Kate Wills reveals the little known story of a First World War air raid on Northampton and details of a commemoration for its victims…
On 16th December 1914, the unthinkable happened. Six German battleships sailed across the North Sea and split into two groups as they approached the English coast. At around 8am, the coastguard station at Scarborough was destroyed by the first of 500 shells that pounded the sleepy seaside resort. The old castle and town walls were blasted, then the barracks (thankfully only being used as a store), churches, hotels, houses and shops across town. The whole event only lasted for little over an hour, but 17 people lay dead, including a 14 month-old baby.
In the meantime, the other ships laid mines, and opened similar strikes on Whitby and Hartlepool. In less than a morning, a grand total of 137 people had been killed and 592 wounded, nearly all civilians.
Britain was in shock. For the first time in centuries our island nation had been breached by enemy fire. War was no longer distant, but had come, quite literally, to our doorsteps.
Northamptonians, like the rest of the nation, were outraged, but could feel safe here in the middle shires, just about as far from the sea as it is possible to be. There would, as it turned out, be no more naval raids on our coasts, but a new threat, hitherto unimaginable, was about to be unleashed.
Just one month later, on 19th January 1915, three Zeppelin airships drifted into the skies over Norfolk. They were off-course, having intended to attack Humberside. Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn suffered instead, two people being killed in each town, the former being a particular favourite with Northampton holidaymakers. Subsequent attacks sought out large industrial cities and ports, London heading the list.
Northampton was a quiet county town of less than 100,000 souls in WW1. In military, industrial and economic terms it was a relative backwater, but the unwieldy nature of Zeppelins meant that judgement in reaching targets was subject to luck and the weather. Backwaters might find themselves on a deadly path, as with Yarmouth and King’s Lynn. On the night of 19th October 1917 Northampton accidentally fell victim to German bombs.
Zeppelin L45 took off from her home station at Tondern, near Germany’s border with Denmark, in a convoy of 13 airships intent on bombing Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool. It was a turbulent sea crossing, and life aboard was made even worse as she reached the coast and was forced to rise to 20,000 feet to avoid fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft fire from the ground. The northerly winds were at gale force, and the crew began to suffer frostbite and the disorientation of altitude sickness. Karl Schuz, an officer of L45’s crew later recalled “We saw some lights, afterwards darkness. We tried to take wireless bearings from Germany but we couldn’t obtain them”.
John Clifton commanded the Anti-Aircraft Station at Dartford in Kent during 1916. Long after the war, he related his experiences to the Imperial War Museum: “Raids only took place in the dark periods when there wasn’t any moon, [which] lasted for about 10 or 12 days, and depending on the weather. If the weather was good we’d probably get six or seven raids in that period. Sometimes we’d get two or three nights running with raids. We always had to be on duty in the dark periods; when the moonlight returned we were allowed to slack off a bit”.
Hammered by high winds, L45 missed Sheffield and scudded uncontrollably through mist and fog. Schuz and the crew began to make out stretches of glinting light, indicating a railway line below. Meanwhile, on the ground, the station staff at Lamport, Spratton and Brixworth reported a Zeppelin passing overhead. L45’s first bomb was dropped on one of Mr Thornton’s fields in Kingsthorpe at about 10:45pm. Martin’s Yard by Spencer Bridge was next, then Victoria Park, each bomb aimed at but missing the railway by a few yards. Another high explosive bomb was released close to Castle Station, then another landed in the garden of 17 Park Street, near the old Castle Inn. West Bridge Depot and the fields of Briar Hill received hits before the Zeppelin flew swiftly south, and by chance found herself over London.
Karl Schuz remembered “Now it was a searchlight, two searchlights – I counted twenty! And we guessed it must be London. But no shot, we were unseen, and we could see the Thames. Now, running before the wind with a full speed, and we must drop our bombs. We dropped the large bombs, they were 600 pounders, and I heard later on great bombs fell on Piccadilly Circus.”
L45 killed seven people in Piccadilly Circus, mostly as they waited for buses. It killed dozens more before racing away across the Channel; but let’s return to Northampton, where twenty-two bombs had landed. 21 had caused little damage, other than craters of varying sizes. One however, probably intended for Castle Station, fell through the roof of 46 Parkwood Street, where Mrs Eliza Gammons and her nine year-old twin daughters Gladys and Lily lay asleep in the middle bedroom.
It seems likely that Mrs Eliza Gammons was killed instantly in her sleep. The front bedroom was occupied by Pte Albert Bazeley, his wife (Mrs Gammons daughter) and their two small children. Pte Bazeley stripped sheets and blankets from the beds and threw them to neighbours arriving below. Seeing Mrs Gammons was beyond help, he carried the twins away and lowered all four children into the blankets held by the neighbours. Last out through the window, Pte Bazeley entered by the front door and extinguished the fire. An ambulance took the twins to the General Hospital, where Gladys died the following morning. Lily died a day later.
An inquest held at the Guildhall the following week recorded ‘death from burns due to an incendiary bomb dropped by enemy aircraft’. The Coroner praised Pte Bazeley’s heroism in rescuing the four children. Mrs Gammons and her twin daughters were buried next day in Dallington Cemetery, the Mayor and Corporation leading a large gathering of townsfolk paying their respects. However, the Gammons family tragedy was quickly concealed by censorship. The military authorities, invoking the powers of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) refused any publication of details of the raid, inquest or funeral, and refused the Mayor, Cllr John Woods permission to promote a relief fund for the stricken family.
Thursday 12th October at 7:30pm
Town & County Club, 8 George Row, Northampton, NN1 1DF
Author Ian Castle’s illustrated talk Monsters of the Dark Hours – The Northamptonshire Zeppelin Raids of WW1, with exhibits of bombs dropped on the county. £3 on the door www.iancastlezeppelin.co.uk
Thursday 19th October 2017
11:00am Dallington Cemetery: Members of the family and The Mayor lead a short service of remembrance at the graveside of the Gammons family
11.45 – 12.00 the Mayor and civic dignitaries will park at Doddridge Centre and walk to the location of the air raid in Parkwood St for a short visit, then walk to St James square;
12.00 midday section of road between Orchard Street and Althorp Road closes for the ceremony to enable members of the public to participate in the event. No through route from Greenwood Road. 12.00-1300
12:30pm Ceremony at St James Square, led by St James Residents’ Association where a new memorial will be unveiled , and the “hub” area between It’s A Gift and Natwest re-named Gammons Place.
13.00: road re-opens tea and sandwiches will be served at Doddridge Centre Community Café for the Mayor, guests and members of the public.
All timings are approximate.
L45 eventually landed in the far south-east of France, where its commander ordered the crew to set it ablaze, and then give themselves up as prisoners of war. German reports made no mention of Northampton, so the crew were oblivious to the tragedy they had caused in Jimmy’s End. Zeppelin crews had been dubbed ‘The Baby Killers’ since that first raid in 1915. Once again, young children had fallen victim to terror from the skies, both here and in London.
By the Armistice, air-raids by enemy planes and Zeppelins had caused 1,413 deaths and nearly 5000 casualties in Britain. The October 1917 attack turned out to be the final Zeppelin raid of the war, and due to its nature became known as ‘The Silent Raid’. Perhaps silence is the greatest sadness of all. Silence imposed by the authorities at the time, and continuing silence as the fate of Eliza and young Gladys and Lily slipped away with the passing years.
Now, a century after the event, the family, St James Residents’ Association, Western Front Association Northamptonshire, the Mayors Office, and St James Primary School have been working together, to ensure that we will remember them.