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Category Archives: Air Raid

Bombs begin to fall on London, 31 May 1915

A hundred years ago today, 31 May 1915, the much-feared aerial attack on London began. The Zeppelins, whose visits to England had begun earlier in the year with bombs dropped over East Anglia, visited the East End of the capital – their first bomb was dropped on a house in Alkham Road, Stoke Newington.

Here is a map of all the bomb damage sites across London in 1914-1918:

Where the bombs fell in London, 1914-1918

Where the bombs fell in London, 1914-1918

This week, the London Borough of Hackney unveiled a plaque on the house where that first bomb fell. This interesting modern commemoration echoes a plan in the City of Westminster (see my blog post on it here) to mark the sites where bombs fell, initially every site and later just the first and last. The Westminster plan did not receive any support after the war among the other boroughs where bombs had fallen; it was shelved in 1920.

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Posted by on 31 May 2015 in Air Raid, War memorials

 

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Westminster’s air raid plaques – a war memorial that never was

After the Great War a vast number of war memorials were erected across London, the UK and other combatant nations across the world. Most commemorated those who had died (also commonly, but less frequently, those who fought and returned were remembered), others marked sites of important events in local war experiences. In the City of Westminster, an abortive scheme was launched in 1919 to commemorate the air raids on London.

The Zeppelin air raids on England killed 1,400 and injured 3,400 people between January 1915 and May 1918. Hundreds of the victims were Londoners in the thirty raids that hit the city. The City of Westminster Council established that in their area (a much smaller area then than now, mainly the area around Parliament and Whitehall and between Kingsway and Green Park) there had been 78 fatalities and 167 injuries due to raid raids. The bomb map produced by the City Engineer shows 54 bombs dropped (22 on 18 December 1917 alone) and 60 other sites where damage was caused by dud bombs or anti-aircraft shells.

Great War bomb sites in central London (from a post-war Harmsworth atlas)

Great War bomb sites in central London (from a post-war Harmsworth atlas)

In February 1919, a councillor called Philip Conway put forward a motion to the council stating

“That it be an instruction to the Works Committee through the City Engineer or as the Committee may think best to prepare a list and map of places and properties within the City which were struck by bombs during Air Raids with a view to obtaining the consent of the owners or occupiers thereof to the placing of suitable memorial or identification tablets for the purpose of reminding in perpetuity the Citizens of Westminster and of the Empire of the brutal, horrible and cowardly character of our principal and present enemy Germany and to submit a scheme and report forthwith.”

The council adopted the resolution and, apparently intending the scheme to be London-wide decided to send it on to all other Metropolitan borough councils. (n.b Germany was still the enemy because technically the war was still ongoing; after the Armistice of 11 November 1918, the war continued in law until 1921)

The Council’s Works committee reported back in July with a design for a plaque, which was to state:

City of Westminster

Near this spot bombs were dropped by

German Air Raiders

(Date)

Total Casualties …Killed and …Injured.

“Lest We Forget”

They also reported that five quotes had been received for making them, ranging “from £10 10s 0d each to £16 10s 0d each for tablets of varying degrees of artistic merit in various kinds of metal.” The £14 version was picked, to be erected at 19 sites, a total of £266, plus £7 12s to put them up. The Council approved the scheme and the spending.

The scheme was up and running in Westminster, then, but it was less popular elsewhere. “Replies have been received from the Borough Councils of Chelsea and Hammersmith supporting the proposal, though the latter did not propose to take any action, no place in the Borough having been struck by enemy bombs.” Meanwhile, nine boroughs had “replied, not supporting, viz: – Bermondsey, Camberwell, Deptford, Lambeth, St Pancras, Shoreditch, Southwark, Wandsworth and Woolwich. The remaining 17 Borough Councils and the Corporation of [the City of] London have not so far expressed any opinion for or against the proposal.” The scheme was not popular in those boroughs where there had been air raid damage. We might also wonder whether the cost of the scheme did not appeal to the less well-off southern and eastern boroughs, compared with Westminster which (then as now) contained a lot of businesses.

