Air Raid Precautions

Attack from the air.

During the First World War British civilians had to face the threat of airborne attack for the first time. The Germans staged air raids using both aircraft and giant Zeppelins. Such raids struck fear and terror into the population and a range of protective measures was required, both to ensure public safety and to maintain morale.

First invented by Count von Zeppelin in 1900, the zeppelin was a vast hydrogen filled airship over 100 metres long. The pilot and crew were housed in a compartment or gondola under the main inflatable. A zeppelin could carry up to 27 tons of bombs and some were also equipped with machine guns. Despite their slowness and vulnerability to wind currents, zeppelins were hard to detect, flying silently at a height beyond the range of British guns.

The first UK air raid took place in Christmas Eve 1914, when an enemy plane dropped a single bomb on Dover. Zeppelin attacks became more serious in 1915 and London began to experience regular raids from September onwards. A blackout was quickly imposed and the streets became deserted.

By 1916 Zeppelin raids were on the decrease, largely thanks to a resident of Raynes Park. Francis Brock invented an exploding bullet that proved successful in penetrating the heavy fabric of the airships, enabling the Royal Flying Corps to destroy the gasbags before they could drop their bombs.

In 1917 the German zeppelins were superceded by squadrons of heavy Gotha and Giant aircraft. Flown in formations of 40, these staged regular attacks on London. Panic stricken city dwellers took shelter in cellars and underground stations, or sought refuge in outlying areas such as Kingston and Richmond.

By 1918 London was ringed by anti-aircraft guns, barrage balloons and steel streamers. Coastal defences improved to allow early warnings and the Royal Air Force was equipped with its own Handley Page bombers. British pilots could only attack enemy aircraft if they could see them – zeppelins exploited cloud cover to escape. Searchlights and small flares or Very lights, were used to track them. Very lights were amongst the wartime goods and munitions produced by Pascall's Fireworks in Mitcham. In some parts of Merton, observation balloons were also launched, allowing spotters to scan the sky for enemy aircraft.

Air Raid Protection.

Initially the only people warned of air attacks were those in Government or military departments, who received phone messages. However public outcry finally led to a more comprehensive warning system. Even this was somewhat primitive, as recalled by Wimbledon resident Patrick Fawcett:

The air raid warning was given by the fire engine…driving round the main roads and streets with its bell ringing continuously. The raid might often be well under way before the round was completed. The all clear was sounded on a bugle by somebody doing the rounds on a bicycle, reputed to be either a policeman or a Boy Scout. Sometimes nothing happened and all remained others the anti-aircraft guns stationed in the Raynes Park area opened fire. The noise of these guns together with the shrapnel falling like hailstones could be quite frightening.

Much of the Merton area was considered outside the risk zone but the Wimbledon Corporation spent £1000 on various forms of protection. Shelters were sanctioned by the Borough Surveyor. An alarm system was also developed so that firemen and workmen at the Queen's Road council depot were ready to shore up buildings and barricade the streets if necessary. Doctors and ambulances were also put on standby.

Warning posters were issued bearing slogans along the lines of “Keep Calm and Carry On.” In some cases, the level of expectation actually fuelled public fears. Parents began rushing to collect children from school every time a raid was sounded and eventually staff were instructed to keep the front gates locked during alarms, as the children were actually safer in school.

Some Merton residents were determined to remain stalwart in a crisis, as shown by this quote:

Our cook, who’d been with us for years…was unperturbed by anything. During a period when raids were frequent, she…continued to sleep on the top floor when everyone else had moved down to the first. Also, at a time when people didn’t go out in the evenings unless absolutely necessary, out she would go, taking her umbrella for protection against falling shrapnel…

Patrick Fawcett, Memories of a Wimbledon Childhood.

Reports suggest that only one enemy bomb actually fell in Merton during the war - although there is little definitive information. It is said to have been dropped, manually, from a zeppelin during the summer of 1917. It reputedly fell on the Kings College School playing field along the Ridgway but failed to explode. 

The threat of attack from the air was a weapon in itself, as shown by this recollection from Vernon Ely, whose family owned Ely's department store on Worple Road, Wimbledon:

One Saturday morning when we were enjoying a half-holiday…I remember some thirty or forty German biplanes flying over, plainly visible in the clear sky. No bombs were dropped but this had a serious psychological effect on the public, who asked understandably, what had become of our air defences.

V. Ely, Fifty Years Hard

During the middle phase of war, two BE2 aircraft from the Royal Flying Corps were stationed near the Windmill on Wimbledon Common. The pilots had been trained to fly in darkness, as enemy raids from 1915 - 17 mainly took place at night. The aircraft only saw action on 31 January 1916 and their mission ended in disaster as one plane stalled and the other hit trees on Parkside, crash landing in a garden. The temporary aerodrome was abandoned soon afterwards.

Patrick Fawcett's reaction to the newly arrived aircraft was probably typical of many local youngsters:  

I remember the sudden appearance of two aeroplanes on the Common. They were standing outside their brown canvas hangar on the open ground in front of the windmill. ..We supposed they were there ready to take off at a moment’s notice on the approach of enemy aircraft …We went to look at them…many times hoping to see something happen, but we never saw any activity at all…We would see too the observation balloons rose up over the trees in the direction of Roehampton. Sausage shaped – they had a gondola suspended from them carrying the observers who scanned the skies for enemy raiders.