Saturday, 24 July 2021

A step back in time: The Hamburg Air Raid Shelter Museum

This article first appeared on the blog in February 2013 but to mark the 78th anniversary of the beginning of the "Gomorrah" raids, we have slightly updated the piece slightly to present it to you once again.

I first visited Hamburg's only Air Raid Shelter Museum in February 2013 and have returned twice since to this fascinating but still relatively little-known museum located in the eastern inner suburbs of Germany's second largest city.

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the war will be aware that between 24th July and 2nd August 1943, Hamburg was laid waste by a series of  RAF and smaller USAAF air raids with the macabre codename Operation Gomorrah, that peaked, if that is the correct word, on 27th July with a vast firestorm that devastated the districts of Hamm, Hammerbrook and Borgfelde causing casualty figures that are difficult to comprehend even today and which left a generation of survivors scarred with mental images of the hellish scenes that they had witnessed. 

We have already covered the raid in the February 2011 edition of this blog but before one of my regular visits to Hamburg, I learned of the Air Raid Shelter Museum located on the Wichernsweg in the Hamm district, one of the hardest hit areas of the 1943 raids. The opportunity to visit such an important piece of wartime history was too good to miss and after a brief exchange of emails, a guided tour was arranged for myself and the group of friends who were visiting with me.

The steps to safety (author's photo)

We arrived at the entrance to the Shelter promptly at 11:00 and were greeted by Gunnar Wulf, our friendly and knowledgeable guide for the tour. A brisk descent down in excess of twenty steps took us out of the chilly Hamburg weather down into a subterranean world, which in the summer of 1943 would have represented the best hope of surviving the horrors about to rain down on the city. The shelter was built between April 1940 and April 1941 as part of a country wide scheme of shelter construction in anticipation of British air raids following the outbreak of war in September 1939. The shelter was built approximately five metres underground from reinforced concrete with walls one metre thick. This substantial construction provided protection from everything except a direct hit. 

At the bottom of the stairs, we entered a chamber, which during the war would have acted as a gas-proofed airlock area, from which we saw four parallel tunnel like chambers, which formed the actual shelter part of the bunker. Each tunnel is 17 metres long and has a headroom of 2.25 metres, which allows even the tallest amongst us to stand upright, which as Gunnar explained later was very important in 1943. Each chamber had bench type seating for 50 people as well as shelves for personal belongings. Each tunnel is interlinked with a small passageway into the adjoining chamber as well as being served by an emergency exit at the opposite end to the main stairs so as to allow speedy evacuation in case of a bomb breaching the shelter or blocking the entrance.

The Gas-tight entrance or Gasschleuse (author's photo)

We were then led into one of the tunnel-like chambers, now in use as a small lecture theatre where after sitting down, Gunnar formally greeted us and introduced us to Timothy Hulme, a post-graduate military history student from Wales who had been enlisted to assist with translating any technical terms. The introduction started by explaining the different types of shelter used in Germany during the wartime years. In Hamburg, there were two types of above ground shelter as well as the underground type that we were visiting. The above ground shelters consisted of the brick clad shelters, looking rather like overgrown pepperpots, which were often located close to main railway stations and of which several still survive in Hamburg. The other type of above ground shelter were the Flakturm or Flak Towers, which doubled as anti-aircraft gun emplacements and fortresses as well as shelters. These huge reinforced concrete structures have often proved impossible to destroy and one of these towers survives in the St Pauli area of the city, close to the Millerntor Stadion, home of St Pauli FC.

This is Wichernsweg in 1940 - the shelter entrance was to the left of the church (Stadtteilarchiv Hamm)

Going back to 'our' shelter, we then moved to an explanation as to who was allowed to use the shelter and Gunnar described how local residents were registered with the Shelter Warden as being permitted to use this particular shelter. Residents were expected to make their whereabouts known and if a person was travelling and unable to use a shelter for a particular length of time, he or she was under instructions to inform the Warden of their non-attendance; failure to do this and not to attend for three consecutive nights, meant that permission to use a particular shelter could be withdrawn. Most of the shelter residents were the very young and the elderly; the majority of the younger men were in the armed forces and many of the younger women by 1943, were involved in some form of war work. The unpalatable truth concerning the fate of Jewish would-be shelterers was also touched upon and Gunnar explained that the Nazis simply would not permit people of that faith to use the public shelters. Jews who by 1943 had not been shipped off to one of the death camps were expected to remain in their homes, not to take shelter and basically take their chances. The Allied bombers could do the Nazis' job for them without the expense of shipping these people away.

