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The Bombing Of Britain In The Great War

zepplinIntroduction

On February the 12th 1915, the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, expressed a hope to his aides that 'the air war against England will be carried out with the greatest energy'.

By May 1915, the German High Command had made the strategic decision to bomb the British mainland using airships. The initial target list included: military bases; fuel, ammunition and other military stores, military barracks; and, above all, the London Docklands.

The reason for this rapid compliance by the German High Command was the unexpected availability of its fleet of airships. These were largely idle because of the inactivity of the German High Sea Fleet - and the rapid realisation that the airship had proved to be too vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire when used in an infantry support role on the Western Front.

Thereafter, for the remainder of the Great War, the more easterly parts of Great Britain were under an almost continual threat from the air. Principally, this involved military and industrial targets and, unintentionally or otherwise, the British civilian population.

The initial air raid on London in May 1915 was the result of a navigation error. But in July 1915, the Kaiser specifically authorised bombing attacks on Great Britain; however he specifically excluded any attacks on royal palaces and residential areas.

Initially, the majority of the air raids were carried out by airships, but as the war progressed and aircraft technology improved, ever-heavier bomber aircraft were increasingly used by the Germans.

At first the airships flew so high - 10,000+ feet - that there was no defence against them. But over time the British developed the means to defend their homeland from these attacks by deploying anti-aircraft artillery, barrage balloons and specially equipped fighter aircraft.

During the early raids, navigation was often a problem for the Germans and, by default, the first targets of the airships were all concentrated on the Eastern coast of England. However, London was always the prime target; 127 persons were killed and 352 injured in the metropolis during the period from May to December 1915 alone.

The development of airships' bombing campaign against Britain

Although all German airships became to be known to the population of Britain as Zeppelins, after the name of the major German manufacturer, Count Zeppelin, other marques were also operational. These included the uniquely wooden framed Schutte-Lanz airship: the Zeppelin had a metal frame of the new material duralumin - a strong alloy of aluminium. (Hereafter, all the German airships will be designated as Zeppelins.)

Of the true Zeppelins there were three types: the Z; the 'P' (bigger, higher flying and faster); and the 'R', a.k.a. as the 'Height Climber', which was an even higher performance airship Theoretically, this last Zeppelin could fly a return trip to New York.

All the German airships were made lighter-than-air by the use of internal gasbags in laterally located gas cell compartments. The gasbags were inflated with hydrogen, a highly inflammable gas that was highly purified to minimise the risk of fire.The airships were flown operationally by both the German Military and Navy and considerable rivalry developed between these two arms of the services as the air-raid campaign progressed.The first attack on England was made on the night of the 19th January 1915 by three Naval Zeppelins, Serial #s L.3, L.4 and L6. Airship L.6 suffered engine-trouble and returned to base. L.3 and L.4, following close and parallel courses, encountered squally rain and snow storms off the English East Coast north of Yarmouth and took respectively southern and northern courses over the county of Norfolk. Zeppelin L.3. bombed the port of Yarmouth, which could be considered a military target, and dropped seven bombs producing two fatalities and three injured. Its sister airship, L.2, went further inland and bombed the town of Kings Lynn which had no particular military importance; two civilians died and another 13 were injured in the attack. In all, 24, 50kg high explosive bombs and 'some' three kilogramme incendiary bombs were dropped.

Thereafter, dependent upon the weather and the phase of the moon (moon-less nights were considered by the Germans as optimum for operations), Zeppelins were used in a continuous campaign at a frequency of around two air raids a month until 1917, when they were largely replaced by heavy bomber aircraft.

A morale depressing side-effect of these German air raids on the British public was the imposition by the British authorities in 1916 of a total 'black-out' in areas thought to be liable to air raids. This meant that all but the most essential outside lighting was forbidden, and individual households and businesses were bound by law to ensure that windows and doors were heavily curtained to avoid the escape of any man-made light. It was feared that such extraneous lighting would assist the airships in navigating their way to their targets. Unfortunately, on a clear night, the Thames estuary and River provided an excellent guide path to the centre of London for the German airships crossing the English Channel with, or without, the moon.

