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First World War: The First Blitz

Historic England has been recording the plaques erected in London that are memorials to the aerial bombardment of the First World War and its victims.

One of the greatest changes brought by the war was the use of airpower. German airships, infamously the Zeppelins, could threaten most of England and, later in the war, the Germans employed large bomber aircraft, Gothas and Giants. The first Zeppelin raid occurred on 19 January 1915, when bombs were dropped on Sheringham, Yarmouth, King’s Lynn and other east coast towns.

1915 postcard of an air raid
London air raid, October 13th 1915 (Private Collection)

Bombing raids

During the war there were 52 Zeppelin raids on England that killed 556 people and injured 1,357. Throughout 1915 and 1916, Zeppelin raids became a regular feature of life. On 8 September 1915 a single airship inflicted serious damage on the very centre of the City of London, including Lincoln’s Inn.

The airships were vulnerable to the vagaries of the wind and British fighter aircraft. To counter these the Germans developed powerful twin-engined Gotha bombers and later four-engined ‘Giants’ with a wingspan of 42 metres. On 25 May 1917, the Germans carried out a massed air raid on targets in south-east England deploying 23 Gotha heavy bomber aircraft. - 95 people were killed and 192 wounded, including soldiers and civilians.

London was a primary target, the River Thames acting as a convenient navigation aid from the air. Lincoln’s Inn Chapel still bears the shrapnel marks from a Zeppelin raid, while Cleopatra’s Needle on the Embankment has those from a Gotha bomber raid, and many memorial plaques in the city bear witness to both victims and bombardments.

Memorial in Poplar Park, East London
Memorial in Poplar Park, East London, to the 18 children killed at nearby Upper North Street School by a German Gotha raid in 1917 © Jerry Young

The first of the London daylight air raids was on 13 June 1917 with 20 Gothas. Over 100 bombs were dropped and 162 civilians were killed, including 18 infants at Upper North Street school in Poplar.

On 31 October 1917, 22 Gothas carried out their incendiary bombing raid over London using a total of 83 bombs. Although many of the incendiaries failed to activate, ten civilians were killed.

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The First Blitz

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • Lincoln’s Inn Chapel, Holborn, London, 13 October 1915. View of the north side of the chapel showing bomb damage from a German Zeppelin L.15, including the bomb crater. (DD55/00001)
  • Lincoln’s Inn Chapel, Holborn, London, 2014. Shrapnel marks from a Zeppelin bomb, dropped 13 October, 1915, still visible in the stonework of Lincoln’s Inn chapel. The brass plaque commemorates the event
  • Cleopatra’s Needle, Embankment, London, 4/5 September 1917. A 50 kg bomb, dropped by a German Gotha plane, exploded close to the monument on the night of 4/5 September 1917. The resulting blast killed the driver and two passengers of a passing tram.
  • Cleopatra’s Needle, Victoria Embankment, London, 2014. One of the two sphinxes that sit either side of Cleopatra’s Needle on London’s Victoria Embankment. The stonework today still bears shrapnel scars from a Gotha air raid 4/5 September 1917 and there are holes in the belly and paw of the sphinx where the shrapnel penetrated the bronze.
  • The Dolphin Tavern, Red Lion Street, London, 2014. The Dolphin Tavern was hit by a bomb dropped from a Zeppelin L.13 on 8 September 1915. The bomb killed one man. The old pub clock was recovered from the wreckage.
  • Signal box, Streatham Common station, London, 1916. The ruined Streatham Common signal box destroyed by bombs dropped from Zeppelin L.31 during an air raid on 23/24 September 1916. Pratt 1921 'British Railways in the Great War'
  • Bedford Hotel, Southampton Row, London, 24 September 1917. Every window was smashed in the Bedford Hotel following a German Gotha raid on 24 September 1917. The 50 kg bomb landed directly outside the hotel at around 8.55pm, killing thirteen and injuring twenty-two. The hotel was later demolished and rebuilt.
  • Memorial plaque, Bedford Hotel, Southampton Row, London, 2014. This plaque records the First World War bombing of the hotel on 24 September 1917 when thirteen people were killed and twenty-two injured. The Royal Academy in Piccadilly was bombed in the same raid.
  • Memorial plaque to Alfred Smith, Postman’s Park, City of London, 2014. Victorian painter and sculptor George Frederic Watts conceived and executed a memorial to the ‘heroic self sacrifice’ of ordinary people. It was established in 1900 in Postman’s Park, taking the form of a loggia with a long wall of Royal Doulton ceramic plaques. This plaque is in memory of police constable Alfred Smith who was killed in a German Gotha raid of 13 June 1917 while preventing women and girls running from a factory into the street just as a bomb exploded in Finsbury, London. The same raid killed 18 children at Upper North Street School, Poplar.
  • Memorial plaque, St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, London, 2014. The plaque on the east door of the church commemorates the Reverend Edward Mosse, rector of the church, one of thirty-eight people killed by a 300kg bomb dropped by a German ‘Giant’ plane 29 January 1918. It made a direct hit on the nearby Odhams Printing Works in Long Acre, an official air raid shelter. Eighty-five people were also injured. The total casualties were the most in London caused by a single bomb during the entire First World War.
  • Memorial, St Edmund the King and Martyr church, City of London, 2014. The church was the most badly damaged City church of the First World War. It suffered a direct hit at 10am on 7 July 1917 in a raid by German Gotha bombers. Shrapnel from the bomb now forms part of the altar, visible through glass panels.
  • Memorial plaque, Farringdon Road, London, 2014. This plaque records the bombing by a German Zeppelin L.13 of 61 Farringdon Road on 8 September 1915. The building was rebuilt in 1917 and is now called the Zeppelin Building.