Elderly male shelterers pass the time with a card game (Stadtteilarchiv Hamm)

We then moved to what for me was the most striking part of the entire tour. We were played a recording, some of which was taken during an actual raid. For this recording, the lighting in the shelter was extinguished and we listened in complete darkness, in much the same way as if a nearby bomb falling had extinguished the lighting, as happened frequently. The recording started with a radio broadcast; the ticking metronome sound being interrupted by a voice telling us that enemy raiders were approaching and instructing the listeners to take shelter, followed by the haunting sound of the air raid sirens. We then heard the sound of approaching bombers and the steady drone of the engines of 800 plus Lancasters and Halifaxes. Up until now, I have always considered the noise of the Merlin engine to be a friendly, reassuring sound but sitting in the total darkness waiting for the bombs to start falling, even in a simulation like this, it was anything but friendly and oozed menace. Next we heard the sound of bombs falling, including one or two that must have been very close to the person making the original recording and finally we heard the somewhat distressing sound of people screaming and crying; quite possibly the sound of people being killed.

At this point, the recording finished, the lights were raised and we moved to the next stage of our tour. On the way out of this chamber, we examined the many photographs, taken unofficially at the time of various groups of shelterers; many were elderly and they made poignant viewing of people playing cards, knitting, chatting or just trying to get some sleep. These were ordinary people and looked no different to their counterparts in London, Coventry or any other city under fire.

The Shelter Wardens' Area (author's photograph)

In the next chamber, we visited the area which would have been used by the Shelter Warden and saw some artefacts from the shelter's wartime past, including a noticeboard, a shelter telephone and an air raid siren, which obviously was not originally located in the shelter but was there for display purposes. We were also showed the location of the emergency exit at the other end of the tunnel, which could be reached from the other three by means of connecting passageways between the four chambers. Also included in this area were a series of photographs from the Holborn area of London following damage inflicted by the Luftwaffe in the Blitz of 1940-41, as well as several personal accounts of Londoners during this time. Gunnar explained that he always went to great lengths to explain to visiting school groups that London was bombed first, in 1940 and that what subsequently happened to Hamburg and other German cities was a direct result of this. He also mentioned that he frequently showed school groups the Holborn photographs without captions and that the children often confuse them with photos of Hamburg. As Gunnar pointed out, one bombed city looks much like another.

Re-creation of how shelterers' luggage was stored (author's photo)

We then moved into the third chamber, the layout of which has been recreated as the shelter would originally have been in 1943. This included bench type seating on one side, with wooden luggage racks on the opposite side. Today, these racks were filled with suitcases and luggage of the period, including some donated by Gunnar's Mother. He explained that each shelterer was issued with a list of what they should bring with them. This included a change of clothing, washing things, knives and forks - basically what one would take on an overnight stay or a short camping trip. This part of the shelter also contained the toilet - a dry chemical type - and the First Aid area, which contained the only beds to be found - a bunk bed arrangement for anyone who was taken ill during the night, or who was unable to sit or stand. We also saw the air filter, designed to provide a source of 'fresh' air into the shelter and which in theory could help filter out poison gas. The outside chamber leading into the main entrance stairs was also used as a Gasschleuse or airlock, where poison gas, being heavier than air would roll down the stairs and dissipate on the floor, with the main shelter chambers being sealed by large blast and gas proof steel doors. Mercifully, neither side used poison gas during the Second World War, so this was never put to the test. However, the filter could not keep out smoke and during the raids of 1943, when fires were burning out of control up on the surface, the filter had to be switched off in the hope that the shelterers would have enough air to see the raid out.

The Air Filter with the only two bunk beds visible in the background and the toilet behind them. The emergency exit is at the far end of this area (author's photo)

Gunnar described how, although the shelter was designed for 200 people, during the great raids of 1943 anyone and everyone was allowed in. He related one story told to him by a shelterer of the time that during the firestorm raid of 27th July 1943, so many people were crammed into the shelter that it was impossible to move from one end of the tunnel to the other and consequently toilet visits were impossible. Combined with being in near darkness, the sound of bombs falling and the air fetid with smoke and unwashed bodies, the conditions do not bear thinking about. Despite this, everyone who sheltered here during the raids of 1943 survived to tell the tale; many others elsewhere were not so lucky. 

Bottles twisted into fantastic shapes by the intense heat of the Firestorm (author's photo)

This room also contained many other artefacts of the wartime years, including a misshapen bottle found buried outside the shelter. The bottle was intact but had assumed a very peculiar shape. Hamm was in the centre of the firestorm and this bottle had been partially melted and it was explained to us that the temperature required to achieve this was between 800 - 1200 degrees Celsius. Obviously people could not survive outside in these conditions and eye witness accounts tell us of people seeing what they thought were 'tailors dummies' lying around on the streets, including the nearby main thoroughfare, the Hammer Landstrasse. These 'tailors dummies' were human bodies, charred often beyond recognition. Usually though, there was even less left to find - the official death toll is usually shown in the region of 42,000 to 45,000 but the true human cost of these terrible nights will probably never be known.

