Thursday, December 29, 2005
The Worst Night of Bombing in London, December 29, 1940
Today in 1940, the German Air Force, known as the Luftwaffe, launched its heaviest air raid against London. Bombs started hundreds of fires which affected all parts of the city. As had been the case in the past and would be the case in the future, it was only the tenacity, resourcefulness and courage of the British populace and military that kept the nation going during this worst night of the Battle of Britain.
Late 1940 was not a good time for the western allies. France, Holland, Belgium, Norway and half of Poland were in German hands. The British Expeditionary Force barely escaped capture and/or destruction through the miracle of the Dunkirk evacuation, but most of their heavy weapons had to be left behind. Thus, the island nation had very little with which to defend herself should the Germans have decided to invade.
And they did plan to invade. In July of that fateful year, Hitler ordered the German military to begin preparations for Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of England. In order to carry off this mission, the German Luftwaffe had to have total control of the skies over the English Channel and the landing beaches. Thus, strikes against British facilities were intensified in an attempt to force an open fight from the Royal Air Force. Some raids included as many as 1,500 German aircraft, greatly outnumbering the island’s defenders.
The RAF resisted the onslaught with great success. During 1940, Germany lost two planes for every RAF plane shot down. The use of radar helped, as did the Spitfire, the British miracle aircraft that was more maneuverable than most German designs. But the main cause of British success was the bravery of His Majesty’s pilots, who flew day in and day out, sometimes flying multiple sorties in a single day.
In August, the RAF launched a raid against Berlin in retaliation for the attacks on the Home Islands. In response, Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to bomb British cities instead of military facilities. The cost of the daylight raids was high as thousands of civilians were killed. But the Luftwaffe was paying a high price by operating in daylight, so much so that daytime raids were abandoned and sorties were only carried out at night. Realizing that the RAF was not going to yield, Hitler canceled plans for Operation Sea Lion but kept the bombing operation going.
The bombing of London on the night of December 29th brought the bravery of the average citizen to the fore. Firemen put out fires while bombs dropped around them. Despite tremendous loses in property and life, morale remained high. As American reporter Edward R. Murrow put it, “Not once have I heard a man, woman or child suggest that Britain should throw her hand.”
The raids against London and the other cities became fewer and fewer after that December and all but died off in May, 1941 as Germany turned her war machine towards the Soviet Union. The British people and the pilots of the RAF had stood against what was then the finest army and air force in the world and stopped them cold. History knows few cases where the victor was more outmatched in equipment and numbers than the RAF in 1940.