Remembering the Blitz

The Blitz from IWM's Photography Collection series book cover
© IWM

From the autumn of 1940 the people of Britain faced almost unimaginable dangers. For months on end, nightfall brought droning aircraft overhead, showering towns and cities with bombs. Explosions ripped through homes and workplaces, and firebombs sparked devastating blazes.

By spring 1941, more than 40,000 people had been killed. For a period defined by sudden thunderous violence from the sky, the name ‘Blitz’ – from the German word for lightning – could hardly be more apt. Few people in Britain remember the nights the bombs fell.

As the Blitz – and indeed the Second World War as a whole – passes out of living memory and into history, it becomes more important to study and share the historic records of that time.

These striking photographs tell the stories of those who experienced the Blitz and highlight the bravery and determination of civilians in wartime Britain.

IWM's new book, The Blitz, documents the impact of the Blitz through a vivid collection of photographs from IWM's Collections. The book is available to buy from the IWM Shop

The first raid of the Blitz

A German Heinkel 111 bomber in flight over east London on 7 September 1940, in the first raid of the Blitz.
© IWM C_005422

A German Heinkel 111 bomber in flight over east London on 7 September 1940.

The Blitz formed a key phase in Britain’s experience of the Second World War. On 7 September 1940, the German Air Force – the Luftwaffe – made a large daylight attack on London.

Over the previous two months, the Luftwaffe had struggled to defeat the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain.

Believing that the preceding two months of intense aerial combat  had neutralised the Royal Air Force, the German Luftwaffe shifted its focus to attack Britain’s capital.

Nightly blackouts

Nightly blackouts at Piccadilly Circus in 1940 during the Blitz.
© IWM D (000712)
At London’s Piccadilly Circus in 1940, traffic passes the boarded-up statue of Eros during The Blitz.

To prevent enemy bombers locating towns by their lights, a nightly blackout was imposed, obliging people to curtain off their windows and plunging the streets into darkness.

With city street lights switched off and motorists required to shade their headlights, thousands of people were injured in night-time traffic accidents. 

Trench shelters

A trench shelter during the Blitz, waterlogged by rain, photographed in 1940, people sleep on hard, narrow benches.
© IWM D_001553

In a trench shelter waterlogged by rain, photographed in 1940, people sleep on hard, narrow benches.

When Britain prepared for war, air raids were expected to be brief and occur in daylight.

Councils distributed millions of gas masks, and erected public bomb shelters. Householders dug up their back gardens to install corrugated steel Anderson shelters.

Few shelters were designed to provide sleeping accommodation, and many were extremely uncomfortable.

Plymouth raids: 1940

Standing amid rubble, two young schoolboys watch a column of black oil smoke rise from a naval fuel depot at Turnchapel, near Plymouth, following a raid on 27 November 1940.
© IWM HU 140002

Standing amid rubble, two young schoolboys watch a column of black oil smoke rise from a naval fuel depot at Turnchapel, near Plymouth, following a raid on 27 November 1940.

In targeting Britain’s port cities – including London, Liverpool, Manchester, Hull, Glasgow, Belfast, Swansea, Bristol, Plymouth and others – German strategists hoped their bombers could impose an aerial blockade, complementing the efforts at sea of the German Navy’s submarine captains, preying upon British merchant ships.

As a south-coast port housing the vital Devonport naval base, Plymouth was raided repeatedly.

Manchester raids: Christmas 1940

Firemen fight fires in the centre of Manchester during the Blitz after two nights of raids.
© IWM H_006324

Here firemen fight fires in the centre of the city.

Manchester was heavily bombed shortly before Christmas 1940. In two nights of raids almost 700 people were killed, and more than 8,000 homes destroyed or rendered uninhabitable. 

Glasgow: 1941

Glaswegian civilians in Clydebank during the Blitz, 1941. They pass bombed tenement houses. A woman pushes a pram laden with suitcases.
© IWM HU 036232

Glaswegian civilians pass bombed tenement houses in 1941. 35,000 people were rendered homeless. A woman pushes a pram laden with suitcases.

In March 1941, Glasgow and neighbouring Clydebank in Scotland were bombed.

Despite being far from the Luftwaffe’s air bases, Glasgow was hit by more than 900 tonnes of bombs and incendiaries. In Clydebank 35,000 people were rendered homeless.

Bombing in Liverpool: 1942

A panorama of bomb damage in Liverpool, taken in 1942. The two towers of the city’s famous Royal Liver Building can be seen on the skyline.
© IWM 005984

The two towers of the city’s famous Royal Liver Building can be seen on the skyline.

A panorama of bomb damage in Liverpool, taken in 1942. A key port, Liverpool was the most heavily bombed British city after London, struck by almost 3,000 tonnes of high explosive bombs and 300 tonnes of incendiaries. 


 

Wildflowers

Woman picks flowers on a bombsite near St Paul’s Cathedral. Bombed buildings were fertile ground for wildflowers.
© IWM HU 110876A

Woman picks flowers on a bombsite near St Paul’s Cathedral.

Bombed buildings were fertile ground for wildflowers, and rosebay willowherb became so widespread that people called it ‘bombweed’.

Wildflowers attracted insects and unusual bird species, such as black redstarts and wheatears, which would nest among broken buildings.

A pivotal period of modern British history

More than 30,000 tonnes of bombs and incendiaries were dropped on Britain between 1940 and 1941, killing more than 40,000 people. But a single bomb could cause incomprehensible personal tragedy. In London in October 1940, a member of a stretcher party carries a bundle containing a dead baby.
© IWM HU 131368

In London in October 1940, a member of a stretcher party carries a bundle containing a dead baby.

The Blitz was a pivotal period of modern British history. Its memory – of solidarity, common effort, sacrifice and courage – has been frequently invoked by politicians and journalists.

More than 30,000 tonnes of bombs and incendiaries were dropped on Britain between 1940 and 1941, killing more than 40,000 people. But a single bomb could cause incomprehensible personal tragedy.

The Blitz is available to buy now from the IWM Shop

It is the sixth title in the IWM Photography Collection series. Purchase other titles in the series below: 

IWM Photography Collection series

Books
The Spitfire
£12.99
Books
Animals in Wartime
£12.99
Books
The Royal Family in Wartime
£12.99
Books
Cecil Beaton
£12.99

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