Motoring quietly across the North Sea, a pair of Zeppelins run by the German Imperial Navy changed warfare on January 19, 1915: flying over southeastern England, the airships dropped bombs on the towns of Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn, the first civilian targets in history. Of all the advancements on display during World War I, none would have a greater impact on non-combatants.
About a hundred miles west of the coast of the Netherlands, Great Yarmouth sits on a wide expanse of beach in Norfolk. One of the easternmost cities in England, it was a little more than an hour Zeppelin flight over water from enemy territory, a relatively easy target to reach. In the early months of the war, German authorities had not yet conceived of the idea of turning the airships into anything other than lookouts — most flights were slow cruises along the coastline in search of enemy ships.
For centuries, warfare tactics were constructed around the idea of “gentlemanly rules.” Opposing armies would line up on the field and fire at each other, attempting to divide the enemy force or sweep into an advantageous position behind. Inflicting civilian casualties directly during combat was out of the question. (After the battle was over would be an entirely different story.) Taking the fight to those unable to defend themselves would, theoretically, seriously damage the credibility of the German Imperial Army and Navy.
On the morning of January 19, 1915, Zeppelins L3 and L4 took off from Fuhlsbuettel in northern Germany armed with 8 bombs and 25 incendiary devices to use on military targets in Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn. A third, L6, left Nordholz bound for the mouth of the Thames River east of London, but it would have to turn back due to engine trouble.
Though capable of maintaining a brisk 85mph, the German military feared the large Zeppelins would be susceptible to anti-aircraft artillery if betrayed by daylight. Slipping over the coastline after dark, the airships launched the incendiaries to light up targets on the ground. Nearing Great Yarmouth, L3 began a 10-minute barrage around 8:30pm. Martha Taylor, a 72-year-old spinster, and Samuel Smith, a 53-year-old shoemaker, were killed by the fourth bomb dropped. Further to the northwest, L4 had already released a weapon at Sheringham on its way to King’s Lynn, eventually killing another pair of English citizens.
The novelty of the technology was evident from the start: nearly half of all the ordinance released did not detonate and historians continue to debate whether the two Zeppelin pilots actually knew where they were. (Some theories hold they believed they were over northeastern cities like Newcastle.) With just a few injuries and deaths, as well as some property damage, the physical toll was relatively minimal.
What cannot be doubted, however, was the psychological toll. The fear of death from above was real for the English, setting the stage for the Battle of Britain in World War II, when German airplanes inflicted mass destruction in the hopes of crushing the will of the people.
Also On This Day:
1419 – Henry V of England captures Rouen, retaking Normandy in the Hundred Years’ War
1883 – Overhead wires are used for an electric lighting system for the first time, designed by Thomas Edison for Roselle, New Jersey
1920 – The United States Senate votes to deny membership in the League of Nations
1942 – The Imperial Japanese Army invades Burma
1983 – Apple, Inc. debuts the Lisa, its first personal computer with a mouse and graphical interface
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