There have always been rumours that Zeppelins dropped bombs on Dulwich in WW1. The Dulwich Estate Board Minutes of 9 December 1917 has a short factual report from the Estate Surveyor saying “I have to report that during the air raid on the morning of 6th December instant, the following properties were damaged by enemy aircraft:
- Covered tennis Courts, adjoining Toksawa; club room and caretaker’s apartments; lessee insured. (The covered tennis courts stood on the site of the current Dulwich College Sports Centre until the late 1960s)
- Cottages adjacent; glass windows damaged by concussion. Governors fully insured (Pond Cottages)
- Cypress House; broken windows and other slight damage; Governors fully insured (the house was demolished in the 1930s and the Cypress Estate now stands on the site)
However, a chance find of a diary, kept by local resident John Greening, in Southwark Local Studies library has shed more light on what actually happened. He wrote “It is no joke to be suddenly awakened before six in the morning by hearing guns firing around you but such was our awful experience at 4:45 AM. As may be imagined we were out of bed and into our clothes in the twinkling of an eye. The din continued for upwards of one hour and three tremendous explosions made us tremble . . . We found out afterwards that they proceeded from bombs dropped at the Rosebery Gate of the Park, which is practically smashed, and the adjoining lodge much injured. Another fell near Potash Farm and the third descended on the garage at the Covered Tennis Courts opposite the College killing a woman and a child. A fourth fell in the Park, near the drinking fountain, but did not explode and two others fell at Beechgrove near Sydenham Hill. I visited the first named spot before breakfast when I beheld an immense cavity in the roadway and the debris scattered around for a long distance. Many windows in the neighbourhood are smashed but, fortunately, ours escaped, but some cement has been forced from around the window frames from the violence of the attack.”
Further research has confirmed the raid early in the morning of 6th December 1917 but it was not by Zeppelins. By late 1916 these were proving too vulnerable to British fighters and the Germans turned to bombers. The first bomber raid on London took place on 28th November 1916, when a lone German Gotha aircraft dropped six bombs. This successful outcome spurred the Germans into creating a special bomber squadron dedicated to bombing raids on England. It was appropriately named the 'England Squadron' - its official title being ‘HQ Kagoul 3’.
On the night of 5/6th December a total of 21 bombers (19 ‘Gothas’ and 2 ‘Giants’) set out from airfields in Belgium. Flying at night to avoid British fighters - they could carry 1100lbs of bombs and had a range of 500 miles - flying at 15,000 feet at a maximum speed of less than 100 miles an hour.
There is a copy of an old WW1 map on the internet showing the bombers’ routes together with timings of the bomb explosions. The three planes that flew over Dulwich arrived over England just north of Walmer in Kent; they flew over Kent and Surrey, and then turned towards London - most likely used the Crystal Palace and its water towers as a marker. They started dropping their bombs almost immediately, the first two near Beechgrove on Sydenham Hill; then on a direct line northwards, to the Covered Courts and Pond Cottages, Dulwich Common by the Rosebery Gate and Dulwich Park.
Of the 21 planes on the raid it was reported that two ‘Gothas’ were brought down by anti-aircraft fire: one, with one engine disabled, attempted a landing at Rochford aerodrome in Essex, but struck a tree on approach and crashed, and the second came down near Canterbury. In both cases all the crew survived. A third aircraft and crew was reported as missing.
Night raids on London continued intermittently into 1918 but improved accuracy from anti-aircraft fire, and the increasing use of barrage balloons, made them less viable. There were no more raids on Dulwich.