First Blitz, by Neil Hanson

first blitz cvr

Neil Hanson has subtitled his book ‘The Secret German Plan to Raze London to the Ground in 1918’, but it covers more than just that momentous year because early during the Great War the Germans realised the value in bombing the heart of the British Empire in the hope of forcing the British to sue for peace.  England on the front line in 1914-18 is a tale not much known about; the word ‘Blitz’ generally conjures up images of London being pounded during the Second World War, but while not on the same scale, London was pounded extensively during the First as well, to the extent that morale was in danger of breaking down.  This was something unprecedented; at the outbreak of hostilities the aeroplane was only eleven years old but any complacency that England as an island fortress would be immune from aerial attack was shattered when a lone enemy seaplane dropped bombs close to Dover Castle on Christmas Eve, 1914.  Far worse, was to come in the succeeding years, but Blériot’s 1909 crossing, landing probably not far from where those first bombs fell in Mr Terson’s garden, should have given prior warning that the Germans might try to disrupt production and demoralise the population in a bid to make them unsupportive of the war effort.

In the early days both sides were feeling their way, and German pilots in primitive aircraft were obliged to throw their bombs over the side, while the defenders were at a loss to work out how to prevent incursions.  But war is a great incubator of technology, and progress was stimulated at an astonishing rate.  Though we are familiar with the Zeppelin raids of the time, these were not particularly successful, and gave way to conventional aeroplane raids conducted with machines that could transport ever-greater payloads.  The Gotha IV was able to carry 1,000lb of bombs; while, the Gotha V carried twice as much. `Giants’ could carry up to 4,400lb, though they were so expensive to build that they were not produced in large quantities.  The name was well-deserved: at 42 metres, they had a longer wingspan than any Second World War aeroplane except the B-29 Superfortress.  There were, however, still technical problems this early in the evolution of the aeroplane.  The Gothas in particular were unreliable, and as the war went on and the British blockade created shortages, the quality deteriorated further.  It was not just London that was hit; bombs fell in a wide variety of places in the south-east, with coastal towns being heavily targeted, often as a default when London proved impossible to reach.

1917 Blitz fiemen

Bomb technology too advanced, increasing in reliability and destructive capacity.  The Germans early on developed the ‘Fire Plan’ with which they intended to raze London by using huge quantities of incendiaries to initiate a conflagration that would burn out of control.  Fortunately, for most of the conflict such an effective incendiary was beyond their capabilities.  There was also a problem with German strategy in that raids were not concentrated, which meant that bombs could be dealt with more easily than if they had been dropped closer together, allowing small fires to combine and increase in intensity.  However, the small, light but highly-efficient Elektron bomb developed towards the end of the war was very similar to those used in the Second World War and could have effected the Fire Plan in much the way that area bombing later devastated cities.  It is the Elektron bomb that gives the end of the book a sense of tension, with them loaded and final checks being made in September 1918 ready for continuous raids that would have created firestorms in London and Paris.  Both cities were spared widespread destruction only because the end was so near and Erich Ludendorff lost his nerve.  He called the raids off at the very last moment, deciding that the risk of reprisals against German cities was too great.

Hanson contrasts German efficiency with the astonishing slowness by the British to get to grips with this new type of warfare.  Policemen warned of raids by touring residential areas with placards round their necks saying ‘Police Notice: Take Cover’ (and as Hanson points out, warnings were of little use in the densely populated East End where there were few places safe from bombs), while government advice to the public changed frequently and was usually inadequate.  There were always tensions between politicians who wanted to retain aircraft and personnel for home defence, and the military which wanted to maximise assets on the battlefield.  Even those aircraft kept in England were not used with maximum efficiency: rivalry between the two separate forces, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, was the source of inefficiencies and communication problems.


The book’s chronological narrative creates a pattern of focusing on the German bomber crews, the flights, the raids, and a description of the effects on the ground.  The result is an accumulation of details, often graphic, that brings home how much Londoners suffered.  Particularly poignant is the account of the bomb which fell on a Poplar school in June 1917, killing 18 children.  It is salutary for those raised on the idea of the ‘Blitz Spirit’ and London Can Take It to learn of the chaos the raids caused, with chapter titles such as ‘A city in turmoil’ and ‘Londoners unnerved’.  It is particularly shocking to read about the xenophobia exhibited in the ‘anti-German riots’ that targeted anyone who just might be German, even if they weren’t.  These turned into an opportunity to loot the homes and shops of people who were sharing the same danger from the air as everyone else.  Even more shamefully, the police stood by until English-owned shops were attacked before they quelled the violence.

Hanson concludes that while the destruction by bombing was not really severe in itself – fewer than 1,000 deaths and £1.5m worth of bomb damage, figures dwarfed by an average day on the Western Front – the German bombing campaign tied up significant numbers of troops and aircraft, and materials in large quantities, that were not thus available across the Channel.  In addition the panics, even from false alarms, created disruption that had a deleterious effect on production.  After the war British officers were amazed at how small the German bomber fleet was because they had assumed it was much bigger given the mayhem it had caused.  In an epilogue Hanson examines the differential effects on each side in the early stages of the Second World War, as each side drew different lessons from the First.  The Germans saw failure, and ignored the strategic potential of the heavy bomber, while Britain saw success, and developed the capacity to bomb Germany, at the same time preparing defences against a repeat performance by the Luftwaffe.

In examining the bombing raids Hanson has made good use of primary and secondary sources on both sides, for which he provides extensive references.  The result is a lucid account of a relatively new and terrifying form of warfare waged largely on defenceless civilians.  The first Blitz was not nearly as effective as the second, but it was still a significant part of the war, one that had a serious effect on those who lived with the threat of death from above.  We have memorials to those who gave their lives in battle in the First World War, but the home front has been neglected, and this story should be more widely known.  Moreover, I have a personal interest.  My mother was born in Peckham, south London, in 1916, and the map recording where bombs fell on the capital shows that a number dropped on the area where she was living.  History could so easily have been different.


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