The New Phase of Air Raids in England

[New York Times Current History, May 1917]

Between May 23 and June 16, 1917, there were five aerial attacks on England in nearly all of which the Germans used airplanes instead of Zeppelins. Two of the raids were particularly serious in the number of civilian lives lost. The first of the series took place on May 23, when four or five German aircraft flew over the eastern counties of England and dropped bombs, killing one man. The second attack, on May 25, resulted in the killing of 76 persons and the injuring of 174; practically all the casualties occurred at Folkestone, on the southeast coast. The principal victims were women and children who had been standing in a long line in the town's busiest street waiting to buy potatoes.

It was 6:30 P.M. when a peculiar humming noise in the sky warned the people of the approach of danger. The German airplanes, numbering about sixteen, were not more than three minutes over the town before they passed away in the direction of the sea. Most of the bombs were dropped on Folkestone. Of the killed twenty-seven were women and twenty-three children; and of the injured forty-three women and nineteen children.

Airplanes of the Royal Flying Corps immediately went in pursuit and the German aircraft were also engaged by the Royal Naval Air Service from Dunkirk on their return journey. The Admiralty reported that three of the enemy airplanes were shot down in mid-Channel.

The attack was methodically organized. The first squadron of five airplanes was followed after short intervals by a second squadron and then a third and fourth, each of which repeated the tactics of the first. Scarcely any part of Folkestone escaped injury. At least sixty bombs were dropped, falling in a shower all over the town. The worst damage done was from a group of bombs which struck the business thoroughfare thronged with people. At one spot here sixteen women, eight men, and nine children were killed, and forty-two persons were injured. The intervals of comparative quiet after the departure of each squadron of raiders were only broken by the sound of distant firing of naval guns out at sea and were even more harrowing to the populace than were the brief periods when the bombs were actually bursting in the town.

After each visit the people in shelters or cellars asked each other whether this was the last. Hours after the last raider had gone many people kept to their shelters in the belief that more raiders were coming. There was much employment for voluntary relief workers. The hospitals were crowded not only with injured, but with women and children suffering from shock, while the police and constables had their hands full patrolling the devastated districts and attending to the work of rescue, identification, and the hundreds of odds and ends which such a crisis brings to an unprepared town.

Reports from the surrounding district indicated that there were some bombing of neighboring villages, even at some distance, inland. The bombs were dropped, for the most part, as the German airplanes were making a wide circle to approach from the land side.

The third of this series of air raids took place on the evening of June 5, when sixteen German airplanes came over the North Sea and dropped many bombs on the small towns and villages in Essex and Kent. Only fourteen of them returned to their home base, for two were brought down by British guns. Only two persons were killed and twenty-nine injured in the bombarded districts. The raiders met with a lively reception, extra precautions having been taken by the British authorities after the previous raid. The Germans were attacked by British aviators before they had an opportunity to carry out their raiding intentions to any great extent, and the British anti-aircraft guns were very effective. The official statement said that the raiders also attacked the naval establishments in the Medway. A considerable number of bombs were dropped and a certain amount of damage was done to house property, but the damage done to naval and military establishments was practically negligible.

The worst raid of all was that made upon London on June 13 in the broad daylight of noon. A squadron of German airplanes bombed the East End and the business sections of the city, killing 97 persons and injuring 437. Many of the victims were women and children, 120 of the latter being either killed or injured. The large number of casualties was due to the fact that the eating places in the East End were crowded at the hour of the raid, schools were still in session, and large numbers of people were on the streets. Of the victims, an official announcement stated 55 men, 16 women, and 26 children were killed, while the injured comprised 223 men, 122 women, and 94 children. No damage of a military or naval nature was done. Only one of the attacking airplanes was brought down.

A supplementary official report stated: "The first bombs were dropped on the eastern outskirts of London at about 11:30 A.M. Numerous bombs fell in rapid succession in various districts in the East End. One bomb fell in a railway station, hitting an incoming train. Seven persons were killed and 17 injured here. Another bomb fell on a school, killing 10 and injuring about 50 children. A number of warehouses were damaged and fires were caused. A few bombs also were dropped near North Foreland and opposite the banks of the Thames, four persons being injured. The air raid over London lasted about fifteen minutes. The raiders were engaged by guns of the East London defenses and a large number of airplanes of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service were sent up as soon as the enemy was reported off the coast. Several engagements took place in the air."

The most tragic episode of the attack was the bombing of a London County Council School, of which the following graphic description was given by a soldier who went to assist the teachers:

"I found the class mistress, who had got the uninjured children into a passage where, if there came another bomb, they would be less likely to be hurt. She was all alone until I came. Then we both set to get out the uninjured. She brought down two or three from the upper room first, then we went into the classroom where the bomb had sunk into the earth when it exploded. The sight was a terrible one, and but for the excitement it would have been unbearable. Many of the little ones were lying across their desks, apparently dead, and with terrible wounds on heads and limbs, and scores of others were writhing with pain and moaning piteously in their terror and suffering.

"Many bodies were mutilated, but our first thought was to get at the injured and have them cared for. We took them gently in our arms and laid them out against a wall under a shed. I didn't count them, but I should think there were twenty or thirty. I was just wondering what we should do next when some more people came to help, including soldiers, naval cadets, police, and special constables. We were frantic for ambulances and it was impossible to carry them to the hospital, which was half a mile away. Just then two lorries drew up and the driver suggested that he should help. We packed the poor little souls on the lorries as gently as we could and he drove as if he was afraid of something giving away and so at last we got them to the hospital.

"While they were gone I put a sentry on the door, and I can tell you it was a tough job. The women were not in the slightest degree panicky, but they were selfish in their love at first and in their earnestness to get at their own babies endangered by others who were lying on the floor. Some mothers were almost insane with grief, and when they couldn't find their own children would rush through the bodies looking for them, and when you remember that there was a hole in the roof four feet deep and covering the whole area of the classroom it will be understood what that meant. The worst part of our task was the last that of picking up the mutilated fragments of humanity."

Two Zeppelins made an attack on the east coast of England in the night of June 16. The official report said that one of the airships crossed the Kentish coast at 2 A.M. and dropped bombs on a coast town, killing two persons, injuring sixteen, and wrecking a large number of houses. The second airship attacked a coast town of East Anglia, but did no damage before it was engaged by the Royal Flying Corps, brought down in flames, and destroyed.

Thousands of people witnessed the end of this Zeppelin. The attack by anti-aircraft guns on the dirigible lasted fully half an hour, and people ran from their houses half dressed to watch the fight. When the black object, drifting across the sky from the southeast to the northwest, was seen to burst into flames the spectators cheered tumultuously. It had been first winged by a land gun, and was then finished by an airplane, which the Zeppelin fought to the last with her guns. The dirigible dropped in a field of corn, far from any habitation, and was entirely destroyed. All of the crew were killed and their bodies badly charred. Some of the men appeared to have jumped from the airship.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury