‘A Mechanism of Murder’: The Zeppelin Raids in the First World War

The First World War was the first time that a civilian population, far from the front line, had been subject to aerial bombardment. It is estimated that German Zeppelin raids on Britain killed or injured nearly 2000 people. The capacity of the Zeppelins, flying at high altitude and often undetected, to appear at night over towns and cities brought the war to the doorstep of families across eastern and southern England. Indiscriminate bombing of city centres and housing caused outrage, with the German Zeppelin crews labelled as ‘baby killers’. The attacks also generated fear and panic, with the armed forces initially unable to counter the Zeppelin threat. In an attempt to restore public confidence, guns were withdrawn from the western front to defend the major cities and aircraft were stationed in coastal areas to intercept the airships. At first, however, the guns had very little success in downing the Zeppelins, and the aircrew, with little experience of night flying, incurred heavy losses with little or no impact on the Zeppelin raids.

Raids were undertaken with devastating effect on towns on the eastern and southern coast of England including Hull, Hartlepool, Great Yarmouth, Southend, Gravesend and Ramsgate. In addition, attacks on London often resulted in many towns, in a wide arc around the capital, being bombed either by mistake or deliberately by airships that had failed to reach their target. The Zeppelin’s reputation for using both high explosives and incendiary devices meant they had the capacity to destroy large tracts of towns and inflict significant casualties. The mood amongst the civilian population was that nowhere was safe from attack. Yet during the early raids on London people came out into the streets to watch the attacks. The German airships, some 200m in length and flying, by 1916, at heights of up to 4000m both fascinated and terrified a civilian population totally unprepared for this new type of warfare.

Although South Wales was a good distance from the initial raids there was no doubt that, by 1915, there were fears that centres such as Cardiff, Newport and Swansea could well be subject to attack. The fear of the Zeppelin resulted in Cardiff schools preparing instructions on what to do in the event of a raid. One such set of instructions developed for the Cardiff High School for Girls still survives and it is held at the Glamorgan Archives (Cardiff High School Old Girls’ Association, Memorabilia, DX263/38/7).


Possibly produced in haste and hand written the instructions state that the alarm for a Zeppelin attack would be …a gong, a police whistle and loud electric bell all to be used together. This would then be followed by a pause and one blast of a horn – known as the ‘Special Signal’. In the event of an attack the top storey of the school was to be evacuated and all pupils were to be returned to their class rooms or to the Secretary’s or Mistress’ Room. The movement of pupils was  to be completed with military precision – Single file only on stair cases. Run down stairs as when going to drill, smart marching only on corridors.

It has be remembered that there was no experience of dealing with such attacks and certainly nothing akin to the air raid shelters provided for civilians during the Second World War. On the one hand the decision to keep the pupils indoors during an attack made sense but, as one school in Poplar, London was to discover in 1917, it also could have tragic results if the building received a direct hit.

Fortunately, the instructions for Cardiff schools were only needed for practice drills. However, ongoing fear of attack continued to be fuelled by reports of raids both in the newspapers and from the first-hand accounts provided by men and women from south Wales serving in London and the south east. Glamorgan Archives holds an account of a Zeppelin raid on London produced by a Cardiff man, Albert Phillips, in October 1915.

The first Zeppelin attack on London took place in May 1915. It is claimed that raids were restricted initially to East London by order of the Kaiser who did not wish to harm his relatives in the British Royal Family. If so, this directive had clearly been dropped by October when one of the most devastating attacks on central London was launched on the night of 13 October. Known at the ‘Theatreland Raid’, the attack was reported by a young Cardiff man, A J Phillips, serving with Royal Army Medical Corps at the Millbank Barracks in London. Albert was the son of a carpenter, Thomas Phillips of Monthermer Road, and had attended Albany Road School and later the Cardiff Municipal Secondary School – referred to by pupils as the MSS. At the time of the Zeppelin attack he was 21 years of age and, along with many other former pupils of the MSS, Albert Phillips wrote on a regular basis to his former Head teacher, William Dyche, about his war time experiences. William Dyche retained the letters received in 1914-16 and they are now held at the Glamorgan Archives. The letters provide a fascinating and first-hand account of service in the armed forces in World War 1 from basic training through to life at the front in just about every theatre of  war.

In his letters to William Dyche, Albert Phillips had initially bemoaned his luck in being posted by the RAMC to London rather than straight into the action in France.

EHGSEC11_54 part1

As you see I’m still groping along the road that leads to nowhere, in the R.A.M.C. Daniel and I are orderlies in an officers’ hospital at Millbank, and our lives resemble very much that of a domestic and an oppressed one at that.

