The 1916 Zeppelin Raids. By Bev Parker

On 31st January, 1916, seventeen months into the First World War, the Black Country unexpectedly experienced the might of the German armed forces at first hand, when two Zeppelins carried out bombing raids, and terrorised the civilian population.

The German military were getting increasingly confident after several raids on the east coast and London, and planned an audacious attack on Liverpool involving nine Zeppelins, and a flight of over 130 miles across England. The airships left their bases on the afternoon of 31st January for a round flight of nearly 1,000 miles, and initially everything went well. The North Sea was crossed without incident, but on reaching Norfolk they encountered mist and fog, and were soon hopelessly lost. Airborne navigation relied on observation and careful plotting on maps, recording air speed against time. All that they could rely on was an occasional break in the fog.

Two of the airships, L21 and L19 both made the same navigational error, and ended up over the Black Country. The first to arrive, L21, was captained by 45 years old Max Dietrich, an uncle of the famous singer and actress, Marlene Dietrich. The vast Zeppelin must have been an awesome sight. It was just over 536 feet long, and 61 feet in diameter. It had a top speed of 60 mph.

Landing a Zeppelin. From an old postcard.

Using his maps, Dietrich plotted his way across the country, soon hoping to see the lights of Manchester, followed by Liverpool and the Mersey. At 5.25pm. the L21 was spotted above King's Lynn, and was seen over Derby at 6.55pm. News of the airship's approach had already reached Derby and so the town was blacked out. L21 then crossed Rugeley and was spotted above Merridale Lane, in Wolverhampton at half past seven. The airship then turned southwards to cross Wombourne, Kingswinford and Brierley Hill.

As Dietrich reached the Black Country, he saw lights, and reflections, possibly from one of the many canals, and assumed that he was near his target. The crew was ready, and bombs were prepared for dropping. As the airship passed over Netherton, Dietrich spotted William Grazebrook's Ironworks and a bomb was dropped, but it completely missed its target. L21 then turned northwards and crossed Dudley before arriving at Tipton around 8.00pm. More lights were spotted and the carnage began. The L21 arrived on a foggy and frosty night above Tipton. Three high-explosive bombs were dropped on Waterloo Street and Union Street, destroying two houses, damaging several others, and setting a gas main alight.

That evening the ‘Tivoli’ Cinema in Owen Street was full to capacity. Around 1,400 people were watching the film when the bombs started to fall. One member of the audience, Thomas Morris, suffered terribly. Earlier that evening his wife Sarah Jane had taken his children to visit her mother in Union Street. When Thomas heard the nearby explosions, he immediately made his way to Union Street, only to discover that the house had suffered from a direct hit, and was completely destroyed. Inside he found the bodies of his wife, his children, and his parents-in-law. Three generations of the family were dead. It’s hard to imagine Thomas Morris’s agony and despair at the time.

The blue plaque that's on a shop front in Union Street, Tipton.

Fourteen people were killed at Tipton, five men, five women, and four children.

They were: Elizabeth Cartwright aged 35, Thomas Henry Church aged 57, Arthur Edwards aged 26, Benjamin Goldie aged 42, Mary Greensill aged 67, William Greensill aged 64, Martin Morris aged 11, Nellie Morris aged 8, Sarah Jane Morris aged 44, George H. Onions aged 12, Daniel Whitehouse aged 34, Annie Wilkinson aged 44, Frederick Norman Yates aged 9, and Louisa York aged 30.

The L21 then dropped two bombs on the railway station in Owen Street. They landed between the station and the canal towpath, causing extensive damage.

Some of the destruction. From Lloyd's News, 13th February, 1916.

Another image from Lloyd's News, 13th February, 1916.

Another image from Lloyd's News, 13th February, 1916.

Another image from Lloyd's News, 13th February, 1916.
A final image from Lloyd's News, 13th February, 1916.

The airship then flew over Bloomfield Road and Barnfield Road, dropping incendiary bombs on the way. Three landed in gardens in Bloomfield Road and failed to ignite and three were dropped on Bloomfield Brickworks. L21 then continued northwards to the canal at Bradley, where a young courting couple had gone for a stroll. William Fellows, aged 23 from Coseley, and his 23 years old girlfriend Maud Fellows from Bradley, were walking along the towpath near to Bradley pumping station. They took shelter when they heard the roar of the oncoming airship. As it approached, the crew would have seen the lights around Bradley, and so the bombing started again. Sadly one of the bombs landed near to the young couple, killing William outright, and fatally injuring Maud, who was taken to the 'Old Bush Inn' where she received first aid. From there she was taken to the Wolverhampton and Staffordshire General Hospital, where she died of septicaemia on 12th February. Their deaths are commemorated by a small plaque on the pumping station wall.