Knives and Forks suffered the same fate in the heat (author's photo)

For the final part of our tour, Gunnar took us to a part of the bunker that is not usually open to the public but which is used for storing artefacts not normally on display. These included more partially melted bottles which had assumed crazy shapes, knives and forks also twisted in the firestorm as well as many items of wartime ephemera unearthed from the ground around the area. In the main entrance hall as we gathered to leave the shelter was a large piece of shrapnel from a British 500 lb bomb, also discovered close by.

A large piece of shrapnel from a British bomb (author's photo)

After bidding our farewells, it was a somewhat more reflective group which climbed the stairs back to the surface and as we crossed the Hammer Landstrasse on our way back to the U-Bahn Station, it was hard to imagine that this was the same road, that almost seventy years ago was strewn with 'tailors dummies' and a scene of unimaginable hell on Earth.

Thanks are again due to Gunnar and Timothy for guiding us so expertly around the shelter and for making us so welcome. A short article of this nature cannot possibly compare with making a personal visit and if visiting the city of Hamburg, this is to be recommended. The museum is open to the public on Thursdays but private visits for groups of upto thirty in number can be arranged by prior appointment and this can be arranged via the museum's website.

Finally, apart from the February 2011 blog post linked earlier, for further in depth reading of the 'Operation Gomorrah' raids, I can thoroughly recommend 'Inferno - The Devastation of Hamburg 1943' by Keith Lowe, published in 2007 by Penguin Viking, which is a superbly written study of the raids dealing with the background, the planning, the raids themselves both from the viewpoint of the airmen and those on the ground and also dealing with the aftermath.

Lest we forget.

Published Sources:

Bomber Boys: Fighting Back 1940-1945 - Patrick Bishop, HarperPress 2007
Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg 1943 - Keith Lowe, Penguin Viking 2007

Remembering Gomorrah: Mahnmal St. Nikolai, Hamburg

As regular readers will be aware, this writer is a frequent visitor to Germany and to the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg in particular. The near destruction of the city in July and August 1943 by the RAF and USAAF in a series of major air raids has been well documented on this blog in February 2011 and again last February, when I visited the Air Raid Shelter Museum in Hamm. Therefore, it was with great interest than I learned of a new permanent museum that has opened in the crypt of the ruined Nikolaikirche, which lay at the heart of the firestorm started by the RAF's first raid of Operation Gomorrah, as this sequence of air attacks was christened, on the night of 24th July 1943. Having learned of the museum's opening, a visit was a 'must' and along with my companions on the trip, we made the short journey by S-Bahn from our hotel on a sunny Monday morning a couple of weeks ago.

There has been a church on this site since the year 1195 and the current building's immediate predecessor with it's Baroque tower had been a familiar sight to the people of Hamburg as well as visitors to the great port until this fell victim to the great fire that devastated the city in 1842. The present building was designed by the British architect George Gilbert Scott and took 36 years to be completed following the commencement of construction work in 1846. 

This magnificent Gothic church soon became a well known Hamburg landmark and on 24th July 1943, such was the devastation, both to the Nikolaikirche and the surrounding area, that many local people were under the impression that the RAF used the spire of the church as their aiming point. This is an urban myth, sadly perpetuated in the otherwise excellent guidebook produced by the museum; the RAF pathfinders were simply ordered to mark the area between the Alster and the River Elbe. It would not have been possible to discern the spire of the church from 20,000 feet in pitch dark conditions, whereas it was eminently possible to make out the two large expanses of water and mark the space in between. Given the fact that the church was, and still is, a potent symbol for the city, it is perhaps understandable that Hamburgers felt that the RAF would use it as a target. It is interesting to note that the vicar of the nearby Michaeliskirche - the 'Michel' as the church is known affectionately - claimed that his church was the main target. As with raids on London, people took these things personally and asserted that their neighbourhood was the focal point of any bombing.

Cross of Nails from Coventry Cathedral (author's photo)

When the Gomorrah raids finally ceased on 2nd August 1943, some 45,000 civilians had been killed and somewhere in the region of one million people had fled the city. There was very little left to bomb and although the RAF and USAAF did return, most of their attentions were occupied in bombing the shipyards and surviving industries along the River Elbe.

Hamburg was surrendered to elements of the British 7th Armoured Division, the famed Desert Rats, on 3rd May 1945 and when the Union Flag was hoisted over the Rathaus, or Town Hall, the British had taken possession of a city that carried the 'Stink of Death' as one British soldier there at the time eloquently put it, for there were still many bodies laying beneath the rubble nearly two years after the Gomorrah raids.

