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Zeppelin raid on Norfolk 100 years ago set Blitz precedent

Albert Street in King's Lynn on 20th January 1915 following a bombing raid by German Zeppellins. Photo: Imperial War Museum/PA Wire

A hundred years ago the Germans launched the first proper air raid on British shores - it heralded a new era of warfare but their first targets were chosen entirely by chance.

On the night of January 19 and 20 1915, two Zeppelins were heading for Humberside but were diverted by strong winds.

They found themselves over Norfolk and went on to drop their bombs on King's Lynn and Great Yarmouth, killing four and causing more than £7,000 worth of damage.

Imperial War Museum picture of St Peter's Plain in Great Yarmouth on 20th January 1915 following a bombing raid by German Zeppellins Credit: Imperial War Museum/PA Wire
Bentinck Street in King's Lynn on 20th January 1915 following a bombing raid by German Zeppellins. Credit: Imperial War Museum/PA Wire

Military historian Steve Smith said it marked a change in the face of conflict and went on to claim 435 British lives in the First World War - serving as a forewarning of what was to come during the Blitz.

Mr Smith added: "Both pilots found themselves completely lost.

"The first realised he was over Norfolk and used landmarks such as Happisburgh lighthouse to skilfully navigate his way down to coast to Great Yarmouth, which was a valid strategic target.

"His first bomb fell in a field but a further 10 hit targets in the town.

"The other still thought he was over the Humber and dropped bombs on pretty much random targets like the towns of Sheringham and Hunstanton along the north Norfolk coast."

The Fish Wharf in Great Yarmouth on 20th January 1915 following a bombing raid by German Zeppellins. Credit: Imperial War Museum/PA Wire

"It was only by chance that he happened upon King's Lynn where he claimed two lives and caused a significant amount of damage. "He then tried to navigate back over land and ended up above Norwich but fortunately by that point, he had run out of bombs."

– Steve Smith, Historian

The Kaiser had banned the bombing of London because of the potential of harming the Royal family, to whom he was related, but sanctioned attacks on industrial targets.

There had been previous attempts at raids on the UK using rickety bi-planes, Mr Smith added.

One resulted in a bomb landing in the sea off Dover and another blew a gardener out of a tree in Dover while was removing Christmas decorations. He survived.

Previous successful raids on Belgium and Paris meant the British Government knew what was coming.

Edward Ellis outside his home in Great Yarmouth on 20th January 1915 following a bombing raid by German Zeppellins.Edward Ellis outside his home in Great Yarmouth on 20th January 1915 following a bombing raid by German Zeppellins. Credit: Imperial War Museum/PA Wire

"In many ways the early Zeppelin raids did us a favour. We improved black-out procedures and held back planes from the Western Front to defend our own shores. "Many of the techniques used to defend us during the First World War were later imitated during the blitz."

– Steve Smith, Historian

By the end of the war, an estimated £1.4 million worth of damage was caused to the UK.

But Mr Smith said it never had the widespread impact the Germans had hoped.

"People were obviously wary but it didn't cause widespread panic," he added.

"It served more as a warning which galvanised the British public to be vigilant."

In another twist of fate the last raid of the war also happened off Norfolk when Peter Strasser, chief commander of the Germany Imperial Navy Zeppelins, and his crew were shot down on August 5 1918 during a night raid.

Superintendent Charles Hunt, King's Lynn Borough Police, examining an incendiary bomb dropped on 63 Cresswell Street in King's Lynn following a bombing raid by German Zeppellins. Credit: Imperial War Museum/PA Wire