On January 31, 1916, in the second year of the Great War, nine airships left their bases in Germany with orders to bomb Liverpool and in so doing shock the British by the long- range of the attack. The year before zeppelins had raided London, but it was considered impossible for them to reach as far north as Merseyside. As it was the enemy did not make their target. Instead they dropped their bombs on several English towns mostly in the Midlands. Chief amongst them were Tipton, Wednesbury and Walsall in Staffordshire.
The zeppelin which caused so much death and damage was the L21. It was huge at 534 feet long and 61 feet broad. Capable of a speed of 60 miles per hour, it was captained by Max Dietrich, an uncle of the famous singer and actress, Marlene Dietrich, whose successful career spanned the decades from the 1920s to 1970s.
On the night of January 31, Dietrich and his crew crossed the North Sea and flew across Norfolk, but as he came inland mists and fogs began to enshroud the air ship. These badly affected Dietrich’s calculations as he strove to ascertain where he was whenever there was a break in the gloom.
Believing he was close to Birkenhead and that he would soon be over Liverpool he ordered his men to begin dropping bombs. But Dietrich had miscalculated. He was a long way south from Merseyside and his airships bombs were dropped instead on three towns in the Black Country.
Nevertheless the Germans were enthusiastic about the raid, claiming that they had bombed the shipping and docks of Liverpool and Birkenhead and industrial works in Sheffield. They declared that “the results of the attacks were manifest in explosions and fires”.
At the end of February, the Germans went into greater detail. They claimed that the zeppelins had caused great damage in Liverpool, Birkenhead, Bootle and Garton and considerable damage to factories in Manchester, Sheffield and Nottingham; whilst they had bombed to “good effect” on Hull, Grimsby and Great Yarmouth and completely destroyed two large government works and two munitions factories in Birmingham.
The German reports were wrong. They missed their targets by a long way. According to the British “except in one part of Staffordshire, no very considerable material damage was done”. Nowhere was there any military damage but the civilian casualties were heavy: 54 people were killed and 67 injured.
These casualty figures were updated on April 1, when ‘The Times’ reported that across the Midlands 67 people had killed been and 117 injured. It was the second worst night for casualties, after the raid of October 13, 1915 when 55 people were killed and 117 injured across the Eastern Counties and London. Of those who were killed in the raid on the Midlands, 34 were from the Black Country – where 35 bombs and 25 incendiaries were dropped, giving a total of 4,900 lbs of explosives.
The attack was completely unexpected. Indeed, the “first intimation of the presence of hostile airships in one industrial area was the sudden extinction of all the electric lights in the theatres and cinemas, and the audiences attributed the sudden darkness to the failure of the electricity supply”. In some, performances were continued by candlelight, but in most places people ran into the streets as they heard the noise of the zeppelin engines and the clamour of explosions.
The trail of death and destruction wrought by L. 21 began at about 8.00 p.m. when three high-explosive bombs fell on Tipton in Waterloo Street and Union Street – where two houses were demolished and others were damaged, whilst the gas main was set alight. These were quickly followed by three incendiary bombs on Bloomfield Road, and Barnfield Road.
Unhappily fourteen people were killed in the town. They were five men, five women, and four children. Amongst those who suffered was Thomas Morris. He later told the Coroner that on the fateful night he had gone for a pint in the ‘Tivoli’ public house, whilst his wife, Sarah Jane, had taken their children to visit her mother in Union Street. When Thomas reached there his agony must have been awful for the home had been blown apart. In the wreckage he found the bodies of his wife, her parents, and his two children. Nellie was aged eight and Martin was eleven.
As the zeppelin flew on, more bombs were dropped on Bradley, where Maud and Frederick Fellows were killed as they were courting on the bank of the Wolverhampton Union Canal. Thence at 8.15 p.m., the L21 let loose bombs in several parts of Wednesbury: around King Street, near to the Crown Tube works; at the back of the ‘Crown and Cushion’ pub; and in High Bullen and Brunswick Park Road. Another fourteen people were killed: four men, six women and four children.
