The Few and the First Battle of Britain: Part 3

In two previous blog posts (see here and here) I investigated the ‘Zepp’ attacks and the subsequent ‘Gotha’ attacks which were aimed against London. This final blog will look at what happened when the EnglandGeschwader reached London. It was these daylight raids, and one in particular, that in the words of Richard Overy ‘triggered the British government move to form an independent air service’. This was the birth of the Royal Air Force.

Gotha bomber

Following reports of good weather conditions on the morning of 13 June 1917
Hauptmann (Captain) Ernst Brandenburg and 20 Gothas of the EnglandGeschwader took off from airfields in Ghent. Two turned back due to engine problems but the rest carried on. One Gotha broke formation and dropped bombs on Margate. Three more Gothas left the formation soon afterwards, two dropped bombs over Shoeburyness and the other followed the Thames towards Greenwich. 14 aircraft carried on towards London, so far unhindered by any defences. Many on the ground watched the aircraft passing overhead with their distinctive engine noise, assuming they were friendly aircraft.

Squadrons were ordered to take off to intercept and anti-aircraft (AA) guns in Romford were the first to open fire on the invaders. Brandenburg and his Squadron were soon over London and the first bomb dropped landed harmlessly in an allotment in Barking. Seven more then fell in East Ham. 42 houses were damaged, and four people killed. A bomb that fell on the Royal Albert Docks killed eight dock workers and damaged buildings. The City of London was clearly in view of the Gotha squadron and soon 72 bombs fell in a radius of one mile of Liverpool Street Station, as recalled in Ian Castle’s ‘London 1917-1918: The Bomber Blitz’ (Osprey, 2010);

‘From every office and warehouse and tea shop men and women strangely stood still, gazing up into the air.’

Liverpool Street Station was hit three times, 16 were killed and 15 injured. Siegfried Sassoon was at the station at this time and commented that bombing made one feel more helpless then trench warfare.

Thomas Burke (as recalled in ‘London 1917 – 1918’) was working in his third-floor office and saw at first hand the horror of bombing;

‘Looking out of my window on to a street that seemed enveloped by a thick mist…a girl who had been standing in a doorway of a provision shop, next door, having now lost both her legs…, a certified accountant, who had offices near mine, lying dead besides his daughter, who had tried to help him’

Worse was to come.

Having passed over the City of London the Gothas unloaded the rest of their bombs over East London as they made their way back to base, still not challenged. One 50kg bomb would hit Upper North Street School in Poplar. It would fall through three floors, killing two children on its way before landing on the ground floor and exploding in the middle of a classroom of 64 infants.

Frederick Pepper aged 10 remembered a terrible explosion and then red dust everywhere, where his schoolfriend had been sitting was now a large hole.

Agnes Hill, aged 14, remembered ‘the horror of it, and the unbelief, it couldn’t be, you know that class was there and then it wasn’t.’ Mrs Watkins was the teacher in the infants class and stated that three boys had fallen through the ceiling into her infants class below.

One girl, Rose Symmons was rescued from the rubble three days later. Her brother Jimmy, aged 12, refused to leave the school and carried on looking for her. She was found badly injured but alive.

It took several days to remove all the bodies from the rubble. One of the teachers, Mrs Middleton was injured but stayed on the scene to point out where children may be found. In total, this casually dropped bomb killed 18 children, most aged between four and six. 15 children were buried in a common grave in East London Cemetery, three children were buried privately. Another coffin with unidentifiable parts of remains was also buried.

The funeral for these 18 children took place on 20 June and was a focus of grief and anger. Thousands lined the East India Dock Road and the coffins were carried in horse drawn hearses covered with flowers, and over 600 wreaths were laid. This event is remembered today with the memorial erected on 23 June 1919 in Poplar Recreation Ground which was paid for by public funding, some of the funding also paid for the upkeep of the childrens’ graves and a bed in the childrens’ ward in Poplar Hospital. One of the last victims of the bombing was the caretaker of the school, Mr Batt, who died on 1 November 1917; he had recovered his son’s body from the building.

1990/0121/C Souvenir on printed tissue paper commemorating 527 victims of the London air raid with verses and biblical quotations.

German High Command were pleased with the outcome of the raid, hitting the centre of London at last, all the Gothas had returned to base and this one raid had killed 162 people and injuring 426.
Hauptmann Ernst Brandenburg flew to Germany the day after the raid to report to the Kaiser and to receive the ‘Pour le Mérite’, also known as the ‘Blue Max’, the highest military medal awarded in Germany during the First World War. However, on the flight home his aircraft crashed and Brandenburg lost a leg due to his injuries. A new man would take over directing the raids on London, Hauptmann Rudolph Kleine.

