World War I Air Raid Damage
The Blitz of World War II is a defining part of London’s history. The films of Humphrey Jennings depict Londoners defiantly carrying on about their business amidst the rubble of nightly air raids. Civilian moral refused to crack despite 18,000 tons of bombs being dropped on London, killing over 20,000 people and destroying thousands of homes and other buildings. The term “Blitz Spirit” entered the language.
However London had also been under bombardment from the air during World War I. Between January 1915 and August 1918 there were 51 air raids, initially by Zeppelin airships, then later on by bomber planes. Although the damage was light compared to World War II, 1413 people were killed across Britain as a whole. The raids caused panic – a new kind of warfare had been unleashed on London and people were unprepared. The rudimentary navigation systems on early aircraft meant the bombing was very haphazard. The imposition of a blackout in London meant that production in factories was affected, doing more damage to wartime production than the bombs did. Children were evacuated to the countryside, another hash introduction to 20th century warfare.
You can still see reminders of these World War I air raids. At 61 Farringdon Road a building (appropriately now known as The Zeppelin Building) carries this plaque to mark the fact that its predecessor was destroyed in a raid in September 1915
Another raid in October dropped a bomb in Lincoln’s Inn, shattering the windows of the chapel, but mercifully not causing major structural damage. A stone has been set in the ground where the bomb landed
and you can see some of the damage caused to the wall of the chapel near the commemorative plaque.
More damage was caused to one of London’s famous landmarks – Cleopatra’s Needle. Again a plaque marks the damage.
The Lord Mayor of London Sir Charles Wakefield offered a cash prize for the first Zeppelin to be downed. The problem was that the existing anti-aircraft guns (effectively field artillery) didn’t have sufficient muzzle velocity to hit a Zeppelin at cruising altitude. However the Zeppelins came lower to drop their bombs. A battery in Romford were the first to hit one of the machines, but at the time there were claims from other batteries. As a result the cash prize was withdrawn and all 353 men on anti aircraft duty that night were issued with gold medals bearing their names. An example can be seen at Firepower, the regimental museum of the Royal Artillery. They appear for sale infrequently but one was sold recently for £1200.
By 1917 the huge Zeppelin airships were becoming easy targets for improved fighter aircraft like the Sopwith Camel. The Germans had developed large bomber aircraft, the main one being the Gotha. These were faster and more manoeuvrable than the Zeppelin. Gotha’s damaged one of London’s most famous landmarks – Cleopatra’s Needle
The damage to the plinth and the sphinx was caused during an air raid a few minutes before midnight on Tuesday 4th September, 1917. A group of five Gotha bombers attacked London. The bomb that fell here was intended for Charing Cross station but fell short. It hit a tram and the conductor and two passengers were killed. It left a hole in the road leaving the underground railway visible. After the raid one of the bombers was shot down and disappeared into the Medway.
Another lucky survivor of a Gotha raid was St John’s Gate – the Tudor gateway to the priory of the Order of St John. A bomb hit a building a few doors away. Luckily the Gate itself saw little damage.
Luckily lessons were learnt from the bombing, especially on how best to design air raid shelters, and these lessons saved countless lives in the bigger raids of World War II
Thanks to Brian McClory and Rob Smith for pictures and text on this post. You can hear more about damage to Cleopatra’s Needle in Brian’s walk Close to Charing Cross. You can hear more about how writers from the 1880’s imagined the air bombardment of London would be in his walk London Destroyed.