The apparent ease with which London could be attacked by bombers was a cause of anger embarrassment for the authorities and anger among the population. The July 7th attacks were a prime example of this. By 1917, the German Zeppelins had been replaced by Gotha bombers, which were again able to spread terror and destruction around the capital.
On 7 July 1917, London was attacked by 22 Gotha bombers, which arrived over the east coast, formed up over Epping Forest and proceeded to bomb the East End and the City of London – in all 57 people were killed. The raid caused great anger about the lack of proper warnings and the lack of effective defences. It prompted another big anti-German riot, just as the sinking of the Lusitania had sparked off the mass rioting and looting in May 1915.
There were many different experiences of the raid. This post will take a brief look at three of them:
First there were the observers – the people who watched the air but were not directly affected. In the air raids of the Great War, there were a great number of these – partly because the scale of the physical destruction was limited and because many people remained out in the street during these raids. In the 7 July 1917 raid, many people assumed that the raiders were actually British aircraft until the bombs actually started falling.
Those watching saw something that looked like a flock of birds. Georgina Lee described it in her diary ‘as I turned into Berkeley Gardens the report [i.e. sound] of a gun rattled through the air followed by another and another. Looking skywards I saw a sight I shall never forget. Coming towards me from the north east, like huge brown birds, was a flock of aeroplanes.’
In their report of it the Times told its readers:
As a spectacle, the raid was the most thrilling that London has seen since the air attacks began. Every phase could be followed from points many miles away without the aid of glasses [i.e. binoculars or a telescope], and hundreds of thousands of people watched the approach of the squadron, the dropping of the bombs, the shelling of the German aeroplanes [by anti-aircraft guns] and the eventual retreat
The second experience is that of those on the receiving end of the raid:
Neil Hanson (in his book The First Blitz) quotes a number of eyewitnesses who saw their houses and neighbourhood buildings destroyed. One report he quotes comes from the account given by an a lad working in an office near Tower Hill, who witnessed the effect of a bomb that fell a hundred yards from his office building. A described:
a blinding flash, a chaos of breaking glass, and the air thick-yellow dust and fumes. Five men had been struck by bomb fragments and a boy of my own age, also hit, died in the afternoon. Outside was a terrible sight, the horses twisted and mangled (the carts had disappeared except for a few burning bits of debris), the front of the office next door, which had caught the full force, blown clean away. They brought into our building people from the ruins there and I helped to carry them – it was a relief to do something. All the unfortunates had ghastly wounds. I had never seen a dead man before and I was too dazed to realise until afterwards that they must have been stone dead. A fireman, with his axe, put the last horse out of its anguish. The curious thing is that I did not hear the bomb at all and yet I was quite deaf for three days.
Another building that was hit was the General Post Office building in St Martin-le-Grand, the roof of which was set of fire (see IWM picture here).
The third experience is that of the airmen who struggled – largely in vain – to fight off the raiders. Ninety-five British aircraft were apparently sent up to tackle the Gothas. The aircraft (including James McCudden the great air ace) and the anti-aircraft guns together had little impact, only managing to bring down one of the enemy machines before they escaped over the Channel The British aircraft followed them there and continued their attack but without any further success. The British, however, lost at least two aircraft and three young airmen.
Among those British airmen were JER Young and CC Taylor, who together chased the Gothas out to sea but were brought down either by the combined fire of the Gothas’ gunners or by British anti-aircraft gunfire, depending whose reports you believe.
John ER Young, the pilot, grew up in Streatham and went to the Grammar School there before going to work at the British Bank of Northern Commerce. He joined the Artists’ Rifles in the ranks in June 1916 and was commissioned as an officer in the Royal Flying Corps in February 1917. His body was not pulled from his crashed aeroplane before it sank, so his headstone in Southend cemetery was placed ‘in memory of’ the pilot, with an inscription noting that his body was not recovered. His observer was Cyril C Taylor, whose body was recovered from the wreck and he was buried in West Hamstead Cemetery on 14 July – suggesting that he too was a Londoner, who died in defence of his home.
All in all, the event highlighted the exposure of London to raids by aeroplanes after the Zeppelins had been fought off in 1916. The expulsion of the capitals few remaining Germans was demanded by angry crowds. More practically, better defences and better warning systems were also demanded – the warning devices seen in a previous post on this blog largely came in the weeks after the 7 July 1917 air raid.
Quotations from Home Fires Burning: diary of Georgina Lee (ed Royndon) and First Blitz by Neil Hanson (which also tells the story and context of the raid well).