Sunday 19 August 2018

Book Review: Zeppelin Onslaught: The Forgotten Blitz 1914-15

Ian Castle is perhaps our foremost historian and author on the air raids mounted against the United Kingdom by Germany during the Great War. Last month, I was lucky enough to attend a fascinating talk by Ian organised by the Friends of Lincoln's Inn during which he spoke about the raids that affected that particular area of London. I already have several of Ian's books and after the talk, took the opportunity to purchase a copy of his latest offering, Zeppelin Onslaught: The Forgotten Blitz 1914-15 which is intended to be the first in a series detailing the German air war against the British "Home Front" during the Great War.

In this meticulously researched book, Ian tells the story of not only the raids themselves but of the planning and rationale behind them, of the British attempts at countering the raids and of the personalities involved on both sides. Each raid is also mapped so as to give the reader a good visualisation of the areas bombed and distances covered.

The book starts by giving the reading some insight into the development of manned flight and how, despite the rapid developments in Europe, Britain lagged behind the advances. Indeed, the first powered flight in this country only took place in October 1908, which was some five years after the Wright Brothers made their initial flight. Ironically, this was achieved by an American, Samuel Cody, who made a 27 second flight across Farnborough Common in Hampshire, covering a distance of 1,390 feet. Despite this, the British still trailed in aviation and matters only began to be placed on a more official footing in 1911 when the Royal Engineers Balloon Section evolved into the Army Air Battalion, later to become the Royal Flying Corps in April 1912, which at this time had both an Army and a Naval Wing. Developments continued apace and even in 1912, there were official fears that the opinion voiced in 1906 by newspaper tycoon Lord Northcliffe that "England is no longer an island" was indeed the case, such was the deadly potential of the German Zeppelin airships.

On the eve of the Great War, in July 1914, the Royal Flying Corps or RFC became exclusively an Army controlled organisation, with the erstwhile Naval Wing becoming the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), which as the name suggests, was under the control of the Admiralty. We learn that most of the RFC aircraft at the outbreak of war were either obsolete, or were worn out and only fit for the scrapyard. It was clear to those in power that the RFC was not at that time able to effectively defend the skies over Great Britain.  Fortunately, the RNAS did have suitable aircraft available and with bases near the coast, it was clear that they would initially form the first line of defence against any future German air attacks. We also learn of the organisation on the German side, the air arms of which, like the British were divided between the Army and Imperial Navy, both of which controlled Zeppelins.

The author then goes on to describe the efforts, under the direction of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, at organising static anti-aircraft defence in the form of guns and searchlights. As with the aircraft, initially there were too few available and what there were, were invariably obsolete or not fit for purpose. In the meantime, Churchill, ever one to look to take the offensive, decided to take the attack to the Germans with preemptive strikes against German Zeppelin hangars and airfields in Belgium and Germany itself. These raids had mixed results, with one raid in particular against Cologne yielding spectacular results. However, the German advances on the ground in Belgium soon rendered German targets beyond the range of British aircraft at this time and were not to be repeated.

From this introduction, which provides important background, Ian then switches to the raids mounted against British targets, predominantly by Zeppelin airships but also the occasional raids by conventional aircraft. Each raid is covered in meticulous detail, from the planning stage, to the courses flown by the aircraft on the raid and is brought to life by the use of personal accounts of eye-witnesses, both on the ground and in the air. Official reports and records are also used to provide the most detailed record of the German air offensive ever put into print.

The era of air raids upon Britain began in Dover on Christmas Eve 1914 at around 10:45 in the morning, when a German floatplane dropped a single 10 kg bomb, probably aimed at Dover Castle but which instead fell in the garden of a nearby house of an auctioneer, a Mr Terson. Fortunately, the damage was limited to the destruction of a summerhouse and some uprooted cabbages and there was no loss of life but Britain had suffered the first air raid in its history and was the precursor of many much more serious and destructive raids, culminating in attacks upon the capital city.

At first, the Kaiser, fearing death or injury to his cousin King George V and many other English relatives, forbade attacks on London from a line west of the Tower of London but notwithstanding this order, on 31 May 1915, the German Army Zeppelin LZ38 under the command of Hauptmann Erich Linnarz dropped bombs - both High Explosive and Incendiaries upon Stoke Newington, Dalston, Hoxton, Shoreditch, Whitechapel, Stratford and Leytonstone. Some 41 fires were reported to the London Fire Brigade and more importantly seven civilians and a RNAS pilot were killed in the raid, with a further 35 people injured. Damage to property was estimated at £19,000 (in 1914 prices) and reaction to the raids on the ground was one of outrage. Some of this was aimed at those people and businesses thought to have German connections - mob rule in fact but fortunately, this was short-lived and the anger began to be aimed at the lack of meaningful response, both by the anti-aircraft guns and by the aircraft that were supposed to be defending the capital. It was at this time that the phrase 'Baby Killers' at first coined by Churchill in response to the German Navy's bombardment of Scarborough in December 1914, began to used by the popular press in connection with the raiders from the air.

Heinrich Mathy (author's collection)

Another German Zeppelin commander, this time Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy from the Imperial Navy, was to become a household name in Great Britain and gain notoriety as one of Germany's leading 'Baby Killers' before he met his death over Potters Bar in October 1916. Ian's book also examines Mathy's early raids with the same attention to detail.

This is an excellent book, which should appeal to both the serious Great War history buffs and also to the more general reader. It covers absolutely every angle of the story, from the planning and execution of the raids, to the countermeasures and the experiences of those involved in the 'front line' both on the ground and in the air. I thoroughly recommend it to you and look forward to the eventual companion volumes.

Zeppelin Onslaught: The Forgotten Blitz 1914-15 by Ian Castle, is published by Frontline Books and costs £25.00

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