The full map of London bomb sites

The full map of London bomb sites

In January 1920, the works committee felt that “Upon further consideration of the matter we thought that the desired purpose might possibly be served by putting up a tablet on the spot where the first enemy bomb fell in Westminster and another at the spot where the last fell. The Commissioner of Police states that the first enemy bomb in Westminster fell on the Lyceum Theatre at 9.26 p.m. on the 13th October, 1915, and the last on No. 26A, King Street, St James, at 12.30 a.m. on 20th May 1918.”

The Lyceum bomb was, of course, part of the raid that cause Mr Petre, the local pub landlord, such strain that he later committed suicide; the King Street bomb was the only one to fall in Westminster in that raid, although 49 were killed nationwide that night.

Damage caused by the second bomb to fall in Westminster, on Wellington Street near the Lyceum

Damage caused by the second bomb to fall in Westminster, on Wellington Street near the Lyceum

The City Engineer was sent off to inquire about erecting plaques at these two locations, but had little success. The works committee reported to the Council on 20 May 1920 (exactly two years after that last bomb):

“We instructed the City Engineer to report the exact positions where the tablets should be fixed, and whether all necessary consents of parties concerned had been obtained, and he informs us that he has received a letter from the Lyceum Theatre stating that the Directors do no approve of a tablet being fixed at the Theatre.

“With regard to 26A, King Street, the occupiers, Messrs. Robinson, Fisher & Co., have suggested a position which the City Engineer thinks too high to be suitable. The point as to what would be a satisfactory position has not yet been settled with them.

“It will be seen that the Council’s intention cannot be carried out as the proprietors of the Lyceum Theatre are opposed to the fixing of a tablet, and having regard to the circumstances we think the proposal had been be left in abeyance. Moreover, the price of the tablets now quoted is £30 as against £14 each some months ago.”

The Council agreed to put the scheme permanently on hold. Although there are sporadic memorials of the Great War air raids, Westminster Council’s attempt to have a London-wide commemoration failed in the years after the war.

Sources:

  • City of Westminster Council minutes 1919-21
  • Map of bomb damage sites, Westminster Archives.

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on 12 August 2014 in Air Raid, Places, War memorials

 

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Then and Now: Searchlights over Westminster

Then:

Searchlights sweep the London sky over a blacked-out Palace of Westminster © IWM (Art.IWM ART 17172)

Searchlights sweep the London sky over a blacked-out Palace of Westminster © IWM (Art.IWM ART 17172)

Now:

Palace of Westminster at night (image from flickr: (c)UK Parliament)

Palace of Westminster at night (image from flickr: (c)UK Parliament)

‘The Palace of Westminster, instead of being ablaze with lights on the river-front, its numerous windows casting their bright reflections on the waters, as in peace-time, is now a vague, shadowy mass even in the moonlight.’

This is how Michael Macdonagh, the parliamentary correspondent of the Times during the war, described the view of the Palace at night in December 1917 (in his book In London During the Great War).

The current Palace of Westminster was built in the 1840s and 1850s, following the fire of 1834 that destroyed most of the old Palace. Its outline is clearly the same today as it was in the Great War. The big difference is the light. Streetlights were kept to a minimum during the war and external lights on shops and public buildings were banned. This has a big impact on the Palace of Westminster, turning it into a shadow at night. Most noticeably, the clock face is dark. In addition the Ayrton Light did not shine. (This is the light at the top of the clock tower that is lit whenever Parliament is sitting after dark, to tell the nation that its elected representatives or the Lords are still at work). In place of those lights are the searchlights, scouring the sky in search of Zeppelins and German aeroplanes.  The war also changed the sounds of Westminster, as Big Ben fell silent in October 1914 and did not toll again until November 1918.

The impact of the Great War, though, was much less than the Second World War and the Blitz,as this page at West End at War demonstrates.