It was understandable, given the huge task of rebuilding the city, that reconstruction of the Nikolaikirche was never seriously considered. Coupled with the expense that this would have entailed, there was in the 1950s, a general antipathy towards Gothic architecture and following the demolition of the nave and choir areas in 1951, coupled with the removal of all remaining rubble, the church was left as a 'cleaned up' ruin. In 1977, the decision was taken to turn the ruin into a permanent memorial dedicated to the victims of war and tyranny from 1933-45. The memorial has gradually evolved thanks to the efforts of the Forderkreis Mahnmal St Nikolai (Friends and Supporters of St Nikolai Memorial) who had long wished to make a permanent exhibition within the crypt of the church. Thanks to a generous donation from Reinhold Scharnberg, a retired Senior Senate Executive who as a young man, witnessed the destruction of the city first hand, this new permanent exhibition was made possible and opened in September 2013, some seventy years on from the Gomorrah raids.

Surviving Altar fragments (author's photo)

Upon entry to the exhibition, visitors are greeted by the words 'Hamburg is falling' taken from Bertolt Brecht's diary entry of 26th July 1943 which is superimposed on a large format photograph of the ruined city. The history of the Nikolaikirche is reviewed as well as an explanation of the relationship between the Nazi state and the church, which is supported by documents recovered from the church archives. The early effects of the war upon the church are explored and as a result of these early raids, the decision to remove and evacuate the stained glass windows is explained. Following the church's near total destruction in 1943, we see surviving fragments of the altar and pulpit as well as learning of the destruction of 27 other churches within the Hamburg area during this time. We also learn of the transformation of the Nikolaikirche into a memorial as well as the construction of a replacement church at the Klosterstern.

Moving into the next area of the exhibition, we see how the citizens of Hamburg prepared for the onset of Allied air raids. Civil Defence exercises and Air Raid Precautions all look remarkably similar to the preparations made by the British authorities but with one chilling difference which this exhibition honestly tackles. In Britain, Air Raid Precautions and Civil Defence were available and designed to cater for all people, whilst in Nazi Germany, these facilities were denied to Jews and other minority groups. This exclusion is explained, and a series of reports document deportations and expropriations of Jewish people, whilst a compilation of letters from a Jewish citizen of Hamburg give a telling insight into her experiences in Hamburg before she was deported to a concentration camp. We also learn of the Luftwaffe's air raids on Guernica, Warsaw, Rotterdam, Coventry and London, as well as other cities and discover how this hardened the attitude of the British once they were able to allocate resources to strengthening their own bomber force, resulting in the Area Bombing Directive issued to the RAF in 1942 which provided for a change in strategy in order to undermine the morale of the German Civil Population. This culminated in the destruction of Lubeck in March 1942 and we see the evidence of this in some large format photographs.

Civil Defence equipment, including Babies gas mask and stirrup pump (author's photo)

We now entered the main gallery where Operation Gomorrah itself is described. At the centre of the room is a large 'media desk' which shows the locations of shelters, the extent of the areas damaged and destroyed, information on the various types of bombs used as well as an explanation of the 'firestorm' effect that occurred with devastating consequences as a result of this raid. We also see an insight into the raids from the perspective of the Allied air crews and see first hand accounts as to how they felt and what they saw when dropping their deadly loads onto the city below. We also see examples of 'window', basically foil strips cut to the same wavelength as the German radar, which was used for the first time during the Gomorrah raids and which succeeded in blinding the radar defences of the city.

Strips of 'Window' dropped by the RAF (author's photo)

We also learn of the German defences based in the flak towers, as well as learning of the blackout regulations and how to react when the air raid sirens sounded. We also see the 'emergency suitcases' which all Hamburgers were required to have packed and ready in the event of being bombed out.

After the city had been effectively razed to the ground in some areas, a darker side of the rescue and recovery operations emerged. Forced labourers and inmates from the nearby Neuengamme Concentration Camp were used to recover bodies, clear rubble, seal off the worst areas and most appallingly of all, were used for bomb disposal work, despite having no know-how of this. Unsurprisingly, many of these people became further, albeit indirect victims of the raids and the exhibition explains their involvement in great detail.

Neuengamme Concentration Camp inmates at work in Hamburg (Mahnmal St Nikolai/Author's collection)

The final phase of the exhibition focuses on how people lived amongst the ruins and the difficulties encountered in tracking down relatives. We also learn of the flight and evacuation of the population from Hamburg and see many diary extracts and letters covering the subject. We also learn of the dwindling morale of the city's population and the peaceful surrender of the city in May. Finally, we see something of the early peacetime reconstruction and temporary accommodation supplied to the people of Hamburg in the form of Nissen Huts, which were also used in British cities, some of which survived until the late 1950s.

On leaving the exhibition, we see a quotation from Klaus Mann dating back to 1943:

"Hamburg as I knew it will never exist again. The city will certainly be rebuilt but it's face and atmosphere will be fundamentally changed."

As if to reinforce the changes in the cityscape, visitors can now climb the surviving tower and spire of the church, fortunately by lift, where a viewing platform affords panoramic views of the city.

