How German Zeppelins’ blitz on East Anglia brought death and destruction
PUBLISHED: 19:00 02 March 2020 | UPDATED: 14:58 03 March 2020
New book shows what happened when terror rained down from the skies over Suffolk
Hear 'The Blitz' and we think of the Nazis' frightening night-time bombing of London in 1940 and '41. But Ian Castle is fascinated by aerial onslaughts 25 years earlier.
It had its moments of novelty and light-heartedness (from china souvenirs to a rudimentary British-planes-versus-German-Zeppelins "board game" created in East Anglia) but Britain's first taste of aerial bombardment was truly terrifying.
Our region was first to understand its horror. Two Zeppelin airships loomed over East Anglia on January 19, 1915. One struck Great Yarmouth. The other dropped bombs on various places, though King's Lynn took the brunt.
"This Zeppelin raid caused the first deaths in Britain by bombs dropped by aircraft of any kind," says Ian Castle in his book The First Blitz in 100 Objects.
Zeppelin L 3's third bomb tore off the front of a house in St Peter's Plain, Yarmouth. Opposite, shoemaker Samuel Smith, 53, and Martha Taylor, 72, were killed - the first victims here of Germany's air campaign.
Ian's book features relics from crashed airships, photographs, and even a piece of cow or horse shoulder-blade bone, bearing cartoon-style drawings and messages. This was attached to a small parachute dropped from a German Zeppelin over Hertfordshire.
This kind of surreal "gift" would have added an unnerving edge to a state of affairs already petrifying. There were other oddities: such as the trade in crested china souvenirs snapped up by the growing ranks of rail-travelling tourists.
These models often drew their design from incendiary bombs, and commemorated "drops" on towns such as Bury St Edmunds and Maldon. Bizarrely, they were sold around the country, even in places not bombed, and were decorated with local civic crests.
Ian writes that "rather than be cowed by their experience, the British people in general displayed a remarkable courage and resilience in the face of adversity that pre-dated by a quarter of a century the acknowledged 'Blitz spirit' of the Second World War".
Never finished cocoa
There is a real East Anglian flavour to the book, including a lucky escape. On June 4, 1915, Zeppelin L 10 was sent to attack the south-east coast and London. Strong headwinds left the commander deciding he couldn't attack the capital and return in darkness, so he turned instead towards Harwich.
He noted "the city of Ipswich, off to the west, was brightly lit and offered an excellent aid to navigation". Wrong. It was London. Bombs destined for Harwich actually landed on Gravesend.
Less fortunate, sadly, was Woodbridge. In the August, three of four Zeppelins due to attack England turned back early with mechanical problems. The other, L 10, headed for Harwich. At Woodbridge, soldiers fired a machine-gun and rifles; the airship dropped four high-explosive and 20 incendiary bombs.
One of the former exploded in St John's Hill. Eliza Bunn, 67, died. She lived on the corner of St John's Hill and New Street. A couple across the road were killed, though their three children survived.
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A volunteer fireman and another man in the street lost their lives, as did James Marshall, 16, at home in New Street.
"His family had just left the house to seek better shelter and he was going to join them as soon as he had drunk his cocoa. He never finished it."
Local printer and stationer EW Stephenson produced a set of six postcards, showing the damage. "The photographs graphically show the widespread effects of just one bomb," points out Ian.
Reginald Warneford was the first British pilot to destroy a Zeppelin in flight, that June. He was hailed a hero and awarded the Victoria Cross, though never received it. Reginald was killed in a flying accident 10 days later.
Such heroics inspired the "game" Zeplo - a marketing push by Norwich firm London & Provincial Furnishing Co. It was printed on a sheet advertising settees and beds. Players sought to be the first to "bomb" their opponent's capital city.
In 1916, new Zeppelin L 33 had its first and last raid.
It was hit by anti-aircraft fire over London. The crew hoped to limp home, but it came down in a field at Little Wigborough, near Colchester.
Special constable Edgar Nicholas was woken by an explosion - the airship set alight by the crew. He found the 21 men. They were arrested by Peldon's policeman and guarded by him and seven "specials".
Those who captured the crew were later given silver watches.
The last mission
One of the 100 items is a glove from the crew of L 48, which came down at Theberton, near Leiston.
It had suffered engine problems and a frozen compass en route to London in the early hours of June 17, 1917. Too late to attack London, it turned its sights on Harwich, but was deterred by guns firing at it and headed north, dropping bombs on villages.
Aircraft took off from Orfordness and Goldhanger (Essex), and attacked. The Zeppelin became a mass of flame and came down at Holly Tree Farm. Three crew survived; 16 perished. The dead were buried at St Peter's Church Cemetery.
The First Blitz in 100 Objects is published by Frontline Books at £25. Ian hopes the items he's written about "reveal many lesser-known aspects of the First Blitz to a much wider audience".