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The Terror of the Zeppelins


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The evening of January 19, 1915, was cold and cheerless. The wind raged in squally gusts, and snow, rain, and hail beat down upon the English countryside. Along the Norfolk coast huge waves rolled in to beat against the land, and the people of Yarmouth sat close to their fires, silent, and waiting.

All England was waiting. The war in its sixth month, and already it was realised that peace might be a long way off. At first, in the wild enthusiasm of the moment, few had thought of that possibility. Crowds had flocked to the recruiting offices, and boat after boat put out from the shore to the cheering of women folk, and the waving of flags. Was it only that short time ago? It seemed more like five years to mothers and sisters, who waited - waited, and looked automatically at vacant chairs.

Perhaps the people of Yarmouth, and other coastal towns, had special reason for their apprehension; for on the calmer days, or when the wind blew from the south-east, they could hear the distant rumble of the guns, a terrible reminder of the perils which surrounded their dear ones across the water. The very peacefulness of the English countryside was a mockery to them in their anxiety. What did it matter to them that they were safe when those that they loved most were in danger?

But not all were in danger. Upstairs, asleep, innocent of the horrors of the hour, were the children. That, at least, was something to be thankful for. Whatever else happened they were safe.

CRASH! Without the slightest suggestion of warning the very earth seemed to rock. Screams rose above the wild noise of the storm. Glass tinkled from shattered windows. CRASH! CRASH! CRASH! Jagged lumps of steel whined spitefully through the night, tearing through wood and glass, thudding into tiles and brickwork.

Rushing madly into the open, stricken with an unreasoning fear, people ran. What was it? What dreadful thing was happening? CRASH! CRASH! CRASH! Waves of violent wind hammered tortured ears. The air was full of flying fragments of earth and metal. Sheet after sheet of flame stabbed the darkness as the terrible detonations continued. For ten minutes it went on, each minute seemingly without end, until the stoutest nerves were at breaking point. And then there came a lull. Silence, all but for the wind and the rain. Silence, all but for a very heavy droning which rose and fell, vibrating in the ears of a thousand frightened people.

Two people were killed in that first raid, and three were injured; a wonderful escape for hundreds, no doubt, considering the fact that no fewer than nine high-explosive bombs were dropped, but the evil done was not to be measured in lives and damaged property. It could only be reckoned in terms of fear. What had happened once could happen again. In fact, unknown to the dazed people of Yarmouth, it was happening even then, to several other villages, and King's Lynn. Three giant Zeppelins, battling through the fury of the storm, bearing their cargo of death high above the waves of the North Sea, had approached the coast. Yarmouth had been the first target.

Fortunately, for who shall say how many, one of the three raiders was forced to turn back, when only half-way across, on account of engine trouble; but the others droned onwards, past the coastline, over fields and villages. Many of the people in Cromer slept. Very few realised what peril they were in or guessed that each minute might be their last on earth. But Cromer was in darkness. The Zeppelin's passed on. They were saved.

The terror came to the small villages of Sheringham, Snettisham, and Heacham a few minutes later, as a shower of incendiary bombs rained down from above; but before the fires which they started had secured any real grip, the airship commanders had sighted a patch of light ahead of them. King's Lynn. Once more the screams and groans of terrified and injured men, women, and children, rose above the noise of the wind as the first high-explosive bomb found its mark. Again panic reigned. And again, and again, and again, the awful din echoed through the streets as the people ducked, and scrambled for safety. Then they too, stared, dazed and bewildered, around and above them, not realising, until it was over, exactly what had come so suddenly to strike them down.

Although only two ships had reached England, four people lay dead, and sixteen were injured; houses lay in ruins and flames, and nearly 8000 of damage was done to property in those few dreadful minutes. When the morning of the 20th dawned, revealing scenes of chaos and desolation, a shocked world learned, for the first time, the latest horrors of a war which was to blast out of existence men, women, and children alike, without discrimination.

"What are we to do?" Asked one old lady, whose home was shattered. "At least we thought we were safe in England. No one had the slightest warning, and there was no time to do anything. It was dreadful. Awful. Look at my house.... And for all I know I may be killed while I sleep, any night."

