on 7 November 2008
Very cleverly prefacing each chapter with a relevant contemporary photograph, this throughly entertaining book totally immerses the reader in one of the seminal acts of aerial strategic warfare: calculated German bomber assaults on London and its environs.
Dates, names, places, sights, sounds, machines, drama, folly, consequences - all aspects of these historically and militarily significant operations are laid out in vivid detail to form a wonderfully flowing tale of a little known but vital struggle in the later stages of WW1.
Highly recommended for anyone at all interested in military history, and probably even a fascinating read for those for whom the subject holds little attraction.
This is a masterful book. Its subject matter may seem a little narrow at first glimpse and of little relevance as compared to the horrors that would be unleashed from the air in WW2; but as soon as you open this book you will be treated to an unequalled treatise on the first real attempt to subjugate another country by means of air power. The abject suffering that rained down, upon the innocent, from the skies is told with such consummate skill that you will be gripped from start to finish and its impact will be with you days after you arrive at the end. Though total casualties were relatively few the inevitability and the impersonal nature of death visited upon those who came beneath those beautiful wings is all too apparent. What must also have been seared upon the collective conscience of those who bore witness was the impotence, for the most part, of the British response. Not that we did not learn from our inadequacies however. There are several works that deal with misguided decisions made by Hitler that may have cost him the war but by extrapolating facts contained with "First Blitz" we can wonder what might have befallen us had the Germans developed 4 engine bombers of the quality of the Lancaster at its start. Read this book and you will wonder no more.
on 13 April 2009
The previous reviewers highlight the fascinating content of this book, so I won't repeat it here! However, I want to add that this book provides a truly fascinating insight into Germany's air campaign during WW1, which usually focusses on their fighters (Red Baron, etc) or the Zeppelins, completely overlooking their strategic bomber campaign which the German High Command believed would win them the war.
While the book is well written and highly readable, 2 aspects let it down to some degree:
- Firstly, there tends to be a feeling of deja-vu when the author details each and every mission of the England Squadron's attacks on Blighty (although each raid posed different challenges to the crews, with differing success). Such repition is due to the author following a strictly chronological narrative, and a different approach would have helped prevent this.
- Secondly, the book relies on a lot of diverse source material, and although there's a comprehensive bibliography in the back, there's little attempt to cross reference these to specific facts in the text, which will prove frustrating to the interested historian wanting to research further.
That said, the book is fascinating, particularly the closing chapters that detail how close London and Paris came to a potentially devastating fire-bomb raid using a new 'wonder weapon' in the last few weeks of the war...with the raid called off by Ludendorff while the aircraft were literally taxiing to the runway!
on 3 June 2008
The following review appears in the July 2008 edition of Navy News:
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.
After first-rate histories of the Spanish Armada and the Great Fire of London, Hanson has turned his attention to the Great War in the Air in First Blitz.
There is a smattering of books on the `first Blitz' as it became known (only after `The Blitz' Blitz a generation later) - but almost all of these focus on the raids of 1917.
A year later, a far more destructive series of raids were planned, however - a story which is the hub of this work - which would have been a mirror image of what Londoners would face in 1940. But there are echoes of WW2 throughout this volume.
Blackouts - limited initially - were imposed in the autumn of 1914. Street lamps, bright shop signs, bus headlights were all dimmed. Black curtains were the rule in every window. The darkness exacerbated people's panic and fear - and sparked an upsurge in criminal activity.
There were (nonsensical) inter-Service rivalries. The Royal Naval Air Service would defend dockyards and naval facilities but would only operate over the hinterland when German bombers or Zeppelins crossed the coast. Soldiers manned anti-aircraft guns (or `archie') in ports, while naval guns ringed London to defend the capital.
In the early days of the war it was the RNAS which dictated Britain's aerial strategy, not the Royal Flying Corps; it attacked Zeppelin sheds up and down the German frontier, including the works at Friedrichshafen. Naval bombers violated Swiss airspace to attack the factory and, protested the Germans, dropped their loads "in a barbaric manner upon innocent civilians". This from the nation which had jackbooted through Belgium and put civilians to the sword...
