On 13 October 1912, several eyewitnesses reported seeing a vast German airship over Sheerness. Then on the night of 22/3 February the captain of the City of Leeds, en route from Grimsby to Hamburg, reported seeing a large airship heading for the Humber. These were early endurance trials, probably of the German navy’s first Zeppelin, the L1. But as far as the British were concerned, the sightings were never substantiated and the Germans flatly denied that they had entered British air space.
The first of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s aerial express train projects had been abandoned in 1894. But by 1900, the LZ1 project was well underway. In 1907, the LZ3 showed sufficient promise to prompt the German government to lay down a challenge to von Zeppelin to create an airship capable of twenty-four hours of flight. The LZ5 achieved this specification in 1909 and the German military began its, initially reluctant, involvement with airships.
The military interest was, at this stage, limited, but von Zeppelin pressed on and his LZ10 (1911) carried 1,500 passengers in a year. Meanwhile, the German navy took an even more cautious approach and did not order their first airship, the LZ14 (L1) until April 1912.
Despite the fact that the Hague Conference of 1899 had forbidden nations at war to drop bombs or explosives from the air (indeed, in 1907 they had specifically mentioned undefended targets), the British saw the potential of the airship. In 1908, the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) began to investigate the potential dangers of both airships and aircraft. By January 1909, it had concluded that despite the limited payloads of airships and aircraft, Britain would be vulnerable to attacks on dockyards, industrial targets and shipping. Nonetheless, it also concluded that both airships and aircraft were still at an experimental stage and as such would not pose a serious threat to the nation. It did, however, approve £35,000 for the development and construction of a naval rigid airship. It was thought that this project would provide valuable insights into the potential threats from the air. This funding allocation led to the construction of the R1 Mayfly. The airship was doomed, however, and broke its back during mooring trials.
During May and June 1910, the General Staff and the Admiralty were represented at the Paris International Conference on Aerial Navigation. Both were in general agreement that despite peacetime pledges to ban the use of airships against civilian targets, the Germans would use the vessels to induce panic. They were of the opinion that the airships would not cause a great deal of damage, but that, nevertheless, anti-airship guns and other devices would need to be developed.
By 1911, both the army and the navy had begun to develop their air fleets; in this they were seriously lagging behind the rest of Europe. The CID was of the firm opinion that effort and expertise should be pooled and this led directly to the formation of the Royal Flying Corps in 1912.
Despite views to the contrary, the army and the navy took divergent paths. To begin with the army favoured French aircraft, but after a time they began its rely on the Government Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough. The navy, meanwhile, purchased a variety of machines from a number of different British companies.
The CID was still concerned with the potential threat of airships. They were unsure whether aircraft would be capable of destroying airships, knowing that the airships could operate in far more adverse weather conditions than aircraft. At this stage, in July 1912, they were of the opinion that the only effective counter measures against airships were airships.
In the following month the military wing of the RFC was charged with the task of protecting ports and other strategic targets in the event of war. Meanwhile, the Admiralty began to establish coastal airbases, although it was the War Office’s responsibility to ensure that a foreign power did not gain air superiority over Britain.The War Office, however, did not have a comprehensive view of how the various disparate elements would cooperate and provide an overlapping defence of Britain. Indeed, by 1914 it had committed the majority of the existing aircraft squadrons to any expeditionary force that might be required in mainland Europe. A draft proposal for the defence of Britain was finally published in draft form on 27 July 1914. It would require 162 aircraft to be distributed to six squadrons, two based in Scotland, one in the Humber area, another at Orford Ness and one each at Dover and Gosport.
By this stage any hope of a unified air force had disappeared. The Admiralty controlled the naval wing of the RFC, which on 1 July 1914 became the RNAS. Whitehall had always considered the RFC to be a single branch, but on 1 August 1915 the RNAS officially became a separate entity, both on paper and in fact.
Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914. To protect against any potential attack by Zeppelins there was a motley collection of inadequate aircraft. Indeed, the pilots and their commanding officers were perfectly aware that their aircraft would be inadequate to deal with the Zeppelins; one commanding officer proposed that his pilots ram them. On the day that war was declared the Admiralty positioned three anti-aircraft guns to protect Whitehall and even proposed that four RFC aircraft should operate from Hyde Park. There was still a distinct lack of aircraft available for defence.
It was originally proposed that the Admiralty was in a far better position to deal with any incoming German aircraft or airships, and should therefore take responsibility for the defence of Britain. It was also proposed that the Admiralty immediately begin positioning aircraft around the east coast.
There were several false alarms during August and September 1914, but in truth had any of the defence aircraft or ground spotters seen a German aircraft they would not have been able to have distinguished it from an Allied one. With alarming honesty, on 22 October Winston Churchill informed the War Cabinet that at present he could not guarantee the protection of London. There was also still wrangling between the War Office, the Admiralty and the army. It was proposed that the RNAS deal with air defence whilst any army aircraft should be deployed to assist ground forces in the event of a German invasion of Britain.
Both the RFC and the RNAS were making huge demands on aircraft production capabilities. The navy had ordered 400 aircraft and the RFC even more. If there had been a Zeppelin attack on Britain at this stage it would have been met by aircraft whose principal offensive weapon was a Martini-Henry carbine with incendiary bullets. Under development was a grenade designed by F. Marten Hale, petrol bombs developed by the Admiralty Air Department and other bizarre weapons filled with petrol and TNT.
As it was, the first German attacks did not come from Zeppelins but from naval seaplanes. In December 1914 Germany’s first seaplane squadron became operational at Zeebrugge. The first sortie was launched against Dover on 21 December 1914. It was a solitary aircraft, which appeared at 1300 and managed to drop two bombs close to the Admiralty Pier. A second, slightly more successful attack, took place, again against Dover, on 24 December. The aircraft, a Friedrichshafen FF29 is credited with having dropped the first bomb on British soil at 1045. The success was hardly amazing as it only managed to make a crater in the garden of a civilian living near Dover Castle and break a few windows.
A more audacious attack took place on 25 December when a single FF29 was heard over Sheerness at 1220. It came under fire from several anti-aircraft batteries before passing Gravesend, Tilbury and Dartford and managing to drop a few bombs. However, it had already attracted the attention of several RNAS and RFC aircraft out of Dover, Eastchurch, Grain, Joyce Green, Farnborough and Brooklands. Once again the raider escaped unscathed, but the reaction of the British aircraft served as an encouragement to the British authorities.
A far more serious incursion took place on the night of 19/20 January 1915, when the German navy Zeppelins L3 and L4 targeted the Humber area. A proposed attack on the Thames estuary by the L6 was cancelled when it was still short of the British coastline as it was suffering from engine problems. The L3 reached Great Yarmouth at 2020 and it commenced bombing. The L4 was lost and rather than attacking its intended targets it dropped several bombs near Kings Lynn and into Norfolk villages. There were only two defensive sorties that night, both from the RFC at Joyce Green. There had been ample warning and indeed the first report had been given from Lowestoft at 1940.
During February there were few attacks and those that were made were undertaken by FF29s against coastal shipping. No damage was reported and only two defensive sorties in total were launched.
There was a single attack by four German aircraft in March. On the 20th a daylight raid was launched on coastal shipping near Dover by three FF29s and a German flying boat. At 1125 an anti-aircraft battery at Thameshaven proudly announced the first German kill of the war, but in fact they had hit an RFC Gunbus.
The period between April and October 1915 saw nineteen German airship attacks on Britain. Production had been stepped up and both the army and navy were beginning to receive new versions based on the Zeppelin designs.
The first attack was an opportunist one on the night of 14/15 April, involving a single German navy Zeppelin, the L9. It had been proceeding on a reconnaissance mission over the North Sea, carrying bombs, and found itself close to the British coast. At 1945 it crossed the coastline at Blyth and, mistaking Wallsend for Tynemouth, it dropped some incendiaries. A single Bristol TB8, flown by Flight Sub-Lieutenant P. Legh, responded. Legh headed for the likely target, Newcastle, but failed to see the Zeppelin slipping away.
