In World War 1, the night sky over England resounded not to the beat of Junkers, BMW or Daimler-Benz engines but to the menacing throb of Maybach engines propelling enormous Zeppelin airships through the darkness.
Initially reluctant to unleash his bombers, early in January 1915 Kaiser Wilhelm, under pressure from his Military High Command, at last authorised his navy – responsible for operating a large part of the German airship (Luftschiff) force – to mount air raids on Britain. At first ordering such attacks to be limited to coastal, dock and other military targets, the Kaiser stipulated none must be directed at central London. This strategy, soon revised to include the capital, was initially one of several factors that accounted for the Midlands being visited in one way or another by a relatively high proportion (20%) of German airship raids on England during that conflict.
Zeppelin! The very word itself struck fear into the hearts of the British population. In reality though, the people knew very little of such machines, instead from propaganda circulating since the outbreak of war, they had acquired a rather exaggerated perception of their effect. Since the turn of the century, while Count Ferdinand Von Zeppelin developed the rigid airships that bore his name for military as well as civil purposes, Britain lacked a comparable programme. Germany had quickly recognised the military potential of lighter-than-air craft as long-range reconnaissance machines and bombers. The British Government, on the other hand, subscribed to the view that heavier-than-air aeroplanes had more military value in a reconnaissance role, than for bombing on the limited scale then envisaged.
That Zeppelins were able to wander relatively freely through night-time British skies caused much consternation at the War Office. Soon it became evident, however, that air navigation at night for friend and foe alike, unless aided by good weather and moonlight, was open to considerable error. Radio direction finding equipment was unreliable and navigation relied on nautical dead reckoning techniques which, given the poor meteorological information available to flyers, is another factor that resulted in incursions into provincial airspace accessible from around The Wash.
Prior to this Zeppelin problem becoming a stark reality, two respected British airmen (among many others) whose names are familiar from the pre-war powered flying and ballooning era, were called upon to help assess the feasibility of enemy airships being able to locate targets in England at night. B C Hucks, a renowned pre-WW1 pioneering aviator commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in August 1914 and N F Usborne, a former balloon pilot, later to be Wing Commander, Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), separately undertook some of this test work. The findings of this investigative flying during the months immediately following the outbreak of war included the opinion that, on dark nights, or in fog, or cloudy conditions, it was only possible to locate major, blacked-out conurbations by flying strict compass courses from an identified way-point. It might also be possible to follow prominent rivers if these, too, could be seen and identified. Furthermore, it was considered that bombing under such conditions and from the altitudes anticipated would be very inaccurate. In practice these opinions seem to be borne out by the methods and failures of subsequent Zeppelin raids. The British War Office was probably lulled into a false sense of security by this evidence, as nearly two years elapsed before the increasing frequency and size of enemy air raids eventually forced a reorganisation of British night air defence.
At this point it is worth clarifying the German airship numbering scheme that will be appearing from time to time in this text. Rigid, aluminium-framed airships produced by the Zeppelin organisation were known as Luftschiff Zeppelin and given the factory abbreviation LZ followed by a sequential Arabic number. Although these machines were used both by the German Navy and the German Army it is the former that conducted the majority of airship raids on England and the Midland region in particular and therefore will feature most prominently in this story. Upon allocation to the German Navy, Zeppelins were marked with the letter L followed by their own Arabic, sequential naval distinguishing number. By contrast, army Zeppelins were marked with the letter Z (later changed to LZ) followed by Roman numerals. Popular usage has also turned the word Zeppelin itself into a generic name covering almost any rigid airship of that era, including the wooden-construction Schutte-Lanz types.
