Thursday, 7 December 2017

Zeppelin Nights: The Impact of Raids

Winifred Knights’ The Deluge (1920) draws from the terror inflicted by the air raids for a contemporary depiction of the biblical flood. Knights was a Slade student at University College during the war and had a nervous breakdown due to the strain of the war. Her painting shows the impact of ‘Zeppelin nights’ on ordinary people. 



The archaeologist Flinders Petrie wrote about seeing Zeppelins to his fellow curator Henry Lythgoe in New York, a few days after the bombing of Croydon and South London on 16 October 1915:

I should have written before, but somehow the general suspense seems to numb our sense of anything being immediate. We had Zepos, over our house a month ago, and again saw them over London the other night. It is a senseless bit of hate to kill a hundred civilians; and they must keep so high that it is impossible for them to hit a place within a furlong or more.
You may hear any day that the tomb of your kings are all gone in Westminster Abbey, or the British Museum smashed. They tried to destroy Greenwich Observatory and very nearly succeeded. Such is Kultur, the enemy of civilisation and humanity. (Petrie, 16 October 1915)
It has been argued that the Press exaggerated air raids, partly as it was a ‘new’ threat and because it was more exciting (and immediate) than the stalemate on the Western Front as well as serving to underline the ‘barbarism of the Hun’ (De Groot, 2014). However, I think it is difficult to comprehend the shock of air warfare, particularly within an island that had not been invaded for hundreds of years. The impact of these raids was a growing public outcry over the lack of British air defences with an attack on the government in Parliament and an increase of the power of the Defence Of the Realm Act (DORA), including an enforcement of total blackout.

 Air raid damage in Camberwell, 19 October 1917. The last
air raid, which killed 10 people (c) IWM (HO 114)
No Zeppelins were brought down in 1915 and early 1916. They flew at around 10,000 feet and seemed invulnerable to British air defences. Gradually the British developed aircraft capable of flying higher and faster as well as incendiary bullets loaded with phosphorous. A version of these had been developed before the war, known as Dum Dum bullets due to their noise. They were prohibited by the Hague agreements on conventions of warfare to be used directly on people and so Britain only used them for Zeppelins. Brook and Pomeroy developed a version to be used in the air. Until this happened in 1916, the air attacks terrified the East Coast and London. In reaction, the government commissioned 10 air fields around London and this is where the story of Croydon (or Beddington) aerodrome started. 

De Groot, Gerard (2014), Back in Blighty. The British at Home in World War One, London: Vintage.
Hanson, Neil (2008), The First Blitz. The Secret German Plan to Raise London to the Ground in 1918.

White, Jerry (2015) Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War, London: Vintage Books

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