A Zeppelin in flight. From an old postcard.

After crossing the canal, the Zeppelin travelled eastwards towards Lea Brook and Wednesbury. Dietrich would have seen the lights of Wednesbury in the distance as the airship crossed over the dark area of Lea Brook. A possible glimpse of the canal could have convinced him that he was finally reaching Liverpool. Around 8.15 that evening he headed towards the brightly lit town centre and soon reached Russell’s Crown Tube Works, where the bombing recommenced. The incendiary bombs set the huge factory alight, leaving a burnt-out shell, parts of which remained until the 1960s.

King Street ran alongside Crown Tube Works, and was the site of the next atrocity. The Smith family, who lived at number 14 King Street were greatly troubled by a loud noise near their home. Mrs. Smith left the house to investigate, and soon saw a fire at the works, which she assumed to have been caused by an accident in the factory. She turned round and headed back home, but by then the airship had moved over the factory and dropped another bomb, which completely destroyed number 13, and badly damaged number 14, instantly killing her family. Later that night the bodies of her husband Joseph Horton Smith, aged 37, her daughter Nellie, aged 13, and her son Thomas, aged 11 were found amongst the ruins. The body of her other daughter Ina, aged 7 wasn't found until the next morning. She had been blown onto the roof of the tube factory.

While the bombs were falling, the audience at the King’s Hall, in Earps Lane were enjoying a melodrama. Luckily the explosions had fractured a gas main, which plunged the town centre into darkness. The audience first realised that something was wrong when they heard the explosions, and the lights went out. They hurriedly left the theatre and saw the huge Zeppelin, hovering above the burning factory.

The bomb damage at number 14 and number 13 King Street, Wednesbury. From a magic lantern slide.

Another view of the damage in King Street. From the Illustrated London News, 12th February, 1916.

The interior of Wednesbury Road Congregational Church. From an old postcard.

Other bombs were dropped near to the Crown and Cushion pub, in High Bullen, before the Zeppelin moved away. Another thirteen people had been killed, four men, four women and five children. There is now a memorial to them in Wood Green Cemetery. It has the following names:

Matilda Mary Burt aged 10, Mary Emma Evans aged 5, Rachel Higgs aged 36, Susan Howells aged 30, Mary Ann Lee aged 59, Frank Thompson Linney aged 36, Albert Gordon Madeley aged 21, Betsy Shilton, aged 39, Edward Shilton aged 33, Ina Smith, aged 7, Joseph Horton Smith, aged 37, Nellie Smith, aged 13, and Thomas Horton Smith, aged 11.

L21 then headed in a north easterly direction towards the lights of Pleck and Walsall, dropping more bombs in Brunswick Park Road. The next bomb was dropped on Wednesbury Road Congregational Church, badly damaging the building. At the time a preparation class from a local primary school was at work in the church parlour. Fortunately the parlour survived, only a small piece of the ceiling fell into the room. Unfortunately Mr. Thomas Merrylees aged 28, who was walking past the church at the time, wasn’t so lucky. A piece of flying rubble removed the top of his head, instantly killing him.

The church interior after the bombing.

The General Hospital and the Congregational Church. From an old postcard.

A short time later, an incendiary bomb fell next door, in the grounds of the General Hospital, which was quickly extinguished by a passing policeman, Constable Joseph Burrell, who was on his beat. He heard a strange sound and looked up to see the Zeppelin overhead, dropping bombs as it went on its way. He saw the two bombs that were dropped on the Congregational Church about 80 yards away. Luckily his cape helped to protect him from falling debris, and so he was only slightly injured. He then saw flames coming from the hospital grounds and so rushed inside to see an incendiary bomb burning between the men's and women's wards, and managed to extinguish it using a piece of wood. Afterwards he calmed the patients and staff. The hospital later presented him with an inscribed medal for his bravery. Because of the heat from the burning bomb, his eyes were badly affected. He went blind in 1924 as a result of his injuries.

Another bomb damaged houses in Mountrath Street, and another blew a hole in the wall of a saddle maker’s workshop at the factory of Elijah Jefferies & Sons Limited.

Wednesbury Road Congregational Church after the bombing. The notices state that the next service will be held in the Temperance Hall in Freer Street. From an old postcard.

