And then suddenly Goering made his second tactical error, this one comparable in its consequences to Hitler’s calling off the armored attack on Dunkirk on May 24. It saved the battered, reeling R.A.F. and marked one of the major turning points of history’s first great battle in the air.
With the British fighter defense suffering losses in the air and on the ground which it could not for long sustain, the Luftwaffe switched its attack on September 7 to massive night bombings of London. The R.A.F. fighters were reprieved.
What had bappened in the German camp to cause this change in tactics which was destined to prove so fatal to the ambitions of Hitler and Goering?
The answer is full of irony.
To begin with, there was a minor navigational error by the pilots of a dozen German bombers on the night of August 23. Directed to drop their loads on aircraft factories and oil tanks on the outskirts of London, they missed their mark and dropped bombs on the center of the capital, blowing up some homes and killing some civilians. The British thought it was deliberate and as retaliation bombed Berlin the next evening.
It didn’t amount to much. There was a dense cloud cover over Berlin that night and only about half of the eighty-one R.A.F. bombers dispatched found the target. Material damage was negligible. But the effect on German morale was tremendous. For this was the first time that bombs had ever fallen on Berlin.
The Berliners are stunned [I wrote in my diary the next day, August 26]. They did not think it could ever happen. When this war began, Goering assured them it couldn’t … They believed him. Their disillusionment today therefore is all the greater. You have to see their faces to measure it.
Berlin was well defended by two great rings of antiaircraft and for three hours while the visiting bombers droned above the clouds, which prevented the hundreds of searchlight batteries from picking them up, the flak fire was the most intense I had ever seen. But not a single plane was brought down. The British also dropped a few leaflets saying that “the war which Hitler started will go on, and it will last as long as Hitler does.”
This was good propaganda, but the thud of exploding bombs was better. The R.A.F. came over in greater force on the night of August 28-29 and, as I noted in my diary, “for the first time killed Germans in the capital of the Reich.” The official count was ten killed and twenty-nine wounded. The Nazi bigwigs were outraged. Goebbels, who had ordered the press to publish only a few lines on the first attack, now gave instructions to cry out at the “brutality” of the British flyers in attacking the defenseless women and children of Berlin. Most of the capital’s dailies carried the same headline: COWARDLY BRITISH ATTACK. Two nights later, after the third raid, the headlines read: BRITISH AIR PIRATES OVER BERLIN!
The main effect of a week of constant British night bombings [I wrote in my diary on September 1] has been to spread great disillusionment among the people and sow doubt in their minds … Actually the bombings have not been very deadly.