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Issue 45 - When zeppelins rained terror

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 45
June 2009

 

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When zeppelins rained terror

In 1916 zeppelin airships appeared in the sky above Edinburgh and began an air raid that the city was not prepare for. Gordon Casely reports.

‘Aerial attacks killed more than 1260 civilians and injured more than 3000’.

No, this is not a statistic from World War Two, but a detail from the First World War, when enemy bombing of the United Kingdom became a fact of wartime life for the first time. During 1915, England had been badly hit and, in 1916, Edinburgh and East Lothian entered the firing line.

The attacks, however, came not from conventional aircraft – for airborne technology remained too primitive for that – but from Zeppelin airships.

Zeppelins were the weapons of mass destruction of their day, pioneered at the end of the 19th century by the German nobleman of that name and developed under Kaiser Wilhelm II. So unusual were these dirigibles that operation of them was the responsibility of the German Kreigsmarine (navy). Massive compartments of lighter-than-air hydrogen kept aloft the slender cigar-like machines.

Lumbering beasts they certainly were, presenting themselves as obvious targets, except that until 1917, there hardly existed in the UK even the most basic type of antiaircraft weapon. Strange – for a single hit on a zeppelin would have been disastrous, either puncturing a vital hydrogen bag or setting fire to the highly inflammable gas.

While basic attempts had been made to protect the public in England, in Scotland there was not even a blackout, so when a pair of zeppelins loomed above Edinburgh on the night of Sunday, 2nd April 1916, the Capital was totally unprepared.

Abright moon illuminated the city, perfect conditions for navigating a zeppelin in a raid.

Airships were such a primitive ordinance, and so subject to weather conditions of wind and fog, that they navigated using ground features. Each bomb was about the size of a sack of flour and individually dropped by hand.

Earlier that spring day, two zeppelins carrying 27 high explosive bombs and 14 incendiaries headed for east Scotland from the north German coast and by early evening had reached the Firth of Forth. Projected targets were military rather than civilian: the docks at Rosyth and the fleet moored in the Forth. But when Royal Navy defences put up enough of a barrage to scare them off, the pair diverted to Edinburgh, encouraged by an early hit on a bonded warehouse at Leith. The resulting fire and the explosion of 10s of thousands of gallons of spirit lit up a vast area of the city.

(Losses from that single bomb were estimated at £44,000 – a figure which for today’s values has to be multiplied by 200...

nearly £9 million).

The zeppelins dropped several more bombs in Leith, one exploding on a railway siding at Bonnington, the blast killing a baby in a house nearby. An empty patch of land at Bellevue Terrace was then hit, smashing windows in the surrounding streets. The raid proved a spectacle for local people. My father Fred Casely, who died aged 93 last year, was two years old at the time of the raid and recalled being held in the arms of his mother Marie at the window of their home in Beaverhall Road and seeing ‘this huge long tube of a thing high in the sky. It seemed to hang motionless. Then a cloud obscured it.’ Union leader Davie Kirkwood, later Member of Parliament for Clydebank, and later again Lord Kirkwood, was also in Edinburgh that night and recorded in his autobiography MyLife In Revolt how shaken he was by the experience of war coming directly to the heart of Scotland. ‘Suddenly a terrifying explosion occurred,’ he wrote.

‘Windows rattled, the ground quivered, pictures swung. We all gasped. I ran to the window and saw Vesuvius in eruption... I opened the window. Agreat flash greeted me from the Castle...’ Since there were neither air-raid precautions nor air-raid shelters, people unthinkingly treated the raid as a spectacle, rushing out of their homes to see it, unwittingly making themselves casualties of blasts.

The flash Kirkwood spotted was a bomb which hit the castle rock, sending great shards of stone tumbling down to smash windows in Castle Terrace. So desperate were the military for weapons that even the One O’Clock Gun was aimed skywards, the only time in its history since 1861 ever to see action. Not that this was much use, for the rounds were blanks as they always have been.

By the standards of the day, the zeppelin raid constituted massive bombing bordering on blitz. One explosion holed the roadway of the Mound while another ploughed into the home of Dr John McLaren at 39 Lauriston Place. As the ungainly zeppelins dipped and swayed, more of their deadly loads struck the Grassmarket in front of the White Hart Hotel, injuring four, one of whom later died.

