Credit: Tim CookThe pleasant, unassuming English coastal town of Sheringham, in north Norfolk, boasts a unique claim on both British history and the story of modern warfare. During the night of January 19th 1915, a bomb fell from the sky upon Sheringham, the first to fall on Great Britain during any war, and one which foretold both the raids to come and, years later, the Blitz of World War Two. This first device landed in a cottage kitchen where, before it could detonate, a brave local placed the device in a bucket, ran with it outside and plunged it into a horse trough. A somewhat farcical beginning to an attack conducted not by airplanes, but those German giants of the air, the Zeppelins.
Germany had already conducted aerial raids over Belgium and France during the early stages of the Great War, but the raids on Great Britain demonstrated the scope of their ambition. Korvettenkapitän Peter Strasser, commander of the naval Zeppelin fleet, and in charge of that first raid, had convinced German High Command that airships were of more use than simple naval reconnaissance, and as agents of destruction, would demoralize the British and force them to divert resources away from the Front Line. The Kaiser agreed, as longCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain as the craft avoided London, for fear of harm befalling the British royal family, to whom he was related; the Kaiser also feared turning neutral nations' opinions, such as the USA, against Germany, if such an attack took place.
The first Zeppelin raid on Britain targeted the port towns of Humberside, and involved three Zeppelins, known as L3, L4 and L6. Bad weather over the North Sea restricted L3 and L4 to Norfolk, with mechanical problems forcing L6, with Strasser on board, back to their base at Fuhlsbuttel. L3 and L4 flew in tandem until they parted company around twenty miles north of the resort town of Great Yarmouth. L4 undertook a rather haphazard route north-eastwards, veering to and from the Norfolk coast; some historians report the L3 captain confused as to whether he’d made it to Humberside and dropped the Sheringham bomb more as a guide to navigation than tactical advantage.
Afterwards, the L3 drifted further out to sea, before hugging the western edge of the Norfolk coast, with flares dropped to help the guide the craft by spotting local landmarks. L3 happened upon the large market town of King’s Lynn, where it disposed of more bombs, then cut eastwards across the width of Norfolk, passing by the royal residence of Sandringham (possibly a deliberate act to use as propaganda) and the region’s major population center, Norwich. Reports conflict as to why Norwich avoided bombing on this occasion; either fog shrouding the city kept it from German view, or L3 had run out of bombs to drop.
L4, by contrast, kept a more circumspect route, heading southwards over land to bomb Great Yarmouth before looping back north over sea and heading for home. The fourth bomb of the Yarmouth raid claimed the first lives lost through aerial warfare on British soil, when it struck the densely populated area of St Peter’s Plain. Two people, a shoemaker named Samuel Smith, and an elderly spinster, Martha Taylor, died in the terrible explosion, and a plaque at the site commemorates them to this day. The L3’s bombs upon King’s Lynn, which fell later that night, also claimed two lives. Of course, the various explosions caused substantial structural damage to both towns, with many buildings demolished as a result.
The attacks of January 19th and 20th 1915 were just the first unleashed upon a shocked Great Credit: Tim CookBritain by the German Zeppelin fleet. Until the onset of winter later in the year, 1915 saw towns along the eastern coast of England under repeated airship attack. One woman, Emma Flaxman, a Great Yarmouth resident who lived with her mother and father, wrote of her experience of an April 1915 raid. By now, the British Army had organised defenses in the form of searchlights, warning sirens and anti-aircraft guns, though these were just as frightening as the Zeppelins: “...with terrible rapidity, the guns kept on and we got downstairs somehow...I shall never forget it, mother was absolutely terrified...you cannot conceive what the terrible sound of those guns were, they seemed to go through one. For a whole hour it lasted, and we sat out there. In quick succession, the guns came and the shells were flying about...yet little damage was done...at Gorleston and Newtown [small towns near Great Yarmouth], people had been ordered out of their homes...Things are very black today, and now this affair. Isn’t it awful? Whoever thought it should come to this?”
By “coming to this,” Emma Flaxton hints at the change affected by the advent of aerial warfare, for the first time in human history there now existed ‘the Home Front.’ The Zeppelins brought with them the concept of total war, with civilians as much within the enemy’s sights as their armed forces. Factories, ports, railways as well as food and ammunition supplies and depots faced destruction from air, while ordinary men, women and children died by the score, either unintentionally or in acts designed to sap morale. This led the British to declare Zeppelins and their crews as ‘the baby-killers,’ though the Germans could retort the British naval blockade had much the same effect on Germany, which suffered rising child mortality rates through the course of the Great War.
April 1915 also saw the Kaiser give permission for the first raids on London, where economist and social activist Beatrice Webb, later the Right Honorable Baroness Passfield, described in her diary the astonishing sight presented by a Zeppelin as “a long sinuous airship high up in the blue black sky, lit up faintly by searchlights.” Writer and novelist Virginia Woolf would later record how people would run into the capital’s streets and scan the sky on hearing any loud noise, such was the anxiety generated by the German air raids; Londoners came to fear the clear, moonlit nights preferred by the Zeppelins, which never attacked during daylight hours.
Airship technology progressed swiftly in the rarefied conditions of war. L3 and L4 were around 518ft in length, traveled at a maximum speed of 47mph and held a volume of over 790,000 square feet. By 1917, Zeppelins such as L48 were 644ft long, reaching speeds of 64mph and carried 1.9 million square feet in volume, with treble the payload of the L3. L48 could also reach a ceiling of 20,000ft, compared to the earlier ship’s maximum flying height of roughly 6500ft. And of course, the bigger the airship, the bombs it carried and the more destructive power it brought to bear.
However, as the Germans developed better Zeppelins, so the British developed better air defenses and methods of attacking the airships. Ordinary bullets simply passed through the aluminium skin of the Zeppelins, causing minimal damage, leading to the creation of incendiary bullets which, when fired by fighter planes, could ignite the hydrogen gas cells the airships depended upon for buoyancy. Such an attack did for the L48 on June 16th 1917 when, after a raid on the key Essex port town of Harwich, the Zeppelin found itself drifting northwards, the result of a frozen compass. L48’s ceiling of 20,000ft kept it well clear of searchlights and anti-aircraft fire, but with fuel a concern, the Zeppelin needed to reach more favorable winds to allow it to fly home to Germany. Reducing height left it vulnerable to marauding fighter planes, and one incendiary bullet ignited the airship’s tail. The night sky lit up as the fire took hold upon L48, sending it crashing to the ground near the village of Therberton in Suffolk, killing 16 of the 19 crew.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public DomainBy the time the Great War drew to its conclusion, Germany had reduced airship use to their original function of assisting their navy. Although the raids carried out exclusively by Zeppelins (later attacks saw airships and biplanes working together) had claimed the lives of 557 British civilians and caused damage equal in today’s money of £142 million ($214 million), the Zeppelin raids failed to cause the widespread panic and demolition the likes of Peter Strasser had hoped for, and their impact was mostly psychological, largely due to their striking appearance in an age when most civilians had not seen an airplane, let alone a giant airship. Zeppelins were also difficult to navigate accurately (often attacking the wrong town or simply dropping bombs on whatever city was unlucky enough to find itself on the flight path back home) and dangerous by nature, in those days before helium-operated dirigibles, with many destroyed in accidents or at their bases by British airplane raids.
The last Zeppelin raid on Great Britain took place on August 5th, 1918, with the ship L70 shot down off the coast of Wells-Next-the-Sea, after attacking Norwich, Boston and the Humberside coast. Among the crew of 23 killed was the Zeppelin’s great friend, Peter Strasser and with his death, went the idea of airships as an attacking force.