Apr
17
2014
0

Death from the skies

It is a scene from the darkest days of the Blitz. A squadron of German planes flies over the East End and the City releasing a deadly stream of bombs on the people below. A school in Poplar is blown up and more than 162 people in total are killed.

But this is not a story from the Second World War; it is a chapter from the First World War. These were the first air raids against the capital carried out by aeroplanes rather than dirigibles and London’s first daylight raids.

At 11:30 am on Wednesday 13 June 1917, 20 planes appeared over the skies in London. They flew in a tight formation, appearing like colossal birds in migration. People looked up and some began to cheer what they assumed must be British planes. The aeroplane was one of the wonders of the First World War – desperate necessity had been a fertile mother to the numerous inventions that created more reliable and robust planes.

In Britain’s Great War, Jeremy Paxman notes that, “many thought they [the planes] were British, and rushed out to wave at them. And then the bombs began to fall. On the streets there was terror, there was shock and there was disbelief.”

He goes on to report the feelings of a British Army sergeant in London on leave, “No thought of the planes being German had entered our heads. It wasn’t possible for them to raid London in daylight”.

It was not only possible, but happening; London’s first daylight air raid was underway and a handful of planes and a relatively small number of bombs wrought havoc and destruction on an unprepared civilian population.

In total, 72 bombs fell killing 162 civilians – easily becoming the most destructive air raid of the war. One of the responses

The plan had been developed over the previous few months. In late 1916, the German High Command began planning a daylight bombing offensive against Britain using aeroplanes. It was codenamed Operation Türkenkreuz (Turkish Cross), and would utilise the Luftstreitkräfte’s (Imperial German Air Service) newly commissioned Gotha G.IV heavy bomber.

One of the most upsetting incidents in the raid was a stray 100lb bomb that fell on a school in Poplar, East London. As documented in Tower Hamlets’ local history site:

“In the Upper North Street School at the time were a girl’s class on the top floor, a boy’s class on the middle floor and an infant class of about 50 students on the ground floor. The bomb fell through the roof into the girl’s class; it then proceeded to fall through the boy’s classroom before finally exploding in the infant class.”

In total, 18 children were killed at the Upper North Street School. Their names are recorded in the headmaster’s log book. Amazingly, the school would reopen the very next day. The Daily Mail records the impact this had on one of the children:

“what imprinted itself most clearly on the six-year-old’s mind – and what he recalls vividly 90 years later – was not so much the carnage around him of schoolmates killed at their desks, as the headmaster calling out the register next day, and the tears pouring down the man’s face each time no answer came.”

The children were given an elaborate and emotional funeral that saw thousands of Londoners line the streets as black plumed horses drew the hearses that brought the small coffins to their graves.

The number of civilian air raid victims during the First World War was relatively small. German raids on Britain caused 1,413 deaths and 3,409 injuries. Germany suffered even fewer casualtiesfrom bombs: just 740 killed and 1,900 wounded.

Many of the novel features of the war in the air between 1914 and 1918 – the lighting restrictions and blackouts, the air raid warnings and the improvised shelters – became central aspects of the Second World War less than 30 years later.

Written by Ian Curry in: British History,History |
Apr
16
2014
0

Vaguely Interesting Snippets | 16 April 2014

In the 1916, a man was fined for buying his wife a drink – so was his wife and the barmaid

In the First World War, the British government faced up to one of its most serious enemies. Not the Germans or the Austrians, but alcohol. My article, Fighting spirits (and beer, cider and wine) looked at the ‘No treating rule’ that banned anyone from buying a round. But sometimes the prohibitions were more zealously imposed.

The Morning Post reported on 14th March, 1916, that a man was fined for buying his wife a drink. According to the report, “At Southampton yesterday Robert Andrew Smith was fined for treating his wife to a glass of wine in a local public-house. He said his wife gave him sixpence to pay for her drink. Mrs Smith was also fined £1 for consuming and Dorothy Brown, the barmaid, £5 for selling the intoxicant, contrary to the regulations of the Liquor Control Board.”

