How did London civilians respond to the German airship raids of 1915?
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Chapter 3: The fear felt and observed by London’s civilians in response to the German airship raids of 1915

Although the damage caused by the airship raids on London varied and was not always severe, because it was ‘…very terrible to contemplate that it is impossible to sleep in one’s bed in perfect safety’,[2] some civilians greatly feared the raids.

This fear is the third strongest response felt by London civilians in 1915 in response to the airship raids on the Capital.

This chapter explains the fear felt and observed before the Capital had endured a raid, the fear felt and observed during the raids, and the fear felt and observed after each of the raids.
‘Mourners tonight will leave the side of their dead to look into the sky fearfully.

Little children who have… gone to sleep will be awakened and rushed into cellars to save them from death.’ [1]

American journalist William G. Shepherd’s account of London’s third airship raid.

The first example of fear is what existed amongst London’s civilians before London had endured a raid. This fear existed not only when Germany was the only world power to boast a large number of rigid airships, but also when there was a real threat of aerial bombardment over Britain. A gnawing apprehension consequently set in for some civilians and saw them ask, ‘What had happened to the Zepps?’, ‘Why were the Germans holding back?’ and ‘How long would it be before they brought their aerial crusaders over Britain?’[3] Because this expression of anxiety is however rather minor, it is perhaps far from the fear one would have expected some of London’s civilians to have had. To a certain extent it therefore seems that London’s civilians were somewhat comforted by the fact that in early 1915 the threat of raids remained exactly that - boastful threats. Even after England had endured her first raid The Times alleged that many civilians held the view that the worse they would do was kill a few innocent civilians and cause meaningless destruction of property.[4] This small amount of evidence is all that remains to detail how much fear, if any, existed amongst London’s civilians before the Capital had endured a raid. Particularly surprising, especially considering London’s civilians knew that they were the prime target of any foreseeable raids and also because they recognised that civilian deaths would happen, although fear would not have been expressed publicly, it would be thought that the likes of a diary extract, for example, would detail this concern. Not one has been found in printed publications or in any archives.

The second example of fear is what existed amongst London’s civilians during each of the raids. This fear related almost entirely to the atmosphere of the raids and can be divided into two sub-categories: the visual scenes of the atmosphere, and the sounds of the atmosphere.

The first of these sub-categories is the visual scenes of the atmosphere of the raids. Considering aerial warfare was in 1915 not even a year old, it is impossible to comprehend now what civilians would have felt when witnessing, ‘Among the autumn stars… a long, gaunt Zeppelin… The long fingers of searchlights, reaching up from the roofs of the city… touching all sides of the death messenger with their white tips.’[5] This observance of fear can be understood more by two accounts written by children involved in Dr. Kimminsm’s lecture. The first, written by a girl aged ten, recalled how, ‘People were running about like mad bulls and the windows were falling out like rain.’ The second, written by a boy aged twelve, wrote, ‘I was coming out of a cinema… and I noticed people were rushing to and fro in the streets.’[6] Pankhurst also confirmed this fear. At home writing when London’s first raid commenced, she wrote how immediately after it started, ‘Mrs. Payne was on my threshold… “Miss Pankhurst, come down to us!”… I went to her… She clung to me trembling.’[7]

This fear was not only felt by women and children; excluding policemen, soldiers, and firemen, it was men who were often the subject of uncomplimentary remarks. During Dr. Kimminsm’s lecture he also told how the children’s essays suggested the small part men played during the raids. In 95% of the essays there were no references to men and in the 5% that there were references these were un-flattering: ‘When air raids threatened men rushed about the streets shouting “Zeps! Zeps! Put out your lights!”, furiously banging at the doors of houses where even the faintest glimmer was discerned’; ‘My father was frightened during the raid and he ran into a beer shop and got under the counter and stayed there until it was all over’; ‘A man came into the public house and said, “Give me half a pint. If I am going to die I will die drunk.”’[8] Two further accounts also explain this fear and, relating to accounts in theatres, these show the opposite of the determination which was expressed by some other theatergoers, as explained in Chapter 1. The first commenced at the Strand Theatre during London’s fifth raid where, previously to the startled audience being quickly calmed, a Russian male member of the orchestra, upon hearing falling bombs outside, fell on the floor crying hysterically and exclaiming, ‘My God! I’m died… I’m died.’[9] The second commenced not far away that same night during the performance of Between Two Women at the Lyceum Theatre where huge panic and fear erupted.[10] Following the abrupt termination of the play, despite the start of the gunfire outside, one male patron hurried to the outer door leaving his wife behind. No sooner had he dashed into the street when shrapnel from an anti-aircraft shell hit him killing him on the spot.[11]

