The Terror Bombing of the Garioch - by Duncan Harley

The editions of both the Aberdeen Free Press and the Aberdeen Daily Journal for Thursday May 4 1916 carried the news the war had finally arrived on Aberdeenshire’s doorstep in the form of aerial bombing by a German Zeppelin on the night of May 2nd.
Headlines screamed “Terrific Noise of Crashing Bombs” and “Zeppelin at Rattray Head” alongside descriptions of up to 17 bombs having been dropped over the North-east in the course of the attack.

Zeppelin raids were common over Southern England and the Continent but it had been assumed that North-east Scotland was well out of range of raiders, whose bases were around 12 hours’ flying time away in Germany. The usual targets for the German crews were naval and military bases, but in 1916, the art of night time bombing was uncertain at best, with many bombs falling on civilian areas. The airships mainly relied on navigation based on ground observation and bombs were often dropped by hand.

There had been a raid on Scotland on 2 April 1916, when several German airships bombarded Edinburgh’s Grassmarket and a bonded warehouse at Leith, killing a total of 13 people on the ground. A plaque at Edinburgh Castle records the event. Exactly one month later, the raiders returned. The intended targets this time were the Forth Rail Bridge and the Naval Base at Rosyth, but the navigation was faulty and only two of the eight hydrogen filled airships, the L14 and the L20, even managed to locate mainland Scotland never mind find the Forth Bridge.

In a farcical series of events, Zeppelin L14 apparently mistook the Firth of Tay for the Firth of Forth and eventually dumped its bombs over Lunan Bay, near Montrose, injuring a horse. The 300ft-long L20, however, lumbered confidently north at a steady 45mph, possibly intending to bomb a secondary target of Royal Navy warships in the Cromarty Firth, before heading out to sea over Buchan’s Rattray Head.

Wildly off course and completely disorientated, the L20’s 16-strong crew flew inland, bombing Craig Castle, at Lumsden, before over-flying Kintore, Old Rayne and Insch, where they dropped bombs and a flare on a field at Hill of Flinder Farm.

Mill of Knockenbaird and nearby Freefield House were also targeted. Amazingly though, there were no casualties and, next day, curious locals went in search of souvenirs in the form of bomb fragments.
In the aftermath, The Aberdeen Free Press ran a heavily-censored feature article telling readers of “Bombs Dropped in Fields … some windows in a mansion house and a cotter house broken by the concussion … no person sustained even the slightest injury.”

The L20 eventually headed out over the North Sea to ask directions, via loudhailer, from the startled crew of a fishing trawler, before heading over to Norway, where it ran out of fuel just off the Norwegian coast at Sandnes on May 3.

The Press Association reported that:“Zeppelin L20 was reported this morning at 10 o’clock over the Southern part of the Jaederin coast. The aircraft flew slowly towards the north and came nearer and nearer to the coast, which it eventually crossed. It then passed at a low altitude over the country as far as Halsfirth where it came down in the water. The Zeppelin was badly damaged and it is reported that the crew jumped out of the gondolas into the sea near Hinna”.
The German crew survived to fight another day. However the L20 met a fiery end when a Norwegian Army officer set the wreck aflame with a well-placed shot from his flare pistol, thus ending this truly bizarre episode in the history of early aerial warfare.

Duncan Harley is author of The Little History of Aberdeenshire and The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire. Both titles are available from Amazon.


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