Ahit on George Watson’s College smashed classroom windows in the west wing. One pupil gleefully recorded the next day: ‘On my road into school this morning, I met several joyous persons who informed me that the Easter holidays had begun – compulsorily!’ So there were some compensating features even about an air raid.

But unhappily not for those standing in Marshall Street: a group there had just taken refuge two years old at the time of the raid and recalled being held in the arms of his mother Marie at the window of their home in Beaverhall Road and seeing ‘this huge long tube of a thing high in the sky. It seemed to hang motionless. Then a cloud obscured it.’ Union leader Davie Kirkwood, later Member of Parliament for Clydebank, and later again Lord Kirkwood, was also in Edinburgh that night and recorded in his autobiography MyLife In Revolt how shaken he was by the experience of war coming directly to the heart of Scotland. ‘Suddenly a terrifying explosion occurred,’ he wrote.

‘Windows rattled, the ground quivered, pictures swung. We all gasped. I ran to the window and saw Vesuvius in eruption... I opened the window. Agreat flash greeted me from the Castle...’ Since there were neither air-raid precautions nor air-raid shelters, people unthinkingly treated the raid as a spectacle, rushing out of their homes to see it, unwittingly making themselves casualties of blasts.

The flash Kirkwood spotted was a bomb which hit the castle rock, sending great shards of stone tumbling down to smash windows in Castle Terrace. So desperate were the military for weapons that even the One O’Clock Gun was aimed skywards, the only time in its history since 1861 ever to see action. Not that this was much use, for the rounds were blanks as they always have been.

By the standards of the day, the zeppelin raid constituted massive bombing bordering on blitz. One explosion holed the roadway of the Mound while another ploughed into the home of Dr John McLaren at 39 Lauriston Place. As the ungainly zeppelins dipped and swayed, more of their deadly loads struck the Grassmarket in front of the White Hart Hotel, injuring four, one of whom later died.

Ahit on George Watson’s College smashed classroom windows in the west wing. One pupil gleefully recorded the next day: ‘On my road into school this morning, I met several joyous persons who informed me that the Easter holidays had begun – compulsorily!’ So there were some compensating features even about an air raid.

But unhappily not for those standing in Marshall Street: a group there had just taken refuge inside a tenement entrance when a bomb hit the pavement outside. Six died and seven were injured. At St Leonard’s Hill, a child was killed and another two people injured.

There were also miraculous escapes: a bomb on a tenement in Marchmont Crescent penetrated three floors without injuring anyone and a five-storey tenement in Causewayside was completed demolished but miraculously with no human cost.

The sole airborne counter-attack came from Flight Lieutenant G. A. Cox. Taking off from the airfield of the Royal Flying Corps at East Fortune in an Avro 504, a tiny fighter biplane with open cockpit, Cox searched the night sky for either of the zeppelins, now slowly crossing the coast. But night-flying tactics had still to be developed and he failed to make contact.

Unluckily for him, he crash-landed on his return to East Fortune and was badly injured.

While that concluded the first and only air attack on Edinburgh of the First World War, the repercussions lasted much longer. In the propaganda aftermath, the German Report spoke of bombardment of ‘the northern part of Edinburgh and Leith, with docks on the Firth of Forth,’ an account dismissed here at home as ‘…a statement of the usual inaccurate and bombastic type.’ But there was no disguising that the authorities were rattled, certainly after angry letters to the press from furious correspondents asking why Edinburgh had lain open and evidently been badly prepared.

Within days, discussions began about systems of automatically dimming lights – precursor of the blackout – and the raid led directly to the setting up of three airfields, Gilmerton, Colinton and Turnhouse, plus the strengthening of East Fortune. Two of these endure into modern times – Turnhouse as Edinburgh Airport and East Fortune as the Museum of Flight.

These preparations came not a day too soon, for a month later, on 2nd May, Zeppelin L 20 – possibly making for Invergordon where the North Sea fleet was based – lost course over Aviemore and turned eastwards over Aberdeenshire, dropping bombs at Castle Craig near Rhynie, Insch and Old Rayne, passing out over the coast at Newburgh, 17 miles north of Aberdeen.

The lasting consequence of the Edinburgh raid was that when war again broke out two decades later, the Government galvanised the home front. Strict blackout, air raid shelters in back gardens and evacuations of children from cities to small towns and villages in the countryside were immediate actions. Even the tops of buses and trams were camouflaged. Scotland braced itself almost to the extent of over-preparation, the exact opposite of those somewhat innocent days of the First World War.