Within a year of the outbreak of World War II, Adolf Hitler's armies had swept across western Europe sweeping away all resistance. Belgium and France had been conquered and the British Expeditionary Force had come within hours of surrender before being rescued from Dunkirk. With mainland Europe now under Nazi control, Hitler turned his attention to the one serious enemy remaining: Britain.

After the Luftwaffe were defeated in the Battle of Britain, Hitler decided to use a technique which he had helped Francisco Franco pioneer very successfully during the Spanish Civil War: the blitzkrieg or lightning warfare. The plan was literally to bomb Britain into submission, and the most obvious target was London.

Day and night Luftwaffe bombers flew over the capital, each releasing thousands of pounds of bombs onto the city below. The aim was twofold: firstly, to completely cripple the British war machine by destroying the infrastructure and manufacturing plants, and secondly to simply terrorise the population. Londoners quickly nicknamed the attacks "The Blitz".

For nearly 100 continuous days, 200 German bombers flew over London every night. In total over a million explosive and incendiary bombs fell on the city, 43,000 civilians were killed (and another 140,000 injured) and large parts of London, especially the east end were flattened. This is the London of countless war movies, with ARP Wardens and fire watchers, barrage balloons in the sky with searchlights zooming around, and the population spending their nights in Andersen air raid shelters or down in the tube stations.

Obviously this kind of attack has produced countless tales of amazing luck and bravery: stories abound of people returning from the shops to find their house nothing but rubble, or of people risking unexploded bombs to rescue others. The attacks finally slowed down and stopped in early 1941, as Hitler turned his attentions to the battle against the Soviet Union after he reneged on his agreement with Josef Stalin. A phrase that has passed into common usage in the UK is "blitz spirit" meaning that no matter what happens, you'll stick something out to the bitter end.

In the summer of 1940, the Nazi war machine swallowed Denmark and Norway, and then swept over the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and finally France using the same blitzkrieg tactics previously used to conquer Poland.

It then turned its terrible attention to Germany's only remaining opponent, Great Britain.

Briefly, Hitler listened to his generals who concentrated their attacks on military targets, especially air defense installations. By late August, Britain's Fighter Command had been decimated, and the Luftwaffe had destroyed most of Britain's air defense system.

Then on August 24, 1940 several Luftwaffe bombers drifted off course and dropped their bombs on the center of London instead of their intended military targets on the outskirts of London.

Britain responded with three successive attacks on Berlin. These were mostly ineffectual, but the bombing of Hitler's sacred city was enough to make him lose his last shred of military sense.

Therefore, beginning September 7, 1940, the Luftwaffe began the terror bombing of civilians later known as "The Blitz". The first bout of bombing in London lasted for 57 consecutive days.

This change in tactics gave British air defense the breathing space it needed. Prime Minister Winston Churchill later wrote:

"It was therefore with a sense of relief that Fighter Command felt the German attack turn on to London..."

As awful as The Blitz was, it was also a waste of resources that cost the Nazis their chance of conquering Great Britain.

In 1941, the Nazi war machine lurched away from attempting the conquest of Britain to its master's latest project: the treacherous and eventually fatal attempt to conquer the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa.

The bombing continued in a limited fashion until 1942, but the Germans, having sown the wind with The Blitz, later reaped the whirlwind as British and American bombers visited the same terror on Germany...

A misnomer. Although the German air raids picked up the label very quickly, the London "Blitz" was in fact the precise antithesis of what the Germans understood by Blitzkrieg warfare: "lightning war", a war of speed and manoeuvre in which air power was vital as a backup to ground troops, but still only secondary. The sogenannte Blitz was, in fact, an admission of the limitations of the Blitzkrieg when confronted by a 20-mile wide anti-tank ditch. The assault on largely civilian (or, more precisely, economic) targets - London, its institutions and its docks - was a return to the principles of static siege warfare as practised since ancient times, an attempt to break the morale of a defender by sustained bombardment in order to avoid any need for a final ground assault, without any of the elements of speed or surprise. The main factor that linked the bombing of London with the Blitzkrieg on the continent which preceded it was that air attacks on civilian targets (particularly the transport network) and civilian involvement in general formed a fairly conscious element of Blitzkrieg strategy as a way of hamstringing the defender, trying to make rapid troop movements on roads crowded with refugees.

Although the word is, in history and local mythology, primarily associated with London, it was also applied passim to the Luftwaffe's night bombing of many other British cities and industrial centres throughout the war, although this was on a much reduced scale after the German invasion of Russia in 1941. 

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