View of the Rathaus and the Binnenalster from the Viewing Platform (author's photo)

Devastation of Stadthausbr├╝cke in 1943 (Mahnmal St Nikolai/Author's collection)

This is a fascinating and well constructed exhibition which as one would expect is admirably anti-war in it's outlook. It also pulls no punches in apportioning blame for the catastrophe which befell Hamburg in 1943 and leaves the visitor in no doubt regarding the worst excesses of the Nazi regime which brought about tyranny, persecution, discrimination and extermination, not only of Jews but of many other minorities, simply because they did not fit into the system. Had the Nazis not been permitted to attain power in 1933, Hamburg could have been spared, as could have the rest of the World. The complexities and controversies surrounding Operation Gomorrah along with German post-war attitudes to the affair are explored in great detail and with great honesty.

When in Hamburg a visit to the Nikolaikirche is highly recommended. The St Nikolai Memorial can be reached by S-Bahn lines S1 and S3 to Stadthausbr├╝cke or U-Bahn U3 to Rodingsmarkt. The museum and the viewing platform are both open daily and combined entrance to both is just 5 Euros.

Published Sources:

Churchill's Desert Rats: From Normandy to Berlin with 7th Armoured Division - Patrick Delaforce - Alan Sutton Publishing 1994
Gomorrah 1943: Hamburg's Destruction through Aerial Warfare - Mahnmal St Nikolai, 2013
Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg 1943 - Keith Lowe - Viking, 2007

Monday, 17 May 2021

Another local hero in Greenwich

The CWGC Memorial at Greenwich Cemetery (Author's Photo)

In the history of this blog, which is now in its twelfth year of existence, the post which seems to have prompted the most feedback is one that first appeared in December 2012 and which in itself was a rehash of a post that was originally written as a guest piece for another blog. The post concerned my own locality of Charlton in southeast London and the immediate surrounding area.

Back in February in the midst of the latest lockdown, I received another comment on this piece, this time from Martin Short, whose grandfather Lance Bombardier Henry W Short was killed whilst serving with 303 Battery, 26 Searchlight Regiment at the Maze Hill Searchlight Site on the edge of Blackheath on 23 June 1944 when a V-1 flying bomb exploded there.

Blackheath, in common with most of the other large parks and open spaces in London was the home to anti-aircraft and searchlight batteries, as well as a barrage balloon site. Similar locations at Woolwich Common, Plumstead Marshes, Southwark Park, Peckham Rye and just across the Thames on the Isle of Dogs and at Beckton were all home to heavy and light anti-aircraft batteries, as well as the accompanying searchlights. The heavy batteries, which were all part of the London Inner Artillery Zone (IAZ) would consist of 3.7", 4.5" or 5.25" guns which would concentrate on the higher flying aircraft, whilst the light batteries were concentrated on the 40mm rapid firing Bofors guns, which could deal with any incursions by lower flying fighter bomber types. Searchlights were an essential in illuminating the raiders at night, especially in the early days of the war before the introduction of gun-laying radar and the proximity fuze.

During the Blitz of 1940-41, the guns had had little impact, other than by perhaps boosting the morale of those on the ground, who did at least feel that the raiders were not dropping their bombs totally without challenge. By the time of Little Blitz in 1943 however, London boasted formidable anti-aircraft defences and these, combined with the night fighter force, took a heavy toll of the raiders.

Henry Short (back row, furthest right) and his colleagues from 303 Battery (Martin Short)

The onset of the flying bomb campaign on 13 June 1944 was something of a game-changer for the British anti-aircraft defences, for whilst the guns which were by now aided by gun-laying radar and equipped with proximity fuzes for their ammunition, could bring down the V-1s, shooting down a one tonne warhead over a heavily populated area was totally counter-productive and as a result, the guns and searchlights of the IAZ, as well as those elsewhere in southeast England, were relocated to the south coast some two weeks after the first of the missiles fell on England. Any V-1s shot down here could explode over open countryside and any of the missiles that evaded the guns and the barrage balloons (which had also been relocated), could then be left to Fighter Command's "anti-diver" patrols to deal with. So effective were these counter measures, that of the almost 10,500 V-1s launched towards Great Britain, only some 2,400 reached the Greater London area, although it must be stressed that these still caused great damage and loss of life.

One of those that did reach came before the redeployment of the guns and searchlights from the London IAZ and ironically, fell upon the Searchlight Site at Maze Hill, where Henry Short and his colleagues from 303 Battery were attempting to defend London from these very weapons.

Henry Short remembered on the Greenwich CWGC Memorial (Author's photo)

The War Diary for 26 Searchlight Regiment times the incident vaguely as being between 05:42 on 22 June and 05:42 the following day but the Civil Defence Incident Log for the Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich gives us a precise time of 02:05 on the 23 June 1944. The incident log reports five fatal casualties, all military, whilst the War Diary reports "Lt. A Jullien and Lt. F.A.G. Smith wounded - 3 OR (other ranks) killed and 9 OR wounded. Lt Jullien died of wounds shortly after admission to hospital." The War Diary goes on to report, somewhat superfluously, "There was also severe damage to equipment."

