Service, flyover mark 70 years since Hitler's WWII Blitz targeted Britain

LONDON (AP) — The bombers and fighters flew across the English Channel by the hundreds, London in their sights, intent on forcing Britain out of the war, and Hitler's way.

The barrage signaled the start of the Blitz, the attack on the British mainland by Nazi forces during World War II. On Tuesday, a memorial service was held at St. Paul's Cathedral — itself a symbol of British fortitude during the bombardment — to honor both those who protected London and those who fought in the Battle of Britain.

Royal Air Force personnel, firefighters, nurses and ambulance staff all attended the service.

Sept. 7 was chosen to commemorate the attacks because it is the day Germany began to focus its offensive on non-military targets in Britain. The Blitz continued until May,1941, but Londoners decided they would try not to let the war disrupt their lives. As the now-famous poster says, they managed to keep calm and carry on.

"After the shock, surprise, and initially panic, people displayed a 'Blitz spirit,'" said Terry Charman, a senior historian at London's Imperial War Museum. "There was a stubbornness ... 'we are not going to give in like others gave in.' "

Hitler wanted to knock "Britain out of the war by fair means or foul, so he could concentrate all his efforts on Russia," Charman said. Hitler hoped the attacks would force the British government to capitulate — or provoke its citizens to revolt and demand their leaders reach a settlement with Germany.

In London, 20,083 civilians were killed during the Blitz, and another 23,602 died outside the city because of the bombing. King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth — later the Queen Mother — visited the city's East End in the week after the first attack.

In a letter to his own mother, the king wrote "we have seen some of the awful havoc which has been done in East London, and have talked to the people who are quite marvelous in the face of adversity. So cheerful about it all, and some have had some very narrow escapes."

Holding the service at St. Paul's was especially poignant, Charman said, because the cathedral was a symbol of strength for Londoners during the attacks. Churchill had given orders that "whatever happens, the cathedral must be saved," Charman said.

A photograph of the cathedral's dome emerging from a cloud of smoke is for many considered an iconic image of the war.

The service was followed by a parade and a flyover by the RAF's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, which is made up of a Spitfire, a Lancaster bomber, and a Dakota aircraft.

Earlier this week, Westminster Council released rare color footage showing some of the damage inflicted on London during World War II. That footage shows wartime leader Winston Churchill visiting bomb sites to assess the damage.

And last month, a ceremony to honor "the few" — the pilots who defended the country from German attack during the Battle of Britain — was held in London. Churchill's speech to the House of Commons — in which he said of the air crews that "never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few" — was read, and vintage planes flew overhead.