Airship onslaught which rocked Midland
On January 31, 1916, in the second year of
the Great War, nine airships left their bases in Germany with
orders to bomb Liverpool and in so doing shock the British by
the long-scale range of the attack. The year before, Zeppelins
had raided London, but it was considered impossible for them to
reach as far north as Merseyside. As it was the enemy did not
make their target. Instead they dropped their bombs on several
English towns, mostly in the Midlands.
Chief among them were Tipton, Wednesbury
and Walsall. They were hit by 35 bombs and 25 incendiaries,
making a total of 4,900lbs of explosives. Thirty four people
were killed. The Zeppelin which caused so much death and damage
was the L21. It was huge at 534 feet long and 61 feet broad.
Capable of a speed of 60 miles per hour, it was captained by Max
Dietrich, an uncle of the famous singer and actress, Marlene
Dietrich, whose successful career spanned the decades from the
1920s to 1970s.
On the night of January 31, Dietrich and
his crew crossed the North Sea and flew across Norfolk, but as
he came inland mists and fogs began to enshroud the airship.
These badly affected Dietrich's calculations as he strove to
ascertain where he was whenever there was a break in the gloom.
Believing he was close to Birkenhead and that he would soon be
over Liverpool, he ordered his men to begin dropping bombs. But Dietrich had miscalculated. He was a
long way south from Merseyside and his airships bombs were
dropped instead on three towns in the Black Country.
At 8pm the first place to be hit was
Tipton, where 14 people were killed. Next was Bradley, where a
couple courting on the bank of the Wolverhampton Union Canal
were killed. Then at 8.15pm the L21 let loose bombs in several
parts of Wednesbury, where another 14 people were killed.
Finally Walsall was bombed. The first
explosive landed on the Congregational Church on the corner of
Wednesbury Road and Glebe Street. A preparation class was
working in the church parlour but thankfully no one inside died,
although a man walking outside was killed.
Wednesbury Road Congregational
Church after the bombing.
The L21 continued over the town, dropping
bombs in the grounds of the Walsall and District Hospital and in
Mountrath Street. Its last explosive fell in the centre of
Walsall, outside the Science and Art Institute in Bradford
Place. It killed three people.
One of the victims was the Mayoress of
Walsall, 55 years old Mary Julia Slater, who was a passenger on
the No. 14 tram. She was rushed to hospital with severe wounds
to the chest and abdomen. She later died of shock and
septicaemia in February 1916.
Seventy years later the Walsall Chronicle
quoted a survivor, Mr A. K. Stephens, who was injured by the
blast. He remembered that "It was pandemonium, but no panic.
Someone shouted. 'Hey, look he's been hurt!' I'd lost a lot of
blood and could hardly walk and a couple of men took me home."
The Walsall Cenotaph stands on the spot
where this final bomb fell. Unhappily Dietrich's Zeppelin was
followed by another, the L19, whose captain had also lost his
way and who also ordered bombs to be dropped. Fortunately, there
were no more deaths. This Zeppelin was brought down by rifle
fire from Dutch soldiers over the North Sea and all its crew
The Walsall Cenotaph site where
the last of Zeppelin L21's bombs landed.
As for the L21, it attacked Cleethorpes in
April. One of its bombs fell on a billet and killed 31 soldiers.
Like the bombing on the Black Country, this raid was only
covered briefly, although in mid February the Press Bureau had
proposed no longer to issue detailed statements of attacks, "as
it is inadvisable to give information to the enemy as to the
results of their air attacks".
The L21 was involved in two more attacks
before it was shot down by three Royal Naval Air Force pilots on
November 27, eight miles to the east of Lowestoft. It was
reported that cheering crowds watched the fight from the cliffs.
None of the crew survived. Max Dietrich died a day later when
the Zeppelin he now captained, the L34, was shot down in Tees
Bay off Hartlepool.
With regard to the Walsall and District
Hospital at The Mount (later called the Walsall General
Hospital), it could have been destroyed by a bomb on the night
of January 31, 1916. That it was not was thanks to the bravery
of police constable Joseph Burrell. I am grateful to his
grandson, Alan Hall of Walsall, for sending me an account of his
grandfather's deeds that night from The Police Review and Parade
Gossip, of March 28, 1929.
Just after the Armistice in 1918, this
publication had printed a series of articles called 'On the Home
Front', in which were related "many incidents, hitherto
unpublished, affecting our readers during the years of the war".
In connection with these accounts, the Police Review had
contacted the now Sergeant Burrell, "who had performed an act of
great bravery during the Zeppelin raid on Walsall in 1916". The
writer explained that "up to that time no mention had been made
of the raid in the public press, and that it was quite by chance
that we became aware of Sgt Burrell's achievements".
This lack of publicity was true of the
national press, but thankfully the Express and Star did report
on the raids. Be that as it may, with the Great War ended so
recently "PS Burrell was refused permission to give the press
any account of the circumstances which prompted the committee of
the hospital to present him with a silver medal".
After serving 26 years in the police, Sgt
Burrell had retired in 1923 because of failing eyesight and his
story could now be told. He recounted to the Police Review the
events of the evening of January 31, 1916.
As he was patrolling his beat in the
direction of the hospital he heard 11 explosions. After an
interval of about a minute there were seven more, this time very
near to Walsall. The then police constable recalled that a few
seconds later he heard a peculiar noise in the air, and on
looking up he saw a zeppelin passing right over where he stood,
dropping bombs constantly, four within 80 yards of him. Two
bombs fell on a church adjoining the Walsall and District
Hospital, wrecking it; another fell between the men's and
women's wards of the hospital itself.
Constable Burrell found himself covered
with dirt and plaster, among other things. Fortunately, he had
his cape folded over his left shoulder and this saved him from
serious injury "for as he lifted his cape he was struck on that
side of his neck and spun round, his neck being bruised".
Wednesbury Road Congregational
Church and the Walsall and District Hospital.
When he had recovered himself it seemed
that the hospital was in flames. Sgt Burrell ran to the entrance
and found the nurses excited and unable to move. He sought to
calm them by saying the noise was from a new engine at the gas
works and rushed along through the women's ward to where an
incendiary bomb was blazing between the wards.
Being unable to get anything to throw on
it, he seized a piece of wood and got down on his hands and
knees, the heat from the bomb being so fierce. He rolled it over
and over for five feet or so, and found as he rolled it that the
contents fell away. He then dashed the contents about and was
able to extinguish the blaze.
His job done, Sgt Burrell left the bomb to
cool and went through the wards soothing the patients. For his
gallantry the hospital committee sent Sgt Burrell a gratuity of
a guinea - £1.05p. Such was the measure of this most courageous
and caring of men that he returned it as a subscription. He kept
the letter and receipt and had them framed.
Later the hospital presented him with an
inscribed medal, which he was unable to wear during the First
World War but which he always regarded as a great treasure.
The medal awarded to Sgt. Burrell
by Walsall Hospital.
|The writer in the Police Review remarked
that "all the recognition the sergeant received from the
grateful people was a reference in the Peace Celebrations
Official Programme, published in 1919".
This contained an
article entitled 'The Zeppelin Raid on Walsall' which stated:
''An incendiary bomb fell inside the hospital grounds, lit up
immediately into a fearsome flair, but was speedily put out by
the courage and presence of mind of PS Burrell".
This astute contributor to the Police
Review concluded his article with a question:
"It may be asked why the sergeant was not
at the time recommended for the King's Police Medal or for
recognition by the Carnegie Hero Fund." In the stress of those
days, matters such as these were apt to be overlooked and it
gives us much pleasure, even at this late date, to give
publicity to an outstanding act of gallantry.
Unhappily, like so many heroes, Sgt
Burrell's valour was all but forgotten in a land supposedly fit
for heroes. He went blind in 1924 as a result of the injuries he
received extinguishing the incendiary and had to leave the
police. In the ensuing years he strove for work without success
but with the help of a doughty man, Joseph Farlam Burrell,
taught himself to read and write in Braille.
On the occasion of his golden wedding
anniversary in 1948 he told the local press that his chief
regret "is that his medal was never publicly presented or
officially presented. He still hopes that this will take place
because he considers it part of the history of Walsall. The case
of the incendiary bomb is still displayed at the general