“In all previous forms of war, both by land and sea, the losing side was speedily unable to raid its antagonist’s territory and the communications. One fought on a “front,” and behind that front the winner’s supplies and resources, his towns and factories and capital, the peace of his country, were secure… In aerial war the stronger side, even supposing it destroyed the main battle fleet of the weaker, had then either to patrol and watch or destroy every possible point at which he might produce another and perhaps a novel and more deadly form of flyer. It meant darkening his air with airships. It meant building them by the thousand and making aeronauts by the hundred thousand…
And in the air are no streets, no channels, no point where one can say of an antagonist, “If he wants to reach my capital he must come by here.” In the air all directions lead everywhere.”
–HG Wells ‘The War in the Air’, 1907
On the night of January 19th, 1915 Great Yarmouth, England seemed a world way from the bloody carnage of the trenches in Flanders where hundreds of thousands of young Englishmen were fighting and dying. The fishing village 20 miles to the east of Norwich was hardly a military target, housing neither significant industries nor a population worth striking. And really, how could the town be struck, anyhow? The German Navy remained bottled up in port. The U-boat campaign, which would soon dominate British concerns, had barely begun.
The soft droning noise in the night air told a different story. Emerging from the darkness, two massive German Zeppelins dropped their payloads on Great Yarmouth, and several nearby towns. The cost in lives was minimal – 4 dead and 16 wounded. But the cost to public morale was astronomical. Wells’ fictional aerial apocalypse was now all too real – the Great War had come to the skies.
A British Army recruiting poster from 1915. Not exactly a winning argument – die in the trenches to avoid dying at home. Around 1,400 people were killed in almost 90 air raids in Britain during World War I
The process had been replayed many times already – initial hopes that the War would not escalate; would not consume some new front or turn some new technology into a means to kill or destroy, were constantly dashed, only to see the War expand further still. Why should the air be any different?
The attack on Great Yarmouth was hardly the first aerial assault in the Great War. From the war’s very beginning, Germany had assembled the “Ostend Carrier Pigeon Detachment” – a code-named unit for conducting Zeppelin raids on Entente targets. A few bombings had occurred at the start of the Belgian campaign. Liège and Antwerp were both hit in August and early September, causing very little damage and few civilian casualties. A more consistent bombing campaign by German byplanes had hit Paris in the opening weeks of the war, but the destruction was minimal and the German demands (dropped in leaflet form by the planes) of immediate surrender struck Parisians as more comical than threatening. An accidental bombing near the Notre Dame Cathedral, and the start of trench warfare, combined to seemingly end the German fascination with aerial bombardment before it even really began.
The remains of a British home in Suffolk of April 1915
If air bombardment was seeking an advocate in the German leadership, it wasn’t Kaiser Wilhelm II. While German Naval Commander Alfred von Tirpitz lobbied vigorously for attacking Britain through the air (perhaps in part because his fleet was being kept out of combat and any air campaign would be under the Naval office), Wilhelm was concerned that attacking Britain would mean attacking his English relatives – most of the houses of Europe were literally related. But as the hopes of a quick resolution to the war were dashed and 1914 became 1915, Wilhelm relented to his Admiral’s advice: “The measure of the success will lie not only in the injury which will be caused to the enemy, but also in the significant effect it will have in diminishing the enemy’s determination to prosecute the war,” Tirpitz claimed.
Britain would now experience it’s first “blitz.” “Nowadays there is no such animal as a non-combatant,” justified German Zeppelin corps commander Peter Strasser, “modern warfare is total warfare.”
Peter Strasser – head of Germany’s Zeppelin Corps. Strasser advocated the Zeppelin as a tool of “total war” against civilian populations
While today, the Zeppelin looks as an ungangily and vulnerable weapon of war, Zeppelins could travel up to 85 miles an hour and drop two tons of explosives on their targets below. With such destructive capabilities, Germany hoped that by bombing Britain, it would spark such fear that it would force the country out of the war. The military ramped up Zeppelin production to the point that Germany ceased production of sausage because the intestinal linings of cows that were used as sausage skins were required to fashion the skins of the Zeppelins’ leak-proof hydrogen chambers (A quarter-million cows were needed to build one Zeppelin).
A combination of government fear and technological limitations gave Britons few protections from the early Zeppelin raids. The persistent bombing campaigns against British targets may have led to the creation of the RAF (then, the Royal Flying Corps or RFC), but few planes could fly high enough to challenge them. Nor did the planes’ machine-gun fire have much effect, between the armored-plating of the Zeppelin and the difficultly of directing fire. Given such limited options for defense, London thought it best not to warn their citizens until the Zeppelins were directly above. Such moves minimized panic but probably maximized casualties as few civilians had time to seek cover once alerted to the Zeppelin threat.
Know Thy Enemy – and thy Friend, apparently.
This wasn’t to suggest Germany’s Zeppelin crews were either effective or having an easy time striking Britain. Zeppelins were frequently lost to bad weather, and few Zeppelins ever reached their intended targets. Indiscriminate bombing of civilians targets may have caused initial fear in the civilian populace, but fear quickly turned to rage. The Zeppelins were deemed “baby-killers,” and a tactic only worthy of the barbaric “Hun.” Instead of driving British public opinion to pull out of the War, the Zeppelin only deepened the English commitment to the fight.
