german raids

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Trench Clubs, WW1

One distinctive part of trench warfare, made possible by its static nature, was the night raid. These sorties across no-man’s-land to capture enemy soldiers or map out their positions required efficient and silent weapons, prompting the production of many variants of these rather medieval tools behind the frontline by craftsmen or regular soldiers, limited only by the materials available to them.
The simpler designs were barely more than lead-weighted clubs, but there were commonly outfitted with boots’ hobnails, barbed wire, heavy metal cogs, and all sorts of salvaged parts to make them more deadly. Some examples came to resemble flails, either with springs for a main shaft or the usual chains that wouldn’t have been an odd sight five centuries earlier.

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Gotha Bomber

These aircraft could fly at 15,000 feet, above contemporary fighter’s maximum height.  With a range of 800 km (500 miles) and a bomb load of up to 500 kg (1,100 lb), the Gothas were designed to carry out attacks across the channel against Britain.

The planes were slow, ungainly, and notoriously difficult to take off and land in. English home front artillery was largely ineffective and british fighter planes had trouble reaching the altitude where the Gotha flew. 

The Germans hoped to cause widespread panic and even uprising with these raids.  In this they failed, but the raids tied down a large number of aircraft, anti-aircraft guns and personnel that otherwise could have been used directly on the Western Front.  The need for a coordinated air defence was one of the major reasons for the formation of the RAF in April of 1918.

One of the conditions of the armistice was that the German would hand over all their night bombers.  When the British saw how few of these aircraft there actually were they initially suspected the Germans of hiding some of them.

The seeming invincibility of the bombers, especially in 1917, had a great influence on British military thinking well into the Second World War, for it was here that the British concept that “The heavy bomber will always get through” was born.

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‘Ack Ack Girls’ were members of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) that helped operate Anti-Aircraft Guns in the defense of Britain from German bombing raids during World War 2.

From 1941 onward all unmarried British women aged 20 to 30 were required to join one of the Auxiliary services, which included the ATS. One of the most dangerous and exciting ATS roles was to be selected for ‘Ack Ack’ duty, manning the Anti-Aircraft guns known for their distinctive ack-ack sound as they fired. The idea to use women in gun crews was first proposed by British engineer Caroline Haslett and was eagerly approved by Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Churchill’s own daughter, Mary Soames, was one of the first Ack Ack volunteers and served at a gun site in London’s Hyde Park.

As a royal proclamation forbade women from operating deadly weapons, Ack Ack Girls worked as part of mixed-gender squads where men would load and fire the weapons with the women’s support. The three main roles of the women were Spotters who used binoculars to find enemy planes, Range-Finding teams who calculated the distance a gun shell would have to travel to hit the target, and Predictor teams who worked out the length of the fuse necessary to make sure the shell exploded at the right height.

Women were subject to the same intensive training as men and had to undergo rigorous testing in terms of fitness, hearing, eyesight and nerves in order to be accepted. This was essential for enduring the hard conditions at the gun emplacements and to keep on task while bombs fell all around them. When the Germans deployed V1 flying bombs against Britain, 369 Ack Ack Girls were killed in just 3 months. Their sacrifice and dedication proved invaluable to the war effort, as well as providing a boost to civilian morale, the sound of the Ack Ack guns becoming a well-recognised symbol of British resistance.

Read a personal account of Ack Ack Girl, Vee Robinson, here.

The Museum at war

Britain officially entered the First World War on 4 August 1914. This is a look back at some of the measures the Museum took to cope with the threat of war.

During the First World War there was a new wartime threat – the air raid. Early air raids were carried out mostly by Zeppelins (airships), as few aeroplanes had long enough ranges to be effective or the ability to carry worthwhile quantities of munitions by 1914 and 1915. This archive photograph shows how objects in the Museum were protected against German air raids. Many of the large sculptures were too heavy to move and were protected in situ. The Egyptian gallery is eerily quiet, with the sculptures hidden away behind walls of sandbags.

This work is by war artist Henry Rushbury, who was 25 when war broke out. He served as an aircraft mechanic with the Royal Flying Corps (precursor to the Royal Air Force) during the war and earned the rank of sergeant. In 1918 he was invited by the Ministry of Information to become an official war artist, and sent out to depict scenes of life in London. He produced a series of drawings of the British Museum, showing the ‘sand-bagging’ of antiquities as a defence against German air raids. In this scene three sculptures in the Egyptian gallery have been surrounded by sandbags – Rushbury has labelled them as Amenhotep I, Amenhotep III and the goddess Sekhet.

