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Unexploded parachute bomb in Chingford

​Unexploded parachute bomb in Chingford

The Luftwaffe's Last Attack on London

Historical events which are frequently mentioned in passing, but never explored in any depth or detail, always arouse curiosity. One such event is the Little Blitz on London in the early part of 1944, briefly mentioned in most accounts of the aerial war against the United Kingdom during the Second World War, but seldom deemed worthy of more than a few lines.  John Conen uses archive sources at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) to explore this series of bombing raids and reveals rather more serious outcomes than might be expected, and a certain degree of underestimation and understatement of the effects, and an exaggeration of the ineffectiveness of the Luftwaffe’s attack. Even the worst incident of the Little Blitz - the disaster at the Guinness flats in Chelsea, in which over seventy people died - had never merited more than a sentence in accounts of the air attack on London, until Donald Wheal’s 2005 autobiography World’s End brought it vividly to life.

The Little Blitz is the name applied to the air raids which were the manifestation of the Luftwaffe’s Operation Steinbock, planned in the last few months of 1943 and put into effect from the middle of January 1944. The alternative ‘Baby Blitz’ is occasionally used, notably by Basil Collier in the official history The Defence of the UK. The raids mainly targeted London, which suffered thirteen quite substantial raids, but the impact on the other locations affected was very small in comparison. These raids were spread out over three months and the continuous nightly ordeal suffered in1940-41 was not replicated.

Operation Steinbock was born out of the strong desire in Germany for revenge and retribution engendered by the devastating RAF raids on Germany in 1943. The Little Blitz was never really analysed and digested before D-Day and then the V1 and V2 attacks eclipsed it, so I set out to attempt to remedy that. I had to go to a great number of sources to fill in the details of these air raids on London. In the roll of Civilian War Dead (available on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission  website) there is clear guidance to the location of bomb ‘incidents’. At LMA I found the London Fire Brigade (LFB) records (LCC/FB/WAR) particularly helpful as there was a definite incendiary bias in the Little Blitz, and the fire service was busy in all the raids and was called to most incidents. Much information is concealed in the LFB’s rather dry reports: ‘a building of eight floors. Basement and sub-basement about 200 x 150 feet used as studios, recording rooms, offices and stores.’ is in fact the BBC! In LMA’s records from the former Middlesex County Council (MCC/CD/WAR/1) there are ARP reports on incidents in thirty boroughs and districts in this part of Greater London.

Plaque for Gwendwr Gardens, West Kensington

​Plaque in Gwendwr Gardens, West Kensington

The raids of the Little Blitz were rather different from the main Blitz, because they only lasted about an hour or so, but in terms of casualties and damage they matched many of the raids of the winter of 1940-41. The original plans for 1944 were that the attack by the vengeance weapons - the V1 flying bombs and the V2 rockets - would be supported by attacks by the Luftwaffe’s bombing fleet. As it was, the Luftwaffe were called into action to deliver revenge for the bombing of German cities well before the V1 and V2 were ready, and before they were, the D-Day invasion had taken place, and the Luftwaffe could play only a limited role in trying to repel it.

On paper, the German plans for the Little Blitz promised much, even though it was a far from ideal time of year given weather conditions and the commitment to operating on moonless nights. However, the opening raid was a disaster with hardly any bombs falling on London, and over forty aircraft being lost to anti-aircraft fire, night fighters and accidents. The next blow for the Luftwaffe occurred when 100 aircraft had to be withdrawn and diverted to Italy after the Allies had landed at Anzio. The next few attacks made were of little consequence. Then in mid-February the Luftwaffe seemed to find its form and delivered five raids which were quite heavy and caused quite a degree of concern. Over 900 people were killed in London, most casualties occurring in Acton, Fulham, Chelsea, Hammersmith and Wandsworth. The Little Blitz continued with four raids in March which caused a lot of fire damage, but fewer casualties as the bomb load used a greater proportion of incendiaries to high explosive. The raids then fizzled out, leaving the Luftwaffe’s bombing fleet much depleted and in no fit state to effectively support efforts to repel the D Day invasion.

Londoners had an unpleasant experience and after the raids of February were once again sheltering every night and even considering leaving London. It was also a depressing experience because people felt that Britain was supposed to be winning the war and should therefore be able to easily repel such air attacks. The numerous records I consulted testify that in the Little Blitz, this did not happen.

If you would like to read about this in more detail, John has published his research in a book also entitled The Little Blitz: The Luftwaffe's Last Attack on London (Fonthill Media, 2014). 'This is the first account of the Little Blitz to explore these raids in detail and assess their impact on London. The book describes the raids, making use of some vivid personal accounts'. A copy is available in the LMA library at 62.71/CON.

07 May 2015
Last Modified:
27 August 2019