Saturday, 9 November 2013

Drill Hall massacre in Chatham

A Gothat G.IV in flight
The four biplanes droned through the night sky at sixty miles an hour. The twelve men were a long way from home huddled in their open cockpits and gun turrets talking amongst themselves and keeping a sharp look out for enemy aircraft. The fifith aeroplane had been forced to return to base but the remainder continued on.

Below they passed over an island and suddenly the target became clear. Around the corner of the estuary lay the town of Chatham full lit in the night sky. The pilots changed course and brought the four Gotha G.IV bombers of Kagohl 3 (Kampfgeschwader der Obersten Heeresleitung 3 or commonly known as England Geschwader.) around to face the city and the Naval dock yard. They had crossed the coast at Westgate at 22:35 on the 3rd September and began their approach on Chatham and Gillingham at 22:50.

Following the defeat of the Zeppelins the German Luftreitkrafe began using the new Gotha G.IV bombers for operations against England during the day but wih improving British defences they were forced to swithc to night raids for the first time. This was the England Geschwader's first sortie at night and was totally unexpected.

Security in Chatham had become rather lax. There was no blackout and earlier that day there had been an air raid drill. Local cinemas had shown a news flash that said there would be a further drill later in the day with the Anti Aircraft artillery being fired. Now as the aircraft rumbled over head and the anti Aircraft batteries began to fire people rushed out to get a glimpse of the action and the artillery opening up as part of a drill whilst Soldiers tried to clear the streets.

The Drill hall today
The Germans passed over the Dockyard and the barracks of HMS Pembroke and released two 50kg bombs. Down below them somewhere in the Dock yard was Able Seaman Henry Sams (my Great Grandfather's younger brother) who had been serving on HMS Vanguard up until the end of May.

Due to an outbreak of Meningitus and the ensuing quarintine of the barracks quarters a large number of sailors were sleeping in the Drill hall, as was a group of Sailors from HMS Vanguard who had been rostered to return to the ship before her sinking in July and were awaiting reassignment, this group could have included young Henry Sams.

The 500kg bomb fell through the glass roof and exploded amongst the sleeping men and the blast tore through the open space but due to the Concrete floor mostly redirected up towards the ceiling shattering the glass roof and sending a shower of deadly glass shards down into the men.

Sidney A Moseley RNVR, who was the assistant Mapymaster wrote the following description;

I heard the noise of gun fire and bomb-dropping, but we had grown accustomed to such music, and I did not trouble to stir. In a few minutes, however, a steward came to infrom me that "They were over the building and had dropped a bomb."! Officers, he said, were ordered below.

That bomb, you remember, was one of the few Hun Bull's-eyes. It fell on the top of the men's quarters and killed a large number of the fellows whom I had seen drilling a few hours previously. The Huns were still above the building when I went across to the drill-hall. In the semi-darkness the scenes were weird and soul-piercing But waht was so stirring to watch was the whole-hearted contempt the surviving sailors had for the presence of danger. I believe I was the first officer present, but there was no need to give orders to such men. They worked expeditiously and carefully, removing the debris of broken glass and timber, the dead and the dying bodies of their comrades. [1]

Another witness, Ordinary Seaman Fredrick Turpin described:

It was a gruesome task. Everywhere we found bodies in a terribly mutilated condition. Some with arms and legs missing and some headless. The gathering up of the dismembered limbs turned one sick….It was a terrible affair and the old sailors, who had been in 
several battles, said they would rather be in ten Jutlands or Heligolands than go through another raid such as this. [2]
The falling quarter inch thick glass had caused many injuries including decapitations and severing of limbs as well as puncture wounds all the way down to minor lacerations. The clearance operation took until the following afternoon and lasted 17 hours, but only those with thick soled boots could work amongst the shards to rescue the injured or the dead. The wounded were taken to the Naval hospital (now Medway maritime) but the sheer number of injuries stretched the medical facilities available to the absolute limit, they were not prepared for such a disaster.

 A total of 131 men were killed and a further 90 were wounded by the end of it.
The bombers had scored a lucky hit, their bomb aiming skills were limited and their equipment exceptionally basic. The flight of Gothas also dropped bombs on Maxwell road (which killed another sailor and the blast knocked his friend and their female companions over), Maritime hospital's grounds, the Woodlands Navy cemetery, on the lines, Brompton school (which was badly damaged), Marlborough road, York avenue, College avenue and a house in May road. There was a fear that poison gas had been dropped as well as a noxious smell filled the air around May road but thankfully it was nothing. However the death toll was the highest caused by any air raid and was the highest that the UK would see until the Luftwaffe returned to the skies above Kent and London some twenty three years later, but even then this was the highest death toll the Medway towns have ever seen.

The RFC scrambled several aircraft to attempt to intercept the enemy aircraft but with a lack of any kind of detection system they were flying blind and all four aircraft returned to their bases in Belgium unaware of the devastation they had caused.

Leading Stoker W A Osborne's grave at Woodlands
Ninety eight of the killed were intered in Woodland's road cemetery in a convoy of vehicles draped in Union Jacks and followed by a procession of men who provided them will a full military burial on the 6th September 1917. Their graves can still be visited today and can be found scattered amongst the many other war dead and those killed on HMS Bulwark.

The names of the 130 are as follows:

A Goddard           J Hammond       W Wakeford
R Mayes              S Hare                E Walsh
J Abrey                F Hartnall          W Walton
J Anderson          T Haville            J Warne
R Anderson         A Haxell             H Wate
H Barker             A Hay                  G Watson
H Bavister           J Henderson       G Wooton
J Beha                 H Hill                  W Gillett
G Bell                 E Hoskins
F Benmore         A Humphrey
J Benson             J Jackson
W Berwick         S Jackson
W Beverley        H Jones
H Bird                A Kennedy
G Boyd              A Langridge
J Brightwell       C Lemmon
M Brown           W Littlewood
W Bullock         J Loose
Engineerman T S Cropley's grave at Woodlands
G Butler            F Lutitt
F Cable             S Macey
A Cairns           A Macgregor
T Carmichael   N Mackay
C Cash              J McGregor

A Charlton       A McLean
R Clark            G McLoughlin
W Clark           J McNish
C Clarke          P Moore
J Clements      A Moss
R Collett         J Nicholson
K Cooke         W Nolan
B Corker         W Osborne
F Crocker        F Parker
T Cropley       W Payne
W Curd           R Peters
F Diver           A Purton
R Ellis            J Raven
A Finlay         F Reyner
L Fish            S Rigden
R Franklin     H Sharp
T Ginn           W Shirley
A Gladwell    G Simpson
H Godden      R Smith
W Godwin     W Smith
N Gooby        W Steed
C Goodsell    A Sutherland
G Gunn         J Venney
S Hadley       A Voice

(Source of names

It is unknown how much of this was experienced by young Henry Sams or whether he was in the Drill hall on that fateful evening. He survived the war and served in the Navy into the mid 1920s, mainly around Chatham and Sheppey in training establishments and on Submarines as well as HMS Erebus when it sailed to Arkangel and shelled Bolshevik positions in the White Sea... That however is another story.

Other links:

Also; The Gillingham Chronicles by R. A Baldwin, Baggins books, Rochester, 1998.

Photographs (except the Gotha which was taken from Google) were taken by the author.

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