Posts Tagged ‘Blitz’

Book Review: The First Blitz in 100 Objects by Ian Castle.

first-blitz-in-100-objectsI took the below picture a few days ago. it’s an unremarkable terraced house in Whitestile Road, Brentford, not 150 yards from my own home of three decades. I’ve walked past it hundreds of times without having a clue as to its significance. Notice the different style from its neigbours either side. That’s because it’s a rebuild following the total destruction of its predecessor by a German bomb on 29 January 1918. The wife, four children and niece of George Kerley were all killed along with their elderly lodger. At seven, this was the second largest casualty count for a single family through the entire war. Poor Kerley, a sergeant-major in the Middlesex Regiment, wasn’t home at the time.


The Kerley’s family gravestone in nearby South Ealing Cemetery is one of the 100 objects featured in this new book by Ian Castle. Germany’s vicious bombing campaign against Britain during WW1 has been very largely overshadowed by the Blitz of WW2. Understandably, perhaps. Nonetheless, it was a terrifying business which Castle has made it his business to bring to our attention. This is his third book on the subject in recent years.

This time, he has written 100 short chapters featuring a diverse collection of objects, large and small. As you would expect, the book is richly and beautifully illustrated, as these random spreads demonstrate.
three up

Although this book covers the whole of Britain, having taken the brunt of the raids, the London content is the most prominent. First there are the more well-known sites with which most London historians would be familiar and can be viewed today: the pitted plinth of Cleopatra’s Needle; the plaque in Queen Square marking the spot of the first Zeppelin bombs. Noted historic buildings were hit, among them Lincoln’s Inn and the Royal Hospital, Chelsea.

Severndroog Castle in Shooters Hill – where London Historians had a group visit last year –  was used as a Zeppelin look-out post.

The author has here assembled an impressive array and variety of objects, from aircraft, bombs and weapons – both intact or fragments – to personal items and ephemera: matchbox holders, commemorative napkins, postcards, ‘in memoriam‘ cards, a mawkish survivor from the Victorian age.

We have the damaged registration plate of the No 68 bus which was hit by shrapnel near at Aldwych; air raid insurance documents; and one of my favourites: the Dolphin Tavern clock, frozen in time at twenty to eleven – you can see it in that pub to this day.

The most poignant reminders of the WW1 Blitz are gravestones and memorials, which are probably the most common feature here. My favourite – if that’s the right word – is the grave of Reginald Warneford, VC, the first pilot successfully to destroy a Zeppelin in flight, LZ 37 on 7 June 1915. Unfortunately, the 23 year old was killed in a flying accident just 10 days later. A lovely monument, it features a relief portrait of a smiling Warneford above a carved image of a fatally listing Zeppelin in flames and smoke while the young pilot’s plane veers away almost vertically. You can find it in Brompton Cemetery.

The first Zeppelin raid actually to drop bombs on London was on 31 May 1915. Thereafter, raids were continuous, first by Zeppelins and later by Gotha bombers and ‘Giants’ (enormous bi-plane bombers with three or more engines). Casualties were almost always substantial, usually in the dozens and sometimes over a hundred. The largest raid of the conflict on London involved 41 bombers on 19 May 1918.

This lovely book is the perfect introduction to the topic which will – if you haven’t already read them – lead you to the author’s other books on this subject. You might like also to look out for Jerry White’s Zeppelin Nights (2014).

The First Blitz in 100 Objects by Ian Castle (268pp) is published by Frontline Books with a cover price of £25 but available for less.

Ian Castles’s previous books on related topics are:
The First Blitz: Bombing London in the First World War (2015).
Zeppelin Onslaught: The Forgotten Blitz 1914 1915 (2018)

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A guest post by LH Member Suzie Grogan. This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from November 2013.

Before 1914, the idea that war could be waged in the air was beyond the imagination of most British people. The creative minds of authors such as H G Wells had foreseen the destructive possibilities of air power, but in Britain those leading the country into war were still pursuing a strategy that focused solely on the soil of foreign parts. The violation of British airspace and the realisation that both combatants and civilians were vulnerable to attack was to shake national certainties and individual security, leaving both traumatised beyond the Armistice and into the years up to the Second World War. From the early Zeppelin raids of 1914 to the end of the war in 1918, the British population was literally terrorised from the air.

By the end of 1916 the German Air Force accepted that the Zeppelin airships used in the air raids launched from 1914 to 1916 had caused more wonder than panic, even though lives had been lost and the towns and cities attacked were shaken. So in the spring of 1917 a new approach was adopted. The ‘England Squadron’ was formed with a key aim: to destroy the morale of the British people. The development of the Gotha IV heavy bomber allowed German pilots of fly at higher altitudes than British fighter planes while their huge payload offered the opportunity to wreak much greater devastation than the airships.


In Germany, the morning of 13th June 1917 dawned bright and clear and the crews of twenty-two Gotha aircraft were ordered to take off and fly the routes allocated to them. The target was London and the raid that day was to prove one of the most cataclysmic of the First War.

