Meeting Notes – October 2013
Paul Phantom works at the Birmingham City University and started his PhD in 1999, under the auspices of Carl Chinn – and was about Wednesbury on the home front in the Great War. As such his talk on The Midlands first blitz: Zeppelins over the Black Country fell into this brief. The Great War saw both industry and technology harnessed together, which would be affected by the Zeppelin raids – which Paul stated was the first strategic bombing campaign in the history of aviation. The places raided were Tipton, Bradley, Wednesbury and Walsall, and the destruction that these places suffered were hitherto unimaginable.
Paul gave a brief history of the Zeppelin – first flew in 1900, and from such modest beginnings came a formidable weapon, which needed logistical support to make it happen, eg wireless, hangers, handling ground staff, and they were used mainly for reconnaissance, at first. He described them as the first stealth bombers!
Peter Strasser was the Commander of the Imperial German Navy’s Airship Division, and he realised that modern warfare is total warfare. He was shot down and killed whilst aboard L70 in August 1918, by Major Egbert Cadbury [who Paul has given a talk on].
Paul P. then gave an outline of Zeppelin raids on the UK, beginning in January 1915, with the first casualties recorded in East Anglia. ‘Our’ raid took place on 31 January 1916, with several targets planned, with Liverpool as a favourite. Many crews, in fact, claimed to have bombed it, but Paul stated they had not even got that far. Two airships were involved in the eventual bombing of the Black Country: L19 (also known as LZ61) under the command of Odo Loewe. It carried 1600kg of bombs; and L21 (LZ61) under Max Dietrich (the uncle of Marlene.) This Zeppelin was practically brand new, and similar to the other, though it was longer and carried a far greater bomb load – 1760kg.
As they met the British coast they encountered rain and snow, with the result that all the other ships in the raid soon dispersed. They crossed the coast at 1920, and L21 soon found themselves over the Midlands – not over Liverpool, where they thought they were. What they thought was Liverpool was in fact Derby, and Birkenhead turned out to be Walsall and Wednesbury. Bombs started falling on Tipton at 2000, with two houses being destroyed in Union Street, and a family killed. In lower Bradley five bombs were dropped, which damaged canal banks, and a courting couple (strangely with the same surname) were killed. In Wednesbury another family were killed by bombs at 2015, in Kings Street; whilst Walsall sustained hits and casualties, including the Lady Mayoress, Mrs Mary Julia Slater, who later died of her injuries. After this L21 returned to base, via Sutton Coldfield, and dropped its remaining bombs over Northamptonshire – with no damage being sustained.
L19, meanwhile, found itself over Birmingham, which was blacked out. It reached Wednesbury at midnight, and dropped a single bomb, then reached Dudley, where it dropped five high explosives and seven incendaries. Tipton was then bombed: 12 h/e bombs, and damage resulted; at 1225 it was Walsall’s turn, and livestock was killed. It then started to make its way home, following roughly the same route as L21, but engine trouble soon arose, and three out of its four engines failed. It was fired on from the Frisian islands, by the Dutch, and went down in the north Sea, alongside a British trawler, the King Stephen. The zeppelin was still afloat and its crew awaited rescue from the trawler – however, the captain refused to give assistance as he thought the 16 armed Germans could have overpowered his ship. As a result the zeppelin crew put messages into bottles, which eventually turned up in Sweden, on 2 February 1916. They all died.
Paul talked about the statistics of the raid: 379 bombs were dropped, 70 were killed, and 113 were injured. The zeppelin crew were branded ‘babykillers’ in the press.
Paul reported that the raids had a significant affect on production, following the raids, with pressure on hospitals, police diverted from other tasks, etc, but he stressed that people’s fighting strength shone through. There was also a high political cost, with a high civilian anxiety about future raids, so there was great relief when on 3 September 1916 SL11 (though technically not a zeppelin) was shot down by Lt/ W. Leefe Robinson – the first to be destroyed from the air (a B.E. 2c of 39 Squadron, RFC).
L21 itself was shot down, again from the air, by another B.E.2c piloted by Flt.Sub.-Lt. E.L. Pulling, from the RNAS, Yarmouth, on 28 November 1916. Dietrich was not on board, but was later shot down in a different airship.
Paul reported that aircraft then took over the bombing role over the UK, and that when the Armistice came the airships were destroyed by their own crews rather than be handed over. There are war memorials at all the placers bombed in the Black Country, and Paul spoke about the distinction between the home front and the war front was now blurred – we were now in the time of industrial warfare when violence could come in the middle of the night. Gradually, as a result of the bombing, early warning systems were established, and better aircraft introduced to combat the menace.
An excellent talk, backed up by a brief PowerPoint. Alun pointed out that the first aerial bombing had taken place by the Italians over Libya in 1911, and though tactical in nature was designed for shock and awe over the natives so, therefore, he might justifiably argue that that was the first strategic use of bombing.
Paul H had brought a piece of L70 along, which was fascinating to behold. One question raised the issue of what airfields were in the vicinity of the bombings. I can report that Kingswinford (Dudley) had a base established in April 1916 until June 1917, and 38 (Home Defence) Squadron, RFC, operated from it, as part of the Home Defence Wing (Northern). There is no evidence, at present, that Halfpenny Green or Dunstall had airstrips, but watch this space.
Joseph MORRIS: The German air raids on Great Britain 1914-1918.
1925, reprinted 2007.
You might also try Brian BAKER: the Zeppelin graves on Cannock Chase. 2001. This would tie in quite nicely with a visit to the area in 2014, as part of the Great War events.