The Zeppelin raids were progressively extended over the country reaching Berwick-on-Tweed on the Scottish Border in the North, Warrington and Birmingham in the West, and Folkestone in the Southeast.The first air raid on London was made by a Military Zeppelin on 31st May 1915. After several unsuccessful forays by both the German Naval and Military arms, Military Zeppelin Serial # L.Z. 28 reached London and dropped 90 incendiary bombs, and 30 grenades, on random civilian targets in the Northeastern suburbs of the city. Seven civilians were killed and 35 injured. Indicative of the invulnerability of the Zeppelin at this time was the abortive attempt by nine British fighter aircraft to reach the flying altitude of the L.Z. 28 at 10,000+ feet. In trying to intercept the Zeppelins, one of the aircraft crashed, killing its pilot.

On the 6th June 1915, an abortive attempt by three Zeppelins to bomb Southern England was aborted by bad weather and a British fighter pilot - Sub-Lieutenant Warneton - was able to destroy one of them with a bomb, over the Belgian City of Ghent. He was awarded the Victoria Cross.Finally, in the early morning of 2nd September 1916, a British pilot - Lieutenant W. Leefe-Robinson - of 39 Squadron RFC, flying a B.E. 2c twin-seater reconnaissance aircraft, actually shot down a Schutte-Lanz airship, Serial # S.L.11, in flight over the town of Cuffley, North of the city of London.

Lieutenant Leefe-Robinson's success was due to his great daring and flying skill - for which he too was promptly awarded the Victoria Cross - allied with a new explosive bullet, the Pomeroy 0.303in. calibre. (The Pomeroy bullet was filled with nitro-glycerine and these bullets, fired interspersed with incendiary bullets of the Brock and/or Buckingham type, tore open the exterior envelope and the gasbags of the airship and ignited the escaping hydrogen. This inevitably doomed the Zeppelin to a flaming and explosive fall to destruction). There was widespread public jubilation, at the destruction of the Zeppelin and 10,000 of the public visited the crash site.

However, 300,000 Londoners still routinely used the railway Underground system to find shelter overnight.

Because of Leefe-Robinson's success, the invulnerability of the Zeppelin had become compromised, and the long-term role of the airship as a high altitude bomber was no longer assured. Developments in radio-detection techniques and improvements in anti-aircraft artillery only served to further accelerate the approaching end of the Zeppelins operational life as an air-raider over Great Britain.

Nevertheless, the raids continued, and on successive nights in July 1916, two Zeppelins dropped bombs on London setting fires. A total of 40 civilians were killed including women and children.

The most technically successful Zeppelin raid on London occurred on the 8th September 1916 when a single air ship - L.13 - inflicted serious damage on the very centre of the City of London; the number of civilian deaths began to mount significantly.

On the night of the 3rd October 1916, the Zeppelin commanders flew their heaviest bomb raid when five airships dropped a total of 189 bombs on London and its environs; seventy-one civilians died.

Seven Zeppelins again raided England on the 27th November 1916, and dropped a total of over 200 bombs; one of the Zeppelins fell prey to an RFC fighter armed with incendiary and explosive bullets.

Another German bombing coup took place in January 1917, when nine airships dropped 389 bombs across the Midlands of England, the centre of the British armaments industry. However, one Zeppelin was lost with all its 16 crew during its return flight over the North Sea to Germany.

In April 1917, the Zeppelin Captains, now expert navigators, were sent even further north, as well as southwards, in search of strategic targets: Sunderland, and Edinburgh and Leith in Scotland, were bombed for the first time and, as usual, civilian casualties were incurred.

Even so, the German High Command was definitely losing faith in the extremely costly air ships campaign, which overall had wreaked only limited structural damage on Great Britain. Accordingly, the airship operations were almost entirely superseded by bomber aircraft and there were only seven airship-raids in 1917 and four in 1918. Never-the-less, as already mentioned, the die-hard Zeppelin backers in the High Command had commissioned a third series of Zeppelins; the so called 'Height Climbers' as they were capable of flying at altitudes in excess of 20,000 feet.

Operating at these extreme altitudes, 11 of these Naval Zeppelin 'Height Climbers' flew over Southern and Central England on the19th October 1917, and achieved a complete surprise attack. But on the return trip the new aviation technology caught up with them. Five airships were lost, L.44, L.45, L.49, L.50 and L.55: three - L.44, L.45 and L.49 - were shot down over France and Germany by British and French aircraft. L55 crashed on its return to Germany and L.50 was swept out into the Mediterranean Sea and lost.