Major Wilhelm Siegert was gripped by no such feigned outrage. He assembled Germany's finest aviators in the innocuously-sounding Breiftauben Abteilung (Carrier Pigeon Unit) and began to wage war against Allied strategic targets.
The `carrier pigeons' did not achieve a great deal with their pinprick raids but they did, the Allies press protested, cause "the death of that standard trinity: women, children and old people".
But as 1917 dawned, a new breed of pigeons was arriving at front-line units. Little more than a dozen years after man had taken to the skies in heavier-than-air craft, German industry was producing machines beyond the wildest imagination of the Wright Brothers.
The Gotha IV could carry a payload in excess of 1,000lb; its successor, the Gotha V, could drop bombs twice as heavy on its target.
Such payloads paled when compared with the Riesenflugzeug (literally `huge aircraft', or in common parlance `Giants') which could carry up to 4,400lb of bombs - similar to Hitler's principal bomber, the Heinkel He111 a generation later.
And the Gothas and Giants set out to do just what the Luftwaffe attempted in 1940: to raze London and bring Britain to her knees.
Only the resources available to the German Air Force in 1917 were rather meagre. Luckily for them, so too were the resources of the defenders.
In the spring of 1917 as the Gotha campaign against London - Turkenkreuz (Turk's Cross) - began, there were barely 70 pilots defending the skies of Britain, and archie wasn't allowed to open fire at anything in the skies, friend or foe.
The first significant blow was struck not against the capital, but Folkestone in May 1917, a raid which served as wake-up call to Britain's defenders. The Press was indignant at the Hun `babykillers' who'd been dragged out of the Belgian and French brothels where "they spent most of their time" to bring misery to Britons.
And bring misery to Britons they did. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1917, the Gothas and Giants raided London. The death and destruction caused, however, was rather less than the panic. The attacks unsettled Londoners. They vented their anger by smashing shops with German-sounding names, forced their way into the homes of `Germans' and ransacked them. Such riots invariably sparked widespread looting.
The Hun protested at their treatment. Captured German airman did not "go to war to kill women and children," they told their interrogators. "Such things happen accidentally in war."
Or perhaps not. For in the summer of 1918 Major Wilhelm Siegert set out to systematically destroy the capital of the British Empire.
That he could do so was thanks to the perfection of the incendiary - the Elektron fire bomb - by German industry.
With Germany on the cusp of losing the war on the Western Front - the great spring offensives had run their course - she planned massed raids against Paris and London; the latter city would be engulfed in flames "the likes of which had not been since the Great Fire of London some 250 years earlier." Five heavy bombers could drop 5,000 incendiaries on the city, sparking 800 blazes which fire-fighters would be unable to deal with.
They were all lined up to do so. More than 80 aircraft were lined up on German airfields on September 23 1918 to strike at London and Paris.
They never took off. The de facto head of the German military, Erich Ludendorff, forbade the raids. Publicly he said he could not permit "destruction for its own sake". Privately, Germany's leaders feared Allied retaliation; they were right - a combined Anglo-British-French-Italian bomber force was being formed whose might would have eclipsed anything the Reich could throw at Paris or London.
Six weeks later, Germany sued for peace. The Elektron bombs were tossed in the Scheldt, the aircraft earmarked to carry them scuttled by their crews. The men of the Gothas and Giants, liked their comrades on the ground, struggled to accept defeat. "In our innermost beings we wanted nothing but to be warriors for Germany," one lamented.
These warriors for Germany had raided Britain for just shy of a year. They killed fewer than 1,000 Britons and caused damage valued at £1.5m (over the same period rats, Hanson pointed out, destroyed crops and other material worth nearly fifty times).
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.
It is a story of brave men on both sides, Army, Navy and - latterly - RAF aviators who took to the skies to defend Britain against German airmen equally determined to bring the Empire to its knees.
