Jan. 19, 2023

The First Zeppelin Raid on Britain

The First Zeppelin Raid on Britain

January 19, 1915. In Norfolk, England, four people are killed by German bombs during the first ever Zeppelin raid of World War One.


Cold Open

It’s January 19th, 1915, and World War I is raging in Europe… but in the town of Great Yarmouth on the east coast of England, all is quiet.

Cliff Temple, an eight-year-old boy, sits at the kitchen table, playing with a set of tin soldiers. The clock on the wall reads 7 PM. It’s nearing Cliff’s bedtime, but he’s waiting up for his father, who’s on leave from the Western Front and should be home soon. Cliff’s mother busies herself at the kitchen sink. And occasionally, she glances anxiously through the window, hoping to see her husband strolling up the garden path any minute.

As Cliff plays with his soldiers… he gradually becomes aware of a strange noise: a low and distant humming, like a swarm of far-off bees. Cliff stops playing and looks up at his mother. It’s clear she’s heard the sound too. She’s staring up at the sky, her face etched with confusion and fear.

Cliff listens intently… as the noise gets louder and louder.

He jumps down from his chair and goes to the window. He peers around his mother and squints up into the darkening sky. And there, drifting menacingly over the roofs of the houses across the street, is a giant aircraft, like a balloon, but longer and more sinister. Awe-struck, Cliff runs for the door to get a better look. Concerned, his mother follows.

And outside, Cliff notices that the streets are filled with other residents who had the same impulse and now stare into the sky, amazed. Cliff cuts his eyes up at the strange aircraft. It looks like a huge fat cigar but with spinning propellers on either end and fins running the length of each side. As he studies it, a trapdoor in the fuselage opens and then small objects drop from the underbelly, falling out of sight beyond the houses to the south…

The quiet evening is shattered by deafening explosions. 

Cliff reaches for his mother who scoops the boy into her arms. As more bombs drop, Cliff and his mother run for cover, desperate to escape this new and terrifying weapon of war that targets civilians, not from the sea or the land, but from the sky.

On January 19th, 1915, Germany begins an aerial campaign against Britain with a bombing raid on the towns of Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn. The attack, which leaves four dead, marks the start of a new chapter of the war, one in which the skies over England are darkened by vast airships named after their German inventor, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.

But these Zeppelins will meet plenty of resistance from the British armed forces. As the war rages on, many brave British pilots will risk their lives to bring down these hydrogen-filled airships, and to prevent further death and destruction, like that which took place over the sleepy towns of south-east England on this day, January 19th, 1915.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is January 19th, 1915: The First Zeppelin Raid on Britain.

Act One: Reckless Rex

It’s May 17th, 1915; five months after the first zeppelin raid on Great Britain.

High above the Belgian coastline, a British two-seater bi-plane soars through the clear summer skies. Sub-Lieutenant Reginald ''Rex'' Warneford sits in the cockpit, the lapels of his sheepskin jacket flapping in the wind. He turns to his co-pilot, and the two men share a quick glance, then Rex turns the yoke and forces the aircraft to bank sharply, his eyes flashing with exhilaration.

At twenty-three years old, Rex has already made a name for himself in the Royal Naval Air Service. Arrogant and outspoken, Rex was frequently disciplined for insubordination during his military training. But the same devil-may-care qualities that made Rex a troublesome student are precisely what makes him an excellent pilot. When he entered his squadron, Rex’s flight commander decided it was pointless trying to control this impulsive young recruit. So, he gave Rex a “roving commission”, granting him the freedom to fly wherever he likes in the warzone. As a rogue aviator, Rex has only one objective: to bring down as many German planes as possible.

But today, Rex is not on the lookout for German planes. Ever since the zeppelin assault on southeast England, several more airship raids have inflicted death and destruction on British towns, earning zeppelins the nickname: “baby killers”. Consequently, these German Airships have become the main target for British pilots. But so far, they’re fighting a losing battle. Not one British plane has successfully brought down an enemy airship. Today, Rex hopes to change that.

Up ahead, like a huge gray cloud blotting out the sun, Rex spots a German zeppelin. He taps the arm of his co-pilot and points toward the horizon. The airship is high above them, cruising at an altitude of eight thousand feet. Rex pulls back the stick and begins climbing himself. And as he draws nearer, he can just make out the gunners positioned on the lower gondola, wielding heavy artillery. Rex opens the throttle and flies in close.

Alongside the zeppelin, the British bi-plane is like a minnow swimming behind a giant blue whale. But the plane’s small size affords it greater maneuverability. When Rex gets within 100 feet of the zeppelin, his co-pilot opens fire and strafes the underbelly of the airship’s fuselage, peppering the fabric exterior with bullet holes. Rex wheels around and swoops back toward the target as his co-pilot opens fire once again.

