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Britannica Book of the Year: London in 1940
During World War II, London suffered damage on a scale not witnessed there since the Great Fire of 1666. But, as it struggled to maintain the Allied war effort and to repel aerial bombardment, London became a symbol of courage and determination for English-speaking peoples around the globe. The following article “London” was originally printed in the 1941 Britannica Book of the Year (events of 1940). It was written by Lawrence Hawkins Dawson, editor of the guidebook Introductions to London (H.O. Quinn, 1926), the historical atlas The March of Man (Encyclopædia Britannica, Ltd., 1935), and Routledge's Universal Encyclopedia (1934). Dawson also wrote for the 1942 yearbook, describing London in 1941.
London in 1940
Life in London during 1940 fell into two clearly differentiated portions, with mid-August as the dividing point. In the first, “behind-the-lines” conditions prevailed, and in spite of the black-out, the ubiquitous shelters and sandbags, the effects of evacuation, the presence of A.R.P. [Air Raid Precautions] officials in full training and of soldiers, and latterly the home guard drilling in the parks, life went on much as usual. The winter had been severe, but the summer was very fine, and in their leisure hours Londoners thronged the parks or dug strenuously in their allotments and gardens. Several theatres and many cinemas were open, and there were even a few sporting events. In the second period, when the largest and commercially the most important city in the world, with a record of nearly 20 centuries of life unhindered by the foreign invader, was assailed from the air by an enemy armed with all that science and ingenuity could devise, London accepted her “front-line” position with all that that entailed. The A.R.P. services sprang into efficient action, and the civilians, while maintaining the work, business and efficiency of their city, proved that though her walls, her palaces, her churches and her homes might be reduced to rubble, her spirit could never be broken. During the whole period, though disorganization of communications was frequent and sometimes serious, no essential service was more than temporarily impaired. No cut was made in necessary expenditure on the social services; and public and private premises, except when irreparably damaged, were repaired as speedily as possible—latterly with the help of the royal engineers and the pioneer corps. In that way thousands of business people determined to maintain their regular occupations were enabled to do so with delays of only hours. It was even possible to make a few additions to the Green Belt, but the improvements foreshadowed in the Bressey report of 1938 were perforce postponed. Among other works, the completion of Waterloo bridge with its proposed “roundabout” in the Strand, the development of the south bank of the Thames, the memorials to King George V and to Jellicoe and Beatty, and the University of London buildings were also held up. ...
London had taken early steps to defend herself against attack. In April 1939, two regional commissioners, Sir Ernest Gowers, chairman of the coal commission, and Admiral Sir Edward Evans, had been appointed. In May 1940 they were joined by Captain D. Euan Wallace, M.P., as senior commissioner, and at the end of September two special commissioners were added: H. Willink, K.C., M.P., to supervise the care of the homeless, and Sir Warren Fisher, a former head of the civil service and lately commissioner in Manchester of the northwest area, to co-ordinate and facilitate reconstruction. In October Sir Edward Evans was put in charge of air raid shelters and Dr. Mallon, warden of Toynbee hall, was appointed by the minister of food as adviser on the catering problems connected therewith. A fund for the relief of distress caused by enemy action in London was opened by the lord mayor on Sept. 10. Contributions poured in from every part of the world in such profusion that on Oct. 28 its scope was extended to cover the whole of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. By the middle of December it had reached nearly £1,700,000.
Apart from one or two “alarms” in the early days of the war no sirens wailed in London till June 25, but from Aug. 23, when the “blitz” began, until Dec. 2 there was no 24-hour period without at least one “alert”—as the alarms came to be called—and generally far more, nine having been registered on three separate occasions. In the hundred days, Aug. 23 to Nov. 30, there were 368 alerts, and the nights of Nov. 3 and 28 were the only occasions during this period on which London's peace was unbroken by siren or bomb. After the first week of September, though night bombing on a large scale continued, the large mass attacks by day, which had proved so costly to the enemy, were replaced by smaller parties coming over in successive waves; on occasions forces consisting of as many as 300 to 400 machines would cross the coast by daylight and split into small groups, and a few planes would succeed in penetrating London's outer defences. Air-raid damage was widespread, and the raider was no respecter of persons or places. Hospitals, clubs, churches, museums, residential and shopping streets, hotels, public houses, theatres, schools, ancient monuments, maternity homes, newspaper offices, embassies and the zoo were bombed. While some of the poorer and more crowded suburban areas suffered severely, the mansions of Mayfair, the luxury flats of Kensington and Buckingham palace itself—which was bombed four separate times—fared little better; but such was the determination of the citizens and the high degree of efficiency attained by the A.R.P. and medical services that casualties, though sometimes heavy, at no time approached the estimates that had been made before war broke out and only a fraction of the hospital and ambulance provision that had been made was ever requisitioned.
