Airship onslaught which rocked Midland towns

On January 31, 1916, in the second year of the Great War, nine airships left their bases in Germany with orders to bomb Liverpool and in so doing shock the British by the long-scale range of the attack. The year before, Zeppelins had raided London, but it was considered impossible for them to reach as far north as Merseyside. As it was the enemy did not make their target. Instead they dropped their bombs on several English towns, mostly in the Midlands.


Chief among them were Tipton, Wednesbury and Walsall. They were hit by 35 bombs and 25 incendiaries, making a total of 4,900lbs of explosives. Thirty four people were killed. The Zeppelin which caused so much death and damage was the L21. It was huge at 534 feet long and 61 feet broad. Capable of a speed of 60 miles per hour, it was captained by Max Dietrich, an uncle of the famous singer and actress, Marlene Dietrich, whose successful career spanned the decades from the 1920s to 1970s.

On the night of January 31, Dietrich and his crew crossed the North Sea and flew across Norfolk, but as he came inland mists and fogs began to enshroud the airship. These badly affected Dietrich's calculations as he strove to ascertain where he was whenever there was a break in the gloom. Believing he was close to Birkenhead and that he would soon be over Liverpool, he ordered his men to begin dropping bombs. But Dietrich had miscalculated. He was a long way south from Merseyside and his airships bombs were dropped instead on three towns in the Black Country.

At 8pm the first place to be hit was Tipton, where 14 people were killed. Next was Bradley, where a couple courting on the bank of the Wolverhampton Union Canal were killed. Then at 8.15pm the L21 let loose bombs in several parts of Wednesbury, where another 14 people were killed.

Finally Walsall was bombed. The first explosive landed on the Congregational Church on the corner of Wednesbury Road and Glebe Street. A preparation class was working in the church parlour but thankfully no one inside died, although a man walking outside was killed.

Wednesbury Road Congregational Church after the bombing.

The L21 continued over the town, dropping bombs in the grounds of the Walsall and District Hospital and in Mountrath Street. Its last explosive fell in the centre of Walsall, outside the Science and Art Institute in Bradford Place. It killed three people.

One of the victims was the Mayoress of Walsall, 55 years old Mary Julia Slater, who was a passenger on the No. 14 tram. She was rushed to hospital with severe wounds to the chest and abdomen. She later died of shock and septicaemia in February 1916.


Seventy years later the Walsall Chronicle quoted a survivor, Mr A. K. Stephens, who was injured by the blast. He remembered that "It was pandemonium, but no panic. Someone shouted. 'Hey, look he's been hurt!' I'd lost a lot of blood and could hardly walk and a couple of men took me home."

The Walsall Cenotaph stands on the spot where this final bomb fell. Unhappily Dietrich's Zeppelin was followed by another, the L19, whose captain had also lost his way and who also ordered bombs to be dropped. Fortunately, there were no more deaths. This Zeppelin was brought down by rifle fire from Dutch soldiers over the North Sea and all its crew died.

The Walsall Cenotaph site where the last of Zeppelin L21's bombs landed.

As for the L21, it attacked Cleethorpes in April. One of its bombs fell on a billet and killed 31 soldiers. Like the bombing on the Black Country, this raid was only covered briefly, although in mid February the Press Bureau had proposed no longer to issue detailed statements of attacks, "as it is inadvisable to give information to the enemy as to the results of their air attacks".

The L21 was involved in two more attacks before it was shot down by three Royal Naval Air Force pilots on November 27, eight miles to the east of Lowestoft. It was reported that cheering crowds watched the fight from the cliffs. None of the crew survived. Max Dietrich died a day later when the Zeppelin he now captained, the L34, was shot down in Tees Bay off Hartlepool.

With regard to the Walsall and District Hospital at The Mount (later called the Walsall General Hospital), it could have been destroyed by a bomb on the night of January 31, 1916. That it was not was thanks to the bravery of police constable Joseph Burrell. I am grateful to his grandson, Alan Hall of Walsall, for sending me an account of his grandfather's deeds that night from The Police Review and Parade Gossip, of March 28, 1929.