The final airship raid on Great Britain took place on the 5th August 1918 with five Height Climbers. The command airship was shot down over the North Sea by the gunner of a British DH4 twin-seater aircraft. The German Leader of Airships - Peter Strasser, holder of German's highest military award, Pour la Mérite - and his 23 crew were all killed. The remaining four airships hurriedly and mistakenly dropped their bombs into the English Channel and ran for home.

The total number of airships that were employed in the air attacks on Britain between 1915 and 1918 probably numbered less than 50, amounting to a total of 12 raids on London and 40 more over the rest of the country. Over 500 British civilians were killed in the raids and more than 1,300 injured. Relative to the wholesale destruction of property on the Western Front, the structural damage to businesses and housing of Great Britain was light and had little overall effect on the prosecution of the Great War. (See casualties below).

The aircraft bombing campaign against Britain

Considering the rudimentary state of aircraft technology and armament in1914, it is somewhat surprising that German aircraft successfully bombed British coastal towns - particularly the port of Dover - from December 1914 onwards. Obviously, the amount of damage they inflicted on buildings and their occupants with the then available rudimentary explosive devices was minimal, but psychologically it was enervating to those who were exposed, or threatened, by the attacks.

The main aircraft-based onslaught began on the 28th November 1916, when a lone German Gotha aircraft dropped six bombs on London. The successful outcome of this opportunistic foray spurred the Germans into creating a special bomber squadron dedicated to bombing England. It was appropriately named the 'England Squadron'; its official title was HQ Kagoul 3. In its final form the squadron flew both 'Gotha' and 'Zeppelin Staaken' (Giant) bombers in air raids on Great Britain. However, most of the bombing raids were made with Gotha aircraft.

The Gotha and Zeppelin aircraft used in the campaign were constructed, respectively, by Gothaeur Waggonfabriek A.G. and Zeppelin Werke Staaken A.G. (Sub-contracts for the latter were given to other constructors such as Aviatik A.G.).

  • Gotha, biplane, day (later night) bomber: Versions, G.IV, G.V, G.Va/b; Engines, Twin Mercedes D.IVa. 6 cylinder in-line; Laden Weight, 4,000 kg/ 9,000lbs; Airspeed, 140kmh/ 88mph; Maximum altitude, 6,500m/21,000ft; Flight endurance, 5 - 6 hours; Armament, 3 or 4 Parabellum machine guns and 600 kg/ 1.300lbs of bombs - 330kg over Southern England; Crew, Three; Production, G.IV = 230, other versions unknown.
  • Zeppelin Staaken (Giant), biplane, day/night heavy bomber: Versions, R.IV, R.V, R.VI; Engines, 4 Mercedes D.IVa. 6 cylinder in-line, back to back in two nacelles with tractor and pusher propellers (some versions had 1 or 2 auxiliary engines); Laden weight, 12,000kg/26,000lbs; Airspeed, 135kph/85mph; Maximum altitude, 4,300m/14,000ft; Flight endurance, 7 - 10 hours; Armament, 4 to 7 Lewis machine guns and 2,000kg/4,400lbs - 18 x 100kg or 2 x 1,000kg; Crew, 7. Production, RVI's = 18, other versions unknown.

On the 25th May 1917, the Germans carried out a massed air raid on targets in Southeast England deploying 23 Gotha heavy bomber aircraft - a suitably spectral name for a ghoulish task. The bomber aircraft raid caused even more concern to the British civilian population than did the early airship raids. This was because the only two bombers that reached their targets did more damage than any of the Zeppelin raids that proceeded it. A total of 95 people were killed and 192 wounded including soldiers and civilians.

The first series of Gotha daylight raids - eight in all - was on the City of London and Southeast England; it lasted three months, although the physical damage to London was again quite small. The total number of Gotha air raids over London in 1917-18 was 27.

