The First German Raids on Britain: The Zeppelin Offensive, 1914–16 Part II

The New Year [1916] opened with a series of largely ineffective float- and seaplane attacks on Dover and Folkestone, causing few casualties and little damage. The first major attack took place on Liverpool on the night of 31 January/1 February 1916. The German navy Zeppelins L11, L13, L14, L15, L16, L17, L19, L20 and L21 took part, and inflicted seventy deaths, 113 injuries and nearly £54,000 worth of damage. Instead of hitting Liverpool, however, they in fact hit Derby, Burton-on-Trent, Tipton, Wednesbury, Loughborough, Scunthorpe, Ilkeston and Walsall. They crossed the British coast between 1640 and 1910 across an area covering from Happisburgh to the Wash. The War Office immediately thought that they would be making for London, and various aircraft were scrambled, but were unable to find any sign of the raiders. In fact the closest one got to the capital was 60 miles away. No fewer than twenty-two sorties were flown from a variety of RNAS and RFC air bases and squadrons.

February began with just two attacks by German seaplanes, the first against Broadstairs and Ramsgate and the second against Lowestoft, Walmer and shipping in the English Channel. The Zeppelins were uncharacteristically silent during February and did not return to action until the night of 5/6 March.

The beginning of March saw a morale-boosting victory for the British. A German FF29 had attacked Margate between 1810 and 1822, dropping seven bombs. It was hit by fire from British patrol boats as it scampered back across the North Sea to base. The pilot was taken prisoner, but the observer drowned.

Most of the Zeppelins were now undergoing mechanical over-hauls and having more reliable engines fitted. Three German navy craft, however, the L11, L13 and L14 ventured out on the night of 5/6 March in support of a German surface fleet operation. Initially they were due to attack targets around the Tyne and Tees area, but there were strong north-westerly winds that night and as a result they opted for targets further south, amidst heavy snowstorms. The L14 was spotted to the north of Flamborough Head at 2230. It dropped some bombs on Beverley then, having found the Humber River, dropped more on Hull at around 2400. The L11 had also found Hull by 0100, and it commenced dropping bombs on the city. The L13 had found the Humber River and was spotted at 2115. It headed towards Newark and dropped bombs there at 0110. The extremely poor weather conditions confused the crew and amazingly they found themselves over the River Thames around 150 miles further south than they believed they were. They hunted for targets, but eventually headed off home at 0220.

Hull took the brunt of the attack. Eighteen people were killed, fifty-two were injured and around £25,000 worth of damage was inflicted on the city. There was just one defensive sortie that night, primarily due to the heavy snow, which was launched by Flight Sub-Lieutenant C. C. Wyllie in a BE2C from RNAS Eastchurch. He failed to find any of the raiders.

On 19 March, four FF33Bs, a single Hansa-Brandenburg NW and a Gotha Ursinus were launched against various targets in Dover, Deal and Ramsgate in another hit-and-run attack. Three German floatplanes were seen approaching Dover at 1350; they dropped twenty-four bombs on Dover and nine on Deal. At 1410 another fifteen bombs were dropped on Ramsgate and Margate. The RNAS scrambled aircraft from Dover, Eastchurch, Grain and Westgate and the RFC also scrambled aircraft out of their base at Dover.

Flight Commander R. J. Bone, the commanding officer at RNAS Detling, had flown to Westgate in order to have a picnic that afternoon. As soon as the alert came in that raiders were in the area, he took off at 1410 and almost immediately spotted one of the German aircraft. He gradually gained on it as it flew towards the Belgian coast. After about forty minutes he climbed to around 9,000ft and could see the German seaplane below and ahead of him. He made a diving attack, firing at it at close range and receiving return fire. Bone banked and made a second attack, this time wounding the observer. He then closed to 20ft and fired a burst into the enemy aircraft and saw its engine misfire and begin to smoke. Bone was forced to turn around, as he was running out of fuel, and another aircraft was sent out to bomb the wrecked plane, but it found nothing. The Germans had towed it into Zeebrugge.

On the last day of March the Germans planned to launch a combined army and navy Zeppelin raid against London and East Anglia. All of the army Zeppelins (LZ88, LZ90 and LZ92) had to turn back, however, because of bad weather, and the navy’s L9 and L11 had to return because of engine problems. This left the L13, L14, L15, L16 and L22 to carry out the attacks. The first one to be spotted appeared off Dunwich at 1945; it was the L15, which then headed towards London before coming under fire at 2140 from anti-aircraft guns in Purfleet, Erith and Plumstead. It dropped its bombs on Rainham but was hit by the Purfleet battery at 2145. Two of the gas cells were ruptured and the crew began jettisoning everything that was not screwed down. They hoped to be able to reach Belgium, but were forced to ditch 15 miles to the north of Margate shortly after 2300. One crewmember was drowned and a British destroyer picked up the others.

