Today (June 13) in London History – Bad things happen on June 13th

Bad things happen on June 13th. This Today in London History podcast takes up the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

There’s a case to be made for flying the flag at half-mast every June 13th. Lest we forget, lest we forget.

June 13th, 1917 was the first-ever London Blitz. The bombers came out of the blue sky, literally and figuratively. First of all, they were bombers, twin-engine bi-planes. London hadn’t been bombed in months. Those earlier air-raids had been carried out at night, by Zeppelins. The Zeppelins were slow, they couldn’t fly high. Hydrogen-filled, they were a fat, inviting target for anti-aircraft fire and Sopwith fighter planes. Ergo their having to pay their visits under the cover of night. When Zeppelin L-31 was shot down on October 1st, 1916 the Kaiser’s air arm called it quits on attacks carried out by airships. London breathed easy. Figured it’d seen them off – figured its days on the front line of war were over. Back to normal. Safe behind its defensive moat. Normal being the three centuries of not being anywhere near the front line of a war that London had enjoyed until those first Zeppelin raids had pitched up in 1915. And then, yes, out of the blue. A daylight raid by airplanes rather than airships. 14 Gotha bombers – each of them carrying over half a ton of bombs. 162 people were killed. It was the deadliest air raid of the war. It was pure evil, nothing of any military importance was hit. One of the buildings that was hit was an East End Council school. The bomb made a big hole in the roof and crashed through one floor after another. The full force of the explosion was felt on the ground floor. The ground floor housed the Infants Department, the little ones. Ten children were killed and about 50 injured. The Gothas came to be known as the baby killer bombers. Two resonances, both of them pretty sticky. The royal family was of course of German ancestry.  Its family name was Saxe Coburg und Gotha. Gotha – the same name as the baby killer bomber. And right there you’re looking at the reason the royal family hastily changed its name to the quintessentially English House of Windsor.

And the other resonance is the June 13th saints day. June 13th is the day of St Antony of Padua. And there’s a legend that children weep on his day. 

Fast forward to June 13th, 1944 London gets its first taste of another kind of blitz. Flying bombs. The V1s.

Again, London had had a long breathing space. The Battle of Britain – it’s the Blitz that most people know about – had lasted from September 7th, 1940 to May 11th, 1941. 

Then no more death from skies for London until attacks were resumed in January 1944. But the Luftwaffe’s resumption of bombing raids early in 1944 had been an abject failure. The combination of radar, anti-aircraft fire and Spitfires and Hurricanes sticking it to the Luftwaffe’s bombers turned that tide very quickly. What nobody was expecting was the flying bombs. The V1 rockets. Basically, World War II cruise missiles. They were seriously bad news for London and its defenders. There seemed to be no defence against them. They were very powerful – they caused a lot of destruction and killed and wounded a lot of people – and they were terrifying. That sound they made. You could hear it coming. And then when the sound cut out you knew it was a matter of seconds and all you could do was hope it wasn’t going to come down anywhere near you. The V1. In German, the Vergeltungswaffe – the Vengeance weapon. More than a hundred a day were fired at southeast England, nearly 10,000 in total. But enough of this. The warning bell for me is always when that Algernon Charles Swinburne line rises to the surface – which it does every time. And rightly so. The line is, “We have drunken of things Lethean and fed on the fullness of death.”

Half-mast on June 13th lest we forget – now I’m not so sure. 

Ok, for a Today in London recommendation, go to see David Breuer-Weil’s sculpture, Flight. It’s in the South Garden at St Pancras Church. Clapping eyes on it – wondering at it – it’ll do you a power of good. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just the right size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you can’t get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a blockbuster question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do what you have to do to attract and keep elite, all-star guides. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason we’ve got a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality – it’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished professionals: 

barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Guide of the Year Award winners… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.

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