|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)
|Cleopatra's Needle showered with splinter damage and an explanatory plaque on the plinth (author's photos)
|Plaque outside the Bedford Hotel, Southampton Row (author's photo)