‘Zepp. Raid which Wrought Havoc in Streatham and Brixton’ – 23rd September 1916

This title was the subheading of a lengthy article in the South London Press on 31st January 1919 (cont. 14th February 1919) detailing the zeppelin air raid of Saturday 23rd September 1916, which saw bombs rain down on South West London. It reports that the first bombs of the raid fell on Bromley-by-Bow shortly after midnight killing five people and injuring several others. Fifteen minutes later  ‘the terrifying thunder of incendiary and explosive bombs aroused the inhabitants of Streatham, and then followed the terrible results of one of the most remarkable raids of the series – at all events as far as South London was concerned.’

In an earlier post we told of how London had beefed up its air defences in the early part of 1916 and had successfully averted a zeppelin raid at the beginning of September. A few weeks later however, London was not so lucky and on this occasion the airships used flares to blanket the searchlights, putting the anti aircraft gunners at a disadvantage and enabling the airships to proceed on their deadly course. John Hook also reports in his booklet The Raids on Lambeth and Wandsworth, that the L31 zeppelin, commanded by Heinrich Mathy, was flying ‘unusually high and fast’ at an estimated 12,000 feet, crossing London from south to north and then making its escape.

 

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Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy / Imperial War Museums Collection / © IWM (Q 58566)

It is thought that Mathy directed the L31 zeppelin towards London by following the railway line from Eastbourne to London. After Mathy’s flares had dazzled the gunners at Croydon, the airship made its way towards Streatham Common station, dropping bombs on Mr. Tomlin’s vegetable garden at 30 Ellison Road along the way. Some of the railway tracks were then hit, followed by houses on Estreham Road opposite the station. A shop on Greyhound Lane had its windows blown in by an incendiary bomb which left a small crater in the pavement outside. Special Constables rushed to the scene and with the help of local residents began rescuing trapped and injured occupants of the bomb damaged buildings. The Red Cross treated nine casualties who were taken to Streatham Common station, where an emergency first aid post had been set up.

The zeppelin inflicted further damage along Gleneagle Road and Leigham Court Road, but according to at least one source ‘the worst incident of the raid occurred outside Streatham Hill Station.’ Streatham Hill Modern School stood on the junction of Streatham Hill and Sternhold Avenue, next to the station. A bomb exploded in the school’s garden, the blast from which killed four men outright who were on board a tramcar standing outside the station at the time. Another passenger died later from his wounds. The booking office and waiting rooms at Streatham Hill Station were damaged, as well as surrounding properties. Later, as morning dawned it was discovered that there was an unexploded bomb on the roof of Sainsbury’s opposite the station, which had to be removed to safety.

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Streatham Hill c.1910 / Wandsworth Heritage Service Postcards collection

 

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Bomb damage to a girls’ school near Streatham Hill station following the Zeppelin raid on the night of 23 – 24 September 1916 / Imperial War Museums Collections / © IWM (HO 99)

Further explosions erupted further along Streatham Hill, in Pendennis Road, Tierney Road and Telford Avenue, as the zeppelin progressed towards Brixton and on towards Central London. John W. Brown reports in his book Zeppelins Over Streatham: ‘During a period of less than 15 minutes, Heinrich Mathy had dropped a total of 32 bombs on Streatham, comprising 10 explosive and 22 incendiary devices. He had killed seven people and had seriously injured a further 27 in what was the worst night of destruction Streatham had ever known.’

Heinrich Mathy received military honours from the Kaiser for his efforts in penetrating London’s defences, but the L31’s reign was not to last. In a later raid on 1st October 1916 Mathy’s L31 zeppelin was shot down above Potters Bar, Hertfordshire killing Mathy and all 18 of his crew. They were buried in the local churchyard, where the crew of an earlier zeppelin crash had also been buried. In the 1960s their remains were removed to the German Cemetery at Cannock Chase, Staffordshire. Most of the metal from the wreckage of the L31 was used in the war effort. However, in the Potters Bar church of St. Mary the Virgin and All Saints can still be found an altar-cross made from metal taken from the wreck.