The first of the London bomber air raids took place on the 12th June 1917 with 14 Gothas. Over 100 bombs were dropped from 12,000 feet. But many missed their strategic targets and 162 civilians were killed: the capital's highest death toll in the German Great War air-raid campaign of Great Britain. For the first time, considerable numbers of children were evacuated to the countryside away from the bombing threat.

On the 31st October 1917, 22 Gothas carried out their first incendiary bomb raid over London using a total of 83, two kilogramme, bombs. Although many of incendiaries failed to activate, ten civilians were killed.

Once in service, the Gotha was found to be a poor aircraft operationally. Its construction was weak and very susceptible to damage by gunfire, whilst its undercarriage was readily damaged in heavy landings or even on rough runway surfaces. Indeed, special runways were laid in its home airfields to overcome this weakness in the undercarriage. More Gothas were lost in the London/Southeast England bombing campaign to operational accidents - 36 - than were lost to British action - 24. From September 1917, flights over London were restricted to the hours of darkness. Total losses of Gothas on all operations were 43.

From the 17th September 1917, the Zeppelin Staaken 'Giant' heavy bomber joined the bombing raids on the British capital and Southeast England. It began with a highly successful air raid by five of the heavy bombers on the 7th March 1918. Another 28 bomber Gotha armada took off on the 19th May 1918 and resulted in 48 British civilian fatalities. In the latter raid six of the heavy bombers were shot down by British fighter aircraft, and another three of the bombers crash-landed on their return to Germany.

The Zeppelin Staaken 'Giant' aircraft flew a total of 52 missions, during which 2,772 bombs weighing 200 tonnes were dropped. On the 16th February 1918, the first German one tonne bomb was deployed; it fell on the Royal Chelsea Hospital causing many casualties. Two more one tonners were also dropped on Great Britain. Only two Zeppelin Staakens were lost on operations.

Other technical developments

A further German technical development, introduced in August 1918, was the 'Elektron Bomb'. This was a small incendiary bomb containing magnesium that weighed about one kilogramme. It was designed to be dropped in large numbers over population centres. However, it arrived too late in the Great War to be deployed over Allied territories in significant numbers. (The efficacy of this weapon when efficaciously targeted was later graphically demonstrated in the Second World War).

British air-raid casualties in the Great War

By Western Front standards, the total air-raid casualties on the British mainland were very small. But the psychological effect on the civilian population and their relatives serving overseas was quite profound. This caused the British Government considerable concern about the maintenance of both civil and military morale.

Summarised these air-raid casualties were:

  • Air-ship raid casualties = 1,914. Killed = 556.
  • Aircraft raid casualties = 2,908. Killed = 857.
  • Total casualties, all air raids = 4,822. Killed = 1,413.

Conclusions

An assessment of the German air raid campaign of Great Britain in the Great War is difficult in terms of absolute efficacy. But what can be stated is:

  • On the basis of industrial man-hours expended, and the use of valuable and scarce resources, both the airship and heavy bomber campaigns were extremely extravagant. It has been calculated that the total costs to the German exchequer of all the 115 airships that were constructed was over five times of the cost of the damage inflicted by the raids on the British infrastructure.
  • There is no doubt that the air raids had a considerable, if incalculable, effect on British morale both in the civilian population - particularly in London - and their concerned servicemen relatives overseas. Certainly, the British Government was, at times, greatly concerned by falling morale in the civilian population and took stringent and costly action to try and allay this by anti-airship and anti-aircraft measures. These measured involved the deployment of 12 additional squadrons of aircraft and 10,000 servicemen - resources that could otherwise have been employed in other theatres of war.
  • The imposition of a total 'black-out' - particularly in London and its environs - indubitably caused loss of production and added further tensions and frustrations to an increasingly stressful civilian life in wartime.


Acknowledgement

Obviously, many invaluable references have been consulted in the preparation of this article. But the author would particularly recommend interested readers to Arthur Banks' 'A Military Atlas of the First World War', republished by Leo Cooper in1989, ISBN 0 85052 791 0. This excellent reference contains many illuminating maps and illustrations dealing with the various aspects of the German air raids over Great Britain in the Great War. Since its publication in 1975, by Heinmann Educational Books, there have been several reprints. So, it should be available in most public libraries, or obtainable via the inter-library book request scheme.

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Last Updated ( Friday, 26 December 2008 20:43 )  

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