The Airship Raids - Introduction
|RFC Recruitment poster 1913|
The answer seems to come into three parts. The first is that although London had been identified as a legitimate target by Germany, the technology was too basic to inflict anything like the damage in the Second World War, and the weather created problems that the fragile aircraft could not overcome. Second, the docks were not identified as a key strategic target in the First World War, whereas in the Second, all the docks were seen as key, and the damage inflicted was staggering, overshadowing anything inflicted between 1914 and 1918. With particular reference to Rotherhithe, the third reason that we never hear about bomb damage locally from the First World War is that the few bombs that did fall on Rotherhithe and in neighbouring created minor damage, caused much less significant harm than other bombs that fell, by accident or design, during the same raids in other residential and commercial areas.
This post, together with part 2, are more about the aerial attacks on London than about Rotherhithe specifically, but wherever Rotherhithe was hit I have given details. I wanted to provide something towards commemorating the centenary of the First World War, and it proved to be very difficult to find anything very useful about Rotherhithe's role, so I apologize that this is a bit generic.
For conclusions and references see Part 2 - The Fighter Plane Blitz.
The Airships: Zeppelin and Schutte-Lanz
|LZ32 - an M-Class Zeppelin|
Sourced from www.pugetairship.org/zeppelins/list_2.html
The aluminum-framed airship (or dirigible) had been developed mainly for pleasure use in early 20th century Germany, by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin's Zeppelin company in 1900, but the military potential of such vessels was soon evident and the German army was already investing so much in the development of an airship branch that by 1908 alarms began to ring in the British government. Although their use for reconnaissance was considered to be a primary function, the use of hot air balloons in the American Civil War and during the 1870 Siege of Paris for bomb drops certainly indicated that air attacks were a possibility. A second company, Schutte-Lanz, also began manufacturing airships in 1911 in competition with Zeppelin, with plywood frames, and this too began to supply the armed forces with its new weapons. The German armed forces soon had two airship divisions, one operated by the army, the other by the navy.
The British had reason to fear an air attack, because Germany had already used her airships to bomb Liege in Belgium at the beginning of World War 1 on 6th August 1914. Britain's own experiments with airships, resulted in the decision to invest in aeroplanes instead, with the army and the navy striking out in slightly different directions with the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy Air Service respectively.
|First World War poster|
The earliest airships to be used over England were Zeppelin's "M" Class, with three engines. Quiet and able to reach 8000ft these first airships were supplied with bombs, including incendiary and explosive bombs and grenades. However, they were unable to penetrate any further than the east coast, where they inflicted substantial damage. Newer, longer airships with more engines, the "P" class introduced later in 1915, was able to climb to 10,000ft and use her four engines to move faster, enabling them to evade Britain's initially rather lackluster anti aircraft measures, including searchlights, anti-aircraft guns and a squadron of small biplanes based along the coast. With the P class, Germany was able to reach London and inflict considerable damage. On her first raid, the new P-Class LZ38 passed into and out of London unchallenged, and caused over £18,000 of damage, killing seven civilians.
The Q-Class made small improvements in size on the P-class, and was introduced early in 1916. Next, the 1916 R classes were built, known in Britain as "Super Zeppelins," which were longer and more powerful . Finally, S-Class Zeppelins were introduced in 1917, airships that could cruise so high that her crews suffered from altitude sickness and frostbite and were known by the British as "Height Climbers".
|LZ.32, the Zeppelin in which Zeppelin hero Commander Heinrich Mathy |
perished during his assault on London in 1916, shot
down by Wulstan Tempest in his BE2c biplane
Sourced from www.pugetairship.org/zeppelins/list_2.html
Improvements in all areas were made during the war, and although Britain was largely defenceless against airships in 1914, she was in a very strong position by the end of 1917. The days of the airship for raiding England were numbered, as the anti-aircraft defenses improved and research into improved firepower and techniques for directing it at the airships equipped tiny British biplanes with the means to take a line beneath the vast hulls off the airships, evading their heavy machine-gun fire, to introduce a mixture of different devices into the outer covering of the ship, allowing oxygen to pass into the vast hydrogen-holding bags where incendiary devices exploded. The combination of the oxygen, hydrogen and the sparking of the incendiary device was lethal, and began to bring down airships in such numbers that the decision was eventually taken to withdraw the airship from service.
|Unexploded Zeppelin bomb 1916|
South London avoided bomb damage until the third raid, which took place on the night of the 7th/8th September 1915. Having dropped bombs on the Isle of Dogs, airship SL2 passed over the Thames and dropped bombs on Deptford and Greenwich, whilst LZ74 dropped explosive bombs in Bermondsey (Keetons Road, half a mile from the Surrey Commercial Docks), south Rotherhithe (Ilderton Road) and New Cross. The Ilderton Road bombs fell on a house, killing six and injuring five. The raid of March 31st/1st April 1916 was not a success, but to ensure the Kaiser's ongoing support, the head of the airship division, Peter Strasser claimed that a number of explosions had been caused by his airships in London, including one at Surrey Commercial Docks, which simply never happened. In the sixth London raid on the night of August 24th/25th, southeast London was again bombed following heavy bombing of the Isle of Dogs, with Deptford and Greenwich again targeted, and Blackheath as well.
|British propaganda postcard:|
The End of the "Baby Killer"
The cost to London was considerable, but the airship raids failed to succeed in their primary goal of forcing Britain to withdraw from the war. The airship attacks did, however, divert much-needed equipment and human resources from the Western Front, and they did result in considerable loss of life, many injuries and a considerable financial cost from the damage to buildings and other infrastructure, so they can by no means be written off as a failure.
In total, the airships and their bombs killed 557 people (181 in London), injured a further 1358 (504 in London) and caused £1.5million of damage (£1million of it in London alone).
See Part 2 for the next phase of German aerial attack, conclusions and references.