Friday, 12 September 2008

Book Review: First Blitz

Someone once said that “the first casualty of war is truth”. Neil Hanson is criticised by some reviewers of his new book ‘First Blitz’ for the claim that the Germans intended to raze London to the ground in 1918. The truth that the enemy never bombed Tower Bridge and the British side suppressed the reporting of the events of war in the newspapers illustrates the case well. But the German development of the ‘Elektron’ high incendiary bomb in the summer of 1918 never tested the resolve of Londoners because bad weather, the need for ‘planes elsewhere, the fear of British reprisals and the losses of the enemy on the Western Front caused attacks to be countermanded at short notice.

The First Blitz covered the period 25 May 1917 to 19 May 1918. Neil Hanson explains the raids in graphic detail told in the words of the German bombers in the Gotha aeroplanes and survivors on the ground who witnessed the bombs dropped and carnage caused. The first raid, in daylight over Folkestone, on the Friday before the Whitsun bank holiday, tells how shoppers marvelled at the sight of circling aeroplanes above only to become victim moments later. The planned attack on London had been aborted due to cloud.

Daylight air raids on London followed on 13 June and 7 July 1917 (witnessed by Revd Reeve: see entry ‘Chronicler of the Great War’, 15.8.08). Hanson describes how the Gothas were operating at the very limit of their capability in order to reach London, drop their cargo and return safely to base before the reserve supply of fuel ran out. Quite a number did not make it, either on the onward or return journey. Perfect weather conditions were required. The ‘planes took the shortest route over land to London over Foulness in Essex before turning over Epping Forest towards London. Blackmore and Stondon Massey lie underneath this course. Moonlight raids followed over an almost consecutive period from 24 September to 1 October caused the frightened public to demand for counter-attack. Had the ‘Blitz of the Harvest Moon’ been sustained, unrest and the fall of Government could have been possible.

Hanson puts the loss of life from the air raids into perspective: the attacks killed 836 and injured 1965. By comparison the losses on the Western Front exceeded that figure in a day. The fact that war was waged on civilians though crossed the boundary of acceptability.

British defences were ineffective against air raid attack. Indeed, looking at the Great War as a whole, it seems clear that Germany was equipped for war in the air whereas Britain regarded flying as a gentleman’s leisurely pursuit. Searchlights and gunfire from the ground were a futile and expensive attempt to bring down these aircraft from high altitude; indeed people were killed on the ground as a result of ‘friendly fire’ from flying shrapnel (See entry, ‘Blitz of the Harvest Moon’, 3.10.08). Until the development of the Sopwith Camel by the Allies, the Gothas (and later ‘Giants’) were no match.

In the enemy’s final raid of Whitsunday, 19 May 1918, aeroplanes capable of attack were scrambled from Sutton’s Farm (Hornchurch), Hainault, North Weald, Stow Maries and other airfields around the City’s perimeter.

At 436 pages, and containing almost 90 pages of notes and references, ‘First Blitz’ is a detailed but not heavy read of these times. It is a book for grown ups not the young or faint hearted.

Links to other reviews

From The Telegraph: “The first sorties were mounted over eight successive nights in 1917. The following summer, as the war on the Western Front reached its climax, the bombers were back - this time armed with a fearsome new weapon - the Elektron bomb, an incendiary deliberately designed to create a city-consuming firestorm to rival Pepys's conflagration in 1666.
“Fortunately for London, the bombs were too unreliable, the bombers too few in number, and the London air defences - belatedly set up after the Zeppelin raids of 1916 - too effective, for the 'Fire Plan', as the Germans called their raid, to have the desired effect.”

‘First Blitz’ by Neil Hanson (Doubleday, 2008) is available in hardback. £17.99 (but can be found cheaper elsewhere – e.g. Amazon)

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