 

The South London Press is available on microfilm at Wandsworth Heritage Service

Publications held at Wandsworth Heritage Service:

The Air Raids on London during the 1914-1918 war: The Raids on Lambeth and Wandsworth – John Hook

Zeppelins over Streatham – John W. Brown

Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War – Jerry White

The Twentieth Century: Streatham – Patrick Loobey & John W. Brown

Other sources:

St. Mary’s Church, Potters Bar website

Hellfire Corner – Heinrich Mathy and Zeppelin L31 at Potters Bar

 

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London’s Air Defences strike a blow – 2nd September 1916

Many people are surprised to hear that air raids over London were not exclusive to the Second World War, and that in fact the First World War produced its fair share of nightly terror too. Of course, the scale of the bombing during the First World War did not equal that of the Second World War, but it was fairly significant, especially in the East End. South West London also had its fair share of attacks. John Hook lists 29 raids on Lambeth and Wandsworth between May 1915 and May 1918 in an extract of his book They Come! They Come! This map of the Wandsworth area is a detail from a larger map of London plotting the positions of the bombs that fell, published by the Daily Mail in 1919.

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The South Western Star reported on an unsuccessful zeppelin air raid that took place on the night of 2nd September 1916. The journalist seems to relish the excitement in his reporting of the event, setting the scene as though he is writing a suspense novel.

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He goes on to report that although by late evening people in central London were panicking and trying to get home because of the imminent zeppelin raid, ‘no tidings of the raid reached Battersea until well after midnight.’ Even then, he insinuates that the warnings were largely ignored and ‘like the wise people they are, the inhabitants of Battersea went to bed, not willing to lose the prospect of a good night’s rest.’ When gunfire disturbed their sleep in the early hours of the morning, it is reported that despite warnings to stay inside, hordes of people hurried outdoors to see what was going on. If this was indeed the case, it implies that this was a novelty and hadn’t been experienced locally up to that point, otherwise surely people would have recognised the danger and heeded the warnings not to venture out. However, it appears that those living in the vicinity of Clapham Common headed there in order to get as clear a view as they could of the night sky, and were rewarded with a searchlight display followed by a clear view to the north of ‘the ribbon-like form of a Zeppelin.’ They then watched as the zeppelin was engulfed in flame and slowly fell to earth. It was reported that ‘the light in the sky was brighter than any that Londoners had seen before, and a red glare quickly spread over the Common.’

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Jerry White’s book Zeppelin Nights gives an insight into the lead up to this thwarted air raid on 2nd September. In February 1916, there had been what he describes as an ‘ill-tempered debate’ in the House of Commons during which Lloyd George admitted Britain had been ‘very remiss’ in its neglect of air defence. During the next six months London reorganised its home defence squadron, attained more guns and searchlights and achieved better coordination. The public of course were unaware of these additional precautions, so nightly blackouts and unease continued during the summer months of 1916 even though there was a lull in zeppelin attacks. This had ended just a week before the raid I have been describing, with a raid by twelve airships on South East London which was largely unsuccessful. By the time this was followed up with the raid of 2nd September, the London defences were ready. These consisted of sixteen zeppelins, not one of which managed to hit their London targets. White writes: ‘Lieutenant W. Leefe Robinson of 39 Squadron at Sutton’s Farm achieved the first victory of London’s air war by bringing down around 2.30am SL11, a wooden airship, which fell in flames close to the village of Cuffley in Hertfordshire.’ It is approximately 30 miles from Clapham Common to Cuffley, so whether the crowd there would actually have seen the zeppelin’s demise as reported is open for discussion.

A cheer reportedly went up on Clapham Common as the crowd ‘gave way to one heartfelt cry of relief and triumph.’ 200 special constables and nurses had been standing by at Lavender Hill police station, but were dismissed when the danger had passed without need of their services. It is reported that ‘shortly after the Zeppelin had been destroyed, each man instinctively bared his head, and the National Anthem was sung.’ This after all was a visible sign of the allies striking a blow to the enemy, which must have stirred up everyone’s patriotism. John Burns was among the crowd on Clapham Common watching the spectacle that night. He seems to have approved of the measures that had been taken to improve London’s air defences, reportedly saying to some soldiers: “We are all right in London. Our defences are perfect. We have only lost a little over 400 lives after two years of war – not equal to one day’s casualties at the front.”

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Unfortunately it wasn’t long until the German military regrouped and launched another airship attack on London, this time managing to break through London’s ‘perfect’ defences and striking a blow on South West London.

 

The South Western Star is available on microfilm.

Publications mentioned available from Wandsworth Libraries.

