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Terror from the air: The German Zeppelin raids of 1915 - 1918

Damage from a Zeppelin raid, Great Yarmouth, January 1915 (left), an L3 Zeppelin

On a cold winter’s night over a hundred years ago, a humble shoemaker named Samuel Smith was making his way home. Smith would never know it, but he was about to make history. High above his head, a vast, hydrogen-filled war machine dropped its deadly payload. On that fateful night, Samuel Smith became the first British civilian to lose his life in a German Zeppelin raid.

The decision to authorise the aerial bombardment of the United Kingdom was taken by the Kaiser of Germany on the 7th of January 1915. Fearful that a bomb might drop on Buckingham Palace and kill his relatives, the Kaiser initially banned the bombing of London, though he would soon capitulate and allow the bombing of London’s docks. Instead of hitting London, the Zeppelins of the German Army and Navy were to attack industrial, military and civilian targets in other parts of the country. The aim was to disrupt British armaments production and terrify the British public into demanding their government withdraw from the war.

The first Zeppelins – L3 and L4 – set out from their base in Fuhlsbüttel in Hamburg on the morning of the 19th of January. The intention was to bomb the ports of Hull and Grimsby. Bad weather forced a change of plan and the airships headed instead for the Norfolk coast. While L3 turned towards the seaside town of Great Yarmouth, L4 made its way to the town of King’s Lynn. Arriving over Great Yarmouth at around 9:00pm, L3 dropped its payload of ten bombs on the working class area of St. Peter’s Plain. The unfortunate Samuel Smith was decapitated by a flying splinter when a bomb hit the house he was walking past. Also killed in the raid was Martha Taylor, a 73-year-old woman who lived in a terraced house in St. Peter’s Plain. Windows in the area were blown out and walls and roofs destroyed.

While L3 was wreaking havoc over the skies of Great Yarmouth, L4 arrived over King’s Lynn. There, a 26-year-old widower named Alice Gazeley and a 14-year-old boy by the name of Percy Goate were killed. A further sixteen people were injured in the raids, and £7,000 of damage was done. While the weather prevented the airships from hitting their intended targets, the raids were judged a success.

Further attempts to bomb Britain were hampered by a combination of bad weather and enemy fire downing an airship on the continent. It wasn’t until April that successful raids on Ipswich, Southend, Dover and Ramsgate were carried out, killing a further six people.

The first Zeppelin to successfully reach and bomb the British capital was LZ 38 on the night of the 30th of May. The airship dropped 3,000lbs of bombs on the London boroughs of Stoke Newington, Stepney and Leytonstone. Panicked citizens jumped from their beds and ran into the streets shrieking in terror – an occurrence that became so regular that special nighttime air raid attire was soon being marketed to women to protect their honour as they dashed for the nearest shelter. In total, seven people lost their lives in the first raid on London, and over £18,000 of damage was done.

The summer of 1915 brought some respite from the raids, as better weather meant Zeppelins couldn’t hide behind cloud cover. One notable exception came in August when three airships attempted a raid on London. Two turned back due to mechanical failure, but one ploughed on. Thinking he was over Woolwich, the Zeppelin’s captain dropped his bombs on the town of Ashford in Kent.

As Autumn arrived, the Germans launched further raids, hitting towns like Broxbourne in Hertfordshire and Dereham in Norfolk. One Dereham resident, a shopkeeper called James Taylor, had just popped out to post a letter when the Zeppelin unloaded its bombs on Church Street. His wife Clara and son Percy would never see him alive again. In London, landmarks such as the Lyceum Theatre and Liverpool Street Station were damaged. In total, twenty raids took place in 1915. 181 people lost their lives.

By the end of 1915, Britain’s defences against the airships were beginning to improve, with searchlights and gun emplacements springing up all over the country. The fighter planes of the Royal Flying Corps had also been armed with explosive and incendiary bullets that could punch through the airships’ outer skins and ignite the hydrogen contained within. To combat this new threat, the Germans introduced the Q-class Zeppelin, which carried an increased payload and could reach altitudes the planes could not.

