Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
German Air Raids on Great Britain in the First World War
Neil R Storey
The History Press, January 2015
ISBN 9780 7509 56253
Storey chronicles seemingly every raid on the UK in WW1. The Germans had, even before the outbreak of hostilities, developed a technological lead in airship design, and had worked out how they would use them for strategic military effect. Unhappily, the British had not worked out how to counter this threat. Using copious reports, most presumably from the local press (there are no footnotes), the author narrates the response of civil and military powers which seem amateurish in the extreme. Unexploded bombs were treated with cavalier disregard for their potential to cause havoc. Indeed at least in the first year or so, there were many of them, as the Germans appear to have struggled to fuse their bombs correctly. The response of the British Army was too often confined to rifle fire – one would question its efficacy when aimed at a night-time target cruising at 12,000’ or so! Later, the Artillery’s howitzers with conventional shells, did little other than litter its fellow countrymen with dangerous shrapnel.
Storey does not spell out the intense navigational challenge faced by the Germans. The crews departed from their base (usually Nordholz in Upper Saxony) at breakfast time, and faced a slow journey into the prevailing winds over the North Sea to landfall, usually in East Anglia, after dusk. With a cruising speed of only 60 mph or so, the Zepps would have endured very significant wind drift. It must have required a sort of resigned bravery for these often chilled and hypoxic crews. With the British at least having the gumption to enforce a black out (although not as rigorously as in round 2 of the Anglo-German conflict), trying to find a worthwhile target was often very difficult. Hence they usually stooged around Suffolk and Norfolk somewhat casually dropping both incendiaries and HE bombs, with little effect other than on East Anglian wildlife. Less frequently they ventured further North. “L-10 went right over South Shields and dropped another HE bomb….Slight damage was done to a park railing.”
“The village of Greetwell received 15 HE bombs, which broke telephone wires and killed a sheep”.
Such random targeting did not prevent most German commanders ostensibly vastly over-claiming regarding the success of their raids. Whilst some commanders appear to have been very conscientious in pressing home their attacks, others turned tail at the English coast under the slightest pretext. The main military benefit to the Germans of this costly activity was in generating fear amongst the civilian population (night-time visitations from an extra-terrestrial monster must have seemed very HG Wells), and in causing some diversion of Britain’s military effort.
Occasionally larger cities were hit, and with working class housing so densely packed around factories and railheads, civilian casualties were disproportionate. Let those who criticise Bomber Harris’ decision to flatten Dresden in WW2 ponder that it was the Germans who had started wanton killing of civilian populations some thirty years earlier.
It was not until September 1916 that the RFC received ammunition that was suited to downing an airship, and the results were pleasing, with Leefe-Robinson being granted a VC by a relieved Government.
There is no discussion of the German’s bomb aiming technique, and whether this evolved during the course of the war. There are a couple of very welcome excerpts from German autobiographies to give the German viewpoint, and shed a little light on their modus operandi. However the book would have been much more rounded had there been some research in German archives. (I assume these are extant). As it is Zeppelin Blitz is a thorough narration of seemingly every raid, but after reading of the hundredth sheep or songbird to meet its maker, one is left gasping for a stiff drink.
It might have been useful as a reference book - for those interested in how Zeppelins impacted their English neighbourhood, but the indexing is very incomplete, and there is some sloppiness over place names (eg Manstone for Manston). Disappointing.