The German navy launched another attack, this time on the Humber area, on the night of 15/16 April. The L5 was spotted off Southwold at 2140 and at around 2340 it dropped some bombs on Lowestoft. The L6, meanwhile, bombed Maldon shortly after 2330. The L7, having reached the British coast somewhere between Hunstanton and Great Yarmouth, did not penetrate into British air space and headed home at 0240 without dropping a bomb. There were just two defensive sorties on this night, both by the RNAS Great Yarmouth, but no contact was made.
A single German Albatros BII made a daylight sortie against northern Kent on April 16. Aircraft from Dover, Eastchurch and Westgate were scrambled, but none of them managed to see the raider, who had only dropped four bombs at around 1220 near Sittingbourne and another into the River Swale before it turned towards Faversham, dropped five more bombs and then exited near Deal at 1250.
There were ineffectual attacks that nonetheless caused some damage on the nights of 29/30 April and 9/10 May. Both were carried out by the LZ38, a German army Zeppelin. The first attack hit Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds, with the raider coming in over Felixstowe at around 2400 and exiting via Aldeburgh at 0200. The second raid was against Southend, and took place at 0250. It made two passes over the town, mainly dropping incendiary bombs. On this occasion one person was killed and two were injured.
The LZ38 struck again on the night of 16/17 May, 26/27 May and 31 May/1 June. Its attacks were becoming somewhat more accurate: the first attack hit Ramsgate, the second Southend and the third, more seriously, London. On this third occasion the LZ38, commanded by Captain E. Linnarz approached the British coast at Margate at 2142. He headed towards London via Shoeburyness and dropped thirty bombs and ninety incendiaries on Stoke Newington, Stepney and Leytonstone, exiting via Foulness. On this occasion seven people were killed and thirty-five injured. The defensive response came exclusively from the RNAS, which mounted fifteen sorties that night.
There was a false dawn for the British in May and June 1915. On the night of 16/17 May the German army’s LZ79 was badly damaged over Belgium and even more successfully the LZ37 was destroyed on the night of 6/7 June. Both of the German airships had been attacked by 201b bombs. In reality, however, the development of the British home defences was lagging behind and the British were relatively powerless to respond.
June saw the turn of the German navy, commencing with attacks by the L10 and the SL3 on the night of 4/5 June. Nine RNAS and RFC sorties were launched. The L10, intent on attacking Harwich, actually bombed Gravesend. The SL3 tried to head for Hull but due to strong headwinds it turned back after dropping a few bombs into the countryside.
The navy struck again the following night (6/7 June) with the L9, accompanied by the army’s LZ37, LZ38 and LZ39. This raid was to cause the heaviest casualties so far. An early sighting was made, probably off Great Yarmouth, at 1730. As it transpired none of the German army airships reached Britain and all of them turned around because of navigational problems. The L9, however, crossed the British coast at Cromer at 2000 and was over Bridlington at 2310. At around 0050, now over Hull, it dropped ten bombs and fifty incendiaries, killing twenty-four and injuring forty. There were just three defensive sorties from the RNAS out of Great Yarmouth and Killingholme. Even though the LZ37 had not crossed into British airspace, it was intercepted over Ostend by Sub-Lieutenant R. A. J. Warneford, who was awarded the VC for the first kill inflicted on a Zeppelin. He attacked it over Ghent at 0225 and managed to drop six X 201b bombs on it. The airship exploded, but bizarrely one of the LZ37s crew managed to survive despite falling 1½ miles to the ground in the forward gondola. The gondola struck a roof and the survivor, Alfred Muhler, was tipped out of it and landed on a bed. Unfortunately, Warneford died ten days later in a flying accident.
