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Podcast 12: Zeppelins Over Britain

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The first one that came over she came and she said, ‘For the love of God, Miss McAllister, get up!’ She said, ‘The Zeps are here and we’ll all be killed.’ I thought, ‘This woman sounds hysterical…’

From the start of 1915, the people of Great Britain encountered a threat they had never known before – direct attack from German airships, particularly the best-known type – the Zeppelin. On 19 January two Zeppelins bombed the coast of Norfolk. William Gedge was a 15 year old resident in Great Yarmouth.

I remember Yarmouth being bombed with the… by Zeppelins – we were the first town in England to be bombed by Zeppelins. And I can remember being in the bar with my father and the whole place shook and he says, ‘Open the door boy, there’s somebody trying to get into the bar.’ And I went to the door and I didn’t see… if there was a flash I couldn’t see them, the bombs, but I could hear half a dozen bombs falling in a straight line down Southgates Road which is near the fish wharf right in the other end of the town.

The raids became more frequent and widespread, and a means of warning people about them was introduced. Lily Baker, who was living in West London at the time, remembers how rudimentary this was.

I must have been six but going on seven and in 1915, in May, my little brother was born. And one day the siren, as such, which was a policeman and he had a bicycle and from the mud guard to the handle bars he had a notice, ‘Take cover.’ And he blew a whistle and he shouted, ‘Take cover! Take cover!’ And then he went along past us, Pimlico Road, and up Lower Sloane Street and away.

Even if they were warned of an attack, people often didn’t know what to do when it happened. Harry Smith was a schoolboy living near Sheffield when a raid took place on the city.

Well when we’d got up and gone out, there were very soon crowds of people coming up road and they’d got all sorts of tales about it. Sheffield was all afire and what damage they’d done. Well they didn’t know, they just simply fled, sort of stampeded, into country that were just beyond us, fields. And I always remember going to have a look there, first field we got to was solid up with people on rugs and bedding on floor. But if they’d dropped a bomb on there, they’d have killed hundreds because they were so – they’d no idea what to do or how to behave and treat it.

It wasn’t just civilians who were unclear about how to act during an air raid alert. George White, a soldier in the London Yeomanry, was stationed at Blickling Hall in Norfolk when a signaller asked him to cover his shift.

Well all I had to do was if I heard the Zeps coming over, which they never seemed to come, until this special night. I was in the signallers’ office, he said, ‘If you hear the Zeps come over, phone the Post Office – no, the Post Office will tell you to take action.’ So I thought, ‘Alright, it won’t happen.’ But it did! Well Post Office rang up and said, ‘Take action: Zeps approaching London.’ I thought, ‘What the devil shall I do?’ I thought to myself, ‘I won’t say nothing!’ Well I saw the Zeppelin come over all lit up it was. Well they bombed Yarmouth but they didn’t get to London, they turned back I suppose and that was that.

To begin with there were no effective air raid precautions in place, so many people simply had to find shelter where they could. Annie Howell and her mother lived in south-east London.

Well when the raids came we used to run into the skin market, the offices are still there in Weston Street. And the skins was all baled up and we used to sit on the floor there and the bales of skin around us. But again although we went there with my mum – we used to go over there with my mum – I wasn’t frightened you know. I used to see some people crying, I said, ‘Why they crying?’ Oh they used to think the worst, as if the sky was coming down on them. But I never did, I don’t know why.

Londoners could also seek refuge deep in the stations of the Underground. Cecil Carpenter, who worked for the Underground, recalled how crowded it got.

They used to come down with their kiddies and get them off to sleep down there, lay them down in their blankets fold them up and put them down. When the raids was on, the Zeppelins, there used to be an extra volume of them then all scrambling down then. In places where there was a lot of people coming through then they used to nip into trains and have a ride round in the trains and get out on the next station where there was a bit more room.

At the chemical works in County Durham where George Wilkinson was employed, shelters were built – but not always used.

Well at the works, there was all – air raid shelters were made, and the men who could be spared from their jobs went down to the air raid shelters. But there was some jobs that the men stayed with them and it was only that if it was getting too near that these men could evacuate and shut that job down. But of course in a lot of cases it meant ruining the stuff, stopping the process. The works worked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They never stopped, not even for Christmas Day.

John Clifton commanded the Dartford Anti-Aircraft Station in Kent during 1916. He remembered how airships usually came in cycles linked to the moon.

The raids only took place in the dark periods that is when there wasn’t any moon. And I suppose the dark periods lasted for about 10 or 12 days, and depending on the weather. If the weather was good we’d probably get six or seven raids easily in that period. Sometimes we’d get two or three nights running with raids. We always had to be on duty anyway in the dark periods; when the moonlight returned we were allowed to slack off a bit.

