If you have read Part 1, about the airship raids. you will have seen this introduction already and may want to skip ahead.
Rotherhithe is one of many areas of London (and indeed Britain as a whole) that suffered terribly in the Second World War, and the bomb damage is well recorded, but there are fewer details about Rotherhithe's fate in the First World War. The Rotherhithe entry on Wikipedia, for example, has a paragraph about the Second World War, but makes no mention at all of the Great War. Nor is it mentioned on Southwark Council's Rotherhithe History page. The Museum of London Docklands devotes almost no space to it. So why not? It is not that London wasn't targeted between 1914 and 1918, because it was. In fact, aerial warfare was virtually invented during this period, with airships and then early warplanes being employed to drop bombs.
Royal Flying Corps cap badge
(Sourced from Wikipedia)
The answer seems to come into three parts. The first is that although London had been identified as a legitimate target by Germany, the technology was too basic to inflict anything like the damage in the Second World War, and the weather created problems that the fragile aircraft could not overcome. Second, the docks were not identified as a key strategic target in the First World War, whereas in the Second, all the docks were seen as key, and the damage inflicted was staggering, overshadowing anything inflicted between 1914 and 1918. With particular reference to Rotherhithe, the third reason that we never hear about bomb damage locally from the First World War is that the few bombs that did fall on Rotherhithe and in neighbouring created minor damage, caused much less significant harm than other bombs that fell, by accident or design, during the same raids in other residential and commercial areas.
This post, together with part 1, is more about the aerial attacks on London than about Rotherhithe specifically, but wherever Rotherhithe was hit I have given details. I wanted to provide something towards commemorating the centenary of the First World War, and it proved to be very difficult to find anything very useful about Rotherhithe's role, so I apologize that this is a bit generic.
The Fighter Plane Blitz: Gothas and Riesenflugzeug.
The final days of the airships from service overlapped with a new way of attacking Britain from the air. Aeroplanes were now being employed, with the specific aim of attacking London when possible, and other strategic targets when it was not possible to reach London. Again, civilian areas were considered to be fair game.
|A World War I Sopworth Camel|
Sourced from Wikipedia
By the beginning of 1917, Britain had begun to relax its air defences, believing that the airship threat was now largely over, and needing the equipment and the personnel at the Western Front. In short, Britain had placed herself in a similar situation of ill-preparedness as she had been at the start of the airship raids. .
|A Gotha G.IV. Sourced from Wikipedia.|
The first Gotha daylight raid on England, a date dictated largely by the weather, was originally destined for London on 24th May 1917, but was met with heavy fog and contented itself with inflicting as much damage as possible on the east coast, particularly Folkestone, leaving 95 dead and 195 injured. From this point to the end of the war, Gotha raids became common, and the considerably reduced home defence arrangements were initially incapable of retaliating usefully.
|Contemporary illustration, showing|
Britain under fire
The Gothas were by no means invulnerable. Quite apart from any damage that English defences might have inflicted, they frequently experienced engine problems, and many were damaged or destroyed on landing, as without the ballast of bombs and fuel, landing them presented serious difficulties. The weather, in particular high winds that blew them off course, caused ongoing difficulties, and fog frequently prevented them reaching their targets. Shortage of fuel could also be a problem. On August 18th 1917 alone nine Gothas were lost after a failed attempt to reach England due to a variety of circumstances, including Dutch anti-aircraft fire, and on 22nd August of ten aircraft that reached the English coast, three were shot down. The losses were considered unacceptable, and daylight raids were abandoned in favour of night-time offensives.
|Actually from World War II, but |
this illustration is a good
example of how balloon barrages
On the first night of the Harvest Moon raids on 24th September, the raids were heavy and the defences again failed to make a dent in the damage inflicted. In addition, falling shrapnel from the anti-aircraft guns firing in continuous unison, added to the damage and injuries. The R-type Giant was deployed over England for the first time on the 29th September, when its engines were so loud that those on the ground thought that they must be clusters of Gothas rather than single aircraft. Three bombers reached London, inflicting considerable damage, and 276 anti-aircraft shells contributed to the chaos. The clear skies over London, accompanied by moonlight, enabled the Gothas and a small number of Giants to carry out devestating raids, piling ever more pressure on the anti-aircraft guns, which were both reaching the end of their operational lives and were overheating with over-work. By the end of Harvest Moon, 151 bombs had left 50 dead and 229 injured. The estimated cost of the damage was £117,773, and munitions production at the Woolwich Arsenal had been slowed down significantly during the raids.
