War history: The Zeppelin - a terrifying new threat in the sky

Zeppelin L3, which 100 years ago released 10 high-explosive and incendiary bombs over East Anglia, c

Zeppelin L3, which 100 years ago released 10 high-explosive and incendiary bombs over East Anglia, causing the world�s first air raid casualties - Credit: Archant

This week Galloway’s resident Military Historian and Chairman of the International Guild of Battlefield Guides, Mike Peters continues to remind us of the advent of a new and terrifying form of warfare that was unleashed against East Anglia by the German military 100 years ago this week.

A map showing the routes of the first German airship raids

A map showing the routes of the first German airship raids - Credit: Archant

Last week I talked about the German naval raid on Great Yarmouth on November 3, 1914, and the development of a German airship division and its dynamic commander, Korvettenkapitan Peter Strasser. The newly formed airship division had initially been beset by technical problems and accidents. It had begun the war with just a single operational Zeppelin.

In spite of its shaky start, under Strasser’s leadership the fledgling force developed its capabilities and expanded its number of Zeppelins and trained crews at a steady rate.

By the end of 1914 Strasser was ready to take on much more ambitious tasks than anti-submarine patrols and mine hunting. He envisaged a much more aggressive role for his men and machines. One hundred years ago this week Strasser would enthusiastically seize the chance to show the world the capabilities of the Zeppelin fleet.

With the land offensive stalled by winter weather, his troops bogged down in the trenches and a decisive naval victory still out of reach, Kaiser Wilhelm and his senior commanders were looking for ways to strike Britain and regain the momentum of 1914. This resulted in the lifting of an imperial sanction that had to date prohibited the bombing of England.

Shortly after New Year the sanction was amended. London remained a forbidden target but military and industrial installations along the eastern and southern coast were now considered legitimate targets for Strasser’s Zeppelins. This remit was further extended to include targets along the Thames Estuary.

A hundred years ago today the citizens of East Anglia would have been going about their daily business oblivious to this new threat from the skies. The War Cabinet, however, was already aware of the German intent to attack British towns and cities from above.

Even though intelligence reports warned of the Zeppelin threat, there was little that could be done to stop the huge gas-filled raiders. The first Battle of Britain was about to begin and the first German strike was going to fall on the unsuspecting population of East Anglia.

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Across the North Sea in Fuhlsbuttel, Kapitan Strasser and his crews were preparing their craft for a raid on Humberside, scheduled for the evening of January 19. Strasser would lead the historic attack himself at the helm of the Zeppelin L6. The L3 and L4 would also take part in the attack. On the night, the weather was not ideal. Much to Strasser’s frustration the L6 developed mechanical problems and was forced to turn back to base without reaching England. Nevertheless, the L3 and L4 pressed on doggedly toward the English coast.

The headwinds forced changes to the German plan. L3, under command of Kapitanlieutenant Karl Fritz, made landfall over the Norfolk coast between Happisburgh and Winterton. Fritz’s new target was the naval port of Great Yarmouth.

L3 was spotted near Ingham as it progressed through the darkness to its target. Then, in a period of 10 minutes over Great Yarmouth, Fritz ordered the release of 10 high-explosive and incendiary bombs. It was during this short space of time that the world’s first air raid casualties occurred. One of the L3 bombs fell on St Peter’s Plain, killing spinster Martha Taylor and a shoemaker named Samuel Smith. The L3 bombs also damaged houses, the port’s South Dock, the fish wharf and a steam drifter that was in port.

Meanwhile, the L4 under its commander, Kapitanlieutenant Count Magnus von Platen-Hallermund, was also lurking over Norfolk. It crossed the coast at relatively low altitude, dropping a string of bombs on Sheringham and Brancaster Staithe prior to attacking Heacham and Snettisham.

The L4’s extended bombing run culminated at King’s Lynn, where its bombs wounded 13 civilians and killed two. The dead were identified as Percy Goate, aged 14, and Alice Gazely, 26. The coroner later stated they had died of shock.

With its stock of bombs expended, the L4 turned to begin its long journey home, passing close to Norwich, which was blacked out and shrouded in a protective bank of fog. L4 also passed over the royal estate at Sandringham. When the sun rose on January 20, news of the extraordinary attack spread across the country. It seemed nobody in England was safe from the Zeppelin threat.

If you would like to know more about the Zeppelin raid of January 1915, please take a look at a book called Norfolk, Remembering 1914-18 by Steve Smith, published by The History Press at £9.99. My thanks to Steve for his assistance with information and photographs.

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

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