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Air raids
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Air raids

In his 1908 novel War in the Air, Glossary - opens new windowH G Wells vividly described German airships destroying buildings and bridges in faraway New York. Yet, in the early part of the 20th century, the real threat posed by aerial warfare seemed less menacing than the literary one. Despite alarmist warnings in newspapers such as the Daily Mail, there was little belief in British government or military circles that air attacks on civilians would soon become an integral part of modern warfare.

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Angels of death

The outbreak of the First World War quickly altered such perceptions. Just three weeks into the conflict, a German Glossary - opens new windowZeppelin dropped several bombs on the Belgian city of Antwerp, killing six citizens in their homes.

First flown in 1900, these giant airships were a huge source of patriotic pride in Germany, while foreign observers feared them as harbingers of destruction. A French cartoon from the early months of the war depicted Glossary - opens new windowKaiser Wilhelm II riding through the air on a Zeppelin in the company of the Angel of Death.

In early 1915 the Kaiser sanctioned an air campaign against strategic targets in Britain that included military bases and ammunitions dumps but excluded royal palaces and residential areas. On 19 January, two Zeppelins attacked the eastern coastal towns of Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn, killing four civilians but causing little significant damage. A further seven people were killed in the first Zeppelin attack on London on 31 May. Costlier raids on the capital took place later in the year. On the night of 13/14 October 1915, for example, five Zeppelins accounted for the lives of 71 Londoners.

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Long-range bombers

Although German airship attacks on England continued throughout the war, their limitations quickly became apparent. Despite their long-range bombing capabilities, Zeppelins were vulnerable to poor weather and made enticingly large targets for British fighter pilots and anti-aircraft gunners.

From the spring of 1917, the German military authorities increasingly turned their attention to long-range bombers such as the Glossary - opens new windowGotha aeroplane. The daylight attack on London by 20 Gothas on 13 June 1917 killed 162 civilians, the highest death toll from a single air raid on Britain during the war. Less than a month later, on 7 July, a further raid in which 57 more people were killed raised British anti-German sentiments to fever pitch.

Casualty figures for air raid - opens new window
Air raid on London:
casualties and damage

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Civilian reaction
For many of those who had seen action on the Western Front, the popular outcry against the air raids was disproportionate to the actual danger. There was a far greater chance of civilians being killed or injured by traffic accidents than in attacks by German aircraft. Yet, considering how air raids had suddenly and dramatically extended the perils of warfare to the 'home front', the scale of public indignation was understandable.

The government offered some guidance via information leaflets and posters about what to do during an air raid and how to differentiate between British and German aircraft. Reassurance was intermittently provided by the success of British fighter pilots in downing German airships and aeroplanes and by the development of an air defence system that included anti-aircraft artillery and the erection of Glossary - opens new windowbarrage balloons over London.

'Public warning' poster - opens new window
Air raids:
'public warning' poster (186k)

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Results of air raids on Germany - opens new window
Impact of bombing
on German towns (172k)

Nonetheless, false alarms about air attacks were common. Stories appeared in the press about German planes that dropped not only bombs but also poisoned foodstuffs. The psychological impact of the air raids extended far beyond the property damage and loss of life.

Britain was not the only country to face an aerial onslaught during the First World War. Gotha planes attacked Paris, too. Although Berlin was too distant, British and French aviators bombed many other German cities. In the Glossary - opens new windowRuhr and the Glossary - opens new windowRhineland, the industrial heartland of western Germany, such places as Glossary - opens new windowSaarbrücken suffered heavy bombardments in 1918. As in Britain, civilian morale in Germany was severely shaken by these attacks.

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The victims
The number of civilian air raid victims during the First World War was relatively small. German raids on Britain, for example, caused 1,413 deaths and 3,409 injuries. There were even fewer German casualties of Allied aerial bombing: just 740 killed and 1,900 wounded.

Nevertheless, air raids provided an unprecedented means of striking at resources vital to the enemy's war effort. Many of the novel features of the war in the air between 1914 and 1918 - the lighting restrictions and blackouts, the air raid warnings and the improvised shelters - became central aspects of the Second World War less than 30 years later.

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Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at The National Archives.

AIR 1/547/16/15/18 Pt. 1 Leefe Robinson's report on shooting down of Zeppelin over southern England, Sept 1916.
AIR 1/552/16/15/38: Police reports on air raids in England, 1915.
AIR 1/587/16/15/189: Reports on first enemy aeroplane raid on London, Nov 1916.
AIR 1/943/204/5/984: Notes and photographs of aftermath of air raids in Burton-on-Trent and Derby, Feb 1916.
AIR 1/1918/204/232/3: Reports on air raids on Germany, Jul-Oct 1918.
MEPO 2/1650: Various reports on Zeppelin raid on London, 31 May 1915.

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