A few of the original formation of planes dropped away as technical problems – always a challenge for pilots and crew – forced them to turn back. Pushing onwards, Squadron Commander Hauptmann Ernst Brandenburg signalled the turn to the south-west; a diversionary party wheeled away to attack the Kent coast and seventeen Gothas were left to set course for London.

Coming in over the burgeoning north London suburbs, Brandenburg took the formation southwards towards the City. By now, those looking into the clear skies over the capital would have experienced the first unwelcome thrill of fear and not a little curiosity. Britain’s civilians were still, at this point, largely unprotected and few warnings were given of the approach of the planes, which were able to fly in unchallenged by British forces. People would stare up in wonder as the engines became audible. Many spoke of their ‘awe’ at the spectacle of the planes in formation, perhaps confusing their nationality until the bombs began to fall. Observers described the planes variously as ‘insects’ ‘snowflakes’ ‘swanlike’ or as ‘little silver birds’; all phrases that belied the havoc and destruction shortly to be wreaked in the roads around them.

Anti-aircraft guns were heard pumping a constant barrage of shells towards the formation, but were only able to cloud the air and momentarily distract the pilots who dodged the hail of explosives leaving them to fall to earth causing damage, injury and death by ‘friendly fire’.

The first bombs were unleashed from the huge planes over East Ham, killing four and wounding thirteen. Then Stratford and Stoke Newington were targets, the only warnings a policeman’s whistle and a cry of ‘take cover!’ Houses, schools, shops and factories were hit, as were the Royal Albert Docks. Flames engulfed buildings before rescues could be effected and the screams and cries of the dying and their loved ones mingled with the death throes of the many horses caught in the blast.

A key target that day was Liverpool Street Station, which the bombers reached at 11.40am. In just two minutes seventy-two bombs were dropped, most in the streets surrounding the station itself which received a direct hit by just three. However, accounts liken the scene as the Gothas passed overhead to a ‘battlefield’. Buildings collapsed; a terrified population scattered in every direction to seek shelter; horses lay dead in numbers, many atop their drivers; shrapnel decapitated some and mortally wounded others who couldn’t find safety. Where customers had been a minute before buying provisions, shops were reduced to rubble and glass with their owners and errand boys among the dead. A caretaker’s wife was beheaded as she worked in the attic of a nearby house. A bus received a direct hit, which shot over the head of the driver, travelling through the floor and bursting beneath the conductor, blowing him to pieces while throwing passengers forward, injuring and killing many. The driver, in his dazed state thought he had run someone over; only a girl of about nine survived; she was found sitting on the remains of the floor crying. The lower parts of both her legs were missing.

As the planes disappeared, Londoners were left to assess and clear the wreckage while tending the injured and dying. Ambulances and Red Cross vehicles took away the casualties. The poet Siegfried Sassoon stood on Liverpool Street Station concourse that day, and seeing an old man wheeled away dead on a porter’s barrow, women covered in blood, and occupied train carriages literally flattened to the tracks, he wrote in his ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer’:
“In a trench one was acclimatized to the notion of being exterminated and there was a sense of organised retaliation. But here one was helpless; an invisible enemy sent destruction spinning down from a fine weather sky…’

Bombs continued to fall as the Gothas headed towards Bermondsey, killing three on the roof of Pink’s Jam Factory. In Southwark the British and Benington Tea Co. lost three members of staff and saw others seriously injured as the basement strongroom, in which many had sought shelter, collapsed, burying staff in the rubble.

But the greatest outcry was reserved for the next atrocity. The Gothas regrouped and headed east for the Thames where they released their remaining bombs over the densely populated and poverty stricken Poplar and the East India Dock Road. Here stood the Upper North Street School.

Of the six hundred pupils on the roll, most were from poor families, struggling to feed and clothe their children properly. Just before lunch, a fifty kilogram bomb struck the roof of the school. Sixteen children were killed instantly, two died later from their injuries and thirty were seriously injured. All but two were aged five or under. Teachers heroically got children out of the building; panicked mothers searched for their young ones. It was a scene that shocked the nation.

A week later, one of the biggest funerals in London was held for those that died that day and in June 1919 a memorial was unveiled in Poplar Recreation Ground, bearing the names of the eighteen pupils that were killed on that first daylight air-raid on London.

Squadron Commander Brandenburg had led his Gotha crews over the British Isles for just ninety minutes, dropping four tons of bombs, killing one hundred and sixty two men, women and children and injuring four hundred and thirty two more. British aircraft had tried but failed to shoot down any of the German planes and would struggle to find a way to oppose them even to the day the Armistice was signed.

Suzie Grogan’s new book Death Disease and Dissection: The working life of a surgeon-apothecary 1750-1850 was published by Pen and Sword Books in October 2017.

Her web site.

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London Pride

A guest post by Noel Coward.

noel cowardDuring the Blitz, Coward wrote this defiant song on behalf of all Londoners. It evokes a manly tear, that’s for sure, and cannot be improved upon in my opinion. What a talent. London Pride (saxifraga urbium) is a small pink flower which sprung up on bomb sites during World War II. Anyway, grab a tissue and enjoy.

London Pride. 

London Pride has been handed down to us,
London Pride is a flower that’s free.
London Pride means our own dear town to us,
And our pride is forever will be.
Whoa, Liza,
See the coster barrows,
The vegetables and the fruit piled high,
Oh, Liza,
Little London sparrows,
Covent Garden Market where the costers cry.

Cockney feet
Mark the beat of history.
Every street pins a memory down.
Nothing ever can quite replace
The grace of London Town.

There’s a little city flower,
Ever spring unveiling,
Growing in the crevices,
By some London railing.
Though it has a Latin name
In town and countryside,
We in England call it
London Pride.

London Pride has been handed down to us,
London Pride is a flower that’s free.
London Pride means our own dear town to us,
And our pride it forever will be.
Hey, lady,
When the day is dawning,
See the policeman yawning
On his lonely beat.
Gay lady,
Mayfair in the morning,
Hear your footsteps echo
In the empty street.

Early rain,
And the pavement’s glistening,
All Park Lane
In a shimmering gown.
Nothing ever could break or harm
The charm
Of London Town.

In our city, darkened now,
Street and square and crescent,
We can feel our living past
In our shadowed present.
Ghosts beside our starlit Thames
Who lived and loved and died
Keep throughout the ages
London Pride.

London Pride has been handed down to us,
London Pride is a flower that’s free.
London Pride means our own dear town to us,
And our pride it forever will be.
Grey city,
Stubbornly implanted,
Taken so for granted
For a thousand years.
Stay, city,
Smokily enchanted,
Cradle of our memories,
Of our hopes and fears.

Every Blitz,
Your resistance toughening.
From the Ritz
To the Anchor and Crown,
Nothing ever could override
The pride
Of London Town.

There are quite a few renditions of London Town on YouTube. This one is by the Master himself, very upbeat. Not sure who’s singing this one, but it’s a good version and I especially like the video they’ve put together featuring lots of pluckly Londoners getting on with it amidst the rubble of the Blitz. What’s more, it’s got BBC pips and the famous photo of the intrepid milkman. Very good.

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Yesterday’s First Day of the Blitz aired on Tuesday evening on the actual anniversary, points straight away; ITV’s Words of the Blitz was broadcast last night, Wednesday. Unfortunately, it was no contest really. ITV clearly had more budget for a more spectacular production but they screwed the whole thing up. Their archive stuff, much of it in colour, was excellent and full of variety – you can only take so much of collapsing buildings, billowing smoke and plucky firefighters pointing their hoses.

But then they did two very strange – and unnecessary – things. Thing One: They used actors (Sheila Hancock, Steven Berkoff and others), talking heads style, to read the contemporary jottings of Real People, the overall result of which was that you simply couldn’t concentrate on what was being said while these luvvies seized the opportunity to ham it up, in particular, Russell Tovey, who was the one most employed (do you remember Peter Sellers doing Laurence Olivier doing Richard III reading Hard Day’s Night? A bit like that). Disaster.

What nearly worked, and perhaps they should have thought this one through, was that they also used real Royal Engineers to read the contemporary sappers’ accounts, a real nurse reading the nurse bit, and an elderly lady reading her own mother’s account. All very competently done, thank you very much. If they had tried this throughout, they may have got away with it.

Thing Two: For some bizarre reason, they spliced in contemporary footage of London sites. This bought nothing to the party. The bird’s eye pan of the city with the Gherkin building piercing the night sky was particularly jarring.

Yesterday’s programme – part of their Spirit of 1940 series – was an altogether lower key affair, sticking to the tried and tested formula of archive footage intersperced with talking heads of real contemporaries relating their own real experiences. These old timers, unscripted, did a great job, as only they can*. As a result, the production was engaging , very, very moving, and it worked. Star of the show was a dyed-blonde ancient dear (around 90, I think), who like the actors on ITV, hammed it up like mad. But she’d Earned the Right, it lightened the programme and it didn’t really matter.

My only problem with Yesterday’s offering was that the narrator’s delivery was occasionally a bit garbled and a bit too fast.

So. The Spits and Hurricanes of Yesterday definitely bettered the Heinkels and Messerschmitts of ITV on this occasion.

*Footnote: I visited my 87 year old aunt last Sunday, and despite knowing her for nearly 50 years, asked her for the first time about her experience in the Land Army. What a wonderful cornucopia of anecdotes spilled forth. The elderly can go on and on repetitively about the most trivial and dull things, it’s just a matter of asking them the right questions! So if you have any ancient relatives or friends, don’t lose the opporunity to tickle out their fascinating stories.

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