The L13, which had come in over Dunwich at approximately 2000, began to gain height and dropped twelve bombs on a munitions factory in Stowmarket. They missed and the airship came under fire from anti-aircraft guns. Two cells were ruptured. The crew jettisoned the rest of their bombs and managed to escape via Southwold at 2220.

The L14 crossed the British coast at Sea Palling at 2105 and headed directly towards London, dropping bombs at Sudbury, Braintree and Brentwood en route. It then headed for Thameshaven, where it dropped fourteen bombs at 0130, believing that it had attacked Tower Bridge. It exited British air space at Aldeburgh at 0250.

The L16 crossed the British coast to the north of Great Yarmouth at 2210. It believed it was bombing Hornsey, but in fact it hit Bury St Edmunds. On its way back out of Britain via Lowestoft it dropped a single bomb and crossed the coast at 0115.

The final Zeppelin, the L22, was suffering from engine difficulties but was making reasonable progress towards Grimsby. It dropped bombs at Humberston and Cleethorpes, one of them hitting a chapel that was being used as a billet by the British Army. The explosion killed twenty-nine and injured fifty-three soldiers.

Some twenty-four defensive sorties were launched that night, commencing at 2105. The first plan of action was to put up a defensive ring around central London. Second Lieutenant Claude A. Ridley lifted off from Joyce Green at 2130 and just six minutes later saw the L13 illuminated by searchlights. He attacked at extreme range but the airship slipped away. Second Lieutenant Alfred de Bathe Brandon did contribute to the demise of the L15, however. He arrived on the scene just after the Purfleet anti-aircraft gun had hit it. He dropped three explosive darts onto the hull and continued to chase it, accompanied by Second Lieutenant H. S. Powell out of Suttons Farm. Both pilots were awarded the ME for their contribution.

The German navy Zeppelins L11 and L17 aimed to strike London on the night of 1/2 April 1916, but because of the weather conditions, they opted to attack targets to the north instead. The L17 approached first but there was still some daylight so it lurked offshore. Around an hour later, now to the south-east of Hornsey, it encountered serious engine trouble, jettisoned its bombs at sea and returned home. The L11 was spotted over Seaham Harbour at 2305, it first attacked Sunderland then Middlesbrough, exiting at Saltburn at 0030. The majority of the twenty-two killed and 130 injured were in Sunderland. The RNAS at Redcar, Scarborough and Whitley Bay and No. 36 Squadron, Cramlington, and No. 47 Squadron, Beverley, launched seven defensive sorties.

On the night of 2/3 April the German army and navy launched an uncoordinated attack. The navy’s L14, L16 and L22 targeted the Forth area whilst the army and LZ90 went for London. The navy airships were supposed to be accompanied by the L13 but it had to turn back because of engine problems. The army attack was singularly unsuccessful. The LZ90 was seen over Chelmsford at 2330, and came under fire from anti-aircraft guns based at Waltham Abbey. It immediately jettisoned 90 bombs and exited via Clacton at 0100. The LZ88 was no more successful, having crossed at Orford Ness at 2300 and then headed towards Ipswich. Believing it was over Harwich, it dropped its bombs near the mouth of the River Deben and then headed for home at 0120.

The naval Zeppelins’ primary target was the Royal Navy base at Rosyth and the Forth railway bridge. The L14 could not find either of the targets and instead, between 2330 and 0015, dropped its bombs on Edinburgh and Leith, exiting via Dunbar at 0100. The L22 began dropping its bombs at 2115 in the vicinity of Berwick-upon-Tweed, believing it was attacking munitions targets near Newcastle. At around 2350 it released the last of its bombs on Edinburgh. The L16 crossed the British coast just to the north of Blyth. It dropped most of its bombs in open country, but some hit the Cramlington airfield. It was gone within ninety minutes. The RNAS and RFC launched fourteen sorties, but it is unlikely that any of the defensive aircraft spotted any of the raiders.