In October two balloon screens were erected in Essex. The balloons had wires suspended from them, forming physical barrages that were intended to supplement the anti-aircraft gun barrages. In addition, a new sound detection system was installed in Dover, for early detection of incoming bombers. Improved air support had been arranged too. Although raids continued towards December, they were disappointing for Germany. English casualty figures were quite low, but aircraft losses, due to a combination of circumstances, were relatively high. Even so, the first raid of 1918, on January 28th, resulted in the larges single loss of life from one bomb during the entire London blitz. A 300g bomb was dropped on the Oldham Printing Works in Covent Garden, an official air-raid shelter, killing 38 and injuring 85.
|R-type "Giant" heavy bomber|
Compared with airships, more accurate bombing of identified targets mainly by the Gothas had meant that there were fewer accidental attacks on residential areas, but there were still a huge amount of civilian losses. As with the airship raids, apart from Woolwich, which had military value, southeast London was not a specific target for raiders. However, a number of bombs were dropped over Rotherhithe and nearby areas, and these are as follows.
On 4th/5th September 5 bombs were dropped in Greenwich to the east of Maze Hill, between Foyle and Colefraine Roads, whilst another plane dropped two bombs on Millwall Docks, just across the water from South Dock. On the first day of the Harvest Moon offensive one of three Gothas that managed to reach London on 24th September 1917 dropped explosive and incendiary bombs the East India Dock Road, the West India Docks, Rotherhithe and Deptford before it headed back east through Poplar. Of these, three explosive bombs hit Rotherhithe just south of Evelyn Street just to the east of Plough Way, and another hit right at the apex of Rotherhithe peninsula apparently just west of the lock entrance into Lavander Pond, possibly in the vicinity of where the St Paul's sports ground is now located. On the night of October 31st, under a full moon, a Gotha came up from a bombing raid in the Streatham and Tooting area, bombing Deptford, Surrey Docks, Millwall Docks and Plaistow before heading out to the coast. This was supposed to be part of a firestorm offensive, in which incendiaries dropped all over London would create a blanket of fires. Fortunately, the plan failed, and there were very few deaths that night. On 18th December 1917, Bermondsey was the victim of an intensive explosive bomb attack, most of which fell at Spa road, but one of which fell on the Rotherhithe approach of Jamaica Road, near the river, almost opposite the entrance to London Docks opposite.
|The crashed Gotha G.V at Harrietsham. |
It was brought down by a British bomber crew after dropping
bombs on Rotherhithe, the Old Kent Road and elsewhere.
Sourced from www.aeroconservancy.com/gothafabric.htm
The final tally of the Gotha and Giant attacks on England were 837 dead (486 in London) and 1991 injured (1432 in London). 16 aircraft were also lost. As with the airship attacks, although British morale remained undented, resources had be be withdrawn from the Western Front to tackle the raids. In addition, munitions production was disrupted.
The Germans lost 60 Gothas and 2 Giants during the raids.
|The wreck of LZ.72, which is shown above|
before she was brought down by an English
fighter plane. Sourced from Wikipedia:
The positive outcomes of both the airship and aeroplane raids were that the RAF was formed to manage air strategy in the future, a central communications hub was created in the September of 1918, the value of barrage balloons had been demonstrated, and were invaluable in World War II, and a considerable amount had been learned about both ground to air and air to air combat. In the three years between the first airship raids in 1915 and the last airship and aeroplane raids in 1918, Britain went from being a country that had never seen an air rad before to one that had hard-earned expertise in how to deal with them.
Castle, I. 2008, London 1914-17. The Zeppelin Menace. Osprey
Castle, I. 2010, London 1917-18.The Bomber Blitz. Osprey
Books dealing more generally with the defence of Britain during the First World War are:
Cole, C. and Cheesman, E.F. 1984, The Air Defence of Great Britain 1914–1918. Putnam.
Charlton, L., 1938. The Air Defence of Britain. Penguin Books.
Fredette, R.H. 1976, The Sky on Fire: The First Battle of Britain 1917–1918. Harvest.
There are also some good photographs and helpful accompanying text about the Gotha that came down in Harrietsham in 1918, on the Aero Conservancy website:
Finally, there is an excellent television documentary about the Zeppelin attacks on Britain during the Great War featuring engineer Hugh Hunt and showing some stunning stills and footage. Entitled Attack of the Zeppelins, it is well worth watching out for, as it is bound to be repeated. My thanks to my father for recording it for me on his whizzy Panasonic does-everything box! Here's the Channel 4 summary:
There's also an excellent overview of it on the University of Cambridge website:
And on the Telegraph:
Both reviews repeat much off the information from the programme, and are therefore quite useful as resources in their own right.