Fire from the skies of Southend

PUBLISHED: 11:05 05 May 2015 | UPDATED: 11:05 05 May 2015




While the Blitz of World War II is remembered most vividly, events in one Essex town that took place a centenary ago this month remain among the most terrifying moments of World War I. Peter Naldrett looks back at the day fire fell from the sky

ASK most people about German air raids and they’ll immediately start talking about cities hit by the famous blitz of World War II. Few will be prompted to mention the lesser-known raids of The Great War and many don’t even realise there were any air attacks on Britain during that terrible conflict.

However, this month the people of Southend will remember the deadly attack on their town that rocked confidence in the residents and brought the European-based conflict of World War I very much home. Southend was not the first place to be hit by the German airborne bombers during World War I. Several sites in Norfolk and Suffolk had already been attacked and London was to be the target a couple of weeks after Southend.

The peace was shattered in Southend at 2.55am on May 10. It was to be a Monday morning like no other in the popular seaside town. Two huge explosions were heard throughout the streets almost simultaneously, and those awoken were immediately greeted with the dreadful sight of flames rising high above the coastal skyline.

The early stages of what would turn out to be a devastating 20 minutes were watched by policemen on duty at the time. They reported the Zeppelin airship flying fairly low above Southend, with bomb after bomb being thrown out onto the sleeping residents below.

With the first bomb hitting a house on York Road and injuring a soldier based there, the second exploded on Ambleside Drive, putting a 4ft-deep hole in the ground and smashing hundreds of windows in surrounding homes due to a really powerful explosion.

Most of the bombs dropped on Southend during that night were incendiary, aimed at causing death and destruction through fire. One smashed through a house on North Road, killing the sleeping Mrs Whitwell instantly and giving her husband injuries that needed hospital treatment. Elsewhere in the town, two bombs fell onto property owned by a Mr Flaxman and his timber yard was consequently gutted. A house on West Road was set ablaze and a family had to dramatically escape by jumping out of the windows

Not all the bombs contributed to the carnage, thankfully. Some of them failed to explode and there were three that landed away from houses on the beach, one of these falling very close to a prisoner ship at the pier that contained 1,200 interned German civilians. Fortunately, the prisoner ship was avoided or there could have been a huge, and sadly ironic, disaster resulting from so-called friendly fire.

Towards the end of the aerial attack, anti-aircraft guns had started to fire upon the Zeppelin, but unlike some of the airships used in other raids, this one was not brought crashing down. Instead, the German crew began a delicate manoeuvre that turned its direction and saw it climb into the cloud. With its objectives of causing damage now complete, the Zeppelin left the Southend skies. Observers who saw it move spoke of their surprise that it could be controlled so carefully in the circumstances.

While the Zeppelin raids caused widespread damage, they were not always accurate and the Germans could not rely on them being successful. Weather conditions and the fact that bombs could not be targeted accurately meant their targets were not always hit. In fact, one wayward Zeppelin sent off to carry out a raid on London actually ended up in Hull and unloaded its destructive cargo there instead.

Although the Germans did carry out air raids in other countries during the war, it put most of its resources into the bombardment of England. And the public soon learned to hate the menacing sight of an airship over their towns and cities. The indiscriminate bombing that they carried out was the cause of the nation’s fear and the Zeppelin air ships became known as the ‘Baby Killer’.

The attack on Southend attracted the attention of popular cartoonists in the local papers. Several drawings used the bombing as a source for material, which helped to rally support in the face of the bombardment and also sought to boost the economy by making sure tourists still came to the seaside. In one illustration, a monster disguised as a German can be seen prancing forward with a bomb. There were also plenty of photographs taken of the air raid’s aftermath and many of these appeared in a special Zeppelin Supplement of the local paper the day after the attack.

Despite a tragic early morning raid, Southend was not as badly affected as other places during these dark times. The airship bombing raids over Britain killed 557 and injured another 1,358. It was estimated that £1.5 million in damage was caused — even more of a fortune back then — by the 5,000 bombs that were dropped. It is thought that 84 different airships were involved in the raids, including 30 that either crashed or were shot down. Airships were gradually replaced by airplanes and by 1917 it was these that were dropping bombs onto Britain, paving the way for the creation of the Royal Air Force and a new era of aerial threat.

Latest from the Essex Life