Zeppelin Airship Attacks On London: Mapped

zeppelinhouse.jpg
A plaque on Farringdon Road marks the site of one Zeppelin attack.

A quarter of a century before the Blitz, London was terrorised by another aerial menace: gigantic airships, or Zeppelins, larger than an upended Gherkin building.

From 1915-1917, German airships unleashed hundreds of explosives and incendiaries on London. These first ever air raids on the city are now largely forgotten in the popular imagination, perhaps because of the much greater damage and death toll from the Second World War. But for Londoners of the time, the attacks were unprecedented, unexpected and lethal.

Around 200 people lost their lives in these night raids, and millions of pounds of damage was inflicted on the capital (not to mention the losses in coastal towns, which also suffered greatly). The first attack came on 31 May 1915. Number 16 Alkham Road in Stoke Newington carries the unenviable distinction of sustaining London’s first ever aerial bomb damage. No one was seriously injured. From there, however, the airship looped south over Hackney and round past Stratford, killing seven and injuring 35. The population and emergency services were caught by surprise in what must rank as one of the most terrifying nights in our city’s history.


View Zeppelins over London in a larger map

Notes on map: Rough flight paths are shown as coloured lines, with separate craft from the same evening shown in the same colour. Only a small selection of impact sites are shown. For the full details, see the Sources section below.

Further attacks followed. The airships flew at such a height that the ponderous air force fighters of the time were often unable to climb to the defence. Even when British pilots could engage with the enemy, the airships proved remarkably resilient to gunfire. When, finally, tactical and technical advances allowed British planes to engage, the Zeppelin crews stood no chance. Without parachutes, they were faced with the terrible decision of death by fire or fall. The airship threat soon disappeared after a number of missions were gunned down. The final attack came on 19 October 1917. Flying higher than normal, the craft once again took the capital by surprise, killing 33 people.

Today, little evidence remains of these first ever aerial assaults on London. Three plaques mark sites of explosions (see map) and shrapnel marks can be found here and there. Perhaps the most poignant memory is the old clock in the Dolphin pub (Red Lion Street), whose hands remain fixed at the hour of the blast which partly demolished the bar.

Sources

The map above is based largely on public data presented in the excellent Osprey book London 1914-17: The Zeppelin Menace, by Ian Castle. For anyone interested in discovering more about the attacks, this book meticulously plots almost every incident based on government records at the National Record Office. The map above takes the rough routes of the attacking craft and plots only a selection of the impact sites. You really need to get hold of the book to find out more. Another good account is given in First Blitz, by Neil Hanson, which also goes on to describe the follow-on attacks from the first heavy bombers. And a note for pedants: although German airships were (and still are) popularly known as Zeppelins, this is a trade name. Other ‘brands’ of airship also saw service.

Liked this? See also our map of V2 rocket impact sites from World War Two. On more peaceful terms, see our photos from an airship ride over the capital.

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  • http://undefined SophiaDB

    Check out this amazing sequence of shots of a zeppelin being shot down in 1916, at the Exploring 20th Century London website: http://www.20thcenturylondon.org.uk/server.php?show=conObject.9388

  • http://undefined Airship

    There will be a follow up book to ‘London 1914-17: The Zeppelin Menace’, dealing with the WWI German bomber raids on London. Published by Osprey it is called ‘London 1917-18:The Bomber Blitz’ and is due out in October 2010; it will feature another selection of detailed maps on the raids.

  • http://skitster.blogspot.com/ Scott Wood

    Oh, oh, I’ve got some phantom Zeppelin stuff I could do for fortean London in September..

  • http://undefined Trevor

    Hi folks,
    Strange to see a photo of a notice saying the old premises were destroyed during a Zeppelin raid. One odd by product of those raids was a great boost they provided to recruiting volunteers for the Army in Blighty. There were several big posters showing a Zeppelin bombing women and children that were used to greal effect during WW1. Only the Allies used airships for anti submarine patrols during WW2.
    If you want to see more on modern airships, past, present and future see: http://www.airshipblimp.com or if you just want a helium sniffing laugh try http://www.airship.me the worlds only lighter than air comedy site, with lots of funny pictures and U tube links fit for all the family.
    Regards Bond, James Bond.
    (Skyship blimp pilot in a View to a Kill)
    PS. Britain is set to rule the lighter than air skies again with the 517 million dollar LEMV contract win for Northrop Grumman and HAV in Cardington (www.hybridairvehicles.com)

  • http://undefined ktg72

    I was always intruiged by that sign on Farringdon Road when I worked there. Seems bizzare to think of huge Zeppelins working their way over London, they don’t come across as particularly fast or agile aircraft!

  • Diamonds4ever97

    i had a project on a zeppelin downward attack in london thought it would be difficult becuase i had to make a newspapper articale !! cool right this site helped me with alot of info on this stuff thanx