The following curtailed list identifies some of the better known places in inner London that have been damaged by enemy action. Some are a total loss; others are already under repair with little outward sign of the damage sustained:
Besides Buckingham palace, the chapel of which was wrecked, and Guildhall (the six-centuries old centre of London civic ceremonies and of great architectural beauty), which was destroyed by fire, Kensington palace (the London home of the earl of Athlone, governor general of Canada, and the birthplace of Queen Mary and Queen Victoria), the banqueting hall of Eltham palace (dating from King John's time and long a royal residence), Lambeth palace (the archbishop of Canterbury), and Holland house (famous for its 17th century domestic architecture, its political associations, and its art treasures), suffered, the latter severely. Of the churches, besides St. Paul's cathedral, where at one time were five unexploded bombs in the immediate vicinity and the roof of which was pierced by another that exploded and shattered the high altar to fragments, those damaged were Westminster abbey, St. Margaret's Westminster, Southwark cathedral; fifteen Wren churches (including St. Brides, Fleet St.; St.Lawrence Jewry; St. Magnus the Martyr; St. Mary-at-hill; St. Dunstan in the East; St. Clement (Eastcheap) and St. James's, Piccadilly). St. Giles, Cripplegate, and St. Mary Wolnooth, also in the city, were damaged, while the Dutch church in Austin Friars, dating from the 14th century and covering a larger area than any church in the city of London, St. Paul's alone excepted, was totally destroyed. Islington parish church, the rebuilt Our Lady of Victories (Kensington), the French church by Leicester square, St. Anne's, Soho (famous for its music), All Souls', Langham place, and Christ Church in Westminster Bridge road (whose tower—fortunately saved—commemorates President Lincoln's abolition of slavery), were among a large number of others. Over 20 hospitals were hit, among them the London (many times), St. Thomas's, St. Bartholomew's, and the children's hospital in Great Ormond st., as well as Chelsea hospital, the home for the aged and invalid soldiers, built by Wren. The famous places damaged include the palace of Westminster and Westminster hall, the County hall, the Public Record office, the Law Courts, the Temple and the Inner Temple library; Somerset house, Burlington house, the tower of London, Greenwich observatory, Hogarth's house; the Carlton, Reform, American, Savage, Arts and Orleans clubs; the Royal College of Surgeons, University college and its library, Stationers' hall, the Y.M.C.A. headquarters, Toynbee hall and St. Dunstan's; the American, Spanish, Japanese and Peruvian embassies and the buildings of the Times newspaper, the Associated Press of America, and the National City bank of New York; the centre court at Wimbledon, Wembley stadium, the Ring (Blackfriars); Drury Lane, the Queen's and the Saville theatres; Rotten row, Lambeth walk, the Burlington arcade and Madame Tussaud's. Stores whose names and goods are known all over the world were damaged in Oxford street, Regent street, Piccadilly, Cheapside and elsewhere, and the new police station in Saville row was nearly demolished. According to official figures air-raid casualties in London to the end of October amounted to about 27,200, of which some 11,200 were fatal.
Britannica Book of the Year: London in 1941
The Blitz of 1940 had resulted in a victory of sorts for London—and for all the Allies—against the Axis Powers, but at a high cost. Already, five times as many civilian Londoners had perished as a result of air raids than had died in all of World War I (1914–18), when zeppelins pioneered cross-Channel bombing sorties. What follows is an excerpt from the article “London” from the 1942 Britannica Book of the Year (events of 1941). It was written by Lawrence Hawkins Dawson, editor of the guidebook Introductions to London (H.O. Quinn, 1926), the historical atlas The March of Man (Encyclopædia Britannica, Ltd., 1935), and Routledge's Universal Encyclopedia (1934). Dawson also wrote for the 1941 yearbook, describing London in 1940.
London in 1941
In 1941 it was in the first instead of the second half of the year that London was subjected to fierce enemy air attacks. At the end of 1940 (Dec. 29) a deliberate attempt was made to burn the famous square mile known specially as “the city”—an area notable as being devoid of military objectives; large numbers of buildings were wholly or partially destroyed, including the medieval Guildhall, eight Wren churches, and many of the halls of the ancient livery companies. After this, compulsory fire watching for all business premises was decreed, and the value of this move was made apparent on Jan. 11, when the enemy made a second attempt with a similar object. Although there were many casualties, especially in two hospitals and a street subway, the incendiary bombs were quickly dealt with and fires were comparatively few. On Jan. 29 and the two following days there were again daylight and night attacks on the London area; early in February the salvage corps was increased from 60 to 600 men. After another lull, in a short but heavy raid on Feb. 17, hundreds of incendiary and many high-explosive bombs were dropped, doing little material damage but causing many casualties.
Merseyside, Glasgow, Bristol and other parts of the country then experienced heavy raids, and it was not till March 19 that the Luftwaffe returned to London to deliver a large scale attack in which hundreds of houses, shops, and flats, many churches, six hospitals and other public buildings were destroyed or seriously damaged. Another respite, broken only by a few “alerts,” followed, till in a widespread series of night raids on April 7 a few bombs fell in the London area, and another hospital was damaged. On April 16 an attack even fiercer and more indiscriminate than those of the previous autumn started at 9 P.M. and continued till 5 in the morning; 500 aircraft were believed to have flown over in continuous waves, and the damage was more widespread than on any previous occasion. Six enemy bombers were brought down—one in Kensington high street. The German claim that 100,000 incendiaries as well as vast quantities of high explosives were dropped was probably not exaggerated. Again material losses were heavy, while among the many people killed were Lord and Lady Stamp and their eldest son, and the earl of Kimberley, formerly known on both sides of the Atlantic as Lord Wodehouse, the international polo player. St. Paul's cathedral suffered severely; the City Temple, St. Andrew's Holborn, and Chelsea old church were among the churches destroyed. Maples' store and Christie's famous auction rooms were among the business premises burnt out. Three nights later (April 19-20) London was again subjected to a seven-hour raid; but, though loss of life was considerable, especially among the firemen and A.R.P. [Air Raid Precautions] workers, mastery of the fire bomb was becoming more assured.
Londoners then enjoyed three weeks of uneasy peace till on May 10–11—a night of full moon—the Luftwaffe made a surprise effort. In a raid during which London seemed ablaze from the docks to Westminster, much damage was done, and casualties were high. The house of commons, Westminster abbey and the roof of Westminster hall were severely damaged, the Temple was almost devastated and the British museum also suffered damage. But victory remained with the defense workers and fire-fighters of London, and 33 of the destroyers' planes were destroyed.
Daylight raids over London had already ceased before the end of April, and from May 10 there was a long lull. Except that on July 27–28 a small number of bombers—four of which were brought down—did slight damage in residential areas and caused some civilian casualties, no bomb was dropped or siren heard in London up to mid-October. Full advantage was taken of the respite, especially by the fire-fighting, civil defense and demolition authorities; restaurants, places of amusement and night clubs began to function again, and the promenade concerts at the Albert hall had a record season.
