The topic for publication on the London Shoes website this week, is an unusual one, as it focusses on a series of events of a particular time in London’s history, that are probably overshadowed by similar events that occurred some 25 years later.
London’s war time history always, and quite understandably, references the ‘Blitz’ in WW2 and the devastation the air raids caused to London and Londoner’s.
However, there is very little awareness and coverage of the air raids on London that took place throughout WW1 – the very first time in history that London had ever been ‘attacked’ from the skies.
I for one, had no knowledge of these incidents – and I’m sure that there are many others that don’t either – and so my quest for this week to find out a little bit more about these attacks, and to see whether any ‘evidence’ exists in today’s London, of these historic events that took place over 100 years ago.
When WW1 broke out in 1914, automated flight was still very much in its infancy – as it was only a few years earlier in 1903 that the famous ‘Wright Brothers’ had designed and tested the very first powered airplane.
However, by the outbreak of WW1 the defence forces of some of the more advanced countries did, by then, have light aircraft as part of their armoury.
Apart from a fleet of small airplanes, the German military also had an ‘Airship’ – called the “Zeppelin” which was basically a huge balloon type construction, shaped like London’s ‘Gherkin’ building of today – which was a rigid metal frame within which were held a number of separate gasbags, each bag containing inflammable hydrogen, a lifting gas. The structure of the Zeppelin frame was covered with an outer skin of linen.
Suspended below the framework of a Zeppelin were capsules, known as gondolas. These gondolas contained the control room where the engines that drove the propellers and the crew, were situated. The control room also had the capacity to hold machine guns and bombs.
At the start of WW1 in 1914, there was a strong desire by the German military to ‘hurt’ London by using their Zeppelins to fly over and drop incendiary bombs on us.
However, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, like a lot of other people, thought that the war would be over very quickly and therefore he was very much against this idea of attacking London, as he did not really want to damage his close association with the British monarchy – nor did he want to damage London’s cultural heritage buildings and landmarks.
So – he reluctantly agreed that ‘Zeppelin’ raids could be conducted, but on other industrial cities/locations in the UK. However, because of bad weather conditions and heavy cloud etc, the Zeppelins were often blown well off-course, which meant that the intended targets very rarely got ‘hit’ – and as a result of these early raids, the bombs tended to land unintentionally on coastal towns in areas such as Essex, Norfolk and Kent.
By 1915, it was clearly evident that the War was not going to end quickly, and the Kaiser came really under pressure to reconsider his stance on attacking London.
He reluctantly gave-in to demands, and sanctioned the ‘bombing’ of London – but with the strict order that only areas to the east of the Tower of London. He insisted that the City and its historic buildings must NOT be attacked.
With that in mind, on the 31st May 1915, at around 11:20 pm on a very cloudy night – the very first ‘aerial’ attack on London took place.
A Zeppelin airship, that had come across the channel, down the Estuary and turned right at Southend – from 2 miles up in the sky – dropped the first ever bombs on London.
The first property to be hit was number 16 Alkham Road – a residential house in Stoke Newington N16 – just to the west of the Kingsland (another of the branches I managed in my banking career) – Fortunately no one was seriously injured in this initial strike.
Then, the Zeppelin circled over areas to the south of Hackney, and further bombs were dropped on Dalston, Hoxton, Shoreditch, Spitalfields, Whitechapel and Stepney, Stratford and finally Leytonstone.
Most damage occurred to private residential houses, but some of these bombs also struck the ‘Shoreditch Empire Music Hall’ during a performance, and another smashed through the glass roof of the Great Eastern Railway’s Bishopsgate Goods Yard. In Whitechapel, bombs struck damaged a church, a synagogue and a warehouse full of Johnnie Walker’s whisky.
By the end of the raid a total of 90 incendiary bombs had been dropped in this little quarter of London – causing 41 separate fires.
The human cost of that evening’s activity left 7 dead and 35 injured – and obviously a considerable amount of structural damage.
The following day hundreds of sightseers visited the areas that had suffered in the bombing, to see the damage for themselves. Anti-German rioting also broke out in the bombed areas, with angry mobs smashing up and looting shops whose owners had German-sounding names.
The incident ranks as one of the most terrifying nights of London’s history – It was totally unprecedented as Britain had never been attacked from the skies before, and so we were totally unprepared and didn’t really have the armoury or know how to deal with such aggression.
By July 1915, and relenting in the face of consistent increasing pressure, the Kaiser finally consented to the whole of London being in scope for bombing – and as a result, further air raids, by German Zeppelins and also some small fighter planes, were conducted on London right up until 1917 – by which time, rapid technical advances in Britain’s air defences enabled us to successfully detect and eliminate the threat of these types of attacks, before they could do any serious damage – and as a result, the use of Zeppelins soon faded away.
The very last Zeppelin attack on London took place on the night of the 19th October 1917 when 3 residential houses in Glenview Road, Hither Green took a direct hit, killing 14 people.
All in all, a total of around 200 people lost their lives in these night raids, which obviously also caused millions of pounds worth of damage.
So – armed with all this information, my quest this week was to seek out any evidence of these historic raids that may be still around albeit some 100 years later – and I was really surprised at what I discovered.
It was a long day out, locating and exploring all these landmarks – so before heading off back home, I popped into the ‘Dolphin Tavern’ pub in Red Lion Street, near Holborn – for the customary couple of ‘cheeky’ beers.
I specifically chose the ‘Dolphin Tavern’ pub as this was one of the buildings that took a ‘hit’ from the skies during WW1.
On the night of 9th September 1917, the Dolphin was hit by an explosive bomb dropped from a Zeppelin, and sadly 3 men were killed.
Hanging on the wall inside by the bar, is the original pub clock which stopped when the bomb hit the building at 10:40pm that night – and although not commemorating a pleasant occurrence, I do feel it is a nice little touch and a reminder of the tough and scary times Londoner’s had to live through some 100 years ago.
Hope you find the accompanying photographic evidence interesting.