THE NIGHT THE ZEPPELINS
by TED BROOK
From my experience of researching my Family History most accounts and events
involving our family, which were related to us when we were small
children and often retold over the years, have been found to be half
truths, often embellished and some times bearing little if no
resemblance to the actual facts.
As children do though we took all these stories in when told them and
believed them wholeheartedly even to the point of repeating the same
stories ourselves. One such 'tale' was about how 'Kaiser Bill' and his
Zeppelins tried to blow up Pontefract during World War One.
As I said, many family accounts of events and happenings have often
turned out to bear little if no resemblance to the true facts
that I began to treat even this story with more than a 'pinch of
salt'. That is until I was reading through a diary written
towards the end of 1916 by one of my grandmothers.
She was a teacher and would have been 23 at the time but still
living at home with her parents and family at Carleton Terrace.
It is from this diary that we can read an almost eye-witness
account of the events of that night in December 1916 when
Zeppelins really did drop bombs on and around Pontefract to the
terror and consternation of the populace.
Grandmothers Diary Entry Wednesday 29th November 1916
"Monday was a much better day as Miss Neal was back. I spent the evening sewing
and then went down home (Horsefair) for an hour or so. Ina walked to the
top of Horsefair with me and I got home about 9.20pm. We then had supper
and went to bed but neither Mother, Dot nor yet myself had gone to sleep
when the fun began."
"We knew the Zepps were in England but never expected them anywhere near us
until we were all given a terrible shock by the explosion of 3 bombs not
far away. I jumped out of bed and saw the flash of another bomb
dropping. Father got up, dressed, and went out. Dot went into mother’s
bed and I got partially dressed and walked about from one room to
another. First going to our window and shouting to Father for news and
then going and giving it to Mother and Dot and trying to brace them up.
It was terrible. For a minute or two the explosions were almost
continuous and with them we could hear only too well the sound of the
engines of the Zeppelins. Then they gradually got farther away and soon
we could hardly hear any noise at all. But the quietness was not for
long; they soon came back and began bombing again."
"Although the explosions and flashes were terrible and almost everybody saw one or
more Zeppelins, no one seemed to think that they were very near and
perhaps it was better so, as the panic would have been much greater. The
road was alive with people and some of the women were screaming at the
top of their voices when the bombs went off. However the Zepps left us
and things got much quieter."
"Father told me to get into bed with Mother and Dot; he was not coming back. I
did so and then Father went out. He was gone nearly an hour and when he
came back he said he had been to the Police Station. He could not get to
know much except that they had left our district altogether. The rest of
the night was spent in a restless sleep or none at all."
"Next morning, Tuesday, everybody one saw looked tired and strained. The first
news we heard was that bombs had been dropped in our Park and near the
powder magazine at the Pit and also some at Featherstone. When I got to
school however I found the latter was not true. Bombs had been dropped
on the muck-stacks facing towards Ackton and also in fields at Sharlston."
"There were so few children at school that we closed and returned home. I then
cycled to the Park and saw the four holes made by the bombs and also one
in the field by the powder magazine. Seven were dropped altogether just
about there;- one in the pit yard, one 30 yards from the powder
magazine, one near Townend’s stack-yard and four in the Park."
"After lunch I again went to school only to come back as so few children turned
up again. I spent the afternoon reading and in the evening Dot and I
went to Gymn Class where everybody thought we should not possibly turn
up. The evening was enjoyable as usual. We were 'jumping the rope’ and
also learnt a new American dance."
"We got home about nine and found Mother had gone to bed. She had been ill
all day owing to the terrible upset of the night before. We all spent a
good night and today, Wednesday, feel much better although it will take
days for most people to get over the shock."
Using the evidence of the diary I was then able to look for a corresponding
account in the archives of the Pontefract and Castleford Express which,
having the exact date of the event from my grandmother’s Diary,
fortunately did not take too long. The raid took place on Monday night
the 27th of November 1916 in the vicinity of Pontefract and surrounding
villages and the report was published in the Pontefract and Castleford
Express on the following Friday the 1st December under the title
"The Zeppelin Raid on Yorkshire".
Although the Newspaper report had to be vague in it’s actual naming of places
and locations because of security reasons during wartime it seems clear
from the initial description that it is talking about Pontefract, I
" .....a Northern Town known far and wide for several possessions
comprising ancient and medieval buildings, a public park etc, etc, etc.
In all it’s long history the town which has borne the shocks and blows
enough had not hithertoo been the object of attention of these modern
murder machines, the Zepp, although more than once like engines have
passed over the old Borough elsewhere on wicked slaughter bent, so that
Monday nights visitation was at once a novel and altogether alarming
The reporter then goes on to describe the events of that night and I quote
most of it as follows: -
"The first intimation of the presence of Zepps in the district was assumed
when the public gas supply was turned very low at about 9.15pm. At about
10.30 the doubts of most people were determined by the distant booms of
bursting bombs. Then of course everybody began to be interested.
Meantime the ‘specials’ were discharging their duty in a way that
does them exceeding credit. At this time it was thought that the effort
of destruction was aimed at distant munition works or at some large
centre of population, but when at about 11 o’clock there were terrific
explosions and loud reports accompanied by heavy gun shooting none
needed to be told that at last the huns were upon them. As a matter of
fact, proved next morning by many witnesses, one or more of the terrible
visitants hovered over the town and the neighbourhood for a considerable
time, dealing out had they been accurately aimed, sufficient bombs to
destroy half the town and many of the dwellers therein, not to speak of
several big villages at some distance...................
