What Planet is This?

26 Aug 2005

Dirigibles from Deutschland

Thirty four days after the 16th December 1914 gunboat bombardment of Scaborough and Hartlepool, which killed 114 people, the first ever air raid on England was wrought by three Zeppelins of the German navy. Designations L3, L4, and L6 made their way to the foggy and rainy East Anglian coast, leaving Germany in the afternoon to reach Norfolk by nightfall, but L6 had to turn back due to bad weather. The remaining two targeted the towns of Yarmouth and King's Lynn: L3 dropped eleven bombs on the former, and L4 dropped sixteen on the latter and surrounding area. Four people and one dog were killed in the attack. Steve Snelling has written an excellent summary of what happened that night.

Whilst Snelling's account gives an overview of the confusion on the ground, and in the air for that matter, it misses some of the interesting minutiæ. Even the newspapers were inconsistent, The Times putting out bemuddlefraught reports saying first that one or two airships made the raid, and then later that coastguards and others saw as many as six craft. In Great Yarmouth the craft could not be seen directly, but the tremendous din of the engines, the flares they put out, and of course the terrifying report of the bombs, made them hard to miss:

It was plain that the source of the
disturbance was aircraft, though precisely
of what kind could only be conjectured. The
opinion is generally held that it was a dirigible,
for what appeared to be searchlights were
seen at a great altitude. Others, however,
say that the lights were not the beams of a
searchlight, but the flash of something re-
sembling a magnesium flare.

The Times, Wednesday, 20th January 1915; p.8

What had transpired between 8:20 and 11 PM on that evening of 19th January is made clearer in the coverage that continues in the press for many days afterwards. A stiff upper lip is kept about the affair, and there's an interesting mix of the typical and the tragic, as if it's uncertain whether to play down the enemy's power or to play up the tragic losses. But there are some tongue-in-cheek jocular moments inamidst all that had gone on:

Only one bomb fell on a building and that
did not explode; it crashed through the roof
of a stable in the midst of densely-populated
alleys, and became embedded in the straw.
A pony kept it company all night and it was
not discovered until this morning. [...]
The pony, by the way, seemed a bit restless
during the night, but was unhurt.

The Times, Thursday, 21st January 1915; p.9

Some of the bombs did not explode, and two of those were displayed later in the Drill Hall near St. Peter's Church in Yarmouth. One correspondent got to see the bombs, and even tested their explosive, as reported in the same article as the pony incident above:

The upper part, for all the world
like the "cone" to be found in every art class-
room, is made of thin metal and packed with a
resinous substance which, after experiment on a
very small scale in an ordinary firegrate, I
found to be highly inflammable.

On the other hand, there is the poignancy of and outrage at the attacks on unarmed innocent civilians, and everyone from the American Press to the Bishop of Carlisle were condemning the raids. One especially resilient moment is that of the inquests into the deaths of Samuel Smith and Miss. Martha Taylor in Yarmouth, and Mrs. Gazeley and Percy Goat in King's Lynn. The borough coroner, Mr. J. T. Waters, said of the former that "the wanton killing of harmless people was nothing short of murder"; and the inquest of the latter concluded that they had "met their deaths by an act of the King's enemies".

A more sinister side of the story that has attracted little subsequent attention is the possible use of signals from the ground to guide the Zeppelins, which are said to have "spent hours hovering in lonely places" waiting for their ground based counterparts. It's commonly reported, however, that only Fritz, the L3's commander, knew where he was, and that Count Platen-Hallermund of the L4 was hopelessly lost and off-course. Nevertheless, the actions of various people on the night of and prior to the attack were said in some cases to be quite extraordinary.

The official German response was predictably in support of their actions, but Count Reventlow in the Deutsche Tageszeitung of 21st January went to even more outrageous lengths by suggesting in the most bombastic terms that the Zeppelins were merely reconnoitering England and that they had been fired on first:

It is an established fact that, when our airships
were, in order to fly to the fortified place of Great
Yarmouth, merely flying over other places or cities,
they were shot at from these places. It may be
assumed with certainty that these shots, which were
aimed at the airships from below, hit them, and
probably they wounded or even killed occupants of
the airships. This involves an English franc-tireur
attack, ruthlessly carried out in defiance of Inter-
national Law and in the darkness of the night, upon
the German airships, which, without the smallest
hostile action, wanted to fly away over these places.

The Times, Tuesday, 26th January 1915; p.7

In fact, many of the bombs were dropped on rural areas, and the Zeppelins were only intercepted by one sentry on their entire journey, by which time the bombs were already falling:

Close by was
stationed a sentry, who said one bomb fell near
him, but did no damage and only struck the
quay. He immediately fired upon the air-
vessel. All who were in the neighbourhood at
the time state they saw a tall flame and
then came a terrific report.

The Times, Wednesday, 20th January 1915; p.8

Since they were able to get by so unimpededly, there were calls for aeroplanes to protect the coast. It was said that "most people one meets express surprise that a Zeppelin could travel from one end of Norfolk to the other without being intercepted by a single aeroplane or high-angle gun." This raid was more of the nature of a trial run, however, and subsequent Zeppelin attacks focussed increasingly on more high-profile sites such as London. Eventually, phosphorus incendiary bullets were developed to bring the Zeppelins down, and seventeen were brought down in that fashion. The final raid was on 5th August 1918 when the L70 capitained by Peter Strasser, the commander of the whole airship programme, was brought down just off of the Norfolk coast by Great Yarmouth where it all started.

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Dirigibles from Deutschland", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/dirigibles


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