In the First World War, Britain found itself under aerial attack. Giant Zeppelins of well over 500 feet in length hovered overhead, and both bombs and shrapnel from anti-aircraft shells caused large amounts of damage on the ground. However, as these wartime postcards show, fear of the aerial threat was often tempered with humour and stoicism…
The bombing of Britain by Nazi Germany in the Second World War was not the first time that Britain had come under aerial attack; Zeppelin raids in the First World War brought the civilian population on to the front lines, as both bombs and falling shrapnel from anti-aircraft shells caused fatalities and damage on the ground.
In a new book, Let the Zeppelins Come, David Marks has compiled an archive of postcards from the time and here, he shares a selection of the images that tell us more about the raids…
During Germany’s aerial bombing campaign against Britain, an unprecedented development in warfare, the civilian population found itself on the front line for the first time and the public’s anger, frustration and demands for retaliation against the Zeppelin raids was tempered by a remarkable resilience. This was often expressed with humour through the medium of the picture postcard, and there was a demand for souvenirs.
Elsewhere, there was sentiment from some in Germany for the Zeppelin to bring terror and panic to the streets and to strike at the enemy’s heart: London. During 1915, there were 20 raids from Northumberland to Kent, leaving over 200 dead, including the first raids on London on 31 May 1915. Defences were rudimentary and falling shrapnel from anti-aircraft shells caused more damage on the ground than in the air.
As the raids intensified, simple air-raid precautions were introduced and the police issued instructions. In London, from the time of the earliest attacks, it was custom for underground stations to offer shelter. Measures such as improved anti-aircraft guns, linked searchlight stations and co-ordinated aircraft squadrons began to challenge the raiders. Behind the scenes, trials of explosive and phosphorus bullets were successfully carried out and, from July 1916, the machine-gun drums of defending aircraft were routinely filled with a combination of this ammunition.
On the night of 2-3 September 1916, a Schütte Lanz airship was brought down in flames at Cuffley, Hertfordshire. The pilot 'behind the gun' was Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson, who was awarded the Victoria Cross. This was followed by the loss of three of the newest 'super' Zeppelins over the next month.
Whilst there were further sporadic raids into 1917 and 1918, the air raid initiative passed from airships to aeroplanes; Zeppelin raids were continued for their nuisance value only. The Zeppelin threat had been overcome; when an aeroplane armed with the new incendiary and explosive ammunition got an airship in its sights, the airship was inevitably doomed.
By the outbreak of the war, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin had become the figurehead of a culture which embraced the technological advances of the day. Zeppelins had fired the imagination of the German people and they were a source of pride, fascination and wonder.
Depictions of the British public scanning the skies for Zeppelins was a popular theme, as people took to the streets to watch for the arrival of the raiders. London was bombed for the first time on the night of 31 May 1915.
Humour was used to deflect the impact of the Zeppelin raids. Official estimates list 557 people (including 498 civilians) killed and 1,358 injured by airships. Raids on London accounted for 36% of the total casualties.
The public interacted with the attacks on their communities, taking the opportunity to pose by a bomb crater or even with unexploded bombs. Pictured are Barbara Gower and Margaret Kemp together with a 110lb explosive bomb near Dereham, Norfolk.
On 1 April 1916, Zeppelin L15 was brought down in the sea north of Margate by improved anti-aircraft fire. Pieces of the recovered wreckage were also fashioned into crude souvenirs and widely circulated. When airships started being brought down over the mainland, the public’s desire for souvenirs became insatiable.
Warnings of raids were often rudimentary and included policemen travelling on foot or on bicycles with placards advising the public to "take cover". Comic postcards reinforced the official government message that Britons everywhere could cope and eventually conquer the Zeppelin threat. The humour was good natured and attempted to make light of a serious situation.
When one of the seemingly invincible ‘Baby Killers’ (as the airships were sometimes nicknamed) was destroyed in flames by pilot William Leefe Robinson, the effect on the millions who witnessed its demise was electric. A number of baby boys born in September 1916 were named after the pilot or even after the crash site at Cuffley.
This is a popular postcard of VC recipient Robinson (left) and his fellow "Zeppelin strafers", Frederick Sowrey (right) and Wulstan Tempest. All three pilots were from the same RFC Home Defence Squadron and featured on numerous postcards and in newspapers and magazines.
This ‘super’ Zeppelin L33 was brought down virtually intact at Little Wigborough, Essex, as a result of anti-aircraft fire. Its crew was captured by a local special constable, who was surprised by the sudden appearance of a body of men marching along a lane in the early hours of the morning.
(All photos by David Marks)
David Marks is the author of Let the Zeppelins Come (Amberley Publishing, 2017)