How public learned truth of Black Country Zeppelin raids

In early 1916 the dreaded Zeppelins staged one of their most daring raids of the Great War which took them into the heart of the Midlands.

A crowd at a bomb crater in Bradford Place, Walsall.
A crowd at a bomb crater in Bradford Place, Walsall.

One brought death and destruction to the Black Country and another of the airships wandered over Shrewsbury and Welshpool in Mid Wales, making it one of the deepest penetrations of the entire conflict.

Censored reports appeared at the time, but it was 100 years ago, in September 1920, that a series of articles in The Times gave the public the first authentic account of the raids of the night of January 31 and February 1, 1916.

Nine Zeppelins, it said, crossed the North Sea and four penetrated more than 150 miles inland. More than 360 bombs were dropped during the attack and there were 183 casualties, according to The Times.

The Germans claimed to have bombed Liverpool and Manchester but in actual fact the airship crews were not where they thought they were and bombs fell on various locations across the Midlands. Two of the Zeppelins, L21 and L19, hit the Black Country.

L21 was captained by Max Dietrich, an uncle of the famous singer and actress, Marlene Dietrich.

More than 30 lives were lost in Tipton, Wednesbury, Bilston and Walsall.

This is claimed to show a Zeppelin caught in searchlights over Shrewsbury.

One of the Walsall casualties was the Lady Mayoress, Mary Julia Slater, a passenger on a tram, who died of her injuries a few weeks later.

The Times detailed the journey of another of the raiders, L14, which went way beyond the West Midlands, travelling up into Shropshire and Mid |Wales.

The newspaper said: "It crossed the coast just south of the Wash, steered south-west towards Wisbech, north-west in the direction of Grantham, and then almost due west until at 10.5 it was just east of Shrewsbury.

"So far it had only dropped one bomb at Wisbech. At Shrewsbury it was 180 miles in a straight line from the coast – farther west than any German ever reached in the war except Stabbert, when he made that crazy trip of his in the L20 to Loch Ness in May, at the end of which he came to grief on the coast of Norway.

"Stopping short of Shrewsbury, the L14 turned south-east, made some curious loops that took in Wellington and Shifnal, and then made her way to Leicestershire, where she dropped bombs near Ashby, then to Derby (more bombs), south of Nottingham to Lincolnshire, and so the sea.

"Her commander, Bocker, must presumably have mistaken the valley of the Trent for that of the Mersey, Derby for Manchester, and Nottingham for Sheffield, though where on that theory he thought he was when he was near Shrewsbury staggers conjecture."

Some years ago an old family photo emerged, owned by Burle Thorne, of Shrewsbury, which had been kept in an envelope on which was written “German Zeppelin in the searchlights over Shrewsbury, approx 1916/1917”.

Mrs Thorns told us at the time: “It belonged to my in-laws, Mr Arthur Field Thorne, and Gladys Mary Thorne, from Oswestry. My mother-in-law’s cousin was stationed at Copthorne Barracks and I believe he took the photograph. Before my mother-in-law died she gave the photograph to my husband, John, the eldest son.”

The Great Western Railway produced this map tracking the route of L14.

As a Zeppelin caught in searchlights over Shrewsbury would undoubtedly have become part of local folklore – and is not – perhaps the picture was taken somewhere else, but nevertheless it underlines the sensational impact these machines had during the First World War on the public consciousness.

The creation of Count von Zeppelin, a retired German army officer, the flying weapon was lighter than air, filled with hydrogen, and held together by a steel framework.

When the war started in 1914, the German armed forces had several Zeppelins, each capable of travelling at about 85mph and carrying up to two tonnes of bombs.

With military deadlock on the Western Front, the Germans decided to use them against towns and cities in Britain. The first raid took place on the eastern coastal towns of Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn, on 19 January 1915. Residents reported hearing an eerie throbbing sound above them, followed shortly afterwards by the sound of explosions in the streets.

The full horror of aerial warfare was unleashed. When the smoke cleared, Britain's first ever air-raid causalities were revealed – 72-year-old Martha Taylor and shoemaker Samuel Smith.

Kate Argyle, from English Heritage, said: "There was no military advantage. It was all about instilling terror and really that's what these aerial bombardments did. The Zeppelins would come out of the dark – you couldn't see them and it was totally random. You didn't know if you were running towards danger or away from it."

The aim of the Zeppelins was clear. The Germans hoped to break morale at home and force the British government into abandoning the war in the trenches.

But as in the Blitz in the Second World War, the strategy failed. There was not the sort of chaos and panic that the Germans had wanted.

"The people reacted very stoically, they got on with the job of clearing up – that British sense of not being fazed by this," Ms Argyle said.

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