However, the drudgery of hospital life was suddenly replaced with very different work on the night of 13 October when the Zeppelins arrived over London:

EHGSEC11_54 p2

London was excited last evening. I happened to be in the Zeppelin squad detailed for duty in case of emergency. A message came from the War Office, to stand by stretchers, and while waiting in readiness – in spite of the fact that some of us who are Kitchener’s men (as opposed to the St. John’s men) knew not the slightest thing about stretchers – we heard a succession of loud reports, and on rushing out of the guardroom could distinctly see the Zeppelin sailing rapidly above what might have been the “City”. It was a wonderfully clear night and, in addition, the invader was illuminated by the ring of the searchlights turned upon it. The anti-aircraft guns did their best, no doubt, but the shells exploded at a safe distance from the airship. After about five or ten minutes, during which time it was travelling at a very high speed, the Zep turned seawards.

The first visit was at about 10 o’clock. At about midnight, the airship was said to have returned near London again. Some of our fellows claim that they saw it, but I was not so lucky. This is the second time that the raids have penetrated over the city since I have been here. The damage done to buildings is not serious, consisting mainly of injury to theatres and offices near the Strand and Aldwych. The papers this morning published the number of killed at 6, but I have heard as absolute fact that at least sixteen were killed. Some dozen dead were brought to Charing Cross Hospital, where a few of our men were called in off the streets, to give assistance. I expect that the raids have not finished, with this mild weather (Letter from A J Phillips to William Dyche, 14 October 1915, EHGSEC/11/54).

The Theatre land attack was undertaken by 5 Zeppelins, with only one penetrating and attacking central London. Bombs were dropped by Zeppelin L15 on the Strand, Aldwych, Gray’s and Lincoln’s Inn and Finsbury. Phillips’ assessment was close to the mark in that 17 were killed and over 20 injured by the bombs dropped close to the Lyceum Theatre. However, at that point he was not aware of the destruction wrought by L15 on other areas of London that resulted in a further 7 deaths and over 20 injured. Furthermore, the other four Zeppelins, having failed to reach central London, had dropped their bombs in a wide arc around the city including attacks on Guildford, Tunbridge Wells and Hertford. As with previous raids, the gunners, by and large, did not have the range to threaten the airships and the British aircraft were unable to find the Zeppelins in the night sky. In all almost 200 people were killed or injured in what was one of the most costly attacks on Britain by Zeppelins during the First World War.

Few realised that the Zeppelins, flying at night, rarely reached or hit their targets. Difficulties with navigation, coping with poor weather and ongoing mechanical problems resulted in many airships failing to reach their targets or ending up hopelessly off course. Yet the very fact that the Zeppelins, uncertain of their position, often chose, to ditch their bombs before returning across the Channel made the bombing all the more indiscriminate, and difficult to counter or prepare for . In recognition of their inability to hit targets with any level of precision, Zeppelins frequently used incendiary devices to create wide scale damage through high altitude bombing. The mixture of surprise and the potential to inflict heavy casualties made the Zeppelins one of the most feared weapons of the war in the eyes of the civilian population and they were dubbed the ‘Mechanism of Murder’ by the newspapers.

In September 1916 Lt William Leefe Robinson became the first airman to shoot down a German airship over England. Fragments retrieved from the wreckage of Zeppelins were much prized and often used by organisations such as the Red Cross in national fundraising drives. Again, Glamorgan Archives holds an example of a fragment of the German Zeppelin L31 exhibited in the Cardiff Exchange on 20 October 1916 by the Red Cross as part of the ‘Our Day’ fundraising campaign (DCOMC/1/15/9).


L31 was shot down by 2nd Lieut Wulfstan Tempest at Potters Bar on Oct 2 1916. The downing of L31 was indicative of the growing confidence of pilots and anti-aircraft gunners, working with searchlight teams and gaining the upper hand in the battle against the Zeppelin. As with most airships brought down in this period, the German Captain, Heinrich Mathy, and his crew of 19 were killed, in some cases jumping from the airship to escape the flames.  It was claimed in the press that the wreckage had helped identify ‘the secrets of the Zeppelin’. In fact, the development of incendiary and explosive shells designed specifically to tear through the thin airship coverings and ignite the gas inside had already provided a key development in countering the Zeppelin threat.

By mid-1917 significant numbers of airships were being lost to both ground and aircraft fire. Although Zeppelin attacks continued until the latter half of 1918, by the end of 1917, the use of airships was being phased out by the Germans military. On the one hand this was a victory for the British armed forces. Set against this the Germans had now developed a range of aircraft, including the Gotha bomber, that were much more effective in reaching and hitting their target. Although the Zeppelin war had been won, the battle for the air was to continue throughout the first world war. The raids generated a fear of the ‘bomber’ that was to remain with the civilian population and colour military thinking right up until, and throughout, the Second World War.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

One thought on “‘A Mechanism of Murder’: The Zeppelin Raids in the First World War

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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