Minutes later the L21 flew over Bradford Place and dropped a final bomb outside the Science and Art Institute in which many students were at work. Only one of them, Mr. A. K. Stephens, who was attending a chemistry class, suffered any injuries. He was badly cut, possibly by flying glass, and treated in the hospital.

Things weren’t so good outside. The bomb wrecked the public toilets, and damaged tramcar number 16, in which one of the passengers was the Lady Mayoress of Walsall, 55 years old Mary Julia Slater, wife of Samuel Mills Slater of Bescot Hall. She received severe injuries to her chest and abdomen, from which she never recovered. Sadly she died in hospital from shock and septicaemia on February 20th. Three other people were killed in the blast, and many were injured. The three who died were Charles Cope aged 34, William Haycock aged 50, and John Powell aged 59.

The memorial to Mrs Slater, and the shrapnel-damaged wall in Bradford Place.

From the Wolverhampton Chronicle, 23rd February, 1916:

Inquest on the body of Midland Mayoress

At an inquest held on Tuesday respecting the death of the Mayoress of a Midland town, a victim of the Zeppelin raid, evidence was given by the Mayor that he was called to a certain street on Monday, January 31st. He saw his wife in a shop, having sustained certain injuries. Two doctors were in attendance, and she was afterwards taken to hospital, and died at 5.40 on Sunday evening last.

About a week after the occurrence, the Mayoress told him that she was coming into town in a tramcar with her sister and sister-in-law. She sat in the corner of the tram behind the driver. When they reached a certain point the light suddenly went out, and she felt she was hit. She got up, and found it difficult to breathe. She thought there were flames of gas in the tram. She managed to get out, and made her way to the footpath, where she was rejoined by her sister and sister-in-law. The Mayoress told him she was sitting in the tram when she was hit, and was not getting out. A sister-in-law said that on the journey they heard several violent explosions.

Medical evidence showed that the Mayoress was found to be suffering from severe wounds to the chest and abdomen. She was bleeding freely, and after the haemorrhage had been stopped she was taken to the hospital. There was a lacerated wound on the left breast, three inches long and 1½ inches in diameter, another wound on the left side which had torn away a portion of the ribs and had opened her chest and abdomen, and there was another wound lower down which had penetrated the bone.

Such wounds could have been caused by splinters of bomb, but no portion of a bomb had been discovered. Death was due to shock and septicaemia following upon extensive wounds.

The Coroner said the verdict of the jury would be that the deceased died from the injuries spoken to, caused by bombs dropped from mid-air. This was agreed upon, and the foreman of the jury expressed deep sympathy with the Mayor and family.

Coroner’s Comments

The Coroner remarked that words failed one to express one’s abhorrence that an unprotected woman going about her humane duties should be cut off by the act of an enemy – an act unparalleled, even by any story that had come down from barbarous times. It might be said of the Mayoress: “This was a women of good works”, as was said of the Dorcas of old. The Mayor had the deepest sympathy of all.

The Mayor, who was accompanied by his soldier son (wounded), returned thanks, and said how deeply his family and himself were moved by the extraordinary sympathy which had come to them from all the people in the town. They knew his wife was brought to the hospital, and on behalf of his children and himself he wished to say how grateful they felt to all associated with the hospital for the unwearying devotion they had shown towards his wife. He (the Mayor) had been resident of the institution for nearly three weeks, and he acknowledged the acts of kindness which had made it easier to go through the time of trial. The family would always feel with the utmost gratitude all that had been done for his wife, and for the family.

Mary Julia Slater.

Bradford Place, the site of the fatal bombing.

The bomb crater in Bradford Place. From a cutting from an unknown newspaper.

After the bombing, L21 turned round and headed back to its base at Nordholz in Germany, but unfortunately that wasn’t the end. A second Zeppelin, L19 under the command of Odo Loewe had made the same navigational error as L21, and roughly followed its flight path. It arrived around four and a half hours later, reaching Tipton at about 12.30 a.m. The sight of the still burning fires from the first raid convinced Loewe that he had reached his target. The brand new airship had only been flying for two months, and had fallen behind because of teething problems with the engines.

Again bombs were dropped, roughly in the same places as before, but this time there were no injuries or fatalities, other than to livestock. The raid only lasted a short while. Bombs were dropped in Tipton where The Bush Inn in Park Lane was badly damaged, just after midnight on 1st February. A bomb, dropped from L19 exploded in the road in front of the building. The licensee, Thomas Taylor and his family were cut by flying debris, but had a lucky escape. The pub was rebuilt after the war and remained in business until 1995. Bombs were also dropped at Wednesbury and the  Pleck, where a bomb fell on a stable and killed a horse, four pigs, and a number of fowl. Next in line was Birchills where bombs seriously damaged St. Andrew’s Church and vicarage.

