1863 - 1912

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The 1918 Bombing of the gardens

The great Air Raid of 1918 - By Julian Futter

I am going to try and piece together what happened on the night of March 7 and 8 1918 when the bombers of squadron RF501 bombed our part of London. Following on from what we know of the Blitz some of this is going to sound very familiar. Civilians endured the black out, sheltered in tube stations and died in their houses. All the paraphernalia of air raid defence was already in place – anti aircraft fire, searchlights, balloon barrage and night fighters. There were even Royal visits. Although only 51 airship raids and 52 aircraft raids took place, of which 12 airship and 19 aircraft raids occurred on London, a total of 9,000 bombs were dropped with a total weight of 230 tons. Total casualties were 1,413 dead and 3,400 injured of which 670 died and 1,962 were injured in London. To put this into some sort of perspective, in one week in October 1918, 2,225 people died in London from the great Spanish flu epidemic, and on the battlefields an average of 5,600 soldiers died on every day of the war. On the first day of the battle of the Somme 20,000 British soldiers died. In the Second World War 30,000 civilians died in the bombing – 50 times as many as in 1914-18.

However the impact of air raids on civilians had effects far out of proportion to the damage they caused. I will touch on what these effects were at the conclusion of my article.

To begin with, what was the situation like in March 1918? The war was now 3½ years old. On the Western Front both sides were weary and worn out. The Americans had been in action for less than a month and had by this stage made no impact at all. On the Eastern Front the Germans had entered Kiev on March 2nd and were less than 90 miles from St Petersburg. The next day the Bolsheviks surrendered, giving up vast amounts of equipment and arms to the Germans, and allowing Germany to turn her full military might on the west without having to fight on 2 fronts. The Allies were now exhausted and as General Haig said were “fighting with their backs to the wall.”

In the first week of March Austria bombed Venice and 3 other Italian cities. Germany dropped 90 bombs on Paris sending 200,000 Parisians to the countryside and the next day bombed Naples. 2 days after the raid the Germans launched their final great offensive. The only good news we had was in Palestine where under Allenby, the war was going well against the Turks.

I would now like to describe the events of the night of the 7th and 8th of March from the viewpoints of some of the participants. At 10.00 p.m. in London, the crowds were leaving some of the 40 theatres where they had seen among others, George Robey, Mrs Patrick Campbell, the Beecham opera, Gladys Cooper, Beatrice Lilly, Edith Evans. Jack Buchanan was playing at the Criterion which advertised itself as being “built entirely underground” .

As Londoners made their way to their tubes and buses, over in Belgium squadron RFA 501 was making final preparations to take off from their new base in Scheldewindeke near Ghent. They had only occupied it that afternoon and without time to settle in to their new quarters they were ordered to attack London that night. Heavily laden, the squadron had loaded up and made their final preparations. One of their number, R39, piloted by Hpt Richard von Bentivegni, was carrying a one ton bomb – only the second time such a payload had been carried – the other 5 carried a mix of 100 and 300 kg bombs.

Their planes were of the most advanced type. Known as Giants they were the brain children of Count von Zeppelin of airship fame and Robert Bosch the industrialist. They were designed and built in the Berlin suburb of Staaken and had been in action since 1917. These aircraft were powered by four 245 hp engines travelling at 80 mph and flying at 14,000 ft with an endurance of up to 10 hrs. Their wing span was 138 ft, greater than that of the Lancaster bomber. Their laden weight was 12 tons, approaching that of a Wellington. They were at the cutting edge of 1917 technology and had an enclosed cabin, electrically heated flying suits, extensive instrumentation and wireless telegraphy. They were well armed and carried a crew of 7 or 8 airmen.

At the same time at Rochford and at Stow Maries airfields, and at 8 other airfields, mechanics had prepared the BE12s, SE5As and Camel fighters for operations as part of the new defence system for London. It had been 3 weeks since the last raid and with the weather overcast and no moon or stars visible no action was expected that night.

At RFA 501 morale was high. In previous operations against England not a single Giant had been lost to enemy action and results had been good. R39 whose future we will follow in detail later, had dropped a one ton bomb with devastating effect 7 weeks earlier in Long Acre, destroying Odhams Press and killing 38 people. It’s Captain Hauptman Richard von Bentvegni had commanded the squadron since they left the Eastern front in November 1916 and had already flown 5 missions against England and France.

Let one of their number, Hptm Schoeller, tell the story of the preparations for take off on that March night. “Our 6 aircraft are rolled out onto the T shaped concrete apron and parked in preparation for take off. We have been ordered to ready the machines for a night attack and for this task the R plane crew which consists of 2 pilots, one observer, one navigator, 2 mechanics, one fuel attendant, one wireless operator and one machine gunner is assisted by a ground crew of 40 men. The highest ranking officer on board is the R plane commander who also acts as first pilot and navigator. Under the commanders supervision every crew member bends to his assigned task. The wireless operator tests his equipment for readiness to receive and send messages: the fuel attendant sees that his ten 245 litre fuel tanks are properly filled and topped, the mechanics who are situated between the two engines in the nacelles tune the engines and prepare them for the start and the machine gunner arms the 4 m/c guns. A good deal of time elapses before we are ready to accept our bomb load. The bombs, which may range from 100 to 1000 kgs and are released electrically are hung in long rectangular bomb bays underneath the fuselage floor between the wings and are enclosed with folding doors. On top of these preparations there is just time for a frugal supper and dissemination of orders. A last comprehensive study of charts and orientation material with my observer and second pilot then out to the armed aircraft whose idling engines sing a song of subdued power. At exactly 20.00 Hptm Richard von Bentivegni fires his starting flare and their planes strain forward with an ear deafening roar. We taxi to the take-off strip and with full throttle head into the clear dark night. Slowly the heavily laden machine rolls over the ground, finally it is airborne and after a wide curve around the aerodrome we head in a direction along the pin marked course on our maps. Inside the fuselage the pale glow of dimmed lights outlines the chart table, the wireless equipment and the instrument panel, on which the compass and other navigational instruments are mounted to help guide us through the darkness. Before long we spot the signal cannon at Ostend which fires star shells into the night to assist us on our way.”

At 10.00 in 56 Warrington Crescent, 10 year old Miss Stevenson had gone to bed with her new gym slip by her bed side, hardly able to wait to wake up and wear it for the first time. She never would.At the same time, across the road at no 61, Lena Ford, Ivor Novello’s collaborator on the popular hit of the day “Keep the home fires burning” had been working on the lyrics of some new songs and just put them on a pile beside her bed.

In nearby St. Johns Wood, on leave from service in Palestine, Lt¬ Colonel Woolaston was finishing dinner in his hotel opposite Lords and talking to his friends about the campaign, and also about how he would be interested in observing the effects of an air raid at first hand.

By 10.30 the Germans had been picked up by coastal defences and the Royal Flying Corps had been alerted. Captains Stroud and Kynoch took off on their last missions. With them were 40 other pilots from 10 squadrons including one from Biggin Hill – to become more famous 22 years later. By 11.00 the Deal battery had spotted the raiders. One had already turned back due to engine trouble, but the remaining 5 were now well on their way to London. At 11.05 the first of nearly 10,000 shells sent up that night was fired at their formation.

To give an idea of what it was like to fly to their target at 12,000 feet we will return to Hptm Schoeller in R 27. “We approach the coast; the night is so dark that the coastline below is but a mere suggestion. Under us is a black abyss, no waves are seen, no lights of surface vessels flicker as we head for the Thames estuary at Margate. On our right in the distant North is our only light, the weak pulsating glow of the Aurora Borealis. Ahead of us a black nothingness. Are we on the correct course? We have neither a weather report from the high seas (he means a report radioed back to base by a submarine operating in the channel) nor wind measurements to go by. We had started in clear sky but now clouds streak below us. We can see nothing through the holes, which now and then appear, but from our elapsed time we must be over England. The flight continues without a sighting. Did we miss the coast?

