People walking past the heavily bomb damaged Rose and Crown public house on St Dunstan's Street, Canterbury, in September 1942. Source: Historic England Archive. OWS01/17/384
People walking past the heavily bomb damaged Rose and Crown public house on St Dunstan's Street, Canterbury, in September 1942. Source: Historic England Archive. OWS01/17/384

England Under Attack

Air raid sirens sounded in London on 3 September 1939, the day war was declared. But England was not actually bombed by the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, until the following year.

Once the bombing began in June 1940 until the end of the war in spring 1945, targets from Wallsend in the north to the Isle of Wight in the south were targeted.

Black and white photo of two Dornier bombers of Nazi Germany, each forms a black shape against the lighter landscape including the Thames below.
Dornier bombers flying over the Thames on Saturday 7 September 1940, the first day of the sustained Blitz on London © IWM (C 5424).

Bombs, shells and rockets

England was not only attacked by aircraft. From August 1940, Dover and Folkstone were within range of German guns across the Channel. They were repeatedly shelled until after D-Day (6 June 1944) when the guns were captured by Allied troops.

Thousands of Hitler’s ‘vengeance weapons’ were fired towards England from occupied Europe. Over 9,500 V-1 flying bombs, commonly known as buzz bombs or doodlebugs, were sent over during the summer of 1944. Later in the year, V-2 rockets, the world’s first long-range ballistic missiles, were launched against London and East Anglia.

The fear of aerial bombing

For much of the war people overestimated the accuracy and the destructive power of aerial bombing. During the 1930s and the first months of the war, many experts believed that bombing could shorten wars.

It was feared that a major attack on London using gas and high explosives would kill thousands, break the morale of the survivors, and bring down the government. Gas was never used, but once bombing began several myths continued.

One such myth was that ‘the bomber would always get through’. In fact, improvements in air defences, particularly in fighter aircraft and radar, meant that many were shot down. To avoid unsustainable losses, bomber aircraft were forced to operate at night.

Targets were harder to find in darkness so Britain used the blackout as one of its defences against air raids. People were told that showing a light through a window or open door could bring the punishment of a German bomb.

Poster proclaiming "Beat ‘Firebomb Fritz’ – Britain Shall Not Burn - Britain's Fire Guard is Britain's defence. - Issued by the Ministry of Home Security
Thousands of one-kilogram incendiary ‘firebombs’ were dropped during the war. If they were found quickly they could be extinguished, but they started hundreds of fires and destroyed more buildings than high explosive bombs © IWM (Art.IWM PST 0199)

The Blitz

England’s air defences and airfields were among the Luftwaffe’s first targets during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. The Germans attempted to gain air superiority in preparation for an invasion, but when this failed, London and other important ports and industrial centres were attacked.

Cities including Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Sheffield, and Southampton were bombed between September 1940 and May 1941. London was bombed over 57 consecutive nights.

This ‘Blitz’, derived from the German word blitzkrieg, meaning ‘lightning war’ and shortened to mean a violent attack on a city, marked a change in German bombing policy. It was an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the population to surrender. The Blitz ended when Hitler’s forces were diverted to invade Russia in spring 1941.

The Baedeker Blitz

Less intense bombing continued for the rest of the war. In the spring of 1942, Exeter, Bath, Norwich, York and Canterbury were attacked in retaliation for the Royal Air Force (RAF) bombing of the historic German city of Lübeck.

These targets were chosen because their cultural and historical significance. They were picked out from the popular Baedeker travel guide so were known as the ‘Baedeker Blitz’.

All five cities suffered damage and destruction. St Mary Arches Church in Exeter was badly damaged by fire following a Baedeker raid in May 1942. An incendiary bomb started a fire which destroyed the 15th-century roof. Sisters of St Wilfrid's Community, who lived near the church, managed only to save a processional cross and crucifix from the fire.

The roofless Church of St Mary Arches, Exeter, Devon, photographed for the National Buildings Record by Margaret Tomlinson following the ‘Baedeker’ raid of 4 May 1942 © Historic England Archive. BB42/03960

Tip and run raids

Small numbers of aircraft also carried out ‘tip and run’ raids all over the country throughout the war. Bombers and fighter-bombers would bomb and strafe, often at low level, and quickly return to their home airfields.

Towns on the south coast of England were often targeted. The Palace Hotel Torquay was bombed twice in ‘tip and run’ raids towards the end of 1942. The east wing and part of the central section of the building were destroyed and patients and staff of the RAF hospital stationed there were killed or injured. In March 1943, 38 people were killed and 40 houses destroyed in Hastings.

Black and white photo of houses destroyed by bombs during World War II, showing Torquay in the background.
Blitzed houses on the hill above Torquay, Devon © Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections. RIBA48256

Hitler’s Baby Blitz

Hitler ordered what has become known as the ‘Baby Blitz’ on London in the first half of 1944. It was in retaliation for the RAF’s bombing of Berlin. On 22 January 1944, over 400 bombers dropped incendiaries and high explosives over the city centre and along the Thames, starting several fires.

Bomb damage

Bombing was most destructive when a combination of high explosives and incendiaries were used. The explosives created piles of timber and flammable materials for the incendiaries to ignite, and delayed action bombs hindered the emergency services.

Buildings and entire streets were lost when numerous small fires merged. It was only possible to save buildings from small numbers of incendiaries before they took hold, or from unexploded bombs. Little could be done once a bomb exploded; the shock waves destroyed buildings.

Home Front defence

The Second World War was a ‘Total War’. Every citizen had to work towards the defeat of the enemy. England’s air defences of fighter aircraft, anti-aircraft guns, barrage balloons and radar played their part in lessening the effects of bombing and attacks by V-1 flying bombs.

Allied bombing disrupted the enemy’s capabilities, while military intelligence fed misleading information back to the Germans and disrupted their guidance systems. Using carefully positioned lights and controlled fires, decoy sites fooled German aircrews into bombing fields miles away from their intended targets.

On the Home Front, Air Raid Precaution wardens, fire watchers, runners, the Police, Ambulance, Fire Service and Auxiliary Fire Service, and bomb disposal teams from the armed forces all had their role to play.

The priority of the emergency services and civil defence volunteers during a raid was to preserve England’s ability to wage war. They were concerned with saving lives and infrastructure important to the war effort. This meant that factories, communications and mains utilities were prioritised over saving historic buildings.

Painting depicting wardens shining a torch on a hole in the floor of a bomb damaged room.
Air Raid Precautions Wardens were the first line of civil defence during the Blitz. It was their job to find unexploded bombs. Here, a bomb has fallen through the floor of a house but failed to explode © IWM (Art.IWM ART 16537)

The last German bomb

The last German bomb dropped was by a solitary aircraft over Hull on 17 March 1945. Despite almost four years of air raids, shelling and rocket attacks, the deaths of over 60,000 civilians and the destruction and damage of millions of buildings, the bombing of the Home Front failed to break morale or shorten the war in Germany’s favour.

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