100 Days Centenary Countdown: Case study- Air Raids
The First World War saw the first use of airships and fixed wing aircraft to bomb the UK. Civilians were no longer protected by the conventions of war and the Home Front was soon the front line of a new type of warfare. The ‘Zeppelin’ raids are often remembered but raids by fixed wing aircraft, such as the Gotha bomber raids later in the war, are often forgotten.
‘Zeppelin’ is also frequently used to describe any German airship, however, the German Army and Navy used airships produced by both Zeppelin and the rival firm Schütte-Lanz throughout the war.
The first air raids of the war came in December 1914 when fixed wing Friedrichshafen FF 29 aircraft turned their attention to Dover. These raids are summarised by Ian Castle on the Britain’s First Blitz website.
The first air raid of the war targeted Dover on 21 December 1914, when a German Navy Friedrichshafen FF 29 struck without warning at 1:00pm. Two bombs dropped by the aircraft fell in the sea just off Dover. The attack went relatively un-noticed until the attack was announced in newspapers a few days later.
The second raid came on Christmas Eve 1914 when a second Navy Friedrichshafen FF 29 dropped a single bomb which exploded to the rear of St. James’s Rectory, just 300m from Dover Castle, leaving a large crater. This bomb would be the first of many to strike the mainland UK during the war.
The first Zeppelin raid of the war came on 19 January 1915; when Zeppelins L.3 and L.4 attacked the coastal towns of Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn in Norfolk, killing 4 and injuring 16. The Zeppelin’s commanders had intended to attack targets in the Humber, but bad weather blew the airships South into East Anglia.
Airships continued to conduct raids during the night, with London becoming a popular target for intrepid airship commanders. That was until the night of 2/3 September 1916.
Countering the Zeppelin Menace
The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), who were responsible for defence of the skies above the Home Front when war was declared, were caught on the back foot when the Zeppelin raids commenced. The RNAS, and from 1915 the Royal Flying Corps, fighters struggled to climb to intercept the incoming airships and would often be scrambled too late to make contact.
If the skies were to be effectively defended an effective plan would have to be developed. Over time a more cohesive strategy was developed using patrolling fighters, anti-aircraft guns, observers, and proper coordination from stations on the ground. But that’s another story that will be covered later.
One key turning point in the Home Front air war was the introduction of explosive (Pomeroy bullets), explosive incendiary (Brock bullets) and incendiary (Buckingham bullets) .303 ammunition.
This new rifle calibre ammunition gave the fighters the punch they would need to effectively engage enemy airships; allowing them to effectively breach the airships’ envelope and ignite the highly flammable hydrogen within.
This new ammunition was put to good use on the night of 2/3 September 1916, when Lieutenenant William Leefe Robinson successfully engaged and shot down Schütte-Lanz SL.11 over Cuffley, Kent. Find out more in our previous case study about the events of the night of 2/3 September 1916.
This marked the demise of the airship as an effective bombing platform during the First World War. Smaller scale airship raids were conducted sporadically by German Navy air ships, many of these raids focussing on targets away from London. The final airship raid came on 5 August 1918.
The Army, on the other hand, switched its attention to fixed wing bombers.
The Daylight Raids
Following the failure of airships when confronted by specially trained pilots and explosive/incendiary ammunition, the German army switched to large scale day and night raids by fixed wing aircraft. These raids focussed on targets in London and the South-East, relying on fixed wing Gotha G.IV and Gigant bombers.
The first daylight raid came on 25 May 1917 when 23 Gotha bombers set out to attack London. Thick cloud covered the city and the Gotha bombers turned their attention to targets of opportunity in Kent. Folkestone was badly hit, as well as the nearby Shorncliffe camp. 95 people were killed in the raid, including soldiers from Shorncliffe camp, and a further 195 injured.
The first daylight raid to reach London came on 13 June 1917 when 14 Gotha bombers reached the capital.
72 bombs struck within the vicinity of Liverpool Street Station, three bombs striking the station itself.
A bomb struck Upper North Street school which was packed with pupils at the time. The bomb penetrated three floors before detonating in a classroom of 64 children. This incident killed 14 children and injured 30.
In total the raid killed 162 and injured a further 432 people.
Daylight raids eventually ceased due to high attrition rates amongst the German flyers. Night time raids became the norm and culminated in the final and largest night time raid of the war on 19/20 May 1918.
Air raids against the Home Front during the First World War damaged many buildings and killed over 500 people; injuring around 1,350.
The legacy of this air war can still be found today and we encourage you to continue recording associated sites through your local Historic Environment Record.
Here are just a few sites associated with the air war that you can see today. Also be sure to check out our Map of Sites for further sites (which will be available again once we have finished processing our final data set)-
Tontine Street, Folkestone- A small plaque can be found on the site of the Tontine Street commemorating those that died from the explosion on 25 May 1917.
Upper North Street School memorial- A memorial to the children killed in the Upper North Street School bombing can be found in Poplar Recreation Ground. This memorial was paid for by donations from members of the public.
Cleopatra’s Needle, London- Bomb splinter damage can still be seen on the Bronze Sphinx next to Cleopatra’s Needle. The damage was caused by a 50kg bomb on the night of 4 September 1917. The explosion struck near top a passing tram, killing two passengers and the tram’s driver.