Why Wasn’t Big Ben Bombed During World War II?

Big Ben, still going strong, on Jan. 1, 2014, in London.

Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

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Answer by Carter Moore:

Luck. Sheer luck.

At the time of the Blitz, the Germans, like every air power, did not have the ability to specifically target key buildings through high-altitude bombing raids, which were themselves necessary to hit valuable targets in order to avoid intense anti-aircraft fire. That combination of factors resulted in the reliance on city-flattening, strategic bombing raids: Just drop a bunch of bombs from where the guys on the ground can’t hit you and hope for the best.

The drawback to that strategy, of course, is that the Germans had no way to avoid hitting critical, cultural landmarks as they saturated cities with bombs—that is if they were so inclined to preserve them in the first place (and with the exception of Paris, that wasn’t really the case).

Early in the Blitz, the Luftwaffe deployed its workhorse dive bomber, the Ju 87, whose accuracy became a legendary symbol of the Luftwaffe’s power (and terrifying, if you were its intended target) during the war, and which would have been the most likely candidate for scoring a direct hit. However, its comparatively slow speed, short range, and poor maneuverability compared with other fighters (particularly the RAF’s) and bombers resulted in high losses, so the Luftwaffe fell back on using high-level bombers for most of the campaign.

To expand on the specific challenge of targeting Big Ben from a level bomber—though we really ought to be referring to Elizabeth Tower at this point—let’s say you’re a Luftwaffe bombardier, and you’re attached to a crew whose plane has been upgraded with the state-of-the-art Lotfernrohr 7 bombsight. You absolutely have it in your head that, no matter what the cost, you’re going to put a bomb right through the tower’s clock.

On one daylight raid, you have the fortune of flying over London with no obstructing cloud cover. To maximize your chances of hitting the tower, you fly at the lowest possible altitude and the slowest possible speed for the bombsight to still function effectively. This puts you at an altitude of 850 meters and traveling at 150 kilometers per hour (much to the terror of your crewmates).

The bombsight has a field of vision of 35 degrees, and has a 1.4-times magnification. This would mean that you would be looking at a total area of about 115,000 square meters. Elizabeth Tower, in comparison, has a footprint of 225 square meters, occupying 0.19 percent of your total field of view. For those of you more visually inclined, it means your sight picture, once you’re right over the tower, looks something like this.

Now, traveling at 150 kilometers per hour, you will cover the width of the tower’s footprint in a mere 0.36 seconds, or possibly slightly more than half a second if you’re coming at it on a direct diagonal.

What’s an average person’s reaction time to a visual stimulus? According to data collected by Human Benchmark: 0.26 seconds.

Even if you’ve got super reflexes—because you’re a hot-shot, well-trained aviator—there’s still a chance that, unless you are perfectly on the ball and anticipating the target, you might miss your window to hit the tower at the very moment you recognize it.

And of course, we’re basing your potential accuracy on a picture that was taken from a steady satellite. You’re in a World War II–era bomber that’s vibrating from powerful engines, being buffeted by winds and pressure waves from anti-aircraft bursts, and being chased by fighters. You would almost certainly not have the benefit of a steady sight picture to line up your bomb run. But even if you did, and even if your timing was perfect, all it would take at that altitude and speed would be the slightest interruption in your course to ruin your chances at destroying the tower.

Following your (likely) failed bomb run, you would almost certainly be descended upon by any number of fighters, owing to your slow speed and low altitude, and that would be the end of your war.

But that would be the story of a single determined bomber crew on a single raid. The Blitz was a massive, months-spanning campaign that brought immense destruction to the city. Surely, just by chance, the tower should have been hit, right?

Recently, researchers managed to plot every bomb dropped on London during the Blitz. In all of that destruction, several bombs did land perilously close to the iconic tower. As detailed earlier, these misses represent mere fractions of a second of difference to what could have resulted in a direct hit.

So whatever other considerations there might be or have been, given the sheer volume of ordnance that fell on London during the Blitz, the only true answer as to why Big Ben wasn’t hit directly comes down to luck.

To explore the rest of London, check out the full interactive site.

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