The most important portable antiquities (such as the Rosetta Stone) were transferred to a station on the newly completed Postal Tube Railway, 15 metres below the surface of Holborn. Bombs did land on Holborn during the war, but no objects were damaged. Books, manuscripts, prints and drawings went in fifteen van loads to the National Library of Wales in their new buildings at Aberystwyth. This was such a westerly location that the threat of air raids was substantially diminished – aircraft at the time did not have the range to fly a return mission this far from the continent, and there were few strategic targets immediately nearby.

 No damage was inflicted on the British Museum during the First World War, with the nearest bombs being dropped on Smithfield and Holborn.

 © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1140)

THE SUMMER CAMPAIGN.- August/ September 1943 – Part 2

August 1943: Trenches being dug in Berlin, in an attemp to create “firewalls” against the firestorm method of destruction elaborate by RAF Bomber Command.

The scale of the attack against the city of Hamburg makes became clear to the Nazi-government that the capital was on risk to be destroyed.

The lower casualty rates on these raids compared to Hamburg reflected the growing efficiency of the German air raid precautions and the evacuation of cities.

[Photo: August 1943. Bundesarchiv.]

Nitrogen mustard.

The beginnings of the modern era of cancer chemotherapy can be traced directly to the German introduction of chemical warfare during World War I. Among the chemical agents used, mustard gas was particularly devastating. Although banned by the Geneva Protocol in 1925, the advent of World War II caused concerns over the possible re-introduction of chemical warfare. These concerns led to the discovery of nitrogen mustard, a chemical warfare agent, as an effective treatment for cancer. 

Two pharmacologists, Louis S. Goodman and Alfred Gilman, were recruited by the United States Department of Defense to investigate potential therapeutic applications of chemical warfare agents. A year into the start of their research a German air raid in Bari, Italy led to the exposure of more than one thousand people to the SS John Harvey’s secret cargo composed of mustard gas bombs. Dr. Stewart Francis Alexander, a Lieutenant Colonel who was an expert in chemical warfare, was subsequently deployed to investigate the aftermath. 

Autopsies of the victims suggested that profound lymphoid and myeloid suppression had occurred after exposure. In his report Dr. Alexander theorized that since mustard gas all but ceased the division of certain types of somatic cells whose nature it was to divide fast, it could also potentially be put to use in helping to suppress the division of certain types of cancerous cells. Using this information, Goodman and Gilman reasoned that this agent could be used to treat lymphoma, since lymphoma is a tumor of lymphoid cells. 

They first set up an animal model — they established lymphomas in mice and demonstrated they could treat them with mustard agents. Next, in collaboration with a thoracic surgeon, Gustaf Lindskog, they injected a related agent, mustine (the prototype nitrogen mustard anticancer chemotherapeutic), into a patient with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They observed a dramatic reduction in the patient’s tumour masses. Although this effect lasted only a few weeks, and the patient had to return for another set of treatment, this was the first step to the realization that cancer could be treated by pharmacological agents.

(Picture: “Cancer Cell Surface” by Alexey Kashpersky).

June 26, 1916 - The Somme: British Trench Raids Reveal German Positions Unaffected by Bombardment

Pictured - A team of British trench raiders, the “Hun Snatchers”.  Trench raiding was a nightly occurrence on the Western Front, as men sneaked across No Man’s Land to seize prisoners and cause havoc in the enemy lines.

Most of the British army preparing for the Battle of the Somme was the unbloodied formations of Kitchener’s New Armies, the units of eager volunteers raised in 1914 and 1915 to turn the British Expeditionary Force from a tiny corps of elite, professional soldiers, into a mass army like those of Germany and France.  The Battle of the Somme was the first test for these soldiers.  Most were eager and confident of victory, especially as they watched thousands of their artillery pound the German lines unbroken for three days by June 26.  The BEF’s commander, General Haig, shared in his soldiers’ enthusiasm.  In a note written to the General Staff on June 16, he expressed his plan that “the advance was to be pressed eastward far enough to enable our cavalry to push through into the open country beyond the enemy’s prepared lines of defence.”

Infamously, British officers supposedly told their men that on D-Day they could simply stroll over to the enemy’s trenches without firing a shot.  Major Robert Money expressed his confidence in his diary in late June: “It appears that in about a week’s time we shall be required to prance into the Hun trenches - well cheerio and I hope the Huns will like it… Nothing seems to have been spared to make this show a success - nothing seems to have been overlooked.”

To check the state of their enemy’s defenses and keep the men keyed up for battle, front-line battalions sent raiders over No Man’s Land every night.  Thanks to the unending barrage, which paused briefly for its own men, penetrating the German lines was easy enough.  But inside the German trenches, raiders were surprised to be met with organized resistance.  Rather ominously, an Intelligence report noted that “Raids attempted all along the Corps Front were unsuccessful, in some sectors owing to intense machine gun and rifle fire.”  Soldiers from the Newfoundland Regiment were driven off in a raid of their own, according to one officer forced hurriedly to “turn tail”.