On the night of 31 May 1915, a single German zeppelin airship appeared over north London and began dropping its deadly cargo on the darkened streets below. This was the first time that the capital had been bombed from the air.
Here, Ian Castle, the author of London 1914–17: The Zeppelin Menace, reveals nine things you probably didn’t know about that night…
1) Although Britain had been at war with Germany since August 1914, the first zeppelin raid on London only took place nine months later
While some had expected zeppelins to appear over Britain almost immediately, most of the airships available at that time were either not up to the task or were required elsewhere. In addition, Kaiser Wilhelm initially vetoed the demands of the military to attack Britain by air. With his close ties to the British royal family and, believing like many that the war would soon be over, he did not want to be held responsible for destroying London’s cultural heritage.
As pressure mounted on him, and more zeppelins became available, the Kaiser finally approved the bombing of England in January 1915. But he continued to exclude London until May of that year, when he approved bombing east of the Tower of London. In July 1915 that approval extended to the whole of London.
2) Zeppelins were not the only airships to raid Britain in the First World War
The German military used two types of airship to raid Britain. Zeppelin airships had a rigid aluminium framework (and later, duralumin – an alloy largely of aluminium and copper), within which were held a number of separate gasbags, each containing inflammable hydrogen lifting gas. An outer skin of linen, known as the envelope, then covered the whole structure.
Suspended below the framework were capsules, known as gondolas, which contained the control room – the engines that drove the propellers and the crew. zeppelins employed machine guns for defence and carried a varying bomb load.
The other type of airship, used to a lesser extent, was the Schütte-Lanz. This differed from the zeppelin in that its framework was made of wood and not metal, but to the British people all German airships were simply known as ‘zeppelins’.
3) At the time of the first zeppelin raid, London was defended by the Admiralty
In 1914 the army and the Royal Navy had separate air arms: the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). The RFC accompanied the army to France, leaving Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, to accept responsibility for London’s defence.
At the outbreak of war, London had no guns for aerial defence, but positioned three in Whitehall a few days later. By May 1915 London had 16 guns defending it, but half of these were small, 1-pdr guns, considered “useless and dangerous” by the man who took over responsibility for them in September 1915. In addition the RNAS had a number of aircraft positioned in southeast England as part of the London defences.
4) In Germany, both the army and navy had airship fleets
There was a rivalry between the two services vying to be first to strike against London. The race was won by the army when zeppelin LZ.38 appeared over the capital. She was a new zeppelin; her first flight took place in early April 1915.
Commanded by 35-year-old Hauptman Erich Linnarz, she had already flown four other raids on Britain before striking against London. LZ.38 had a crew of 13, was 536 feet in length, could fly at about 50mph – wind permitting – and carried 120 bombs weighing in total about 1.5 tons, the majority being of an incendiary type.
LZ.38 appeared over north London shortly after 11pm on 31 May 1915. Because of their great size, all zeppelin raids took place at night, making it harder for the defending guns and aircraft to locate them.
5) The first bombs dropped on London landed in Stoke Newington
Zeppelin LZ.38 approached London at a height approaching two miles, and was not attempting to hit specific targets – the purpose was simply to bomb London while keeping to a line east of the Tower of London.
The first bomb, an incendiary, landed on 16 Alkham Road, the home of Albert Lovell, a 39-year-old clerk, and his family, setting fire to the upper floor of the house. Mr Lovell alerted the fire brigade, who extinguished the blaze before it caused too much damage.
Hackney Borough Council erected a plaque in the 1990s to commemorate this first bomb, but unfortunately placed it near the corner of Nevill Road and Osterley Road – more than half a mile away. It also shows the wrong date. Plans are today underway to rectify this.
6) From Stoke Newington, zeppelin LZ.38 followed a southerly course across London before making its exit to the north east
After Stoke Newington, bombs were dropped on Dalston, Hoxton, Shoreditch, Spitalfields, Whitechapel and Stepney, followed by one on Stratford and finally Leytonstone. The biggest of the 41 fires reported that night occurred in Hoxton, where at least two cabinetmakers’ premises were gutted.
Most damage occurred to private dwellings, but bombs also struck the Shoreditch Empire Music Hall during a performance and smashed through the glass roof of the Great Eastern Railway’s Bishopsgate Goods Yard. In Whitechapel, bombs struck damaged a church, a synagogue and a bonded warehouse full of Johnnie Walker’s whisky.
7) Bombs killed seven people and injured another 35
The first death occurred in Cowper Road, Stoke Newington, where three-year-old Elsie Leggatt burnt to death. Her father had rescued his four other children from the flames, but in the confusion believed a neighbour had taken Elsie to safety. Sadly that was not true, and her charred body was later discovered in the wreckage. Tragically for the family, their 11-year-old daughter, Elizabeth May, also died a few days later from her burns.
In Balls Pond Road, Dalston, Henry and Caroline Good were unable to escape from a fire caused by an incendiary bomb, and died in their bedroom. Eleanor Willis, a 67-year-old woman living alone in Southgate Grove, died three days later, her death being attributed to shock brought on by the raid. And in Christian Street, Whitechapel, an explosive bomb killed Leah Lehrman, aged 16, and eight-year-old Samuel Reuben.
8) The raider remained largely unseen while over London
The police received a warning of the approaching zeppelin just a few minutes before it appeared over Stoke Newington, and none of the London searchlights or anti-aircraft guns engaged the raider. An official report stated that LZ.38 was so high that she was neither seen or heard, and added: “There is no authentic case of anyone having been able to see it during its passage over London.”
There was, however, one witness. Sub-inspector Locking of the Special Constabulary saw the zeppelin briefly when it first appeared over Stoke Newington. The RNAS launched 15 aircraft to intercept LZ.38, but only one pilot saw her, and he was forced down by engine failure before he could attack. Another pilot, Flight Lieutenant Douglas Barnes, died when his aircraft crashed on landing.
9) The morning after the night before
Hordes of sightseers descended on the areas that had suffered in the bombing to see the damage for themselves. Anti-German rioting also broke out in the bombed areas, with mobs looting shops whose owners had German-sounding names.
The raider, zeppelin LZ.38, was about to suffer too. A week after the attack on London she set out on another raid, but engine problems forced her to return early to her home base at Evère, near Brussels. That night two British aircraft based in France successfully attacked Evère. Their exploding bombs ignited LZ.38’s highly inflammable hydrogen, creating a roaring inferno.
In the morning, all that remained of the first London raider was a twisted heap of smouldering red-hot girders. But others would take her place. The last zeppelin bombs fell on London on the night of 19 October 1917.
Ian Castle is author of London 1914–17: The Zeppelin Menace (Osprey Publishing, 2008) and London 1917–18: The Bomber Blitz (Osprey Publishing, 2008). To find out more, visit www.IanCastlezeppelin.co.uk