Zeppelin raids on Essex

Until the Great War the only attack from the air was from shells fired from big guns but during the war for the first time the threat from the air not only came at the battlefront but to civilians in Great Britain via Zeppelin and then the Gotha Bombers.

The Zeppelin was invented by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin and took to the air in 1900 with the intention of use for commercial air flights.

This proved a success which prompted the Germans to pioneer the use of airships for military use and a pattern followed of army use close to the battlefield with naval use far ranging.

Once the war began speculation in the press grew that the naval airships would used to bring the war to mainland England using bombs that were small by modern standard but the fear of being bombed caused great consternation throughout the country and a blackout was organised by October 1914 well before any actual raids.

The first real raid was in January 1915 when several airships passed over Great Yarmouth and dropped a few bombs in Norfolk. While there was not a great deal of damage it raised public fear and recruiting for the army.

  WW1 recruiting poster

The first raid on Essex was on 17 April 1915 when an airship passed over Southminster and dropped 24 bombs on Maldon killing two chickens! Other airships attacked  Southwold before going inland and making their way home over Essex. They returned on 14 May 1915 and dropped one hundred bombs at Southend on Sea killing a woman and causing damage. From then on Zeppelin raids were to be a regular feature of life in Essex albeit that many flew over Essex to get to London and other UK targets with many of the Essex bombings from Zeppelins on their way home ensuring that their bombs were all dropped over England even if not on their original targets.

Troops inspect bomb damage at Maldon in 1915

Early in the war there was little defence against the Zeppelin as no guns could reach the height at which the airships flew and there was no previous experience of dealing with air attack.

By 1915 the defences were better organised with searchlights, barrage balloons and effective guns guarding important targets although the civilian areas were still at risk especially given the inaccurate bombing from Zeppelins.

There was increased public concern about the raids which led to construction of air raid shelters, both individual and public and all schools were required to practice an air raid drill to evacuate schools if Zeppelins were sighted although this rarely happened in reality.

A ring of home defence airfields were constructed at sites like Stow Maries, Burnham on Crouch, Goldhanger, Rochford, North Weald and Hornchurch although initially the fighter aircraft found it difficult to shoot down the Zeppelins.

The wreckage of SL11 at Cuffley

This new defence brought some success as on the 3 September 1916 a BE2c flown by 2nd Lt William Leefe Robinson from Suttons Farm, Hornchurch shot down airship SL11 which crashed in Cuffley, Hertfordshire and on 24 September 1916 Zeppelin L 32 was shot down by 2nd Lt Frederick Sowey also from Suttons Farm and the Zeppelin crashed at Billericay, Essex where it became an attraction visited by thousands of people.

From that date raids by Zeppelins grew less frequent but were replaced by raids from long distance Gotha Bombers which continued the aerial threat although in some way there were not seen as terrifying at the huge Zeppelins.