War history: The most destructive Zeppelin raid of the war

A crater in Paris, caused by a bomb dropped from a Zeppelin in 1916

A crater in Paris, caused by a bomb dropped from a Zeppelin in 1916 - Credit: Archant

The most successful German air raid on Britain of the entire war killed 22 civilians, caused £534,287 damage and dented morale.

A plaque marking the Zeppelin raid of September 8, 1915, on 61 Farringdon Road, London.

A plaque marking the Zeppelin raid of September 8, 1915, on 61 Farringdon Road, London. - Credit: Archant

Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, recalls that dreadful strike at the heart of England.

Last week I talked about the first Zeppelin attack on Britain: in January, 1915. I have had a lot of feedback and interest in that first raid and its impact on the population of East Anglia. This week I want to give you a glimpse of what was to happen later in 1915, when London witnessed the terror of bombing from the air.

On September 8, 1915, Kapitanlieutenant Heinrich Mathy executed the most destructive Zeppelin raid of the war. He was a former destroyer captain and a highly skilled navigator.

Mathy was in command of Zeppelin L13, one of four airships heading for British targets that night. As the most skilled commander in the Zeppelin force, he had been given the honour of dropping the first bombs on Britain’s capital city.

The L13 made landfall over Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk and followed the River Ouse and the Bedford Level canal until he could see the glow from the lights of London on the horizon. It seems the city was lit up just as in peacetime, which enabled Mathy to easily pick out landmarks such as Regent’s Park.

Once over London, the L13 dropped a total of 15 high-explosive and 55 incendiary bombs into the heart of the city, including a 300kg (660lb) bomb, the largest dropped on Britain up to that time.

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However, the bombs that did the most damage were smaller ones that fell on several textile warehouses north of St Paul’s Cathedral. The resultant fires could be seen from miles around and it required 22 fire engines to put out the blaze. Other bombs were aimed at Liverpool Street Station, where two hit motorbuses, causing numerous casualties.

London’s defences proved to be totally inadequate. There were only 26 anti-aircraft guns based in the capital at the time of the raid and several of these were too small to have any effect on the high-flying Zeppelins. However, some of the anti-aircraft shells did come close to hitting the Zeppelin, so Mathy felt it prudent to climb from his original altitude of 8,500 feet to 11,200 feet, where he could take advantage of a thin layer of cloud.

This was the most successful German air raid on Britain of the entire war. The economic loss amounted to £534,287, which would be equivalent to more than £23million today.

In addition to the destruction of property, 22 men, women and children, all civilians, were killed and 87 injured. Perhaps greater than the material damage caused by the raid was the effect on morale. Although this was not the first airship raid on Britain, it was by far the most serious and, perhaps for the first time during the war, the British people at home began to realise their island nation was no longer impervious to attack.

The raid caused a huge outpouring of emotion that was reflected in the newspapers of the day. The poor response of London’s air defences was singled out for heavy criticism. In addition to the poor showing of the anti-aircraft guns, only six British aeroplanes took off in response to the raid; one of these was destroyed and its pilot killed when his bombs detonated on landing in a field.

The day after the raid the Admiralty, which had responsibility for defence against air raids in the early part of the war, appointed Admiral Sir Percy Scott to take sole charge of London’s defences. Heinrich Mathy flew several more raids on Britain but was killed on October 1, 1916, when his new airship, the L31, was shot down at Potters Bar in Hertfordshire by Second Lieutenant Wulfstan Tempest of 39 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, in his BE2c biplane.

In a London Times editorial on September 10, Mr F Manners, a private secretary at the Admiralty, wrote of the mood of the populace:

“The Zeppelins appear to cause wonderfully little panic at the moment of murder, and no permanent panic afterwards. Their effect is, not a demand for peace, but a demand of the whole nation to help in the war. The Germans do not understand human nature, and they have never understood it less than in this matter... Their anachronism does certainly produce a psychological effect, only it is the opposite of the effect aimed at.”

Brave words. Time would tell and we will return to the Zeppelin threat again in a few weeks’ time.

Galloway have a day excursion to the Western Front on February 26, 2015, and two guided four-day tours of the Western Front travelling on April 17 and May 1, 2015. Details are available online at www.travel-galloway.com or visit a Galloway Travel Centre for information. You can also follow a battlefields feed on Twitter @GallowayBattles or find battlefield tour reports on Galloway’s Facebook page.