The second sub-category of the fear felt and observed during the raids is the sound of the atmosphere of the raids. Following London’s first raid Pankhurst wrote, ‘On the silence arose an ominous grinding… growing in volume… throbbing, pulsating… Again a terrific burst of noise; those awful bangs, the roar of the falling buildings, the rattle of shrapnel on the roof… More crashes silenced us… Again more crashes… and each more monstrous… What a burst of sound, tremendous; the very earth shook with it!’[12] In addition to Pankhurst, American journalist William G. Shepherd also wrote frequently about the raids. Following London’s third raid he wrote, ‘Above the din of the orchestra there sweeps over the theatre a cavernous bass boom… Such a scene is being enacted out there as the old town of London… never before beheld… Great booming sounds shake the city. They are Zeppelin bombs – falling – killing – burning… Suddenly you realise that the biggest city in the world has become the night battlefield in which seven million harmless men, women, and children live.’[13] An account to the same effect followed from another civilian following London’s fifth raid: ‘The dreaded Zeppelin, carrying a heavier cargo of ammunition than several mere aeroplanes, was seen… by the searchlights… A dreaded roar of falling buildings can be heard. The angry glare of conflagration rose from the devastated scene where the bombs had fallen.’[14]

The third example of fear is what existed amongst London’s civilians after each of the raids. This fear can be divided into three small sub-categories: general fear in daily life, fear fuelled by rumours that German spies were using lights to guide airships to their targets, and fear reportedly leading to later deaths.

The first of these sub-categories is general fear in daily life. As a witness of London’s first raid remarked, ‘…many people are frightfully upset about it. Some that I have met have not been in bed since.’[15] A lady living in Leyton wrote similarly in a letter following London’s second raid, ‘The loss of life round here is terrible… The damage they did really does not bear thinking about… I simply can not go and see all the damage myself… I really can’t write any more about it, it was too awful… I hope I never never have to tell you the same things again for it absolutely knocks one up to think of the terrible time we had.’[16] Evidence also existed in Dr. Kimminsm’s lecture that children were fearful after the raids. Explaining that ten year old boys were talkative about them, Dr. Kimminsm also explained how at that age there was also distinct evidence of fear, much of which was felt amongst girls of the same age. Referring to essays which had shown that some girls were frightened and had consequently become to bellicose and make vigorous protests against the alleged German spies, Dr. Kimminsm commented that this had meant that some had gone to bed in their clothes, believing that the airships may return that night.[17]

The effect the raids had on civilian’s daily lives meant that the war production was also effected. Alarms and false alarms reduced the morale and effectiveness of the labour force, particularly affecting the nightshift workers, but also making day workers late the morning after the raids. In addition, factories were frequently abandoned and transport brought to a halt. The fears that many London’s civilians had were often so high that many sought shelter in the Underground stations and the London tunnels, such as Blackwell, Greenwich and Woolwich. Taking as many household goods as they could carry, they squatted in unsanitary conditions all evening and sometimes all night, raid or no raid.[18]

The second sub-category of the fear felt and observed after each of the raids is what was fuelled by rumours that German spies were using lights to guide airships to their targets. These rumours had begun ever since England’s very first raid.[19] Only three accounts can however be found in relation to the raids on London and the first two were on the night which followed the Capital’s first raid when crowds flocked to the East End to see the devastation. Following a chorus of wailing amongst women, one shouted: ‘Oh, my God! Look at the home! Oh, my God!’ Rumour hastily raced hot-foot and a woman later recalled how, ‘There were little lights signaling: telling them where to drop the bombs!’[20] The second account followed when another civilian told how, ‘I saw taxi-cabs driving up and down signaling!’[21] The third account followed the night after London’s fifth raid when civilians believed that German spies were also using flashing motor-car lamps to guide the airships. More commotion thus erupted when a Service transport vehicle was returning from collecting RFC spares. Brought to a standstill in Mile End Road, it faced fearful cries and a crowd rushing towards it. Despite carrying a blue light to show the police that they were entitled to use the headlights that were denied to civilians, this hysterical mob knew nothing about this rule and, regardless of the servicemen’s uniforms, continued to harass. Only when two policemen arrived could the vehicle get away.[22]

