Coming to the fore now was the Communist newspaper, the Daily Worker. Consistently, and for several years - since the bombing of cities in the Spanish Civil War - it had been variously warning and complaining about the inadequacies in the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) policies. In particular, it wanted to see a network of deep - i.e., bomb-proof - shelters in London and other cities. And, with significant raids on London and Midland cities, the paper was quick to resume its attack on the government for its lack of shelter provision.
Nevertheless, the morning was quiet, although the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) was keeping a close watch on German invasion preparations. For some days now, it had been concerned about the barge movements to the Channel ports. Judging that the Germans would not bring these vessels within range of RAF attacks unless they were about to be used, it decided to warn the Chiefs of Staff that they considered an invasion "imminent". Alan Brooke wrote: "All reports look like invasion getting nearer". Fighter Command issued a warning to all units.
Park would normally have been at his post in his Uxbridge bunker, especially if big raids were expected, but this day he left command to his controllers. Should a raid develop, his instructions were that they should keep their fighters well back from the coast in order to guard the airfields and factories. He had then left for a meeting with Dowding to discuss pilot strengths.
The quiet did not last. In France, a heavy, armoured train had rolled into the Channel coast railway station of La Boissière le Déluge, just outside Calais. From it had emerged Reichsmarschall Goering. Flanked by Field Marshal Kesselring and General Loerzer, commander of II Air Corps, he made his way to the cliffs and stood there as his air fleets thundered overhead on their way to London.
Just before 5 p.m., 348 bombers, Heinkels, Dorniers and Junkers, escorted by 617 Messerschmitt fighters, converged on London in three deadly waves. As they merged, they formed a 20-mile wide block, filling 800 square miles of sky. It was undoubtedly the most concentrated assault against Britain since the Spanish Armada. On this day of all days, there were no clues as to its destination until it had almost arrived, by which time the fighter squadrons were poorly placed to intercept. The Observer Corps did not realize what was happening until the leading edge of the raid had reached its destination.
Even so, the RAF was able to bring down some German aircraft. But the defence was very limited. There was very little anti-aircraft fire as guns had been sent to protect the airfields. There were only ninety-two "heavies" available. Most of the raiders had come in between Dungeness and the Isle of Wight. Sound-locators, largely concentrated along the estuary approach, were either outflanked or swamped by the large number of aircraft. In addition, communications failed between many of the vital points. Many guns did not go into action at all.
As the reports from his bomber crews came in, a triumphant Goering rushed to a specially equipped mobile studio and broadcast to the German nation on this "historic" moment. "As a result of the provocative British attacks on Berlin on recent nights", he said, "the Führer has decided to order a mighty blow to be struck in revenge against the capital of the British Empire". Making clear his role, he declared: "I personally have assumed leadership of this attack, and today have heard above me the roaring of the victorious German squadrons which now, for the first time, are driving towards the heart of the enemy in full daylight, accompanied by countless fighter squadrons".
Shocked and frightened East Enders voted with their feet. There was a mass exodus in two directions. Some went eastwards to Epping Forest and the open country of Essex, where thousands camped out in makeshift shelters. Others headed west, towards the centre of London, where it was believed shelters were deep and safe and the bombing less severe.
In dangerously overcrowded Tube stations, individual displays of leadership, such as from an anonymous railway porter at Monument Station, kept the crowds moving. One group which emerged at Oxford Circus made for the shelter in Dickins and Jones, one of the larger department stores. Police attempted to prevent people queuing for shelter. Firmly, but without violence, they were brushed aside. The police returned, then to organize the queue people had formed. Their endeavours were punctuated by occasional flashes of humour which undoubtedly relieved the tension.
What made events almost surreal – certainly for those who were there – was that "Black Saturday" had started off as such a beautiful day. Rarely for London at the time, the temperature had been in the 90s. And although everyone knew bombs might fall, there was no awareness that there would be a seismic shift in the course of the war on that day.
