The Kaiser Demolished Our Grandstand

BILL THE BIRO tells the story

Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany was a bit of a nut-job who, like King George V of England and Tsar Nicholas of Russia, was a grandson of Queen Victoria. But whereas the other two either wanted a quiet life or were constrained by an elected parliament, he had a great say in what his country did. So he built up its armed forces and took it into the First World War.

He was impressed by Count Zeppelin's airships and thought they would be useful for bombing the enemy from altitudes that aeroplanes would struggle to reach, even if such bombing would be very inaccurate. And having realised that terror, as generated by the Bombardment of Hartlepool in December 1914 could be a useful strategy, he ordered a fleet of airships. Eventually 130 were built.

One made a lone raid on Hartlepool in 1915, but caused little damage, and returned to Germany unscathed. At that time British propaganda named the airships "Babykillers", and the military had no way of attacking them since normal bullets would pass through their bags of inflammable hydrogen, causing small leaks but failing to ignite the gas. Over the next year new bullets were developed, along with new attack strategies, to make the airships more vulnerable, and in mid-1916 a pilot successfully proved the new technology by downing a Zeppelin and earning himself a Victoria Cross.

L50 was a 'Super Zeppelin' from the same class as L34

On 27th November ten airships were scrambled to attack eastern England, interrupting the birthday party of Captain Dietrich of airship L34, who was the uncle of the singer and actress Marlene Dietrich.

Four headed for the Durham coast and L34 came over the cliffs at Blackhall, and was picked up by a searchlight at Hutton Henry. A fighter plane then was scrambled from its base at Seaton Carew, piloted by 20-year old Sub-Lieutenant Ian Pyott.

L34 dropped bombs over Hartlepool, killing several people and hitting Pools' grandstand.

Pyott's long climb up towards the airship was made easier by the fact that it had come lower for more bombing accuracy. He was able to hit the airship with the new incendiary bullets and L34 burst into flame and fell into the sea in Hartlepool Bay, watched, and probably cheered by thousands.

The entire crew of L34 died, but Ian Pyott received a medal for his bravery. Later in the war he shot down a plane on the Western Front and he lived until 1972.

The airship menace receded once the incendiary bullets were developed, and about half of the entire fleet were lost along with most their crews, proving their vulnerability, and the Hindenburg disaster in 1937 was the end of airships as serious aircraft.

The BBC's Inside Out programme did a piece on Pyott and the downing of L34 (without mention of Pools) on 31st October, which has some interesting footage of a plane on Seaton beach (item is about 19 minutes in, and this link may not work outside the UK or after November, and may require an update of of your iplayer software):

Some readers may remember that a couple of years ago Monkey Business featured a song 'The Kaiser Demolished Our Grandstand', about the grandstand's fate and that of its successor. It's now been made into an animated video which is now on Youtube:


At the top of the page is the full postcard, as shown on this month's cover, of the damage done by the Zeppelin on the night of November 27th 1916.

The postcard is part of the National Football Collection of memorabilia, and has its own page on their website: hartlepool-united-victoria-ground-1916-zeppelin-raid-postcard/