Furthermore, it will help the reader to appreciate the size of these naval airships in relation to aeroplanes by tabulating some basic dimensions:
Serial Length Diameter Capacity Gas Max(Cu Ft) Airspeed
L 3 (M-class) 518 feet 48 feet 790,000 53mph
L 10 (P-class) 536 feet 61 feet 1,120,000 60mph
L 30 (R-class) 650 feet 78 feet 1,950,000 64mph
L 53 (V-class) 740 feet 78 feet 2,420,000 67mph
L 70 (X-class) 690 feet 78 feet 2,200,000 81mph
It might also put things into perspective to realise these monsters were aslong as two football pitches and as half as tall as Nelson’s column!
Within ten days of the Kaiser’s directive authorising attacks on England, being issued under pressure from his Military High Command, two German Naval Zeppelins – Luftschiff 3 (L3), and L4, left their base at Fuhlsbuttel, near Hamburg, at 11.00 on January 19 1915, bound for the English coast. Initially, Fuhlsbuttel was the headquarters of the Imperial German Navy Airship Division, but it would shortly relocate to Nordholtz. The principal target for future German airship attacks was to be London, mainly because it was the capital city of the British Empire, its seat of government, centre of economics and also as a huge centre of population there was a massive opportunity to affect civilian morale. The German High Command was confident this would turn the war in its favour. This first foray though was not without its problems and the effect of weather conditions brings to light yet another reason for German intrusions into skies around The Wash.
Intending to strike at targets in the Humber area, strong winds and a maximum airspeed of around 50mph resulted in the formation’s navigation being hopelessly wide of the mark. After L6 (commanded by Kapitän-leutnant Horst Freiherr Treusch von Buttlar-Brandenfels), which joined the group from Nordholtz, near Cuxhafen, turned back early with engine trouble, the other two made landfall on the north Norfolk coast at Bacton near Cromer at 20.30, well south of the intended track. At this point L3, with Kapitänleutnant (Kptlt) Johann Fritze in command, turned southwards while L4 headed north and it is the latter’s track we shall follow now.
Commanded by Kptlt Magnus von Platen-Hallermund, L4 followed the north Norfolk coast, reaching Hunstanton at the mouth of The Wash by 22.00. Leaving a calling card of bombs on the occasional village, (Heacham one, Snettisham one, Grimston one) this airship followed the coast road and gleaming railway tracks towards King’s Lynn. Incidentally, von Platen-Hallermund believed himself to be near Grimsby and the Humber estuary!
Much public consternation and outrage was stirred up when it was announced in the press, after the event, that L4 had passed close to the royal residence of Sandringham House. Newspapers seemed to take it for granted that the King’s residence was the objective of the Lynn district raid. Much joy was expressed, therefore, when it became known that the Royal Family, although in residence, had departed some twelve hours earlier. This is bound to invite the question: did the government know of the possibility of raiders in that district before the local towns knew, or was the King’s departure merely a coincidence? In view of the German commander’s later report stating an opinion of his whereabouts and in view of consistent gross navigational errors in subsequent raids, it seems most unlikely it was anything more than pure chance that took L4 near Sandringham that night. In fact, the nearest bomb fell on Snettisham church some four miles from the royal residence but close to those prominent navigational features of the coast, coast road and railway. This ‘wanton act’, however, made good propaganda and prompted an immediate influx of anti-aircraft guns to the district, with orders to fire at anything in the air having either the audacity or misfortune to approach Sandringham in future.
Reaching King’s Lynn by 23.00, L4 claimed the first lives to be lost in the Fenland region to enemy air action. Approaching the town, the noise of L4’s engines brought residents to their doors, unaware if the sound heralded friend or foe. Brilliant flashes resembling lightning lit the night sky, and three loud explosions following in quick succession soon settled any doubts. In all, seven bombs were dropped on the town. Falling in a line from The Walks to Alexandra Dock, this ‘stick’ killed Mrs Alice Maud Gazely and Percy Goate, aged fourteen, in Bentinck Street. Warning of a potential attack on King’s Lynn had in fact reached the town earlier that evening. The question of instituting a blackout was left to individual town councils but in King’s Lynn arrangements were made to hasten the switching off of street lamps that, of late, had been brought forward to 22.00 anyway. Blackout, however, was incomplete by the time the first bomb fell but hearing the explosions, the town engineer instantly shut off the current to the whole town. Circling King’s Lynn for a while, L4 then headed off eastwards towards Norwich, recrossing the coast at Great Yarmouth where L3 had wrought havoc earlier, bound for its base at Fuhlsbuttel.
