Lincolnshire’s own Zeppelin bombings

On the evening of September 16, terror was brought to Lincoln as an enemy aircraft dropped bombs nearby in Washingborough. This followed a similar attack, several months earlier, where dozens of men were killed during a raid on Cleethorpes.

This, however was not the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, but a series of raids in the First World War, and the aircraft in question were not airplanes, but Zeppelins. How then, did these raids occur and why were airships utilized, when the plane was surely a much faster and technologically advanced craft? And why was little old Washingborough targeted by those big, mean German Zeppelins?

A typical Zeppelin craft, courtesy of the Birmingham Mail.

A typical Zeppelin craft, courtesy of the Birmingham Mail

Despite the continued development and widespread use of heavier-than-aircraft (i.e. planes) from 1915 through 1916, the German Army preferred the use of airships for their raids on British targets within the UK for a number of reasons. Firstly, they were silent and therefore able to maintain the element of surprise. Secondly, they were able to carry a far larger payload of bombs to the smaller planes of the day, and finally, they were able to fly higher than the aircraft of the period, with fewer defensive measures that could be taken against them on the ground.

Accidental strike

The first attacks began in January 1915 and throughout the year, with London being the major target. Lincolnshire and the East Yorkshire coast, however, were also widely targeted. Why, though, would the Germans wish to bomb Lincolnshire, a seemingly quiet, rural area, far from the industry and machinations of war?

In the most simplest sense, several of these German raids upon the area were by accident. One particular incident, alluded to earlier, occurred in Cleethorpes on April 1, 1916. A German Zeppelin, hoping to drop its bomb on London, was blown off course by the weather (navigation, particularly at night or in severe winds often hindered the raids), making it only as far as Newark. Attempting to turn around and return safely home, the captain of the ship decided to release his bombs into the sea near Hull, to reduce weight.

Many of the bombs landed safely in the sea; one though landed on a Baptist chapel, which was the billet of 3rd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment, killing 31 men. Other raids occurred against Boston, Navenby, Skellingthorpe and other settlements in the area.

An ill-judged city raid

The raid on Washingborough in 1916, which occurred some five months later, can also be attributed to German miscalculation. Lincoln was a prime target for the German raids. Despite being famous the for the creation and production of the tanks of the First World War, the city also played a vital role in the production of other essential military craft, particularly planes.

Ruston-Hornsby, the engine manufacturer, was during the war one of the largest producers of military aircraft in the world, building some 2,700 planes in addition to over 3,000 engines (amongst other armaments, such as mortars for gas and flame-throwers). It was targets such as these which made Lincoln such a tempting choice for a raid, and on September 16 the Germans struck.

A Zeppelin air raid shelter in Cleethorpes, still standing today. Photo: English Heritage

A Zeppelin air raid shelter in Cleethorpes, still standing today. Photo: English Heritage

That evening, the Zeppelins quietly floated towards Lincoln, using the spires of the Cathedral as a useful navigational aid. Silently moving to the east, they hoped to bomb the factories responsible for the production of the armaments, while at the same time inflicting terror upon the population.

Unfortunately for them however, night navigation proved too much of a problem. According to local legend, the Zeppelin captain had been following the firebox of a passing locomotive. The driver of the train, having his suspicions aroused, brought the train to a halt at Greetwell, with the Germans thinking the train had stopped at Lincoln station.

As a result, thinking they were bombing within the city, the Zeppelin crew had actually dropped its ordinance in a garden in Washingborough as well as a further three in fields nearby. No casualties were reported as a result of the strike, though two boys died the next day as a ferry, full of spectators hoping to witness the damage, collapsed in the river. The parish church of St. John within the village today remembers the raid on one of its stained glass windows.

Technological advancements

By the time of the Washingborough raid, however, the course of war was turning against the Zeppelins. Improvements in aircraft eliminated the airships ability to fly higher than planes and the development of incendiary bullets allowed ground forces to shoot down the crafts with much more ease. Such was the case in 1917, when a Zeppelin was shot down off the coast of Grimsby.

The operator of a steam boat, William Martin, responded to the incident, thinking it a boat in distress. Upon realizing that the crew were Germans and responsible for the attacks that evening, he left the men to drown; a decision which drew much controversy, but best illustrates the anger these attacks wrought upon the county. Following disastrous raids, such as these, the Germans quickly sought to diminish the role of the airships, preferring instead the heavier and faster aeroplanes of their fleet.

The stories of the Zeppelin raids against Britain are often forgotten over the much more famous and deadly battles which were to be fought over the country later in the century. However, they harken back to a period when warfare as we know it today was in its infancy, and a time when Lincolnshire was thrust onto the front lines of European conflict due to its links with military aircraft, a link which lasts to this day.