A quiet riot

Well, not quiet so much as oddly obscure...

In his Behind the Smoke Screen (1934), probably the most influential book written on the theory of a knock-out blow from the air, P. R. C. Groves related the following story of angry civilians attacking an RFC aerodrome after an air raid, because they felt they had not been defended adequately:

On several occasions such attacks from the air were followed by episodes indicative of high nervous tension among sections of the public. One of the worst, to which for obvious reasons no reference was made in the Press at the time, occurred at Hythe where, after the raid on May 25th, 1917, a mob invaded a local aerodrome, stoned the mechanics and attempted to wreck the hangars, because the Royal Air Force [sic] unit had not protected the town. As a matter of fact the unit in question was a training school and did not possess a single machine capable of reaching the raiders.1

Along with deaths caused by panic-stricken crowds rushing for shelter and the nightly trekking of people from cities to countryside when an air raid was anticipated, Groves uses this incident as evidence for the fragility of civilian morale under aerial bombardment, with the implication that such things would happen on a far greater scale in the next war. But did it really happen like that? Groves doesn't give a source, and while he was in the RFC himself, in May 1917 he was a staff officer in the Middle East. He wouldn't have had any direct or official knowledge of a riot at Hythe.2

It's not that the story is inherently unlikely: it actually fits the known context quite well. (Indeed, it's just the sort of thing which might lead a government to start planning to suppress large-scale dissent.) The air raid which led to the riot was the first of the Gotha raids, a daylight attack on the Kentish coast which killed 95 people. Folkestone bore the brunt, but some bombs fell on Hythe and two people were killed there, including the verger of St Leonard's; the vicar and his wife were injured. Local feeling certainly ran high; a town meeting at Folkestone passed a resolution urging that the government 'take such steps as will prevent further attacks of a similar nature and the wholesale murder of women and children of the town'.3 Censorship there was. The raid was reported in the press but the location was not revealed (even though the German press had done so). On the other hand, reports of post-raid riots in London had certainly been reported, but perhaps the difference was that in those cases the violence was directed at German shops and the like, not the military. And the aerodrome was variously known as Hythe, Dymchurch or Pelmarsh; it was home to the RFC's No. 1 School of Aerial Gunnery (or alternatively the Machine Gun School), a training establishment as Groves says.

The problem is finding corroboration. The Hythe riot is discussed in some recent secondary works like Andrew P. Hyde's The First Blitz (2002) and Neil Hanson's First Blitz (2008). The latter, for example, says that

Local people, infuriated that none of the pilots had even tried to get airborne, later hurled abuse and stones at the cowering trainees.4

Hanson gives no source for this (neither does Hyde). He adds nothing to Groves (except for that abuse was hurled at the airmen, but this is obviously implicit in Groves anyway), and since he does list Behind the Smoke Screen in his bibliography it's possible that's where he got it from. The problem is that neither Hanson nor Hyde are among the works I would first turn to for a reliable account of the Gotha raids. (Hyde is a potboiler; Hanson is much better but not very discerning, I find.) And the ones I do trust most -- Raymond Fredette's The Sky on Fire (1966) and Christopher Cole and E. F. Cheesman's The Air Defence of Britain 1914-1918 (1984) -- don't mention the Hythe riot at all. Nor do older reliable accounts, such as Joseph Morris's The German Air Raids on Britain (1925) or the relevant volume of the official history, H. A. Jones's The War in the Air volume 5 (1935). It was discussed a few times in the 1930s by writers such as as Bertrand Russell in Which Way to Peace? (1936) and W. O'D. Pierce in Air War: Its Technical and Social Aspects (1937), but again these add nothing new and given their nature are most likely taken from Groves. A search of Google Books and Google Scholar doesn't turn up anything useful.

With one exception: a near-primary source! Maurice Baring's wartime diary was published in 1920. The entry for contains the following, from the entry for 30 May 1917:

We hear that the people at Hythe have stoned the air mechanics because of the German raid. There is not one machine at Hythe capable of getting within reach of a German machine. They are school machines.5

Baring was a staff officer with the RFC in France; in fact he was Trenchard's aide-de-camp. While a gunnery school back across the Channel fell outside his area of responsibility, he was in a position to know about it. So the Hythe riot probably did happen. It's definitely possible that Groves used Baring as a source here: his diary is listed in the bibliography for Behind the Smoke Screen, and nearly all the details Baring recounts are used by Groves. But there is one detail which Groves adds: that the mob 'attempted to wreck the hangars'. That adds considerably to the violence and the threat to authority. Dramatic (and hence, in a work of non-fiction, illegitimate) license? Or did Groves have another source?


  1. P. R. C. Groves, Behind the Smoke Screen (London: Faber and Faber, 1934), 156. 

  2. It's conceivable that he found out about it when he was Director of Flying Operations at the Air Ministry from May 1918, though the riot would have been ancient history by then. 

  3. H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, volume 5 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935), 22. 

