First Zeppelin Attack On British Soil by the Germans in 1915

Images Of The First Air-Raid On Britan 1915

These days, it is easy to ridicule the airship. Slow, conspicuous, not exactly built for aerobatics and – worst of all - highly flammable, it has long been considered the albatross of aviation history. Impractical it may have been, but in war the airship proved to be highly efficient at one thing: conveying terror. It was an enemy that, once spotted, grew and grew on approach until it blocked out the light.

According to ‘The Western Front Companion’ by Mark Adkin, the Germans were way ahead of other European nations in their experiments with airships in 1914, and had built up a considerable fleet of the formidable Zeppelins (named after their creator General Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin). These had a light but rigid aluminium framework, over which was lain tough fabric, and were filled with hydrogen held in a number of compartments. The engine and two cars hung from the framework, and they were armed with 4-6 machine guns and a collection of bombs. The Zeppelins were about 550 feet long, operated at a height of around 5,000 feet (higher by discharging ballast), and travelled at speeds up to 60mph.

Images Of The First Air-Raid On Britan 1915
Zeppelin LZ38 about to ascend from her base

The first Zeppelin raid on Britain, made by 2 airships (L3 and L4) armed with 24 bombs from a base at Fuhlsbuttel, Hamburg, and killed four people in King’s Lynn, Great Yarmouth and Sheringham, and injured 16 others. (A third Zeppelin, L6, had also taken off, but was forced to turn back early after encountering technical problems). The attacks would continue for the rest of the First World War, 54 in all, and by the end of it would have claimed 557 lives and caused 1,358 injuries. Overall, they caused less real damage than the German Gotha bombers, but their psychological impact made up for this deficiency. Each attack caused a great dip in morale, and things got worse with the dawn of the even bigger, even more powerful ‘Super Zeppelin’ at the end of 1916.

However, for all their fearsome looks the airships were extremely vulnerable due to their large cargoes of flammable gas. The first successful attack by a British pilot upon a Zeppelin earned Flight Sub Lieutenant Reginald Alexander John Warneford a Victoria Cross. The London Gazette entry detailing the award in our records, dated 11th June 1915, explains why: “On 7th June 1915 at Ghent, Belgium, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Warneford attacked and completely destroyed a German airship in mid-air. He had chased the airship from the coast near Ostend, and succeeded in dropping his bombs on it, the last of which set the airship on fire, but the explosion overturned the attacking plane and stopped its engine. Having no alternative, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Warneford had to land in hostile country, but after 35 minutes spent on repairs, he managed to restart the engine and returned to base.”

Flight Sub-Lieutenant Warneford received a congratulatory note from King George V himself, conferring the honour, and he was also granted France’s highest gallantry award, the “Légion d’honneur”. He would not, however, have long to enjoy these plaudits. On 17th June 1915 he was killed in an air collision, aged just 23. Meanwhile, nine of the 10-man crew of the Zeppelin were killed. According to ‘The Western Front Companion’ the tenth, Alfred Mühler, survived by a miracle. He was in the front compartment when the smouldering airship crashed through a roof, and shot out onto a conveniently located bed! He apparently opened a pub after the war, and was bought drinks off the back of his incredible story for many a long year.

Flight Sub-Lt. Warneford V.C.
Flight Sub-Lt. Warneford

Were any of your family members in the RFC or RAF?

Did you know that before the Royal Air Force (RAF) was formed, The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was the air arm of the British Army during the First World War, until it merged with the Royal Naval Air Service on 1 April 1918 to form the RAF.

During the early part of the war, the RFC supported the British Army, by artillery co-operation and photographic reconnaissance. It developed and then led RFC pilots into aerial battles with German pilots and later in the war included the strafing of enemy infantry and emplacements, the bombing of German military airfields and later the strategic bombing of German industrial and transportation facilities. 

Find out more about your family history, search our RAF Formations List 1918 collection 


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