Saturday, April 5, 2014

Air Attacks on SE London During the Great War - Part 1, Airship Raids

The Airship Raids - Introduction

RFC Recruitment poster 1913
Rotherhithe is one of many areas of London (and indeed Britain as a whole) that suffered terribly in the Second World War, and the bomb damage is well recorded, but there are fewer details about Rotherhithe's fate in the First World War.  The Rotherhithe entry on Wikipedia, for example, has a paragraph about the Second World War, but makes no mention at all of the Great War. Nor is it mentioned on Southwark Council's Rotherhithe History page.  The Museum of London Docklands devotes almost no space to it.  So why not?  It is not that London wasn't targeted between 1914 and 1918, because it was.  In fact, aerial warfare was virtually invented during this period, with airships and then early warplanes being employed to drop bombs.

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
The airship raids on London began in 1915.  They were not the precursor to an invasion force, but were intended instead to undermine British efficiency and popular morale.  To achieve both aims, targets were both military and civilian.  Whilst prime targets included military targets (military bases and barracks, fuel and ammunition stores and airfields and the Royal Arsenal and docks at Woolwich and the docks at Tilbury and Chatham) and commercial areas (the City of London's financial institutions),  the German airship and fighter plane commanders also had permission to attack residential areas, with the intention of demoralizing civilians in order to raise hostility to Britain's involvement in the war.  By destruction and demoralization, the aim was to persuade Britain to pull out of the war, and the same German strategists, who had been convinced that Britain would not enter the fray in the first place, were convinced that this would not take long.  British newspapers, outraged as civilians of all ages began to die, dubbed the Germans "baby killers."

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
German plans to bomb England at the start of the war, led by the Deputy Chief of the German Naval Staff, Konteradmiral Paul Behncke, were initially hampered by Kaiser Wilhelm II who, although the main architect of the war, was reluctant to attack the heart of Britain due to his connections with the British royalty. Under pressure from his advisers, however, the Kaiser caved in to their demands in stages.  In January 1915 he agreed that military and commercial targets outside London could be attacked.  A month later he agreed that London could be included in the raids, but insisted on the exclusion of royal palaces, national monuments and residential zones.  By July he had been convinced that the entire of London presented a legitimate target.

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
Defense against the airships was a problem, particularly as they grew in size (improving their ability to climb to ever higher altitudes) and were equipped with more engines for greater speeds..  Although small squadrons of aeroplanes were stationed along the east coast, these had difficulty locating the airships, took a considerable amount of time to reach a height where they could engage them directly, and had ammunition that proved to be ineffective when they were able to engage.  On the ground, search lights were intermittently successful in picking out the intruders, and ground-to-air guns often lacked the range to reach the high-flying airships. Blackouts in London had been introduced as early as October 1914, months before the raids began.

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
Bombing raids over London mainly hit civilian targets.  This was partly by intention, but sometimes by accident.  A number of German log books indicate that their commanders thought that they had hit strategic targets, but were clearly either off course or had mis-read the geography below.  In addition, in order to increase speed and height, as airships left the target area, they dropped their remaining bombs over whatever land they were passing over to lighten the load.  This resulted in various areas being bombed more or less at random.  If civilian morale could be undermined, no bomb was a wasted bomb, and these random bomb drops were considered to valuable to Germany's ambitions.  Included in these raids were the non-strategic areas of Bermondsey, Deptford and Rotherhithe.

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"
Due to poor accuracy in bomb drops and navigational difficulties, German plans for the destruction of strategic targets never reached a point where the British would have to contemplate withdrawing from the war.  German hopes for undermining morale backfired, with the airship raids causing passionate anger against Germany, and calls for revenge bombings.  The defeat of the airships gave Britain a powerful PR weapon, and postcards were issued showing airships (generically referred to as "Zepps," irrespective of the manufacturer) going down in flames.

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.

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