  4. Neil Hanson, First Blitz: The Secret German Plan to Raze London to the Ground in 1918 (London: Doubleday, 2008), 65. 

  5. Maurice Baring, R.F.C. H.Q. 1914-1918 (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1920), 226. 

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13 thoughts on “A quiet riot

  1. It being Groves, "he pulled it out of his rear" seems to me like a good first-pass hypothesis. The question is, what did P.B. think happened?

  2. It should be possible to establish the veracity or otherwise of the event by a check of the base or unit Operational Record Books - certainly the approach for a W.W.II era enquiry. How the RFC's records are structured I don't know, but the information will be at The National Archives in Kew, UK - much of it searchable or orderable online.

  3. Post author

    Erik:

    Et tu, Erik? Et tu?? Groves didn't make things up, as far as I'm aware. He did seize on anecdotes, quotes and statistics and blow them way out of proportion, if that's what you mean. Whereas Pemberton Billing...

    JDK:

    You make it sound so easy! Yes, that's the obvious place to look for verification of the riot. But in my experience TNA's online catalogue usually gives only the most basic overview of what's in each record, which can contain dozens of documents and hundreds of pages. And very little has been digitised. That makes it very hard, or rather very expensive, to do this kind of research on spec. Unless you know the precise document you are looking for, all TNA will do is copy the whole file for you, and that quickly runs into the hundreds of pounds. As I know to my cost! (It's different for some popular/high-use stuff, like Cabinet papers, which for most of the 20th century have already been digitised and can be downloaded for free. For which I am very grateful.)

    There are some records which look potentially fruitful -- e.g. AIR 1/137/15/40/276 ("Machine Gun School, Dover and Hythe (later School of Aerial Gunnery, Hythe) - training.", "1915 Aug.18-1917 Jan.1"), AIR 1/122/15/40/137 ("Schools of Aerial Gunnery and Fighting", "1917 July 8-1918 Apr.30."; I can't see anything which claims to cover the period of the riot -- but somebody needs to go to Kew to have a look at the physical files. Or be rich.

  4. If it was easy, I'd've done it! (I like easy.) Certainly there's an issue over getting to the right part of the right record, but at the end, they're the records - not the secondary selections or preferences of an(other) historian.

  5. I don't know much about the RFC, but for the rest of the army it wasn't normal to keep operational records on home service, although a few did sometimes. The RFC might be different as they're not included in WO 95 (which also means they won't be included in the planned digitization of war diaries). Local newspapers might also be worth a look, but could have been censored of course. Would there be any police records? Might it have been taken seriously enough to be reported to the central government? There's also a remote chance of a mention in unpublished letters, diaries or interviews in the IWM or Liddle Collection. All expensive options to follow up though.

  6. Post author

    Gavin:

    Thanks, all good suggestions. RFC records for home stations were kept, I think, judging from Cole and Cheesman -- at least operational details. Of course, that relates to combat and patrol duties, which doesn't apply in this case as it was a training base. None of the possible station names mentioned in the post are listed in AIR 28 which is probably where they should be. (AIR 32 relates to training but starts in 1939.) But I'm just guessing from the catalogue! If the keywords I'm using don't appear in the titles or descriptions then I won't find them in the catalogue.

    Good to see the war diaries are being digitised... the Australian ones have been online for a couple of years now. A great resource for genealogists and grognards.

  7. Ian Brown

    The Home Office and MI5 would have been very interested in anything like this,I am not an expert but have never heard of this before.
    I have heard of soldier riots and prosecution of anti war activists,and attacks on German nationals.
    On a related question,I was re-reading "THE BRITISH HOME FRONT 1939-1945" by MARTIN BRAYLEY.
    This book claims that "it was not unknown for bailed out Luftwaffe aircrew to be severley beaten and occasionally even killed by angry civilians".
    I have never seen any evidence for this either,in fact all the sources for the blitz point out how well behaved the bombed British were?
    Somebody on AIRMINDED might help us approach the truth on this topic?

  8. (Civil) police, newspapers and central reports might provide data, but an absence of evidence would not be any form of negative proof as none of those were certain to have become involved.

    As we all know, it's all really about property. The RAF kept good records of where their aircraft were and what happened to them, I'd be surprised if the RFC didn't, given that the occasional MP 'needed' to know how many warplanes were available, as well as more realistic requirements of materiel counts. If the rioters trashed an aircraft or two (rather than 'just' a hangar - and Bessonneau hangars were wood frames with fabric covering; often and easily damaged or reconstructed) there'd be a record - again, finding it could be a trick.

    I can't believe there was not a monthly summary by each training unit, covering such things as intake, passing out, major injuries, deaths, new equipment, equipment struck off. Events on the date - or lack - would be a clue. If it was in the later ORB form, it could well also have diary notes covering such events. Of course that's simply speculating...

    I don't have a man at the TNA, but I've asked by best contact in the area for thoughts.