Written by Ian Curry in: Snippets |
Apr
15
2014
0

This is not a test

At 9:33 a.m. on 14 September 1954, a Soviet Tu-4 bomber dropped a 40,000-ton atomic weapon from a height of 25,000 feet just north of Totskoye in the steppes of the southern Urals. In the early years of the Cold War, the testing of nuclear weapons was not unusual – there would be 8 others in that year and over 200 in the same decade. What made the Totskoye nuclear exercise so particularly horrifying was that the bomb was dropped on an army of 45,000 of the Soviet Union’s own troops.

Nuclear tests in the early years of the development of atomic weapons were not safe. Scientists had not fully appreciated the damage caused by exposure to radiation. Even when warnings were provided, military expediency often trumped individual health. Many of those soldiers who were bathed in the blinding light of nuclear explosions would later succumb to cancers.

First Soviet Atomic test, Joe One or Lightening One

But most tests at least had the pretense of protections. Tinted glasses were provided to protect the eyes from the intense blasts. Personnel were evacuated to a presumed zone of safety and often observed the tests behind makeshift blast shelters.

Continue Reading…

Written by Ian Curry in: British History,History |
Apr
11
2014
0

Vaguely Interesting Round-up | 11 April 2014

A special round-up this week to highlight a fascinating website that I’ve just come across – Trivia Happy!

Here are some of my favourite recent posts:

  • Why shouldn’t you mess with Texas? Is Virginia really for lovers? And just how many lakes are there in Minnesota? It is not enough that states in the USA have flags, seals, flowers, animals and mottoes. In the advertising and media age, they also need slogans. But some of the most famous slogans aren’t all they seem - The Hidden Lies Behind Five State Slogans
  • Jacques Cousteau took some of the most arresting images of underwater life. He also left some surprising additions to the world’s oceans - Five Things You Won’t Believe Jacques Cousteau Put Into The Ocean
  • Did Emperor Nero have some of the world’s first and most expensive sunglasses? Or a screen glare reducer ahead of its time and beyond the average budget? Or did he just enjoy watching gladiatorial combat in vivid, green-tinted brilliance? Did Nero Use An Emerald As A Personal TV?
Written by Ian Curry in: Weekly round up |
Apr
10
2014
0

The sack of Louvain

In 1914, German soldiers sacked the Belgian city of Louvain. Its population was expelled and some were carried off in freight trains to camps in Germany. Its library, together with its priceless collection of rare manuscripts and early printed books, was deliberately burnt.

A cowed and defeated civilian population watches helplessly as their conquered city is taken and burnt by German soldiers. Prominent citizens are rounded up and then shot whilst others are beaten and publicly disgraced. Tales of brutal atrocities against women and children spread almost as quickly as the flames that are destroying the ancient buildings.

Interior of the Famous Library at Louvain. (Photo by N.J. Boon, Holland.)

The university’s ancient library, filled with irreplaceable volumes of incunabula and glorious illuminated manuscripts, is doused with kerosene and set alight. Wooden beams and millions of pages make perfect fuel for the ferocious flames that soon reduce the building to rubble and its priceless contents to ashes.

Continue Reading…

Written by Ian Curry in: British History,History |
Apr
09
2014
0

Vaguely Interesting Snippets | 9 April 2014

Mr. Potato Head was originally introduced without a potato

Mr. Potato Head was introduced to the American public in 1952. The original toy was just a set of plastic body parts and you had to ‘bring your own potato’ to create the iconic faces.

The original patent application noted that the body parts were for “affixing on a fresh potato or other fresh fruits and vegetables to form various human caricatures”.

While the toy was originally marketed for use with a potato (thus giving the toy its name), early adverts made it clear that “any fruit or vegetables makes a very funny face!”

