During the Second World War, the Germans started a range of strategic bombing missions across Britain. The worst of the bombing raids came to be known as the Blitz. This is an abbreviation of the German word “blitzkrieg”, or lightning strike.
Starting in 1940, the Blitz devastated many major cities in the country – London came under particular pressure and, at height of the Blitz, the city suffered from over 70 major air raids across 37 days. The Blitz lasted from the 7th September 1940 until the 11th May 1941.
The East End of London and the Blitz
The Blitz started almost by accident – the Germans did not intend to blanket-bomb the city to start with. German bombers on a raid flew off course in August 1940 and, instead of bombing RAF bases, accidentally bombed civilian homes in London. The British government retaliated with bombing raids on Berlin and the Germans started a concentrated attack on our cities after that. Attacks were no longer simply targeted at strategic areas, but now allowed bombers to hit civilian and populated areas. The East End of London suffered a great deal of damage in this period.
Why was the East End Vulnerable in the Blitz?
During the Second World War, the East End was the docklands centre of London. It was one of the areas that could also run supply chains to the rest of the country. If you disabled the docks, you seriously damaged the local and national economy and reduced the city’s capacity for war production. You would also do a lot to sap morale and to reduce the spirits of the civilian population.
The main areas of interest to the Germans in the East End were places that contained key industrial, storage or docklands industries. They targeted the gas works at Beckton and all of the docklands areas that ran along the East End. It is thought that around a third of all of Britain’s overseas industry passed through the London docks at this time, making it a logical target for the Germans who wanted to close down our war efforts and supply chains.
Historically, the East End has also been densely populated. The area attracted people who wanted to work in the docks and in local industries, and many lived close to their places of work. Many lived in closely packed tenement buildings, within striking distance of the docks, factories and warehouses. A bomb on a factory might do more damage than simply put the factory out of action. It could also potentially damage or destroy a lot of housing and smaller local businesses. It also led to high civilian casualties.
It is thought that the first deliberate bombing raids during the Blitz were targeted at the Port of London and docklands East End. Operation Loge, as the Germans called it, started on the 7th September 1940 and lasted for over 50 nights. It is estimated that over 107,000 tonnes of shipping was damaged in the Thames, 400 people were killed and 1,600 were injured in these attacks alone. By the end of the raid, nine miles of the city’s docklands areas, including the large stretch that runs along the East End were burning.
To Londoners, Operation Loge became known as “Black Saturday”. The initial attack started on the 7th September and lasted for around twelve hours. It is estimated that German bombers dropped 625 tons of bombs and thousands of incendiary devices during this day alone.
Incendiary devices could cause a particular amount of damage, especially to older buildings. One German bomber could carry up to 700 devices, which were contained in canisters. The canisters opened when they were released, dropping dozens of small individual bombs that went off on impact. Many would lodge on roofs, making it hard for fire-fighters to get to them before they caused significant damage. This led many Eastenders to clear out their roof spaces to try and contain potential fires.
East London WW2 Devastation
The devastation across the East End, to both civilians and military targets was so great that Winston Churchill made a visit to the area to assess the damage for himself on September 8th. When Buckingham Palace was bombed on September 13th, Queen Elizabeth commented that she was glad they had been bombed as she felt that she could now look the East End in the face.
Although the East End was damaged by other raids outside of the Blitz, this period was responsible for much of the damage in the area during the war. By the time the war was over, parts of the area had been razed to the ground; other parts suffered from significant damage to housing and business premises. It is thought that tens of thousands of East End homes were destroyed or so badly damaged that they were uninhabitable. It took many years to regenerate the area and to rebuild its housing and infrastructure.