Tuesday was the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Blitz, and 95 years ago on 8th September 1915 the most successful Zeppelin raid on London took place. Londoners were crushed under the fear of wars and the threat of air raids and strange rumours spread across the city. These stories are plainly ridiculous now but during times of great stress rumour can be an aid to mob violence and prejudice.
One method the national press used to raise British morale during the Blitz was by accusing the Luftwaffe of homosexuality. On April 16th 1941, the Daily Mirror reported that two German pilots in prisoner-of-war camps spent all their time and money buying face cream, painting their nails and rouging their cheeks. "The medical profession has a word for men of this type", the newspaper said, while ‘celebrated neurologist’ Sir James Purves-Stewart agreed: "This particular form of perversion happens to flourish most vigorously in Germany". The tabloid press rarely distinguished themselves as the voice of reason during either war.
During the Blitz, there were fears early on that German agents were signalling to bombers circling London. One German-Swiss man in Kensington was arrested for smoking a large cigar: "He was puffing hard to make a big light and pointing it to the sky". While some myths survived from the WWI, during WWII Londoners were mostly level-headed about fears of a ‘fifth column’ in London: less than one in a hundred believed German agents were among them.
This may be because London’s German community had been almost entirely driven out in the early stages of the First World War. 27,000 Germans lived in London just before 1914, leaving behind little indication of their stay, save the German churches in Knightsbridge, Kings Cross and the City. Sydenham has a Dietrich Bonhoeffer Church and the Rhine is represented in a long, narrow channel cut into Sydenham Wells Park. The park opened in 1901.
Once the First World War began, bizarre rumours began to spread across the city. Concrete, patented in 1849, became a source of anxiety. Concrete tennis courts were suspected of being secret German machine gun placements, and a factory constructed from concrete in Willesden with views over to the Crystal Palace was raided by police in 1914 when it was discovered it had another office in Leipzig. Ewell Castle successfully sued the Evening News and the People after the newspapers accused their concrete-bottomed lake as being capable of mounting five heavy guns capable of taking out the main railway line into London. Evidence given for the castle owner being a spy included his expensive car.
The Railway Magazine got upset in 1914 at the idea of a cell of enemy agents occupying the abandoned King William Street tube station and using it as a base to shoot and bomb their way across the City. Police time was wasted again in searching the site but not one single Machineengewehr, Pickelhaube or half-empty Einbecker Ur-Bock mug was found. Other infiltrators revealed themselves in typically clumsy German ways, such as the tale of a woman standing on a man in army officer uniform’s foot at Waterloo station, who swore softly to himself in German.
Some German agents made use of classier transport. One night in October 1916 a couple watched a Zeppelin descend onto Hackney Marshes and lower a tall man with an eye patch down in a basket. He asked them the way to Silvertown and they told him to follow the River Lea until he got to Bow. After he and the Zeppelin disappeared the couple decided it best to inform the police. The police, perhaps a bit wiser by 1916, laughed at them .
German Londoners felt they needed to declare their loyalty by taking out adverts like the one from Mr Reid-Muller of Albert Road, North Woolwich, which declared that he was a ‘Britisher at heart’. These efforts did not help: Londoners rioted against the German community after the sinking of the British liner Lustania in May 1915, destroying German businesses and homes. Some of the press applauded; “The apathetic British public has yawned, stretched itself and opened it’s eyes” shrieked the Kentish Independent.
The government took sterner action: among the Germans who did not leave the UK, 32,000 were interned and by the end of the Great War the Germans living in London did well to hide their nationality even if they, or their sons, had fought for Britain. The loss of London’s German community is a small sadness against the tragedy of the First World War but it is one that Londoners at home, with some thought, communication and compassion, could have avoided.
Image: 'king william street' by version3point1