World War One Zeppelin Raids

by Ellen Castelow

Before the outbreak of World War One, airships were the height of luxury travel. No one imagined they could be used to bring death and destruction to the coastal towns of Britain.

The first attack came on the night of 19th January 1915 when the German Zeppelin L3 attacked and bombed Great Yarmouth on the Norfolk coast, resulting in the death of two civilians. That same night another Zeppelin attacked Kings Lynn and two more people died.

German airships were known as Zeppelins after the German inventor who designed them, Count Ferdinand Von Zeppelin. These airships were constructed from a rigid shell filled with hydrogen gas, a flammable gas which could be highly explosive. Engines with propellers drove the airship forwards. Armed with five machine guns, the Zeppelins carried a deadly payload of bombs.

World War One Zeppelin poster

More raids followed. On May 31st 1915, there was a Zeppelin attack on London, killing 5 people and injuring 35. Edinburgh was attacked by two Zeppelin airships on the night of 2nd/3rd April 1916.

The Zeppelins seemed to be invincible, attacking at will and without loss. Defences against them seemed inadequate, morale was low amongst the public and people were terrified of these raids.

At first there was not much the British could do to counter this new airborne threat. The Zeppelins flew too high for the aeroplanes of the time to reach them to shoot them down. Their only real vulnerability was that the hydrogen gas bags used for lift were highly flammable. Ordinary bullets might pierce the gas bags but something different was needed if the Zeppelin was to be made to explode. With the invention of the Buckingham incendiary bullet (which not only pierced the gas bags but also ignited the hydrogen) the Zeppelin threat was effectively neutered.

Zeppelin on fire

In June 1917 the German military stopped using Zeppelins for bombing raids over Britain. Although a tremendous psychological weapon, they had actually caused little damage to the war effort.

Of the 115 Zeppelins used by the German military, 53 were lost and 24 were damaged beyond repair. In Britain 528 people, mostly civilians, had been killed and more than 1000 wounded during the Zeppelin attacks.

Interesting footnote:

Sausage skins made from animal intestine made perfect Zeppelin gas-bags. Intestines became so important to the German war effort that for a while sausage-making was banned in Germany.

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