 

27 June – 3 July 1916: The South London Press try to find the bright side

A look at the edition of the South London Press on 30th June 1916 reveals the local papers trying to cling on to a vestige of hope as the war reaches nearly two years’ duration. As its name implies, the South London Press covers a broader area that just Wandsworth (it seems particularly keen on Southwark) and at Wandsworth Heritage Service we hold more relevant local newspapers from this period to this borough. However, as the WW1 centenary approached and we began to notice an increase in visitors wanting to consult the local papers for reports of war casualties, it was a struggle to find any. A glance through the Tooting & Balham Gazette or the South Western Star during 1916 found it was business as usual, with lengthy descriptions of ‘pretty weddings’ and detailed reports of sporting events, but barely a mention of the ‘war to end all wars.’

By May of 1916 the South London Press who had been up to this point reporting on their front page any officers killed during warfare in a column entitled ‘In Memorium,’ decided to step up and list local people serving in the war of all ranks, reported dead or wounded. This is made possible by the Press Bureau’s identification of the area that the casualties’ next of kin belong to. In issuing this first list of local casualties the newspaper managed to find an optimistic point of view, which in hindsight is quite sobering in its naivety.

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In the edition of 30th June 2016 the regular column ‘In Memorium’ includes a short biography of the recently killed Lieutenant Henry Cyril Dixon Kimber of the Royal Field Artillery. Born in Streatham he was the grandson of a former M.P. for Wandsworth, Sir Henry Kimber, and a fairly lengthy paragraph describes his family, University education and war record, including his part in the battle of Loos.

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Compare this fitting tribute on page 3 of the newspaper with what is described as ‘detailed lists of South Londoners killed and wounded’ on page 5. Not even a full name is given in this ‘detailed list’, and the brevity of the individual entries feels familiar to us reading them now, accustomed as we are to the crowded lists of names on First World War memorials.

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Indeed, the habit of only listing casualties’ initials and surnames has led to great difficulty in recent times when communities have tried to research the people listed on their local war memorials. An unusual surname can help with identification, but an E. Brown and E.L. Smith have so far eluded the Summerstown182 team.

Two things strike me when looking at this list of war casualties in the South London Press. Firstly, the reporter continues to try and comfort the contemporary reader and allay their alarm at the sight of such a list of names, as can be seen in their introduction to the column below.

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I’m not sure the phrase ‘upwards of 60 per cent of those wounded are able to resume their places in the firing line’ was very comforting to those invalided out.

Secondly the juxtaposition of the war casualties with a column entitled: ‘Accidents and Fires in South London’ is interesting. This heralds the solemn reporting of a bizarre range of incidents described as ‘Many Happenings in Few Lines.’ These include a joiner, Alfred Palmer being knocked off his cycle outside Nine Elms station and a domestic servant named Annie Clarke being struck by a cricket ball near Clapham Common. The ‘Few Lines’ that describe these accidents are in fact more numerous and detailed than the supposed ‘detailed lists’ of war casualties alongside them. These unfortunate victims of local calamities are given their full name, age, address and occupation as well as details of the hospital they were taken to for treatment. The reader can probably picture and therefore empathise with the victims of these misfortunes much more easily than with the brief snapshot beside it of an unimaginable horror of war.

Further local reporting of war related matters reveals a faintly jolly sounding timetable for the 5th Battalion Wandsworth Volunteers (Headquarters: 123 Trinity Road, Upper Tooting). Regular battalion drills on Heathfield Ground and ‘trench work’ are very much the order of the day, but on Wednesday they get a break from drilling and are required to attend a fete and gala at Springfield War Hospital from 2pm til 9pm. The note at the end of the schedule reminding them of a camp that is to be arranged for three weeks in July and August completes the impression of activities more suited to boy scout troops.

A small paragraph at the bottom of page 3 really represents the local paper’s overall mission to inspire the local people with ideas of how they can help the war effort in their own way. The fact that the owner of the celebrated garden is not named nor the specific address given, leads one to wonder if it actually existed. If it did, I do hope they enjoyed eating their beans and didn’t miss their flowers too much.

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The South London Press, Tooting & Balham Gazette & South Western Star are all available on microfilm (Wandsworth Heritage Service)

Commonwealth War Graves Commission have a record of Lieutenant Kimber here.

Picture of Sir Henry Kimber from Wandsworth Notes, vol. 2 (Wandsworth Heritage Service)