Some found the sight of the Zeppelins exciting. Agnes McAllister worked for the Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment and lived in lodgings in north London.

My bedroom faced the front and the first one that came over she came and she said, ‘For the love of God, Miss McAllister, get up!’ She said, ‘The Zeps are here and we’ll all be killed.’ I thought, ‘This woman sounds hysterical.’ It was all fields round us at Golders Green at that time – I believe it’s terribly overbuilt now – and you could see for miles around and with all the searchlights there it looked like a big silver cigar in the sky. And it fascinated me beyond everything. And she’d crawled under the bed, she and her son had got under the bed. And she said, ‘Come away.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘If anything’s happening to me, I’d rather see it coming.’ And then as it got near, it was like an express train over your head it was the incredible noise that it made. But, you know, they were fascinating with the light on them like big silver cigars coming along.

Serving in airships at high altitudes had its risks. German officer Richard Frey of Zeppelin L46 described a raid in September 1916.

Strasser may have been impaired by altitude sickness and he was raging at Hollander: ‘What’s wrong with you? Take your hands out of your pockets if you speak to me.’ But as he saw he couldn’t rouse him, he ordered me to take the command of the ship. I leaded Hollander into the wireless room, set him down upon a chair and there he slept in. But now it was not so easy for me because the steersmen collapsed several times and some of the machinists were frequently incapacitated. But we had two machinists for every motor and so no motor did fell out.

Navigation could also be an issue. Karl Schuz was serving aboard L45 when it got lost in bad weather.

We saw some lights – afterwards darkness. We tried to became wireless bearings from Germany but we couldn’t obtain them. Now it was a searchlight, two searchlights – I counted twenty! And that we guessed it must be London. But no shot, we were unseen, and we could see the Thames. Now, running before the wind with a full speed, and we must drop our bombs. We dropped the large bombs, they were 600 pounders, and I heard later on bombs – great bombs – fell on the Piccadilly Circus.

As a young boy in Nottingham, George Walker watched from the ground as a Zeppelin dropped its bombs.

Somebody said, ‘Zeppelin! Zeppelin!’ And way up in the sky and we looked and saw it floating along blotting the stars out. You see this trap door open and they threw the bombs out and shut it again. That’s the only time I can remember being bombed and they bombed Nottingham, see. Well they bombed some of the shops in Nottingham in Trent Bridge and that area, line bombed it and dropped the bombs.

During an attack on Hull, Walter Doughty’s mother saved his life.

It was about two in the morning when we’d heard windows rattling and some bombing. Then there was a lull and I wanted to just slip out to the toilet. And in that way that mothers have, I don’t know – it’s instilled in most mothers, in a sense she saved my life. Because as I walked out my mother unknown to me followed me, caught me up at the kitchen and said, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘Across to the toilet.’ She said, ‘Well I’m frightened of you putting that light on, slip out here into the garden.’ So I went, opened the door on the left – she was behind me – and as I looked up, there was a light and this Zeppelin was coming up at a fast speed with quite a noisy engine. And I turned into my mother’s skirt and she immediately understood what was happening. And we dashed back through the double door and were thrown across the kitchen, up the step, got level with the stairs when everything fell at the back of us. The bomb had landed about three or four yards yon side of the toilet in the garden.

In contrast, Henry Oxley, who worked at Woolwich Arsenal, didn’t escape injury when a Zeppelin attacked.

This particular Zeppelin stood over the Arsenal with the searchlights on it, which kind of superimposed it against the background of the night sky and with rather a panic. And this particular night they did drop them on us in the vicinity of the Arsenal and one or two inside. And when I was subjected to the result of the bombs being dropped, but I woke up and found myself in the hospital in the Arsenal with a slight concussion.

Through the death and destruction they caused, the German airships were hated and feared. When the first ones were shot down, everyone celebrated. Ellen Harris recalled some of the scenes of jubilation in London.

This big silver cigar, and then there was a flame went up and a cheer from down below that somebody had recognised that it had caught fire. Then the whole thing went up in flames. It stayed there for a long, long time all flaming up with the people all round the streets, shouting and cheering their heads off. Hundreds of people died of course. And then gradually as it came to pieces the huge thing all alight and then seemed to come rather slowly, like a show piece. The cheering that went up, you’d have thought the war was over. Because we’d got back at the enemy, you see.

Find out more about the First World War at iwm.org.uk. We’d really like to know what you think of these podcasts. Please rate us or leave a comment on iTunes. Listen out for Podcast 13: Gas Attack At Ypres