Friday, April 11, 2014

Air Attacks on SE London During the Great War - Part 2. The Fighter Plane Blitz

(You can find Part 1 - Airships Raids, here:


If you have read Part 1, about the airship raids. you will have seen this introduction already and may want to skip ahead.
Royal Flying Corps cap badge
(Sourced from Wikipedia)
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.

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
Whilst the airships bombed England, Britain and Germany were both developing their own heavier-than air craft.  The aeroplane had only been invented in 1903, and in 1914 was still a very basic piece of kit that to modern eyes looks impossibly small and fragile.  The two English air divisions, the RFC and the RNAS, having rejected airships for military purposes (the Balloon Section of the Royal Engineers was disbanded in 1911), were experimenting with a number of different types of aeroplane, including the BE2c, the BE12, the FE2b, the DH4, the SE5a, the Sopwith Pup, the Sopwith Camel, the Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter, the Bristol Fighter (commonly referred to as a Brisfit), and the Armstrong-Whitworth FK8. Germany, however, was focusing her attentions on a much smaller range.  Early German G-type (Grosskampfflugzeug or large battle aeroplane, usually called Gotha) bombers made by the Zeppelin company had already been used in warfare, and were being used successfully on the mainland.  But the early G-type had a limited range, and was unable to fly directly from German-occupied Belgium to England. By the end of 1916, the new G-type G.IV was ready for use, and this did have the range to get to and return from England.  Accordingly the air service's new commander Ernst van Hoeppner formed a special unit, Kagohl 3, which would be tasked with bombing London during daylight hours.  This was the Englandgeschwader (England Squadron) plan.

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 new Gotha G.IV biplanes were equipped with two 260hp engines and two machine guns and were capbable of flying at 80mph, reaching heights of 18,000ft and could carry a bomb load of up to 400g. They had the all-important range needed to both reach London and return home.  Each was manned by a commander, who was in charge of all the decisions regarding the deployment of the plane and its bombs, a pilot and a rear gunner.  The Gothas were organized into groups of 6 units known as "Kastas" (short for Kampfstaffeln).  The plan was to attack Britain during daylight hours, when she was least expecting it and when visibility was high.  The airships, raiding at night, had had the benefit of low visibility (which was vital considering their vast size) but rarely failed to hit specific military targets.

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 first raid on London took place on 20th June, when 18 Gothas bombed various locations, including the City. Although 162 died in the raid, with 426 injured and with material damage estimated at £125,953, the Gothas came and went without serious challenge from either air or ground defences, both of which were very depleted. Decisions were delayed until a number of raids made it clear that home defence had to become, once again, a priority.  After the July 3rd raid, a committee was appointed to discuss improvements in home defence, which once again meant diverting resources from the Western Front.  Over a period of time, recommendations for improvements were implemented, leaving to new anti-aircraft measures being put into place, assisted by more observation posts and a public warning system.

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
English home defence units were again taken by surprise by the change in German tactics when the Gothas were sent in under the cover of dark on the night of the 3rd of September.  Commercial, military and residential areas were hit, and the bombing was deemed by the German air command to be a success.  Gotha G.Vs were added to the campaign, and the vast R-type Riesenflugzeug ("Giant") aircraft became available to join the offensives against London.  By the time of the Harvest Moon Offensive (6 raids over 8 nights between 24th September and 1st October 1917, a new anti-aircraft barrage tactic was in operation, whereby the guns would be fired simultaneously to form a curtain of shells through which the Gothas would not be able to pass, and would have to divert around, making them easier prey for British planes.

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
From Wikipedia
For two months, between 8th March and 18th May, German resources were required at the Western Front, and England was spared the Gothas.  To consolidate Britain's air strategy, the naval and armed forces air divisions were replaced by the Royal Air Force, which came into being on April 1st 1918.  The Whitsun Raid of 19th May turned out to be the final offensive against England before the Second World War.  Of the three Giants and twenty eight Gothas that reached England, seven were destroyed.  Plans were in place for future raids, using a newly developed bomb, but it was widely accepted that the end of the war was near, and the planned raids were cancelled.

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
Only one of the raids bit Rotherhithe in 1918, during the final Whitsun raid of 19th May.  It was one of several attacks by 18 aircraft observed by the Metropolitan Police and is recorded as falling at 1155, when bombs were also falling on the Old Kent Road and Kilburn. Sadly, I have been unable to find out whereabouts the Rotherhithe bomb fell.  The bomber was a Gotha G.V piloted by Vizefeldwebel  Albrecht Sachtler, and it was attacked on its return journey across England by Major F. Sowery, who had brought down a Zeppelin in 1916, now flying a SE5a. He fired on the Gotha, apparently injuring Sachtler, but an engine stall caused him to lose sight of the bomber as it departed.  Sachtle was unlucky that night, because he was spotted by Lieutenants Edward Turner (pilot) and Henry Barwise (observer) in a Bristol Fighter.  They fired on him, and although engine trouble forced Turner to give up the chase, the aircraft crasehd at 12,45am near Harrietsham, killing its pilot and commander.  Only the rear gunner survived.   Lieutenant Turner was given the machine guns from the plane as a trophy, and Lieutenant Barwise was given the propeller.  Both men were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.  A black cross retrieved from the plane was pinned up in the Biggin Hill squadron mess thereafter.  On the same night one explosive bomb also fell immediately opposite Lavender Pond on the north side of the Thames.

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:
In the Second World War London's docklands were seen as a strategic target and were bombed relentlessly.  The Second World War bombs that hit the Downtown area, setting fire to timber yards, homes and Trinity Church, caused some of the worst fire damage in London.  But in the First World War, the docks were not a target for either airships or aeroplanes, and the damage inflicted on Rotherhithe was rather more incidental rather than intentional. Of the small number of bombs that fell in and around Rotherhithe, I have been unable to find any first hand or newspaper accounts, which is a shame.

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.

As the above account describes, London suffered during the First World War, but this is often forgotten, overshadowed by the greater devastation of the Second World War.  

Further Reading

Parts 1 and 2 of this post were hugely dependent on two books written by Ian Castle (although any errors are, of course, my own).  For anyone interested in finding out more about the air raids on London, you need look no further:

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.

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