The second world war brought to London destruction on a scale never before witnessed. Something like a million homes were destroyed by the bombardment, and 40,000 lives were lost.
But where did it all begin?
Most books and websites will tell you that the bombing started in earnest on 7 September 1940. It's true that this date saw a major shift in operations, when the Luftwaffe focused its attention on the city proper, and less on military infrastructure. But there were earlier raids on the city.
This plaque on Fore Street in the Barbican, records one such event:
From the wording, you might be forgiven for thinking that this raid in the early hours of 25 August was the first to strike London. But the plaque only records the first hit on the City (i.e. the Square Mile). Still earlier raids troubled the capital's suburbs.
Many sources state that the first bombs to drop on London landed in the early hours of 22 August 1940, affecting Harrow and Wealdstone (technically not then in London, but within the London Civil Defence Area). These caused damage to two cinemas, a dance hall, bank and houses, but nobody was killed. A further strike on 24 August killed nine people, and prompted retaliatory attacks on Berlin. These early raids are thought by some to have been accidental, mis-aimed bombs that were intended for airfields.
Press reports of the time do point to still earlier raids, though details are sketchy and hard to substantiate. Newspapers suggest that some kind of raid took place on the afternoon of 16 August 1940. Bombs were dropped on 'working class suburbs' to the south-west of the city. Several people were reportedly killed when an unnamed railway booking office was hit. Other bombers targeted the estuary, striking Tilbury, Purfleet and Northfleet.
A still earlier, and better recorded, raid took place the night before, on 15 August. 30 bombers targeted RAF Croydon aerodrome, which was then considered part of Surrey rather than London. Several people were killed, with damage to the aerodrome and nearby housing.
So the answer to the question of the title is difficult to pin down. It depends on your definition of London, and level of precision. The bomb on Fore Street, however, seems to be the earliest in central London whose exact location is known.
Other first attacks are easier to pinpoint. The first V1 flying bomb — a kind of early drone that could fly unpiloted from the continent — landed on Grove Road, Mile End on 13 June 1944. Six people were killed. A plaque marks the spot:
The V1 weapons were succeeded by V2 rockets. These ballistic missiles were the first objects to enter space, before falling down on London (and elsewhere) with devastating power. The first to hit the capital landed in Staveley Road, Chiswick on 8 September 1944, killing three people. In an ongoing project, we've mapped many of the crash sites of the V2 rockets.
London was also bombed during the first world war. The first attack, launched from a zeppelin, struck a house in Stoke Newington on 31 May 1915. The repaired house still stands and is marked with a plaque. It has the dubious distinction of being the first building in London attacked by a foreign power in almost 1,000 years.
All images by the author.