Mick Powis tells the full, harrowing story: On a foggy, frosty
night of January 31 to February 1, 1916, Tipton, Bradley, Wednesbury
and Walsall were bombed by Zeppelins in one of the heaviest air
raids of the First World War. By the end of that terrible night,
35 local people were dead, including the Lady Mayoress of Walsall,
Mary Julia Slater.
Nine Zeppelin airships of the Imperial German Navy set out from
their bases on the north west coast of Germany to bomb targets in
English Midlands, and South. Though they failed to hit it, Liverpool
was their primary target. Two Zeppelins bombed the Black Country
the L.21, between 8.00 and 8.30 pm. and the L.19 at about midnight.
Zeppelin L.21 was commanded by 45 year old KapitanleutnantMax
Dietrich. She was the pride of German technology, a massive machine
585 feet long and 61 feet in diameter. Even today the Zeppelin airships
are the largest combat aircraft, to have flown.
Because of cloud, Dietrich was hopelessly lost. He thought he
was over the Irish Sea, when he saw the bright lights of two towns,
separated by a river, which he took to be Liverpool and Birkenhead.
The lights were actually the Black Country, the river must have
been one of the many canals. He aimed his bombs at the glow from
the foundries he glimpsed through the clouds.
Tipton was where the killing started. The bomb aimer dropped three
high explosive bombs on Waterloo Street and Union Street, quickly
followed by three incendiary bombs on Bloomfield Road and Barnfield
Road. In Union Street two houses were demolished and others damaged,
the gas main was set alight. Fourteen Tipton people were killed,
five men, five women and four children.
Three generations of one family were killed. Thomas Morris, a
witness at the Tipton Coroners Inquest, told a tragic story. He
had gone to the pictures, the Tivoli in Owen Street, when he heard
the bombs. His wife had taken the children to her mother's. When
he reached her house in Union Street it was completely demolished,
inside he found five bodies, his wife, Sarah Jane Morris, two of
his children, Nellie Morris, aged eight and Martin Morris aged 11,
along with his mother and father in law.
From Tipton L.21 moved to Lower Bradley, dropping five high explosive
bombs, killing a courting couple, Maud and William Fellows, on the
bank of the Wolverhampton Union Canal. Their death is commemorated
by a plaque on the wall of the Bradley pumping station, which exists
today, virtually unchanged in 80 years.
L.21 moved to bomb Wednesbury at 8.15pm. killing 14 people, four
men six women and four children, in the area of King Street, near
the Crown Tube works. Other bombs fell at the back of the Crown
and Cushion Inn in High Bullen, and Brunswick Park Road.
Perhaps the most tragic case was that of the family of Joseph
Horton Smith, of 14 King Street. At about 8.15pm, Mrs Smith heard
an alarming loud report. She ran out of the house to see what was
happening, leaving in the house her husband, her daughter Nelly
aged 13, her son Thomas aged 11, and her daughter Ina aged seven,
when she returned they had all disappeared. The bodies of Joseph,
Nelly and Thomas were found later that night in the ruins of number
13 King Street which suffered a direct hit by a bomb. The fate of
little Ina was even more tragic. Her body was not found until the
next morning. It had been blown onto the roof of the James Russell
Works by the explosion.
After leaving Wednesbury Dietrich headed north for Walsall. The
first bomb landed on Wednesbury Road, Congregational Church, on
the corner of Wednesbury Road and Glebe Street. A preparation class
from the local primary school was working in the church parlour,
miraculously no one was killed though a man walking outside had
the top of his head blown off. L.21 then flew over the centre of
Walsall. Bombs landed in the grounds of the General Hospital, and
The last bomb landed right in the town centre, outside the Science
and Art Institute in Bradford Place. This bomb claimed three lives
including the best known Zeppelin victim, 55 year old Mary Julia
Slater, the Lady Mayoress of Walsall. She was a passenger on the
number 16 tram. She suffered severe wounds to the chest and abdomen.
She was taken to hospital and died several weeks later on Sunday,
February 20, 1916 from shock and septicemia. It is fitting that
Walsall Cenotaph now stands on the spot where the bomb landed.
With the killing over Max Dietrich turned L.21 for home, she crossed
the English Coast near Lowestoft at 11.35pm., arriving back at her
base at Nordholz at about 10.45pm. (GMT). She had covered 1,056
miles in just over 23 and a half hours.
If according to the cruel logic of war the mission of L.21 was
a success, that of the second Zeppelin was disaster.
Between 10.30 and 11.30pm. she was reported 'wandering' about
the district south of Birmingham, she reached the Black Country
at about midnight. Attacking Wednesbury, Dudley, Tipton and Walsall.
As far as we know no one was killed by L.19 though her bombs did
The newspaper described in graphic detail the destruction caused
by on of these bombs,to a pub still standing today, the Bush Inn,
at 127 Park Lane West, Tipton. It hit the roof of a house, without
exploding, then bounced into the roadway, where it detonated five
feet in front of the hotel. The pub was completely wrecked by the
explosion, every door and window was smashed and the whole place
rendered a ruin. We know exactly when the bomb was dropped, as the
clock in the bar was damaged, and stopped at 12.20am.
More damage was caused in Walsall where bombs fell on a stable
in Pleck Killing a horse, four pigs and about a hundred fowl. More
bombs fell in Birchills, damaging St Andrews Church and vicarage
in Hollyhedge Lane.
After leaving Walsall, Odo Loewe steered a course for home, making
very slow progress. She crossed the Norfolk coast at 5.25am. travelling
very slowly and in difficulties.
Dutch sentries fired at her, and hit her repeatedly. The intense
rifle fire caused no immediate casualties, but led to the downfall
of L.19. The rifle fire punctured the hydrogen gas cells, causing
leakage. Unable to stay aloft, L.19 splashed into the Cold North
Sea, during the night of February 1-2.
The end of the story of the Black Country bombings came on November
28, 1916. Zeppelin L.21 was shot down at dawn, near Lowestoft, by
sub Lieutenant Pulling of the Royal Naval Air Service. He reported
that after firing incendiary ammunition at her, the L.21 caught
fire and, in a few seconds, was a fiery furnace.
It was a proud time for Walsall. On August 17, 1916, Corporal
Thomas Silk of Checketts Street, Walsall, won the Military Medal
for gallantry during the fighting on the Somme in northern France.
The Somme saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the war and one
of its worst killing grounds was Delville Wood, known to the Tommoes
as Devil Wood.
Cpl Silk, 23, won the medal for maintaining communications with
headquarters of his battalion, the 2nd South Staffords.
He was presented with the award by the Mayor of Walsall at Her
Majesty's Theatre, Walsall, becoming the town's first living MM
holder. Other soldiers from Walsall had won the medal but were killed