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Zeppelins – Attack from the air

For many, the First World War signifies the start of the 20th Century’s technological revolution. One of the most obvious places that happened was in the air. 

In 1900, Count von Zeppelin, a retired German General, built his first airship, which became known as a Zeppelin.  The innovative design consisted of a huge rugby shaped balloon within a metal frame filled with hydrogen, a gas which is lighter than air. Suspended beneath the balloon was a ‘gondola’ that carried people or cargo. The Zeppelin was propelled by a special ‘blau gas’ and its incredibly quiet engine meant it was only heard when nearly overhead.

Zeppelins were introduced as a means of transporting commercial air passengers in luxury, something that the new bi-planes were completely unable to do. However, the German military saw their potential as an addition to their armoury.

When the war started, both sides began to explore uses for new technology. In December 1914, the Germans made their first bombing raid against the UK, using a bi-plane attacking Dover, which had limited results. At the same time, the German navy began to attack British coastal towns. These attacks were all part of a change in warfare – a move to Total War – where civilians became part of the conflict.

In January 1915, the Germans launched their first aerial attack using Zeppelins, which were able to carry up to 2 tonnes of explosives. The towns of Great Yarmouth and Kings Lynn were the first to be hit.

On the 31st May 1915, Zeppelin bombers made their first attack on London, killing 28 people and injuring over 60. This was the first of many attacks over the South of England.

In addition to the horror and fear that Zeppelins caused among the civilian population, they also led the British military to keep resources at home to defend British citizens from attack, while also fighting a war overseas. Over the next couple of years, anti-aircraft guns were installed, barrage balloons put up over cities, and RNAS and Royal Flying Corps (RFC) aircraft were kept in the UK, ready to combat the threat.

Lieutenant Rex Warneford, a British pilot flying over France on the night of the 6-7 June 1915, was the first pilot to bring down a Zeppelin. On his way back from a mission, he encountered the airship and managed to shoot at it, the damage caused brought the airship down. He was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) but was killed a few days later.

On 2nd September 1916, William Leefe-Robinson of the RFC shot down a Zeppelin over Hertfordshire – the massive fire caused by the hydrogen exploding was seen for over 100 miles. Leefe-Robinson was heralded as a hero and was awarded the VC.

At the end of June 1917, Zeppelin attacks ceased – their effectiveness now undermined by British air defence. The Germans did not stop trying to attack the British mainland and introduced the new twin engine Gotha aircraft to bomb London and the South of England. 

Despite their being replaced the Zeppelins had been a serious problem for two years, causing huge amounts of damage and loss of life. By the end of the war, over 1,500 people had been killed in Zeppelin raids. One of the worst took place just before the campaign stopped. In an attack on east London on 13 June 1917, a primary school in Poplar was hit. 18 children were killed and a further 37 injured. Local people rushed to help as the teachers tried to save as many children as possible. Hundreds lined the streets for the funerals and a plaque now marks the names of those killed. Some of the children were Jewish – it was a tragedy that brought communities together.

It is estimated that there were 103 aerial raids on the UK during the war, from airships and aeroplanes.  British people were forced to face the fact that, for the first time in centuries, an enemy could attack them in their homes.

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