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From Zeppelins to barrel bombs: have things really changed?


A poster showing a Zeppelin cruising over St Paul’s Cathedral, London.

Today marks the centenary of the first British civilians to be killed in an aerial bombing attack.

On 19 January 1915 a bomb was dropped from a German Zeppelin over Great Yarmouth, on the east coast of the UK. Two civilians were killed. They were the first of 557 people to be killed in the UK by bombs being dropped from the sky during the First World War.

In early 1915 the thought of aerial bombardment was terrifyingly impossible. People could not begin to realistically imagine bombs being dropped from aircraft, which had themselves only been invented ten years previously. They imagined that they might at least be safe from aerial attack. This misconception changed forever when the first Zeppelin unleashed its deadly payload.

Initially the Zeppelins attacked with almost complete impunity. They could fly higher than the planes defending the UK, and were not damaged to any great extent by bullets. It took two years for the British to work out how to shoot them down. The final Zeppelin attack was on 19 October 1917, in which 33 people were killed in London.

The use of Zeppelins during the First World War hailed a new era of warfare. For the first time air attacks could target the civilian population at home, dragging the frontline of war away from the trenches of foreign fields and into people’s homes. The traditional distinction between civilians and combatants had gone, something which has consistently been seen in more recent conflicts.

The psychological impact of Zeppelin raids was significant. The thought of bombs falling from the sky terrified the civilian population, who had little or no way of defending themselves from this new threat.

There were 51 Zeppelin air raids in the UK during WWI, mostly in London. 5,806 bombs were dropped, causing 557 deaths and 1,358 injuries (1,915 civilian casualties in total).

Since those days, aerial bombardment has become a common tactic in warfare.

Now air-launched explosive weapons can include a wide variety of ordnance, from bombs dropped out of planes or helicopters to missiles fired by unmanned drones. These weapons can have the capacity to cause widespread death and destruction, particularly where they are used in a populated area.

Since 2011, AOAV has used English-language media reports to record the impact of these weapons on civilians. Using AOAV data, we can see an increase in the deadly nature of air-launched explosive weapons since WWI.

If there were 1,915 civilian casualties from almost 6,000 Zeppelin attacks, that means that it took, on average, three bombs to fall before there was a civilian casualty.

On average, in 2013 (the most recent year of full AOAV data), a single air strike incident would lead to seven civilian casualties. While each strike may have involved several munitions being dropped, it a rough comparison suggests that the typical air strike today is far more destructive than its historic counterpart.

Barrel Bomb 1

The remnants of a barrel bomb.

In some ways we haven’t moved that far from the days of the Zeppelin. The technology governing the use of air-launched explosive weapons may have improved dramatically, but one specific practice is remarkably similar to that seen in WWI: the use of the barrel bomb.

In Zeppelin attacks, incendiary bombs and grenades were simply dropped from the aircraft. There was no guiding system or sophisticated technology, they were merely rolled out the aircraft and landed where they fell. The same is true of barrel bombs. These are improvised weapons comprised of containers filled with fuel, explosives and chunks of jagged metal. In recent years their use has been recorded during the conflict in Syria, with AOAV first recording an incident of barrel bombardment in 2012. There have also been reports of their recent use in Sudan, South Sudan and Iraq. Like the bombs dropped during WWI, barrel bombs cannot be guided. In Syria they appear to simply be dropped from helicopters with scant regard for the population below.

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2013 AOAV data on air-launched explosive weapons.

While their means of deployment are broadly the same, barrel bombs are significantly more destructive than those bombs which were being dropped in WWI. In 2013, AOAV recorded 19 barrel bomb incidents, all in Syria, with an average of 30 civilian casualties per incident. Children made up 19% of the civilian deaths from barrel bombs, which have been described by William Hague as “brutal and indiscriminate.” The worst attack in 2013 happened on 15 December, when more than 125 people were killed in attacks on more than ten different neighbourhoods of Aleppo.

100 years ago today, a new era of warfare began. Since then aerial bombardment has caused death, injury, the destruction of property and infrastructure, terrifying civilian populations who increasingly find themselves in the midst of fighting which was previously confined to the front lines. The anniversary of the first Zeppelin bombing should be used as an opportunity to recognise the harm which continues to be caused by aerial bombardment, especially using bombs which are unguided and entirely indiscriminate. Too often civilians are the casualties of these attacks, particularly where the bombs fall on populated areas.

AOAV has analysed the development of aerial bombardment since WWI in greater detail, considering ten incidents chosen due to their impact on the development of this method of warfare, in “Death from the skies: aerial bombardment since WWI.”