REVIEW: THE FIRST BLITZ The German Air Campaign Against Britain 1917-1918 by Mark Barnes

UntitledWell, how confusing is this? In the one corner we have the well established First Blitz by Neil Hanson which looks at the German bombing operations against London in 1917 and 1918 and here we have Andrew P Hyde’s The First Blitz doing pretty much the same thing but sticking with 1917. Similarities abound and yet the two books have their own merits and to be fair to Mr Hyde, I am here to concentrate on his work, so lets do that. The focus of this book is to draw us towards the drama of the raid on London on 13th of June, 1917 when it all went right for the Germans. The Gotha bombers managed to get to the capital in strength and, despite all their silly propaganda, inflicted horrible damage on the civilian population; none more so than for Upper North Street school in Poplar; where a bomb killed eighteen children in their classroom.  In effect this story presages events for a generation later. We are so used to books about the Luftwaffe’s air war against Britain that these accounts of Gothas over London and the South-east remain almost quaint and genteel, but the death and destruction was real and horrible. Mr Hyde tells the story well. This is a welcome and excellent book.

I have to say Mr Hyde constructs us through the 13th of June very well. I have some favourite books in a similar vein and he may well have read a few along the same line. This is a tight and carefully crafted piece of history. It has drama and a slice of shock and awe. You can put yourself on a London street in the mind of an essentially Edwardian civilian man or woman as the air fleet lumbers over – such as it was, like something from HG Wells  – perhaps that sounds overly dramatic, but put yourselves in their shoes. Bombs were raining down on random buildings here and there killing indiscriminately and you can feel the panic and the terror. For the defenders there must have been moments of complete uselessness and frustration. The artillery banged away, one or two rounds here or there. They would get better, but for now it was all pretty futile. There is something about the Gothas I find wholly more satisfying and real than airships. It is the sheer effort involved and the danger for the airmen who flew them. In the course of my full time work I’ve dealt with original negatives of crash sites of Gothas shot down at Rochford and Wickford in Essex and these are very special images of small victories over a seemingly unreachable enemy. There are accounts in this book of home defence fighters getting nowhere against them and the frustration for the pilots, some of them celebrated aces, is tangible; but they didn’t have the kit or systems to be up there and ready for when the Huns were in their air space. It took two decades and men of vision to get that sort of planning sorted and they were men who had seen what the Gotha had done.

But for all the other tales of destruction nothing compares to the heartrending tragedy of Upper North Street and the accounts of death and injury at the school and the anxious parents trying to reach their children is awful even after all these years. It is as real now, nearly a century on, as it was then; and you realise you can change dates and locations and perhaps imagine scenes at other tragedies – some quite recent in our conscious, and you know how they hit us all. There is a memorial to the kids of Upper North Street and I’ll have to go and pay my respects.

After this raid the Gothas continued to have an impact. On the 7th of July they came back to London and killed 54 people and injured 190. A great many planes set out to attack them as they headed back out over the Thames Estuary and one of these was a Sopwith 1½ Strutter of 37 Home Defence Squadron up from Rochford flown by two Londoners 19 year old 2nd Lieutenant John Edward Rostron Young of Streatham and his gunner Air Mechanic 2nd Class CC Taylor.  They were shot down into the sea and killed by the combined defensive fire of the Gothas. Taylor is buried in Hampstead but Mr Young was lost forever.   A memorial for him can be found in North Road Burial Ground in Southend, thus linking those negatives of the Gotha crash sites and this book with me in a way I choose to weave. It’s one to keep.

The book is something of a battlefield guide – the streets and locations are all familiar; the docks, Fenchurch Street, Poplar – places further north and in Kent and Essex. It’s a travelogue of my life. So, it makes it easy for me to cruise round the ground of the Gotha assault and look again at places known and realise how close they came. The street I live in now was bombed by Zeppelins in 1915 and my neighbours’ houses were damaged. I’m about to remodel my garden and I have fanciful ideas of finding shrapnel. This happened to a colleague of mine who unearthed a whole bomb nosecone from a Zep raid at his house in Walthamstow. Stuff happens.  You do not have to go field walking on the Western Front to find the Iron Harvest.

I fully recommend Andrew Hyde’s book. As a born and bred Londoner I can’t do anything else. It is my history.  It opens up window on to a Great War ignored by the mainstream by going beyond the trenches and the poetry and even the Zeppelins, so it is a winner.  They found a Dornier 17 on the Goodwin Sands, but little of the Gotha remains. What a shame. They brought terror to us, but they were magnificent in their way and the men who flew them were special. Give them some credit. It took something to do what they did. We fete our bomber boys and rightly so. Don’t ignore the pioneers because of their nationality.

 Mark Barnes

THE FIRST BLITZ
The German Air Campaign Against Britain 1917-1918.
By Andrew P Hyde
Published by Pen & Sword Military £12.99
ISBN: 978 1 8189 124 6