This made it a day not only for death and destruction, but one for mystery and conspiracy. Early press reports, in the New York Times for instance, noted that "the all-out aerial warfare threatened by Hitler the previous week appeared to be in full swing as his bombers raided England by day and by night". The link between his speech on 4 September and the raid seemed obvious – and Goering had declared as much. This was Hitler's revenge.
On the ground, the results were inevitable. One reporter and novelist, Mea Allen wrote in a letter: "You felt you really were walking with death – death in front of you and death hovering in the skies". This was London's first experience of total war and, as it later emerged, there was almost a sense that it wouldn't happen – a real sense of complacency that caught the RAF, the government and the defenders napping. When the aircraft were first heard it was thought they were British – until the bombs began to fall. Len Jones, an 18-year-old in Poplar, a working-class district in London targeted because of its warehouses and gasworks, remembered his reactions. There was that sense with terror that it is not really going to happen:
That afternoon around five o'clock, I went outside the house. I'd heard the aircraft and it was very exciting, because the first formations were coming over without any bombs dropping, but very, very majestic; terrific. And I had no thought that they were actually bombers. Then from that point on I was well aware, because bombs began to fall and shrapnel was going along King Street, dancing off the cobbles. Then the real impetus came, in so far as the suction and the compression from the high explosive blasts just pulled you and pushed you, and the whole of this atmosphere was turbulating so hard.That sense, that it was not really going to happen, a sense of disbelief, was echoed later in Home Intelligence reports. Questions were asked as to whether London's defences had been as effective "as has been supposed", with the conviction that there had been a false sense of security, buoyed by a belief in government propaganda.
When the day bombers had finished, the night shift took over, feeding and extending the fires started by the first waves. Shortly after midnight, London Fire Brigade recorded nine conflagrations needing 100 pumps, 19 fires requiring 30 pumps or more, 40 fires requiring 10 pumps each and 1,000 lesser fires. In the Surrey Commercial Docks alone were two fires requiring 300 pumps each and one requiring 130 pumps.
In Woolwich Arsenal, 200 pumps were required. By the time the bombers had done their work, 306 lay dead in the capital, with another 1,337 seriously injured. A further 142 had been killed in the suburbs – the total only a hundred short of the number of pilots killed in combat in the entire Battle of Britain.
The raids should not have come as a great surprise. Apart from being flagged up in Hitler's speech, London was Britain's premier port. Already, the Luftwaffe had attacked Liverpool, Bristol, Plymouth, Southampton, Dover, Hull and the north-eastern ports, right up to Aberdeen. On this day, the attack was not on London as a city but London as a port. The move had been entirely logical.
Furthermore, while there was obviously and rightly much focus on the human suffering, proportionate to tonnage of bombs and the duration of the raids, the casualty rate was relatively modest. During the First World War, on 13 June 1917, 14 Gotha bombers, in their first ever daylight raid, had dropped bombs weighing 5,400kg on the East End. In all 104 people had been killed, 154 seriously injured and 269 slightly injured – some as a result of anti-aircraft shells exploding prematurely or on their return to the ground.
This time round, property damage was extensive and, proportionately, casualties were lighter. The effect on port operations was serious. Few ships were sunk, one of them the tug Beckton. But at least twenty-four were damaged, many badly enough to prevent them sailing. Others were to sustain repeated damaged. With damage to the dock facilities, the cranes, the barges and the warehouses, the Luftwaffe had dealt a powerful blow to the British economy.
All this had been achieved for the loss of thirty-seven aircraft. Fighter Command had lost twenty-two, and Bomber Command one. As to the morale of the population, and in particular London, that was another question. Over the next few days, engineering a collapse seemed, for the Germans, the most promising way of ending the war quickly.
On the receiving end, things looked ominous. As bombers were pummelling London, the coded warning "Cromwell" was sent to Army and some Home Guard Units. Church bells were rung, some bridges were blown up and forces throughout the south-east went on high alert. Many Home Guard units spent an anxious and uncomfortable night, expecting by morning to see grey-uniformed soldiers storming up the beaches. They did not come.