By the end of the second year of war the changes in London were very marked. Large, irregular, and for weeks untidy, open spaces had taken the place of crowded dwellings and prosperous business and shopping thoroughfares; huge watertanks and shelters—surface and underground—were everywhere; 80 of the tube stations, with their tiers of bunks, canteens, first-aid posts and aproned welfare workers had become glorified doss-houses. In the streets well-known statues had been “evacuated”; “British restaurants,” communal kitchens, and mobile canteens were to be seen; many railings disappeared, and uniforms of every kind, including those of the Allied and overseas forces, were more and more noticeable. An important, but not at first sight obvious, change was the passing, under the fire services (emergency provisions) act, 1941, of the London fire brigade from the control of the London county council to that of the home office. Another matter for remark was the speed with which local authorities, bombed hospitals and the public at large accommodated themselves to the new conditions. By the end of June, 43 hospitals had been severely damaged in the metropolitan area, and 30 less seriously. The ratio of destruction of property and of casualties in London, said Henry Willink, the special commissioner for the civil defense region, in June, was eight times as great as in the rest of the country. But in spite of complex problems, the rehousing, reclothing and general “reconditioning” of those rendered homeless was dealt with by London's 95 local authorities more speedily and more successfully after the tragic experiences of April and May than after any of the earlier raids.
It is impossible to name more than a few of the damaged areas and treasures lost in addition to those already mentioned. The many churches and places of worship destroyed or very badly damaged included: St. Mary-le-Bow (of “Bow Bells” fame), St. Bride's, Fleet street (“the journalists' cathedral”), All Hallows, Barking (the Toc H church), Christ church, Newgate street (Wren; famed for its Spital sermon and its connection with the Bluecoat school), St. Mildred's, Bread street (with its Australian memorial), St. Albans, Wood street (Wren), and St. James's Garlickhithe (Wren)—all in the city; also St. Clement Danes (of the “oranges and lemons” rhyme), in the Strand; the Temple church (largely 12th century), St. Alban's, Holborn, St. John the Evangelist, Waterloo road, St. Mary's, Newington, St. Columba's, Pont street, St. Geroge's cathedral (R.C.), Southwark, Spurgeon's tabernacle, the Salvation army headquarters, and the central synagogue in Great Portland street. Non-ecclesiastical memorials demolished included: the Tudor building of the Charterhouse and the house in Charterhouse square that was Catherine Parr's home before she became a queen of Henry VIII; many of the medieval portions of Westminster school, also the deanery, and the 17th century Greycoat hospital, a Westminster charity foundation; the Temple, Lincoln's Inn, and Gray's Inn; Dr. Johnson's house off Fleet street, and Neville's court nearby, which had remained almost unchanged since its rebuilding after the great fire of 1666.
Among official and other public buildings: the Law courts, the central criminal court (“the Old Bailey”), the Bankruptcy court, the London sessions house and the Clerkenwell county court; the Guildhall, the county hall and Westminster city hall, the National Central library and the School of Tropical Medicine in Bloomsbury, and the Florence Nightingale International Federation centre in Manchester square; the Royal Empire society, the Royal Society of Arts, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and the headquarters of the Independent Labour party, most of them with their large specialized libraries; Broadcasting House, the Queen's hall, with its valuable collection of hundreds of musical instruments, St. George's hall, with the B.B.C. organ; the music museum in Bloomsbury and some galleries of the natural history museum and the science museum in South Kensington.
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The Blitz was an intense bombing campaign that Germany launched against Britain in 1940, during World War II . For eight months German airplanes dropped bombs on London , England, and other strategic cities where factories and other important industries were based. The attacks were authorized by Germany’s chancellor, Adolf Hitler , and undertaken by the Luftwaffe, the German air force. The offensive came to be called the Blitz after the German word “blitzkrieg,” meaning “lightning war.”
Battle of Britain
The Blitz began near the end of the Battle of Britain . Since July 1940 the Germans had been conducting relentless air attacks against British ports, airfields, and radar stations. Hitler’s goal was to cripple Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) in preparation for an invasion of England. The RAF mounted a successful defense against the attacks, but it was outnumbered and losing planes and pilots at an unsustainable rate. Instead of pressing his advantage, however, Hitler changed his strategy. In late August the Germans dropped some bombs, apparently by accident, on civilian areas in London. The British retaliated by launching a bombing raid on Berlin, Germany. This so infuriated Hitler that he ordered the Luftwaffe to shift its attacks from RAF sites to London and other cities. This was the origin of the Blitz.
The Blitz began at about 4:00 in the afternoon on September 7, 1940, when German planes first appeared over London. For two hours, 348 German bombers and 617 fighters blasted the city. They dropped high-explosive bombs as well as incendiary devices, which were designed to start fires. Later, guided by the raging fires caused by the first attack, a second group of planes began another assault that lasted until 4:30 the following morning. In just these few hours, 430 people were killed and 1,600 were badly injured. The first day of the Blitz is remembered as Black Saturday.
The initial attack was followed by more daylight raids over the next several days, but the German strategy soon changed. By mid-September the RAF had demonstrated that the Luftwaffe could not control the skies over Britain. British fighters were shooting down German bombers faster than German industry could produce them. To avoid the deadly RAF fighters, the Luftwaffe shifted almost entirely to night raids.
Beginning on Black Saturday, London was attacked on 57 straight nights. During that period alone, more than one million bombs were dropped on the city. The raids heavily targeted the Docklands area of the East End. This hub of industry and trade was a legitimate military target of the Germans. However, the Docklands was also a densely populated and impoverished area where thousands of working-class Londoners lived in rundown housing. The raids hurt Britain’s war production, but they also killed many civilians and left many others homeless. Although the attacks also hit the more prosperous western part of the city, the Blitz took an especially big toll on the East End.
The Germans expanded the Blitz to other cities in November 1940. The most heavily bombed cities outside London were Liverpool and Birmingham . Other targets included Sheffield , Manchester , Coventry , and Southampton. The attack on Coventry was particularly destructive. A German force of more than 500 bombers destroyed much of the old city center and killed more than 550 people. The devastation was so great that the Germans coined a new verb, “to coventrate,” to describe it. In early 1941 the Germans launched another wave of attacks, this time focusing on ports. Raids between February and May pounded Plymouth , Portsmouth , Bristol , Newcastle Upon Tyne , and Hull in England; Swansea in Wales; Belfast in Northern Ireland; and Clydeside in Scotland. London suffered its worst assault of the Blitz at the end of the campaign, during the night of May 10–11, 1941. More than 500 German planes dropped bombs across the city, killing nearly 1,500 people and destroying 11,000 homes.
One in every 10 bombs that fell during the Blitz did not explode immediately. These bombs had a delayed-action fuse, meaning that they could go off at any time after hitting the ground. It was almost impossible to tell which bombs had already exploded and which might still go off, meaning that danger remained even after a raid had ended.
Preparation and Response
The British government had anticipated air attacks on London and other cities, and it predicted catastrophic casualties. Government authorities prepared for the raids on both the national and local levels. On September 1, 1939, the day the war began with Germany’s invasion of Poland, the British national government implemented a massive evacuation plan. Over the course of three days, 1.5 million schoolchildren, women with younger children, elderly, and ill people were moved from cities and towns to rural locations that were believed to be safe. The evacuation, called Operation Pied Piper, was the largest internal migration in British history.
Once the Blitz began, the government enforced a blackout to deceive German bombers. Streetlights, car headlights, and illuminated signs were kept off. People put up black curtains in their windows so that no lights showed outside their houses. When a bombing raid was imminent, air-raid sirens were set off to sound a warning.
At the beginning of the Blitz, the British lacked effective antiaircraft artillery and searchlights, as well as night fighters that could find and shoot down an aircraft in darkness. As the attacks continued, the British improved their air defenses. They greatly boosted the numbers of antiaircraft guns and searchlights, and in key areas the guns were radar -controlled to improve accuracy. Another defense measure was the installation of barrage balloons—large, oval-shaped inflated balloons with tail fins—in and around major target areas. These balloons prevented low-flying planes from getting close to their targets. The higher the planes had to fly to avoid the balloons, the less accurate they were when dropping their bombs. Barrage balloons were anchored to the ground by steel cables strong enough to destroy any aircraft that flew into them.
Before the war began, authorities had planned for shelters to protect Londoners from bombs and to house those left homeless by the attacks. The national government provided funds to local governments, which built public air-raid shelters. Authorities also issued more than 2 million Anderson shelters to households. These shelters, made of corrugated steel, were designed to be dug into a garden and then covered with dirt. There was even a type of shelter—a Morrison shelter—that people could set up inside their homes. It was an iron cage in which people could take refuge if the house began to collapse.
The number of deaths caused by the Blitz was much lower than the government had expected, but the level of destruction exceeded the government’s dire predictions. Very early in the Blitz, it became clear that the government’s preparations were inadequate. Many of the surface shelters built by local authorities were flimsy and provided little protection from bombs, falling debris, and fire. Plus, there simply was not enough space for everyone who needed shelter.
In the first days of the Blitz, a tragic incident in the East End stoked public anger over the government’s shelter policy. After the bombing began on September 7, local authorities urged people to take shelter in South Hallsville School. The people were told they would be at the school only as long as it would take to move them to a safer area. The evacuation was delayed, however, possibly because the buses were sent to the wrong location. On September 10, 1940, the school was flattened by a German bomb, and people huddled in the basement were killed or trapped in the rubble. The government announced that 77 people died, but local residents insisted the toll was much higher. Revised estimates made decades later indicated that close to 600 men, women, and children had died in the bombing. It is believed that the wartime government covered up the death toll because of concern over the effect it would have had on public morale.
The South Hallsville School disaster urged Londoners, especially residents of the East End, to find safer shelters, on their own if necessary. Days later a group of East Enders occupied the shelter at the upscale Savoy Hotel. Many others began to take refuge in the city’s underground railway, or Tube, stations, even though this option had been forbidden by the government. As more and more people began sleeping on the platforms, the government reluctantly came around and provided bunk beds and bathrooms for the underground communities. The use of the Tube system as a shelter saved thousands of lives.
Dissatisfaction with public shelters also led to another notable development in the East End—Mickey’s Shelter. After his optician business was destroyed by a bomb, Mickey Davies led an effort to organize the Spitalfield Shelter. As many as 5,000 people packed into this network of underground tunnels, which was dangerously overcrowded, dirty, and dark, with people sleeping on bags of trash. Guided by Davies, the people of the shelter created a committee and established a set of rules. Davies also set up medical stations and persuaded off-duty medical personnel to treat the sick and wounded. The success of Mickey’s Shelter was another factor that urged the government to improve existing “deep shelters” and to create new ones.
The Blitz was devastating for the people of London and other cities. In the eight months of attacks, some 43,000 civilians were killed—more then two-thirds of the total civilian deaths for the whole war. One of every six Londoners was made homeless at some point during the Blitz. Nevertheless, the campaign proved to be a strategic mistake by the Germans. The attacks contributed little to the main purpose of Germany’s air offensive—to dominate the skies in advance of an invasion of England. By mid-September the RAF had won the Battle of Britain, and the invasion was postponed indefinitely. On May 11, 1941, Hitler called off the Blitz as he shifted his forces eastward against the Soviet Union.
Hitler’s intention during the Blitz had been to break the morale of the British people so they would pressure their government to surrender. Morale indeed suffered amid the death and devastation, but there were few calls for surrender. The phrase “Business as usual,” written in chalk on boarded-up shop windows, exemplified the British determination to carry on as best they could. (For detailed accounts of the Blitz written during the war years, see London in 1940 ; London in 1941 .)
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World War II
What was World War II?
World War II involved many countries around the globe fighting against each other, including the UK. It lasted six years, from 1939-1945.
The War became a global conflict after the German military, led by Adolf Hitler , invaded Poland in 1939 because he wanted to take some of their land for Germany . France and Britain declared war on Germany because they didn’t think what Germany was doing was right, then Italy joined with Germany, and gradually other countries in Europe and around the world became involved with either the Allies or the Axis powers.
Life during the Second World War was very difficult. Today, we mark special days to remember the many millions of people who fought and died during World War II.
Top 10 facts
- World War II lasted from 1939 to 1945.
- World War II began when German troops invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 .
- The UK declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. It was announced by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.
- While many countries were involved in the war, they each took sides – either with the Allies, or the Axis.
- The main Axis countries were Germany, Italy and Japan .
- The main Allied countries were Great Britain, the United States , France and the Soviet Union ( Russia ).
- British Prime Ministers during World War II were Neville Chamberlain until 1940, then Winston Churchill .
- The Battle of Britain , between the German Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force, was the first ever battle to be fought only in the air. It was made up of lots of air battles that lasted from 10 July to 31 October 1940.
- World War II ended in Europe on 8 May 1945 – this is also known as VE Day (Victory in Europe Day).
- World War II carried on for a few months after it ended in Europe, and officially ended when Japan formally surrendered to the Allies on 2 September 1945 (also called VJ Day).
- 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland
- 3 September 1939 The UK and France declared War on Germany
- 14 May 1940 The Home Guard was created (The Local Defence Volunteers)
- 26 May-4 June 1940 The evacuation of British and French troops from Dunkirk, France
- June 1940 German troops occupied the Channel Islands.
- 10 June 1940 Italy declared war on Britain and France, and allies with Germany
- 10 July-31 October 1940 The Battle of Britain
- 7 September 1940 The Blitz begins in London
- 8 September 1941-27 January 1944 The Siege of Leningrad
- 7 December 1941 The Japanese attacked an American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii
- 8 December 1941 The United States declared war on Japan, and joined with the Allies
- 6 June 1944 D-Day, when troops from Britain and the US landed in France to fight against the Germans
- 16 December 1944-25 January 1945 The Battle of the Bulge
- 8 May 1945 VE Day (Victory in Europe Day), when Germany surrendered
- 15 August 1945 VJ Day (Victory in Japan Day), when Japan surrendered
- 2 September 1945 Japan formally surrendered, and officially ended World War II
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Did you know?
- Even though World War II involved countries all over the globe, there were two sides fighting against each other – the Axis powers and the Allied powers.
- The UK was part of the Allies.
- Two types of aeroplane were used in the Battle of Britain – bombers that dropped bombs on towns and cities and fighters that attacked other aeroplanes.
- The main aeroplanes flown by the RAF were fighters called the Spitfire and the Hurricane . They tried to destroy German bombers before they could attack British towns and cities.
- The Luftwaffe (Germany’s air force) used both bombers and fighters. They used the bombers to attack towns and cities, and the fighters to stop the RAF fighters from destroying German bombers.
- The German’s most famous fighter aeroplane was the Messerschmitt and their main bombers were the Heinkel, the Junkers and the Dornier.
- British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, US President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin were known as the ‘big three’. They were all leaders of Allied countries.
- The Siege of Leningrad – when all the roads going in and out of Leningrad were closed off so nobody could come in or go out, even to get food – lasted for 900 days (about two and a half years).
- The code name for D-Day was ‘Operation Overlord’.
- D-Day is a name the military use when planning an event – the ‘D’ doesn’t stand for anything.
- The code name for the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk was ‘Operation Dynamo’.
- Hitler’s plan to invade Britain in the summer of 1940 was called ‘Operation Sea Lion’.
Browse through the gallery and see if you can spot the following:
- Spitfire planes
- The bombing of Cologne in Germany
- Omaha Beach in Normandy
- A D-Day commemorative statue
- Soldiers' graves in Normandy
- The evacuation of troops from Dunkirk
- Winston Churchill during WWII
- Neville Chamberlain declaring war on Germany
- Supermarine Spitfire aeroplanes
- Hawker Hurricane aeroplane
- A Luftwaffe aeroplane
- Adolf Hitler
- Benito Mussolini
- Franklin D Roosevelt
- Hideki Tojo
- Joseph Stalin
- World War II British Army uniform
The main countries and leaders that made up the Allied powers were:
- Great Britain – led by Prime Minister Winston Churchill
- The United States – led by President Franklin D Roosevelt
- France – led by Charles de Gaulle
- The Soviet Union – led by Joseph Stalin
- China – led by Chiang Kai-shek
The three main countries and leaders that made up the Axis powers were:
- Germany – the Nazis, led by Adolf Hitler
- Italy – the Fascists, led by Benito Mussolini
- Japan – known at that time as the Empire of Japan, led by Hideki Tojo; the emperor of Japan during World War II was Emperor Hirohito.
World War II began when the UK and France declared war on Germany, after German troops led by Adolf Hitler had invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 to claim land there as their own. Hitler had already invaded Austria and Czechoslovakia, so the war began over his plan to take more land for Germany.
The Siege of Leningrad is a famous event during World War II. For 900 days – from 8 September 1941 to 27 January 1944 – the city of Leningrad in Russia was surrounded by German troops. That meant everyone inside the city had to stay there, and that there wasn’t any way for food or other provisions like medicine to get in. Many hundreds of thousands of people died during this time (600,000-800,000) because there wasn’t enough food or heating to go around, but the people who lived in Leningrad refused to surrender to the Germans.
In 1940, the French port of Dunkirk was the location of a big turning point for the Allies in World War II. Hitler’s armies bombed Dunkirk heavily, and many Allied troops were waiting on the beach to be rescued because they didn’t have the resources they needed to fight back. From 26 May to 4 June, over 550,000 troops were ferried to safety across the English Channel – the code name for this was ‘Operation Dynamo’. Some British civilians (people who weren’t in the army) even used their own boats to help save as many people as they could. The rescue operation helped to boost morale in Britain, where they really needed some good news. This helped in going into the next major event in World War II, the Battle of Britain .
