The curious case of the Graf Zeppelin

During the 1920s the sight of an airship in the skies above the East Anglian countryside wouldn’t have been an uncommon occurrence. The airship station at Pulham St.Mary had become operational during the First World War with the craft based there becoming affectionately known by the locals as the “Pulham Pigs”.

Graf Zeppelin over the Norfolk Broads, August 1931

Graf Zeppelin over the Norfolk Broads, August 1931

I was still quite surprised, however, to come across a photograph of an airship last year whilst sorting through an album of images which were taken during a holiday on the Broads in 1931. My first thought was that this must have been one of the ships which were based at Pulham, but initial research quickly revealed that all UK airships were grounded after the R-101 had crashed in France with a loss of 48 lives during its maiden overseas voyage in October 1930. The shape of the craft seen in the photograph also hadn’t looked quite right to have been one of the British airships of the time and further research on the internet led me to believe that this was actually one of the German Zeppelins. Narrowing down the possibilities, and checking out the flight details of airships during 1931, the likeliest candidate turned out to be the Graf Zeppelin LZ-127 which was the most widely travelled passenger airship ever built. The LZ-127 made its inaugural flight on the 18th of September 1928 and, at 776 feet in length, was the largest airship to have been built up to that time. During its nine years of service it covered over one million miles, making 590 flights including many transatlantic passages, a round the world trip in 1929 and a scientific mission to the arctic in July 1931. On the 18th of August 1931 it landed at Hanworth Aerodrome, near London, attracting huge crowds on what was dubbed a goodwill mission – there is some fascinating footage of the LZ-127 flying over London and landing at Hanworth Air Park during that visit on the British Pathe website. It seems almost certain that the photograph in that 1931 holiday album captured the Graf Zeppelin over Broadland during that visit. The Graf Zeppelin returned to Hanworth Park in 1932 where it offered passenger flights around Britain at £40 per head which was a phenonenal amount of money back then! Despite having a perfect safety record, the LZ-127 was withdrawn from service in May 1937 following the Hindenburg disaster.

To many British citizens, the sight of a Zeppelin in the skies was still something to be feared and a set of postcards I have within the archives illustrate the reason why.

Zeppelin Air Raid on Great Yarmouth, January 1915

Zeppelin Air Raid on Great Yarmouth, January 1915

The Zeppelin airships had been developed by the German army officer Count Ferdinand Von Zeppelin who began experimenting with guidable balloons in the late 19th century. The first successful airship flight was conducted in July 1900 and from 1909 the Zeppelins were used for civilian passenger flights. With the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, the German army and navy saw the potential in Von Zeppelins airships for military use and they were initially draughted in to be used on spying missions beyond enemy lines. The Kaiser was reluctant to allow their use to attack the enemy, but finally agreed that British military installations could be targeted. He was keen to stress that residential areas and especially Royal residences were avoided – he was after all related to the British Royal family! On the morning of the 19th January 1915 three zeppelins, the L-3, L-4 and L-6, were launched from their base in Germany and began the long flight to Britain, armed with explosive bombs and incendiary devices. The L-6 encountered problems soon into its flight and had to return to base, leaving the L-3 and the L-4 to continue their mission alone. Their initial target had apparently been the dockyards of the Humber Estuary, but a combination of bad weather and poor navigational aids saw the airships being blown off course and encountering the coastline of Norfolk instead. The L-3 had arrived at Great Yarmouth and, considering it to be a legitimate target, began dropping its payload over the town. It is reported that the first bomb was dropped over the marshes near Ormesby, but at 8.20pm the second bomb heralded the start of the raid on Great Yarmouth as the L-3 made a steady course across the town from north to south.

Bomb dropped during the Zeppelin raid

Bomb dropped during the Zeppelin raid

Eight bombs were dropped in total, three of which failed to detonate, one landed at the Fish Wharf, and another on St. Peter’s Plain where there was a scene of utter devastation.  Many buildings were heavily damaged and two people lost their lives here – 72 year old spinster Martha Taylor and 53 year old shoemaker Sam Smith. This was the very first air raid on Britain and it heralded a new era of warfare. The L-4 Zeppelin had continued north and at around 11pm began bombing Kings Lynn, killing a woman and child. In these pre-televisual days, natural human morbid curiosity was satiated by the postcards which were produced by local photographers who had captured the scenes of devastation. Over the next three years the eastern coastline of Britain and the Midlands area were to experience many more Zeppelin raids, and London also began to be targeted from May 1915 onwards. Initially the attacks came without warning and little could be done to stop the airships which flew too high for the military aircraft of the time to reach. As the war progressed the means to target and shoot down the Zeppelins developed rapidly, searchlights to spot the incoming airships were introduced and the German radio messages were intercepted so that the British military knew where the airships were heading. By the time of the last air raid in 1918 a good number of the Zeppelins had been successfully shot down and destroyed, others had been lost through accidents, but 557 British citizens had been killed and over 1300 more injured.

More information about the creation of the Zeppelins, the air raids on Britain during the First World War, and their further development as passenger airships during the 1920s and 1930s can be found on the Wikipedia website.

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