The main aerial threat to London up to around 1917 had come from the Zeppelins, these largely stopped after the ‘silent raid’ of October 1917. While Zeppelin L45 left a trail of destruction in its wake in London, including the destruction of several houses, killing a dozen people in Glenview Road in Hither Green, most of the Zeppelins were lost including the L45 – this was covered in a post a few months ago.
The Germans started using Gotha aircraft for bombing raids on London in May 1917, initially during the day but then at night in an attempt to reduce plane and pilot losses.
The last WW1 raid on London was over the night of 19 to 20 May 1918 was perhaps not unexpected, while Londoners had been enjoying a sunny Whitsun Bank holiday weekend, there had been a raid on Friday 17 May 1918 – there had been two bombs dropped on and around Hither Green Lane one of which was near St Swithun’s Church, fortunately no people were injured or killed.
Thirty eight Gotha and three Giant aircraft headed for London on evening of 19th May 1918 and started to come inland over the North Kent coast and following the Thames inland around 10:30 pm. They met considerable resistance from the newly formed RAF with at least 6 were brought down by British planes and anti-aircraft fire and, and others were forced to turn back before they reached Britain. There are some suggestions that as few as 18 of the 41 planes actually got through.
However, those that got through were able to drop somewhere between 1200 and 1500 kg of bombs. The bombing happened over a wide area with the police reporting 72 bombs being dropped in London – most of these were to the east and south east of the City. These included attacks in Hither Green, Lewisham, Lee, Catford, Bexley, Bexleyheath, Sidcup and Sydenham. In total 48 were killed and 172 injured.
Of the recorded Lewisham ones – a 50 kg bomb fell in Sangley Road, killing one person and injuring another with 44 houses were damaged. Two 50 kg and two 100 kg bombs fell close to 187 Leahurst Road, close to Hither Green Station. This damaged the railway line, 19 shops and 63 homes, killing 2 soldiers and injuring 6 people. Unlike the WW2 bombs, there seems little evidence there now of the bombing.
A 100kg bomb was dropped on the corner of Sydenham Road and Fairlawn Park it demolished a diary at 198 Sydenham Road, the bakers next door at 200, a marine store at 202 and badly damaged the confectioners at 204.
Picture from Lewisham WW1 wiki
There were 18 deaths, including 5 soldiers – the largest loss of life anywhere in London that night. The soldiers were part of a temporary army mechanical transport depot, presumably based at Home Park, but were billeted in empty shops on the opposite, north side, of the junction of Fairlawn Park and Sydenham Road.
The main civilian losses were at the bakery and the diary, where five members of the Delahoy family who ran the dairy perished – the parents Isaac and Eliza, who were both 57, and their children Mary (14), Beatrice (17) and Laura (20). From the excellent Delahoy family history site, it seems that that Isaac hailed form Lincolnshire, and had married Eliza and by the time their oldest son Frederick was born in 1883 they were living in Dalston. By the following year they were in Wastdale Road (another dairy) in Forest Hill moving to 71 Beckenham Road in Penge by the time Laura was born in 1897. By the 1911 census Isaac, Eliza and the younger children had moved to Sydenham Road.
Whilst at Sydenham Road, in 1908 Isaac had been found guilty of selling something equivalent to semi-skimmed milk as full fat and fined £5 – he blamed his wife for selling from the wrong pail …..
The Official Report from the Government to the press on the bombings released the following day made great play of many of the victims ignoring advice to stay indoors and under cover – it pointed to 10 of the injuries and several of the deaths in Sydenham, although this seems to have been mainly the troops billeted to the north of the bakery and dairy.
The site of the bombing in Sydenham formed part of the playground of the Our Lady and St Philip Neri RC Primary School – the site may well have been hit again by the last V-1 strike on Lewisham in August 1944. In May 2018, the school is in the process of being rebuilt there. The church (just to the west of the site) was itself destroyed in World War Two; and the shops on the north side of the street were eventually replaced by housing.
It was ordinary Britons that lost their lives that night in 1918, but it should not be forgotten that ordinary Germans in their towns and cities were also victims of air attacks. There was twice the volume of bombs dropped by the British on Germany, while Berlin remained out of range, British and French aviators bombed many German cities, particularly in the Ruhr and the Rhineland, the industrial heartland of western Germany. Saarbrücken suffered particularly heavy bombardments in 1918.
There was a memorial put up to the victims, and those of the Zeppelin attack on Glenview Road in Hither Green seven months earlier at Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery paid for by public subscription. It was next to the low service personnel memorial in the ‘Lewisham side’ of the cemetery. Over the years the details of those who died became eroded and indecipherable. The Friends of Brockley & Ladywell Cemeteries successfully sought funding to restore this memorial, which was unveiled on Saturday 21st October 2017.
Finally, a big thank you to the Delahoy Family history site for letting me use the two family photos in this post.