By now, the Germans are alerted to the Rex's presence. But rather than shooting back, they begin unloading ballast - bags of sand used to control the airship’s altitude. As the ballast drops overboard, the zeppelin rises. Rex tries to climb after it. But it’s no use. Despite being much smaller, the British plane is still far heavier, and Rex can’t climb high enough to keep up.

With the zeppelin out of reach, Rex admits defeat and flies back to his base camp at Veurne in northern Belgium. As the plane touches down and comes to a stop, Rex hauls his lanky frame out of the cockpit and throws his cap and goggles to the ground. He feels his co-pilot slap him on the back saying “Better luck next time, Rex.” Rex pulls out a cigarette, lights up, and takes a deep, moody drag. He makes a promise to himself that the next time he flies a mission, he won’t return to base until he’s brought down a zeppelin.

Three weeks later, on June 7th, a report comes through of a German airship approaching the area. Rex immediately takes to the skies in a single-seater plane equipped with six 20-pound bombs. To keep the weight down, Rex decided to fly this mission solo, without a co-pilot.

Soon, he spots the airship soaring through the night sky above Bruges. But as he approaches the zeppelin, Rex hears a distant crackle of gunfire. Suddenly, bullets are whizzing through the air around his head. Rex knows he’s been spotted by the German gunners. But instead of turning around and falling back, Rex climbs high into the sky and positions his plane directly above the zeppelin.

Once he’s in position, Rex pulls the bomb release. One by one, the incendiary devices drop toward the target. There’s a flash of light followed by a deep, sonorous boom. Then a blast of air catches the wings of Rex’s aircraft and sends him spiraling out of control. His aim was accurate, but he did not have time to escape the force of the bomb’s explosion. Rex’s heart pounds as he grapples with the controls. But by the time he’s stabilized the wings, the engine has cut out and Rex is plummeting down to earth.

With great difficulty and skill, Rex manages to crash-land in a farmer’s field. He is alive, but he’s also landed miles behind enemy lines. He jumps from the plane and does what he can to repair the engine. As he toils away, he hears the voices of what sounds like German soldiers in the distance…

Rex quickly wraps up his work and returns to the cockpit. He whispers a short prayer and tries to start the engine. The sound alerts the German soldiers to his presence. But by the time they reach the field, Rex has already sparked the propeller. He turns and screams over the aircraft’s engine “Send my best to the Kaiser!” Then his plane takes off into the glowing dawn sky.

Rex was the first pilot to bring down a zeppelin. But just nine days after being awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery, his good fortune will run out when his plane is shot down over France. After Rex’s death, the zeppelin raids against Britain will continue, building in ferocity until one climactic night in September, when the Germans unleash on England’s capital city a rain of ruin from the sky.

Act Two: Knights of the Air

It’s September 8th, 1915; nine months after the first zeppelin raid on Britain.

A German airship, Zeppelin L13, prowls silently through the night sky over London. Striding across the control deck is the airship’s blonde-haired, blue-eyed commander, Captain Lieutenant Heinrich Mathy. Heinrich peers through the observation window at the distant lights of the English capital, some 8,000 feet below. The 32-year-old captain notes with satisfaction that the foggy conditions have persisted, and this should keep his five-hundred-foot-long zeppelin concealed from the searchlights below.

At this stage in the war, the aerial bombing campaign against Britain is going well for the Germans. Since the first raid back in January, several more attacks against British towns and cities have caused extensive damage and left the people of Britain in a state of fear. Since January, airship attacks have claimed a few dozen civilian lives. But the ever-present threat of these silent airborne monsters, seemingly impervious to anti-aircraft guns and striking without warning, has helped cripple the morale of the British public.

But in Germany, the zeppelin commanders have become national heroes, and nobody has inspired more patriotic rapture than Captain Lieutenant Heinrich Mathy. With his dashing good looks and steely courage, Heinrich is the ideal poster boy for the German Second Reich. And tonight, in the foggy sky over London, Heinrich is about to execute his most deadly attack to date. 

At 10:40 PM, a break in the clouds affords Heinrich a fleeting glimpse of the sleeping city below. He barks an instruction at his second-in-command, who dashes off to the bomb deck. Moments later, a shower of thirteen high-explosive devices and forty-five incendiary bombs drop from the belly of the zeppelin, raining down on central London. In the attack, buildings, hospitals, and factories are destroyed. In total, twenty-two people are killed, including at least five children. 

By the time the anti-aircraft guns have spotted Heinrich's zeppelin, it’s too late; the airship is already out of reach and headed back for Germany, having just carried out the most destructive zeppelin raid of the war. In its aftermath, the British War Office takes measures to shore up the nation’s defenses, adding more searchlights and anti-aircraft artillery. 

