THE moon shone bright over Edinburgh, a perfect April night of crystal clear skies and gentle breeze – ideal, as it happened, for flying a Zeppelin.
Wind and haar, familiar features of a typical east coast weather system, would have made navigating the silent but deadly airships too challenging. However, the glow from the silvery moon and a dazzling guest appearance from Venus – said to have been the brightest display in living memory – provided plenty of light for the ship’s bomb crew to view their targets.
Even the local authorities seemed to conspire to make what happened on the fateful night of April 2, 1916 easier for the enemy – the lack of an attack warning system or even a proper air defence system meant Edinburgh was little more than a sitting duck.
Two German navy airships had made silent passage across the North Sea, their focus almost certainly on reaching Rosyth Naval Dockyard and the British boats moored in its vicinity.
Instead, they turned to the Capital city to inflict the first ever air raid on Scotland and leave death, terror and destruction in their wake.
City historian Sandy Mullay, author of the Edinburgh Encyclopedia and the Illustrated History of Edinburgh, says wartime censorship on newspaper reports means there are confusing versions of what took place that night – even precisely how many Zeppelins took part is open to debate.
But what is known is that in just 35 minutes of utter terror and confusion, 24 bombs fell on Edinburgh, leaving 13 dead – among them a baby in his crib – and 24 injured.
It is thought the German focus switched to Edinburgh after Rosyth’s defences were considered too overwhelming.
“Apparently the commander of one airship had visited Leith as a ship’s officer,” says Sandy. “He bombed the port’s warehouses which he was very apologetic for afterwards. However, there were still civilian casualties.”
Several bombs rained down on the Shore at Leith and one exploded on to a bonded warehouse, the impact alone enough to light up the city and cause £44,000 of damage.
The One O’Clock Gun was fired – more of a warning ‘bang’ than as a weapon of war – while the bombs dropped indiscriminately, one smashed into St Thomas’ Parish Manse in Sheriff Brae and another clattered on to a railway siding at Bonnington, the fallout from the explosion killing a child as he slept in his crib.
Land at Bellevue Terrace took the force of another, inflicting a 10ft by 6ft crater, shattering the windows of New Town houses and leaving occupants terrified.
“By the time one Zeppelin made its way to the Castle – a legitimate target as it was the headquarters of the army after all – people in the Grassmarket had come out to stare at these silver monsters high above them,” says Sandy.
“The bombs, however, missed their intended target and hit the Grassmarket instead.”
On board was a payload of 27 high explosive bombs and 14 incendiary devices – making the crew’s job a highly dangerous challenge, as each was chucked by hand from the hold.
But with no air defences in place, there was little to trouble the Germans as they cruised above a city which had been led to believe its geographical location was its greatest protection.
Certainly, Edinburgh was woefully unprepared: “The public authorities have not yet taken every means to minimise the dangers of Zeppelin raids on our cities,” reported the Scotsman on February 9, 1916, just weeks before the raid. “In Edinburgh the citizens are not to be warned of the attack except by the appearance of the Zeppelin or the dropping of bombs. This is a condition of unpreparedness which the city authorities should not lose a day in dealing with.”
Mr Mullay says: “In England, many authorities had a year of experiencing these raids. They had a method of lowering the gas pressure three times in succession which would dip the street lights and warn that something was coming your way. But the Scottish authorities had not picked up on that. There was no warning.”
It’s perhaps a moot point, as the bombs fell so randomly it would have been impossible to know where to go for safety.
One bomb hit the road by The Mound. Another crashed through the roof of Dr John McLaren’s home at 39 Lauriston Place. Incredibly no-one was injured.
His grandson, Hamish McLaren, whose father was eight years old at the time and at home when the raid happened, recently told how the family had heard the 100lb bomb dropping.
“I don’t know whether they were actually trying to bomb the Castle and missed it, or whether they were jettisoning the bombs to get away,” he said. “In the house there was my grandfather and my grandmother, their three children, of which my father was one, and two maids. The damage was very extensive.
“The bomb exploded on the roof, blew the roof off, and then the nose of the bomb came down through the four floors of the house and ended up in the pantry.”
Another struck the Castle Rock, the impact sending boulders careering down to the windows of properties below in Castle Terrace. The point of impact on the rock is now commemorated by a plaque.
Unfortunately for the drinkers at the White Hart Hotel in the Grassmarket, lured outside to witness the airship hovering over their heads, there would be terror as a bomb plunged to the ground, leaving one dead and three others injured.
Also struck was the County Hotel in Lothian Road and a west wing classroom at George Watson’s College.
For a group which had taken refuge in the entrance to a Marshall Street tenement, the raid resulted in six deaths and seven injured by the bomb that landed at their feet. And at a tenement on St Leonard’s Hill, a child was killed and two people injured.
Amid it all were incredible escapes, including one bomb passing through three floors of a tenement on Marchmont Crescent without a single injury.
Eventually the raid ended, the Zeppelin – or Zeppelins – glided off, damage done and, thankfully, not to return.
Scotland’s first air raid had, however, brought the city authorities to their senses. Soon plans were under way for an air raid warning system and the creation of air defences with airfields at Gilmerton, Colinton and Turnhouse, and landing strips at Gifford, Hoprig Mains near Tranent, West Fenton near Gullane and a Royal Naval Air Station at East Fortune.