The ‘swastika’ is right facing. A left facing variant is called a sauwastika or sauvastika

In 1938, the finishing decorative touches were being made to Essex County Hall in Chelmsford. Some 75 years later, a member of the public wrote to the council to ask why those decorations featured swastikas.

The query noted that the timing of the swastika symbols “struck me as strange seeing as the Nazi party formed in 1933 and by March 1938 were beginning an invasion into Austria.” This sparked a BBC article and a follow up piece for its Magazine depicting the buildings around the UK that are marked with swastika designs.

Or are they? One of the facts revealed by this piece is that only the right facing design is called a swastika. Its left facing variant can be called a sauwastika or sauvastika.

Written by Ian Curry in: Snippets |
Apr
08
2014
0

The people behind the menu – 3

If you are powerful, celebrated or heroic you may be remembered by having things named after you. Schools, airports, roads, squares and public buildings are all dedicated to politicians, royalty, celebrities and heroic figures from a nation’s past. One way to be immortalised is to have a popular food, drink or dish named after you. The only danger is that the product becomes so ubiquitous that the name’s roots are forgotten. So this is the third of three posts to remember the people behind the menu .

Dame Nellie Melba

Dame Nellie Melba’s eating habits have become legend in the music world. She was so famous that she leant her name to two dishes – Melba toast and peach Melba.

When Australian singer Dame Nellie Melba was ill in the late 1890s, she was fed these crisp cracker-like toasts to settle her stomach. These were not any old crackers and they were not created by any old chef.  Auguste Escoffier is reputed to have created the toast and named them after the singer. They became a staple of her diet in the 1890s when she fell ill.

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Written by Ian Curry in: British History,History |
Apr
07
2014
0

In This Week LogoIn This Week in …

  • 1776, the US Navy captures its first British warship. USS Lexington, under Captain John Barry, takes the Royal Navy’s HMS Edward (7 April 1776);
  • 2013, Baroness Thatcher, the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, dies at her suite in the Ritz (8 April 2013);
  • 1865, Robert E. Lee surrenders to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, effectively ending the US Civil War (9 April 1865).
Written by Ian Curry in: In This Week |
Apr
04
2014
0

Vaguely Interesting Round-up | 4 April 2014

The most popular baby names in the USA by state

The most popular baby names for any given year can provide an interesting snapshot into tastes, trends and recent developments. A map presented on the Mental Floss website breaks down the most popular name for boys and girls by each state of the USA to provide a fascinating geographic dimension to the lists.

For boys, the popularity of Mason is no respector of the Mason-Dixon line, but does tend towards being a Yankee favourite. In the northwest, Liam is most popular whilst the southwest plumps for Jacob.

Meanwhile, for girls, Emma dominates a vast swathe, leaving a concentration of Emmas in the lead in the southwest and in scattered states in the rest of the USA. Florida is contrary in both lists, favouring Jayden and Isabella – names that do not make the top of the list in any other state.

Written by Ian Curry in: Weekly round up |
Apr
03
2014
0

The dying nations of the world

In 1898, the British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury gave a speech  on foreign relations. The core message seemed simple enough; weak states become weaker whilst strong states become stronger. But, in the dying days of the European peace, it was a remarkably prescient, perhaps even self-fulfilling prophecy.

On 4 May 1898, Lord Salisbury gave a remarkable speech to the Conservative party faithful. The Prime Minister spoke to a packed audience of the Primrose League (a grassroots mass membership group of Conservative Party supporters) at the Royal Albert Hall on the subject of the life and death of countries.

Robert Cecil - 3rd Marquess of Salisbury By London Stereoscopic Company (NYPL) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At the end of a rousing, imperial speech, Salisbury made his prophetic remarks: “All I can indicate is that the process is proceeding, that the weak States are becoming weaker and the strong States are becoming stronger.”

Continue Reading…

Written by Ian Curry in: British History,History |

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