DAVID ARNOLD - When flying ‘baby killers’ prowled skies of Sussex

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The opening months of 1915 saw the deployment by the Germans of a fearsome new weapon. The Zeppelin

bomber. These giant airships were able to fly across the North Sea from Germany and once over England would rain down incendiaries and high explosives on cities and towns.

Later they would operate even closer to our shores from bases in Belgium and other parts of the continent they had seized. East Sussex was considered to be on the frontline in the struggle with Germany. The sound of heavy artillery in France could often be heard in the county, a fact attested to by Arthur Conan-Doyle as far inland as his Crowborough home.

Initial targets for the Zeppelins were places on England’s North Sea coast and later London. But air raids or even an outright invasion were considered to be major threats to the south coast. As it happened, these fears never materialised. Indeed so far as I have been able to discover there was only ever one Zeppelin attack made on Sussex.

It occurred on the night of 16th-17th March 1917 and an account of it is contained in a new book by Neil Storey, “The Zeppelin Blitz” (The History Press). Five Zeppelins flew from Germany with orders to bomb Kent and East Sussex.

Zeppelin L-39 flew over St Leonards at 11.40pm and was reported as “making a terrible noise”. About ten minutes later she was seen over Bexhill and at midnight was over Pevensey Bay where she went out to sea and is believed to have ditched some bombs, possibly aiming them unsuccessfully at a vessel off Cuckmere Haven, before flying across the Channel towards the French coast.

As an aside, I wonder if the occupants of L-39 could have understood the irony of their passing over Bexhill? Many residents of the seaside town had a German heritage and German bands were a popular pre-war source of entertainment. Bexhill hotels also had many German workers and at one time the town’s mayor was a German. There was even a German school that the Kaiser’s nephew attended in 1914, the same year that the Kaiser’s sisters paid a visit. Indeed, it was said, hopefully tongue in cheek, that for Bexhill the war came as a “terrible inconvenience that interfered with the holiday season”.

By 5.25am L-39 was over Estrees, in northern France where she dropped three bombs. Five minutes later she was spotted stationary over Compiegne having apparently suffered an engine failure or possibly a problem with her petrol supply. A sitting duck, the airship became the target of no less than three batteries of French anti-aircraft guns. L-39 came down in flames from a height of over 10,000 feet just eight miles from the safety of the German lines. The entire crew perished. Compiegne is where the Armistice ending the Great War would be signed some 18 months later.

A second Zeppelin - L-40 - was over Newchurch on Romney Marsh when she dropped five HE and three incendiary bombs at 2am. The only damage reported was one shattered pane of glass in a farmhouse. She then flew south and dropped 14 more incendiary bombs near Little Appledore Farm, Newchurch, apparently with no ill effect. Another bomb was aimed at Melton Farm, this time resulting in the killing of four sheep. After dropping a few more random explosives the raider disappeared out to sea near New Romney at about 2.15am.

The third Zeppelin was L-41, commanded by Hauptmann Kuno Manger. She came overland at 1.20am at Pett Level, near Winchelsea, and dropped eight bombs and two incendiaries. Two bombs fell in the sea and the others did concussion damage to some empty bungalows and farmhouses. L-41 turned north-east and when near Rye, turned south-east to follow the course of the River Rother. She dropped seven bombs and six incendiaries on Camber Marsh causing very little damage.

The British press dubbed the Zeppelin “The Baby Killer” due to the callous and indiscriminate way they bombed populated areas. We have to remember that this was a time when aerial warfare was in its infancy. It wouldn’t be long before indiscriminant bombing was the order of the day for both sides.

Serving aboard an airship soon became an exceedingly dangerous occupation as British fighter pilots and anti-aircraft gunners gained in skill at shooting down Zeppelins. The Germans deployed a total of 115 of the airships before they were largely withdrawn from service over England in the summer of 1917. There were just four airship raids in 1918, the last taking place on 5th August 1918. It featured five “Height Climbers”, a new type of Zeppelin capable of flying at 20,000 feet. The command airship was shot down by a British fighter over the North Sea and the remaining four turned tail. By this time 77 airships had been destroyed or damaged beyond repair and over 1500 crew had been killed.

By contrast only 500 British civilians were killed by Zeppelin action in the whole war with another 1300 being injured.