As the airship began its journey home, three of the engines failed. The airship attempted to limp home to its base at Tonder in Denmark. As it slowly crossed the North Sea it was fired on by the Dutch. Rifle fire punctured some of its gas cells, and L19 came down in the sea.

At first it looked as though the sixteen crew members might be saved because the English fishing trawler ‘King Stephen’ which had set sail from Grimsby that morning, came across the sinking airship. At the time the trawler was illegally fishing in prohibited waters, and the captain, William Martin, found himself in a dreadful dilemma.

The sites that were bombed in Walsall.

Should he save the Zeppelin crew and risk falling foul of the law, or carry on regardless. Illegal fishing was a serious offence, for which he could be banned from fishing.

He also had to consider the possibility that the German crew could overpower him and his men, and take-over the ship.

He decided to ignore the German’s pleas for help, and continued on his way. He reported the sighting when the ship reached port, but a subsequent search by Royal Navy ships found nothing.

The L19's crew were never seen alive again. In their last hours the German crew dropped messages in bottles into the sea, which washed up six months later in Sweden.

The incident received world-wide publicity. Captain Martin was praised by many people for protecting the safety of his crew, but others, including members of the German press condemned him. The trawler found itself on the German Naval High Command’s wanted list, and even featured in German propaganda.

After the ship’s return to Grimsby it was taken over by the Royal Navy, and used as a Q-ship, under the command of Lieutenant Tom Phillips. Twelve weeks later the ship was sunk by a German torpedo boat and the crew became prisoners-of-war.

Captain Martin died of heart failure on 24th February 1927. During his last year he received many letters, some praising his actions, but also hate mail, and death threats.

The full extent of the damage to buildings in Bradford Place could only be realised the following morning. A piece of shrapnel can still be seen embedded in the wall of the Colliseum Night Club where there is a blue plaque to commemorate the death of the Lady Mayoress.

There is also a memorial to her memory in the form of a tablet in the Council House. Walsall’s Cenotaph now stands on the spot where the bomb exploded. The casing of one of the incendiary bombs is preserved, and is in the collection at Walsall Museum.

A 1930s Zeppelin, seen over the Old Barrel pub on Kings Hill, Wednesbury. Courtesy of David Adams.
As a result of the raid, street lighting was turned-off, and people had to shade all domestic lights.

A special steam warning siren was installed in February, 1916 so that everyone in the town centre could be warned of any future air raids. In the event of an air raid, five long blasts would be given twice.

Factories were asked to arrange for a watchman to be on duty throughout the night to listen for the siren. He should then arrange for any furnaces to be damped down. Factories were also asked not to use hooters of buzzers between 3 p.m. and 5 a.m. If the siren sounded, people were to turn any lights out, and anyone in the street should take cover.

In July 1939, an unexploded bomb, described as an "Aerial Torpedo" was discovered during renovation work on a bridge near Kidderminster. It was reported in an article in ‘The Times’ newspaper on 1st August, 1939, and believed to have been dropped by L19.

From the Express & Star, Wednesday 2nd February, 1916:




Press Bureau, 6 p.m. Tuesday night.  The War Office issues the following publication:

The air raid of last night was attempted on an extensive scale, but it appears that the raiders were hampered by thick mist. After crossing the coast the Zeppelins steered various courses, and dropped bombs at several towns, and in rural districts, in:

Derbyshire,  Leicestershire,  Lincolnshire,  Staffordshire.

Some damage to property was caused. No accurate reports were received until a very late hour. The casualties notified up to the time of issuing this statement amount to:

Killed --------------------- 54

Injured -------------------- 67

Further reports of Monday night’s air raid show that the enemy’s air attack covered a larger area than on any previous occasion. Bombs were dropped in:

Derbyshire,  Leicestershire,  Lincolnshire,  Norfolk,  Suffolk,  Staffordshire.

The number of bombs being estimated at 220. Except in one part of Staffordshire the material damage was not considerable, and in no case was any military damage caused.

No further casualties have been reported, and the figures remain as 54 killed, 67 injured.

A final view of a Zeppelin. From the Illustrated War News, 12th April, 1915.

From an old postcard.

The memorial in Wood Green Cemetery, Wednesbury, to those who lost their lives.

The plaque on the other memorial in Wood Green Cemetery.

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