Today (September 7) in London History – Massive Air Raid

The German war machine staged a huge air attack on London – the biggest of the war to date – on September 7th, 1940. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

They were the biggest air attacks on London so far. A German communique said they were a reprisal for R.A.F. attacks on Berlin. In the war of perceptions, the British press shot that sortie down immediately. The Times, for example, said the two raids were in no way comparable. It said the RAF bombers attacked only selected military targets whereas much of the London attack appeared to have nothing but a “terror” purpose. The attacks started on this day, Saturday, September 7th. September 7th, 1940. One correspondent said ‘they were more like those on Holland, Belgium and Northern France than anything we have seen before.’

A communique from Berlin announced that Hermann Goring was conducting the operations personally from Northern France. 

How did London fare? How did Londoners fare? Those who had them took refuge in Nissen or Anderson shelters. Others hid under the bed, under the stairs, under their kitchen table. Everybody knows about Tube stations but the fact of the matter is only 4 per cent of Londoners used them. They were overcrowded. They were unsanitary. The famous artist Henry Moore likened them to the holds of slave ships. Nor were they completely proof against the Luftwaffe’s attentions. Four months after today’s raids 117 people sheltering in Bank Station were killed when a bomb bounced down the escalator and exploded on the platform.

That was one bomb in one place.

Today, September 7th, the thousands of bombs the Luftwaffe rained down on London killed hundreds of civilians. And injured four times as many. Precise statistics coming up. Well, as precise as we can get.

Even greater numbers of Londoners were rendered homeless. The damage was extensive and widespread. As the evening came on, the London sky was lit up for miles. 

The Luftwaffe paid dearly for the success it obtained. 99 German bombers and fighters were shot down – approximately a quarter of the total force employed. In men, the raids cost the enemy some 250 airmen. Against an RAF loss of 13. 

The government communique said the major weight of the enemy’s offensive was concentrated on both banks of the Thames, east of the city, especially on the riverside, where three extensive fires and a number of others were caused. 

The communique said – bearing out what the press reported – “these attacks much exceeded in scale any that have preceded them and heavy casualties have occurred.” The government communique said, “about 400 people have been killed and some 1,300 to 1,400 seriously injured.”

Despite it all, London carried on. East London had been hardest hit but it was nothing daunted. Whole streets had been destroyed and many other houses demolished. But people gathered their possessions together and piled them into perambulators. With children in their arms they started their walk to friends or relatives. Their morale was astonishing. As they were walking to their new homes many were laughing and joking among themselves. 

Women went on preparing the Sunday dinner, even though they had no water or gas. They borrowed water from more fortunate neighbours and lit fires to roast the joints. The licensee of a hotel gave up his saloon bar for housing people whose houses were no longer tenable. A Mrs Cook, who with her husband and five children escaped injury said, “the heat from the fires was terrific. We do not intend moving from the district despite this ghastly raid.”

South Poplar in east London was hit particularly hard. It was targeted because of its gasworks, warehouses and docks. A local alderman, said, “wherever you meet our people today, they are not worrying. If all the country is as good as we are in Poplar, then the government or the people has no cause for fear. The morale of the people is very high.”

That gets Poplar introduced. That was an unofficial official line that was put out. Let’s end with a report from the sharp end in Poplar. Len Jones was a Poplar resident. He was 18 years old. This was what September 7th, 1940 was like for him. 

That afternoon, around five o’clock I went outside the house. I’d heard the aircraft, and it was very exciting, because the first formations were coming over without any bombs dropping, but very very majestic; terrific. And I had no thought that they were actually bombers. Then from that point on I was well aware, because bombs began to fall, and shrapnel was going along King Street, dancing off the cobbles. Then the real impetus came, in so far as the suction and the compression from the high explosive blasts just pulled you and pushed you, and the whole of this atmosphere was turbulating so hard that, after an explosion of a nearby bomb, you could actually feel your eyeballs being sucked out. I was holding my eyes to try and stop them going. And the suction was so vast, it ripped my shirt away, and ripped my trousers. Then I couldn’t get my breath, the smoke was like acid and everything round me was black and yellow. And these bombers just kept on and on, the whole road was moving, rising and falling. 

Ok, let’s beat a retreat. Let’s get away from all of that. Let’s go to a place of life and unsurpassed beauty. Let’s go to Kew Gardens. Kew’s event of the summer has just a few more days to run. It ends on September 18th. Here’s what they say about it:

Food: we love it and we can’t live without it. But the world is changing, and so is what we eat.

Step into the future of food and 

discover how we can transform our 

planet for good through four new art 

installations and a major exhibition 

across the Gardens. Gets my vote. 

Sounds good to me.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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