 
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Posted by on 8 April 2014 in Air Raid, Places, Then & Now

 

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Then and Now: Rahere’s Tomb

Then:

Rahere's Tomb protected from bomb damage, 1915

Rahere’s Tomb protected from bomb damage, 1915

Now:

Rahere's tomb today (image from Wikipedia Commons)

Rahere’s tomb today (image from Wikipedia Commons)

Under the threat of attack from the air, some of the treasures of London were hidden from view behind sandbags.  At the British Museum, those artifacts that could not be moved to safety after the galleries were closed to the public were protected, as we have seen.  At Charing Cross, the statue of Charles I was hidden behind wooden hoardings and sandbags.  At St Bartholomew’s Church in Smithfield, the tomb of the church’s founder Rahere was also covered with sandbags.

Unlike most London landmarks, though, St Bart’s really did come close to destruction. On 8 September 1915, the largest bomb yet dropped on London fell from Zeppelin L13 on Batholomew’s Close. The 660lb bomb caused an enormous amount of damage, creating a hole eight feet deep, gutting a local printworks,  smashing shopfronts and shattering windows. A fountain in the close was virtually split in two. One curious effect of the blast was that it revealed the timber-framed gateway to the courtyard of St Bart’s church. Thankfully it missed the nearby hospital and the soldiers being treated there.

Rahere founded the church and hospital in the early twelfth century after a vision of St Bartholomew instructed him to. The site was on the King’s land, so Rahere had to win the favour of King Henry I, which he managed to do despite being discouraged by the London barons. Rahere was often portrayed as the king’s jester or minstrel in later years, but remained prior of St Bartholomew’s until his death. His effigy was installed in the church in the early fifteenth century, where it has remained to this day – despite the danger of time, the puritans, and two world wars.

Sources:

Secret London

Ian Castle – London 1914-17, the Zeppelin Menace

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Michael McDonagh – In London during the Great War

 
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Posted by on 16 March 2014 in Air Raid, Places, Then & Now

 

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The Underworld: taking shelter from the bombers

In the IWM North in Salford Quays is an impressive painting by Walter Bayes:

'The Underworld: Taking cover in a Tube Station during a London air raid' Walter Bayes, 1918 (c)IWM

‘The Underworld: Taking cover in a Tube Station during a London air raid’ Walter Bayes, 1918 (c)IWM

The image is distinctly (and understandably) reminiscent of the more familiar pictures of tube stations during the Second World War. It depicts civilians sheltering from the an air raid in the tunnels and on the platform at Elephant and Castle.

Twenty two years after the end of the Great War, in November 1940, Bill Brandt went into that same underground station in South London and photographed Londoners sheltering from the next generation of German bombers.

Elephant and Castle Underground Station, photo by Bill Brandt, 1940 (c)IWM

Elephant and Castle Underground Station, photo by Bill Brandt, 1940 (c)IWM

 
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Posted by on 16 September 2013 in Air Raid, Places

 

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A flock of Gothas – 7 July 1917

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.’

"The raiders, owing to their great height, had the appearance of a flock of birds" (Times History of the War)

“The raiders, owing to their great height, had the appearance of a flock of birds” (Times History of the War)

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

A Daylight Raid On London, 7th July 1917: Seen from the roof of the Royal College of Science with the Brompton Oratory in the foreground - by Norman G Arnold (C) IWM

A Daylight Raid On London, 7th July 1917: Seen from the roof of the Royal College of Science with the Brompton Oratory in the foreground – by Norman G Arnold (C) IWM

The second experience is that of those on the receiving end of the raid:

Damage to buildings on St Pancras Road after the raid (C) IWM

Damage to buildings on St Pancras Road after the raid (C) IWM

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 General Post Office after the raid (c) IWM

The General Post Office after the raid (c) IWM

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.

Capt John ER Young, RFC. (Daily Mirror 13/7/17)

2nd Lt John ER Young, RFC. (Daily Mirror 13/7/17)

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.

2nd AM Cyril C Taylor, RFC (D Mirror 14/7/17)

2nd AM Cyril C Taylor, RFC (D Mirror 14/7/17)

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.

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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).

