First World War Bombing of London 1915—1918 Part II

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Zeppelin Attack! The Battle to Destroy L-33

Meanwhile, some fortunates simply fled the capital. Bruce Cummings, a naturalist, said that one raid left him with ‘a fit of uncontrollable trembling’ and the next induced a heart attack. He finally quit the capital for the safety of the countryside. Generally speaking, though, it was only the middle classes who could leave London, mostly women and children, though we do not know how many did, nor for how long. But it was noted that some factories in London employing people from the East End saw the number of employees fall, as some fled to Brighton.

Some Londoners, however, refused to budge. Beatrice Webb recorded her reactions at the time, which were those of fear, followed by stoic acceptance of the danger:

Six successive air-raids have wrecked the nerves of Londoners, with the result of a good deal of panic even among the well-to-do and the educated. The first two nights I felt myself under the sway of foolish fear. My feet were cold and my heart pattered its protest against physical danger. But the fear wore off, and by Monday night’s raid I had recovered self-possession.

For many Londoners, however, the only shelter was their own home. On 19 February 1918 Michael MacDonagh wrote that he, his wife, and his wife’s sister:

sat in our little kitchen during the raid. We have ceased going into the poky coal cellar, for it really affords no additional safety to compensate for its discomfort [. . .] Like millions of other Londoners — average people, simple, natural unheroic — who are in the same situation as we are tonight, the idea that a raider might come our way and drop a bomb on our house is so utterly preposterous — the chances against it running to millions — to be entertained for a moment. Why should the raider single us out of all vast London for a visit? Why indeed? Ridiculous!

A similar attitude was voiced by the Lord Chancellor on 31 January 1918 when the debate at the House of Lords was interrupted by bombers overhead: ‘It must never be said that the peers of this ancient Realm were compelled to cease their deliberations on public affairs by a German air-raid.’ And stoicism was displayed during a raid on Reuters. Miss Coules wrote: ‘the office behaved splendidly. One man actually stuck to his post and worked all through it — rather than go out and watch the bombs drop’. But the office boys were allowed to go to the cellar if they wished.

The epitome of coolness under fire was Lady Asquith. On 17 February 1918 she ‘read Keats’s letters to the accompaniment of another air-raid’. In the previous year, she described a dinner on the night of a raid:

It was funny, sitting down calmly to dinner, with Tonks and his sister to the accompaniment of such an orchestra. They are quite blaseé, having been in London for all the previous ones. The noise still exhilarates me. We stayed in the dining room — it being the most sheltered part of the house. It was a very much more desultory raid than the previous ones, going on intermittently for about three hours.

Yet even her spirits could sink and on the following day she wrote, after noting bomb damage, ‘Felt tired and depressed’.

Sir Henry Rider Haggard was in London during the war and on the night of a raid in October 1916 was invited down into the servants’ hall in the basement, and he took his pipe and a novel. He later wrote: ‘I confess I am heartily tired of zeppelins and should like some good nights’ rest.’

One alleged bomb expert told Arnold Bennett that sheltering in the cellar was the worst thing to do because the bombs only exploded after they had crashed through every single floor, so that the first floor (or cellar) was not safest.

During a lull in a raid on 29 January 1918, MacDonagh decided to leave his shelter and risk going home. Although he had often walked through London at night, this time it was different. There were no buses or taxis, and no itinerant street hawkers, such as coffee-stall men, roast chestnut sellers or hot potato men.

After a raid there was, naturally enough, great relief. Life went on pretty quickly, as Bennett recorded in 1915. At 10.45pm the raid began and half an hour later, he wrote that he thought it ‘very strange to see motor buses going along just as usual, and a man selling fruit just as usual at corner. People spoke to each other in the street’. He added that once the all clear was sounded, the next sound was ‘The footsteps of man. Then the footsteps of ten people, of twenty, of a hundred. The town was alive again’.

Sometimes the airborne raiders were shot down. On 2 October 1916 a zeppelin had been hit and was in flames. If it went down on London, the destruction would have been immense. People watched its progress with keen interest. Michael MacDonagh reported:

When at last the doomed airship vanished from sighting there arose a shout the like of which I never heard in London before — a hoarse shout of mingled execration, triumph and joy: a swelling shout that appeared to be rising from all parts of the metropolis, ever increasing in force and intensity. It was London’s Te Deum for another crowning deliverance.

The crowds went wild. Miss Tower wrote on 2 October 1916, when two zeppelins were hit, ‘I was startled by an outburst of cheering from the crowd below’. Another observer recalled:

The spontaneous barrage of cheering and shouting made the roar of 100,000 people at a pre-war Cup Final sound like an undertone. People danced, kissed, hugged and sang. The hysteria and the abandoned emotion were not confined to one neighbourhood [. . .] The crowd’s reactions everywhere were described as being greater than that which celebrated the relief of Mafeking.

The first airship to be shot down crashed in Potters Bar, Middlesex, 14 miles from the capital. Crowds boarded trains to visit. MacDonagh recalled that all twenty seats in his compartment were taken, and there were ten people standing. Once at Potters Bar railway station, there was another 2 miles to travel. He recorded: ‘It was a joyful crowd all the same.’ Some showed a morbid curiosity. One lady asked if she could see the charred and mutilated remains of the crew, ‘May I go in? I would love to see a dead German.’ But her request was refused. Likewise, people came from miles away to see the bomb crater at Brentford.