With hindsight, the `first Blitz' was neither as potent nor as destructive as contemporary accounts on both sides proclaimed. The Giants and Gothas were unreliable. Rarely did raids involve more than 20 aircraft - and all failed utterly in their aim: to demoralise enemy morale such that he would sue for peace.
Two decades later, airmen would climb into more reliable bombers and fighters and do the same again. They failed again, but not without razing much of Western Europe.
This book is a good read and is supported by an enormous fifteen page biography, yet I was not 'comfortable' with it.
The theme is that in 1917- 18 Londoners were terrified by the German Gotha and 'Giant' air raids and that had the electron incendiary bomb raids taken place London may, in effect. have been destroyed and Britain been brought to its knees. The author describes the destruction and terror caused by every raid in infinite detail- nearly every wall that collapsed is mentioned- but that really is the point. It is only possible to go into such fine detail because there were very few raids in total and the attacks were sustained repeatedly for just a single week in the whole campaign. Mr Hanson claims there was no 'Blitz Spirit' but does not explain how London survived in 1940- 41 when being attacked by 300+ bombers but would not have done so in 1918 when attacked by 30 frail Gothas. Of course the German bombers of 1940 had not been designed for strategic warfare but nevertheless they were still far superior to anything available in 1918.
Its true the experience of being bombed was new- although not entirely so since in some ways the preceding Zeppelins were more frightening than the aircraft. My mother lived through 1939- 45 in the East End and told me they could 'live with' the bombers but were most frightened by the psychological impact of the 'doodle bugs'. Bluntly, Londoners of 1918 were much the same people as those of 1940 and ultimately would have coped in the same way- as indeed did the German public even as late as 1945, despite far heavier raids by Bomber Command and the US 8th Airforce. As Neil Hanson himself admits, the 1917- 18 campaign killed only 836 people in the whole country and often many months separated the individual raids. I do not take such loses lightly, but in a vast city of millions it would have taken a campaign on a hugely greater scale to have had decisive impact. As shown in the book, without doubt the greatest success actually achieved was in obliging the British to expend valuable resources on aerial defence in the south of England that would have been better used in France.
In 1918 the resources were simply far too modest and the aircraft losses far too great for strategic bombing. .Mr Hanson claims that the final plan was to mount numerous, continuous raids- but of course that was not possible. Even one raid took five hours, leaving crews exhausted and the aircraft in need of major maintenance and repair. By September 1918 the aircrew were still brave but the material condition of the German airforce was very poor: a sustained campaign simply could not have been conducted.
Although somewhat annoyed by the over- emphasis on citizens who did not cover themselves in glory during the raids, I enjoyed reading the book. However, when an author sets out to prove a case and 'plug' a particular theme I become suspicious that facts are being selected for that purpose and that was the impression I was left with in this case.
on 20 September 2008
This is a powerful, popular account of a pivotal moment of the twentieth century: the first sustained bombing campaign of a world war - by the German air force against London and Paris in 1917-1918, including the little known plan to attempt a firestorm in London with incendiaries.
This is a wholly effective and fluent book, which synthesises an authoritative range of sources and has impeccable academic credentials. It also maintains a powerful prose style which brings the freezing cockpits and the burning houses of this first bombing of London vividly to life.
It is a vital book, not only to illuminate the war in the air in the Great War (which has been perhaps excessively dominated by the earlier Zeppelin campaign), but also to understand the air policy of the great powers (especially Britain) in the Second World War. Here is the explanation for the huge fear of massed bombing during the 1930s, paradoxically and simultaneously combined with devout faith in bombing's ability to erode a nation's economy and will to resist. I would go so far as to say a discussion of the bombing offensives of 1939-1945 is impossible without a reading of this book first.
Hanson is dispassionately and rationally even handed in negotiating the moral minefields of area bombing of civilians. This makes all the more poignant his sombre observation that the German aviators of 1918 could have no possible way of foreseeing the horrors that their campaign would ultimately visit on their own country some twenty-seven years later.