Zeppelin raid on the East Coast

Postcard, 'The Midnight Assassin', commemorating the Zeppelin raid on the East Coast on 6 June 1915. © East Riding Museum Service.

Zeppelins were huge airships that the Germans used to drop bombs on British targets. Raids on Lincolnshire, the East Riding and Hull during 1915 and 1916 killed or injured hundreds of people and terrified the civilian population.

Damage caused by a Zeppelin raid on Market Square in Hull, next to Trinity Church, 6 June 1915. Image (c) Hull Museums.

Damage caused to Market Square, Hull, by the Zeppelin raid on 6 June 1915. Image © Hull Museums.

The Zeppelin is named after a retired German army officer, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who built his first airship in 1900. Zeppelins consisted of a huge balloon, shaped like a cigar, which was filled with hydrogen and had a large basket slung underneath. Before the war Zeppelins were used for pleasure cruises but the German military soon realised that they could be used to attack the British population. Zeppelins were capable of travelling at about 85mph and carrying up to two tons of bombs. They could fly further than aeroplanes, though they were slower to get off the ground and more difficult to manoeuvre.

The first Zeppelin raid was on Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn in January 1915, but many more followed. The east coast of Britain was particularly vulnerable as it could be easily reached by flying across the North Sea from the north west German coast.

There were raids on Lincolnshire, the East Riding and Hull during 1915 and 1916 which caused deaths and hundreds of injuries, and far more air raid warnings. The local press agreed not to report on the Zeppelin raids so as not to cause panic. Nationally, 1,400 people were killed and more than 3,400 wounded in air raids during the First World War.

The raid of 6 June 1915

The L9 airship was first spotted on the evening of 6 June off the coast of Cromer.  Its captain, Heinrich Mathy, was told to target London, or a coastal town if that wasn’t possible. Weather conditions made it difficult to fly towards London so Mathy turned towards the Humber instead.

Later that night the Hull air raid warning sounded and crowds of people came out onto the streets. The first bombs fell upon Alexandra Dock just before midnight. The official report records that there were 13 high explosive and 39 incendiary bombs dropped on different locations in Hull. The bombs and resulting fires destroyed 40 houses and a number of commercial buildings. 24 people were killed and 40 more injured in Hull. Mathy then turned the Zeppelin towards Grimsby where it released at least six incendiary bombs, though they did little damage.

The  response to Zeppelin raids

Zeppelin raids caused widespread fear among the civilian population and the authorities had to act. During 1915 careful preparations were made to manage the impact of air raids. Hull was divided into six districts – West, North West, Central, North East, East and the River section – staffed by over 3,000 volunteer Special Constables whose job was to patrol the streets when the air raid alarm had sounded to ensure all lights were put out. Lights on the ground would help enemy Zeppelin crews work out where they were, so it was important to have as complete a blackout as possible. In the spring of 1915, 25 dressing stations were set up in different parts of Hull to deal with casualties, staffed according to need.

By 1916 the British had developed defences against the Zeppelin threat including guns and searchlights. They realised that the Zeppelin balloons were very vulnerable to explosive shells which set light to the hydrogen. In 1917 Zeppelin raids were called off. However, both sides had realised the importance of air warfare and aeroplane technology developed rapidly.

Learning resources

For downloadable images, teachers’ notes and activity ideas relating to the Zeppelin raids please go to http://www.mylearning.org/zeppelin-raids-in-the-humber-during-ww1/