Still, despite the increased safety measures, one fact remains: no one has been able to bring down a zeppelin over British soil. The brave pilot, Rex Warneford, gave his life after taking down a zeppelin in Belgium. But so far, German airships have conducted their bombing raids against Britain without suffering a single casualty.

But all that is about to change.


In late 1916, the British develop a revolutionary projectile. The so-called “Buckingham bullet” is an incendiary device that ignites on impact, making it the perfect counter-threat to the zeppelins, which are filled with highly-flammable hydrogen. In short order, British anti-aircraft guns and fighter planes are equipped with this powerful new weapon.

And then in the early hours of September 3rd, 1916, British pilot Lieutenant Leefe Robinson patrols the night sky above Hertfordshire, about twenty miles north of London. The searchlights fixed to his aircraft’s nose beam out into the pitch black. But suddenly, they illuminate a hulking object in the distance. Leefe sets out in pursuit. 

As he moves in closer, Leefe dives beneath the airship and rakes the fuselage with incendiary bullets. But he misses, so he doubles back and tries again, flying closer. But again, the bullets either miss their target or fail to ignite. Leefe grits his teeth and makes a third attempt. This time, his aim is good. The bullets tear through the airship’s exterior and ignite the hydrogen inside. Within seconds the zeppelin goes up in flames before tumbling down to earth in a spectacular blazing fireball.

Lieutenant Leefe Robinson will be awarded the Victoria Cross for becoming the first person to shoot down a German airship over British soil. His heroic act demonstrates to the British public that zeppelins are not invulnerable. And soon, another zeppelin will be shot down over England, further proving the airships are not unstoppable, and bringing an end to the life of the most feared zeppelin commander of them all. 

Act Three: The End of the Baby Killer

It’s September 1916 in Germany; almost two years since the start of the zeppelin campaign against Great Britain.

Captain-Lieutenant Heinrich Mathy strolls out of a cafe in Berlin and is immediately confronted by a swarm of photographers and reporters, all jostling to interview the famous zeppelin commander. Heinrich screens his eyes from the flashing cameras as one reporter steps forward and asks: “Captain-Lieutenant, is it true that the zeppelin is finished?” Heinrich winces, as if the words cause him physical pain.

Ever since the British began shooting zeppelins out of the sky with their new incendiary bullets, the morale back home in Germany has plummeted. Many Germans fear that their one great advantage - the mighty zeppelin - has been lost. But Heinrich rejects such thinking. Having led so many successful bombing raids against Britain, his faith in the zeppelin is unshakeable.

One month later, on October 1st, Heinrich leads another raid on London. Having skillfully navigated through stormy weather over the North Sea, Heinrich’s zeppelin breaks land above the Essex coast. Within the hour, they should reach the capital.

But as Heinrich stands, deep in thought, staring out the window of the observation deck, two searchlight beams suddenly blind his eyes. Heinrich knows he doesn’t have much time. In a matter of moments, the British planes will swoop in and open fire; they can take him out with a single shot from their new deadly new ammunition. So since Heinrich cannot defend himself against the Buckingham Bullet, he decides to outrun the incoming British planes. He orders his crew to drop the payload of bombs early to make the ship lighter and faster.

Once the bombs are released, Heinrich flies the zeppelin off to the north. And for a time, it seems his plan has worked. Hours go by with no sign of the enemy’s planes. But just as Heinrich is convinced he’s pulled off a daring escape, he hears the high-pitched drone of the enemy approaching. Then, seconds later, he hears another sound, a deep rumble from somewhere in the belly of the zeppelin. He knows immediately what’s happened: they’ve been hit. In a flash, flames spread across the airship’s wooden frame, and slowly, the zeppelin begins to fall from the sky…

Heinrich knows he must make a terrible choice: burn to death, or jump. He peers out into the forbidding blackness below. He has no way of knowing how high they are. But with flames singe-ing his skin, the captain has no other option. Heinrich wraps his scarf around his head, closes his eyes, and jumps.

Heinrich Mathy, along with the rest of his crew who weren’t incinerated in the blaze, will leap for their lives, but die instantly upon hitting the ground. Their deaths will mark the end of the zeppelin. Shortly after, the German military will cease its use of airships, turning instead to smaller and more nimble planes, which will wreak even greater havoc on British towns and cities.

Of the 115 German zeppelins used to carry out bombing raids against Britain during World War I, 77 were shot down. But in the course of their short run, the airships became the terror of the British public, causing costly damage and killing more than 500, most of them civilians. Following the war, for a time, airships will be repurposed as luxury modes of transport. But today, they are mostly remembered for the death, destruction, and fear they inflicted upon the British people starting with a deadly bombing raid on January 19th, 1915.


Next on History Daily. January 20th, 1945. Franklin D. Roosevelt is sworn in for an unprecedented and never to be repeated fourth term as US President.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.