its dark regions along the Thames sparkling with the pin points of white-hot bombs, all of it roofed over with a ceiling of pink that held bursting shells, balloons, flares and the grind of vicious engines. And in yourself the excitement and anticipation and wonder in your soul that this could be happening at all.

These things all went together to make the most hateful, most beautiful single scene I have ever known."

   This eyewitness account appears in: Pyle Ernie, Ernie Pyle in England (1941), Reprinted in Commager, Henry Steele, The Story of the Second World War (1945); Johnson, David, The London Blitz : The City Ablaze, December 29, 1940 (1981).

How To Cite This Article:
"The London Blitz, 1940," EyeWitness to History, (2001).

Hear the sounds of a bombing raid on London
The worst night of the Blitz occurred on its last night - May 10, 1941 - when 3,000 Londoners were killed.
"... I saw the reflection of Guernica's flames in the sky." In a rehearsal for the Blitz, the Germans first tested using air power to destroy a city in a raid on the city of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. More >>>
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