The perspective from the ground was equally stunning. One young man, Colin Perry, eighteen, was on his bicycle when the first wave passed overhead. "It as the most amazing, impressive, riveting sight," he wrote later. "Directly above me were literally hundreds of planes, Germans! The sky was full of them." The fighters stuck close, he recalled, "like bees around their queen."
The day was warm and still, the sky blue above a rising haze. Temperatures by afternoon were in the nineties, odd for London. People thronged Hyde Park and lounged on chairs set out beside the Serpentine. Shoppers jammed the stores of Oxford Street and Piccadilly. The giant barrage of balloons overhead cast lumbering shadows on the streets below. After the August air raid when bombs first fell on London proper, the city had retreated back into a dream of invulnerability, punctuated now and then by false alerts whose once-terrifying novelty was muted by the failure of bombers to appear. The late-summer heat imparted an air of languid complacency. In the city's West End, theaters hosted twenty-four productions, among them the play Rebecca, adapted for the stage by Daphne du Maurier from her novel of the same name. Alfred Hitchcock's movie version, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, was also playing in London, as were the films The Thin Man and the long-running Gaslight.
It was a fine day to spend in the cool green of the countryside.
The dust burst outward rapidly at first, like smoke from a cannon, then slowed and dissipated, sifting and settling, covering sidewalks, streets, windshields, double-decker buses, phone booths, bodies. Survivors exiting ruins were coated head to toe as if with gray flour. Harold Nicolson, in his diary, described seeing people engulfed in a "thick fog which settled down on everything, plastering their hair and eyebrows with thick dust."