Chief of the German Admiralty staff in Berlin, Admiral Paul von Behnke, issued a communiqué stating his airships had attacked “fortified places between the Tyne and the Humber”.
German newspapers eulogised over the apparent success of the raid that, in their eyes, was seen as “ending the legend of English invulnerability”. Iron Cross medals were liberally distributed among the sixteen-man Zeppelin crews but retribution was not long in coming, for just one month later, both airships were wrecked in a storm over Denmark.
Night defences covering East Anglia’s coastal region, based on RNAS Great Yarmouth, were pretty meagre at this time. Although willing to undertake their difficult task, the defenders, poorly equipped and inadequately informed about the progress of the raiders, were unable to mount an attack on L4. As it headed for London, a few RFC aeroplanes had a go at trying to find L3 but were equally unsuccessful in engaging the enemy. First round to the Zeppelins.
It was shortly after this raid that Monsieur Frantz Reichel was interviewed by the British press. Described as “a famous French aeronautical expert” he expressed an opinion that: “Zeppelins cannot possibly come over London or Paris as long as the aeroplane patrol service is well organised.” With this confident remark he was not far from the truth, but it took some time before that confidence became a reality.
At this juncture, it will be of interest to touch upon some of the ways by which civil and military authorities were provided with information about enemy air activity over England. First indications of impending airship operations often came as a result of intercepted German radio signals traffic by British listening posts, such as the naval wireless station located at Hunstanton. Reports of air activity off the coast would most likely begin with observations by crews of lightships and lighthouses, these being reported by radio or telephone to navy or army command. The earliest system for detection and reporting of air activity over land began in 1914. In those days potential attacks on London were considered to pose the greatest danger and police forces were to telephone to report to the Admiralty (at that time responsible for defences) any aircraft seen or heard within a radius of sixty miles of the capital. In 1915 this system was extended to include East Anglia, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, police reports being submitted by telegram. A year later the War Office took over responsibility for defences and in view of the extensive German air offensive, military reporting areas were introduced for thirty miles around major targets. The intensity, particularly in the south of England, of enemy aeroplane activity, coupled with increasing altitudes and speeds flown, made this latest system rather cumbersome. By mid 1918, responsibility for such reporting was returned to the police, supported by all the AA gun and searchlight sites, but due to the cessation of enemy air activity over England by that time, the effectiveness of the revised structure was never really tested. These various schemes can be regarded as the forerunners of the later Observer Corps system and the records kept also account for the availability of much of the information about the raiders’ movements.
During the months that followed, German Army and Naval airships launched air raids directed principally at London and the Humber area. While both these targets were hit regularly, as a consequence of bad weather and poor navigation there were also sporadic attacks on east coast port targets situated between these two locations. However, the courses flown generally followed coastwise routes and there were no more incursions into this region until September 1915.
London was again the intended primary target for German Naval Zeppelins L13 (Kptlt Heinrich Mathy) and L14 (Kptlt Alois Böcker) on Tuesday, September 8. A third airship, L9, headed for the north-east coast in the Newcastle area.
L14 crossed the coast near Cromer, Norfolk, but developed engine trouble and returned to base early. It was 19.30 when Mathy in L13 turned north at Wells-next-the-sea, hugging the coast all the way into The Wash as far as King’s Lynn. Taking his bearings from the prominent landmark of King’s Lynn and guided by lights from un-blacked out towns and villages, he declined to leave a calling card on that fortunate town and set course directly for the distant glow that was London. Here he deposited his entire bomb load before retracing his course north for home. Altering direction to the east between Ely and Newmarket, Mathy re-crossed the coast at Great Yarmouth at 02:00, heading out across the North Sea to Zeppelin bases around Wilhelmshaven.
