“If one could set fire to London in thirty places, then what in a small way was odious would retire before something fine and powerful”, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, January 1915. With those words, the world was ushered into the age of aerial bombardment.
When the Great War broke in Europe on August 1914, the Imperial German Army, as well as the Navy, had their own Luftschiff Zeppelin airship fleets. The first German air attack against England was carried out in December 21st 1914, and, contrary to some accounts, it was not done by a dirigible. A Heinkel-designed Albatross sea plane dropped a pair of twenty pound, fragment bombs in and around the Dover area that fateful day. Although no injuries, and only a minor infrastructure damages were reported, the idea of a German-lead, massive air assault on the British Isles, an idea already sheared by many Brits, rapidly achieved almost mythological status.
From late 1914 to the early spring of 1915, there was profound discussion inside the German military and political establishment regarding the effectiveness of an all out bombing campaign against Great Britain. Not that there were doubts about attacking the British Empire, the question was more precisely: how to do it? On the one hand, there were those, mostly civilian leaders, who were in favor of an all out bombing campaign on military targets only. The other side of the isle belonged to the military which desired a truly universal campaign designed on infrastructure and moral attacks. In order to achieve both of those objectives, Germany must be willing to attack population centers without remorse, the thinking went. As with many major political decision, a compromise was reach were the Zeppelins would indeed operate against both military and civilian targets with the caveat that any attack on populated areas must be short in nature.
German Chancellor, Theodore von Bethmann-Hollweg, fearing a public backlash if civilian causalities started to mount do to the Zeppelin raids, added a clause to the newly adopted air doctrine. “Any attack on civilian centers must be undertaken by a few ships with long intervals between raids”.
On February 12th, German Kaiser Wilhelm II issued an Imperial Order that permitted attacks to take place on oil, petroleum and dock facilities in London. Although the order did not specifically called for the bombing of civilian, because of the inaccuracy of the dirigibles and the close integration in the British capital of civilian houses near the pre-selected target sectors, the decree, for all purposes, permitted airships formations to unleash terror from the skies upon the population of London.
On the afternoon of May 31st 1915, Luftschiff Zeppelin 38 took off from its pen at Brussels-Evere. Its mission profile called for a short bomb run of the important industrial east side of London. After encountering a brief, southwest thunder storm, LZ-38’s commander, Hauptmann Karl Linnarz, ordered a sharp east turn towards England’s south east coast. The massive airship was first sighted over Southend at around 9:15pm. By 10:50pm it was over the storied British capital. Flying at around 10,000 feet, at 10:59, Linnarz gave the order to ‘release bombs’. One hundred and twenty high explosive and incendiary bombs rained down on Stoke Newington and Dalston. Also hit were Hoxton, Whitechapel and Leytonstone.
At 11:01pm, members of the Home Guard, utilizing rudimentary anti-aircraft, commence to fire at Linnarz’s ship. Search lights pounded the London night sky in search of the intruder. Fighters took off in search and destroy missions. In a nut shell, all of the British anti air raid assets were deployed in a matter of just a few minutes. Unfortunately for the defenders, their turn of the century guns were completely ineffective falling to land a single shoot near the huge air platform. Search lights could not locate the ship either and the fighters took so much time getting into the Zeppelin altitude profile that by the time they arrive on one spot, the ship was surely to be somewhere else. Bottom line, no one that fateful night would find LZ-38.
On the ground, the effects of the bombing, seven Londoners perished and twenty five were reported injured, were minimal if compared to the carnage of the now dreaded Western Front, but, unlike the fields of northern France, this was the heart of the British Empire. For the first time since the Dutch raids of 1667, London was subject to bombardment.
The consequences of the attack were profound, not only in England but in Germany as well. England fell uncomfortably vulnerable while the German Reich was emboldened with a new sense of omnipotence. Omnipotence also carried out a felling of wondering. As a pure military operation, the LZ-38 was, at best, a side show. A distraction. No military target was hit during the fifteen minute raid. And although the civilian casualties were relative low for such an inaccurate attack, it did happen.
The image the world took out of LZ-38’s attack was that of a ‘Hun barbarians’. Germans attacking innocent civilians while praying, as was the case with a middle age couple who perish during the Stoke Newington raid while doing its night prayers, was the image British newspapers sold to the world. An image that was only enhanced a few moths later during the battles for Flanders.
Even if it was a military failure, the 38’s attack, German leaders though, proved to Britain, and to rest of the world one thing: that German technical superiority will help win the war for the Central Powers.
Back on England, the reaction assumed a more somber tone. As late as 1913, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, mocked the value of ‘these gaseous monster’ as tools of war. By June 1915, no one in the Admiralty was ridiculing the Zeppelins. As the summers months drag along, the British shifted resources to the development of long range anti aircraft guns, pure interceptors and the establishment of a coordinated airship detection units along the English Channel coast.
On July 11th 1915, Wilhelm lifted what ever constraints the German armed forces operated. Now ‘Huns’ Zeppelins were free to roam the London skyline. All targets around the venerable British capital were to be subjected to bombardment, all of them except St. Paul Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. Historic structures that was closely associated with the Kaiser’s English royal relatives.
– Raul Colon
Fire Over England: The German Air Raids in World War I, HG Castle, Secker & Warburg, 1982
Zeppelins Over England, EK Poolman, Evan Brothers 1960