What were air raids like?

Illustration of boy staring at zeppelin

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Before the war, wealthy people in America and Germany could fly between cities by airship. Air travel was new and exciting.

'When pigs fly'

A Zeppelin taking flight

German engineers discovered sausage skins were the perfect material to make Zeppelin gas-bags. These came from the intestines of animals, and it took the guts of more than 250,000 cows to make a single airship.

Intestines became so precious that German sausage-making was banned for a while during the war.

People in Britain had seen pictures of airships but no one imagined they might be used to bomb England and Scotland.

The first air raids

The first attack came on the night of 19 January 1915. Explosions were heard along the Norfolk coastline as two German airships dropped bombs. Witnesses nearby said the noise was terrifying.

The airships were Zeppelins, named after Count Ferdinand Von Zeppelin, the German inventor who designed them.

They were long, thin tubes, like straight sausages. Inside their tough, outer skin were large bags filled with hydrogen gas.

Hydrogen is lighter than air so the huge Zeppelins floated easily.

Underneath was a small compartment where the crew sat. From here they controlled the engines, steered the airship and dropped bombs.

The crew liked calm weather and dark nights for flying. Windy weather blew them off course and away from the factories and military bases they wanted to attack.

They wanted to get close to Britain without being seen. Tiny pinpricks of lights from streets and homes helped guide them towards their target.

Start Quote

The Zeppelin is in the zenith of the night, golden like the moon, having taken control of the sky. ”

End Quote DH Lawrence
A compilation of commemorative postcards of a air ship being shot down A series of postcards were produced to celebrate the night a German airship was first shot down over Britain.

Start Quote

A photograph of William Leefe Robinson

When the colossal thing burst into flames it was a glorious sight, wonderful!”

End Quote William Leefe Robinson in a letter to his parents
Fighting back

On 2 September 1916, two airships attacked London. An English pilot called William Leefe Robinson became the first person to shoot down a German airship over Britain.

He flew his small plane close to one ship, shooting at it with incendiary bullets. When fired from a gun, these bullets would start to burn. He needed to pierce the airship's skin so the hydrogen inside would catch fire. On his third attempt, the Zeppelin burst into flames and crashed to the ground near the village of Cuffley in Hertfordshire.

The King gave him a Victoria Cross for his bravery, the most important medal anyone could have. He was also awarded £3,500 prize money and the rank of Captain.

Once the British knew how to destroy airships, the Germans were less interested in using them.

Teachers' notes

Teachers' notes and classroom ideas looking at air raids during World War One.

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