Monday 25 August 2014

Heinrich Mathy, Blackheath and the 'First Blitz'

Tranquil Vale, Blackheath in 1916 (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

Whilst looking through my photograph collection for something else, it is all to easy to become sidetracked and end up looking at something completely unrelated to one's original search. On this occasion, it was rather uncanny as the photograph I came across is one that features regularly in my Blackheath and Greenwich Blitz walk but which happened to be on the exact anniversary of the subject incident taking place. The photo in question is reproduced above and comes courtesy of the excellent Greenwich Heritage Centre, from whose archives it comes. It is actually a reproduction from an unknown local newspaper of the period which perpetuates an error in the caption but which offers a fascinating insight into the 'First Blitz' on London, during the Great War when the Zeppelins of the Imperial German Navy brought the war right to the doorsteps of the British civilian population.

The raid in question actually occurred on August 24th 1916 when thirteen airships headed for London, including the L31, commanded by 33 year old Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy. Due to a combination of adverse weather conditions, poor navigation and technical problems with the craft, twelve of the Zeppelins turned back without finding their targets. Only Mathy in the L31, skillfully flying through the low cloud cover, managed to reach London to make a successful bombing run and in the space of ten minutes, proceeding at it's maximum speed of 65 mph, the L31 dropped a total of thirty six bombs on the Isle of Dogs, Deptford, Greenwich, Blackheath, Eltham and Plumstead before heading back to it's base in Northern Germany. The L31 was one of the new generation of so-called 'Super Zeppelins' and at nearly 200 metres in length and 24 metres width, it was truly a monster. Although the L31 had been undamaged in the raid, it suffered from a heavy landing upon it's return to Germany, which required repairs putting it out of action until October 1916.

Heinrich Mathy (IWM)

The raid in which Blackheath had been hit, albeit unwittingly caused in excess of £130,000 worth of damage, which at 1916 prices, was no mean sum. 

Heinrich Mathy was by 1916, a veteran of fifteen bombing raids on Great Britain and had made his first attack on London in 1915 in command of an earlier and smaller airship, the L13. These raids on British cities and the indiscriminate nature of them, a precursor of what was to come during the next conflict, led to the Zeppelin crews being dubbed by the British press as the 'Baby Killers' and in the eyes of the British, Mathy was one of the leading exponents.

During his enforced absence whilst L31 was being repaired following it's heavy landing, Mathy learned that the British had shot down their first Zeppelin, when Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson flying a BE2C fighter, brought down the SL11 near Cuffley, Hertfordshire. The hydrogen filled gasbags of the airships made them hugely vulnerable to the newly developed incendiary bullets and the fact that German airmen, in common with their British counterparts, were not issued with parachutes at this time, ensured that they faced an awful choice; death by fire in the crashing airship, or jumping to avoid the flames but still facing the same end result. For his skill, determination and no little bravery in carrying out this first successful downing of a Zeppelin, Leefe Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross, only for him to later die from influenza at the end of 1918, his health having been weakened by a period of captivity in Germany from April 1917, during which time he was singled out for rough treatment by his captors.
Wulstan Tempest, William Leefe Robinson VC & Frederick Sowrey (IWM)

Hearing of more and more Zeppelins being destroyed saw Mathy make the following diary entry:

"It is only a question of time before we join the rest. Everyone admits that they feel it. Our nerves are ruined by mistreatment. If anyone should say that he was not haunted by the visions of burning airships, then he would be a braggart."

Rather strangely, Mathy himself had previously sent a somewhat bragging letter to the New York Times in which he stated that he and his comrades were going to "smash London", so it was somewhat ironic that on the newly repaired L31's next raid to London, Mathy and his crew did indeed "join the rest" as predicted in his own diary entry.

