On 19 January 1915 Germany launched its first Zeppelin airship raid on Britain. Zeppelins L3 and L4 carried eight bombs a piece, as well as incendiary devices, and had enough fuel for 30 hours. Initially, Kaiser Wilhelm II sought to target only military sites on the east coast and refused to permit the bombing of London, fearing they may injure his relatives in the British royal family – namely his first cousin King George V.
Using only dead reckoning and a limited radio direction-finding system to locate its targets however, it became apparent that the Zeppelins could do little to control their targets.
Death and destruction
Hampered by adverse weather, the first bomb was dropped by L4 on the village of Sheringham on the north Norfolk coast. L3 accidentally targeted Great Yarmouth, dropping 11 bombs on the town during a 10 minute attack.
Most of the bombs caused little damage, exploding away from civilisation, but the fourth bomb exploded in the heavily populated working class area of St Peter’s Plain.
Samuel Alfred Smith died immediately, becoming the first British civilian to die in an aerial bombardment. Martha Taylor, a shoemaker, was also killed and several buildings in the vicinity of the bomb were so badly damaged they had to be demolished.
Zeppelin L4 moved on to Kings Lynn where its attack claimed two lives: Percy Goate, just fourteen years of age; and 23 year old Alice Gazely, whose husband had been killed in France just weeks earlier. An inquest into the deaths was held almost immediately and ultimately passed a verdict of death by an act of the King’s enemies.
Only the beginning
Though the accuracy of their raids were low, this new method of warfare did not cease in its tirade against British civilians.
A further 55 Zeppelin raids were carried out over the course of the war, claiming around 500 victims from cities all over the United Kingdom. From Dover to Wigan, Edinburgh to Coventry, civilians from all corners of the country witnessed the terrors in the sky.
London too was not spared as the Kaiser had initially intended, and in August 1915 the first Zeppelins reached the city, dropping bombs on Walthamstow and Leytonstone. Not wanting to arouse panic, the government initially gave little advice except in the form of policemen on bicycles, who would blow whistles and tell people to ‘take cover’.
Following one particularly bad raid on 8-9 September in which a 300kg bomb was dropped however, the government response changed. 22 had been killed in the bombing, including 6 children, giving rise to a new and sinister nickname for the airships – ‘baby killers’. London begin issuing blackouts, even draining the lake at St James’ park so that its glittering surface would not attract bombers towards Buckingham Palace.
Civilians took shelter in the tunnels of the London Underground, and vast searchlights were installed to seek out any incoming balloons.
An anti-aircraft defence system was established, and fighter planes were diverted from the Western Front to defend attack on their own country.
Air defence system
The development of a coordinated air defence system, using anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and high-altitude fighters eventually began to make the Zeppelin a vulnerable method of attack. Previously, British planes could not reach altitudes high enough to attack the Zeppelins, yet by mid-1916 they had developed the capability to do so, alongside explosive bullets that could pierce the balloons’ skin and ignite the flammable gas inside.
Though raids did not cease entirely, they slowed down as the risks began to outweigh the benefits for their use. Of the 84 airships that took part in the bombing campaign of Britain, 30 were eventually shot down or destroyed in accidents. They were then replaced by long-range bombers such as the Gotha G.IV, which made its debut in 1917.
The final Zeppelin raid on Great Britain took place in 1918. The final airship was shot down over the North Sea by a plane piloted by Major Egbert Cadbury, of the chocolatier Cadbury family, bringing an end to their ghostly presence over British towns and cities.
‘There was war in heaven’
While the military capabilities of the Zeppelin was in fact rather impractical, the psychological impact of the airships on British civilians was immense. While troops sat in a deadlock in the trenches of Europe, Germany aimed to strike terror into those at home, shaking morale and pressuring the government into retreat. As war had previously been fought in far-off climes and largely separate from those at home, this new attack brought death and destruction right to people’s doorstep.
Writer D.H. Lawrence described the Zeppelin raids in a letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell:
‘Then we saw the Zeppelin above us, just ahead, amid a gleaming of clouds … Then there was flashes near the ground—and the shaking noise. It was like Milton—then there was war in heaven … I cannot get over it, that the moon is not Queen of the sky by night, and the stars the lesser lights. It seems the Zeppelin is in the zenith of the night, golden like a moon, having taken control of the sky; and the bursting shells are the lesser lights.’
The British government knew they had to adapt to survive, and in 1918 the RAF was established. This would prove vital in the oncoming and devastating World War Two. The bombing raids of the Zeppelin indicated war on a whole new battlefront, and signified the first stepping stone in a new era of civilian warfare, leading in time to the deadly raids of the Blitz.