The atmosphere in London during the early months of World War I was tense and rumours abounded. The metropolis remained out of range of the German airships which had been in civilian use before the war and had many well-known defects. But in the early hours of the morning of June 1st. 1915 the Zeppelin arrived... This was a completely new and terrifying concept and one for which the Capital was not at all prepared. There were no effective air defences. Searchlights could be used to pinpoint the airships and aeroplanes attempted to get high enough to bring them down. The warning system at this time was also primitive. The alert was sounded by policemen who wore placards and blew whistles in the streets. The all clear was sounded by Boy Scouts who cycled around the City blowing bugles.
The threat of the aerial bombardment of London was one which made its first appearance during the World War I. The first was by the Zeppelin LZ 38 on the night of May 31/June 1. This was a completely new and terrifying concept and one for which the Capital was not at all prepared. There were no effective air defences. Searchlights could be used to pinpoint the airships and aeroplanes attempted to get high enough to bring them down. The warning system at this time was also primitive. The alert was sounded by policemen who wore placards and blew whistles in the streets. The all clear was sounded by Boy Scouts who cycled around the City blowing bugles.
During the early months of the War, London had remained out of range of the Zeppelins. However, rumour and speculation were at fever pitch and most people anticipated that the day was not far off before the airships' range was substantially increased. On May 17th 1915 the Times published the following article "by a neutral" who had recently returned from Germany:
"Germany is talking about the coming invasion of London by a fleet of Zeppelins possibly accompanied by other forms of aircraft. Some people there have even gone so far as to predict a date for the destruction of London, so confident are they of the power of the latest creations of Count Zeppelin, aided by a highly trained staff of scientists... The latest production of these highly skilled scientists is directly aimed at England. It is the Nebelbomben (the fog bomb), to be used 'when the attack on London takes place. Workers in the factories, who are usually so secretive are as enthusiastic as schoolboys over the successful experiments made with the new contrivance, which explodes in the air and sheds over a large area a fog-like cloud sufficiently dense to obscure the airship from the rays of the most powerful searchlights. The new invention can also be used in daylight".
The effect of the first raid on London was traumatic. It began shortly after midnight when the Zeppelin strafed east London with ninety incendiaries and explosive bombs. The first house to be hit was 16 Alkham Road in Stoke Newington. In all, that raid took five lives and injured another thirty-five persons. The Secretary to the Admiralty issued the following statement at 17:00 on June 1st:
"In amplification of the information which appeared in this morning's papers the following particulars of last night's Zeppelin raid in the Metropolitan area are now available for publication. Late last night about 90 bombs mostly of an incendiary character, were dropped from hostile aircraft on various localities not far distant from each other. A number of fires (of which only three were large enough to require the services of fire engines) broke out. All fires were promptly and effectively dealt with; only one of these fires necessitated a district call ... No public building was injured, but a number of private premises were damaged by fire or water.
The number of casualties was small. So far as at present ascertained, one infant, one boy, one man and one woman were killed and another woman is so seriously injured that her life is despaired of. A few other private citizens were seriously injured. The precise numbers are not yet ascertained. Adequate police arrangements, including the calling out of special constables, enabled the situation to be kept thoroughly in hand throughout".
After further raids on September 7th and 8th when sixteen lives were lost in south London and another sixteen in east London, steps were taken to build an effective anti-aircraft defence system. The raid on the 8th of September was not without its drama. Aeroplanes chased a Zeppelin all over London but that did not stop the first bomb landing within the City of London when Fenchurch Street was hit.
The worst raid in 1915 was on October 13th when more than forty people lost their lives. One who had a lucky escape was a priest who was on his way home to Gray's Inn Square. A bomb exploded nearby and he was buried beneath falling brickwork and knocked unconscious. He was given up for dead but came around and had sufficient wits about him to take the underground from Chancery Lane to his father's house in Hampstead where he spent the night. On that night there was only a single anti-aircraft available to attempt to bring the airships down. It was located at Wormwood Scrubs in north London and the decision was taken to move it to the more central position of the Artillery Ground in Moorfields. The journey was completed in a remarkable twenty minutes.
The bombing continued in 1916 but was not as extensive. However, on September 3rd after a chase over London the Zeppelin SL11 was shot down over Enfield and its crew killed. This was the first Zeppelin to be shot down over London and the pilot responsible, Lt. William Robinson became a hero overnight. The event was commemorated on a number of celebratory postcards and posters at the time. Lt. Robinson was himself shot down and killed in April 1917. A second Zeppelin was brought down on October 1st and could be seen burning forty miles away.
In 1917 the unwieldy Zeppelins were replaced by Gotha aeroplanes and the bombing raids were stepped up. A random bomb hit an infant school in Poplar in June killing sixteen children. The most destructive raid on London in this year came on July 7th when twenty aeroplanes were involved. Five people were killed when a bomb fell on Bartholomew Close, Ironmonger's Hall in Fenchurch Street was destroyed, the Midland Railway's Goods Yard at St Pancras was damaged and one man was killed and the defence volunteers building (the former German Gymnastic group headquarters) in St Pancras Road was badly damaged.
A 50 kilogram bomb was dropped outside the Bedford Hotel, Bloomsbury on September 24th killing thirteen and injuring twenty-six. The last of the Zeppelin raids shortly afterwards damaged the Swan and Edgar shop in Piccadilly Circus. A huge aeroplane raid came on December 6th which targeted Chelsea, Brixton, Battersea, Stepney, Whitechapel, Clerkenwell and Shoreditch. The last bombing raid of the war came on May 18th 1918.
In total, World War One saw 12 airship attacks and 19 aeroplane attacks on London. These resulted in 670 deaths and 1,962 wounded persons. Over the country as a whole, there had been fifty-two air raids resulting in 1,413 fatalities. Ten Zeppelins were shot down.