The 80th anniversary of the start of the London Blitz (7 September 1940 – 10/11 May 1941), during the Second World War, is being remembered nationally from Monday 7 September 2020.
The London Blitz
On ‘Black Saturday’ 7 September 1940, at around 4pm, and lasting for two hours, nearly 1000 German bombers and fighter escorts of Hitler’s Luftwaffe were seen attacking from the skies over London. Two hours later, guided by the fires set by the first assault, a second group of raiders commenced another attack that lasted until 4:30 the following morning. On this first day, 430 were killed and 1,600 injured in the capital. This was the start of what became known as the ‘Blitz’ (‘Lightning’ in German), a term was first used by the British press. The enemy’s intense bombing campaign of London and other cities continued until the following May and, for the next consecutive 57 days, the capital was bombed each day or night.
London was bombed significantly at night, but daytime attacks were frequent too. In October 1940, Islington’s rescue service attended 131 incidents, the most in one night being 32. Records show that 206 people were recovered alive, with 83 deceased. Rescue operations to retrieve casualties could take several hours or even days to complete and were sometimes performed whilst raids were still in progress.
Battle of Britain
During the previous two months, the Battle of Britain had taken place in a fight for daylight air superiority between the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force (RAF) over the United Kingdom. The Luftwaffe had attempted to destroy RAF airfields and radar stations in preparation for German invasion. This campaign had failed and, instead, Hitler turned his attention to destroying London in an attempt to demoralise and destabilise the population and force the British to come to terms.
While Londoners, including the residents of Islington and Finsbury, had experienced German aerial bombardment during the First World World, nothing had prepared them for the sheer devastation that was to come. Fires from incendiary bombs consumed many portions of the city. Residents and workers sought shelter in many places, including their own back-garden ‘Andersen’ shelters, communal shelters, underground stations, school basements and church crypts.
Nearly 30,000 London civilians were killed in the Blitz and later raids during the Second World War; nearly two-thirds of this figure during the London Blitz. From 7 September 1940 onwards, businesses, churches, public houses, schools, housing estates and residences were reduced to rubble. The blackout cast well-lit streets into darkness, and local anti-aircraft guns and searchlights brought the war firmly home to the capital’s citizens. As the Luftwaffe’s Blitz raids of 1940 spread to other cities, including Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Coventry, Glasgow, Hull, Liverpool and Southampton, the civilian population of Britain found itself under siege as never before. In just nine months they, along with Londoners, witnessed the landscape and the character of their cities change beyond all recognition.
The Blitz in Islington
A few weeks before the official start of the Blitz, Islington had, in fact, witnessed a random air attack when bombs fell on Canonbury Park North and vicinity during the late evening of Saturday 24 August 1940. Fortunately, only one casualty was reported, a Warden who was wounded by bomb fragments in the left shoulder. Another bomb fell at the rear of the house at the corner of Willowbridge Road but without much effect. In opposition, the first raid by the RAF on Berlin took place the following night. However, from September onwards, the Blitz was to turn the Islington and Finsbury Home Front into a battlefield.
Preparations for likely air bombardment began prior to the Second World War, with the British government providing air-raid shelters to families for free or for a small fee, depending on their income. Over the course of the war, shelters would take a number of forms and provide security for the citizens of Islington and Finsbury. Read more …
Bomb damage and destruction
The Second World War turned the home front into a battlefront. On 7 September 1940, Dornier and Heinkel bombers, escorted by Messerschmidt fighter planes, began bombarding London. Islington and Finsbury would come under fire … Read more…
Islington and Finsbury swing into action
As part of war preparations, volunteers were trained in civil defence duties to warn or respond to attacks. Many Islington and Finsbury civilians became members of the Heavy Rescue Service, Air Raid Wardens, Home Guard members, firefighters, first-aiders and ambulance drivers, who would provide invaluable assistance to their community once war began. Read more…
Learn about Islington’s rescue and air-raid services during the Blitz in a first-hand account by the borough’s Islington Town Clerk and ARP Controller W. Eric Adams.
Finsbury Under Attack (1939-45)
Like many parts of inner London, Finsbury suffered badly from bombings during the Blitz (1940-41) and, again later, as part of the V1 and V2 rocket attacks on the capital from the summer of 1944 onwards. Given its proximity to the City of London, Finsbury’s residents lived with the threat of bombing and untimely death. However, in spite of fatalities, an uncertain future and much hardship, Finsburyites kept calm and carried on. The constant bombings were designed to break morale but conversely brought people together. Read more …
The German destroyer in Finsbury
Just weeks after the start of the Blitz, a captured Messerschmitt Bf 110, shot down by a RAF Hurricane fighter during the Battle of Britain, was displayed outside Finsbury Town Hall, Garnault Place, in October 1940. It became the most photographed Luftwaffe plane of WW2. Read more …
Also, find out about the Islington Spitfire, bought with funds raised by Islington citizens and businesses. Read more …
Islington and the last night of the Blitz
While London was regularly attacked, the ferocity of some raids far exceeded others. On the night of 10/11 May 1941, London was hit by the most devastating and largest raid on London during the Blitz. In total, 711 tons of high explosive, along with 2,393 incendiary bombs, were dropped on the city, with 1,436 civilians losing their lives in that one raid alone.
The night found the rescue services once again fully extended, with Islington’s rescue services operating at nine major incidents including one at Pentonville Prison, where a string of high-explosive bombs scored a direct hit on the prison’s C-Wing. The attack on the prison killed 13 people, as well as many more across across Islington and Finsbury. Read more …
During the Blitz, London suffered from heavy casualties and severe damage, with the worst affected areas being the East End and London Docks. In Islington and Finsbury, between 7 September 1940 and 11 May 1941, nearly 800 civilians were killed due to enemy aircraft attacks. A further 660-plus died in ad-hoc raids and V-rocket attacks between 1941 and 1945, totalling 1464 casualties for the two former boroughs. Here are a few other statistics:
- The first person to die from enemy air attack in Islington on the very first day of the London Blitz (7 September 1940) was Frederick Rose (45) of 71 Wray Crescent. He was caught in a raid on Axminster Road and died later in the Royal Northern Hospital, Holloway.
- The youngest person to be killed in a raid was six-week-old John Price who, with his mother Mabel (35), died on 17 April 1941 in Great Percy Street, Finsbury.
- The oldest person to be killed in a raid was 96-year-old Emma Henesey (born 1842) of 42 College Cross. Emily died in the College Cross attack on 9 October 1940 and was also Islington’s oldest war casualty on the Home Front during the Second World War.
- The worst incident during the Blitz on Islington and Finsbury occurred on 15 October 1940. It was reported that over 100 men, women and children died after being trapped in the basement shelter of the Dame Alice Owen School, Goswell Road, near Angel. Many families perished in the attack, with up to five from the same household dying in the horrific incident.
To find out more about people who died during the Blitz, and later raids on Islington and Finsbury, visit the Islington Online Book of Remembrance. You may also leave a personal tribute to all individuals associated with Islington who fell as a result of conflict (1899-1950).
[All images Islington Local History Centre, except where stated]
- The Blitz Period in Islington (1940-41) by W. Eric Adams (1946)
- Islington on the Home Front during the Second World War
- Islington and the Last Night of the Blitz (10/11 May 1941)
- We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs (1939-45) exhibition
- We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs (1939-45) presentation
- Second World War Resources at Islington Local History Centre
Compiled by Mark Aston
Islington Local History Centre | Islington Museum
Islington Heritage Service