There was a new lesson on the school curriculum in February 1916 – what to do in the event of a Zeppelin raid. The official advice was to go home, turn out the lights and hide under the stairs or “take to your cellars” in the words of the Chief Constable.
Zeppelins could fly at up to 85 miles an hour and carried incendiary and high explosive bombs but navigation was difficult and the crews were badly affected by cold and lack of oxygen at height. Although the raids had no significant military impact the psychological impact on civilians was huge as shown by this image that appeared in Picture World in the same month.
Unlike many other cities Birmingham, realising that the munitions factories made it a prime target, had brought in air-raid precautions before they were attacked. As early in the war as November 1914 the use of external lights for advertising purposes was banned, street lamps were shaded, skylights were covered at night and lighting in trams and buses was dimmed. By February 1915 anti-aircraft guns were in place and the Birmingham Watch Committee banned all public lighting except at street corners and in the event of a raid this would be extinguished too. If Zeppelins were spotted approaching the city the police would tell factories to sound a 5 note “Cock-a-doodle-do” on their sirens or steam whistles, all workplaces and places of entertainments would close and public transport would stop. There were no public air raid shelters and people were urged to return home as the darkness and shrapnel from the shells made the streets a very dangerous place to be.
These precautions were proved effective on the night of January 31st 1916 when one of the heaviest raids of the war left 35 people dead in Tipton, Bradley, Wednesbury and Walsall including at least 8 children. The L21 Zeppelin responsible had got lost in the fog looking for Liverpool and saw the lights of the Black Country towns through a gap in the clouds. Meanwhile the L19 Zeppelin spent the night searching in vain for Birmingham before finally dropping its bombs in the same area but without any fatalities.
The Library of Birmingham archives contain the memoirs of Norman Hickin who was growing up in Handsworth at the time of the raids and saw a Zeppelin pass overhead. He wrote
“The amazing thing was to watch it cross over the sky lit up by twenty or so searchlights, but it was not possible to do a thing about it……As it passed over Handsworth everyone came out of their houses to see it, watch and comment in awed whispers. Up until that time I had never seen so many people in the road. The fact that it carried a load of bombs and was ready to drop them did not appear to worry anyone. Then it disappeared and we all went indoors and I went back to bed.”
Moseley Road School logbook on February 4 1916 (S273/2/1/3) recorded children absent from school because of the Zeppelin raid and this may have been the case in other schools across the city. There would have been fears of return visits and children would have seen earlier images of raids on London and coastal towns of the North East.
War reporting was subject to Government issued D-notices and reports of the January 31st raid didn’t appear in Picture World until February 10th and referred only to “devastation in a Midland town”. However the delay gave the advertising team time to drum up some new custom!
Birmingham escaped again on October 19th 1917 when a Zeppelin was unable to find the city centre and a bomb it dropped on the brightly lit Austin works at Longbridge did little damage. On April 12th 1918 two 500-pound bombs were dropped over Hall Green but again little damage was done and there was no loss of life.