The Royal Air Force were the stars of the Battle of Britain , which is the first military battle to be fought entirely in the air. In ‘Operation Sea Lion’, Hitler planned to invade Britain and add another country to his list of conquests. But, first he had to fight off the RAF, which is where he ran into trouble. Britain’s RAF beat Germany’s Luftwaffe, but after a long series of battles from 10 July-31 October 1940. The whole thing is called the Battle of Britain because it’s what made Hitler eventually change his mind about trying to invade the UK, and he went after Russia instead. The RAF pilots showed tremendous courage and bravery as they kept fighting the Luftwaffe even when it looked like they might lose.
June 6, 1944 is also known as D-Day. On that day, the Allied forces launched a huge invasion of land that Adolf Hitler’s Nazi troops had taken over. It all began with boats and boats full of Allied troops landing on beaches in the French region of Normandy. They broke through the German defences and carried on fighting them back through Europe for the next 11 months until they reached Berlin, where Hitler was then hiding.
The Battle of the Bulge took place from 16 December 1944-25 January 1945, and was the last major effort by Hitler to defeat the Allies. He had hoped to break up the parts of Western Europe that the British, American and French troops secured by splitting the area in half – this would mean that the armies wouldn’t be able to get supplies across to each other, and would make them easier targets for Hitler and his armies to fight against. But, all Hitler did was to make the Allied line of troops ‘bulge’ in the middle as he fought to push them back, and the line didn’t break completely. So, he didn’t accomplish his goal, and the Allies won the battle.
Names to know
Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) – British Prime Minister from 1937-1940; Chamberlain was Prime Minister when Britain declared war on Germany. Winston Churchill (1874-1965) – British Prime Minster from 1940 to 1945, then again from 1951 to 1955; Churchill was Prime Minister during most of World War II. Churchill is famous for his speeches that inspired people to keep on fighting. Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) – German dictator during World War II, and leader of the Nazi political party Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) – Italian dictator during World War II, and leader of the Fascists; Mussolini was also known as ‘Il Duce’ (‘the leader’), and joined forces with Hitler as one of the Axis powers. Franklin D Roosevelt (1882-1945) – United States President during most of World War II Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) – leader of the Soviet Union during World War II Hideki Tojo (1884-1948) – Japanese leader and military general during World War II
Just for fun...
- Learn to sing songs that were popular during WWII , including 'White Cliffs of Dover' and 'Everything stops for tea'
- Use interactive maps to see the battles of WWII in Europe, Africa and Asia
- Take a WWII quiz
- Design the interior of an Anderson Shelter and try some WWII craft activity ideas with the Biggin Hill Memorial Museum Armchair Explorers Activities
- Watch the Horrible Histories song about WWII pilots, The RAF Pilots - The Few Song
- See a Battle of Britain dogfight in action and find out about Britain's pilots in a BBC interactive guide to the "secret" of winning the Battle of Britain
Children's books about World War II
Find out more:
- A series of BBC films about WWII for KS2 children offers a comprehensive overview of World War Two for primary schools
- Watch a brief video overview of the Second World War
- Read about the 5 phases of WWII
- 10 facts about WWII from National Geographic Kids
- Watch WWII video clips from the BBC archive and find out more about evacuation, the Blitz, rationing, famous WWII songs, news reports, speeches and eye-witness accounts
- A children's guide to WWII from DKfindout!
- Interactive articles and timelines about the major events and people of World War Two
- Video information about rise of the Nazis
- Read a BBC Bitesize summary of WWII
- A complete BBC interactive timeline of WWII , including videos of key events
- Maps, investigations and individual sources about WWII from the National Archives
- Look at an interactive map of the world and events during World War II
- Watch short BBC films about the significance of D-Day, the biggest air and seaborne invasion in history
- Understand more about D-Day: look through information sources about D-Day and read a D-Day guide from the National Army Museum
- The CBBC guide to D-Day
- See photographs of the Dunkirk evacuations
- Read about what people who lived during World War II remember from those difficult years at the website ‘The People’s War’
- Find out about 9 iconic aircraft from Battle of Britain , including the Spitfire and the Hawker Hurricane
- A detailed guide to the Spitfire, the most famous plane of World War Two
- Find out about all the different types of World War II defences (called pillboxes) that you can still see around Britain
- Watch a Newsround introduction to the Holocaust
- The life and times of Winston Churchill , and how Churchill's speeches (and his dentures!) contributed to the war effort
- Read about life during WWII in kids' historical fiction set during the Second World War
- Nathalie Sergueiew, 'Treasure', was a WWII spy
- Look through photos of Victory in Europe (VE) Day celebrations
See for yourself
- See exhibits from the Battle of Britain and the Blitz at the RAF Museum in London . You can even climb into a Spitfire and experience what it would have been like to fly one!
- Take a tour of the HMS Belfast, one of the ships used to ferry troops to Normandy on D-Day
- See the aeroplanes involved in the Battle of Britain, inside on of the hangars that was actually used in 1940, at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford
- Walk through the Cabinet War Rooms , which were located underground so Winston Churchill and other leaders could kept safe during the Blitz and hold top security meetings
- Britain built thousands of defensive structures called Pill Boxes all over the country that soldiers could use to defend the country if the Germans invaded. Are there any near where you live?
- Find out about code-breaking at Bletchley Park
- See and find out about objects from World War II
- Hear all the sounds of WWII: Chamberlain and Churchill's speeches, WWII songs and music, news as it was reported in 1939-1945
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The Great Fire of London was a fire that was so big that it burned nearly all of the buildings in London, with the exception of the Tower of London as that was made from stone, and stone doesn't burn up easily.
