South Yorkshire's Brave Battle against Wartime 'Baby Killers': New Exhibition

From 20 September 2016, a new exhibition at South Yorkshire Aircraft Museum in Doncaster will reveal South Yorkshire’s pivotal role in the First World War battle for the skies, training the world’s first fighter pilots and pioneering cutting-edge technology in a terrifying international Arms Race against enemy ‘Baby Killers’ – the deadly Zeppelin airships.

The exhibition, ‘Riding High: Doncaster Airfields and the Zeppelin Raid on Sheffield’, is a partnership between the South Yorkshire Aircraft Museum and Doncaster 1914-18, a four-year project supported by National Lottery players through the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), commemorating the Centenary of the First World War.  It traces the near-forgotten 100 year-old origins of modern air-warfare in the area, through personal letters and photographs, original remnants from serving aircraft – some lovingly recycled into souvenirs by their owners, and scale models.

“At the outbreak of the First World War, aviation was in its infancy, having only been developed over the previous decade,” says Jude Holland, Doncaster 1914-18 Project Manager.  “In the run-up to the war, aeroplanes were a novelty – little more than pleasure-craft - and people would never have dreamed of flying to war.  Zeppelins changed that: they were a horrifying innovation that sent a shockwave of fear across Britain, and were dubbed ‘Baby Killers’.  For the first time, the skies became a battleground and the Frontline could become your backyard, as Sheffield discovered first-hand on 25 September 1916 during a midnight raid that killed 28 local people.   Aeroplanes were also transformed into weapons of war, and the country was catapulted into a deadly battle for the skies, with South Yorkshire right at the heart of it all.”

South Yorkshire was perfectly placed to make an impact: local businessmen had already spotted the potential to make money from new aviation technology, launching Britain’s first-ever airshow in 1909 at Doncaster Racecourse, and attracting the best pilots, from Europe.  Some of these – like Harold Blackburn of Doncaster – would later become Britain’s first wartime pilots.  Sheffield was also one of the UK’s most important industrial cities, its huge steel factories crucial to Britain’s manufacture of heavy artillery, shells, armour plate, and later, revolutionary tanks.

Not surprisingly, the area soon became a regional hub in the battle for the skies, training hundreds of pilots, assembling and repairing aircraft, and acting as a local base for the newly-formed Royal Flying Corps (RFC, later to become the Royal Air Force).  As a result, South Yorkshire experienced the astonishing growth of aviation, gaining five new airfields and a specialist factory during the First World War.  Local businesses – like Peglers of Doncaster – also adapted to work with aircraft, many employing large numbers of women for the first time.  In 1914, the RFC had 63 aircraft and 900 men; in 1918, this had rocketed to 22,000 aircraft, with over 122,000 men and women serving worldwide.

Unfortunately, the need was especially high because of the heavy casualties and loss of life, as South Yorkshire Aircraft museum volunteer, Ian Kingsnorth – who has spent hundreds of hours researching and curating the exhibition, alongside fellow volunteers Mike Jackson and Bill Fern - explains: “Over 8000 air-related casualties are recorded between 1916 and 1918, so training grounds, like Doncaster, had to produce thousands of pilots during the course of the war.  People were also working with near-experimental technology – it was hazardous and unstable.  What really strikes you time and again is the enormous bravery of these local people, who knew the risk to their lives, but still carried on fighting.  It’s so easy to get lost in the broad sweep of history, and forget about the real people involved – people like you and me.  As you start to uncover these local stories, it brings it all so much closer to home.”

The volunteers have been especially touched by the story, rediscovered during the project, of Hugh Carson from Balby in Doncaster, who enlisted in the RFC in 1916.  Hugh’s family were kind enough to loan original objects to the exhibition, including letters to his wife and daughter which expose the personal toil war took on the area’s flying pioneers, and a notebook with intricate sketches of planes, revealing not only his technical skill, but the heavy demands of keeping a flight of up to six bombers ready to fight on the Western Front every day.

Alan Beattie, Chairman of South Yorkshire Aircraft Museum adds: “This exhibition is a tribute to the courageous men and women of South Yorkshire who made sure that Britain won the battle for the skies during the First World War.  Riding High shows how the legacy of local heroes - like ‘Ace’ Lesley Peach Aizlewood, a Rotherham lad and Sheffield University student who won the Military Cross – is still shaping our lives today.  South Yorkshire’s people made a tremendous contribution to the war, and it’s wonderful to be uncovering their stories at last, and making sure their memories aren’t lost forever.”

‘Riding High: Doncaster Airfields and the Zeppelin Raid on Sheffield’ opens on 20 September 2016. On Wednesday 26 October, families can also enjoy the ‘Great War on Tour’ at South Yorkshire Aircraft Museum, with hands-on activities for children aged 3 – 13, inspired by ‘Riding High’.  South Yorkshire Aircraft Museum is located at Dakota Way, Doncaster, DN4 7NW (for SAT-NAV).  For opening times and admission prices, visit For full details about the exhibition or events, or to find out more about getting involved in Doncaster 1914-18, visit


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Notes to editors:

Generously supported with a grant of more than £900,000 by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) during the four-year project, Doncaster 1914-18 will feature an ever-changing programme of events and exhibitions, with future years uncovering the diverse experiences of Doncaster people on the Home Front, including women’s experiences of war, Doncaster’s role in the Battle of the Somme, Doncaster’s Royal Flying Corps and Airfield, the role of the local countryside and country houses, and Armistice.

About the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF)

Thanks to National Lottery players, we invest money to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about - from the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks and buildings we love, from precious memories and collections to rare wildlife. @heritagelottery @HLFYandH

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About Us

Doncaster 1914–18 encourages the people of Doncaster to uncover and share their own First World War stories. A series of events, exhibitions and a new website will explore the role of the borough, its people and the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in the conflict. Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.