When war in the air came to the North East

Author's grandmother inspired book on Zeppelin airship raids over the region during WWI

A postcard purporting to show a Zeppelin over Blyth on April 14, 1915, although the residents seem remarkably unperturbed
A postcard purporting to show a Zeppelin over Blyth on April 14, 1915, although the residents seem remarkably unperturbed

Air travel is now so utterly familiar that it is difficult to imagine a time when the sight of a flying machine made headline news.

That was the case when an aircraft over a Northumberland pit village in July 1911 produced the following newspaper report:

“Great excitement was caused in Backworth by the sight of an aeroplane. Flying rather low over the colliery rows, it quickly disappeared in the fog in the Seghill direction, but not before affording Backworth folks a splendid free view from their doors.”

So it is little wonder that when, four years later Eva Jamieson witnessed a German Zeppelin airship over her home in Bedlington in Northumberland, it left an impression which lasted a lifetime.

Eva was the grandmother of Alnwick author and Wanney Books publisher Ian Hall, who listened to her renditions of the story.

“It was partly with my grandmother in mind that I set out to try to tell the story of the Zeppelin raids on the North East,” he says.

The result is Zeppelins Over the North East at £4.50 - the third of Ian’s First World War books.

The Zeppelin Eva saw at the age of 13 was probably L9, whose appearance on April 14, 1915, was the first of more than 20 airship raids on the region and the second on Britain.

It was 530ft long - more than twice the length of the modern A380 double decker Airbus.

L9 flew over Blyth shortly after 7pm then dropped a bomb on West Sleekburn - the first of 22 on its way to Newcastle. Another eight bombs fell on Tyneside, injuring a mother and child in Wallsend.

Spectators inspect a crater left by a German Zeppelin bomb in 1915 at Bedlington
Spectators inspect a crater left by a German Zeppelin bomb in 1915 at Bedlington

The Journal reported: “The streets in the city presented a curious spectacle. Evidently all the public electric lighting power had been turned off.

“All the tramcars came to a sudden stop and stood in the streets in total darkness. The same state of affairs obtained at the Central and suburban stations. This placed a lot of visitors in a position of great inconvenience.”

Local photographers produced commemorative postcards. But the tone was to change.

On June 15 Zeppelin L10 dropped its first bomb on Wallsend, and then attacked Hebburn Colliery and Palmer’s shipyard in Jarrow, with 17 men killed and 72 injured. Works at Willington Quay were also bombed.

On April 1, 1916, Zeppelin L11 arrived over Seaham in County Durham and bombed Eppleton Colliery, Hetton Downs, Philadelphia and Sunderland, where 21 bombs killed 22 people and injured 128.

The Journal report read: “A large piece of shell blew a hole in the wall of a house, and passed over a bed without injuring a lady who was in it.

“A large plate glass window at a local inn was lifted bodily out of the frame and deposited intact beside the counter.

“The detonations awakened the inhabitants, many of whom went into the streets.”

The next night Zeppelin L16 released 23 bombs on Ponteland and Stamfordham in Northumberland, 11 on Cramlington and seven on Broomhill while L22 crossed the coast near Berwick and bombed the Borders.

L16 returned on April 5 over Blackhall Rocks in County Durham, attacked Evenwood Colliery, and dropped 27 bombs on pits near Bishop Auckland, killing a child.

The next raid was on May 2, when L11 passed over Amble, dropping two bombs.

A poster using the Zeppelin raids as a recruitment tool
A poster using the Zeppelin raids as a recruitment tool

The Germans now introduced a 650ft Zeppelin, which could carry a greater load and had a longer range.

On August 8, five airships attacked the region, with L11 releasing 13 bombs on Whitley Bay, L13 bombing Wingate and Thornley in County Durham, L14 appearing over Berwick and Alnmouth and L30 at Hartlepool, and L31 over South Shields, North Shields and Jarrow.

The Journal reported the impact on one town: “Died of shock: one man. Killed: Two women and three children.

“About 100 high explosive and over 60 incendiary bombs have been traced.”

To give early warning of raids, large concrete reflectors, or sound mirrors were built on the coast, to pick up the sound of airship engines with a microphone relaying the results to a nearby listener.

One sound mirror can be seen near Fulwell windmill in Sunderland.

By now defensive aircraft were improving and using explosive bullets to try to detonate airship gas bags.

On November 27 L34 flew inland over Castle Eden in County Durham and was picked up by searchlight and seen by pilot Ian Pyott who had taken off from Seaton Carew airfield.

He wrote in his report: “I sighted a Zeppelin between Sunderland and Hartlepool. I flew underneath him, firing as I went.

“We flew on a parallel course for about five miles, firing 71 rounds.

“I noticed a small patch become incandescent where I had seen tracers entering his envelope. This rapidly spread and the next thing as that the whole Zepp was in flames. The Zeppelin fell into the sea.”

The Journal reported: “Zeppelins have been forced by fear of our aeroplanes to navigate at stupendous heights.”

The last raid on the region was on March 13, 1918, over West Hartlepool, with 20 bombs dropped, killing eight people and injuring 39.

Ian Hall has collected newspaper reports of the raids, with one in The Journal on May 5, 1916, reading: “An octogenarian, somewhat deaf, was in bed when a bomb burst not far from his house.

“A son, finding him wide awake, asked him ‘Did you hear noise?

“The old man looked up. ‘I should think I did,’ he exclaimed with irritation. ‘What a time o’ night to be taking in coal!’”

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