The L11, accompanied by the L17, launched a highly ineffective raid on the night of 3/4 April. They had intended to make an attack on London, but strong headwinds dissuaded them from carrying out their mission. Indeed the L17 turned about when it was still 10 miles short of the Norfolk coastline. The L11 pressed on, crossing the coast near Cromer at 0130. All it managed to achieve, however, was to drop a few bombs into the countryside before it exited to the north of Great Yarmouth at 0300. There was poor visibility that night and as a consequence only four defensive sorties were launched; two from RNAS Great Yarmouth, another from Covehithe and the remaining one a BE2C piloted by Captain Arthur Ashford Benjamin Thomson (known as Ack-Ack Beer Thomson). He had left Doncaster at 2300 and searched in vain for the two Zeppelins. By 0125 he was desperately short of fuel. He came in low, searching for a landing place, and ended up hitting a tree on a 600ft hill near Market Rasen. Remarkably he escaped with few injuries.

The L11 and L16 were launched once again on 5/6 April. The L13, which was supposed to have accompanied them, had to turn back with engine problems. The L11 crossed the coast at Hornsey at 2105 and shortly afterwards began drawing anti-aircraft fire on its approach to Hull. Clearly the anti-aircraft fire was getting too hot for it and it turned about, hoping to reach Hull on a different course. Once it had got back over the sea it suffered an engine failure and headed towards Hartlepool. It suffered a second engine failure at 0125 near Skinningrove, where it dropped a few more bombs before heading off.

The L16 was seen to the north of Hartlepool at 2330, where it attacked colliery targets to the west of Bishop Auckland at around 2400. It then exited via Seaham Harbour at 0115.

There was very low cloud cover during the night and just five defensive sorties were launched. One aircraft was launched from Scarborough despite the fog. No. 36 Squadron Cramlington scrambled two BE2Cs but sadly both crashed on landing and one pilot was killed. Two more aircraft were scrambled from No. 47 Squadron, Beverley, again BE2Cs. They hunted for the L11 but failed to find her.

On 23 and 24 April there were two aircraft attacks on Dover, but neither managed to inflict any damage or casualties. A far sterner test came on the night of 24/25 April when the navy launched another attack on London, this time carried out by the L11, L13, L16, L17, L21 and L23. In total, however, they only managed to kill one person, injure another and cause just under £6,500 worth of damage.

The L16 was the first airship to be spotted, off Cromer at 2215. The L13 followed at 2220 and the L21 was spotted 5 miles to the south of Lowestoft at 2310. Shortly afterwards at 2350 the L23 crossed to the north of Great Yarmouth and the L11 at 0030 over Bacton. The last arrival that night was the L17, which was spotted to the north of Skegness at 0140, but it did not stay very long and turned back across the coast in about twenty-five minutes. Owing to the headwinds it immediately became apparent that an attack on London would not be possible. The Zeppelins therefore fanned out, hunting for targets in East Anglia. The L21 was seen over Stowmarket at 0015 and the L16 over Newmarket at 0030. Very few bombs were dropped and most of the airships exited between Sheringham and Happisburgh between 2330 and 0145. The only damage caused during the raid was against Lowestoft, probably by the L21 at around 0400. It had turned about along the coast before heading back home. The RNAS and the RFC launched some twenty-two sorties. Three Bristol Scouts out of RNAS Great Yarmouth spotted one of the airships and pursued it until it was lost in the clouds.

Quite by accident Flight Commander V. Nicholl and Flight Lieutenant F. G. D. Hards, hunting for the airships, encountered the L9 some 40 miles east of Lowestoft at around 0438. It was carrying out a reconnaissance mission and was flying at an altitude of only 2,600ft. Both men were in BE2Cs, armed with bombs and darts, and they chased the L9 for 25 miles. Hards believed that some of his darts had hit the airship, but he was mistaken and the L9 slipped away to safety.

The German army launched the LZ87, LZ88, LZ93 and LZ97 on the night of 25/26 April, targeting London again. The LZ26, which had been in service since 1914, did not leave base at the same time as the others and was forced to abandon its part in the mission as it encountered French fighters over the North Sea. The LZ97 crossed the British coast at Blackwater River at 2200 and proceeded to attack what it believed to be the centre of London from 2245; in fact its bombs fell on Ongar and Barkingside. It turned about and exited to the north of Clacton at 0035.

The LZ87 had no better luck, having dropped some bombs on Deal Harbour at 2155 and manoeuvred to avoid anti-aircraft fire from Walmer. It decided that discretion was the better part of valour and turned for home. The LZ88 got no closer to London. It entered Britain somewhere near Whitstable at 0030 and headed towards Canterbury. It then dropped some bombs in the countryside and exited via Westgate at 0135. The final Zeppelin, the LZ93, dropped several bombs close to Harwich in a quarter-hour stretch from 2230 and then headed home.

