“The Blitz” hits London

A famous image of the bombing of London, a Heinkel III bomber over the Thames, taken from another German bomber at 6.48pm on the 7th September 1940

Following Hitlers promise of retaliation on 4th September, German bombers made the first co-ordinated attack on London on the 7th September 1940.

Ulrich Steinhilper was a German fighter pilot escorting the bombers in:

… it was an unbelievable sight. In the first wave in the late afternoon there were about 1,000 aircraft assembled in layers, stacked at about 600 metres (2,000 feet) intervals.

We were flying high cover as we approached London and there we could already see many oil tanks burning with huge clouds of smoke reaching high into the sky. The main targets were the docks which were easy to find on the distinctive U-bend of the Thames.

Once in a while we would snatch a glance down and see the flashes of bombs as they exploded and the shock waves radiating out with the force of the explosion. But from our height, some 10,000 metres (32,000 ft) these were just pin-pricks of dirty light, more impressive was the oily smoke. There wasn’t much time to take anything but the briefest observations.

We were in the hottest of combat areas and anyone who was distracted for too long was going to end his day there and then. Everywhere was danger; from the British fighters, from the heavy flak and from loose barrage balloons – one of which was floating around near our altitude and burning in a tumult of colour and smoke.

Now we really came up against the full force of the RAF. If the calculations of our High Command had been correct there should have been minimal fighter opposition to us now. But whilst we saw numerous head-on and flank attacks on the bombers below we were often too busy with our own defence to intervene.

There were constant dog-fights with aircraft wheeling and diving, pursuing each other, sometimes with success sometimes not. There were stark black lines diving down, showing the path of a stricken aircraft and parachutes floating in the thin, cold air.

There was tragedy, too, as I watched one parachute begin to burn, its helpless charge falling faster and faster. Hard to take, too, were the accidents of identification. I sat helpless with the hard lump of frustration boiling in my chest as I saw below me a 109 latch onto the tail of another of our fighters and then to see them suddenly linked by four straight grey lines as the guns were fired. Quickly the yellow tail of the leading fighter ignited and it rolled out to dive towards the ground. In such tense and charged surroundings such mistakes were inevitable.

Sometimes I wish I had the skill of an artist so that I could have recorded these beautiful but awe-inspiring sights. The pure azure-blue of the sky with the sun dimmed by the sinister smoke penetrating to extreme height; this interwoven and cross-hatched by the contrails of fighters locked in their life and death struggles. In amongst this the burning balloons and the few parachutes in splendid and incongruous isolation. These images are clear and bright in my mind today and it is to my regret that such fantastic scenes will only live as long as the few of us who saw them and survived.

See Ulrich Steinhilper: Spitfire on My Tail: A View from the Other Side

A still from camera-gun film taken from a Supermarine Spitfire Mark I of No. 609 Squadron RAF, flown by by Flying Officer T Nowierski as he closed in on a formation of Dornier Do 17Zs of KG3 south-west of London at approximately 5.45 pm on 7 September 1940. Tracer bullets from the intercepting Spitfires can be seen travelling towards the enemy aircraft which were heading back to their base after bombing East London and the docks.

A still from camera-gun film taken from a Supermarine Spitfire Mark I of No. 609 Squadron RAF, flown by Flying Officer T Nowierski as he closed in on a formation of Dornier Do 17Zs of KG3 south-west of London at approximately 5.45 pm on 7 September 1940. Tracer bullets from the intercepting Spitfires can be seen travelling towards the enemy aircraft which were heading back to their base after bombing East London and the docks.

British fighter pilots going up to meet the attack were equally impressed by the spectacle of the mass of aircraft.

Twenty-one-year-old Pilot Officer John Beard was flying with 249 Squadron:

It was really a terrific sight and quite beautiful. First they seemed just a cloud of light as the sun caught the many glistening chromium parts of their engines, their windshields, and the spin of their airscrew discs. Then, as our squadron hurtled nearer, the details stood out. I could see the bright-yellow noses of Messerschmitt fighters sandwiching the bombers, and could even pick out some of the types.

The sky seemed full of them, packed in layers thousands of feet deep. They came on steadily, wavering up and down along the horizon. ‘Oh, golly,’ I thought, ‘golly, golly . . .’

And then any tension I had felt on the way suddenly left me. I was elated but very calm. I leaned over and switched on my reflector sight, flicked the catch on the gun button from ‘Safe’ to ‘Fire,’ and lowered my seat till the circle and dot on the reflector sight shone darkly red in front of my eyes.

The squadron leader’s voice came through the earphones, giving tactical orders. We swung round in a great circle to attack on their beam-into the thick of them. Then, on the order, down we went. I took my hand from the throttle lever so as to get both hands on the stick, and my thumb played neatly across the gun button. You have to steady a fighter just as you have to steady a rifle before you fire it.

