German Zeppelin and Airplane Raids: Terror From the Skies

A zeppelin flies over a crowded waterway

German Zeppelin and Airplane Raids: Terror From the Skies

For the first time in history, civilians discovered that it wasn’t just soldiers who were in danger.  During World War I, new weapons of war made it possible to conduct air raids on civilians.  The majority of these raids were directed at Great Britain, but Paris and other locations also faced bombardment.

Zeppelin Air Raids

A zeppelin flies over a crowded waterway
A zeppelin flies over a crowded waterway

Zeppelins moved slowly and quietly, so raids were conducted at night. The purpose of zeppelin raids was to demoralize the enemy, and they succeeded in this goal.

People feared attacks were imminent and lacked shelters to retreat to when air raids occurred.

The zeppelins carried hand grenades and incendiary bombs, releasing them through a trap door in the craft.

Bombardments began in January 1915, but after a three-ton bomb killed six English children in September, zeppelins earned the nickname “baby killers.”

By 1916, London and other cities enforced blackouts, making it more difficult for zeppelins to find their targets. The following year, anti-aircraft guns and searchlights were installed.

The first zeppelin shot down was over London in September 1916. It burst into flame when it was struck by bullets. The blaze could be seen for more than 100 miles.

The Germans developed zeppelins called Height Climbers that could reach 16,000-20,000 feet and avoid being shot down.  However, these had a unique set of problems. Crews were exposed to cold and low-oxygen levels, and cabins weren’t pressurized.

A total of 51 raids were conducted on Britain, killing 556 people and injuring more than 1,300.

Zeppelins were used until the end of the war, but by 1917 airplanes conducted the majority of the raids.

Airplane Raids

Sopwith Camel
Airships were quickly replaced with airplanes, like the Sopwith Camel

Like zeppelin raids, air bombing was meant to demoralize and possibly push Britain out of the war.

Airplanes carried larger payloads (more than a thousand pounds) and were able to attack during the day.

The British responded by sending their own aircraft after enemy bombers. Eventually, the Germans returned to night bombings. Unable to see targets because of the blackouts, pilots used radio stations on the ground to calculate their positions.

Systems were put into place in Allied nations to warn civilians to take cover, but occasionally shelters were breached.

Air raids over Britain were conducted during a one-year period, May 1917-May 1918, killing 857 and injuring 2,508.

Other Air Raid Facts

Fires in London from a World War One zeppelin raid
A zeppelin raid damages London

Here are some miscellaneous facts about the German air raids:

  • Zeppelins initially were used for reconnaissance.
  • Test bombardments were carried out over occupied Belgium.
  • The raids on Britain caused millions of dollars in damage.
  • The first zeppelin shot down in the war was over Belgium in June 1915. An airplane dropped bombs on its roof from 13,000 feet, causing the airship to explode.
  • Paris was first attacked in March 1915.
  • The Germans used 115 zeppelins during the war. Causality rates for crews were 40 percent.

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Updated:  20 October 2020
Melina Druga
Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.
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