Have you ever heard the theory that the Blitz of 1940 was sparked by an accident? It is becoming commonly accepted that the German night bombing of London on Aug. 24, 1940 — in which the first bombs were dropped on the capital city — was due to a “blunder” of Luftwaffe pilots, who supposedly veered off course unintentionally and dropped bombs from two aircraft.
Winston Churchill famously retaliated by bombing Berlin in kind. Churchill thus has been accused of provoking Adolf Hitler into starting the Blitz. According to this theory, Hitler and his High Command until that point had just been aiming for “military targets” and had no intention of bombing civilians in London, and it was thus allegedly the fault of the British that the Blitz started.
Does this scenario sound a tad suspicious? Why would the Nazis, who bombed Guernica in 1937 and showed no regard for civilian life, actually not intend to start the Blitz? If any of those questions crossed your mind, it turns out you were right to be cautious.
The Accident Theory
The phrase that the Germans bombed London in late August “apparently by accident” has even made it into the Encyclopedia Britannica.
“Most reports state that the bombing of London was an accident, and that it was not a planned raid…. But can we really accept the fact that it really was an accident?” wrote the Battle of Britain Historical Society, noting several inconsistencies with the “accident” theory. They point out that different areas received bomb damage between 11 pm and 1:30 am on August 24 and 25, while others were bombed after 3 am on Aug. 25. “Clearly this was a separate raid,” notes the society. Furthermore, other areas were bombed between 11:50 pm on Aug. 24 and 12:30 pm on Aug. 25.
“Hardly the same raid as the initial one on London’s East End as this would indicate the German aircraft approaching from the west, nowhere near the proposed targets of Rochester and Thameshaven,” the society notes.
Churchill responded swiftly.
On the night of Aug. 25, the RAF bombed armament factories in Berlin and at the cities Tempelhof Airport.
Just one year prior, Hermann Göring proudly declared, “No enemy bomber can reach the Ruhr,” he assured the Luftwaffe. “If one reaches the Ruhr, my name is not Göring. You can call me Meyer.”
Meyer it was.
Several days later Churchill declared his intentions for the air war: “Let ‘em have it. Remember this. Never maltreat the enemy by halves.” However, at this stage of the war, the “them” he was referring to was military and industrial targets rather than city centers.
Beginning on Sept. 7, 1940, the German Luftwaffe pounded London, particularly in the East End where the dockyards were located. In the first 67 nights of the Blitz alone, an average of 160 bombers dropped 200 tons of high explosive bombs and 180 canisters of incendiary bombs.
The incendiary bombs produced large fires that caused the most damage to the factories and homes, while also lighting the way for other German airmen. Fire chiefs were asked to estimate how much damage their regions could attribute to fire. Their answers ranged from 80 to 98%, with 90% in London from the incendiaries.
Many of the ship and dockyard workers and their families lived near their place of work, so the total of homeless reached far greater numbers in this area than those living in London’s West End. Both British and German authorities classified a major raid as one in which more than a hundred tons of high-explosive bombs were dropped.
Despite this, Churchill maintained his policy of strategic bombing. When pressured by an MP in mid-October to resort to all-out bombing of German civilians, especially in Berlin, Churchill replied, “My dear sir, this is a military and not a civilian war. You and others may desire to kill women and children. We desire (and have succeeded in our desire) to destroy German military objectives. I quite appreciate your point. But my motto is ‘Business before pleasure.’”
The Big Reveal — From Goebbels’ Diary
Looking in the diary of Hitler’s propaganda minister Dr. Joseph Goebbels, we found proof that Hitler and Nazi leaders planned the night bombing of London on Aug. 24 well in advance and that the Germans already intended to bomb British civilians even before Churchill retaliated for the late August raid.
Goebbels was in constant close contact with Hitler and devised strategies for propaganda dissemination, which was a very important part of the Nazi war machine. He wrote in June 1940 that in preparation for war against England, he had four secret broadcast stations set up targeting the U.K. “using different frequencies, and always camouflaged as English [stations]” to mislead and demoralize the British.
Scribbling about evil plans in his diary, Goebbels makes it clear that Nazi leadership expected the British to continue fighting the war after the fall of France in 1940 and that plans for massive bombing against England, including against civilian targets, had already been made.
On July 3, 1940, Goebbels, describing Churchill as “a complete fool,” writes that: “England can be wrung to the ground in four weeks.” Days later on July 9, 1940, he gloated ominously: “It seems like the English have no clue what is in store for them,” and stated that London “should be crushed immediately.”