Suddenly a breath of relief. Directly ahead, the searchlights illuminate the sky in their search for us but they do not spot us. Now we are certainly over England- but where? Because all surface lights are blacked out it appears we soaring over a dead land. But the enemy has heard us and therefore we are free to request wireless bearings. The operator sends a pre arranged signal, which is received by 2 stations in Belgium. In a few minutes we receive a message giving our location. Accompanied by searchlights, which seem to guide our way we fly towards the Thames whose dock installations are our target. Can we recognise the docks through the low overcast, across the darkened countryside? (it seems he spends most of his time wondering where he is!) Directly ahead the landing lights of an English airfield flare up as the enemy prepares to intercept us. The machine gunners arm their guns and fire at the searchlights below. All at once, through a hole in the cloud cover the grey band of the Thames momentarily appears. We continue on course, and during the next sighting Oberleutnant Kamps who is standing next to the bomb release mechanism in the open bow of the machine, presses the bomb release keys. (Bearing in mind that they probably did not a clue where they were, one wonders what Oberleutnant Kamps had sighted). Not far ahead we can see a portion of the balloon barrage. We turn for home along the Thames, whose banks are dotted with anti aircraft batteries that soon have us under fire. As we approach the coast the overcast becomes thinner and before long the searchlights catch us and the bursts of anti aircraft move dangerously closer. Shell splinters tears through our upper wing without causing any damage. The flaming shells come so close we can almost touch them. Beneath us we spot the exhaust flames of a pursuing night fighter but it does not threaten us. In this manner we reach the open sea at Margate and steer for Ostend where well known signals will guide us home. “

What, in the meantime, was happening on the ground?

By 11.00 the air raid warning had gone off in the form of a “maroon” which was an airborne explosion whose crack called people to their shelters, if any. R 39 was now only 55 mins from its victims, some of whom were busy playing cards and possibly even discussing the recent spreading revolt in Croatia; perhaps they even debated whether the death of Parnell’s friend John Redmond in Wexford would, in the words of John Dillon,” bury for ever the discords which have been the curse of Ireland for over a century.”.

But this is mere speculation:

What is not speculation is that at 11.55 precisely, R39 dropped a one ton bomb onto the dividing wall of 63 and 65 Warrington Crescent. It exploded on impact and demolished 61, 63, 65 and 67. The houses were well built brick buildings 4 stories high and in all cases the upper two stories were demolished. In the case of 63 and 65 the masonry was blown sideways onto no 61 and 67 and the lower stories of these houses collapsed under the extra weight of the masonry, which then fell into the basement. The great concussion caused by this bomb blew out windows up to 150 yds away even knocking down partition walls and incidentally blowing out the stained glass windows in Clifton Gardens of which only one was ever replaced. Miss Stevenson opposite at no 56 Warrington Crescent was awoken from her sleep. “It was the most terrible noise imaginable and it felt as if all the house was falling to pieces. I looked out of the window and saw a mass of flames, the houses across the road having caught fire. I heard the awful cries for help above the roar and crackle of the flames and the noise of the falling masonry.”

Frank Small, the Vicar and a Special Constable, on duty at Warwick Avenue tube station, saw the bomb fall and ran up the road hearing shrieks and screams.

Mrs Coxall, a servant remembered, “I was in the basement and heard a crash and my door came in. I put the door on the bed and crawled underneath it. I heard the house falling and dragged 94 year old Mrs Brown under the bed with me. Then the whole place collapsed, and to my surprise, I was able to crawl out without a scratch. I got Mrs Brown out and after a visit to hospital she went to her friends. Another maid was blown to the top of the house and when rescued she was found to have only a broken ankle.”

The card players meanwhile escaped with slight cuts after their windows were blown in.

In another house a clergyman and his wife had just got out of bed when the earth moved for them and their ceiling fell in. According to newspaper reports several people had narrow escapes from falling chandeliers.

5 minutes after the bomb fell at Warrington Crescent Lt -Col Woolaston achieved his ambition to observe an air raid at first hand. Standing at his window, a bomb exploded in the street opposite, killing him instantly.

