Friday, 22 August 2008

Blackmore: Bombs Over Blackmore

Memorials are a common feature in church stained glass windows. At the Priory Church of St Laurence, Blackmore, many of the windows date from the first two decades of the twentieth century.

An unusual record is on one, in what is now the kitchen: “This window is erected as a thank-offering to Almighty God for the protection in the Great Air Raid of March 31st 1916”.

Curious to find out more, I looked at local newspapers for the time and visited the Essex Record Office.

During the First World War, civilians were subjected to indiscriminate bombing from Zeppelins from large airships which flew at high altitudes and later from attack by aeroplane. In all there were 53 separate Zeppelin raids on England, twenty in Essex, which then had army and naval garrisons at Harwich, Colchester and Southend, and docks along the River Thames.

This action was deliberately designed by the enemy to strike fear and to destroy morale. The country was unprepared for air attack and redoubled efforts to defend and counter-attack. Bombing civilians was an entirely new form of warfare and received outrage from the British people.

The night of 31st March 1916 was to be one of the greatest in terms of civilian casualties. In Lincolnshire, East Suffolk, Ipswich and Essex, 223 bombs were dropped killing 48 and injuring 64 people. The L14 and L15 flew over Essex, dropping bombs in Colchester, Braintree, Stanford-le-Hope, Thameshaven and Blackmore [ERO T/Z 473/1]. Four civilians were killed in Martin’s Yard, Braintree by bombs dropped from the L14. Revd. Andrew Clark, Rector of Great Leighs, wrote in his Diary that the raiders had heard the town church clock strike eleven, “realised that they were over a town of some sort, and threw out three bombs by chance” [Munson, p121].

Reporting restrictions at the time prevented newspapers giving precise locations. The Essex Weekly News referred to “Friday’s Attack On The Eastern Counties”. No one was killed or injured in Blackmore, but there could have been a few near misses.

Revd Edward Reeve, Rector of the neighbouring village of Stondon Massey, wrote of the events in his ‘notes for a parish history’: “With the moonless nights and the still weather which has succeeded the wintry storms a succession of air-craft raids began. On March 31 five “Zeppelin” airships visited the Eastern Counties. One of them was heard over Stondon in the direction of Woolwich at 10.20pm, but we were destined to have a closer acquaintance with another of the group at a later hour. At 11.45 a Zeppelin dropped a series of bombs at the point where is the junction of Stondon with the parishes of Blackmore and Kelvedon Hatch: within easy distance of Soap House Farm. A machine-gun had been lately established at Kelvedon Hatch to watch for the raiders, and Capt. Hulton in charge claims to have hit the air-ship, causing it to drop the bombs hurriedly.”

Revd. Andrew Clark in Great Leighs, some fourteen miles north east of Blackmore, wrote, “11.50pm. several explosions in the south, followed by lights (probably searchlights)” [Munson p120].

Reeve continued, “Large numbers of persons from Brentwood and the surrounding district visited the spot next day, and the large craters caused by the bombs, some 15 feet in diameter and varying from 3 to 9 feet in depth, were the astonishment of all. The whole saucer-like cavities were left entirely clean by the explosion, and one local builder Mr J T Gann remarked there was no trace anywhere of the large body of earth which had been scooped out by the force of the bomb. Clods torn from the craters were sprinkled to a distance of 60 yards. Nine of the thirteen holes were quickly found: and fortunately no life was lost or building injured. All had fallen in open fields. Our windows at Stondon Rectory were violently shaken and considerable alarm was naturally caused. We in the close neighbourhood have much for which to be deeply grateful to an over-ruling Providence.”

Five days later (6th April 1916) Reeve added, “Further enquiry shows that the bombs dropped on March 31st fell between the Soap House and the corner of Blackmore between the Church and Miss Barrett’s house. Two were dropped in the lane near the site of the old Blackmore Mill. The remaining holes were to be found in a straight-line across the fields to Miss Barrett’s at very short intervals. Many panes of glass were broken in the house by the concussion” [ERO T/P 188/3].

In terms of location, the bombs were dropped over Hook End near Blackmore House, Mill Lane then fields not more than half a mile to the east of Blackmore village itself.

The night marked a turning point for the allies because L15 was the first Zeppelin to be shot down during the War. The Anti-Aircraft gunners of the 3rd Company, Essex and Suffolk Royal Garrison Artillery based at Purfleet were credited with the success. This was a major breakthrough, and the Lord Mayor of London gave gold watches to the members of the gun crew. (He had originally put up a reward of £500). An eyewitness recorded, “It was about 12.15am on April 1st 1916 that she came across Essex from north east at a height of about 14000 feet … shrapnel shells [were fired] at the raider” [ERO D/DS 200/7]. An aeroplane failed to hit the target. The Zeppelin “dropped into the sea [near Margate] and sunk while being towed to land. Seventeen members of the crew were rescued and are prisoners of war at Chatham Barracks” [Essex Weekly News: 7 April 1916]. The news must have travelled fast because Robert Taylor Bull, of Burnham, recorded in his diary the following day, “A Zeppelin was brought down at Thameshaven”. On 1st April he wrote: “A Zepp went over last night about 9 … with usual noise” [ERO T/S 245].

During September 1916, two Zeppelins were intercepted by members of the Royal Flying Corps at Billericay and Wigborough, marking the beginning of the end of the raids. Inside the church at Great Wigborough there is a small part of what remains of L33.


Clark, Revd Andrew (edited James Munson). Echoes of the Great War (Oxford, 1985)
Morris, Captain Joseph. The German Air Raids on Great Britain 1914 – 1918 (Nonsuch, 2007). First published 1925.

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