On the night of the 31st – 1st of February, nine airships left Germany and headed for Liverpool. A combination of poor weather conditions, poor navigation and mechanical failure scattered the Zeppelins over the skies of the Black Country in the West Midlands. Bombs were dropped on the towns of Tipton, Walsall and Wednesbury. In total, 61 people lost their lives in the indiscriminate raid, including the Lady Mayoress of Walsall who was severely injured when the tram she was travelling on suffered a direct hit.

Poor weather conditions prevented any further raids until the end of March when a fleet of ten airships headed over the North Sea to attack targets in London and the east. Mechanical failure again caused most of the Zeppelins to turn back, but one scored a notable success by dropping a single bomb on an army billet in the Lincolnshire seaside town of Cleethorpes, killing 31 soldiers. Strict restrictions imposed on the media led to the Times reporting that ‘a village of no military significance’ had been hit.

The raids continued throughout 1916. As per usual, most of the Zeppelins’ intended targets were never reached, with bombs being unloaded on random villages and towns in the northeast and Scotland when weather prevented the airships hitting London and the naval base of Rosyth.

One notable raid that did hit its intended target was on London between the 24th and 25th of August. That night, Deptford, Plumstead, Greenwich and Eltham were hit, with nine fatalities and over £130,000 of property damage inflicted.

The night of the 2nd to the 3rd of September saw the biggest raid yet attempted when 16 airships set off for London. Bad weather in the North Sea scattered the vessels, with only two of the Army Zeppelins managing to drop their payloads on the villages of London Colney and South Mimms. One of the airships in the group, SL 11, dropped to a lower altitude to aid visibility and was picked up by searchlights and hunted down by fighter planes. One of the pilots, Lt. William Leffe Robinson managed to score a direct hit and the Zeppelin came down in a spectacular fireball near the village of Cuffley in Hertfordshire. For bringing down the first enemy airship on British soil, Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross.

The loss of SL 11 was the last straw for the German Army, which withdrew its ships from the bombing raids. The Navy ploughed on, continuing its raids throughout the rest of 1916, hitting targets on multiple occasions in London, the Midlands and the North East. By the end of 2016, 23 raids had killed a further 293 and injured a further 691 at a cost of six downed airships. By this stage in the war, the British had worked out how to intercept the airships’ radio chatter and were getting better at hunting and bringing them down.

By 1917, the Germans realised they must do something about the increased threat to the Zeppelins after losing so many the year before. To counter the new threat, weight was shed to increase the altitude the airships could reach and raids recommenced in March. However, high winds thwarted the first raid of the year and one of the Zeppelins was brought down by French troops as it strayed over a battlefield in enemy territory. A second raid succeeded only in bombing a small village in Suffolk, killing one person.

A six Zeppelin raid on a naval battery in Ramsgate in June proved more successful, though yet again one of the airships was brought down by two fighter planes near the village of Theberton in Suffolk.

By this stage in the war, it was becoming obvious that losses against increasingly sophisticated defences were becoming unsustainable. Purpose-built bombers had been deployed successfully against targets in Folkstone and London, killing nearly 200 people and causing huge amounts of damage. These aeroplanes were less prone to mechanical failure and less affected by the weather. They were also a lot less vulnerable to enemy attack than enormous, highly flammable bags of gas. The days of the Zeppelin raids were numbered.

The final raid took place on the 25th of August 1918. Four Zeppelins headed out to bomb targets in the north and the Midlands but encountered thick cloud in the North Sea and got lost. One was intercepted by aircraft from the Royal Flying Corps and shot down. The other three dropped their bombs harmlessly into the sea. With this final failure, the Zeppelin raids were over.

557 people were killed as a result of the Zeppelin raids. Though the number killed was relatively small and the damage to vital infrastructure was minimal, the raids shocked the general public and rattled the powers-that-be. Terror from the air was now a very real thing. No longer was war something that happened far away from home. Now it could be visited on any village, town or city in Britain. Twenty years later, that point was hammered home as the skies of Europe filled with bombers. The Zeppelins – ineffective as they were - paved the way for the horrors to come. From now on, nobody was safe.