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The blitz (which is German for “lightning war”) was a period where the Germans started dropping bombs on large British cities such as London. It lasted from 7th September 1940 to 11th May 1941 and killed 43,000 people over the 8 months it happened. How did the major cities prepare for this?
Air raid shelters
Throughout the major cities, London in particular, there were multiple air-raid shelters. Before there was a bomb attack, an air-raid siren would sound and everyone would stop what they were doing and head to the nearest air-raid shelter, whether that be in their back garden or in the street.
You can hear the air-raid siren sound below:
What were they made from?
Air-raid shelters were made from rugged metal and other materials given to them at the beginning of the war by the Government. They may have had some protection at the top, such as sand bags, which helped protect it if a bomb exploded nearby.
Regardless of whether you were in a city or not, you had to have a gas mask. This was so everyone would be safe in the event of a mustard gas attack.
What is mustard gas?
Mustard gas was a deadly gas used during World War I (but not during World War II.) This gas can cause large blisters on any uncovered skin and in the lungs (if breathed in.) It’s now classified as a chemical weapon.
There was no mustard gas attack in the UK during WW2 because the Nazis knew that Britain would fight back even more should they have used it.
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The Battle of Britain and the Blitz
Following the defeat of France, Britain and the empire was left to fight Germany.
To successfully invade Britain, Germany needed to control the skies over the English channel.
This led to the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, followed by the targeted bombing of towns and cities during the Blitz.
Background to the Battle of Britain
Germany had overwhelmed France and seized control of the capital city, Paris, in June 1940. 338,000 British and French soldiers had been evacuated from Dunkirk.
As Britain is an island, Germany needed to send soldiers in by sea to invade successfully. To do this safely, they would need to have control of the skies over the English Channel, so the German Luftwaffe needed to defeat the British RAF .
The Luftwaffe and the RAF
Hitler had realised the importance of a modern and successful air force. The Luftwaffe had already been a key part of the German advance through Europe. By the summer of 1940, Britain was their next target, though the RAF was a significant barrier. The main aeroplane used by the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain was the Messerschmitt, while the RAF had the Hurricane and Spitfire.
The Luftwaffe heavily outnumbered the RAF. During the Battle of Britain, they had 2,550 fighter planes available, while the RAF only had 749. British pilots were also less experienced that the Luftwaffe pilots. The average age of an RAF pilot in the Battle of Britain was just 20 years old.
As the fighting was taking place over Britain, the RAF did have an advantage in that if their planes or pilots were shot down, they could be recovered. Luftwaffe planes or pilots that were shot down were captured.
The Battle of Britain began on 10 July 1940. The head of the Luftwaffe was Hermann Goering. Germany codenamed their planned invasion of Britain Operation Sea Lion. Goering planned for British Fighter Command to be destroyed, as well as airfields and RAF stations where mechanics, engineers and support staff were based.
As the battle went on, the Luftwaffe also targeted factories, where aeroplanes were made, and radar stations.
Germany had underestimated the strength and skill of the RAF. The success of Britain’s air force owed a great deal to the contributions of many pilots from across the British Empire : Jamaica, Canada, Australia and New Zealand contributed pilots. The RAF’s ranks were also boosted by pilots from Poland and Czechoslovakia, who had escaped capture by the German military.
By September 1940, the Luftwaffe was not able to sustain the losses it was experiencing.
During the Battle of Britain, Prime Minister Winston Churchill paid tribute to the enormous efforts made by the fighter and bomber crews.
In a speech delivered in August 1940, he famously said, ‘never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’.
Why did Poland contribute troops during the Battle of Britain?
When Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, thousands of members of the Polish Air Force fled to France, realising that Poland was going to be taken over.
Following the German invasion of France and evacuation of Dunkirk, there were a total of 8,384 Polish airmen in Britain. Many of the Polish airmen were extremely well skilled. They trained in British planes, learned English and worked closely with the RAF.
During the Battle of Britain, 145 Polish airmen fought for the RAF.
In total during World War Two, 1,903 Polish personnel were killed fighting for Britain. They are remembered on a war memorial at RAF Northolt.
Britain used several different methods to help defend themselves against the threat from the Luftwaffe. These were crucial in their eventual victory:
Radar: Britain built a series of radar stations on the south coast. They were able to detect German planes up to 80 miles away. This gave Britain time to scramble planes and be ready to fight the Luftwaffe when they arrived.
Observer corps: 30,000 civilian volunteers were used to track and report on German planes when they were over Britain. Their information helped the RAF to plan their tactics.
The Dowding System: Fighter Command was the part of the RAF responsible for fighter planes. Their headquarters were at Bentley Priory, led by Hugh Dowding. The information collected from radar stations, along with reports from Observer Corps was put together and used to plan air defences.
Barrage balloons: These were large balloons held in the air by steel cables, to protect towns and cities. They were designed to force enemy aircraft to fly higher so they would find it harder to hit their targets.
The role of women in the battle
Members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) played a vital role during the Battle of Britain.
Many women were employed as plotters. This job involved tracking German planes as they made their way to Britain, as well as keeping an eye on how many aircraft were coming. They received information about any incoming attacks from radar stations and the Observer Corps, and the planes’ movements were tracked using wooden blocks, which would be pushed around a large table. These blocks were colour coded to show how up-to-date the information was. British aircraft were also tracked in a separate room.
The Luftwaffe decided to change their tactics and started targeting civilian targets and key landmarks. This was known as the Blitz.
Major British towns and cities were targeted from September 1940 to May 1941. The aim was now to try and force the British to surrender, rather than attempt to destroy the RAF. Incendiary devices were used to start fires and light up targets on the ground, before bomber planes tried to target populated areas.
The Blitz caused huge loss of life. 40,000 civilians were killed and 2 million houses were damaged or destroyed.
Which cities were targeted during the Blitz?
The German Luftwaffe focused on key cities and towns in Britain. Hermann Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe, identified targets for different reasons.
