First Blitz tells an extraordinary story, and one which I knew nothing about until I began to research it. I had, of course, heard of Zeppelin attacks on Britain during the First World War, but I knew nothing of the fact that, less than ten years since Louis Bleriot’s first ever crossing of the Channel in a canvas and wire “string bag”, Germany had built massive multi-engined aircraft with a two-ton bomb load, nor that they were part of a plan to burn London to the ground.
On 23 September 1918, London stood on the brink of destruction. Squadrons of giant two- and four-engined German bombers, each aircraft carrying 1,000-2,000 of Germany’s new doomsday weapons – Elektron bombs: the most fearsome incendiaries ever devised, were poised to destroy the city. The story of the events of that fateful day – never before revealed – are told in “First Blitz”.
Conventional bombing raids by the huge new German bombers - bigger than any British or German aircraft of the Second World War, let alone the First, had already caused mass panic in London. The air defences were largely ineffective and there was precious little “Blitz Spirit” on show during this First Blitz of 1917-18. Instead Londoners were in ‘a state of nervous collapse’; xenophobic, violent and - with the Russian Revolution fresh in every mind - perhaps even in a pre-revolutionary ferment. There was a genuine fear that collapsing public morale might force the government to resign or sue for peace.
The new Elektrons burned ferociously and were virtually impossible to extinguish - water and carbon dioxide merely made them burn even more fiercely. The German Feuerplan (Fire Plan) aimed to use tens of thousands of these devastating new incendiaries to engulf London in flames so that, as one German officer said, ‘by contrast, the Fire of Rome [when Nero fiddled while Rome burned] would seem a minuscule matchbox affair’.
At the very last moment - once airborne, the aircraft could not have been recalled - fearing that even the complete destruction of London would no longer be enough to make Britain sue for peace and would merely bring down even more terrible reprisals on Berlin, the Germany High Command called off the attacks. The margin between the survival of London and its destruction had come down to just half an hour.
No firestorms raged through London in the Great War; that fate would be reserved for Hamburg, Coventry, Dresden and Tokyo in the next. The incendiaries that destroyed Dresden in 1945 were identical to the German Elektron bombs of 1918.
The First Blitz also had profound consequences for the outcome of the Second Blitz of 1940-41. The air defence system that was to serve so effectively in the Battle of Britain, was forged in the crucible of the Great War. With the single exception of the invention of radar, everything - the ring of fighter bases, air defence zones, listening stations, barrage balloon screens, mobile and static anti-aircraft batteries, the communications net, and even the operations room with its giant map table manned by staff plotting aircraft movements with the aid of counters and wooden rakes - was already in place in 1918.
The differing conclusions that the two sides reached from their experience of air war between 1914 and 1918 also led directly to the failure of the German Blitz in 1940-41. The mass panic that had greeted the bombing of London during the Great War, fuelled by doom-laden prophecies about the effect of bombing in a future war, led British politicians and military strategists greatly to exaggerate the potential impact of strategic bombing. Stanley Baldwin warned Parliament in 1932, ‘I think it well for the man in the street to realise there is no power on earth that can protect him from bombing. The bomber will always get through... The only defence is in offence - you have got to kill more women and children quicker than the enemy to save yourselves.’
With a far more accurate idea of the stupendous cost of the “First Blitz” that they had mounted, German commanders drew diametrically opposite conclusions about the effectiveness of strategic bombing and concentrated their aircraft production on battlefield aircraft like the Stuka. The Luftwaffe thus had virtually no heavy bombers at all, whereas British planning centred on their use and counter-use.
Pressure of public opinion, especially in America, required that Germany should be perceived to have struck the first blow, but in fact the first attack in the air war was made by British bombers, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding spoke openly of ‘a bombing raid on the Ruhr in order to draw reprisals upon this country’.
The excuse for an all-out assault on German cities was finally provided on 24 August 1940 when a dozen German aircraft, tasked to bomb coastal oil depots, lost their bearings and dumped their bombloads on parts of London. Week-long reprisal raids on Berlin drew Hitler into pledging that in revenge, British cities would be razed to the ground. The Blitz was duly launched on London on 7 September, but Germany lacked the heavy bombers to deliver a decisive blow and over the following months the Battle of Britain was won by Britain, but in my view, it was decided as much by the events of 1918, as of 1940
The spectre of the Fire Plan was resurrected by the raid that turned Coventry into an inferno but it was Britain, not Germany, that carried it to its logical extreme. “Area bombing” - a dry euphemism for mass destruction and extermination - was born in the 1,000-bomber attack on Cologne in May 1942, igniting 12,000 fires in the city. Supposedly launched ‘to capture the imagination of the British people’, its true purpose was surely its effect on the German imagination.
“Operation Gomorrah” - the destruction of Hamburg in July 1943 - followed, and in February 1945, the ancient, largely wooden and previously unbombed city of Dresden was consumed by a firestorm that claimed 135,000 lives - more than twice as many as had been lost in Britain in all the German air-raids of the war. The seeds sown by the German Fire Plan of the Great War had grown into a whirlwind that had consumed its creators.
‘Neil Hanson’s masterly account... engrossing and eye-opening... Neil Hanson is that rare beast - a popular historian who never talks down to his readers. Clearly and engagingly written, his book puts more academic historians to shame by discovering a big subject, investigating it thoroughly and drawing bold but far-reaching conclusions from it.’
Nigel Jones, Daily Telegraph, London
'The 1940s bombing raids over London have taken such a powerful grip upon our imagination that the existence of an earlier Blitz, in World War I, will come to many readers as a complete surprise. Yet as Neil Hanson...demonstrates in this gripping and well-researched book, it was in many ways more terrifying... Hanson provides a last-minute ending which shows how close we came to disaster... it could have changed the course of the war.'
Christopher Hudson, Daily Mail, London
'This dramatic and absorbing history... A brief review cannot do justice to Hanson's gripping story. He combines a grasp of the larger strategic issues of the war with passages that give the reader a taste of the terrible conditions endured by pilots in the frail, exposed flying machines. This is both an exploration of a little-known theme and a splendid piece of narrative history.'
Robert Willson, Canberra Times, Australia
‘History invariably falls into two categories: academic and narrative. The former is usually detailed, offers unique insights and can be as dry as the Sahara in a drought. The latter normally rattles on at a cracking pace but rarely skims the surface of serious research. To marry the two is a rare art – and it is an art Neil Hanson has mastered... This is a compelling story compellingly told. The author has made full use of published and unpublished sources, British and German, and knitted a gripping narrative using them.’
Richard Hargreaves, Navy News, London