Reading the papers over the weekend, I could not help but be reminded that this week sees the 80th anniversary of the Blitz, the German bombing campaign against Great Britain. It began late in the afternoon of 7 September 1940, when 300 German bombers flew in over London to attack the docks in the first of 57 consecutive nights of bombing and was to last 8 months.
By the time it ended, the Blitz had claimed 40,000 lives, injured many more and destroyed around two million homes. It is with good reason therefore that it looms so large in British culture. After all, it is still within living memory, and the recollections of those who lived through it are powerful to say the least. Who would not want to salute their forebears who endured life and work under the ever-present threat of death and destruction from the air? I think it is worth casting the mind of remembrance back a little further to a moment just beyond living memory, as there is another anniversary that falls this week.
On the night of 8 September 1915, the cigar-shaped shadow of Zeppelin airship L13 passed over the city of the London. It was piloted by Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Mathy, the most skilled and experienced of Germany’s Naval Airship service and it was intended to attack the city. Starting shortly before 11pm, L13 dropped a total of 15 high-explosive bombs, including one weighing 660lb, and 55 incendiaries. The bombs hit their targets, setting fire to a textile warehouse to the north of St Paul’s Cathedral and damaging Liverpool Street Station. The airship then made its way back home, flying too high to be troubled by the anti-aircraft guns. This was not Germany’s first air raid on the UK, but, with over 100 casualties, 22 of them killed, and over £500,000 worth of damage it was the most successful.
Growing up in England, I could hardly have failed to have heard of the Blitz, but it was not until I made a concerted effort to research the history of a church in London that I became aware of the fact that country endured over a hundred raids during the First World War. Though the First World War raids were less destructive than those that were to come in the Second World War, they deserve their place in the national psyche. This was the moment in history when air transport – then still in its relative infancy – brought something of the horrors of the battlefield to civilians living in London. It was the moment in which it became necessary to set up the London Air Defence Area, to protect London with guns diverted from the front line and positioned around the city. The moment in which the enemy – and the battle – were suddenly a lot closer to home.