Adding to Fighter Command’s difficulties that day, the arrival of large numbers of barges in the Belgian ports had led many to conclude that the German invasion might be imminent and that the big German raid building up was the opening move, thus further deflecting attention from what was actually happening. The German tactics were also designed to confuse the British. The huge bomber force crossed the coast to the southeast of London at a much higher altitude than usual, and at many different points, to confuse the radar operators about the direction of the attack. Then it reassembled at an altitude of about 16,000 feet and followed the Thames estuary directly toward RAF Kenley, Biggin Hill, and Croydon, which were in any case what Dowding and Park assumed were the targets; but having flown beyond Croydon it suddenly turned back toward London’s East End. The approach to No. 11 Group’s crucial Sector airfields was well protected, but the approach to London was not, and it was too late to change that—at first, Park could put in only four squadrons of fighters against the great mass of German bombers and fighters. Even veteran fighter pilots were amazed when they came into view of these aircraft. “It was a breathtaking sight,” one of them commented later. “You couldn’t help feeling you’d never again see anything as remarkable as that.” Another said, “I’d never seen so many aircraft,” and this was a common reaction among the pilots, the radar plotters, and the observers on the ground. Nobody had ever before seen so many aircraft gathered into one carefully organized formation, so numerous that they seemed unstoppable. As five o’clock in the afternoon approached, they were obviously headed for the East End of London, with its docks, warehouses, factories, endless rows of small homes, and sprawling tenements—perhaps the most densely populated urban target in the world.
The initial fighter attacks were pressed home with vigor, but there was no way that four squadrons of British fighters could deter or break up so big and well-defended a mass of aircraft, let alone prevent them from bombing. The best Fighter Command could do was to attack the Germans as they withdrew to the north over London, then turned east over the sea to fly back to their bases. Between four-twenty and five o’clock, Dowding managed to get twenty-one squadrons into the air, including Douglas Bader’s controversial “Duxford Wing” of three squadrons, but the hard fighting did not begin until the bombs were already falling on the East End.
They fell on the London docks, Limehouse, Tower Bridge, Woolwich, Bermondsey, Tottenham, Barking, Hackney, Rotherhithe, and Stepney, they destroyed the Harland and Wolff factory, oil refineries, and warehouses; they damaged a gasworks, the Battersea Power Station, and the oil storage tanks at Thameshaven, which had been hit the day before; they forced “the entire population of Silvertown, surrounded by raging infernos . . . to be evacuated by water.” By the end of the day 306 civilian Londoners were dead and 1,337 were seriously wounded; whole neighborhoods were turned into “raging infernos”; train lines, tram lines, gas and water mains, sewer lines, and electricity and telephone cables were cut all over east London; three main railway stations were seriously damaged and put out of operation; whole streets were reduced to rubble; buses and trams were crumpled sheet metal; and a dense pall of smoke, grit, and burned oil spread over all London, mixed with an occasionally more pungent smell as vast quantities of tobacco and liquor in the burning bonded warehouses by the docks went up in flames. Contrary to the predictions of von Ribbentrop, there was no sign of panic. Even so professional a judge of class warfare as Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador to the United Kingdom, noted not only the scale of destruction but the calm behavior of those who were bombed. Stoically and patiently, East Enders, Jewish and gentile, abandoned their ruined homes and burning possessions, and threaded their way through the bomb craters and rubble to be looked after by organized volunteers.
During the night of September 7–8 the Luftwaffe came back, almost 300 bombers strong, and dropped more than 300 tons of high explosive bombs and nearly 500 incendiary bombs on the already gutted neighborhoods of the East End, guided to their target by the flames still rising from the oil storage tanks, refineries, and broken gas mains. In the streets below, no fewer than nine “major conflagrations” were being battled by about 600 fire engines, and most of the firemen (and volunteer firemen)* and emergency workers of greater London.
That evening Göring called his wife, Emmy, in Berlin to tell her triumphantly, “London is in flames.” A more perceptive comment came from the distinguished American journalist James Reston, then the correspondent of the New York Times in London, who cabled to his paper that night: “One simply cannot praise the average man here too highly. Out of history and environment of these past 1,000 years he has inherited a quality of courage which is a true inspiration. . . . One simply cannot convey the spirit of these people. Adversity only angers and strengthens them. They are tough in a way we Americans seldom understand. That curious gentility among their menfolk confuses us. We underestimate them. . . . The British people can hold out to the end.” 9 Hitler had made the great mistake of choosing London as the target, instead of Fighter Command, and the result would be not only a propaganda victory for the British, who were suddenly proving to the world that they “could take it,” but a real victory for Fighter Command.
That same night, while fires still blazed in London from the raid during the day, the Chiefs of Staff, after studying the photographs taken of the German barges and naval vessels and reviewing the latest intercepts of German radio and cable traffic, finally issued the dreaded code word “Cromwell”—the warning that an invasion was expected imminently. All over southern England, members of the Home Guard mustered and were issued live ammunition; the army was placed on full alert; church bells were rung; and in some places, with, to echo the words of Talleyrand, trop de zèle, roads were blocked, and a few strategic bridges were blown up by overenthusiastic sappers of the Royal Engineers.
But when morning came, the seas remained empty, the beaches were untouched by the boots of German infantry, and no swarms of parachute troops had landed at strategic points. Fighter Command had lost twenty-eight aircraft, with nineteen pilots killed or missing. The Germans had lost forty-one aircraft—thirty less than the RAF claimed, but still a substantial number, and a considerable improvement over the days earlier in the month when losses on both sides were about equal.