First Zeppelin Air Raids on London
When WWI began, rumours spread about Germany’s ability to send her giant dirigibles across the sea to attack centres of population and industry.
Count von Zeppelin had developed the machines after his experience in the Franco-Prussian War, taking the concept to a practical stage after his retirement from the military. The first flew in 1900, and major investment was put into the programme as both its civil and military potential was realised. The Germans had seven working military airships when war was declared in 1914, six held by the army, the last in the hands of the navy.
For some time in the early stages of the conflict the machines were largely used for naval reconnaissance, highly effective in that role given their speed – in favourable conditions they could exceed 80mpph – and the elevations they could reach, climbing to a height of 13,000 feet or more. The military hierarchy were keen to develop their use further, however, and tests of their offensive capacity were made in bombing raids over Liege and Antwerp in 1914.
Kaiser Wilhelm seems to have been reluctant to allow the use of this new weapon against targets other than military ones, but in 1915 he was persuaded of the need to do so, partly because French bombers had by then attacked German cities. Raids on Paris, though it was closer than London, meant crossing large tracts of enemy territory, allowing the ground and air defences ahead to be prepared. London, reached by crossing mainly occupied land and the seas, was a safer target.
On January 19 1915 Great Yarmouth, Kings Lynn and Sheringham in Norfolk were raided in a test of the idea. Two civilians died, 16 were injured, and the panic in the country was evidence of the propaganda value of the tactic.
Thus on the night of May 31, 1915, Zeppelin LZ-32 flew about 400 miles to reach the English capital. The machine was about 190m long, and able to carry several tonnes of bomb which by this time had been specially adapted for aerial bombardment. For several hours the airship dropped explosive and incendiary devices over the city. Stoke Newington was the first place to suffer the attack.
Five were killed in the raid, another 35 injured. The panic seen after the Norfolk raid was magnified several times over. Talk went round of invasion by Zeppelin, and of plans for mass raids. What was very clear to the people and the government alike was that the almost non-existent air defences needed to be improved, and major effort was directed to this goal, the warning system being upgraded from policemen with whistles to a rather more sophisticated version, and development of fighter planes with the weaponry and ammunition to down the craft was urgently accelerated.
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