Our new exhibition, Gasbags to Super Zeppelins, gives visitors an insight into the early developments of using aviation as a weapon of war in World War One. As ever in wartime, technology develops far more rapidly than in times of peace, but just as remarkable is the effect that this new weapon had on the civilian population of Yorkshire.
Many familiar Yorkshire towns were targeted as although the Royal Flying Corps was formed in 1912, little thought had been given to homeland defence from aerial attack. The principle objective being to support the British Expeditionary Force as it was mobilised to defend Belgium’s right to independence and neutrality.
The Royal Navy was quick to replicate the RFC squadrons and by the time war was declared, it was decided that, Britain being a maritime nation with natural sea defences, the Royal Navy was to be responsible for the air defence of Britain.
To his credit, Winston Churchill, at the time The First Lord of the Admiralty, had predicted Zeppelin raids in the near future, but Yorkshire had seen very little of combat aircraft at all. However, across the North Sea were the Zeppelin bases in Germany and occupied Belgium. With Hull docks a vital part of Britain’s war effort and the Humber estuary very easy to spot from the air, the temptation was too great for the Zeppelin crews, eager for an attack on the enemy’s homeland.
On the night of 19-20th January, Zeppelin L-3 attempted an attack on Hull docks. Aerial navigation was rudimentary and the airship missed the target landfall by eighty miles. Instead they spared Humberside and steered south, attacking Great Yarmouth to the distress of the civilian population, without interference.
Several months later in June, another German airship, SL-3, approached the Yorkshire coast over Flamborough Head and dropped three bombs over Driffield. The German crews were elated at the lack of opposition, cruising around for over two hours. They returned again the following night over Hull. This time with far more accuracy, dropping more than fifty bombs and killing twenty five people below, before moving over to Grimsby and dropping more.
While the number of civilian casualties was low in relation to the bloodshed on the fighting front, the mental effect on the civilian population was one of widespread fear and alarm. The concept of ‘total war’ was alien to them, war was always something undertaken only by military personnel. They felt betrayed by a government that had failed to protect them from German aerial attack.
In Hull, unrest was very evident, with open hostility and suspicion towards families with German sounding names and many people actually leaving the city for the open countryside in search of safety. The approach to the River Humber was very easy to spot from the air and the population feared ever more frequent attacks, placing little faith in defences.
This reaction may seem bizarre in today’s world, but at the time, Britain had never experienced sudden air attack. With little or no air raid warning system, no Government advice or leadership on what to do and nothing to help civilians to take practical steps on survival, it’s perhaps not too surprising that panic and unrest out of all proportion to the threat was a common theme.
All the population knew was that Zeppelins were huge and easy to see, frightening to hear overhead and they seemed big and slow, so why were they proving to be invulnerable?
The first partially successful defence by an RFC aircraft of Yorkshire skies seems to have been in August 1915, when two Bristol TB-8’s and a Bleriot deterred Zeppelin L-9 from bombing Bridlington. However, the German crew simply ascended and moved offshore before returning further south over Goole, where they killed 19 people with bombing.
Throughout the following months, many Yorkshire coastal towns and sites of industry were targeted. Familiar landmarks including Whitby, Skinningrove, Saltburn, Beverley and then inland towards Leeds and York were all selected as objectives, often with fleets of six or ten airships, roaming with little effective opposition over Yorkshire.
So how effective were the Zeppelin raids on Yorkshire?
In comparison with the loss of life on the front line, the death toll was miniscule. But the German plan had never been one of large scale destruction. As early as 1914, German military leaders including Konteradmiral Paul Behncke, the Deputy Chief of the German Naval Staff, had proposed raids with the prime objective being to spread fear and destroy morale, bringing the war to an early end as the population lost the will to continue.
In this, they enjoyed early success. A population of a town would run for open countryside at the sight or sound of a Zeppelin. Yet history records that far more bombs fell over open countryside that in urban areas. The poor precision of early bomb aiming meant that orchards, farms, vicarages and barns were more often the recipients.
Just how did the Govenment respond?
Initial responses were poor, with newspaper censorship being apparent to those affected, which simply incensed the Yorkshire population. The installation of an anti aircraft gun atop Blundells Factory in Hull for all to see was also rather badly judged when it was discovered to be wooden.
In response to the outcry, substantial defences were added in Hull included searchlights and anti aircraft batteries, something that Zeppelin commander Victor Schutze discovered on April 5/6th 1915 when his airship was forced to retreat after the surprise of the barrage of gunfire and searchlights.
The RFC were also spurred into action by the raids. Though it took time, the urgency of the all too evident threat to the northern munitions industry triggered more squadrons of aircraft and more anti aircraft defences.
Little remains of the early airfields used by the early RFC pilots. Most airfields were simply grass meadows with few permanent buildings and today, the only significant locations still evident are the racecourses that some flew from, including York Knavesmire, Redcar and Beverley.
Early night time RFC patrols were incredibly hazardous. With no instrumentation, a blackout imposed by the raids and the hazards of overnight fog in the low lying Vale of York, pilots were killed not by enemy fire, but in crashes trying to fly in the pitch darkness or becoming lost over the North Sea. The early BE2C was no match for the performance of the Zeppelins, taking an hour or more to climb to anywhere near the Zeppelin height. All too often, they watched in frustration as the airships simply gained altitude and climbed away.
The courage of these early home defence pilots and their attackers is without doubt. Had the home defenders been supplied with the newer Bristol Fighter, the techniques they were employing could well have been far more successful.
Instead, the German airship threat to Yorkshire receded, not due to combat losses but due to worries over the hydrogen used and also the advent of faster German biplane bombers such as the Gotha used to attack the London docklands.
The population of Yorkshire never did rejoice in what would have been the spectacular and morale boosting sight of a Zeppelin being shot down over the northern skies. But these early raids changed the course of warfare forever. The effectiveness of aerial bombardment as a terror weapon was established and anti aircraft defence was born.