By now the rescue services had begun to swing into action.

Charles Conroy, who received an MBE for his work that dreadful night, arrived on the scene soon after the bomb went off and left us this report. “There was a young girl high up in a shattered house hanging on a beam by her hands who was rescued by the police. At about 1.00 we heard the voice of a man who had been buried in the debris with his children who were dead. Through out the night we were trying to cheer him up by saying we would soon get him out. We managed to rescue him alive at about 10.00 but he died later in St. Mary’s.”

This was Mr Thomas whose entire family died. There was also an Irish girl who was pinned down by a sideboard and the words “Oh Begorrah” were the only complaint we got from her. Another man fell from the top of a house enveloped in a carpet, which undoubtedly saved him from more serious injury. Furniture fell on him and he was pinned by the legs of the piano you can see in the photo. Restoratives were given to him until he was rescued.

Mrs Ford was not so lucky. Beside her shattered body were the lyrics for a song called, ironically, “God guard me”. Her crippled son’s body was lying nearby. Rescue work continued throughout the night and the next day. It was dangerous and unpleasant. Dr Wright, who lived nearby, spent 12 hrs inside the precarious structure administering oxygen and brandy to Mrs Pyke, who died later, and her sister Mrs Rothschild who survived. Though injured and bleeding he would not leave until the women were brought out. Their mother, Mrs Lindo, had been killed instantly when the building fell on her. The scene is described by Sapper Landryan who worked with him all night tunnelling beneath 15 tons of debris at enormous risk. “I had seen towns and villages in Flanders shelled to pieces but none presented such a scene of desolation as this. Bodies shattered almost beyond recognition were buried wholly or in part beneath the fallen masonry.”

In the air, by now R39 had escaped unscathed over the coast. Not a single contact had been made with enemy fighters. Captains Stroud and Kynoch were searching the overcast skies for the bombers but in the darkness they collided over Rayleigh and became the only air casualties that night.

One German bomber, R27, which we followed earlier, crash landed after its fuel lines froze. Two British fighters crash landed but without any injuries. On Friday 8 march Field Marshall viscount French, Queen Alexandra and Princess Victoria visited the site and on Saturday 9 march at 3.00 p.m. King George and Queen Mary visited Warrington Crescent and St. Johns Wood and then went on to Chelsea to see the damage done to the Royal Hospital by a bomb dropped, unknown to her, by R39, 3 weeks earlier.

In her diary Queen Mary writes that she saw the “awful havoc” done to the “poor houses” in Maida Vale. Speaking during her visit to Miss Coxall, the maid who hid under the bed, she said it was “terrible, terrible” and congratulated her on her narrow escape. Bodies were still being removed at this time and King George spoke to Dr White and other rescue workers.

This was followed with a visit by the then Minister for Munitions, Winston Churchill, who had just come back from a trip to France.

Quite why this raid got so much attention I don’t know. 15 other raids caused more casualties. In one raid in June 1917 162 people died, so why so many high powered people came remains a mystery.

The crew of R39 survived the War to fly missions in 1919 to the short-lived Republic of Ukraine where it was shot down on a mission carrying counterfeit bank notes

Hpt Richard von Bentivegni survived to write his memoirs.

The amount of men and materials involved in dealing with, what was in retrospect, a relatively minor annoyance in the scale of the war was out of all proportion to the actual threat. 250 guns, 350 searchlights and 8 squadrons with about 150 aircraft of the most modern type were employed to deal with this threat. Approximately 17,000 men were employed in air defence duties many of whom, especially trained pilots, were desperately needed in France.

Production of desperately needed munitions was severely disrupted by air raid warnings.

In conclusion it is sobering to remember that all this happened only 9 years after Bleriot made the first faltering trip across the channel and only 15 years after the Wright Brothers staggered into the air for the first time at Kitty Hawk.

