What were air raids like in World War One?

Britain was attacked from the sky for the first time, early in 1915.

No one expected air raids, so when German airships first flew over Britain, the country was unprepared.

The bombs were not accurate but they still caused injury and damage.

In times to come, whistles would sound the alarm and people learnt to run for cover in the Underground or at home in cellars.

A series of postcards depicting the night a German airship was first shot down over Britain in World War One
Postcards celebrating the night a German airship was shot down.
Watch and listen to one boy’s account of a London air raid in 1916 during World War One.

Zeppelins

German airships were called Zeppelins. Large bags filled with hydrogen gas enabled them to float.

The crew controlled the engines from a compartment underneath. They dropped bombs on factories and military bases.

William Leefe Robinson was the first British pilot to shoot down a Zeppelin in September 1916. His bullets set fire to the hydrogen and the airship crashed.

William received a Victoria Cross, £3,500 prize money and the rank of Captain.

Germany was less interested in using airships once Britain could destroy them.

A German Zeppelin airship in flight above an air field
Calm weather made it easier for Zeppelin crews to hit their targets.

Gothas and Giants

The Gotha bomber could travel a long way and fly higher than British aircrafts.

Gotha attacks were devastating. On 13 June 1917 a raid on London killed 162 people, including 18 children when a bomb landed on their school.

Later Germany developed an even bigger, more dangerous bomber called The Giant.

The success of German air raids was one of the reasons the Royal Air Force was formed in April 1918. Britain needed better aircraft and more trained pilots.

A German Gotha bomber flying over fields during World War One
Most aircraft in this era were biplanes. This meant they had two sets of wings.

Some towns and cities were attacked from the sea

Watch our video to learn what happened to a small British town when it was attacked by Germany from the sea.

How did people stay safe?

The government tried to warn people when an attack was coming and to keep them safe.

  • Streetlights were dimmed so enemy pilots would struggle to see their targets.

  • Whistles blew to raise the alarm.

  • Searchlights helped gunners to spot airships or planes, and shoot them when they were close.

  • Policemen shouted warnings as they cycled round the streets wearing a sign saying "take cover".

In London, thousands gathered on Underground platforms, under bridges and railway arches, or even under the stairs at home.

In the country, people sheltered in sea caves, forests and fields.

When an attack was over, bugles (a type of brass instrument) would be blown to tell everyone it was safe to return to the streets.

A boy scout sounding the alarm during World War One.
Boy Scouts watched from hills and coasts to raise the alarm if airships were seen.

Who was affected by air raids?

A group of men stand around a bomb damaged street the day after an air raid during World War One

Everyone was shocked when the Germans attacked from the air

Before the war, wealthy people could fly between cities by airship. People in Britain had seen pictures of airships but no one imagined they might be used to drop bombs.

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How did life change?

Until the air raids, the British had worried about their loved ones fighting in the war. Now children, women and older people at home were also in danger.

By the end of the war, almost 1,500 British citizens had been killed by the German air raids, and over 3,400 had been injured.

Damage to Hull Cathedral caused by a Zeppelin attack during World War One in June 1915

Where next?

How did children help in World War One?
Which new weapons were used in World War One?
Quiz: What was life like at home during World War One?
World War One