The third sub-category of the fear felt and observed after each of the raids is the assertion by some that later civilian deaths were caused by fear of the raids. Initially alleged at an inquest after London’s first raid when it was stated that the death of twins born prematurely was due to ‘…the mother’s fears of Zeppelins’, whilst the Coroner remarked that premature birth was quite frequent and that he did not think that these deaths ‘…could be laid at the door of the German Emperor’, in two other cases it was agreed that fear of the airships had led to deaths.[23] The first case was at another inquest after the same raid with regards to three week old Henry Carter. His mother said that both she and the baby had been upset about the raid and that she thought this had led to her baby’s death. Dr. Bird told that he believed the mothers upset had caused for her milk to diminish and that this led to insufficient milk and the baby dying of gastritis.[24] Another inquest, again following the same raid, concluded that the shock of bombs had caused the death of seventy-five year old Eleanor Willis. Having been taken ill on the day following the raid owing to the shock of the bombs the night before - four bombs were dropped in the immediate proximity of her house - Dr. W. B. Silas announced that he believed this shock accelerated diarrhoea and sickness, which consequently led to her death.[25] One further account also blamed a suicide on the raids. Following London’s fifth raid an inquest was held on a thirty-six year old woman whose widow told the inquest that the raids had made his wife nervous and that she had become considerably agitated when she was with him in the Capital during London’s fifth raid. Although he told her not to be frightened she continually asked if the airships would return. Stating that on the Saturday night his wife had slept with her mother due to her fear, he stated that she left the house early on the Monday without attracting attention. Having jumped from a second floor window to the ground, a verdict of ‘Suicide whilst of Unsound Mind’ was returned.[26]

The evidence used within this chapter shows an overall sense of fear felt and observed by some London civilians. Felt and observed by them before the Capital had endured a raid, during the raids, and also in the aftermath of the raids, this suggests that not all of the newspaper statements, such as the ‘…Metropolis [had] taken these acts very quietly and coolly’, were true.[27] Instead, as historian Wilbur Cross wrote, when the raids arrived some of ‘…the London population stood dumbstruck, almost too terrorised to move, like a victim about to be attacked by a deadly snake.’[28] Despite this fearfulness and the previously explained determination and anger being the strongest three responses felt by many London civilians, other lesser responses also existed. The following chapter explains what these were.


(1) The Times, 25 September 1915, p. 6.
(2) The Daily News & Leader, 4 June 1915, p. 3.
(3) Rimell, op,cit., pp. 30-31.
(4) The Times, 17 May 1915, p. 7.
(5) The Times, 25 September 1915, p. 6.
(6) The Times, 10 December 1915, p.11.
(7) Pankhurst, op,cit., p. 191.
(8) The Times, 10 December 1915, p.11.
(9) Frank Morison, War on Great Cities (London, 1937), pp. 208-212.
(10) Fegan, op,cit., p. 100.
(11) Rimell, op,cit., p. 43.
(12) Pankhurst, op,cit., pp. 191-192.
(13) The Times, 25 September 1915, p. 6.
(14) The Daily News & Leader, 15 October 1915, p. 1.
(15) The Hackney & Kingsland Gazette, 7 June 1915, p. 3.
(16) IWM, ID Number: Misc 208 (3020), ‘Letter describing the Zeppelin Raid on London on 17 August 1915’, August 1915.
(17) The Times, 10 December 1915, p. 11.
(18) Fegan, op,cit., p. 45.
(19) Poolman, op,cit., p. 108.
(20) Pankhurst, op,cit., pp. 193-194.
(21) ibid., p. 194.
(22) Poolman, op,cit., p. 108.
(23) The Hackney & Kingsland Gazette, 4 June 1915, p. 7.
(24) The Hackney & Kingsland Gazette, 9 June 1915, p. 5.
(25) The Hackney & Kingsland Gazette, 7 June 1915, p. 3.
(26) The Evening Standard and St. James’s Gazette, 20 October 1915, p. 9.
(27) The Times, 3 June 1915, p. 3.
(28) Cross, op,cit., p. 36.
‘… the little island in the silver seas was at the end of its immunity…’
H. G. Wells, The War in the Air (Middlesex, 1973), p. 140.
Zeppelin 1915 Attacking a Zeppelin

Zeppelins are capable of carrying, in addition to their crews, bombs weighing in the aggregate about a ton and a half. The chief menace to a Zeppelin is attack by aeroplanes, which are much swifter and capable of rising much higher. They can circle around a Zeppelin and drop bombs on it. So Zeppelins are frequently mounted with guns of high-angle range to repel attacking aeroplanes. To discharge a gun is fraught with danger to the Zeppelin, but that danger must be faced.

J. A. Hammerton (ed.) The War Illustrated: A Pictorial Record of the Conflict of Nations, Volume 1, (London, 1915) p. 493.
The forward gondola

Forward gondola of a Zeppelin, placed under the keel at the end of the great dirigible. The crew and engines are accommodated in two of these long, gondola-shaped cars.

J. A. Hammerton (ed.) The War Illustrated: A Pictorial Record of the Conflict of Nations, Volume 4, (London, 1916) p. 45.
Zeppelin Gondola 1915
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Conclusion Acknowledgements Bibliography