When archivist for the RAF Museum, 2019 – 2024, I was naturally drawn to the documents relating to the First World War. In many aspects the early years of the Royal Flying Corps and their actions in the First World War are overshadowed by the glamourous aircraft and men and women of the Second. Certainly more visitors would visit and stare (rightly) in awe at the Lancaster in the collection then at the items in the First World War displays. For me however it was always the documents rather than the aircraft that I felt had the story to be told.

Letter from R W Donkin, 1916. DC75/57 RAF Museum Archive.

One is certainly worth seeking out if you visit. On display in Hanger 2 is a letter by an eight-year-old boy. Illustrated with a drawing of an airship crashed to the ground and complete with matchstick figures. It is dated 3 September 1916 and marks the shooting down of SL11, a ‘Zeppelin’. This was actually an airship made by Shütte-Lanz rather than the Zeppelin Company. However, all German airships were commonly called Zeppelins.

While investigating this in the archive collection, I discovered a contrasting image of a crashed Zeppelin. This was a postcard illustrated with a German navy officer clinging to the wreckage of a Zeppelin’s air bag. The letters L19 clearly marked out in red.

German colour printed postcard depicting a member of an airship crew clinging to the gas bag of Zeppelin L19 in a rough sea, c. 1916. AC70/1/4/6 RAF Museum Archive.

The pencil inscription on the reverse of this postcard read ‘This card is much for sale in the North Sea parts. It is the King Stephen case’. On further investigation, I found this referred to the airship L19 of the Imperial German Navy. Returning from a bombing raid on England on 31 January 1916 it came down in the North Sea.

The English fishing boat the King Stephen found the wreck of the airship with the 16 German crew clinging to it in the ocean. Captain William Martin of the King Stephen refused to rescue the crew. His thought was that his small, unarmed fishing crew would be overpowered and be forced to sail to Germany. Although promised by the Captain of the L19, Lieutenant Odo Loewe, that the crew would behave and even offered money Martin sailed away. The men clinging to the fabric of the airship placed messages in bottles to their friends and families and threw them into the sea. These would be found some six months later. The crew and the remains of L19 were never found although the Royal Navy conducted a search for them. It was later rumoured that Martin was illegally fishing and had given the Royal Navy false co-ordinates. A body of one of the crew washed up on the shores of Løkken in Denmark, four months later.

One cannot underestimate the hatred for Zeppelins and their crews. They were known as ‘baby-killers’ due to their seemingly indiscriminate bombing, as we will discuss below and this needs to be remembered when judging Captain Martin and his actions. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but context is all.

On the night of the 2-3 September 1916 2nd Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson of the Royal Flying Corps was flying a Royal Aircraft Factory BE2c fighter which was armed with new incendiary bullets designed to set alight the hydrogen gas in the airships. He attacked and shot down the Shütte-Lanz SL11. This was part of a mass attack of 16 airships. The explosion and the fall to earth of this giant from 11,500 feet (3,505 metres) lit up London for miles around. The Zeppelin crashed in Cuffley, Hertfordshire and it burned for two hours. This was the first time an airship had been shot down over Britain. 2nd Lt. Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross and would be instantly famous. He would be presented with the Victoria Cross (VC) by King George V at Windsor Castle on 8 September 1916.

Portrait of Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson. © IWM (Q 66470)

Robinson was shocked by his level of fame and wrote to his parents. In a letter dated 22 October 1916 he states;

‘As I daresay you have seen in the papers – babies, flowers and hats have been named after me also poems and prose have been dedicated to me – oh it’s too much.’

2nd Lt. Robinson’s Victoria Cross was unique as it was awarded for an act of military valour in the air over Britain. The first to be awarded for action in this new arena of combat. Robinson’s fame was in scale to the amount of  fear instilled in the British public since January 1915.

German Zeppelin LZ 77, which raided eastern England in 1915 and was shot down by anti-aircraft fire over Revigny in France on 21 February 1916.© IWM (Q 58481)

On 19 January 1915 the way that war was viewed in Britain changed. Wars no longer happened overseas confined to designated battlefields the events of which would be read about in the newspapers of the day and relieved on table-tops with toy soldiers in colourful uniforms. War came to your doorstep, in the raw, in the form of bombing. In 1915 giant lighter-than-air airships, commonly known as Zeppelins (named after Count Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin who initiated the development of airships in Germany in 1900) would deliver these bombs.