Sources:

Air Defence of Britain A Charlton 1938

Air Defence Ashmore 1929

The German Giants Haddow and Grosz 1970

Fire over England Castle 1982

The German air raids on Britain Morris 1925

The Air Defence of Britain Cole and Cheesman 1984

Encyclopaedia Britannica 12th Edition

Colindale Newspaper Library

The Public Records Office Kew Air 1 2123 etc

The Imperial War Museum

The Aviation Picture Library

Windsor Royal Archive

City of Westminster Archive

© Julian Futter 1996


Dial M for Murder

Alfred Hitchcock’s great movie, Dial M For Murder, based on a play by Frederick Knott, was set in a flat that had the fictional address of 61A Charrington Gardens, Maida Vale (hence the ‘M’ that one dials). The street is a long curved street of elegant terraces, and the protagonist Tony Wendice gives directions ‘turn left at Maida Vale underground station, we’re about two minutes walk’. It’s also apparent in the movie that the flat backs onto a private communal garden with a gate at the bottom.

To test my theory that Charrington Gardens is in fact intended to be Warrington Crescent, I consulted Ken Mogg, one of the leading experts on Alfred Hitchcock who runs a site called ‘The MacGuffin‘ dedicated to scholarship on the work of Hitchcock. Below is his response.

“You don’t say whether you have consulted reference books on this, notably Gary Giblin’s ‘Hitchcock’s London’ (2006) and Steven Jacobs’s ‘The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock’ (2007).

Unfortunately, in Giblin’s words: ‘Precisely where in London the exteriors [for the Wendices' flat in DIAL M] were shot remains a mystery (although production notes do confirm that the footage was shot in London).’

Giblin elaborates:

‘According to the address he gives Swann in both the play and the film Dial M for Murder, Tony Wendice and his wife live at 61A Charrington Gardens, Maida Vale, a two-minute walk from the Underground, presumably the Maida Vale Station but possibly the Warwick Avenue Station. There is no such street as Charrington Gardens in Maida Vale, nor was there in 1954, although there is a Warrington Crescent, which may have been what playwright Frederick Knott had in mind. (Indeed, his screenplay indicates that the locale is near Maida Vale Road [sic], which also suggests Warrington Crescent.) Hitchcock apparently intended to film exteriors of the couple’s home (for POV shots out the bedroom window, for Mark’s view from the taxi, etc.) on location in Randolph Crescent, which is in fact one street over from Warrington Crescent. However, as the visitor to Randolph Crescent will quickly perceive, the street does not match the one shown in the film.’ (pp. 94-95)

And a footnote in Jacobs adds this: ‘A letter (May 13, 1953) in the Warner Bros. Archives contains a “list of Leica Kodachrome shots of possible locations.” However, the addresses mentioned in the document (17 Randolph Avenue, 2 Carlton Avenue, 104 and 106 Sutherland Avenue, and 70 and 72 Hamilton Terrace) do not match the shots used in the film.’ (n. 1, p. 104)

Tony, all I can think of to add is this. When Hitchcock was shooting on location in London for THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956), he shot the exteriors of the ‘Ambrose Chapel’, supposedly located at 17 Ambrose Street, Bayswater (the address shown in a telephone directory and repeated in the dialogue), not in Bayswater at all but at the St. Saviour’s Church Hall, Brixton. (Sorry, I’m not sure how far from Bayswater that is.) My point (and Gary Giblin’s) is that Hitchcock and his scenarist had no interest in any real street – not in any pedantic or literal sense, that is. So long as it looked and felt right for the locale mentioned in the film, it would do. So maybe you should just stroll around your area in ever-widening circles (!), and hope that you will suddenly stumble on the street that represented the fictitious Charrington Gardens! Of course, 58 years have passed, so there may have been changes …”.

Ken was also kind enough to send me some screen grabs of the exterior shots used in the film, which I reprint below. They really don’t seem to be from around here, and look to me to be either one of the streets on the perimeter of Regents Park, or possibly somewhere around Belgrave Square. If anyone has any good ideas please mail them to me at admin@crescentgarden.co.uk. Both Ken and I would be grateful.