Many London buildings were famously damaged in the Blitz of the second world war, but long before that came the Zeppelins of the first world war. Follow this walk to trace the route taken by the very first Zeppelin to attack London.
Start: Stoke Newington Overground station
End: Shadwell DLR/Overground station
Distance: 5.4 miles (8.7 kilometres)
Terrain: Flat and paved
9.40pm, 31 May 1915. German Army airship LZ 38, commanded by Hauptmann Erich Linnarz, passes over Margate at height of 3000 metres. It came from Evere in Belgium to carry out the first aerial bombardment of London, heading northwest to Brentwood before gently looping southwards to Stoke Newington. There had been a full moon three days earlier but the moon would not rise that evening until around 11.25pm. The River Thames and the lights of the larger London parks helped the pilot to navigate. The LZ 38 itself had been observed as it flew over northeast London and the police notified, though there was no way to warn the public. Air-raid sirens were a thing of the future.
1. Alkham Road
Shortly after 11pm the first incendiary from the Zeppelin LZ 38 fell on 16 Alkham Road in Stoke Newington. It smashed through the roof and ignited the first floor of the house. This was the first ever aerial bombing of the capital and luckily the occupants Albert Lovell, his wife, children and two visitors escaped without injury. Though the fire brigade was called, the owners managed to extinguish the fire themselves. The Zeppelin continued on a southerly bearing. A plaque now marks the house on Alkham Road.
2. The Nevill Arms
An explosive dropped on the Nevill Arms pub failed to ignite. It was later recovered by a policeman, who carried it to the local police station. No one really thought that the bomb could still be viable and may explode. The spot was marked with an erroneous plaque — although at the time of writing, it's not there.
3. Cowper Road
Within a minute, the Zeppelin (travelling at about 55mph/90kph) was over Cowper Road having dropped nine incendiaries en-route. The one that dropped on 33 Cowper Road caused fire damage to a great deal of the house. While several members of the Leggatt family escaped, three year old Elsie did not and was suffocated and burnt to death. Her 11 year old sister would die of her burns several days later. Given their young ages, the press dubbed the Zeppelins the ‘baby killers’. The house at 33 Cowper Road no longer stands and has been replaced by a playground. Elsie was the first Londoner ever to be killed by aerial bombardment. It is a pity that there is no memorial to this tragedy within the park.
4. Railway track bombing
The pattern of bombs dropped close to Mildmay Grove indicates that the railway line was certainly a target. However, according to the London Fire Brigade report, the track was not struck or damaged.
5. Balls Pond Road
At least one incendiary device fell on a residential house at 187 Balls Pond Road. In a bid to avoid the smoke and flames, two occupants jumped out of an upper floor window and were severely injured. During a thorough search of the house the following morning, the bodies of husband and wife Henry and Caroline Good were found by their bed. They had died from smoke inhalation and their bodies were severely burned. When found, Mr Good’s arm was wrapped around his wife’s waist.
6. Southgate Grove
By 11.08pm the airship was over the largely residential area of Kingsland. Numerous incendiaries were dropped on Southgate Road and adjacent streets. Most of the damage was superficial: windows blown in, roof damage and garden sheds destroyed. Some people were injured in the attack. One of the injured, 67 year old Eleanor Wills of Southgate Grove, died ‘of shock’ several days later, in hospital.
7. Hoxton Street
On Hoxton Street a Russian was employed as a watchman. In the mayhem following the attack, his accent was mistaken for that of a German and of starting the fire. He was badly mauled by a group of men. Following the aerial raid, several shops in the area with German-sounding names were also attacked.
8. Ivy Street
The largest fire of the raid that evening occurred at 31 Ivy Street. This was a factory belonging the cabinet makers of Lewis and Paddey. At least one large incendiary device hit the building, totally razing it.
9. The London Music Hall
Three incendiaries fell on the roof of the London Music Hall, 100 Shoreditch High Street, as a performance was underway. The manager interrupted the show to announce the attack. It was later reported in a police statement that
the band played lively airs while the audience left the house in an orderly manner
Dressing room contents were slightly damaged by fire and smoke. The London Music Hall no longer stands and is now the site of the Ace Hotel.
10. Liverpool Street Station missed
Despite only one reported strike on the railway track at Bishopsgate Goods Yard, Hauptmann Linnarz and his crew ignored Liverpool Street Station, 400 metres to the south. It was outside their target area — the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, had requested that nothing west of a line running north-south from the Tower of London be attacked. Two years later, no such constraints applied and on 13 June 1917, the station was attacked by German Gotha bomber aircraft, killing 16. The air-attack on London and the south-east killed 162 people that day. It was to be the single highest tally of civilian deaths in the UK during the first world war.
11. Christian Street
Several minutes after crossing the Southgate Road area, the LZ 38 was over Whitechapel. A whiskey warehouse belonging to Johnnie Walker on Commercial Road was hit but with no loss of life. Within a few seconds incendiaries and bombs were falling on Christian Street, missing the houses but killing ten-year old Samuel Reuben. Eleven others were injured in the same location including Leah Leahman who later died of wounds in hospital.
The airship came within several hundred metres of the London Docks but it veered away eastwards towards Leytonstone where it dropped five final incendiaries. It was heard at around 11.30pm over Chigwell. There were very few sightings of the LZ 38 that evening, probably because of its high altitude. At the time of this first raid on London, there were very few searchlights and guns to spot and attack the Zeppelins. Those guns that were available were unable to reach the airship's altitude of 3000 metres. Only one aircraft managed to intercept the airship that night but it suffered engine problems and had to withdraw from the fight. Several weeks after the attack, the LZ 38 that struck London was destroyed at her base in Evere, Belgium by two British aircraft.
LZ 38 Raid: 31 May 1915
- Explosives dropped: 30
- Incendiaries dropped: 89
- Killed: 7
- Injured: 34
- Fires reported: 79
- Premises destroyed: 7