On the night of 15/16 June the German navy Zeppelins L10 and L11 were deployed to attack the Tyneside area. The L11, as it transpired, did not take part in the raid as it encountered engine problems, but the L10 approached the British coast at 2045, when it was still daylight. It lingered off the coast until sunset, when it entered British air space to the north of Blyth at 2345. It headed south and dropped 3,5001b of bombs on Wallsend, Jarrow and South Shields. The only British response was aircraft scrambled from the RNAS at Killingholme, Whitley Bay and Great Yarmouth. No contact was made and the L10 slipped away unmolested.
During July there was just one German raid on Britain, carried out by two German aircraft, an Albatros floatplane and a Gotha WD2 floatplane. There were nine defensive sorties against this attack on Harwich. They were spotted at 1120, flying high, by the Inner Gabbard light vessel. The two raiders dropped bombs near to Harwich but failed to do any damage or inflict any casualties. The RNAS scrambled aircraft from Chelmsford, Eastchurch, Felixstowe and Westgate and just a single aircraft left Joyce Green, the RFC’s only contribution.
On the night of 9/10 August the German navy Zeppelins, L9, L10, L11, L12 and L13 intended to attack London, but not a single bomb fell there. The L9 was spotted off Flamborough Head at 2015 and it headed to the south of Hornsey at 2315 then moved on to attack Goole, which it mistakenly believed was Hull. The L10 had crossed at Aldeburgh at 2140 and headed for Shoeburyness. Some of its bombs, instead of dropping onto targets near the Thames, hit Eastchurch aerodrome, but the majority fell harmlessly into the Thames estuary The L11 appeared at Lowestoft at 2218, believing that it was approaching Harwich. All of its bombs were dropped into the sea. The L12, believing it was at Great Yarmouth, actually appeared at Westgate at 2248 and dropped bombs on Dover at 0030. Meanwhile the L13 turned back due to engine problems. The L12 came under the most brisk attacks, bracketed by searchlights and under fire from anti-aircraft guns. Flight Sub-Lieutenant C. E. Brisley, in an Avro 504B, attempted to engage but the L12 disappeared into cloud. As it transpired it had been hit, almost certainly by the anti-aircraft guns from Dover, and it was forced to land off Zeebrugge. During the Germans’ salvage missions RNAS aircraft out of Dunkirk and Dover tried to destroy it, but it was successfully towed into Ostend.
The L9, L10, L11 and L13 were back on the night of 12/13 August. This time they were determined to press an attack on London. The L9 and L13 all had to turn back prematurely, however, and the L11 skirted Harwich, Thanet and Deal before also disappearing home. The L10 appeared off Lowestoft at 2125, but instead of attacking London it targeted Harwich. All in all seven people were killed and twenty-three were injured as a result of the attack and the RNAS flew just four sorties out of Great Yarmouth.
There was one further attack in August, on the night of 17/18, when once again the German navy attempted to launch an attack on London. This time the L10, L11, L13 and L14 were earmarked for the raid. The L13 was forced to turn back because of engine difficulties and the closest the L14 got to London was the Norfolk coastline, also as a result of engine problems. The L11 was sighted over Herne Bay at 2130 and only managed to drop bombs on Ashford before exiting at 2345. The L10 was altogether far more successful: it entered Britain via Bawdsey at 2055 and between 2230 and 2245 it dropped several bombs on Walthamstow, Leyton and Wanstead. Only two British pilots saw it. Flight Sub-Lieutenant C. D. Morrison of RNAS Chelmsford and his fellow pilot, Flight Sub-Lieutenant H. H. Square, both flying Caudron G3s, attempted to give chase, but it escaped.
September saw several attacks by both army and navy Zeppelins, the first being launched by the army on the night of 7/8 September. The target was London and detailed for the attack were the LZ74, LZ77 and SL2. The LZ74 came over Bradwell at 2255 and dropped its bombs on Cheshunt at around 2400. It managed to drop one bomb on Fenchurch Street before racing to head home via Harwich. The LZ77 approached Britain via Clacton at 2240 and headed inland, but then moved towards Saxmundham, where it dropped a handful of bombs before heading out towards Lowestoft, leaving British air space at 0220. Meanwhile the SL2 had approached via Foulness at 2250 and at around 2400 had bombed Southwark and Woolwich. In all eighteen people were killed and twenty-eight were injured. Just three defensive sorties were flown that night, all by RNAS BE2Cs out of Felixstowe and Great Yarmouth.
