It is rubbish to say that London isn’t in a panic.
Lady Lilah Morrison-Bell, 3 October 1917
The war unleashed a new terror on the people of Britain. For the first time they became targets of air raids. The home front was vital to Britain’s war effort. So Germany sought to bring fear, death and destruction to British cities and towns using first airships, known as Zeppelins, and then aeroplanes.
How did people react? Britons were horrified as men, women and children became victims of German ‘frightfulness’ from the air.
People were angry that there was no proper warning system or shelters and not enough searchlights, aircraft or guns to combat the German raiders.
Yet the raids only increased British people’s determination to support the war effort.
In January 1915 two German airships, or Zeppelins, raided England’s east coast. It was the start of an aerial terror bombing campaign which marked a new chapter in the history of warfare. From 1917 aeroplanes with heavier bomb loads intensified the attacks. By the end of the war, air raids had killed 1,414 men, women and children in Britain.
But Germany’s aircraft were too few in number and not powerful enough to bomb Britain into submission.
Above you is an observation car from a Zeppelin. The car was winched down below cloud level. It contained an observer with a telephone who helped navigate the airship and aim the bombs.
This car was dumped by a Zeppelin to gain height as fighter planes pursued it over Colchester, Essex, in September 1916.
The car was the only place on these highly inflammable airships where crew members could smoke.
When first put up on 9 February 1915, the ‘Public Warning’ poster here rapidly drew large crowds. For many people air raids meant their first experience of seeing an aircraft. Although the chances of being killed or injured were slim, the attacks caused panic. The ‘Daily Mail’ poster offered insurance for ‘regular readers’ against death, injury or damage to property. The Belgian artist Louis Raemaekers specialised in scenes of German attacks against civilian populations.
This charred map of London was recovered from the wreckage of Zeppelin L31, shot down over Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, on 1 October 1916. As the airship fell in flames, ‘roaring like a furnace’, the crew were seen, ‘leaping vainly for their lives, and in the glare presented a hideous sight as they fell and were broken horribly upon the meadows while the watching crowds, exultant, roared out the National Anthem’.
The large high explosive bomb above you was dropped by a Zeppelin airship over north-east England in 1918. The two smaller incendiary bombs in the showcase were intended to set buildings ablaze. ‘Great booming sounds shake the city… bombs - falling - killing - burning’, wrote an American journalist who witnessed a raid on London.
Air raids were such a novelty that sightseers flocked to see the devastation they wreaked and the remains of any downed German aircraft. But while British planes began to shoot down Zeppelins in 1916, the faster German Gotha bombers that superseded them seemed unstoppable. The first raid by Gothas on London in June 1917 caused the heaviest casualties, 162 dead and 432 injured. The Gothas created such fear that 300,000 people sheltered in the London Underground nightly.
These incendiary bullets were invented by New Zealander John Pomeroy. When they struck an airship, they ignited the hydrogen gas that kept it airborne. First used in action in September 1916, Pomeroy bullets helped swing the advantage in the skies over Britain from the German attackers to the British defenders.
Napkin and photo
This napkin commemorates the first shooting down of a German airship by a British plane. The photograph is of the 21-year-old pilot, Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson, who destroyed SL11 over Cuffley, Hertfordshire, on 3 September 1916.
He became the idol of the public and press, ‘Lieut. Robinson, with his handsome features, boyish laugh, modest courage, and infallible skill approximates to the ideal hero of the air’.
Badge and cufflinks
People wanted to own a piece of history. The badge and souvenir cufflinks here were made from pieces of airship SL 11 and sold to raise money for the Red Cross.
Lieutenant Leefe Robinson was astounded at the jubilation over his feat, ‘and the cause of it all – little me sitting in my little aeroplane above 13,000 feet of darkness!! - It’s wonderful!’
He was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Letter and debris
This letter was written by Patrick Blundstone, a schoolboy who witnessed airship SL11 crashing to earth near the house in Cuffley where he was staying. Writing excitedly to his father in London hours after the incident, Patrick was one of those who picked up souvenir pieces of debris from the airship, such as those shown here.
Ammunition box and binoculars
The ammunition box and binoculars and other airship fragments displayed here came from Zeppelin L31. The third airship to fall victim to British fighters, it was shot down by Second Lieutenant Wulfstan Tempest. The crew of the airship were all killed, including the commander, Heinrich Mathy. Realising airships were now vulnerable, Mathy wrote before his death, ‘It is only a question of time before we join the rest’.
Lieutenant Tony Arkell, aged 19, kept this propeller from a Gotha bomber. He was the pilot of the Bristol Fighter aircraft ‘Devil in the Dusk’ which shot the raider down over London, on 20 May 1918.
Arkell described the action in a letter to his father. He also kept these newspaper articles celebrating his success and his official pass to view the wreckage. He and his observer-gunner were awarded medals.
Lieutenant Arkell and his observer-gunner view the Gotha wreckage