When zeppelins bombed Loughborough by mistake

Loughborough zep raid
Image caption Ten people died when zeppelins bombed Loughborough

When a fleet of zeppelins bombed the Midlands on the night of 31 January 1916, killing 70 people, it ushered in a terrifying new era of warfare from the skies.

It was one of the first times the horrors of World War One had emerged from the columns of the newspapers and into the homes of ordinary people.

But the Germans had actually set out to bomb Liverpool, 100 miles to the northwest, according to historians.

Loughborough, where 10 died and an estimated 150 were injured, is likely to have been an entirely unintended target.

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Image caption A handful of zeppelin raids had taken place in London and the east coast in 1915

Historian Robert Knight said warnings were issued when the zeppelins were spotted off the east coast.

A blackout was ordered in cities across England, including Leicester, but in nearby Loughborough - a town of about 20,000 people - many lights were left on.

"Just imagine the shock and horror, the sheer surprise people must have felt, when suddenly out of the blue came this absolutely enormous zeppelin the size of two football pitches," he said.

"They must have been terrified out of their minds and very curious."

Rather than seeking cover, that curiosity brought people out to see the shiny, cigar-shaped airships roll in overhead.

Image caption Two bombs were dropped in the The Rushes in the centre of Loughborough

Margaret Woolley, who was 12 at the time, told the University of Leicester in the 1980s about the bomb that landed in The Rushes, near her home.

"We rushed out on to street and everything seemed to be in confusion," she said.

"The next morning, we went out into The Rushes to see where the bomb had dropped - my goodness, it was absolute chaos.

"All the windows broken, curtains hanging out, all the roofs off, a big hole in the road. Of course it was really very frightening."

Image caption A plaque and a commemorative performance are planned to mark the centenary of the raid in the town

Historians disagree as to whether the bombers believed they had hit the northern cities they were aiming for or whether their plans changed due to the foggy weather.

Bob Stephens believes Loughborough was identified as a target as the airships travelled west.

"I'm absolutely staggered [the pilot] didn't hit the railway installations but he knew where the factories were and the gas and electricity works and I think he was aiming for both of those," he said.

But Andrew McWilliam, who is part of a campaign to commemorate the raid, said that view was a "conspiracy theory".

"They thought they'd hit Liverpool and Sheffield, in fact they'd hit Loughborough and Burton-upon-Trent," he said.

A performance event in Loughborough is planned for May to remember the raid, and a plaque is to be erected in The Rushes, part-funded by a Heritage Lottery grant.

Image caption Hallam Fields Church in Ilkeston was damaged in the raid

Another probably unintended target that night was Ilkeston, Derbyshire, where two ironworkers were killed.

One victim was Walter Wilson, who was on his way home from work.

"He ducked behind the church wall just as a bomb struck the parish room," said Stephen Flinders from the town's historical society.

"He was hit in the back by a fragment of shrapnel, conveyed to Ilkeston Hospital and died the following day.

"Wilson's name appears on the cenotaph on Ilkeston Market Place. Despite the fact he wasn't a serviceman, he was deemed to have died through enemy action."

A plaque is being unveiled in the town on Monday.

The zeppelin raid of 31 January 1916

Image caption The L20 zeppelin that bombed Loughborough, survived the raid but ditched into the sea on a later mission, washing up in Norway
  • The zeppelins set off from Jutland across the North Sea, but were scattered across the Midlands, never reaching Liverpool
  • Nine of the 22 zeppelins turned back before reaching England
  • Their bombs weighed about 110kg and sent shrapnel flying in all directions
  • Half of the 70 deaths that night were in West Midlands towns between Birmingham and Wolverhampton
  • Fifteen died in Burton, 10 in Loughborough and three in Scunthorpe
  • The Midland Railway was targeted in Derby, where five people died. Royal Crown Derby kilns narrowly survived and a batch of pottery was produced at the time with a zeppelin mark
  • All 16 crew of one of the airships were killed when it ditched into the North Sea on return

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