Friday, June 9, 2017

Bombers over London

From World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It

The Underworld: Taking Cover in a Tube Station during a London Air Raid, 1918, oil on canvas by British artist Walter Bayes (1869–1956). Civilians, mainly women and children, sheltering in the Elephant and Castle tube station. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
One hundred years ago, on June 13, 1917, German airplanes conducted the first—and most lethal—daytime bombing of London during the First World War. A correspondent for The New York Times witnessed the air raid and wired a detailed account that appeared the next day in the paper under the headline, “German Airmen Kill 97, Hurt 437 in London Raid.” The final toll from the bombings in London, Essex, and Kent was 162 dead, including eighteen children at the Upper North Street School in Poplar, and 432 injured. The Times headline writer added a subhead incorrectly indicating that a German plane had been shot down; in fact, all fourteen of the Gotha twin-engine biplanes returned to their base in Belgium.

Two weeks later, on July 1, The New York Times received from Berlin and subsequently published an article anonymously written by one of the German airman, describing the attack:
With a tremendous crash they strike the heart of England. It is a magnificently terrific spectacle seen from midair. Projectiles from hostile batteries are sputtering and exploding beneath and all around us, while below the earth seems rocking and houses are disappearing in craters and conflagrations, in the light of the glaring sun.

In a few moments all is over and the squadron turns. One last look at the panic-stricken metropolis and we are off on our home course.
       Memorial to children killed at
       the Upper North Street School.
          (London City government Flickr page)
The airman’s emphasis on the hypnotic spectacle of the bombing was echoed by the American journalist, but the reality of the event soon sunk in: “Watching the light and movement in the sky drama had so fixed one’s attention as to eliminate even a flashing thought of its meaning, but with silence came the swift running of ambulance cars, and pealing bells told of the ugliness of it all and its deep significance.” Yet the reporter seems to have anticipated the German airman’s fantasy of a London stricken by panic—which, of course, was the intent of the bombing—and points out how most of the city’s population soon went on with their daily lives. “There was no panic, merely intelligent interest and curiosity. ‘Observe the terrorized public,’ said a young officer, and his companion laughed.”

We present the riveting eyewitness account from The New York Times as our Story of the Week selection, which has been reprinted in the Library of America volume World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It. A. Scott Berg, editor of the volume, offers additional historical context in a brief headnote.

Note: The reporter incorrectly identified the planes as Taubes (p. 358), but—as indicated above—they were in fact Gotha G.IVs, with a crew of three and a top speed of 83 mph. The Hendon Aerodrome (p. 359) was an important airfield in London; it was closed in 1968. Archies (p. 362) was a common British term during the war for anti-aircraft guns.

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LONDON, Thursday, June 14.—There came to London yesterday the nearest vision of modern warfare that it has yet known. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.