These logs and diaries were written in the heat of the moment based on the information available but in reality, seven men were killed here:

Lieutenant Alfred Jullien
Serjeant Frank Lockwood
Gunner Albert Mason
Gunner Albert Rideout
Lance Bombardier Henry Short
Gunner Joseph Stevens
Serjeant John Travers

Henry Short was born in Basingstoke on 7 July 1905 and had moved to the Tooting area of London in 1909. Henry's father, who shared the same Christian name as his son, was described in the 1939 Register as a "Journeyman Tailor" and Henry junior followed in his father's footsteps to become part of the same profession. He had married Catherine Sparks in 1928 and had a son, Kenneth a year later.

Like many who saw that war was perhaps inevitable, Henry enlisted as a Territorial at Duke of York's HQ in Chelsea on 28 February 1939 and was mobilised shortly before the actual declaration. His trade as described in his Army Service Book was Driver Mechanic.

Serjeant Frank Lockwood remembered on the Greenwich CWGC Memorial (Author's photo)

Martin has kindly shared a photograph of his grandfather, who we see in the back row, top right of the image but sadly none of the other men are captioned, so it is quite possible that some of the other casualties are within this group.

Henry Short rests at Greenwich Cemetery in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission plot and is also commemorated on the screen wall of the 1939 - 1945 Memorial there, along with his colleague Frank Lockwood.

Unpublished Sources

26 Searchlight Regiment RA - Regimental War Diary - UK National Archives Kew WO 166/14864
Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich Civil Defence Incident Log
Martin Short family reminiscences

Monday, 5 April 2021

Looking Out for Gothas

Gotha bomber (author's collection)

Perhaps less well-known than the Zeppelin raids on London during the First World War were the raids carried out by conventional aircraft, most notably by Gothas, large twin engine bombers that could carry a sizeable (for the time) bomb load of fourteen 25 kg bombs. The aircraft's range was also impressive for the time; at 840 kilometres, this meant the Gotha could easily reach London and return to their bases located around Ghent in German-occupied Belgium.

The threat posed by Zeppelin raids on London appeared to have been largely defeated, for the time being at least by the late autumn of 1916 and although raids continued sporadically until October 1917 and the threat of enemy air attack was still clear, the British took a remarkable decision to reduce London's anti-aircraft defences in order to redeploy the available manpower to the Western Front. Anti-aircraft gun defences were reduced in number and two fighter squadrons were redeployed to France. Furthermore and even more remarkably, anti-aircraft guns were ordered not to open fire - even if aircraft were confirmed as hostile - except for specified guns at coastal locations.

It was against this background of reduced British defences that the first Gotha raid on London was planned by the Luftstreitkrafte (Imperial German Air Service) for the 25 May 1917. Twenty three Gothas set off, led by Hauptmann Ernst Brandenburg but thick cloud cover saved the capital on this occasion and the formation was forced to turn back for home, although some secondary targets in Kent were bombed instead. Folkestone and an Army camp at Shorncliffe were the main recipients of the bombs originally planned for London and some 95 people were killed, with a further 195 seriously injured.

Given the reductions in the anti-aircraft defences and the apparent complacency that the German aerial threat had been defeated,the British response to this first raid was predictably confused and ineffective. Only some of the specified coastal anti-aircraft guns had opened fire and although some seventy fighter aircraft had taken to the air, only one got close enough to engage the enemy - without success. Royal Navy aircraft based in the Dunkirk region did manage to intercept the raiders as they returned home and claimed one Gotha shot down into the sea, whilst another crashed on landing near to Bruges, with the loss of the crew.

The British public were outraged by this muddled response and makeshift arrangements were put in place to ensure that training squadrons and experimental units made aircraft available and anti-aircraft observers were placed on lightships in the Thames Estuary to give a measure of early warning. Discussions about introducing an air raid warning system took place but at this stage were inconclusive. During the Zeppelin raids, no warning system had been in place in London and during this period, humorous postcards had circulated, with place names altered to suit the localities concerned that showed members of the public on the look out for the raiders.

Looking for Zeppelins at WOOLWICH (Royal Arsenal History Group)

Updated versions of these now appeared, with the word "Zeppelin" substituted by "Gotha" but with the same message.

Looking for Gothas at PLUMSTEAD (Deborah O'Boyle)

A second raid was attempted on 5 June but was once again thwarted by the weather. The British response was largely similar to the first raid; fighters despatched to intercept struggled to reach the raiders in time, although the anti-aircraft guns around Shoeburyness and Sheerness did manage to bring down one Gotha, which crashed into the Thames Estuary, with the loss of all but one of the crew.

