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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.

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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.

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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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