Just after the Armistice in 1918, this publication had printed a series of articles called 'On the Home Front', in which were related "many incidents, hitherto unpublished, affecting our readers during the years of the war". In connection with these accounts, the Police Review had contacted the now Sergeant Burrell, "who had performed an act of great bravery during the Zeppelin raid on Walsall in 1916". The writer explained that "up to that time no mention had been made of the raid in the public press, and that it was quite by chance that we became aware of Sgt Burrell's achievements".

This lack of publicity was true of the national press, but thankfully the Express and Star did report on the raids. Be that as it may, with the Great War ended so recently "PS Burrell was refused permission to give the press any account of the circumstances which prompted the committee of the hospital to present him with a silver medal".

After serving 26 years in the police, Sgt Burrell had retired in 1923 because of failing eyesight and his story could now be told. He recounted to the Police Review the events of the evening of January 31, 1916.

As he was patrolling his beat in the direction of the hospital he heard 11 explosions. After an interval of about a minute there were seven more, this time very near to Walsall. The then police constable recalled that a few seconds later he heard a peculiar noise in the air, and on looking up he saw a zeppelin passing right over where he stood, dropping bombs constantly, four within 80 yards of him. Two bombs fell on a church adjoining the Walsall and District Hospital, wrecking it; another fell between the men's and women's wards of the hospital itself.

Constable Burrell found himself covered with dirt and plaster, among other things. Fortunately, he had his cape folded over his left shoulder and this saved him from serious injury "for as he lifted his cape he was struck on that side of his neck and spun round, his neck being bruised".

Wednesbury Road Congregational Church and the Walsall and District Hospital.


When he had recovered himself it seemed that the hospital was in flames. Sgt Burrell ran to the entrance and found the nurses excited and unable to move. He sought to calm them by saying the noise was from a new engine at the gas works and rushed along through the women's ward to where an incendiary bomb was blazing between the wards.

Being unable to get anything to throw on it, he seized a piece of wood and got down on his hands and knees, the heat from the bomb being so fierce. He rolled it over and over for five feet or so, and found as he rolled it that the contents fell away. He then dashed the contents about and was able to extinguish the blaze.

His job done, Sgt Burrell left the bomb to cool and went through the wards soothing the patients. For his gallantry the hospital committee sent Sgt Burrell a gratuity of a guinea - £1.05p. Such was the measure of this most courageous and caring of men that he returned it as a subscription. He kept the letter and receipt and had them framed.

Later the hospital presented him with an inscribed medal, which he was unable to wear during the First World War but which he always regarded as a great treasure.

The medal awarded to Sgt. Burrell by Walsall Hospital.

The writer in the Police Review remarked that "all the recognition the sergeant received from the grateful people was a reference in the Peace Celebrations Official Programme, published in 1919".

This contained an article entitled 'The Zeppelin Raid on Walsall' which stated: ''An incendiary bomb fell inside the hospital grounds, lit up immediately into a fearsome flair, but was speedily put out by the courage and presence of mind of PS Burrell".

This astute contributor to the Police Review concluded his article with a question:

"It may be asked why the sergeant was not at the time recommended for the King's Police Medal or for recognition by the Carnegie Hero Fund." In the stress of those days, matters such as these were apt to be overlooked and it gives us much pleasure, even at this late date, to give publicity to an outstanding act of gallantry.

Unhappily, like so many heroes, Sgt Burrell's valour was all but forgotten in a land supposedly fit for heroes. He went blind in 1924 as a result of the injuries he received extinguishing the incendiary and had to leave the police. In the ensuing years he strove for work without success but with the help of a doughty man, Joseph Farlam Burrell, taught himself to read and write in Braille.

On the occasion of his golden wedding anniversary in 1948 he told the local press that his chief regret "is that his medal was never publicly presented or officially presented. He still hopes that this will take place because he considers it part of the history of Walsall. The case of the incendiary bomb is still displayed at the general hospital."

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