The German response was to double-down on the bombing campaign and start targeting London; Wilhelm had long since gotten over his fear that an errant bomb might kill a distant relative. On September 8, 1915, the shadow of a Zeppelin passed over the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral and unloaded a three-ton bomb, the largest ever dropped at the time, on the city’s financial hub. The attack caused massive damage and killed 22 civilians, including six children. The Zeppelin raid would be the worst of the war on London. Britain immediately instituted blackouts and installed searchlights. Anti-aircraft defenses were diverted from the front lines in France and positioned around the capital. Authorities drained the lake in St. James’s Park to prevent its nighttime glitter from directing Zeppelins to nearby Buckingham Palace. And to build morale, Charlie Chaplin filmed a propaganda short in which he brought down a Zeppelin. Like Churchill would say a generation later, the British “could take it.”
A Zeppelin bomb crater in Paris
Technology was catching up to the Zeppelin crews. By 1916, the British had developed higher flying planes shooting explosive bullets designed to light the Zeppelin’s hydrogen interior on fire. Anti-aircraft gun targeting had improved and Zeppelin losses were increasing. 77 of the 115 Zeppelins used by the Germans were destroyed in action by the end of the war. Strasser ordered his fleet to fly at higher altitudes, but crews began to suffer from the frigid temperatures and became incapacitated from oxygen deprivation. Zeppelin effectiveness was further reduced.
By 1917, the Zeppelin had been made obsolete. But Germany’s belief that a sustained bombing campaign could force Britain to its knees hadn’t wavered. Operation Türkenkreuz saw the renewal of the German aerial assault, only this time with fixed-wing Gotha G.IV planes. With a crew of three, room for up to 4 machine-guns and capable of carrying a payload of a half-ton in explosives, the Gotha was the first German heavy bomber, and more than able to defend itself against Entente fighters.
The German Gotha G.IV. – the first “heavy bomber” of the Great War. Only around 230 were built (as were several hundred of similar Gotha models). Initially, the Gothas were the Great War’s equivalent of a B-29 Superfortress – capable of carrying both a massive payload and multiple machine guns
The Gothas attacked during the day, a far cry from the usual nighttime Zeppelin raids. A June 13, 1917 daytime raid on London killed 162 and wounded another 432 without the loss of a single Gotha. As frightening as the initial Zeppelin raids had been, they were nothing compared to the German Gothas. The Royal Flying Corps commander Lionel Charlton understood the long-term consequences of the raid, calling it “the beginning of a new epoch in the history of warfare.”
The British defense against the Gothas was even worse than their efforts against the Zeppelins. A July 1917 Gotha raid against London killed another 57 civilians and wounded 193. Over 100 sorties were launched against the Gotha formation, succeeding in shooting down one to the loss of two RFC planes. It wasn’t until August of 1917 that British air defenses could coordinate their counterattacks. The loss of three Gothas during an August raid convinced the Germans they had to switch to nighttime attacks as only 30 Gothas had originally been produced.
The Royal Flying Corps – the RFC would eventually become the RAF in 1918, but not before surviving horrendous casualty rates, including over 700 killed in 1917 alone (a large percentage of the RFC’s active pilots). Most of these pilots served in France, not in Britain
Worse for the Germans, the Royal Flying Corps finally decided to be proactive and target the Gothas on the ground. Sorties at St. Denis-Westrem and Gontrode in Belgium, the home of the Gotha airfields, forced the Germans to further push back their bases of operation. With even greater distances to travel, many Gotha formations missed their targets, dropping bombs on rural locations or even in the ocean.
By 1918, the Germans were desperate enough to press the Zeppelin and Gotha attacks regardless of the losses. Gothas were dropping like flies – a May 1918 squadron of over 40 planes lost 7 in an attack against London. The high rate of losses prompted Peter Strasser to personally direct an assault against London aboard one of his beloved Zeppelins. Leading a raiding party of four Zeppelins in early August 1918, British air defenses managed to shoot down Strasser’s Zeppelin, killing him and his entire crew. The remaining Zeppelins, leaderless, crashed either in England or at sea. It was the last Zeppelin raid of the Great War.
The remains of a Zeppelin. By the end of the war, the Zeppelin were little more than ineffective death traps for their German crews
By any definition, the German aerial campaign against Britain was a failure. Despite killing nearly 1,400 civilians and wounding another 3,300, the material damage to the British cause was only around 3 million pounds (47 million in 2014 pounds). The prime objective – knocking Britain out of the war – never came close to materializing. Throughout the Great War, Germany would adopt tactics that successfully struck at Britain’s ability to continue the fight. The unrestricted submarine warfare nearly starved Britain and the “Spring Offensive” of 1918, targeting the British Fifth Army, were both terrible blows to British morale. But Germany rarely committed to these campaigns except in fits and starts, and Germany never attempted to try them all at once. One can only imagine a Britain pressed by U-boats, bombed heavily by Zeppelins or byplanes and suffering major losses in France all at the same time. The German strategy of separating Britain from its French ally might have succeeded.
Nevertheless, the campaign had forever changed the nature of war. As Wells had predicted, the concept of a “front” at which all the fighting was done was now a 19th Century concept. Civilians were as much a target as soldiers in the field, if not more so as those civilians provided the material and political support necessary to maintain the war effort. Strasser was sadly correct – modern warfare was now total warfare. Strasser prided himself on his air ships being called “baby-killers.” In his mind, it only proved how effective his tactics had become.
British propaganda on the Zeppelin raids – dubbed “baby-killers,” the raids only deepened the British commitment to fight
British Prime Minister David Lloyd George promised to repay Germany for its air raids “with compound interest,” leading to the development of the four-engined Handley Page V/1500 bomber, designed to drop 7,500 lbs on Berlin. The Handley never saw action, and relatively few British bombs hit German territory. The few that did prompted German retribution – against French cities. Thus the French demanded that their British allies stop.
Berlin saw only one air raid during the War. In 1916 a French plane flew over Berlin and dropped not bombs but leaflets. For in the words of the translated leaflet, “Paris did not make war on women and children.”