What were Zeppelin raids?

Hallie Miles was in her London flat one Wednesday evening when she heard a terrible noise. She wrote in her diary:


“[I] crept cautiously upstairs, and peeped, with frightened eyes, out of the open front door, and up at the sky… I saw the shrapnel bursting… as if a star had suddenly exploded. It was very beautiful, but awful too. The sounds were so ghastly and the knowledge that each thud of a bomb falling to earth carried death and destruction with it added to the horror of it all.”

Miles could easily be describing the Blitz of the Second World War, but that is not the case – the incident occurred on 13 October 1915. It was during the First World War that, for the first time in history, a sustained campaign of aerial bombardment took place, initially carried out by giant German rigid airships called Zeppelins (and to a lesser extent those built by a rival firm, Schütte-Lanz). At a time when aviation was in its infancy this was a shocking step forward, placing British civilians on the front line and creating a new theatre of war: the home front.

These large rigid airships were a unique but short-lived weapon developed in Germany over the first decade of the 20th century; they were the largest aircraft ever to fly. The first Zeppelins to raid Britain measured 518 feet, but later designs extended to 693 feet. A strong but lightweight aluminium alloy framework gave the airship its overall cigar-shaped form. Inside this framework hung a number of bags holding up to two million cubic feet of the lighter-than-air gas hydrogen, with the whole structure encased in an outer cover known as the envelope. Below this main body were compartments housing the crew, controls and engines.

At the time no one knew how a civilian population would react to aerial bombardment, but Germany believed that it could inflict a devastating blow to morale, perhaps leading to the public demanding that the government sue for peace.

How many Zeppelin raids were there?

The first Zeppelin raid on Britain took place on the night of 19/20 January 1915, when two Zeppelins appeared without warning over Norfolk, bombing Great Yarmouth, King’s Lynn and various small towns near the coast. The bombs killed four people and injured 16 others while damaging houses and other buildings.

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In total, there were 51 Zeppelin raids on Britain during the First World War. In the first year of bombing, the raids focused on London. Outside the capital, other towns suffered too, generally along the eastern coast: Ramsgate, Southend-on-Sea, Gravesend, Harwich, Ipswich and Lowestoft in the south, while in the north Hull, Wallsend, Jarrow and Goole also found themselves under attack, as did numerous other small towns and villages.

As 1916 progressed, improved models of Zeppelin continued raiding, carrying their threat deeper inland. London and Hull remained regular targets, but towns across the West Midlands now suffered too, as did Boston, Burton upon Trent, Derby, Nottingham, Sheffield, Sunderland and York, while in Scotland both Leith and Edinburgh experienced the shock of aerial attack.

How many people were killed by Zeppelin raids?

In total 564 people were killed during Zeppelin raids and another 1,354 were injured.

What was the impact of the Zeppelin raids?

Despite the frequency of the attacks, the horror experienced by those who witnessed the effects of the bombs remained undiminished. Harry Doige, home on leave from the Royal Navy, witnessed a raid in Wednesbury, Staffordshire, in January 1916. He is quoted in Frederick Hackwood’s Odd Chapters in the History of Wednesbury: “On the left side of the street on the footpath I found a human body. I struck a match to look, but it was so mutilated I could not say what sex it was. A few yards further on… I found another body – nothing but a trunk. I saw that three or four houses had been destroyed.”

On 27 September 1916, the Nottingham Evening Post told how a local woman named Ethel Renshaw had woken up to the terror of an incendiary bomb. Her husband, Harold, was asleep. “He opened his eyes to answer me when a bomb came from the ceiling… setting him on fire. I rushed from the room, got a bucket of water, and did my best to put out the flames, but when I returned a second time, I could not get to him for fire and smoke.”


However, British morale never broke under the airships’ attacks. In fact the strategy spawned outrage that Germany could indiscriminately target innocent women and children, and in the popular press the Zeppelins and their crews became reviled as ‘baby-killers’. Still, the horrifying air raids were a portent for the future. The face of war was changing, and aerial bombardment was here to stay.