Everyone would remember the weather. On the afternoon of Saturday, September 7, 1940, “one of the fairest days of the century, a day of clear warm air and high blue skies,” as the novelist William Sansom recalled, 348 German bombers and more than 600 Messerschmitt fighters set off from northern France for England. Goering, who had arrived the day before to take direct command of the mission, watched from the cliffs of Cap Gris Nez as the planes formed up over the Channel. At 4:14, the first aircraft were over the English coast, and British spotters assumed that this unusually large bomber stream would soon disperse to attack the usual targets—airfields, sector stations, oil installations. But as it flew westward over Kent and Sussex the fleet remained intact, forming a block 20 miles wide. Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, at tea in the garden of their country house in Kent, saw the planes—the most concentrated force arrayed against Britain since the Spanish Armada—“coming over in wave after wave.” Farther west, in the countryside just outside London, the American newspaperman Ben Robertson watched the bombers as they “flew at a very great height, glistening like beautiful steel birds in the afternoon sunshine.” Minutes later, London—a city that, as he wrote, “had taken thirty generations of men a thousand years to build”—was burning. The first raid ended at 6:10, but two hours later more than 300 additional bombers came for a second attack, which lasted until 4:30 the next morning.
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In the preceding weeks, the Germans had made some “nuisance raids” over London, but now, for the first time, the city was subjected to sustained assault. All night the Luftwaffe circled, pummeling the docklands and their adjacent working-class neighborhoods with high-explosive and incendiary bombs. London had never suffered such fires, even during the Great Fire of 1666. Those who witnessed that night would consistently recall how the sky glowed blood-red. For Londoners, “Black Saturday” began a test of endurance for which there was no precedent: the Blitz. The bombers would come back for 76 of the next 77 nights, and the Luftwaffe’s steady campaign against London would continue until the final and bloodiest attack of the Blitz, on May 10, 1941.
In The First Day of the Blitz, the Stanford historian Peter Stansky fluently chronicles the day’s events, placing them in the wider context of Britain’s home front and the history of the Blitz (only two of the book’s nine chapters actually focus on the narrow subject of its title). No matter how smooth his storytelling, though, this book can’t help but be largely superfluous. The reason the path of the Luftwaffe’s bombers can be traced literarily is that so many writers were scribbling away on the ground. After all, with the exception of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, which encompasses both the London scene and various military misadventures, the best literature to emerge from the British experience in the Second World War concerns not the battlefield but London at war: Nicolson’s wartime diaries, Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn and columns for the Tribune and Partisan Review, Henry Green’s Caught, Graham Greene’s Ministry of Fear and The End of the Affair, Elizabeth Bowen’s wartime stories and The Heat of the Day, Waugh’s Put Out More Flags, Anthony Powell’s The Valley of Bones, The Soldier’s Art, and The Military Philosophers. Moreover, throughout the conflict hundreds of literate and well-spoken Londoners wrote vivid diaries and letters or were quoted in interviews. Or their utterances and actions were secretly written down and assessed: officialdom, in its efforts to keep its citizens productive and healthy and to monitor their morale, collected information of unprecedented depth and range about their everyday lives. And since the war, beginning in 1950 with the pathbreaking sociologist Richard M. Titmuss’s Problems of Social Policy—a volume in Britain’s official history of the conflict and a tour de force whose soporific title belies its often disturbing contents—historians have probed, revised, and re-revised nearly every aspect of this self-defined finest hour of the British people.
The upshot, as Angus Calder wrote in his seminal 1991 The Myth of the Blitz, is that “no archive of such abundance exists for any other ‘major event’ in British history.” (Calder’s biography proves his point: he’s the son of the journalist Ritchie Calder, author of Carry On London, perhaps the best-known of several contemporaneously published reports of the Blitz.) So it’s not surprising that, like most Blitz books, Stansky’s retails timeworn anecdotes and quotes oft-quoted accounts. Most readers should probably turn instead to Philip Ziegler’s London at War or Constantine FitzGibbon’s classic The Winter of the Bombs, the two best general histories, which give as detailed a chronicle of Black Saturday as all but the Blitz-afflicted could desire, and which lack Stansky’s clumsy, jejune efforts to make the Blitz relevant to post-9/11 readers (“terror is frequently counterproductive and strengthens the resolve of those who are attacked”). Still, Stansky’s approach has its rewards. By focusing on the opening of the struggle, the book illuminates the ironies, paradoxes, and unintended consequences that marked the Blitz—and reminds us that those elements always lie at the heart of history.
To the British experiencing it, September 7 wasn’t the first day of the Blitz; it was the 60th day of the Battle of Britain—the struggle between the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force for air supremacy over the Channel and southern Britain, which Germany needed in order to launch an invasion. By that day, the contest had entered its decisive period. As the Luftwaffe concentrated its assault on Fighter Command’s airfields and communications centers, the RAF was close to breaking. Moreover, Germany had massed its troop- carrying barges across the Channel, and all intelligence pointed to an impending invasion—an event the British chiefs of staff assumed would be preceded by an intense air attack on London. As the Luftwaffe bombed the East End, the chiefs of staff meeting in Whitehall a few miles away focused on what they believed to be the immediate and dire implications of the assault. So they issued the ominous code word “Cromwell,” meaning that invasion was imminent and that troops should take up their battle stations. For soldiers and civilians in southeast England, the dominant memory of that night was less the terrible glow in the western sky than the predawn explosions as the British blew up their own bridges to slow the anticipated German advance, and the almost medieval sound of church bells ringing the alarm over the countryside in the middle of the night.
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The attack on London in fact marked a shift in Hitler’s strategy, away from using the Luftwaffe to destroy Britain’s air defenses directly—and that shift relieved Fighter Command of the unrelenting pressure and unsustainable losses it had borne. In retrospect, then, although Black Saturday signaled destruction and chaos for London, it quite possibly brought Britain’s deliverance, as Hugh Dowding, the chief of Fighter Command, later recognized: “I could hardly believe the Germans would have made such a mistake … it was a supernatural intervention … [September 7] was really the crucial day.”