Published: October 24, 2016
German aircraft dropped 10,000 bombs on London on this date in one of the worst nights ever during the Battle of Britain.
The nearly four months-long Second World War aerial conflict had been predicted in the summer of that year by Prime Minister Winston Churchill in one of his most famous speeches. He told MPs in the House of Commons:
“The Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire.
“The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.
“But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age.
“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour".
Hitler had ordered preparations be made for Operation Sealion – the invasion of Britain. To accomplish it, he demanded that “the Royal Air Force must be eliminated to such an extent that it will be incapable of putting up any sustained opposition to the invading troops.”
And so, as well as attacking shipping convoys, ports and coastal radar stations, the German Luftwaffe made destruction of the RAF its first priority, bombing aircraft bases and communication networks – always in the face of dogged resistance from British Spitfire pilots.
Had this policy continued, the outcome of the war could have been quite different. But in late August, during a night raid, a lost German bomber formation dropped bombs on London by mistake. In retaliation, the RAF next day launched their first bombing raid on Berlin.
Hitler, frustrated by the RAF’s resistance and enraged by its bombing of Berlin, then vowed to destroy London and the spirit of its people. And so the Luftwaffe shifted its focus from attacking aircraft bases to bombing the British capital and other cities.
Though thousands of civilians were to die and countless buildings were to be razed to the ground, the change of German tactics was something like the answer to a prayer for British Fighter Command.
Almost on its knees by this time, the RAF was given time to rebuild its depleted aircraft stocks as newly trained pilots set about proving their superiority in aerial dogfights across the country.
The rejuvenated air force went on to dominate the skies over Britain, forcing Hitler to abandon his invasion plans.
And it was Churchill, once again, who memorably caught the emotion of the time as he paid tribute to the fighter pilots. He told Parliament:
“The gratitude of every home in our island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unweakened by their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of world war by their prowess and their devotion.
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”