War heroes come in many guises, tram driver Alfred Buckle was one such hero. Keen to get his tram back to the depot and according to his conductor he’d had a premonition that something grave was about to happen, considering war had been raging for three years with the loss of countless lives he was right to be concerned. Just before midnight on the 4th September 1917 he turned his single-deck tram off Westminster Bridge and onto the Embankment.
As he headed north-east, the sound of explosions reached his ears from Strand. The first night raid by Gotha bombers was underway. First the East End was under attack as well as Hornsey, Hampstead, Regents Park and Greenwich then the 11 bombers moved towards the West End. Driver Buckle sped up, heading for the relative safety of the Kingsway Tunnel.
As Buckle drove past Cleopatra’s Needle, a 50kg bomb hit the pavement between the tram and the monument.
The blast, combined with an exploding gas main, hit the vehicle with tremendous force. Buckle and two of his passengers were killed, and several injured.
An eye-witness described how the driver suddenly sank to his knees before pulling the stop lever. In fact, his legs had been blown off. Buckle’s last act was to bring the tram to a halt.
The plinth of Cleopatra’s Needle still bears the scars of that explosion 99 years ago also a sphinx to the south-west also contains several holes.
The damage is one of the few remaining scars to be seen in London from the 1914-18 conflict.
The incident at Cleopatra’s Needle was just one of many tragedies that night. The 54 explosives dropped by the bombers killed 16 people and injured 56.
The inscription inaccurately reads:
The scars that disfigure the pedestal of the obelisk, the bases of the sphinxes, and the right hand sphinx, were caused by fragments of a bomb dropped in the roadway close to this spot, in the first raid on London by German aeroplanes a few minutes before midnight on Tuesday 4th September 1917.
In fact Gotha raids had already taken place in May, June and July (following on from earlier Zeppelin missions). This was, however, the first night attack by the bombers.
Rubble surrounds the Sphinx on London’s Victoria Embankment, following an air raid on the night of 4 – 5 September 1917. The Sphinx was damaged in several places by fragments of flying debris, but the main damaged caused by the 50 kilogram bomb can be seen in the foreground. Gas and water mains as well as electricity cables were affected. IWM Non-Commercial Licence
Pockmarks on the base of the sphinx above, there are also some in the pedestal of the obelisk, these were caused by shrapnel from a German bomb which landed nearby during the First World War Dr Brett Holman Airminded (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)