Once again, with just a handful of sorties flown from RNAS Great Yarmouth, the air defences were ineffective. In mitigation it should be pointed out that the art of flying at night had never been considered a high priority by the military prior to this time. From Berlin, the enemy’s version of events claimed good results against “great factories near Norwich and the Humber and ironworks at Middlesborough”. The airships were said to have been fired upon very heavily by AA gunfire but all returned to base unharmed.
Just over a month later, Wednesday night October 13/14, Kptlt Mathy in L13 led five Zeppelins in the largest raid so far, against London. Inbound over the Norfolk coast, despite later navigational errors, this force kept clear of the Fens on this occasion. Official records suggest only airborne defenders around the capital mounted sorties in search of the raiders but the mere suspicion of the presence of Zeppelins, however, could cause defensive activity over a very wide area. In its first edition following this particular raid, the Spalding Guardian newspaper reported a strange occurrence that seems to indicate the RFC, even in the Fenland region, was airborne in search of these hostile machines.
A young farm labourer had an eerie experience at 4.00am on the morning after a Zeppelin raid which passed over Spalding. As he was out in the darkness rounding up horses on Mowbray’s Farm, Surfleet (Gosberton) Fen, near Spalding, he saw a light near the Forty Foot river bank. Approaching cautiously, he was startled when the light rose into the air, accompanied by the clatter of an aeroplane engine. Later, as dawn broke, he found tyre tracks in the grass and several other people reported seeing aeroplanes in the area.
This was probably a pilot sent out on patrol during the night who, unable to find his home airfield, sensibly landed to await first light. Alternatively this may be the first known reference to the existence of the unlit landing ground, established for just this situation, less than a quarter mile from the South Forty Foot river in Gosberton Fen. Originally set up for emergency use by 38 HD (Home Defence) Squadron RFC based at Melton Mowbray, it was later used by elements of 90 (HD) Squadron, Buckminster.
Every Zeppelin raid mounted now was larger than its predecessor and the selection of targets was widened to include all major industrial areas. On this next raid, the first of 1916, nine Naval Zeppelins set out to bomb Liverpool on the night of January 31/February 1. Crossing the English coast randomly from 17.00 onwards between The Wash and the north Norfolk coast, their courses inland were quite erratic. Due to navigational errors and poor visibility in the bad weather, all were well south of their intended tracks and went nowhere near Liverpool. Zeppelin L11 had Kptlt Horst von Buttlar-Brandenfels in command but the head of the German Naval Airship Division, Korvettenkapitän Peter Strasser, was also on board that night. Von Buttlar, inbound down the centre of The Wash, turned north near Spalding, towards Lincoln. Meandering along the county border, unknowingly L11 reached the Scunthorpe/Grimsby area before leaving the coast without dropping any bombs, having been unable to identify a legitimate target. Meanwhile Kptlt Mathy, in L13, came in over Cromer and entered Fenland airspace in the vicinity of Downham Market. Turning north towards Sutton Bridge for a short time, then west, he exited the county at Grantham. Once again, L13’s course was very erratic, wandering around the Midlands area as far as Burton (bombed), Stoke-on-Trent and Buxton, before returning to the east coast near Skegness.
Meandering was certainly the most appropriate term to describe L14’s (Kptlt Böcker) progress. Making landfall at Wells-next-the-sea it set course across the southern Fenlands, passing west between Stamford and Grantham. Böcker penetrated as far west as Shrewsbury before returning equally erratically, bombing Derby on the way, to depart the English coast north of Skegness. Coming from the general direction of Cromer, L15 (Kptlt Joachim Breithaupt) flew towards Ely, turning north to skirt Wisbech, Spalding and Sleaford. Now Breithaupt changed course first towards Skegness, then Boston. From there he maintained a reasonably straight track across The Wash to King’s Lynn and Norwich, finally leaving the coast at Lowestoft. Hunstanton was landfall for L16 with Oberleutnant-zur-See (Oblt-z-See) W Peterson in command but it avoided the Fens by swinging in an arc to the south-east across Norfolk and out over Lowestoft. L17 also remained over Norfolk, while L19 (Kptlt Odo Loewe) made a protracted inland flight.
On his flight from the Norfolk coast, Loewe took a westerly course roughly from Downham Market via Stamford, eventually to reach Wolverhampton, Kidderminster and Birmingham. Reversing his course from the heart of the Midlands, L19 was spotted near Ely and Norwich on its way to the coast at Happisburgh. It was 05.00 next morning before it departed, having been at large over Britain for nearly ten hours! That morning, however, was a fateful one for L19 for it was lost in the North Sea with all hands after engine failure and being holed by gunfire near the Dutch coast.
Kptlt Franz Stabbert (L20) followed a similar route to his force commander until, reaching the vicinity of Spalding he, too, ventured westwards towards the same areas of the Midlands blindly attacked by his compatriots. Finally, L21 (Kptlt Max Dietrich) inbound from Cromer in poor weather, crossed the Fens from east to west on its way to the Birmingham area. Returning, Dietrich passed over the southern Fens near Ely and left these shores at Lowestoft.
Fenland skies throbbed to the sound of Maybach engines for many hours that night. Unintentionally and blindly for the most part, Zeppelins had wandered freely and with impunity across not only the Fens but also over large tracts of the industrial Midlands.
Airship crews seemed to have had little idea of their true whereabouts and defenders little idea of how to find them. The British believed the intended target was London but none went closer than sixty miles of the capital. Subsequent German communiqués erroneously proclaimed the airships had struck Liverpool and Birkenhead Docks, Manchester, iron foundries in Nottingham and Sheffield and great industrial works on the Humber and near Great Yarmouth. The silencing of a gun battery on the Humber was also claimed.
Sixty-one people were killed that night and the horror of war from the air was suddenly brought to the public in districts that previously had found it hard to realise quite what all the fuss was about. This raid therefore can be considered a significant turning point in the nation’s awareness of what airpower could mean.
There is no record of any anti-Zeppelin fighter patrols being launched specifically over the Midlands, although all but two of the marauders flew around and through the region for many hours.
The RFC and RNAS lost several aeroplanes and some lives that night carrying out abortive patrols in bad weather and in the wrong places. It was a fiasco for the defenders, precipitating a major reorganisation of the Home Air Defences in forthcoming months. Progress was, however, painfully slow and not without its share of mishaps.
As part of this reorganisation, 51 (HD) Squadron was formed with its HQ flight at Thetford and other flights based on airfields at Mattishall, Harling Road (south of Norwich), Marham/Narborough (west Norfolk) and Tydd St Mary (Lincs). Most of the Home Defence squadrons created were (under-!) equipped initially, with BE2 aircraft. However, in mid-1916 the single-seat BE12 and two-seat ‘pusher’ FE2b were being introduced. 51 Squadron began with a mix of BE2, BE12 and both single- and two-seat FE2b aeroplanes, standardising eventually on the latter type.
For several months the Midlands region was spared any incursion by the Zeppelin force. Practice sorties, by 51 Squadron, covering the region from the east, supported now by 38 Squadron at Buckminster (Leics), Stamford (the airfield was actually in the parish of Wittering) and Leadenham near Sleaford (Lincs) to the west, continued unabated. The latter unit was equipped initially with BE2s but had FE2bs by October 1916. Finally, to the north of the region was RNAS Cranwell, opened in April 1916. It had become clear that German airships would attack or traverse the Fens regularly and these squadrons were now – at least in theory – well placed all around The Wash to deal with such raids.