It was at this time that the effects of the explosions and the shooting
were most telling making the windows of old properties rattle, smashing
some, and rousing the townsfolk, the people of the countryside, and the
There is no need to say that many persons were scared, that many remained calm
and cool, and that a large number of people risked going into the open
to see the unwanted sight - a raider airship hovering, droning,
throbbing with inward forces and threatening everybody and everything
About 11 o’clock the shooting and bombing explosions, near or distant,
became less frequent and shortly afterwards the droning gradually died
away in the distance. Those who had taken refuge in basements etc came
out to learn what could be learnt and others retired to their beds.
The visitation was not ended however for at about 11.30 the unwelcome sound
of distant bombs was heard and in an amazingly short time bombs exploded
quite near and the droning was again practically overhead accompanied by
what sounded like cracks of ‘heavens artillery’ terrific and nerve
shaking to quiet peaceable people.
The experience however did not last long and about 11.45 the visitors
cleared off for good although explosions were heard in the distance,
either of their making or the shots of airmen in pursuit. For the space
of an hour or more there were many people in the streets curious to see
all and learn all they might and some especially where children were
concerned remained in what they thought to be safe places. Upon the
whole it may be said that the townsfolk behaved bravely and that the ‘specials’
did their duty as brave folk would expect them to do it.
Next morning was given up by large numbers of people to investigation and
gossip in regard to the visitation. Many persons without a doubt saw the
Zepp, possibly two..............
A few persons had seen ‘the streak of light like lightening’ when the
bomb was started on it’s devastating mission, and then seen the dread
flash when the explosion followed. What they had seen, doubtless, was
the internal light of the machine which is unshaded for an instant when
a bomb is being launched downward..............................
No fewer than eight bombs had been dropped in close proximity to the town
and yet not one person was injured nor one building, dwelling house or
One of the eight fell in a works railway yard within a short distance of the
works, one fell in a field a little distance away on another side of
these important works; others found billets - one in a field close to a
farm stackyard, four at distances of some 200 yards in a wide stretch of
pasture land, and the eighth also in pasture land at no great
As to the material effects the damage was as slight as could have been.
Some of the bombs did not explode and some were incendiary but did not
fire anything not even a rabbit hutch. In the clayey pastureland,
however, huge holes were torn and the turf scattered - convincing
evidence that in a confined space, where there was great resistance, the
havoc would have been dreadful.
That thousands of people on Tuesday and Wednesday and since have inspected
these evidences of the nocturnal visit needs scarcely be stated.
Hundreds have carried off souvenirs of the occasion in the form of bits of
shrapnel etc. The prevailing feeling is astonishment - that the town
should be thought worthy of attention and that so marvellous an escape
from harm has been the townsfolk’s portion.
As regards certain villages not far distant we find that eleven or twelve
bombs of both kinds were dropped. Five explosions fell into waste heaps,
two incendiaries struck the ground close to an old residence, an
incendiary which did not explode found its billet in a field and three
incendiaries dived into an immense waste pile. In no instance was any
damage of note done, no building was struck, and no person was seriously
injured. Marvellous is the only word that fits the circumstances."
So there we are, the newspaper report backing up my Grandmothers diary and
both lending credence to the family tale of the bombing raid on
Pontefract even if it wasn’t the ‘Kaiser Bill’ himself trying to
blow the town up.
Reading them both together and taking into account that the Newspaper report had
to be vague in it’s locations whereas my grandmother was not, it is
clear that they refer to the same event. My grandmothers first hand
account although vivid and descriptive seems nothing like the dramatised
and somewhat jingoistic report in the paper but then that was probably
to be expected in the light of what was happening at that time. Whatever
the feelings of those involved it must still have been a frightening
experience and one obviously not to be forgotten in a long time.
Although the Newspaper reported "astonishment" and "a
marvellous escape from harm" of the population, this was not
exactly true as may be witnessed from the following report again from
the same paper and printed on the same page which highlights the
relevance of the fear and shock the raid had on some: -
INQUEST ON A WOMAN WHO DIED FROM SHOCK
"On Thursday afternoon an inquest was held in a little northern village on
the body of a woman who died from shock during the raid. The woman who
was 49 years of age had for some time past been suffering from heart
trouble, for which she had been attended by a doctor.
When the alarm was given on Monday night she along with other women and some
children sought safety in a cellar in a garden near her home. She got
over the shock of the first visit all right but when on the return
journey an airship dropped an explosive bomb within 300 yards of her
home she fainted and died in the arms of a neighbour a few minutes
Although bombs were dropping all round the countryside, the deceased’s daughter
bravely set out on her cycle through very lonely country to fetch a
doctor, but her mother had passed away before the doctor arrived. The
coroner expressed his deep sympathy with the husband and family and
later in summing up the evidence, said that the poor woman’s death was
directly due to the murderous barbarity of the enemy, that it was a
disgusting and cruel shame.
jury unanimously returned the following verdict: - "Died from shock
due to fright owing to bombs dropped by an enemy airship near her