Before the 20th century, civilians in Britain had been largely unaffected by war. Previous overseas wars rarely touched British shores. The First World War was to change all that. Historians have described it as a ‘total war’, a global war which involved both civilians and the armed services on a massive scale.
Count von Zeppelin, a retired German army officer, flew his first airship in 1900. They were lighter than air, filled with hydrogen, with a steel framework. When the war started in 1914, the German armed forces had several Zeppelins, each capable of travelling at about 85 m.p.h. and carrying up to two tons of bombs. With military deadlock on the Western Front, they decided to use them against towns and cities in Britain. The first raid was on Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn in January 1915. These documents refer to a Zeppelin raid on Hull in June 1915.
Lighter than air flying machines were successfully developed before aeroplanes. Count von Zeppelin was impressed by their potential and built his first successful airship in 1900. From then, civilian airships developed rapidly before the First World War. Passengers travelled in considerable comfort in gondolas slung underneath the huge 190 metre-long hydrogen-filled rugby ball-shaped balloon. They had more space than in many modern aeroplanes and could stroll about admiring the view.
The German Army and Navy both saw the potential that airships had for reconnaissance. They were used almost from the opening of the war for getting information by flying over enemy lines far above gunnery range. As it became clear that the war would be long and drawn out, Zeppelins were sent to bomb British cities. Their route was over the North Sea from their bases on the north west German coast. The early raids caused lots of damage and many civilian casualties.
At first, as these documents show, British defences were totally inadequate to deal with the Zeppelin threat. However, by 1916 a range of anti-airship defence measures were introduced. Many more guns were deployed, and searchlights. Fighter aircraft were also sent against them. British defences learnt to pick up their radio messages, so had warning of their approach, and a central communications headquarters was set up. It was realised that Zeppelins were extremely vulnerable to explosive shells, which set light to the hydrogen, often in spectacular fashion. Zeppelin raids were called off in 1917, by which time 77 out of the 115 German Zeppelins had been shot down or totally disabled. Raids by heavier than air bombers continued, however. By the end of the war over 1500 British citizens had been killed in air raids.
The vulnerability of Zeppelins to explosive shells, and their relatively slow speed, led to rapid development of heavier-than-air machines. By 1918 both sides were using large numbers of aeroplanes, not just for reconnaissance, but as fighter air support and as bombers. Air war, and the threat it brought to the lives of civilians, had become part of 20th century warfare. After the war both Britain and Germany continued to develop airships for passenger services, offering a much more roomy, comfortable service than early aeroplanes could provide. However, the spectacular crash and fire of the R101 in 1930 discredited this form of air flight in Britain.
Second World War air-raids are one of the most powerful British memories of the 20th century. This lesson shows that attacks on civilians from the air began in the First World War and were quite serious. The focus of the tasks is on the drama and damage, the impact on civilians and British inability to deal with the raid. It would fit into investigations of:
Changing technology and warfare
Showing how new inventions completely change the way war is waged.
The Home Front
The story of the Zeppelin raids is part of the story of the mobilisation of the British people in the First World War.
Civilians and total war
The 20th century introduced the British people to ‘total war’. From comfortable security on the island, with war taking place elsewhere, the British people were thrown into the front line. In the Second World War and the Soviet nuclear threat of the Cold War this is obvious, but it starts with the Zeppelin raids of the First World War.
Illustration : AIR 11/241
Sources 1 – 3 : AIR 1/569/15/16/142
The war in the air
Bombers : Germany – Zeppelins
The Zeppelin at war
Site showing photographs of Zepellins as well as giving a brief history of their use in wartime.