Finally Walsall was bombed. The first explosive landed on the Congregational Church on the corner of Wednesbury Road and Glebe Street. A man walking outside was killed. The L21 continued over the town, dropping bombs in the grounds of the Walsall and District Hospital and in Mountrath Street. Its last explosive fell in the centre of Walsall, outside the Science and Art Institute in Bradford Place. It killed three people.
One of the victims was the Lady Mayoress of Walsall, 55-year old May Julia Slater, who was a passenger on the number 14 tram. She was rushed to hospital with severe wounds to the chest and abdomen, but was wounded so badly that she later died of shock and septicaemia in February 1916.
Unhappily Dietrich’s zeppelin was followed by another, L19, whose captain had also lost his way and who also ordered bombs to be dropped. Fortunately there were no more deaths. This zeppelin was brought down by rifle fire from Dutch soldiers over the North Sea and all its crew died.
As for the L21, it attacked Cleethorpes in April. One of its bombs fell on a billet and killed 31 soldiers. Like the bombing on the Black Country, this raid was only covered briefly – although in mid-February the Press Bureau had proposed no longer to issue detailed statements of attacks, “as it is inadvisable to give information to the enemy as to the results of their air attacks”.
This zeppelin was finally shot down by three Royal Naval Air Force pilots on November 27, 1916, eight miles to the east of Lowestoft. It was reported that cheering crowds watched the fight from the cliffs. None of the crew survived. Max Dietrich died a day later when the zeppelin he now captained, the L34, was shot down in Tees Bay off Hartlepool.
Back in the Black Country, reports made it plain that whilst “no damage of the slightest importance in the military sense was done”, innocent civilians – many of them women and several of them children and babies – “were sent to immediate and violent death”. Moreover, a number of people now lay “on beds of pain, in the agony of wounds received from flying fragments of bombs or the collapse of buildings”.
The bombs had destroyed homes and lives in working-class districts, but whilst there was some natural consternation when “the bombardment was in progress” at no time was there panic. Some eyewitnesses even explained that so clear was the view of the zeppelins that “they could see the trapdoor in its bottom open, a shaft of light stream through, and the bomb released”.
An inquest into the death of Maud and Frederick Fellows was held on Tuesday February 15, 1916 and the verdict highlighted the anger felt in the Black Country. Maud Fellows was 24 and had been walking with her sweetheart, Frederick Fellows who was unrelated to her, when the bomb had dropped near them. Frederick was killed on the spot, whilst Maud “was found terribly injured lying across his breast”. She died in hospital two weeks later, on the Saturday before the inquest.
The jury found that they had been killed by a bomb from an enemy aircraft and controversially it returned a verdict of “wilful murder” against the Kaiser and the Crown Prince “as accessories before the fact”. According to the coroner he had no method of service against either of them and nor was it possible to take proceedings against them. In response the foreman inquired if “it would have some weight at the end of the war”. The coroner replied that “he could not hold out any hope of this, adding that he did not propose to commit to trial the German Emperor of his son”. Despite this the jury refused to change their verdict.
One consequence of the Zeppelin Raid of January 31, 1916 was “the stimulating effect upon recruiting in some of the Staffordshire towns”, as one newspaper put it. The report from mid-February emphasised that “in one district sufficient recruits have been obtained since the occurrence to form nearly a couple of companies. By contrast, in the same district prior to the raid recruiting was at a very low ebb.”
In another locality, recruitment had increased substantially by 50%; whilst in a third a whole company had been raised in one week alone. The journalist stressed that “many men who have paid a visit to the areas in which the damage was caused have enlisted immediately”. Interestingly 75% of the recruits had applied to serve with the Royal Flying Corps.
After the war, in the first week of October 1921, the Earl of Dartmouth, then the Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire, unveiled a cenotaph in memory of the 2,000 Walsall men who had fallen in the First World War. At 27 feet high, it stood near to the spot where the L21 had wrecked the number 14 tram and fatally injured the Mayoress of the town.
First published in the Birmingham Mail’s First World War supplement.