In England, the bombing of the school and the killing of children had focussed anger at the military for seemingly not being able to do anything about daylight raiders. 94 Royal Flying Corps (RFC) sorties took place but only 11 got close enough to attack the Gothas due to the time it took them to reach the Gothas’ height, none of these attacks had any effect. There was also anger that the government still did not approve air raid warnings. Sir George Cave, the Home Secretary responded on 28 June to questions that there was no plan to have air raid warnings in London with the Government being concerned about people coming out to watch the raid or panicking. In response to a question regarding having a special constable stationed at every school to give a warning, he replied that;

‘I had not received representations to this effect, but I have communicated with the Commissioner of Police since the question was put down. As there are 2,400 schools in the Metropolitan Police district it would not be practicable to detail a special constable for duty at each in anticipation of a possible air raid, and I have no reason to think that the schools are in need of such assistance.’

In this reply one can see that air raids were still seen as novelties. Another however was to come on 7 July 1917. The defences around London were still weak, a request for more AA guns had failed due to the lack of guns and manpower and Haig was reluctant to release RFC squadrons as he wanted them for offensives on the Western Front.

Hauptmann Rudolph Kleine led his formation of 22 Gothas towards London. This time they had a reduced bomb load to allow them to fly higher and faster. No. 37 Squadron intercepted the formation coming towards them but only four Sopwith Pups could reach them. However, of the three that attacked the formation, one gave up with guns jammed, another had engine problems and guns jamming, while the third had engine problems.

Sopwith Pup

Sopwith Pup

AA fire forced the formation to open up and start evasive manoeuvres but still the bombs rained down. In total 81 bombs exploded with 54 people killed and 190 injured. The area around Liverpool Street station was peppered with bombs as was Shoreditch and Kings Cross Station. The RFC launched some 79 aircraft to attack the raiders but they were constantly hampered by jammed guns or lack of speed. Anti-aircraft shells landing in the City also caused casualties.

This raid and the deaths caused in daylight caused rioting with mobs turning on anyone or any business with a German sounding name, smashing shops and attacking innocent people. Four days after the raid King George V announced that the Royal family name had changed from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor.

Soon after this raid a committee was approved by the Prime Minister Lloyd George to look at Home Defence and organisation of aerial operations. This Committee was named ‘The Prime Minister’s Committee on Air Organisation and Home Defence Against Air Raids’. Lieutenant-General Jan Christian Smuts, a member of the British War Cabinet, was an enemy turned ally. He had fought against the British in the Boer War and was admired for his tactical ability. He was appointed to this committee which really just consisted of Smuts. However, he relied on Director General of Military Aeronautics David Henderson for advice on the air force. Henderson was the first commanding General of the RFC.

Smuts had been in London when the first raids happened and toured the bombed areas seeing the destructive power of bombing at first hand. He produced his first report within eight days following interviews.

P024112 Portrait photograph of Major General Jan Smuts.

PC71/19/81 Sir David Henderson, Commander of the RFC, ca. 1915.

This report looked at improvements to London’s defences and saw the formation of the London Air Defence Area on 31 July 1917 organising gun batteries, RFC squadrons and observation posts into one command over seen by Major-General Edward B Ashmore, a former RFC officer and commander of artillery. Air raid warnings were also finally approved.

X006-8292 Portrait of Major General E. B. Ashmore.

On 17 August 1917 Smuts and Henderson produced another report. This report is known as the ‘Smuts Report’ and is arguably the most important document in the history of the RAF. This report recommended that British air policy and air operations should be placed under a new air ministry and a combined air force. These ideas were approved and passed in the Air Force (Constitution) Act on 29 November 1917. In early 1918, Lord Rothermere become the first Secretary State for Air and an Air Council was established. On 1 April 1918, the RFC and the Royal Naval Air Service were amalgamated and became the world’s first independent air force, the Royal Air Force.

B404 Report by General Smuts on air organisation and the direction of aerial operations.
About the Author

Gary Haines: Archivist

Gary is honoured to be the archivist for RAF Museum London and part of the Archive & Library team. Gary has a lifelong interest in military history, research and writing and is published in the fields of social, cultural and military history. He enjoys telling stories that have been forgotten which can be discovered in the archives. If you hear someone going wow that will be Gary in the archives.