 
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Posted by on 7 July 2013 in Air Raid, Events, Ordinary Londoners

 

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A Zepp raid and a suicide

The Zeppelin raids of 1915 brought physical destruction and great terror to London. The horror was so much that the suicide of London landlord John Nicholas Petry in 1932 was blamed of his experience in a raid 17 years earlier.

The fifth air raid on London killed 47 people and injured more than 100. On the night of 13/14 October 1915, Zeppelins L13 and L14 bombed Woolwich and East Croydon respectively, while L15 dropped bombs on Westminster and across the City of London.  The first of L15’s bombs fell on and around the Lyceum Theatre just off the Strand.

Excellent map of the 13/14 October 1915 raid, from the Osprey book London 1914-17

Excellent map of the 13/14 October 1915 raid (from the Osprey book London 1914-17)

The first bombs fell during the interval of the performance at the Lyceum, striking the theatre and the roads around it. The Old Bell pub, just behind the theatre, was full of customers (including theatre-goers). 17 people were killed by the bomb on the junction of Exeter St and Wellington St, including eight in the pub, and 21 others were seriously injured.

Bomb damage on and around the junction of Wellington St and Exeter St. The Old Bell pub is on the right of the image (from Osprey London 1914-17 book)

Bomb damage on and around the junction of Wellington St and Exeter St. The Old Bell pub is on the right of the image (from Osprey book London 1914-17)

The Zeppelin continued its destructive visit to the capital, dropping further bombs around Lincoln’s Inn, Grey’s Inn, Farringdon and Aldgate. (L15 returned home safely that night, but it was destroyed a few months later by anti-aircraft fire while on another bombing mission).

The death and destruction in and around the Old Bell must have been shocking to all who witnessed it, but it was particularly disturbing to the landlord, John Nicholas Petry.

Petry was born in Battersea in 1880 and married Minnie Louisa Hopkin in 1906.  By 1911, they were running the Swan pub in Leadenhall Market and lived there with their two year old son John Bernard Petry. By 1915, they had taken on the running of the Old Bell, where they witnessed the deaths of customers and passers-by on the night that Zeppelin L15 first visited London in October that year.

The same junction today (Google maps image) - the Old Bell has been replaced by a blue-fronted cafe.

The same junction today (Google streetview image) – the Old Bell has been replaced by a blue-fronted cafe.

John Nicholas Petry, as a married man, became liable to be conscripted into the armed forces in June 1916 – when compulsory service was extended to married men. He wasn’t called up right away, but did end up joining in February 1917. His wife later claimed that this was after seven attempts to join up, which seems odd given that he was relatively fit (although he did have flat feet) and not in an essential war industry. Either way, he ended up in the Army Service Corps in 1917, where they made the most of his experience as a ‘licenced victualler manager’ by sending him out to work in the British Expeditionary Force’s canteens, initially in the 5th Army area and later (from November 1917) in the 3rd Army area. Minnie Petry also claimed that he suffered from shell shock while in France, which may have been behind his period in hospital in July 1918, but it is not clear from his service record (his condition is recorded as ‘PUO’ – Pyrexia of Unknown Origin).

When peace came, Private Petry was demobilised and returned to the pub at 23 Wellington Street. He reportedly had regular medical attention through the rest of his life.  In January 1932, he poisoned himself with disinfectant and died in the Homeopathic Hospital on Great Ormond Street.  The coroner, P.B. Skeels, reported that Petry had ‘no doubt’ suffered from neurasthenia since the air raid and had not been the same since – neurasthenia was the generic medical term for post-traumatic stress (often a synonym for shell shock).

The verdict on Petry’s death was ‘suicide while of unsound mind’ – showing the mental strain that the terror of air raids could (and can) cause. His death came too late for him to be officially recorded as one of Britain’s war dead, but his death was clearly a result of his wartime experiences – and particularly his experience of the night of 13/14 October 1915 in London.

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Sources:

On the raid: Ian Castle – London 1914-17: the Zeppelin Menace (Osprey)

On Petry’s life : army service record, census, and Daily Mirror and Times reports of his death.

 
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Posted by on 2 June 2013 in Air Raid, Ordinary Londoners