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Zeppelins Over the Midlands: The Air Raids of 31 January 1916

Zeppelins Over the Midlands: The Air Raids of 31 January 1916 by Mick Powis. Pen & Sword Aviation,  2016, 206 pp. 

Before Guernica, Coventry, and Dresden, there were the Zeppelins. Before Giulio Douhet wrote The Command of the Air, there were the Zeppelins. Before Stanley Baldwin’s speech ominously promising that the bomber will always get through, there were the Zeppelins. From 1914 to 1918, British civilians were on the receiving end of German bombs from those Zeppelins. Mick Powis’ Zeppelins Over the Midlands recounts the events and aftermath of the 31 January 1916 bombing raid on the citizens, communities, and the crews. Powis presents a narrative linking the fates of those on the ground with those in the air in an ultimately human telling of the attacks. He also seeks to explain the impact the Zeppelin raid had on British communities and the larger war effort. That effort succeeds, although the book is in need of a stronger organizational structure to make its point more successfully.

The book is divided into 11 chapters with 2 appendices. The first six chapters focus on the individual Zeppelins, their crews, and their actions. Actions in the air and on the ground are covered in engaging detail, bringing to light the human aspect of this story. These chapters are supported by well-drawn, if somewhat small, maps that track the raiders from landfall through departure from British airspace. Where German and British official records are incomplete or contradictory, Powis admits speculation based on available evidence and, given the level of research and detail, his speculations are likely highly accurate.

Chapters seven through eleven, with the exception of chapter eight, focus on the larger context of Zeppelin operations and British response. Powis reminds the reader of Germany’s strategic position versus the Allies. After initial successes, Germany found itself surrounded on land and sea, facing enemies with more robust industrial resources and much larger empires. Accordingly, Germany adapted a variety of new weapons and technologies, including the Zeppelin, as a way to offset Allied material advantages. The Zeppelin was an attempted counterbalance to the Royal Navy’s blockade and the encirclement on land by the Allied powers. By striking industrial targets in the United Kingdom, German aircrews extended the battlefield and brought terror bombing to previously untouched civilian populations.

Powis also discusses the significant impact technology and the environment had on the raiders and the raid and civilian population. Zeppelins were susceptible to weather for flight planning, navigation, and visibility over the target areas. Crews were exposed to the elements throughout the flight, which were severe in the European winter. Their communications equipment was primitive at best, further impeding command and control and navigation. Power plants, especially the Maybach HSLu 240-horsepower engines, were unreliable and temperamental, further impacting navigation, airspeed, and altitude. While the German Zeppelin was a crude weapon in January 1916, it faced equally crude British defenses. The author also explains the limitations the British defenders faced, in terms of suitable interceptors, an uncoordinated aerial defense networks, and public safety measures.

Chapter eight is a cumulative narrative of the operations of each Zeppelin, before and after the raid, with attention to the fate of the crew and background on the commanders and executive officers. This information is supplemented by chapter 11 and Appendix B, which lists German Zeppelin crew member graves at Cannock Chase German Military Cemetery.

Unfortunately, the book needed stronger revisions before publication. Rather than framing the Zeppelins in the strategic context, Powis begins with the raid of L.21 on the Black Country instead. As a result, the text frequently repeats itself because there is no introductory framework or explanatory chapter. As an example, separated by seven sentences within the same paragraph, there are two almost identical sentences:

Zeppelins were fitted with powerful radio transmitters and, in the early days of radio communication, their radio discipline was non-existent. . . Zeppelins were fitted with powerful radio transmitters and, in the early days of radio communication, commanders were probably not aware of the range their signals could be picked up from (130).

 

These editorial oversights do not detract from Powis’ scholarship but does keep the book from having a more cohesive impact on the reader.

Finally, a note about sources and research. Researching formerly classified subjects is a complicated task. Although the raids were witnessed by thousands, media coverage was subject to the Defence of the Realm Act, which severely limited published information on the raids. Official government instruction to police and coroners further reduced the accuracy of official historical record’s accuracy by introducing more ambiguity. The author supplements official records with local histories, period newspapers, cemetery records, and inquests in order to flesh out the story. A century after the raids, Powis does an admirable job overcoming these restrictions and using his sources, including a recounting of the raid’s impact on the ground.

Although later strategic bombing was much more effective than the Zeppelin bombings of World War I, the origins began with the actions of German raiders in the First World War. Zeppelins Over the Midlands is an interesting analysis of the 31 January 1916 raids, which will appeal to those interested in the Great War’s impact on the homeland, aerial warfare, and the British Midlands. By linking the events on the ground and identifying the victims with larger concepts, such as aerial defense and strategic bombing, the book expands our understanding of the human costs of the raid.

 Maj Timothy Heck, USMCR
Southeast Asia

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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