Death from the sky
|Damage to the railway marshalling yards at Silvertown, 7 September 1940. © NMM|
Although London had been bombed on several previous occasions, the 'Blitz' proper began on Saturday 7 September 1940.
That day, 348 German bombers escorted by 617 fighters attacked the capital in the late afternoon, forming a 32-km (20-mile)-wide block of aircraft filling more than 2000 square kilometres (800 square miles) of sky.
In this video file, George Adams, a London lighterman, recalls the first night of the Blitz in September 1940. He was working on the river in the Upper Pool when the German bombs began to fall.
|Smoke from burning factories at Silvertown, 7 September 1940. © NMM|
During the raid 448 people were killed. The day became engraved on the memories of local residents as 'Black Saturday'.
Taken from a German aircraft, this photograph shows smoke rising from one of the many bombed factories in the North Woolwich and Silvertown areas.
|Looking towards the fires in the East End from Tower Bridge on 7 September 1940. © NMM|
Surrey docks ablaze
That night over 1000 bombs and thousands of incendiary devices caused widespread damage to the docks and industrial centres like Woolwich Arsenal and Beckton gasworks. The Germans also attempted to destroy the timber ponds in the Surrey Docks.
Many of the bombs were strapped to oil drums to aid the conflagration. The result was a firestorm in the docks that blazed from end to end for a whole week.
This photograph, taken during the night from near Tower Bridge, gives some idea of the intensity of the blaze.
Night of destruction
|Firemen tackling a blaze at the Surrey Docks, September 1940. © NMM|
The fire at the Surrey Docks was so hot that window glass in buildings far from the flames shattered in the heat and the strong winds that were generated.
Vessels passing along the far side of the river suffered blistered paintwork.
A third of the warehouses and transit sheds were destroyed.
The inferno at the docks eventually spread to cover 100 hectares (250 acres). Firemen from London and as far away as Bristol fought more than 40 separate fires. The largest fire at the Surrey Docks required 300 pumps to contain it.
|Burning warehouses at the Surrey Commercial Docks, September 1940. © NMM|
The opening night of the Blitz was observed by PLA official T. L. Mackie:
The daylight exposed a terrible scene; the greater part of the timber docks, like a barren smouldering wilderness and huge warehouses completely gutted.
| Bomb damage at the docks. © NMM.|
Ships which only a few hours ago had been discharging cargoes were torn by the blast and defaced by the fire. Some had been holed and sunk, showing only a small part above the water.
Steel girders were twisted to indescribable shapes and surviving masonry lay at dangerous angles.
Alas, this shambles proved to be
more than unsightly wreckage, for the bombs and fire had claimed toll of human life, and the bodies still lay amongst this charred debris.
Smells of Empire
Fires in the docks released the smells of the capital's imperial trade. One of the firemen recalled:
There were pepper fires, loading the surrounding air heavily with stinging particles so that when a fireman took a deep breath it felt like breathing fire itself.
|Smoke from the fires at the Surrey Docks, September 1940. © NMM|
There were rum fires, with torrents of blazing liquid pouring from the warehouse door and barrels exploding like bombs themselves.
There was a paint fire, another cascade of white hot flame, coating the pump with varnish that could not be cleaned off for weeks. A rubber fire gave forth black clouds of smoke that could only be fought from a
distance, always threatening to choke the attackers.