Capital city: London was the main target of the Blitz. It experienced 57 consecutive days of bombing from 7 September 1940. Docks were targeted, as well as factories, railways and other industrial targets. Civilian areas were also badly damaged, causing large numbers of casualties.
Ports: Cities such as Liverpool, Hull, Bristol, Belfast, Glasgow and Swansea were targeted. These cities were home to British naval vessels, so the Luftwaffe aimed to damage the navy’s ability to protect British ships crossing the Atlantic, and also limit their blockade of German ports.
Industrial centres: Sheffield, Coventry, Manchester and Birmingham were cities with large numbers of factories and raw materials that were producing military equipment and supplies for the British war effort.
Propaganda and ‘Blitz Spirit’
The government had realised the importance of using propaganda to maintain morale and support for the war, particularly during times such as the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, when there was a real threat to Britain and large numbers of casualties. The government wanted to create the idea of a ‘Blitz Spirit’ so that, despite the bombing and damage being caused, British people would carry on their lives as normal.
The Ministry of Information oversaw the stories that newspapers were printing. They censored information about such things as planned military operations and details of troop movements. Stories about the Blitz were allowed to be published, but the Ministry of Information wanted people to feel as though life was carrying on as normal. They employed photographers and used pictures to portray this image.
Newspapers carefully selected pictures like the ones above to try and suggest to the British people that there was a ‘Blitz Spirit’. In recent years, historians have challenged this view by using first-hand testimony of people who lived in London or other cities that were bombed by the Luftwaffe.
What was it like to live through the Blitz?
Many people who lived through the Blitz have shared their stories. Their witness accounts are a very valuable source for historians. Shirley Stead was six when the Blitz began, and she shared some of her memories in 2010:
"I lived with my family in Hitchin, Hertfordshire at the time of the Blitz - I was six when it started. My father was an engine driver on the railway who was regularly caught in air raids over London and marooned in the tunnels as he spent most of his time transporting the armed forces to and from London. At the beginning of the Blitz, we used to go to the air raid shelter, but after a while we stayed in the house, because the bombs never fell in our area. However, I do remember seeing the red glow like a pudding basin on the horizon when a bomb fell nearby and I remember the noises of the aeroplanes coming over."
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This Propaganda Film Shows What It Was Like To Live In London During The Blitz
Produced by British government agencies in October 1940, London Can Take It was intended for release in the then-neutral United States to help drum-up support for Britain in the Second World War. The film profiles a day in the life of Londoners during the Blitz - the regular German bombing raids on British towns and cities which lasted from September 1940 to May 1941.
American war correspondent Quentin Reynolds narrated the film, focusing on the people of London and their ability to come together in the face of adversity. The film proved to be successful in the US, where it was distributed in cinemas by Warner Brothers. A shorter version of the film, entitled Britain Can Take It , was released in the UK.
London Can Take It (1940)
This film contains flashing images. This is an edited version of the film. Watch the full 9-minute cut .
The Blitz Around Britain
15 Powerful Photos Of The Blitz
Amazing Colour Footage Of London During The Blitz
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The Blitz In the West: German Blitzkrieg and the Fall of France (1940)
World War II the Blitz & the Home Front - with Pear Deck - for World History
Also included in: World War II Unit for World History - Digital and No Prep - WWII
Churchill and World War 2: The Battle of Britain and the London Blitz
World War II Webquest: The Blitz and the English Homefront
- Word Document File
- Internet Activities
Also included in: World War II London Blitz Collection Bundle
WWII: 1939-1940 (Blitzkrieg & the Blitz)
Also included in: Canada & World War II
Censorship and Propaganda during the Blitz in World War Two.
The Blitz and Bombing of England World War II Webquest
WWII: World War Two The Blitz
The Battle of Britain and the Blitz WWII"Visually Engaging, Well-Researched PPT"
The Blitz: The Bombing of Britain during WW2 in 3 Minutes Video Worksheet
Back to School Blitz-A Teacher's Resource Guide for the First Weeks of School
Brits in the Blitz A World War II Class Play or Assembly
The Blitz World War Two Word Search
Also included in: The Blitz World War Two Activity Pack
COMMON CORE CLOSE READ THE LONDON BLITZ WORLD WAR 2 LEXILE 1120
The Blitz World War Two Activity Pack
Life During the Blitz Stations Activity
The London Blitz
The Blitz Reading and Writing Activity
The London Blitz World War Two Quiz
The Home Front and the Blitz History Revision Quiz
Blitz Wolf and the Three Pigs Propaganda Cartoon World War Two Handout
How did the Blitz affect England?
Also included in: Exam Skills History Bundle
The Blitz PPT Hitler's Lightening War
The Battle of Britain (The Blitz) Mini-Homework Assignment with Answer Key
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How many people died during the World
German bombers made terrifying night raids. Families were broken up as men were sent to the front lines to fight, some never to return. Children were sent out
The Blitz was the name given to the bombing raids that Germany launched against Britain in 1940, during World War II (1939–45).
The Blitz was an intense bombing campaign that Germany launched against Britain in 1940, during World War II. For eight months German airplanes dropped
Some historians extend this to June 1941. It was the ongoing battle between the RAF (Royal Air Force) and the German Luftwaffe to control the
From September 1940 to May 1941, Britain was bombed heavily by enemy planes. That time is called 'The Blitz'. During the Blitz, it was very dangerous to live in
The Battle of Britain, between the German Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force, was the first ever battle to be fought only in the air. It was made up of lots of
The blitz (which is German for “lightning war”) was a period where the Germans started dropping bombs on large British cities such as London
The government had realised the importance of using propaganda to maintain morale and support for the war, particularly during times such as the Battle of
The 'Blitz' – from the German term Blitzkrieg ('lightning war') – was the sustained campaign of aerial bombing attacks on British towns and cities carried out
This video worksheet works great as a “Do Now Activity” or as a complement to any lecture or lesson plan on the Blitz or World War II