Our Century

Walsall Mayor dies in night of Zeppelin terror

Zeppelin damage in the West MidlandsResearcher 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.

Walsall college of Science & Art

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 Mountrath Street.

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 considerable damage.

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 later.

Bob Whitmore
All the girls on the buses were yellow as oranges from working with the explosives