A family at Sheringham only escaped the fate which that old lady predicted by a miracle. Father, mother, and child were asleep in one room, when a high-explosive bomb weighing nearly a hundredweight came crashing through the roof Awakened by the terrible noise, they were still unaware of what was going on. The bomb tore on, smashing its way through the bedroom floor, burying itself in the earth amongst the foundations... and failed to detonate. Had its path lain a foot or so different, in any direction, at least one of those people must have perished from the impact alone. And their lucky escape was by no means an isolated case. The craters in gardens and roads, the burned-out containers of incendiary bombs, and the havoc caused by missiles, which had missed a mark by yards only, told only too well of what might be expected from that night onwards. There was nothing a civilian could do but wait. And while the whole country waked, the enemy was at work, planning yet more and more ambitious raids.

"They can't do it. It's against all civilised laws to attack a civilian population." That was the cry which went up. But it could be done, and it was done. In 1889, as many as fifteen years before war broke out, and before even the first Zeppelin took the air, a declaration was made at the Hague Conference to the effect that combatants in any war were prohibited from launching projectiles or explosives from balloons or any other kinds of aerial craft. This declaration was renewed eight years later, but it also included a clause which annulled the prohibition, should any belligerent power be joined in warfare with another power which had not signed the contract. This clause, therefore, wiped everything out on the outbreak of the Great War because a number of states involved were not signatories; and it was realised by the various government departments that bombing attacks would begin just as soon as aerial fleets were developed to the required standards. Indeed, at least two years before the opening of hostilities, it was known that air attacks on England would be more than probable in the event of war.

Germany possessed thirteen airships at the beginning of the war, but she lost several of these in the first few months of fighting. Had she not done so, England might well have suffered much earlier than she did. By January, 1915, however, as a result of amazingly rapid production, nine new Zeppelins were built and handed over to the Naval and Military services; and the result, or the first results, of that work was experienced by Yarmouth on the night of January 19 - only a few days after the Kaiser had sanctioned attacks on this country. A month after that raid, on the night of February 16, the same two ships that had bombed Yarmouth set out again; but they ran into very bad weather and were forced down in Denmark. Another stroke of luck for those who lay awake in England, wondering, and waiting, but they had tasted only the beginning of the new terror. England was as good as undefended. In those early stages even the alarm systems were elementary.

On the fourteenth of April the second attack was made, and this time Tyneside was the target. It was an exceptionally dark night, and cloudy, when a man at Wallsend heard the sound of engines in the sky. Looking upwards, he saw a long, sinister shape approaching. He had no time to run. Any warning shout he may have uttered was drowned by the blast of high explosives. Fortunately, damage was slight, only a few houses being hit, and two persons injured; but that was due only to a lucky mistake on the part of the Zeppelin commander, who had taken the wide mouth of the river Wansbeck for the Tyne. The local authorities at once darkened the whole area, cutting off the street lights, and, when the people were convinced that the ship had vanished, they crept back, terrified, to their beds and to long hours of wakefulness.

The very next night three more Zeppelins crossed the coast, hovering over Essex and East Suffolk in the darkness, and once more the night was filled with flame and noise, mingled with the cries of terrified people. The programme of fear was well under way, and the whisper went round that spies were at work, guiding the enormous raiders from the ground. At Maldon, in Essex, several people testified that they had seen a big car moving slowly along the roads, headlamps ablaze. The lights, so they said, were bright enough to show up houses well away from the highway. The Zeppelin had followed. Later, when the raid was over, the car was seen driving back whence it had come, its lights quite normal. Whose was the car, and where did it go? No one could answer those questions. It was never traced. But so many people had described it that few would believe it to be only a myth; and, car or no car, the story served well to increase the atmosphere of fear which was spreading over the country. By the 30th of April that year seven Zeppelins had raided England on four occasions, and had dropped more than two hundred bombs. Then, on May 10, a lone raider attacked Southend, causing more chaos and terror than any other three Zeppelins together.

