7 September 1940: the Blitz begins
On this day in 1940, Germany’s Luftwaffe began the Blitz, an eight-month campaign of bombing Britain’s major cities, killing over 40,000 people.
After failing to take out Britain's fighter command in the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe changed tactics. It decided it would terrorise Britain's population into submission. And so on this day in 1940, it began an eight-month campaign of bombing Britain's main cities – 350 bombers crossed the channel and headed for London, where they dropped 300 tonnes of explosives.
Day and night (mainly night) the bombs fell. On that first night, almost 2,000 people were killed or wounded. Within a month, 6,000 were dead, and by the end of the campaign, 40,000 had lost their lives.
In total, London was attacked 71 times. But it wasn't just the capital that suffered. Other cities were targeted too, most famously Coventry, laid to waste on 14 November. The ten-hour raid was the biggest the world had ever seen.
Despite the danger, the Queen Mother spent her days in London – though her nights were spent in the relative safety of Windsor Castle – and took many trips to the East End to survey the damage and lift the spirits of the people. And on 13 September, Buckingham Palace was hit. The bomb "hurtled past us and exploded with a tremendous crash in the quadrangle", wrote the Queen Mother. "I am glad we have been bombed", she said. "Now we can look the East End in the eye."
Though people today talk about the Blitz spirit, it wasn't all stiff upper lips and making do. It led to a big rise in crime, and made a lot of wrong 'uns wealthy. Career criminal Billy Hill was one. “Money was easy”, he said. “The villains were loaded with dough and we were all busy.”
Britain's wartime black market “was the most fantastic side of civilian life in wartime”, said Hill. “Make no mistake. It cost Britain millions of pounds. I didn't merely make use of the black market. I fed it.”
The Blitz finally ended in May 1941, when the bombers headed east to concentrate on softening up Russia for invasion.