    Ian Brown - There's been an amount of speculation of Luftwaffe crews being lynched, but some discussions on the Key Publishing forum of investigations by people interested in the area hasn't come up with any evidence. It seems unlikely that anything more than a bit of roughing up did happen, but if there was a lynching, it could quite possibly never make it into any record, given it could be self-censored. I'd say highly unlikely, but also the lack of evidence cannot be definitive.

  9. Chris Williams

    Civil police records are unlikely to have survived. I wrote (well, edited) the book on police reconds and the summary is "Police outside London were under no compulsion to keep them, so they didn't." And sure enough, checking out the list of surviving Kent Police records which we put online a few years ago:http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/history/policing/police-archives-guide/kent-constabulary.htm
    reveals that it's all a bit thin, and there's nothing that looks as if it would help. Soz.

  10. Post author

    Ian:

    As JDK says, there have been claims made of instances where British civilians assaulted German airmen but as he also says, there seems to be no firm evidence for it either. One case which is often mentioned is that of Robert Zehbe, who parachuted from his Do 17 over Kennington on 15 September 1940. He was supposedly set upon by a civilian mob and, though rescued, died of his wounds later that day. A story about this is floating around the internet, I can't vouch for its veracity.

    What I will say is that if such things ever did happen, they would have been so contrary to the Blitz spirit (we can take it!) that they would have been ignored and forgotten, especially after the heat of the moment. I've just been writing about a similar process of amnesia with respect to the reprisals debate during the Blitz. It's one thing to think of your Gran being buried in rubble after a bomb hit her terrace, another to think of her helping to kick a German airman to death. Even so, the relative lack even of rumour suggests that if it happened it was very rare (in contrast to Germany, where it was apparently quietly but officially permitted: there's even a term for it, Fliegermorde or Flieger-Lynchmorde).

    JDK:

    I don't doubt that such records were kept, but I guess the question is whether they have survived. It's often surprising what has survived when it probably shouldn't have, but it's also surprising what hasn't survived when it probably should have...

    Chris:

    Thanks for the gen! Does that apply to records of court proceedings and the like too? Not that that would likely help here, as criminal prosecutions presumably would not have helped in keeping the riot secret (as Groves alleges was done). But as JDK and Gavin rightly point out, an even like this must have left some trace in the archival record somewhere...

  11. For W.W.II, RAF active unit records have mostly survived, and where they haven't, the reason is a good wartime one - the enemy were coming and they got destroyed (Greece, Singapore, etc.). But again I've no idea about RFC Home Establishment ones, it's realy a question for someone with access to Kew. Our contact of matter RFC of the Great War seems to be absent, it may be the Zeppelin threat...

  12. Ian Brown

    Thanks for all the replies to my question.

    The story about the German pilot is on the Axis History forum,with no disrespect to them I think they are interested in World War 11 but perhaps wish the end result had been different?

    Interesting that Kennington Police Station is mentioned,I have passed it often on the way to the London branch of the Imperial War Museum.

    Without going on about this I wonder if records were kept and are still secret?
    Reporting of aspects of the home front showing Britain in a negative way were not encouraged,but things such as looting and the crime wave during the war were popular topics among far left and other writers writing about the war,for example Angus Calder's THE PEOPLE'S WAR and MYTH OF THE BLITZ,and another book called YOU YOU AND YOU..
    If there was any real evidence perhaps these sort of writers would have written about incidents such as the one mentioned?
    World War 11 Britain had plans and forms for everything and I can imagine people capturing a downed enemy pilot having to fill in a form giving details?
    RAF intelligence would interrogate captured pilots,if they lost one due to civilian actions it would have been a big issue I think.

  13. Post author

    Ian:

    I wondered the same when I first encountered it, but I think the Axis History Forum isn't as dodgy as the name might suggest. For example, there's no sign of holocaust denial there, which often goes hand in hand with that kind of revisionism.

    Anyway, as you rightly note it's all about the evidence, of which very little has been provided; your scepticism is fully justified. I just think it should be borne in mind that if something like this did happen, by its nature it probably wouldn't generate much in the way of hard evidence. (Which actually makes my example of the reprisals debate not quite apposite, as there is a good deal of evidence for that -- it's just it has (in my opinion) been misinterpreted.) I'm sure forms were filled out but that would likely have been by the authorities who took custody of the captured crew, e.g. police or Home Guard. In any case a form can be falsified, and I don't see why it would have been in anyone's interest to make a big deal out of German airmen being roughed up. At the time it would have been viewed as an understandable reaction and the tendency would be to look the other way. For one thing, there was the danger that it would give Germans the excuse to do the same to downed Allied airmen (which in fact they did anyway).

    It's just occurred to me the interrogation records of captured German airmen would be one place to look for evidence (assuming they still exist); memoirs and so on too. Obviously actual lynch victims would not have survived to tell their stories, but there should be evidence of a spectrum of violence in such evidence.

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