Zeppelin L31 (IWM)

On October 1st 1916, L31 was once again heading towards London with Mathy in command and once more, his skill in navigation through questionable weather had ensured that his machine was the only one of eleven that had originally set out from Germany to near it's intended target. This time however, they were picked up searchlights over Kelvedon Hatch in Essex and turned away to try and avoid further detection. Taking a course over Stevenage and Hatfield, the L31 was once again picked out by searchlights over Cheshunt and three BE2C fighters of 39 Squadron, based at Hornchurch Aerodrome intercepted the giant airship. One fighter, piloted by the splendidly named 2nd Lieutenant Wulstan Tempest, engaged the Zeppelin shortly before midnight. Three long bursts from the fighter's Lewis gun set fire to the airship and the burning monster crashed into a field near Potters Bar in Hertfordshire, resulting in the death of all nineteen on board, including Mathy. The commander had faced the awful choice mentioned earlier and elected to jump from his blazing Zeppelin; his body was found quite close to the wreckage, embedded some four inches into the ground.

The Zeppelin raids continued into 1917 but their days as a terror weapon were finished and the Germans would make increasing use of their giant biplane Gotha bombers to continue their bombing campaign against the British.

Combined deaths from both airship and aircraft raids against Britain during the Great War caused 1,392 deaths, which compared to what was to come in the Second World War, are small beer but it has to be remembered that almost one hundred years ago, the bombing of civilians was a new and terrifying method of waging war. The deaths of 60,000 British, 600,000 German and possibly a similar number of Japanese civilians are testament to how this embryonic new form of warfare in 1914-18 was to develop in later conflicts.

Printed sources:

A Wander Through Wartime London - Clive Harris & Neil Bright, Pen & Sword 2010

Friday 8 August 2014

A-Z of the Blitz (E)

Evacuation: Why & How? (author's photo)

After a holiday break, we resume our occasional series with a look at the letter 'E' and connections with the Battle of Britain and the Blitz.

Perhaps the most obvious 'E' is for Evacuees and when one thinks of this facet of the war in Britain, most people immediately and correctly think towards the mass exodus of children that was instigated two days before the official declaration of war, on September 1st 1939, under the title of 'Operation Pied Piper.'

In a superb piece of organisation, spread over four days, over half a million people were evacuated from London alone, largely using London Transport buses and the main line railways. Children were evacuated to all manner of places in the countryside, some as near to London as High Wycombe and some as far away as Torquay, Newton Abbot and South Wales but all out of the way of the dreaded and expected appearance of huge fleets of German bombers. Apart from children, others evacuated included expectant mothers, blind persons, the mentally ill and hospital patients, the latter so as to free up valuable bed space for the vast numbers of casualties expected to arise when the bombing began. 

"We are not going to win a war by running away." (author's photo)

As can be expected with this massed parting of children from their parents, there were more than a few tears shed both from children and from mothers and although some children came to enjoy the experience and found the country life a great adventure, it has to be said that some frankly hated every moment of it and were quickly brought back to London by mothers who could not bear to be parted from their children, especially when the bombers failed to materialize and Britain entered the period now known as the 'Phoney War.'

Schoolchildren from Woolwich awaiting evacuation at Victoria Station (Greenwich Heritage)

This was unfortunate; whilst the evacuation scheme for children was recommended, it was never mandatory and although the great majority of children stayed away from danger for the duration, the commencement of the Blitz on September 7th 1940, saw more children in London than had been the case exactly one year previously. Needless to say, the bombs falling on London did see a renewed exodus to the countryside.

One scheme that was stopped in it's tracks was the evacuation of children across the Atlantic to the absolute safety of Canada. Unfortunately to reach this safe haven, the vessels being used for the evacuation had to run the gauntlet of U-Boats and German raiders in order to reach safety. On September 27th 1940, the Ellerman liner City of Benares, carrying ninety children was torpedoed by U-48. Only thirteen children were rescued and six of those rescued had to endure a week in an open lifeboat before they were picked up by the destroyer HMS Anthony. One of the childrens' escorts on this voyage, Miss Mary Cornish, a 41 year old music teacher was awarded the George Cross for her efforts in evacuating children from the ship and subsequently caring for them whilst adrift in the lifeboat awaiting rescue.