The RNAS from Eastchurch, Rochford and Westgate launched some sixteen defensive sorties. The RFC launched aircraft from Dover and No. 39 Squadron’s bases at Hounslow, Suttons Farm and Hainault. It was the LZ97 that came in for the closest attention. Second Lieutenant William L. Robinson encountered the Zeppelin as it was closing on Barkingside. He fired a machine-gun burst, but then his gun jammed. It continued jamming and he only managed to get off twenty rounds before he lost sight of the airship.

On the night of 26/27 April a single German army Zeppelin, the LZ93, attempted to attack London. However, it began suffering from engine difficulties whilst it was still off the coast. It headed towards Deal, where it dropped three bombs, then crossed the River Thanet and exited shortly afterwards. The RNAS at Westgate and three flights of the RFC launched eight sorties, but no contact was made.

A more serious attack took place on the night of 2/3 May with the German navy Zeppelins L11, L13, L14, L16, L17, L20, L21 and L23 targeting the Royal Navy facilities at Rosyth and the Forth railway bridge. A single German army Zeppelin, the LZ98 was also launched against Manchester. Again poor weather caused difficulties. Earlier the navy Zeppelins, with the exception of the L14 and L20, headed for targets in the Midlands rather than those in Scotland. The L11 was seen over Holy Island at 2220. It dropped two bombs on Amble and then disappeared. The L23 was seen over Robin Hood’s Bay at 2115 before it turned north and attacked the ironworks at Skinningrove before dropping more bombs on Easington, leaving Britain at 2225.

The L23 dropped a single incendiary on Danby High Moor, which caused a substantial blaze. The L16 mistook it for a burning military target and released all of its bombs onto the moor. A handful were also dropped elsewhere before it exited Britain, leaving via Saltburn at 2325. The L17 was similarly fooled by the blaze. It dropped some bombs near Skinningrove but the majority of its payload landed on the moor. The L13, having arrived off the British coast to the south of Whitby at 2230, believed that Danby Moor was Hartlepool and dropped several bombs in the vicinity before exiting via Scarborough at 0050. The final airship in this group, the L21, came in to the north of Scarborough at 2140. It attacked York and then headed back out to sea via Bridlington at around 2400.

Of the two that continued to Scotland, the L14 came in across the Scottish coastline to the south of St Abbs Head at 2025. It completely missed the Forth and dropped its bombs in open country near Arbroath, exiting around Fife Ness at 0100. The L20 was seen to the south of Montrose at 2155. It believed that it was over Loch Ness at around midnight but unable to find any targets it randomly dropped a few bombs and exited via Peterhead at 0240. It was utterly lost and eventually crash landed near Stavanger in Norway.

The remaining Zeppelin abroad that night was the German army’s LZ98, which was close to Spurn Head at around 1900. Adverse weather conditions forced it to abandon its approach towards Manchester, however, and it headed home after around an hour.

The RNAS and RFC managed to launch at least fourteen sorties, possibly more. Bad weather impeded their ability to operate and their chances of spotting one of the targets.

Between 3 May and the night of 9/10 July 1916 incursions into British airspace were carried out by a variety of German aircraft. There were four raids, half by day and half by night. The sum total of their endeavours was one death and six injuries. Substantial numbers of defensive sorties were launched but there were no aircraft casualties on either side.

The German navy resumed its airborne offensive on the night of 28/29 July. It launched the L11, L13, L16, L17, L24 and L31. Ten Zeppelins had originally been earmarked for the attack but four had been forced to turn around. Those that managed to approach Britain encountered heavy fog. The majority entered Britain between Spurn Head and Great Yarmouth from around 2400 to around 0235. Altogether they dropped around seventy bombs. There were no casualties and just £257 worth of damage was done. The L13 was the only airship that penetrated far inland; apparently it was seen over Newark. Owing to the appallingly bad weather only one defensive sortie was launched. Captain R. C. L. Holme of No. 33 Squadron, RFC Bramham Moor, lifted off at 0200, but when he had just got over the airfield, he realized that visibility was appalling and turned back, managing to land safely.

The German navy tried once again on the night of 31 July/1 August 1916, with the L11, L13, L14, L16, L17, L22, L23 and L31. Between them they only managed to inflict £139 worth of damage, however, and there were no casualties. The eight airships approached Britain between 2240 and 0200 over a wide area stretching from Covehithe to Skegness. The furthest they penetrated was the Isle of Thanet (L31), Newark (L16), March (L14) and Haverhill (L22). Again there was dense fog, which caused difficulties for the Germans and inhibited the response of the home defence squadrons. Five defensive sorties were launched; The crews of RFC No. 51 Squadron, Mattishall, came closest to injury when a single bomb landed close to the airfield. It was almost certainly dropped by the L17. One aircraft was immediately scrambled and was aloft for fourteen minutes before it stalled and crashed, killing the pilot.

Undeterred by the failure of this attack, the German navy launched its Zeppelins once again on 2/3 August. The majority approached via the coast of East Anglia between 2345 and 0100 (Orford Ness in the south and Wells in the north). The L21 was reported as having reached Thetford, the L17 was seen over Eye and the L13 got as far as Wymondham. The L11 caused the only real damage of the night when it bombed Harwich. The L31 was seen off the Kent coast and simply dropped its bombs in the sea off Dover. Thirty-two sorties were launched against the Zeppelin attack.

Another navy attack was launched on the night of 8/9 August, comprising the L11, L13, L14, L16, L21, L22, L24, L30 and L31. The main force was seen between 0015 and 0200 between Flamborough Head and Tynemouth. Of this group only the L24 managed to bomb a strategic target, this time Hull, which suffered the majority of the casualties inflicted that night. The L14 came in over Berwick-upon-Tweed at 0025 and left rather abruptly at 0200 at Alnwick. The L16 was reported as being seen over Hunstanton at various points between 0030 and 0100. Just two defensive sorties were launched, both by the RNAS, one out of Redcar and the other out of Whitley Bay. The only aircraft to engage the Zeppelins was a BE2C flown by Bruno P. H. de Roeper, who pursued either the L21 or the L22, following it until it was around 20 miles off Flamborough Head.

A single German aircraft attacked Dover at 1227 on 12 August. It approached at extremely high altitude and dropped just four bombs, one of which fell on the RNAS airfield at Guston Road. Owing to the extremely poor visibility that day only one British aircraft of the ten scrambled from Dover, Manston and Westgate actually saw the raider. This was a BE12 flown by Second Lieutenant C. A. Hore of RFC No. 50 Squadron, Dover. He managed to follow the aircraft for around half an hour, during which time he was attempting to climb to the same altitude. He eventually lost it, however, in a thick bank of cloud.

There was one brief attack on the night of 23/24 August by the German army Zeppelin LZ97, which appeared over Bawdsey at 2355. After jettisoning its bombs into the countryside it departed at Orford Ness at 0015, causing no casualties or damage. No defensive sorties were launched.

The last attack in August 1916 took place on the following night, the 24th/25th. The German navy sent the L16, L21, L31 and L32. By the standards of most of the previous raids they inflicted considerable material damage, in excess of £130,000. Nine people were killed and forty were injured. The target was once again London, and the raid was intended as a hammer blow. Originally twelve Zeppelins had been earmarked for the mission, but for a variety of reasons eight had turned back. The L16 was singly unsuccessful that night. It approached Ipswich and began bombing to the north-east of the city at 0015. The L21 was seen over Frinton at 0143, passing at an extremely high altitude. It was aiming to attack Harwich and began dropping bombs at 0200, but most of them fell far too short of their targets. The L32 had approached Folkestone at 0210 and skirted along the coast towards Deal, but for some inexplicable reason dropped all of its bombs into the sea before making off.

The most successful airship that night was the L31, which approached Margate at 2330. Two hours later it was over London, which was where most of the damage and all the casualties were inflicted. It was the first time the capital had come under attack since October 1915. The RNAS and the RFC launched sixteen defensive sorties, none of which managed to hit any of the raiders. Flight Sub-Lieutenant E. T. Bradley, flying out of Eastchurch in a BE2C, saw the L31 near Southend. Also in the area at that time was Flight Commander C. Draper in a Sopwith 1½ Strutter, who saw the same airship. Both lost sight of it, however, as it headed out to sea. Both Bradley and Draper also saw the L32, as did Squadron Commander R. L. G. Marix, on the Kent coast.

The airship had a close shave when it was caught in the Dover searchlights. Captain John W. Woodhouse of No. 50 Squadron, Dover, in a BE2C, was returning from a mission having dropped an agent behind enemy lines. He closed with the L32 and emptied one and a half drums of ammunition into it. The airship took evasive action and whilst Woodhouse was reloading he lost sight of it. It was also spotted briefly but plainly by Major M. G. Christie, also in a BE2C, of No. 50 Squadron, Dover as it disappeared into the clouds.

This period of Zeppelin domination had ended with little real damage to either military or civilian targets and a significantly lower level of casualties than had been anticipated. Despite the fact that the Zeppelins had been able to roam almost at will across Britain, poor weather conditions and even poorer navigation conspired to prevent them from launching a prolonged or devastating assault on London. Whilst the British response had been chaotic, it had not been entirely without success. British crews could claim Zeppelin kills and caused some fear among the Zeppelin crew.

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