Goebbels wrote of the planned attack on London on Aug. 7: “The massive attack against England is planned for immediately. With Luftwaffe and long-range guns. A first ‘taste test’ for London.”
He added that the Germans planned to proceed with bombings in graduated steps to test British reaction, ratcheting up the pressure by degrees. “We will thus test how strong England’s air force is — or believes itself to be…If the losses we sustain are normal, then our action will proceed further.”
The intended scope of the bombing was to be kept secret. Goebbels described his goal of frightening people and bolstering spirits at home without revealing too much of Hitler’s plans. “German propaganda has the difficult task of not saying too much or too little during this action. We must not speak of the massive offensive,” he noted, “as long as we haven’t established yet whether it can be maintained…I am giving precise instructions only to the smallest circle of my coworkers.”
Plans continued to develop throughout August. The Germans deliberately took a subtle approach to test British nerves before deciding whether they could get away with more. On Aug. 14, Goebbels noted that the Luftwaffe was aiming for specifically designated targets — temporarily. They planned to take things further.
“In a few days, we will strike with the most massive revenge measures. Then we will leave English villages in rubble and ashes,” wrote Goebbels on Aug.14.
“A War Against Sleep”
On the day of Aug. 24 — before the first bombs were dropped on London that night — Goebbels ordered propaganda channels to remain silent as diversionary fire from long-range guns was launched at Dover. “The English are writing novels trying to lure something out of us [about our intentions]. But we are keeping noticeably silent,” Goebbels sneered, implying that the British weren’t expecting what would happen.
Bombs fell over London and killed civilians in the darkness on Aug. 24 and the wee hours of Aug. 25.
As the bombs began to fall in London that August evening, Churchill told Air Chief Marshal Newall, “Now that they have begun to molest the capital, I want you to hit them hard, and Berlin is the place to hit them.”
After British bombs had hit Berlin in response to the Aug. 24 raids, Goebbels had to leave his diary alone for a couple days. He obviously had some propaganda work to do to reassure a startled German public, since the Nazis hadn’t expected to get a proverbial sock in the nose from England so quickly in response to their blow at London. Hitler and his cronies temporarily bounced off the ropes.
Goebbels returned to his evil scribblings on Aug. 31. The diary entry evidences some surprise at the immediate British response, but there is no mention of any Luftwaffe “accident.” On the contrary, Goebbels described the Nazi plans for the bombing campaign more openly.
“We are leading a war against sleep. Hence these ceaseless bombardments,” he wrote of the London campaign. “England will probably not be able to withstand our air raids for very long. At least we believe and hope so…There will now be new night attacks against England, and then the devil will really be let loose.”
Obviously the late August raids on London had been intentional. Goebbels characterizes the night raids to follow as “new” ones — as in a continuation of a process — not as something unprecedented.
The Germans were now free to unleash what they had been planning — the all-out bombing of London, known as the Blitz.
Goebbels went on to praise the extent to which the Blitz was planned in advance in his entry on Sept. 11: “The reports from London are gruesome. An inferno of unimaginable proportions. The city is just like hell….Magnificently prepared. One has radiant joy at this organizational masterpiece.”
Watch Out For Pro-Nazi Myths
We don’t know who started the “accidental Blitz” narrative. It could be the result of mistakes in scholarship. But it’s worth pointing out that many misleading and erroneous narratives about World War II and the Nazi regime were planted deliberately.
Pro-Nazi apologists were very active in planting seeds of misinformation and spinning tall tales in the postwar era and throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, many former SS members went to work in the publishing industry after the war and devoted themselves to a new “mission” of rewriting themselves and the Nazi regime into history in a positive light. They took pains to have their works translated and disseminated in English. In fact, at the time of his death, infamous SS commander Jochen Peiper was working as a “military history” book translator. His preferred language to work with? English.
The war may have ended, but many Nazis survived it and their devotion to spreading propaganda continued. The same mindset that spread Goebbels’ propaganda from disguised radio stations to deceive English-speaking audiences was again directed at English-speaking consumers of military history after the war ended. Sadly this misinformation has spread over a span of several decades.
So, if you ever come across something that claims suspicious or jarring things along the lines of “the Nazis did not intend to do harm” of some type or that “the Allies were the ‘real’ bad guys of the war,” please do stop, think and question — and research.