It was inevitable that a Gotha raid would succeed in reaching London sooner or later and on 13 June 1917, it was to happen. Twenty aircraft originally departed from the airfields around Ghent but two were to turn back with engine problems. The remainder continued, with one aircraft peeling off to bomb Margate, on which it dropped five bombs before returning to base, whilst a further two diverted to Shoeburyness where they dropped six bombs, before they too headed home. Yet another aircraft followed the Thames towards Greenwich on a photo reconnaissance mission, whilst the remaining fourteen continued towards London. 

Although the anti-aircraft batteries had by now been given permission to fire, locating the targets in the hazy morning skies proved difficult and shortly after 11:30, the first bomb fell harmlessly on an allotment in Barking. Further bombs fell in East Ham, with one in Alexandra Road damaging 42 properties and more importantly, killing four people and injuring a further eleven. Another bomb fell by the Royal Albert Dock, where eight dock workers were killed.

PC Alfred Smith remembered at Postman's Park (author's photo)

Bombs fell on Liverpool Street Station, where sixteen were killed and a further fifteen injured. Not far from here, in Central Street, PC Alfred Smith was able to save the lives of several female factory workers by preventing them from rushing into the street to witness the commotion. Sadly, at the moment he was urging the women to remain inside, a bomb exploded in the street and killed him instantly. PC Smith is today remembered on the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice at Postman's Park, in the City of London, as well as on a commemorative plaque in Central Street at the site of the original incident.

PC Alfred Smith plaque in Central Street (author's photo)

As the aircraft turned for home, those with bombs still onboard unloaded them over the East End and it was at this time that the most tragic incident from this raid occurred; a 50kg bomb fell on Upper North Street School in Poplar, killing eighteen children, most of whom were under six years of age.

Again, the British response had been ineffective; 94 aircraft had been launched to intercept the raiders, of which just eleven made contact, all without success. The anti-aircraft guns had opened fire but again without hitting anything. All of the Gothas returned safely to their bases, leaving behind them 162 dead and a further 426 seriously injured - the highest casualty total of any raid during this war.

The British public were once again outraged at the lack of response and there was also a clamour for reprisal raids on German cities. Major General Hugh Trenchard, commander of the Royal Flying Corps on the Western Front, agreed to detach two front line squadrons to home defence but attempts by Lt. Colonel Simon, in command of London's anti-aircraft defences, to bolster his batteries by an additional 45 guns were rejected because neither the guns or the men to provide the crews were available!

The second daylight raid on London came on Saturday 7 July 1917 and consisted of 22 Gothas, commanded by Hauptmann Rudolph Kleine. Observers on board the Kentish Knock Light Vessel were able to transmit a warning, which enable fighter aircraft to be airborne in time to intercept the raiders but none were able to cause any serious problems to them. On the ground, observers likened the large enemy formation to a flock of birds, moving slowly across the skies.

The anti-aircraft guns opened fire at 10:21 but despite what appeared at least to onlookers on the ground as an impressive barrage, the Gothas emerged unscathed, although their previous tight formation was opened up as the bombers began to evade the gunfire. The first bomb fell on Chingford, without causing casualties, as was also the case in Edmonton and Tottenham. The first human casualties occurred in Stoke Newington, where ten people were killed, including a 12-year-old boy and ironically, a naturalised German baker and his wife, who died whilst working in their shop. More bombs fell on the City of London, most notably on the roof of the Central Telegraph Office in St Martin-le-Grand and also around Leadenhall Street, Fenchurch Street and Billingsgate Fish Market.

St Edmund King & Martyr (author's photo)

Evidence of this raid can still be seen in the Square Mile at the church of St Edmund, King & Martyr, which in its present incarnation dates from 1670-79 to the design of Sir Christopher Wren. The church today contains a peculiar square window in the roof which is out of square to the remainder of the building. This marks the entry point of a bomb from the raid of 7 July, which fell through the roof but which failed to explode fully. Fragments of the bomb are on display beneath the altar in what is probably the only place in London where remnants of a bomb can still be found in the building on which the bomb was originally dropped.

Entry point of the bomb, now an unusual window (author's photo)

Fragments of the bomb beneath the altar (author's photo)

Another bomb exploded at Tower Hill outside an office building, inside which some eighty people were sheltering. The blast from the bomb killed eight and injured fifteen of those inside as well as injuring three horses outside in the road. In what must have been horrific scenes, a fireman used his axe to put the horses out of their misery. The final bombs fell at 10:40 in Whitechapel and when the dust had settled, another 54 Londoners had died as well as another 190 injured. The raiders didn't have things all their own way on their way back to base though; one Gotha was brought down in the North Sea by an aircraft from 50 Squadron piloted by Lieut FAD Grace, whilst another was forced down on to the beach at Ostend. Three others were wrecked on their airfields due to a combination of battle damage from British fighter aircraft, lack of fuel and strong winds.