Charities also raised money by cashing in on the raids. In September 1916 the remains of downed zeppelins, including one that had fallen near Cuffley, were displayed at the grounds of the Honourable Artillery Company in the City. The entrance fees raised £150 for the Red Cross. In the following month there was a ‘Great Demand for Zeppelin Relics’. Strips of wire from the same zeppelin were sold in London by the British Red Cross — apparently, half a million were sold after the War Office gave the remnants of the zeppelin to the charity.

Reactions were sometimes ugly. The Bishop of London referred to the zeppelins as ‘baby killers’ after a baby was killed in an air-raid on 31 May 1915, and as we have seen, this emotive terminology was adopted by others. After houses in Streatham had been bombed on 24 September 1916, there was anger. MacDonagh recorded the scene:

Bitter resentment against the Germans found expression among the people generally in denunciation and curses. Oh, those Huns! Harmless and defenceless citizens, far away from the Front, liable to be killed in their beds by a marauder in the skies who steals upon them unawares; whose presence they realise only when their homes are tumbling about them in ruins. ‘How dastardly!’ ‘Barbarians!’ ‘Infamous!’ ‘Blast and damn them!’

More violent reactions also occurred. Following the first zeppelin attack, Londoners retaliated in the only way open to them. They attacked the shops of Germans long resident in England, just as their predecessors in 1666 had molested Dutch and Frenchmen in the wake of the Great Fire. Even long-established German shopkeepers, who had been in London for years, found themselves in danger from their former friends and customers. One German baker was only saved from serious injury by the intervention of the police. And yet, some constables were reluctant to protect the German shopkeepers and those who did were verbally abused by the crowds. Quite what the German shopkeepers thought of all this is another matter — they were probably shocked that people they had known for years could attack them because of the actions of their fellow countrymen.

The mood could change, however, once a raid was over.

For example, one journalist noted that: ‘Last night there was nervousness and exasperation; today there was curiosity. What I saw was like a fair attended by holidaymakers.’ Lady Asquith went to see bomb damage at Lincoln’s Inn, denying the accusation from a friend that her excitement was due to boredom.

The bombing on the night of 9 September 1915 killed nine people travelling on one bus in the City and injured another eleven on that doomed form of transport. Over half a million pounds’ (approximately 30 million in modern terms) worth of damage to property had occurred and another twenty-nine people had died and 113 others had been injured, as well as the bus casualties on 9 September. Yet, as Michael MacDonagh noted: ‘The crowds of visitors to the extensive area of the raid were more curious than angry, I thought.’ Boys and girls, on seeing shop windows smashed by the bombs, gathered shards of glass and pieces of shrapnel: ‘There was an eager hunt for souvenirs of the raid.’ Occasionally, penknives had to be used to prise out such items from pavements and walls. When the relics had been carried away, there was applause from onlookers. Some thought the damage minimal. Miss Coules wrote, after a visit to see the aftermath of a raid in September 1915: ‘Considering that there were three zeppelins, it really isn’t very extensive.’

Nevertheless, the civilian authorities did little to lessen potential danger, leading to some displays of animosity on the part of disgruntled locals. That said, some public buildings were protected by sandbags, but air-raid shelters were not constructed, despite public pleas. Instead, civilians were told to take shelter in their own homes or in public buildings. MacDonagh recorded on the occasion of London’s first daylight raid (7 July 1917):

There was deep exasperation at the audacity, ‘the damned impudence’, of the Germans. Did they not show how they despise our defences by twice coming over in broad daylight and successfully carrying off their-raids [. . .] [a British airplane was seen overhead] [. . .] ‘Give the Bosches hell — when you overtake them.’ Derisive laughter burst out, fists were shaken at him.

Miss Tower noted:

People began to get very excited about the zeppelins and to blame the government for not providing better protection against them, and there were meetings to suggest air reprisals and in other ways to give valuable help to the authorities.

Retaliation was demanded. Seeing aircraft bring down a zeppelin, a Cockney news-vendor shouted: ‘Now we can hit the buggers in their own bleedin’ backyard.’ On 2 October 1917, after seeing bomb damage, Lloyd George said: ‘We shall give it all back to them, and we shall give it back very soon. We shall bomb Germany with compound interest.’ The ‘Welsh Wizard’ always knew what to tell people, but in this case action did not match his words.

Due to wartime censorship, newspapers were remarkably reticent over the bombing, so in place of hard facts, stories circulated. Miss Tower recorded, on going to work in a hospital on the night after a raid:

all kinds of yarns and rumours were busy. An airship was reported to have been brought down on Hampstead heath, in Finsbury Park, Regent’s park and at Harrow and Gravesend; in the last she was said to have fallen into the river and had been destroyed by a torpedo boat.

Another story told how a fire had been deliberately started in a factory in Wood Lane, in the City, in order to guide the bombers (a blackout was in force), but as Miss Tower commented: ‘I dare say this story was not true.’

The London air-raids provoked reactions. Many, at least at first, saw them as a novel spectacle — a form of entertainment. Others, however, appreciated the danger. Although casualties were relatively light, this was a new form of warfare in which civilians were placed in deadly peril. But there was little they could do except take cover wherever they could find it or leave the capital. The German bombing campaign was not aimed directly at civilians, but the financial resources of the country — in this it failed. The last raid on London, which occurred on 19 May 1918, resulted in several losses among the attackers: six out of the eighty aircraft involved were shot down. Further aerial attacks on London were called off as being too costly.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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