Two Zeppelins, L3 and L4 (which were respectively the twenty-fourth and twenty-seventh airships manufactured by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin) armed with 24 bombs took off from a base at Fuhlsbüttel, Hamburg at approximately 11.30am on Tuesday January 19 1915. They arrived over the East Anglian coast nine hours later at around 8.30pm. The cover of darkness being one of their greatest weapons. This would be the first Zeppelin raid. Due to the weather conditions, the Zeppelins would bomb Great Yarmouth and Kings Lynn.

Martha Taylor aged 74 and Samuel Smith aged 53 would be the first two British civilians killed in an air raid. Four people would be killed in total and another 16 injured in this raid.

Black and white printed card target entitled 'The Actual GERMAN ZEPPELIN L3' depicting a German zeppelin, the cars of which are surrounded by dotted circles.© IWM (EPH 3278)

When these monsters of the skies appeared, Britain had no real effective form of defence although German airships had been viewed with suspicion in Britain for many years. Further incursions into British airspace would occur and attacks would mostly be confined to coastal areas as Kaiser Wilhelm was unwilling to give permission to attack London.

However eventually permission was given and London ‘east of the Tower of London’ was approved as a legitimate target by the Kaiser on 5 May 1915. On the night of 31 May – 1 June 1915, a dark moonless night, the first London focused raid took place by airships. Bombs fell from Stoke Newington to Stepney, 41 fires broke out. This was due to the incendiary bombs used. The police recorded 91 incendiary devices, 28 explosive bombs and two grenades had been dropped.

In September 1914 Britain’s air defences had been trusted to the Royal Navy and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill set to work. New airfields were laid out, searchlights and anti-aircraft guns coordinated, and night flying training undertaken. Civil defence measures included a partial black out. However, all these measures counted for little. 15 Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) aircraft were launched against the intruder but only one pilot saw the airship and he was forced to land due to engine trouble before he had a chance to gain attitude and engage.

The reality therefore was an enemy airship, some 157 metres in length, had dropped bombs over London for 20 minutes and then returned home. The victims of this London bombing were 7 killed and 35 injured. Among the dead was a three-year-old girl, Elsie Leggatt. This earned the ‘Zepps’ their infamous title, ‘Baby-Killers’.

Zeppelin Incendiary bomb (conical)© IWM (MUN 3275)

The Daily News and The Daily Chronicle offered advice on what to do when the Zeppelins raided and both offered free insurance against Zeppelin bomb damage, only of course, if you subscribed to their paper.

The First Zeppelin Seen from Piccadilly Circus, 8th September 1915. IWM (Art.IWM ART 5216)

An illustrated public warning poster was published in 1915 illustrated with diagrams of both British and German airships and aircraft. The text read:

‘Public Warning: The public are advised to familiarise themselves with the appearance of British and German Airships and Aeroplanes so that they may not be alarmed by British aircraft and may take shelter if German aircraft appear. Should hostile aircraft be seen, take shelter immediately in the nearest available house, preferably in the basement and remain there until the aircraft have left the vicinity: do not stand about in crowds and do not touch unexploded bombs.’

This speaks volumes as to the novelties of air raids such as the warnings to crowds not to gather and watch and not to touch any unexploded bombs. Crowds would also be attracted to the wreckage of the enemy airships. Souvenirs were of course marketable and would also be used to raise funds for wounded soldiers. Including from Leefe-Robinson’s victory.

Envelope containing piece of wire from Zeppelin SL11 (sold by the British Red Cross Society). © IWM (EPH 3286)

London would be targeted again (the Kaiser agreed to unrestricted bombing of London on 20 July 1915) along with other cities such as Hull which suffered a raid that caused 24 deaths and over 40 injuries and substantial damage.

The largest raid carried out by airships against Britain in the First World War took place on the 7-8 September 1915. London, Middlesbrough and Norwich were all targeted.

The log of L224, one of the airships that participated in the attack illustrates that few precautions were being undertaken,

‘Navigation from Kings Lynn to London was straightforward because the landscape was completely dark and most of the cities were still lit up, London was still very brightly illuminated..’

(Quoted in Charles Stephenson, Zeppelins: German Airships 1900-40, Osprey Publishing, 2010)

In response to these bombings hate crimes occurred. People with German sounding names were attacked and shops with German names, particularly in the East End of London would also be targeted, robbed and windows smashed and owners beaten up. Many individuals who had German sounding names would anglicise them. Shop names changed. All of this must have played a part in Captain Martin’s decision regarding the fate of the crew of L19.

Article submitted by Gary Haines