Everyone would remember the weather. On the afternoon of Saturday, September 7, 1940, “one of the fairest days of the century, a day of clear warm air and high blue skies,” as the novelist William Sansom recalled, 348 German bombers and more than 600 Messerschmitt fighters set off from northern France for England. Goering, who had arrived the day before to take direct command of the mission, watched from the cliffs of Cap Gris Nez as the planes formed up over the Channel. At 4:14, the first aircraft were over the English coast, and British spotters assumed that this unusually large bomber stream would soon disperse to attack the usual targets—airfields, sector stations, oil installations. But as it flew westward over Kent and Sussex the fleet remained intact, forming a block 20 miles wide. Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, at tea in the garden of their country house in Kent, saw the planes—the most concentrated force arrayed against Britain since the Spanish Armada—“coming over in wave after wave.” Farther west, in the countryside just outside London, the American newspaperman Ben Robertson watched the bombers as they “flew at a very great height, glistening like beautiful steel birds in the afternoon sunshine.” Minutes later, London—a city that, as he wrote, “had taken thirty generations of men a thousand years to build”—was burning. The first raid ended at 6:10, but two hours later more than 300 additional bombers came for a second attack, which lasted until 4:30 the next morning.
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