Did you know that the first bomb from an aeroplane ever to fall on England in 1914 fell in a garden?
“Shortly before 11 o’clock on December 24th  an aeroplane was seen flying down the valley and it dropped a bomb which burst in the kitchen garden of Mr T.A.Terson at the end of Leyburne Road [Dover]. The bomb was probably meant for the Castle and where it burst it did no damage beyond breaking adjoining windows and throwing a gardener named Banks, who was working at St. James’ Rectory, out of a tree to the ground, slightly injuring him.
The Journalist, 1914
This intriguing story of a “gardener named Banks” makes him Britain’s first air raid casualty, but thankfully one who survived.
It was featured as the opening panel of the Garden Museum London exhibition on Gardens and War (which ended 19 December 2014).
Whilst the famous Christmas Truce and football matches of No Man’s Land were unofficially happening in the front line trenches on land, in the air several wartime firsts were about to happen.
The spot (according to the Britain at War history magazine First World War) is now marked by a Blue Plaque from the Dover Society: “Near this spot on Christmas Eve fell the first aerial bomb ever to be dropped on the United Kingdom.”
The plaque is pictured on Ian Castle’s excellent website on WW1 air raids.
Ian is the author of two Osprey books London 1914-17: The Zeppelin Menace and London 1917-1918: The Bomber Blitz amongst other airship related that I have recently read, researching a 2015 blogpost about how zoos responded to the Zeppelin and aerial threat and featuring air raid related mentions from Edith Spencer’s 1917 civilian diary in our collection.
I am curious to see how people prepared for this new threat. London Zoo and Regent’s Park were in the flight path of several raids but thankfully spared air raid damage in WW1. The London Zoo was spattered with spent shrapnel from the “Archies” (Anti-aircraft guns) on Primrose Hill and prepared against possible animal escape with firearms trained staff of “a special emergency staff of picked men was always on call. Heavy shutters were fitted to the glass fronts of the poisonous snakes’ cages” (Source: The Zoo Story, L.R.Brightwell, 1952). A long-term outcome of the WW1 air raid preparation was the provision of a First Aid post for visitors continuing after the war (Source: The Zoo, J. Barrington-Johnson, 2005).
Other wartime firsts
Three days earlier on 21st December 1914 a German seaplane dropped bombs in the sea near Dover Beach. However towns on the East Coast of Britain had been bombarded from the sea by German ships on 16th December 1914 with a number of civilian casualties.
Within weeks on 19 January 1915, the first Zeppelin raid on Britain had taken place, aimed for London but diverted by bad weather to Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn. The raids would eventually reach London on 31 May 1915.
The gardener in St James Rectory garden reportedly pruning a tree for Christmas greenery was called variously James Banks or in some sources John Banks.
I have seen three different pilots named as the pilot responsible for the 24 December 1914 attack. Various sources ranging from Ian Castle, Neil Hanson’s First Blitz book to Dover history sites give a range of often conflicting details about the incident, no doubt down to wartime reporting restrictions and propaganda. The bomb appears to have been a single hand-held 22lb bomb, dropped by hand from 5000 feet and probably aimed at Dover Castle from a FF29 Friedrichshafen floatplane of the German Naval Air Service. It fell 400 yards from the Castle and created a crater ten feet wide in the gardens.
Tommy Terson was a local auctioneer and there are a few, no doubt, jokey Christmas references to him picking Brussel sprouts from the patch which was bombed!
The cook at the Rectory was reportedly showered with glass. The garden and window damage is pictured in the http://doverwarmemorialproject website.co.uk
Christmas Truce in the trenches, but in the air?
The next day the 25th December 1914 the same German Navy air force unit attacked again, aiming for London but dropping its bombs on Cliffe Railway Station. The raid was seen off over the skies above Erith by a British Royal Flying Corps Vickers Gunbus from Joyce Green Airfield near Dartford.
This was the first aerial interception of an enemy aircraft over the United Kingdom of the First World War.
On this same day, there was an attack on German Zeppelin sheds at Cuxhaven on Christmas Day 1914, beyond the range of British air stations. This was known as “The Christmas Raid” with British Royal Navy Air Service RNAS seaplanes from a converted passenger ship HMS Engadine and HMS Empress. Whilst the raid was not that effective, all the pilots and 3 of the 7 seaplanes survived. It was to foreshadow aircraft carrier operations in the next war.
With these two days of bombing, the long road to the Battle of Britain and Blitz in 1940 had begun, with all the chaos that World War 2 caused to the people, animals and plants of British zoos and botanic gardens and in turn to European counterparts.
Aircraft of the period can be seen at air museums like the Imperial War Museum Duxford, RAF Museum Hendon and the Shuttleworth collection.
There is also an interesting and ongoing airfield restoration of a recently listed and most complete surviving WW1 air station at Stow Maries in Essex http://www.stowmaries.org.uk. It’s also home to some very interesting wildlife, the area being used for filming part of the BBC’s The Great British Year in 2013.
Have a peaceful Christmas!
Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens project, Newquay Zoo.