My Merlin [the airplane’s engine] screamed as I went down in a steeply banked dive on to the tail of a forward line of Heinkels. I knew the air was full of aircraft flinging themselves about in all directions, but, hunched and snuggled down behind my sight, I was conscious only of the Heinkel I had picked out. As the angle of my dive increased, the enemy machine loomed larger in the sight field, heaved toward the red dot, and then he was there!

I had an instant’s flash of amazement at the Heinkel proceeding so regularly on its way with a fighter on its tail. ‘Why doesn’t the fool move?’ I thought, and actually caught myself flexing my muscles into the action I would have taken had I been he.

When he was square across the sight I pressed the button. There was a smooth trembling of my Hurricane as the eight-gun squirt shot out. I gave him a two-second burst and then another. Cordite fumes blew back into the cockpit, making an acrid mixture with the smell of hot oil and the air-compressors.

I saw my first burst go in and, just as I was on top of him and turning away, I noticed a red glow inside the bomber. I turned tightly into position again and now saw several short tongues of flame lick out along the fuselage. Then he went down in a spin, blanketed with smoke and with pieces flying off.

I left him plummeting down and, horsing back on my stick, climbed up again for more. The sky was clearing, but ahead toward London I saw a small, tight formation of bombers completely encircled by a ring of Messerschmitts. They were still heading north. As I raced forward, three flights of Spitfires came zooming up from beneath them in a sort of Prince-of-Wales’s-feathers maneuver. They burst through upward and outward, their guns going all the time. They must have each got one, for an instant later I saw the most extraordinary sight of eight German bombers and fighters diving earthward together in flames.

I turned away again and streaked after some distant specks ahead. Diving down, I noticed that the running progress of the battle had brought me over London again. I could see the network of streets with the green space of Kensington Gardens, and I had an instant’s glimpse of the Round Pond, where I sailed boats when I was a child.

In that moment, and as I was rapidly overhauling the Germans ahead, a Dornier 17 sped right across my line of flight, closely pursued by a Hurricane. And behind the Hurricane came two Messerschmitts. He was too intent to have seen them and they had not seen me! They were coming slightly toward me. It was perfect.

A kick at the rudder and I swung in toward them, thumbed the gun button, and let them have it. The first burst was placed just the right distance ahead of the leading Messerschmitt. He ran slap into it and he simply came to pieces in the air. His companion, with one of the speediest and most brilliant ‘get-outs’ I have ever seen, went right away in a half Immelmann turn. I missed him completely. He must almost have been hit by the pieces of the leader but he got away. I hand it to him.

At that moment some instinct made me glance up at my rear-view mirror and spot two Messerschmitts closing in on my tail. Instantly I hauled back on the stick and streaked upward. And just in time. For as I flicked into the climb, I saw, the tracer streaks pass beneath me.

As I turned I had a quick look round the “office” [cockpit]. My fuel reserve was running out and I had only about a second’s supply of ammunition left. I was certainly in no condition to take on two Messerschmitts. But they seemed no more eager than I was. Perhaps they were in the same position, for they turned away for home. I put my nose down and did likewise.

This account first appeared in THEIR FINEST HOUR, published in 1941.

The Government’s daily Home Security report summarises the extent of the attack:

Up to 1700 hours on 7th September 1940, enemy air activity was slight, a few bombs were dropped at Bristol and at Hawkinge, Kent.

Soon after 1700 hours, however, the enemy launched a very big attack and the principal objectives seem to have been industrial and dock property on both sides of the Thames, bombs were dropped at Woolwich, Purfleet and the Dockland area of London.

Fires broke out and some damage was done to the Arsenal and to Siemen’s Bros. Works at Woolwich and to Harland & Wolff’s factory at North Woolwich. Serious damage was caused to a main sewer in Woolwich and there has been considerable interference with rail and road communications in the area.

At Purfleet, serious fires occurred at the Anglo-American Oil Works and other industrial buildings were hit and fires broke out. In Dockland, principally in the East India, West India, Surrey Commercial and Milwall Dock very serious fires broke out, due to the a large number of bombs.

The Gas Works at Beckton was seriously damaged and great interference will be caused to gas supplies in many parts of East London.

A number of bombs were also dropped at different points of South-Eastern London where also serious interference was caused to rail and road traffic.

During the night of 7th/8th September, attacks extending over many hours covered a considerable area of London and were of an intense nature. Preliminary reports do not permit an accurate review of the full extent of the places hit or of the damage. Possibly the most serious effect has been in Silvertown which has been described as a ‘raging inferno’ and complete evacuation became necessary. Over 600 fire appliances were in use during the night.

In the Battersea area, as in many others, major damage is reported, including the Battersea Power Station and London Power Company’s property.

Southwark, Bermondsey, East and West Ham, Poplar, Plaistow, Barking, Hackney, Rotherhithe and Stepney are amongst those districts quoted in the category where major damage has occurred. Finsbury and Lewisham are also added to this category at a late hour.

Fires in many places are still raging at the close of this Summary.

The other well known image from the 7th September, also taken in the evening. The view from central London looking east down the Thames towards the docks which are ablaze.

Earlier in the war:

Later in the war: