On the outbreak of war, the German High Command began to encourage the German population with prophecies of the devastation that Zeppelins would cause in England. The first attempted air raids with Zeppelins ended in failure, with three destroyed while crossing over Belgium and Lorraine. As a result the first air raids on England were carried out by aircraft. In December the first bombs dropped into the sea off Dover and on December 24th the first bomb hit the mainland, falling near Dover castle and causing some broken glass. On the following day, a seaplane dropped a few bombs over Sheerness without effect. British defences came into action for the first time, with AA guns opening fire and British aeroplanes attempting to intercept the raider. However most of the AA fire was directed against the British aeroplanes!
In January 1915, the German Navy was finally given permission to bomb England but at first the Kaiser stipulated that raids were to be restricted to military targets and London was not to be bombed. The first raid took place on the night of 19th/20th January 1915 when two Zeppelins dropped bombs on Snettisham, Kings Lynn, Cromer and Yarmouth, killing four people and injuring 16. This raid caused outrage in Britain, with the British press claiming it was against international law. The Germans defended the attacks, noting that guns at Kings Lynn had opened fire on the Zeppelin over the town, which then dropped its bombs in self defence. Secondly they noted The Hague Convention preventing the dropping of projectiles from the air had lapsed and had a new version not been ratified by Germany, France or Russia before the outbreak of war.
On April 14th, Northumberland was raided by a Zeppelin commanded by the redoubtable Mathy, the most famous of the Zeppelin commanders, proceeding over Blyth, Wallsend and South Shields. The following night, East Anglia was the target again with bombs being dropped on Maldon in Essex and Lowestoft in Suffolk. On April 30th, Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds were bombed at a height of some 3,000 feet. Two incendiary bombs were dropped on Ipswich, destroying two houses, the occupants managing to escape. At Bury St Edmunds, incendiary bombs set fire to a four shops and a public hall, all gutted. A hotel was badly damaged. During a neck and neck race, the Zeppelin hurled five bombs at a train, but all missed.
Above: Zeppelin damage, Lowestoft April 1915
Attacks picked up in May with the Zeppelins attacking London for the first time on the 31st, with bombs being dropped on the outlying districts killing seven people among them a child of eight and injuring 34; the Zeppelin commander claimed to have reached Finchley. Germany stated London was now a target in reply to the bombardment of Ludwigshafen.
Raids on the East Coast continued during June. Mathy found Hull on the 6th and attacked from a low height, the bombs killing 24 people and damaging 40 houses. However the Zeppelins did not have it all their own way – Flight Sub-Lt. Warneford was awarded the Victoria Cross for bringing down LZ.37 in flames over Ghent while it was returning from a raid on the same night. The remainder of his squadron destroyed another Zeppelin in its shed at Evere, near Brussels. These successes resulted in the Germans withdrawing their airship bases from western Belgium. On August 9th, the East coast was raided again with 35 people killed in the raid but one Zeppelin was damaged by a 3” AA gun. On the 10th, enemy patrol ships found it and towed it towards Ostend. It was attacked by French airplanes flying from Dunkirk, dropping incendiary bombs and completely destroying the Zeppelin.
London was raided another four times during the latter part of 1915. The raid on September 8th was particularly damaging. Mathy, in command of L.13, came in over the Wash and steered for London and bombed the city with some success. Fires broke out in many places and damage was estimated to be in excess of £500,000.
Although the damage caused by the Zeppelins was serious, it was nowhere near the devastation the Germans had hoped for and the German public was led to believe. Many Zeppelin commanders now began freely lying, claiming to bomb places they never went near.
The R.N.A.S was still responsible for the Air Defence of Britain. Aeroplanes were available from the R.N.A.S Stations (Dundee, (sub-station East Fortune), Redcar (sub-stations at Whitley Bay and Scarborough), Killingholme, Yarmouth, Felixstowe, Grain, Eastchurch, Westgate and Dover). Seaplane Carries were stationed at Firth of Forth, Harwich and Dover. The carrier at Harwich had a flying deck from which a Bristol Scout could be flown. From Yarmouth, two trawlers also patrolled as weather permitted, each carrying a Schneider Cup seaplane. In the summer of 1915 authorisation was given to establish satellite landing grounds to the main Air Stations so that aircraft could be dispersed in an attempt to intercept Zeppelins. By the end of October, Yarmouth and Felixstowe Air Stations had landing grounds at Aldeburgh, Covehithe, Burgh Castle, Holt, Bacton, Narborough and Sedeford. The plan was to have two aircraft on standby when conditions suggested a raid was likely at each station. Aircraft were to fly a twilight patrol from the main station to the satellite landing ground, where they would remain on standby over night. Weather permitting they returned to their main station the following morning. If not, they remained at the satellite landing ground and flew a dusk patrol. As such, a system of patrols was established at dusk and dawn to intercept airships. These patrols were discontinued in early 1916 due to the reorganisation of defences.
During 1915, as aircraft production increased the R.F.C. was able to take on more of a role in Home Defence. One machine was to be kept ready at all times at stations South Farnborough, Brooklands, Hounslow, Joyce Green, Dover and Shoreham. Each plane was armed with six Carcass bombs, 12 Hale Naval grenades, 150 Incendiary darts and five Powder bombs. Lord Kitchener ordered that all pilots waiting to be posted overseas after completing training were to be deployed in Zeppelin defence in anticipation of the next raid, expected during the moon period of the second week of October.
It was assumed the Zeppelins would come from the north-east to avoid the defences of the Thames Estuary. A ring of mobile 13 pdrs and searchlights were placed along the north-eastern outskirts of London. Further landing grounds were secured at Hainault Farm, Romford and Sutton’s Farm, Hornchurch. Two B.E.2c’s were to be stationed at Northolt, Hainault Farm and Sutton’s Farm and one B.E.2c and an S.E.4a at Joyce Green.
Right: B.E.2c aircraft
An early warning system was established, the first warning expected to come from radio-direction finding stations in France as Zeppelin commanders often sent wireless departure messages to their base which could be intercepted and a location fixed. Once the Zeppelin had crossed the English coast a network of ground observers, under the control of the Police, with telephone communications to the Home Defence HQ allowed the Zeppelin’s course to be plotted. Observer posts were sited on an 80 mile, 60 mile and 13 mile radius of London. Other information came from the Railway Executive Committee from Station Masters and the public (although information from the public was noted as being not very reliable and often out of date). Both the guns and aircraft on standby were to be notified by telephone of the approach of a Zeppelin.
The aircraft on standby were to be notified at what time to take off by Home Defence HQ, calculated to allow the aircraft to reach a height of 8,000 feet before the Zeppelin arrived. At 8,000 feet the pilot would patrol in the vicinity of his landing ground, taking the required action if a Zeppelin was spotted. A chain of ground observers around north-east London would fire rockets if a Zeppelin was seen, different colours indicating direction. If no Zeppelin was seen, the pilot was to return to his landing ground, a searchlight switched on briefly to indicate the landing ground position.
The first test of the new defences was on October 13th when five Zeppelins set off from north Germany to bomb London. The early warning system worked as planned and guns and aircraft were warned. Fog delayed take off of the aircraft but when they did get airborne one managed to catch sight of a Zeppelin in a searchlight but encountered a patch of thick cloud and by the time the aircraft emerged the Zeppelin had lost searchlight and disappeared. The AA guns fared no better – it should be noted there was still only one gun capable of firing a high explosive shell fused to explode at a predetermined height in the country at this time. This was a mobile French 75 mm auto-cannon and its gun crew had a crazy drive down Oxford Street to get the gun in action and fire off two rounds.
The raid caused casualties of 71 killed and 128 wounded with no losses to the Zeppelins. However the new defences had been noted by the Zeppelin commanders – the commander of L.15 reported heavy anti-aircraft fire and the presence of four aircraft. In particular, the two high explosive rounds came as a surprise to the Germans, the Zeppelin noted as taking evasive action by immediately dropping its bombs and remaining water ballast to gain height.