Reaction amongst the British public to the raid was strong, especially when it became apparent that the two squadrons that had been temporarily detached by Trenchard had in fact returned to the Western Front hours before the raid commenced and further frustration was expressed at the continued lack of effectiveness of the anti-aircraft guns, shells from which had fallen on the city, adding to the list of civilian casualties.

A committee was therefore formed to consider revised Home Defence arrangements under the chairmanship of Lieut. General Jan Christian Smuts, who effectively dominated the entire committee. Having interviewed all of the senior figures involved, he produced a report after only eight days which recommended that a single officer be placed in command of all facets of air defence for the London area, bringing the RFC, anti-aircraft guns and observers under a unified command. The question of providing an air raid warning was finally addressed, when it was decided that maroons would be fired to warn of incoming daylight raids, together with police alerts which would be provided at all times. The man chosen to command the new London Air Defence Area (LADA) was Major General Edward Ashmore, a former senior officer in the RFC.

Fortunately for Ashmore, the English weather provided an opportunity for him to reorganise London's defences; the remainder of July into August saw rain and high winds, which effectively ensured that enemy raiders could not reach the capital. A raid attempted against Chatham on 12 August ended with one Gotha shot down into the sea, another forced down near Zeebrugge and a further four wrecked in landing accidents. A further attempted raid on 18 August against coastal towns in southeast England resulted in nine aircraft being lost to a combination of Dutch anti-aircraft fire (when high winds drove them over that neutral country), shortage of fuel and crash landings. A further similar raid on 22 August by the remaining fifteen Gothas saw three of them shot down by the British coastal anti-aircraft guns, with the remainder driven back by a determined defence by Royal Naval aircraft.

As a result of these failures, it was decided to switch to night bombing and an attack on Margate, Sheerness and Chatham on the night of 3/4 September yielded spectacular results for the Gothas. Two bombs fell on a drill hill at the Chatham Royal Naval Barracks, killing 138 ratings. Eleven Gothas returned to London the following night and evidence of this raid can still be seen to this day. At around midnight, a 50 kg bomb exploded in the roadway at Victoria Embankment by Cleopatra's Needle, just as a late night tram was passing. The blast killed the tram driver, Alfred Buckle and two passengers, whilst throwing the conductor Joseph Carr from one end of the tramcar to the other.

Cleopatra's Needle showered with splinter damage and an explanatory plaque on the plinth (author's photos)

Again though, the Gothas hadn't had things their own way; of the eleven originally despatched, two had already returned with engine trouble, whilst another was shot down by an anti-aircraft gun near Rochester and crashed into the Thames Estuary. Of the eight survivors, it was thought that only five actually reached London to drop their bombs. Apart from the Victoria Embankment, other bombs fell in West Ham and Stratford, Greenwich and Woolwich as well as the Strand and near Oxford Circus.

The next raid came on the night of the 24 September when sixteen Gothas set out for London. As usual, the inevitable engine problems saw three of the bombers turn back but the remaining thirteen crossed the English coast between Orfordness and Dover. Some thirty RFC aircraft were sent up to intercept and although they did not succeed in bringing any raiders down, perhaps they acted as something of a deterrent as only three of the Gothas actually reached London, with the remainder dropping their bombs in Dover and other coastal targets in Kent and Essex. One Gotha dropped its bombs in Poplar, before crossing the Thames to drop four more on Deptford and Rotherhithe before heading for home. Onlookers on the ground were impressed by the intensity of the new anti-aircraft gun barrage and it was probably this that caused the raider to drop its bombs early. Of the two that reached Central London, we can again see evidence of their presence today.

Plaque outside the Bedford Hotel, Southampton Row (author's photo)

A bomb that fell by the Bedford Hotel in Southampton Row killed thirteen and injured a further 22. In total fourteen Londoners lost their lives in this raid and 49 were injured. One of the Gothas that reached London crashed on landing in Belgium and combined with those that had been driven back earlier, it was looking as if the improved defences were beginning to make a difference.

Fifteen Gothas returned the following night, 25 September and this time there was only one drop out due to technical issues. Most settled for targets along the coast, such as Folkestone and Margate, with only three reaching south east London. Bombs fell on Blackheath, Charlton, Deptford, New Cross and the Old Kent Road. Four people were killed and a further fifteen injured but once again, the improved defences had appeared to make the difference.

The raids would continue for the remainder of 1917 but from 29 December, a new type of aircraft - the RV1 "Giant" would enter the fray and we shall take a look at these next time.

Published Sources:

The First Blitz: Bombing London in the First World War - Ian Castle, Osprey, 2015
The Lost Treasures of London - William Kent, Phoenix, 1947

Unpublished Sources:

London Fire Brigade Reports 1915 - 1918