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.

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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.

Gotha RG bomber in flight See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Propaganda poster on the air war By Publicity Department, Central Recruiting Depot [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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