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.
Named after their creator General Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin these airships 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.
The first Zeppelin raid on Britain, made by 2 airships (L3 and L4) armed with 24 bombs from a base at Fuhlsbuttel, Hamburg which they left at approximately 11.30am on Tuesday, January 19th, 1915 and arrived over the East Anglian coast about 8.30pm. They only used half their power, for fear of encountering later either adverse air conditions or our naval airmen. As a matter of fact, they had a favouring wind on their return, and went back faster than they came. The airships appear to have travelled together towards Mudesley, and then separated, one going to Yarmouth and another to Cromer. At 8.30pm Cromer was missed, but Beeston was bombarded without results, and another bomb was dropped at Sheringham, but didn’t explode. The same airship seems to have travelled on past Hunstanton at 10.30pm and whirred over Heacham, where a water-butt received a shell, and on to Snettisham, where the village church was missed by 60yards by a bomb. Then about 11o’clock at night at King’s Lynn received a series of bombs, a soldier’s widow was killed and a lad of fourteen was slain in his ben, his father and mother and their baby child injured.
Yarmouth was attacked from another direction about 8.30pm. The airship passed rapidly over the town for the south to north, the crew throwing bombs for ten minutes at a point all in a line about 100 yards from each other. The streets were full of people, taking the air in the winter evening, but only three persons were struck. Two bombs thrown by St. Peter’s Church killed an old lady who was fetching her super, and a middle-aged shoemaker, while a soldier was injured. The townspeople, far from being panic-stricken, were inclined to remain in the streets, looking for the first Zeppelin bombardment of Britain; but the borough engineer cut off the lighting, as a measure of precaution against the return of the raider. This was well done, for about midnight the whir of an airship was again heard from the sky above, but the hostile craft turned out to sea without attempting more slaughter or damage.
It is doubtful if the reported presence of King George and Queen Mary at Sandringham led to the second airship raiding southward from Hunstanton. The bomb may have been dropped at Snettisham in mistake for Sandringham. But, as a matter of fact, their Majesties had left Sandringham, without public notice, so there was no danger to them – though the foe may have intended to follow the tactics of the Zeppelin raid on Antwerp, when the Royal Palace was attacked, in the hope of killing King Albert and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium.
To achieve the insignificant results of Norfolk aerial raid, the German airships, in their journeys over the waters, had to run grave risks. What these risks were was more clearly seen in the third week of February, when a Zeppelin and a Schutte-Lanz were wrecked by a storm in the North Sea. One came down, on February 17th, 1915, on Fanoe Island, and was there burned, the officers and men being arrested and interned by Danish authorities. On the same day another German Naval airship was wrecked off the west coast of Jutland, four of the crew being saved and eleven drowned.
This double disaster was a matter of supreme significance to the people of the British Isles. The two airships seemed to have been overtaken by a snowstorm. The snow fell on their coverings, amounting perhaps to a ton in weight, pressed them down, and led to the wrecking of them. The direct cause of the disaster was a lack of knowledge of the probable weather conditions on February 17th. British meteorological authorities controlled the situation.
From our weather stations on the edge of the Atlantic it is possible to foretell fairly the conditions of the air in the North Seas and the Channel. Thus our naval airships were able to operate with comparative safety. But as soon as the War broke out British Meteorological Department kept its main weather information a secret, and in particular ceased to transmit to the Continent the facts gathered in our observing stations in Ireland and elsewhere. The result was that our country, though it happy position on the edge of the storm-brewing Atlantic Ocean, was as supreme over Germany in regard to aerial operations as in regard to naval operations and this was the chief reason why no squadron of Zeppelins attempted at the autumn, winter, and spring of 1914-15 to bombard London.
Though the Zeppelin 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.
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Log on to Forces War Records and find out more - delve into our ‘historic documents’ library and read some of the interesting War diaries that we get sent – there’s nothing quite like reading a personal account of the war, as history unfolds itself through the eyes of somebody who was actually there. Discover interesting facts about your ancestors, become more knowledgeable about history, and reveal some of the fantastic characters involved in war…What are you waiting for?
Source: The Great War Volume 3 – Forces War Records Historic Library.