It was the turn of the navy on 8/9 September, with the L9, L13 and L14 involved in the attack. The L14 was spotted off Cromer at 2010 and mistaking East Dereham for Norwich, it dropped its bombs before heading back home at 2200. The L13 came in over Wells at 1935. It first headed towards King’s Lynn and then on to London. It dropped some bombs on Golders Green at 2240, but its main attack spread from Euston to Liverpool Street, causing significant amounts of damage. It then turned and exited Britain via Great Yarmouth at 0200. The L9 attacked Skinningrove, having approached to the north of Whitby at 2115. It commenced bombing at 2135 and headed home at 2145. There were seven defensive sorties, all by the RNAS, out of Redcar and Great Yarmouth. A sortie was also flown by Flight Lieutenant V. Nicholl in a Sopwith Schneider from on board a converted Lowestoft trawler, The Kingfisher.
A single German army Zeppelin, the LZ77, aimed to attack London on the night of 11/12 September. It crossed the coast just to the north of the River Crouch at 2315 and hoped to head towards London. In the event, however, it bombed the area around North Weald and then left Britain via Great Yarmouth at 0025. There were only three defensive sorties that night, by RNAS Chelmsford and a BE2C of the RFC from Rittle.
There was another ineffectual German army attack by the LZ74 against London on the night of 12/13 September. The airship crossed the coast at Walton-on-the-Naze at approximately 2245. It headed towards Halstead, hoping it was moving in the right direction for London, but it became hopelessly lost and dropped its bombs over East Anglia, exiting via Southwold at 0018. A single BE2C, piloted by Flight Sub-Lieutenant F. T. Digby of RAF Eastchurch was scrambled at 2255, but he had no chance of catching the Zeppelin and returned to base at 2347.
During the daylight hours of 13 September there was a hit-and-run coastal attack against Margate by a German floatplane that was spotted at 1740. It crossed Cliftonville, dropping ten bombs, killing two people and injuring six. Two RNAS BE2Cs out of Westgate were scrambled but the raider was too fast and slipped away. Later that day three German navy Zeppelins, the L11, L13 and L14 were launched against London. The L13 and L14 turned back owing to bad weather, but the L11 continued. It was damaged by anti-aircraft fire over Harwich, causing it to jettison its bombs and hasten for home, having inflicted £2 worth of damage.
There were no other attacks in September, but the German navy launched an ambitious raid against London on the night of 13/14 October. Involved were the L11, L13, L14, L15 and L16. All except the L11 were spotted in the Bacton area between 1815 and 1845. The L13 attacked Hampton waterworks and then bombed Guildford before jettisoning the last of his bombs over Woolwich shortly before 2400. The L14 managed to drop four bombs on the Shorncliffe army camp, killing fifteen soldiers, before it went on to drop bombs on Tunbridge Wells and Croydon, exiting via Aldeburgh at 0145. The L15 penetrated as far as central London by 2145. It dropped a stick of thirty bombs between the Strand and Limehouse before turning and exiting via Aldeburgh at 2355. The L16, again aiming for London, mistakenly identified the River Lea as the River Thames and hit Hertford rather than east London. It exited to the north of Bacton shortly after 2400 hours. Meanwhile at 2030 the L11 had appeared close to Bacton and almost immediately came under fire from a mobile anti-aircraft battery. The crew clearly panicked and dropped their bomb load around Coltishall, heading off home via Great Yarmouth at 2115. There were only six defensive sorties, all flown by the RFC out of Joyce Green, Hainault Farm and Suttons Farm. Collectively the Zeppelins had killed seventy-one, injured 128 and caused over £80,000 worth of damage.
This was the last raid of the year  and it was already becoming clear that to a large extent these sorties were being carried out with relative impunity.