It was at about 2.45 a.m. when a special constable heard the drone of engines. They stopped, and he looked up. To his horror he saw the giant shape almost above him, silent, grey, and showing no lights. For over four minutes she hovered, and then, as suddenly as they had stopped, her engines were restarted. Almost simultaneously the first bomb fell - right in the middle of the road where the constable was standing. It was a dud. But almost immediately a veritable hail of incendiaries were loosed from above, and fire after fire broke brightly upon the night. Loud blasts screamed from the warning hooter, and people came running from their houses, clothes, rugs, and children in their arms. Explosion followed explosion as huge bombs found their targets.

Asleep in their room, an elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. Whitwell, were rudely awakened by the din, but they were already too late. The Zeppelin was directly overhead. There came a crash, and a hole was torn through the roof as an incendiary bomb screamed on its way. It landed on the bed. In a second the room was filled with blinding flames. Seizing their invalid daughter, Mr. Whitwell carried her downstairs, into the comparative safety of the street. Frantically he rushed back into the blazing house for his sixty-year-old wife. The room was an inferno, and laden with choking fumes and smoke. Staggering to the window, he jumped, only to injure himself critically. His wife was burned to death where she lay. The crashing, blinding tumult continued without pause until over 120 bombs had been dropped, and then the Zeppelin turned out to sea and vanished. Though eleven British planes went up in pursuit, not a trace was seen of her. In this raid, as in the others, the most amazing stories of hairbreadth escapes were told. In Westcliff Road, South-end, one man was awakened by the crashing and splintering of woodwork. He dashed through into another bedroom, where the maid and his four-year-old son were asleep, and found the whole place ablaze; even the hangings on the child's cot were alight. Grabbing the child, and calling to the maid, he dashed back on to the landing and downstairs to safety. None of them was injured. Another high-explosive bomb missed a house by feet only, detonating with an appalling crash in the back garden. A hole, three feet deep and fifteen feet round, showed exactly what would have happened to the house. As it was, every window within 300 yards was broken, the whole of the fence vanished, and debris was flung into the road several streets away.

A week later, in the early hours of May 17, the same Zeppelin crossed the Kentish coast by Margate and flew on towards Ramsgate. About twenty bombs were dropped in quick succession, an hotel, the Bull and George, was wrecked, and three people were injured, two of them mortally. Driven off by rifle fire, the ship turned back over the sea and headed for Dover; and there, for the first time, an alarmed people saw the long grey shape of the raider caught in the beams of searchlights. Cheers went up, and the next instant they were drowned in the crashing of anti-aircraft guns. But the guns were of no use. Dropping the remainder of his bombs, the commander made off into the darkness, apparently unscathed.

By this time a new feeling of hope was raised amongst Britain's millions, for at last it seemed that some very formidable defence weapons were being brought into use. After the raid on Kent it became known that, the Zeppelin was lucky indeed to escape destruction. A British pilot, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Mulock, had taken off from Westgate in a machine loaded with incendiary bombs and grenades, and he had actually reached the Zeppelin as the commander was dropping the last of his bombs. Thus lightened, however, the airship was able to rise much quicker than the aeroplane, and although the pilot chased it as far as the Humber, he was unable to get above it to attack.

The commander of this lone raider, the L.Z. 38, was rapidly acquiring a very accurate knowledge of the "lie of the land" in Southern England, and if he was aware of his narrow escape it did not appear to worry him; nine days later he was back over Southend. Once more the streets and houses were lit with sheets of flame, and rocked by the blasts of high explosive, and three more lives were added to the growing list. One young girl, who had just arrived on a late train, and who was walking from the station was hit direct, and killed instantly.

London was the raider's next objective, and on the last night of May he again crossed the coast over Margate, en Toute for the capital. Machine gunners opened fire, but the giant ship droned steadily on its way, reaching Stoke Newing-ton just before eleven-thirty. A policeman on duty heard a violent explosion behind him, and turned to see a column of flames leaping upwards from the pavement. That was the first Londoners knew of their peril. A second explosion further down the road almost echoed the first, and even as the policeman smashed the glass of the fire alarm, another detonation rocked the houses in the street beyond. Pandemonium broke loose.

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