Recently my mother, born 1921 in Wigan, met a friend with whom she worked at the ROF Chorley (Euxton) during the Second World War. She had not seen her friend Megan, now aged 91, for around 50 years but they had corresponded by letter and had spoken on the telephone. They had both worked in the wages department at Euxton calculating pay by hand, making up wage packets in cash and distributing them to workers on the ammunition sections.
The reunion brought back memories of a letter sent to mother by Megan, from one of her friends with the name of Carson who had lived in Wigan. Megan originated from Walton-le-Dale and the letter recounted a visit to Friedrichshafen by the Carson’s whilst on a holiday in 1976.
The letter from Mrs Carson relates to an air raid on Wigan by a Zeppelin in 1918. It reads:
‘At about this time our interests had turned to family history research. My husband had been born in Wigan, on 11 April 1918 prior to a Zeppelin raid on the town during the night of 12/13 April when a bomb had fallen on land adjacent to his uncle’s farmhouse… thankfully there were no serious injuries to any members of the family, but others less fortunate, in Wigan were killed.’
The visit to Friedrichshafen by the Carson’s included the Zeppelin Museum where they discovered the following about the raid: ‘Five Zeppelins based at Wittmundhaven were ordered to attack England on 4 April but bad weather forced this raid to be cancelled; then on the night of 12 April with more favourable conditions forecast the raid was given the “go ahead”.
Our particular interest centered on the airship that arrived over Wigan. This we discovered from museum records was the German Airship Number L61 which had been built at Friedrichshafen in Factory Shed 2. In length it measured 644ft 8ins; its diameter was 78ft 5ins, whilst its height was recorded as 91ft 1in. It had been powered by five Maybach engines. On the occasion of this raid it had been under the command of veteran flyer Herbert Ehrlich; it had carried a bomb load of 6,600 pounds, including four bombs of 660 pounds each, over their intended target Sheffield.
Once over the English coast the weather took hold, squally rain, low cloud and later when flying at 20,000ft an east-north-east wind was encountered making it impossible to hold the correct course, and Sheffield, completely blacked out, was missed.
Eventually a well-lit area came into their sights and was assumed to be the correct target, but in fact was Wigan. The town had received no air raid warning and the blast furnaces from the Wigan Coal and Iron Company were throwing up a glow into the night sky. Fifteen bombs were released on the town killing seven people injuring a further twelve and causing damage estimated at over £11,600. The last bomb dropped, the four 660 pounders fell in open fields, damaging cottages and causing further injuries.
Airship L61 made it back to Wittmundhaven and to shed ‘Willie’ in spite of engine trouble and an encounter with Flying Boat Number N4283 crewed by Captains G. E. Livecock and ‘Bob’ Leckie. During hostilities it had been engaged in ‘scouting’. It was finally decommissioned in August 1920. Commander Herbert Ehrlich died in December 1921 without knowing he had missed the most prized target in middle England.’
This Zeppelin raid and others over Lancashire are detailed by Peter J. C. Smith in his book Zeppelins over Lancashire published in 1991. The book confirms the raid and illustrates the route of the raid over Wigan. Smith writes: ‘Continuing northwards, Ehrlich soon spotted a glare from the six blast furnaces of the Wigan Coal and Iron Company (known locally as ‘Top Place’) at Kirkless on the eastern out-skirts of Wigan, where no warning of an impending air raid was given. Ehrlich could perhaps be forgiven for mistakenly entering in his log that he had bombed Sheffield rather than Wigan.’
Smith gives the tally of five dead and nine injured from local information. Was the discrepancy from the German accounts influenced by war time propaganda I wonder?
The reunion of two war-time friends after 50 years has certainly brought to light the bombing of Wigan and other recollections that I did not know about and made me conscious of the changing face of Wigan, of air power and of communications. It makes me realise how important our local industrial heritage and history is and that we should not forget it.
This blog post was written by Dennis Holland, and was originally published in Past Forward – Wigan’s local history magazine.
- Peter J. C. Smith, Zeppelins over Lancashire, 1991
- PC2013.84 – Black and white photograph of Cecil Street after zeppelin raid at 11pm. Wigan Archives & Local Studies.
- PC2013.86 – Black and white photograph of Harper Street, Wigan where Mr and Mrs Tomlinson were killed during zeppelin raid. Wigan Archives & Local Studies.