17th June 1917. War In Another Dimension.
Bombing in World War I (WWI), signalled a new age, as vividly foretold in 1908, by English writer H.G.Wells, in his book The War in the Air.
Aeroplanes by May 1917 were increasingly being used, with the first attack on England, when as The Times reported, ‘A Daylight Air Raid killed 76 with 74 injured, by 17 enemy aeroplanes, at a locality in the south-east of England.'(1)
Two days later The Times again: ‘We are now permitted to announce that the town is Folkestone’, the town was a key supply port for France; the neighbouring army camp at Shornecliffe was also hit.
The initial vagueness of location was due to restrictions, under the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act (Dora), against causing ‘alarm and despondency’.
Kent bore the brunt of these air attacks as Sheereness suffered a raid on the 5th June. However the 3rd assault, the first in daylight, saw a switch to London, when 21 planes bombed Liverpool Street Station and a Primary School in Poplar on 13th June 1917.
It resulted in 162 killed and hundreds injured and constituted the deadliest air-raid of the war and increasingly Londoners sought the safety of the Underground.
Bombing throughout the war, came initially from Zeppelins, and then joined by aircraft, the two coming into conflict Today in June 1917 when Zeppelin L 48 was shot down at 00.20 hrs.
It crashed at Theberton, Suffolk, after being intercepted by 3 planes, one of which was piloted by Robert Saundby, later Air Marshal and deputy in WWII, to ‘Bomber’ Harris.
131 naval ratings were killed at Chatham (HMS Pembroke) on the night of 3th September, when the town was caught by surprise, with the area illuminated, as the Germans switched to night-time bombing for safety.
Bombing continued into 1918, but now the Gotha was joined by the bigger aircraft, The Giant, and on the 17th February, St. Pancras Station took a hit.
It was noted by the enemy, after this raid, that anti-aircraft was seen 20 miles outside London, as efforts to strengthen our air defences were made.
This included fighters being recalled from France, and guns and searchlights were deployed for the first time in depth.
The climax came in May 1918 when thirty-eight Gothas and three Giants attacked. However by this time we were now more prepared, with a 50 mile barrage-balloon shield around the capital
The destructive career of the ‘English Squadron’, which had dropped 2,500 bombs and killed 800, was effectively over by May, especially with the RFC Sopwith Camel in action. Only now did the Gothas experience serious losses: however no Giants were ever lost.
Thus WWI witnessed the inauguration of a strategic air bombardment, and the first attempt by an Air Force to take advantage of this new dimension of warfare. It was to cause panic here amongst politicians, press and the public, especially at a time of war weariness.
It was a panic which resulted in Prime-Minister, Lloyd-George and the rehabilitated Boer leader, General Smuts, to study how best Britain’s Air Forces could be reorganized and the later Smut’s Report was to inspire the founding of The Royal Air Force in 1918.
(1) The attack was on Friday 25th May 1917, and reported in The Times on Monday the 28th. 21 Gothas were involved.
(2) The plane was one of 37 Squadron RFC.
Ref: IWM.org.uk/photos-of-london-on-first-world-war. Image: Imperial War Museum.
Ref: Article 14.8.1914. Image: Imperial War Museum.
The last surviving WWI Airfield, Stow Maries, which is ‘listed’, is near Maldon, Essex, and was up for sale in 2012. It was built in response to attacks by Zeppelins and then Gothas, and was home to 37 squadron RFC.