Evacuees from Charlton Manor School, London at Torquay (Greenwich Heritage)

Another evacuation, strictly outside the scope of this article but worth mentioning nonetheless, was the evacuation that occurred during the onslaught of the so-called 'Terror Weapons', the V-1s and V-2s. Many people, thinking perhaps that the war was as good as won, decided that London was not the place to be in the summer of 1944 and the numbers of 'official' evacuees - i.e. those recorded by their local authorities soared from around 319,000 in March 1944 (which was the lowest number recorded) to an astonishing 1,012,200 by September of that year, which was almost on a par with the peak figures recorded in early 1941. On top of these official figures, it was estimated that a further half million made their own arrangements and left the capital by July 1944. It has to be said that the vast majority of these evacuees were people in the categories mentioned previously and those with war jobs or business in London remained at their posts.

The Daddy of all evacuations was that which occurred at Dunkirk in late May and early June 1944, together with other similar operations from the Channel ports which secured the escape of the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force as well as a sizeable French contingent from under the noses of the advancing German forces. Whilst this evacuation did not directly concern Londoners, it was once again a masterpiece of organisation, combined with not a little good fortune. The magnificent role of the Royal Navy and of the little ships has been well documented but perhaps lesser known is the effort in distributing the evacuated soldiers once they arrived back in England. This was again a stunning piece of logistics, this time on the part of the railway companies, mainly the Southern, who ran some 573 troop trains for evacuees, including ambulance trains for the wounded, many of which passed through London on their way to their various centres where the troops were able to rest and recuperate before returning to their proper units.

Another 'E' synonymous with the Blitz is the Emergency Water Supply, or EWS, with their distinctive signs, some of which still survive in London and other cities as fading reminders of our wartime past. Like many innovations brought about by the necessity of war, the idea of the EWS was a stunningly simple one. It was quickly realized, often through bitter experience that the regular supply of water to the fire services could easily be disrupted by bomb damage as the mains water supply was extremely vulnerable to even the smaller high explosive bombs in the Luftwaffe's arsenal. A simple expedient therefore, was to arrange a supply of emergency reservoirs at strategic points around any built up area. These originally took the form of steel dams which were kept filled and maintained by the local fire services and which could then be used in the event of a failure to the mains supply. They would be refilled by relays of hoses from the nearest source of water or by tanker lorries. Once the Blitz started in earnest, many bombed out buildings were cleared and their basements sealed with concrete or bitumen to create a watertight dam and these were then filled with water. Some of these conversions were official but some were done using local initiative, which sometimes incurred the wrath of the 'dead hand of the uninvolved', no doubt for not filling in the correct paperwork, or some such trifling matter. Bureaucrats and 'jobsworths' thrived even in wartime!

The plaque at the site of the Surrey Music Hall (author's photo)
One of these Emergency Water Supplies in London was the scene of one of the tragedies of the Blitz, when on the night of 10th/11th May 1941, the basement of the old Surrey Music Hall at St George's Circus, near the Elephant & Castle, received a direct hit from a High Explosive bomb, killing seventeen London firefighters who were engaged in keeping the water supplies to the already hard pressed firefighters tackling the huge fires burning in the area. Apart from the appalling loss of life, this one bomb cut off the water supply and until fresh water relays could be brought on line, in some cases from the Thames itself, the fires began to burn out of control. Eventually, after some heroic efforts, the water supply was restored using some nine miles of hoses from the Thames and the Surrey Canal and the vast fires began to be brought under control.

Today, a plaque erected by the Firemen Remembered charity marks the spot where these firefighters laid down their lives. 

As mentioned previously, some of these EWS signs survive in London and elsewhere to give a faded footprint into London's wartime past.

Next time, we shall look at the letter 'F' which could stand for Firefighters, First Aid Posts and Firestorms amongst other things.

Published Sources:

The Battle of The Atlantic - John Costello & Terry Hughes, Harper Collins 1977
The Doodlebugs - Norman Longmate, Arrow Books 1986
The London Blitz: A Fireman's Tale - Cyril Demarne OBE, After The Battle 1991
London Transport at War - Charles Graves, Almark Publishing 1974
Return from Dunkirk: Railways to the Rescue, Operation Dynamo 1940 - Peter Tatlow, The Oakwood Press 2010
War on The Line - Bernard Darwin, The Southern Railway Company 1946