Civilians Killed by German Airships during World War I Remembered 100 Years Later

On the night of March 31 and into April 1, 1916, twelve people were killed in Suffolk (with more deaths later in Essex) as bombs were dropped on Bury St. Edmunds and Sudbury in attacks by Zeppelin airships. A commemoration service for the one-hundredth anniversary of the attacks was held at the cemetery in Bury St. Edmunds, where seven people were killed.

This area is assumed to have been on the Germans’ radar because it was a base for the Suffolk Regiment. It was also the location for the Robert Boby engineering plant, which was known for making shells used in war. Back in 1915, the town had been attacked by another Zeppelin raid, but it resulted in no human loss – one dog was killed.

The Zeppelin dropped high explosive bombs on the city, as the resident slept. The raids were part of a new German tactic to bring the war to the home front.

Ron Murrell of Bury St. Edmunds’ Moyse’s Hall Museum stated, “It would have been terrifying to hear these bombs going off around you – the shock would have been like a spaceship turning up today.” Furthermore, he explained how it would have negatively affected the British soldiers’ morale knowing their loved ones were at risk, and that the raids would have had a positive effect on the German psyche.

Sudbury was the site of five deaths, four civilians, and one off-duty soldier.

This was the first time the home front felt the effects and impact of the war. According to Shirley Smith, who is the Sudbury Town Council employee and co-author of No Glorious Dead, this event brought genuine terror to the folks back home.

Braintree, Chelmsford, and Brentwood in Essex were also terrorized by the fleet of airships that dropped bombs on the same night. A spokesman for Braintree Museum confirmed that four people were killed in the town as a result of the attacks, but not every location kept accurate records of the civilians who died.

The Essex Regiment Museum in Chelmsford is headed by curator Ian Hook, who said, “[The attacks] were such a shock to British civilian life because we regarded ourselves as an impregnable island defended by the world’s greatest navy.” The Zeppelin air raids changed the tune and perceptions of local residents. Suddenly it was abundantly clear that they were vulnerable to air-based attacks, and being home was no longer synonymous with being safe.

However, the raids did not achieve their objective and the Suffolk towns continued to make a telling contribution to the war effort.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE