Defeating the Zeppelins
For almost two years during the First World War, German airships roamed over the British countryside, bombing towns and villages without fear of a significant response from the aircraft assigned to defend the country. But all that changed in the late summer of 1916 when a new weapon was introduced, one that spelt the end of the Zeppelin menace.
The original talk on which this recording is based was given at The National Archives on 22 September 2016, on the eve of the centenary of the destruction of Zeppelin L 32 and the capture of L 33.
Ian Castle is the author of two books and a website detailing Germany’s air campaign against Britain during the First World War (www.IanCastleZeppelin.co.uk).
Defeating the Zeppelins
Presented by Ian Castle
In August 1914, as storm clouds gathered over Europe, Britain steeled itself for aerial attack by Germany’s much-vaunted fleet of rigid airships – Zeppelins.
Zeppelin airships were the largest aircraft ever to fly. The first Zeppelins to attack Britain measured about 520 feet in length, but by the end of the war the latest type extended to 685 feet. As a useful comparison, the Zeppelin-shaped Gherkin in the City of London, is actually 94 feet shorter than this later type! Although size increased, the basic construction remained the same. An extremely strong but lightweight frame of duralumin – an aluminium alloy – gave the airship its overall shape. The inflammable hydrogen gas that gave it lift was contained in up to 19 gas bags hung inside. A cloth outer cover, known as the envelope, encased the whole structure and below it hung compartments known as gondolas, which housed the crew, controls and engines.
It is important to note, however, that there was also a rival firm to Zeppelin – Schütte-Lanz. The main difference between the two being that while Zeppelin airships had a framework of metal, those of Schütte-Lanz were built of plywood. But to those in Britain during the war, all German airships, whether they served the army or the navy, were simply called Zeppelins. As Hoover is to vacuum cleaners, so Zeppelin is to airships.
The first Zeppelin raid on Britain struck East Anglia on the night of 19 January 1915. By the later standards of WW2 it was not a devastating attack, with four killed and 16 injured, but to the populations of Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn it proved a shocking experience. And for Britain, when that first bomb detonated, it opened up a new theatre of war: the Home Front.
But now the Zeppelins had arrived, surely it must be easy to seek and destroy so vast a target. In practice, however, it proved extremely difficult. Zeppelins only attacked at night, so defence pilots were flying blind unless a searchlight could lock onto the target. And even when found, the weapons available were generally ineffective. Early incendiary bullets had failed to achieve the required results, as such, throughout 1915 and into the first half of 1916, the recommended method of attack remained the same – get above the Zeppelin and drop explosive devices on it. But there was a big flaw in this method – a Zeppelin could easily outclimb the aircraft forming the Home Defence squadrons.
After that first raid on East Anglia it would be another three months before Zeppelins returned, with attacks on the North East, followed by raids on provincial towns and villages in the south and east. Then, on the last day of May in 1915, the first Zeppelin struck London. The war was then ten months old and the aerial threat to the capital had so far failed to materialise. London was therefore taken completely by surprise when German Army Zeppelin LZ.38 appeared at about 11pm on 31 May over the streets of Stoke Newington. From there it followed a great hooked course over Hoxton, Dalston, Shoreditch, Whitechapel, Stepney and then out to Leytonstone, dropping over 100 bombs, the majority of them incendiaries. That first air raid on London claimed the lives of 7 civilians, including four children, and injured another 35 people.
Although many in London expected this raid to be the start of a concentrated period of attacks on the capital, in fact the skies over the city remained free of the menacing presence of the Zeppelins for another 11 weeks.
Then, on 17 August 1915, a single Navy Zeppelin, L.10 reached London and bombed, according to her commander, along the north bank of the Thames between Blackfriars and Tower Bridge. But in reality he had mistaken the great line of reservoirs along the Lea Valley for the Thames – his bombs actually fell between Walthamstow and Wanstead Flats. But they still killed 10 and injured another 48 civilians.
Three weeks later, on the night of 7/8 September, army airships returned to the capital. The first bombs dropped on the Isle of Dogs as a Zeppelin and a wooden-framed Schutte-Lanz made their way across south-east London, leaving 18 dead in their wake and 28 people bearing horrific injuries.
The next night attention switched back to the Navy Zeppelins, when Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Mathy flew L.13 across central London from Bloomsbury to Liverpool Street Station. It proved to be the most destructive raid of the war with material damage estimated at the time at £530,000.
Although anti-aircraft guns had opened fire on L.13 they failed to inflict any damage. In total 22 Londoners were killed that night and 87 injured. And in view of the limited response from London’s defences, the following day one newspaper dubbed the night, ‘Murder by Zeppelin’. Questions were asked in Parliament and ordinary Londoners shared a universal anger, anger that Germany could indiscriminately target women and children in this way.
As this anger and frustration grew with each incursion over the city, and the clamour in the Press increased, steps were taken to improve London’s defences and a new man, Admiral Sir Percy Scott, was appointed to take command of London’s guns.
Sir Percy Scott was a hero of the Boer War, and one whose improvisational skills with artillery were well-known. He quickly made a difference. One of the first things he did – slashing his way through all the red-tape – was to collect a 75mm mobile anti-aircraft gun from the French army in Paris. We had nothing as effective – but he had it standing on Horse Guards Parade before the office responsible had even got around to completing the paperwork to request it!
A month later, on the night of 13 October 1915, the next raid on London took place. Zeppelin L.15 began dropping bombs as it passed over Charing Cross Station at 9.35pm. At that moment an army officer was in a taxi driving along the Strand. Suddenly the taxi screeched to a halt, the terrified driver leapt out and ran off to seek shelter. The officer stared skywards at the extraordinary sight above him:
“Right overhead was an enormous Zeppelin. It was lighted up by searchlights and cruised along slowly and majestically, a marvellous sight. I stood gaping in the middle of the Strand, too fascinated to move. Then there was a terrific explosion, followed by another and another.“
Those first bombs landed in the theatre district of Covent Garden. One, which fell in the road at the corner of Wellington and Exeter Streets by the Lyceum, killed 17 and injured another 21.
A fruit seller, working nearby, described the effect of that bomb:
“A stout, elderly lady came up for some apples, and I was just about to put them into a bag when it seemed to me that the sky opened and a ball of fire came down. I didn’t hear a sound: I was stunned. The woman I was serving, she was killed instantly… and the girl that was standing helping me, well, she was blown to pieces. I got off with shrapnel wounds in me head and me legs.”
Zeppelin L.15 continued on towards the heart of the city, dropping bombs over Aldwych, Lincoln’s Inn and Farringdon as she passed.
At the same time Percy Scott’s new French 75mm anti-aircraft gun was speeding on a hair-raising journey along Oxford Street and Holborn – smashing through road works and traumatising pedestrians – before taking up a position at the Honourable Artillery Company grounds at Moorgate from where it gave L.15 a fright. To those on board the Zeppelin it was clear this was something new and more threatening; it was enough to persuade the crew to hurriedly drop their last bombs and disappear into the night sky.
But although there had been an improved showing from the guns, the six aircraft from London’s defences that took off that night struggled to achieve anything due to a thick ground mist outside the capital, and mechanical failure – it was the same old story.
That raid in October 1915 proved to be the last of the year, and can be considered the high-water mark for Germany in the Zeppelin war, for the days of airship raids on London were numbered.
More aircraft for London’s defence were appearing, but they still lacked effective weaponry with which to destroy enemy airships. Although the BE2c now carried a Lewis machine-gun, their standard .303 lead ammunition was ineffective against Zeppelins. These bullets could puncture individual gas cells – of which there were many – but with only a limited effect on performance. The recommended method of destruction remained the same; igniting the highly inflammable hydrogen by dropping bombs on the airship from above.
To this end, in addition to the Lewis gun, aircraft carried a handful of bombs and Ranken darts – these were a 1lb, explosive-packed pointed tube, designed to catch onto the airship’s outer covering and explode. There was also the fearsomely-named Fiery Grapnel, an explosive charge attached to a large grappling hook lowered by cable from an aircraft with which to ‘fish’ for Zeppelins! Pilots, unsurprisingly, had little faith in this oddity. However, the problem inherent in all these devices was that the aircraft needed to be above the target, but Zeppelins could easily outclimb the available aircraft.
However, the situation was about to change. The introduction, in April 1916, of a new explosive .303 bullet – the Pomeroy – and a bullet with both explosive and incendiary attributes – the Brock – as well as the Buckingham incendiary bullet, all for use in the Lewis gun, proved a critical advance. Although an airship contained up to 2 million cubic feet of inflammable hydrogen, it only became flammable when mixed with oxygen. Although none of the bullets on their own appeared completely effective, when fired in combination they showed great promise. The theory being that the explosive bullet would blow a hole in the gas bag, letting the hydrogen escape to mix with oxygen, and the following incendiary bullet would then ignite the now volatile gas. In July 1916, following encouraging trials with the new ammunition, Royal Flying Corps pilots abandoned their bombs.
During this period of consolidation there had fortunately been a lull in attacks on the capital, the raid on the night of 24/25 August 1916, being the first to reach London for ten months. Perhaps because of this lull, the British response was not convincing. One Zeppelin, L.31 – the first of the latest R-Class type to attack London – reached the capital largely unopposed, dropped its bombs in South East London, where they killed nine civilians, injured another 40 and caused £130,000 worth of damage. This new type of airship, a massive 650 feet long, and operating comfortably at a height of 13,000 feet, but capable of flying much higher, were dubbed ‘the Super Zeppelins’ by the British.
But, as August passed into September, London now had an in-depth defence system. Pilots with valuable night-flying experience stood by, and an integrated anti-aircraft gun and searchlight system waited to disrupt the hostile airships as they prepared to attack. And, unknown to the Germans, a new weapon – explosive and incendiary bullets – waited to be tested in anger. That test was not long in coming.
On the 2 September 1916, the German navy and army launched the largest raid of the war, its target London. This force comprised 16 airships – four Army airships and twelve from the Navy – including two of the new ‘Super Zeppelins’. With the success of L.31 over London nine days earlier, confidence amongst the airship commanders was high and they anticipated striking a heavy blow against London’s morale.
Amongst the great aerial armada flew SL.11, the latest Schütte-Lanz airship, only commissioned into army service the previous month. Her captain, Wilhelm Schramm, and his 15-man crew left their base near Cologne, intent on bringing fire and destruction to London.
But in spite of a fair weather report, the reality at high altitude was very different. Here the Naval airships encountered heavy rain and ice and were battered by adverse winds, destroying any chance of a concerted attack on London. As the naval airship captains continued their missions, displaying varying levels of determination, the army airships made their appearance. One developed mechanical problems and turned back over the North Sea, but the other three pressed on for London.
The first of these was Wilhelm Schramm’s SL.11. He passed over Foulness at about 10.40pm. From there Schramm steered across Essex and into Hertfordshire, sweeping around London to approach the capital from the North West. This route took him beyond the patrol area of No.39 (Home Defence) Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps, which guarded the north-eastern approaches to the city.
Twenty-five minutes later a second army airship appeared over the Essex coast, but she only flew inland for about 35 miles, dropped her bombs on the Essex/Suffolk border and then turned for home.
No.39 Squadron occupied three airfields, with two pilots at each standing by for night flying duties. ‘A’ Flight, occupied North Weald. About twelve miles to the south, ‘B’ Flight operated out of Suttons Farm, Hornchurch, while the third airfield, Hainault Farm, home to ‘C’ Flight, lay a little to the west of the other two.
The general anti-Zeppelin strategy at the time required one pilot from each airfield to patrol a specific line for about two and a half hours, searching for enemy airships. About two hours into these patrols, the second aircraft at each airfield would take off to relieve the first. The BE2c took about 50 minutes to climb to 10,000 feet, so by the time the first plane had landed, the second should have reached operational height, ensuring continual air cover.
Advised of an imminent raid, No. 39 Squadron received orders to patrol at around 11pm. Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson of ‘B’ Flight took off in his BE2c from Suttons Farm, to patrol the line towards Joyce Green, an airfield on the south bank of the Thames near Dartford. Within five minutes both Lieutenant Clifford Ross, of ‘A’ Flight and Alfred Brandon of ‘C’ Flight, were also in the air. Ross patrolled from North Weald to Hainault Farm, while Brandon covered a line from Hainault Farm to Suttons Farm.
As the three pilots commenced climbing to 10,000 feet in wide, spiralling circles over their home airfields, the third German army airship, LZ.98, appeared over the English Channel at about midnight. Flying inland over New Romney she steered a course across Kent towards the capital.
Lieutenants Ross and Brandon, peering from their cockpits into the blackness of the night, saw no sign of enemy activity during their patrols and returned to their airfields. Expecting the return of Robinson at any time, the three pilots taking the second patrols were dispersed differently; two were directed to patrol south of the Thames, leaving just one pilot north of the River. Fortunately, for the now undermanned defence line north of the Thames, 21-year-old Lieutenant Robinson, was still airborne.
William Leefe Robinson was born in July 1895, in southern India where his father owned a successful coffee plantation. He completed his education in England in 1909 and, at the outbreak of war, gained entry to Sandhurst, earning a commission, in December 1914, in the Fifth Militia Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment. His subsequent posting, however, to Cornwall and a seemingly endless round of guard duty, trench digging and training recruits, did not satisfy his desire to ‘do his bit’.
He applied for a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps and was accepted as an Observer in March 1915, but two months later he returned to England to recuperate from a shrapnel wound in his right arm. While there he determined to qualify as a pilot. William Leefe Robinson earned his ‘wings’ in September 1915 and, after completing his training, was posted to No. 39 (Home Defence) Squadron in Essex.
Having taken off from Suttons Farm shortly after 11pm, he climbed to 10,000 feet and commenced his patrol southwards towards Joyce Green, on what started as a beautifully clear night. Even so, he had seen no sign of enemy activity as he approached the end of his allotted patrol time. But then, at 1.10am, after two hours in the air and having coaxed his plane up to 12,900 feet, he noticed two searchlight beams fixed on a Zeppelin away to the south east of Woolwich. However, as he turned in pursuit, cloud cover was building up and the searchlights were finding it difficult to hold their beams on the raider.
This distant raider was LZ.98, the army Zeppelin commanded by Oberleutant Ernst Lehmann, that had arrived over the coast at New Romney just over an hour earlier. Anti-aircraft guns forced LZ.98 to turn back eastwards, dropping a number of bombs as she approached Gravesend at about 1.15am. For the next ten minutes, Robinson’s aircraft only gained slowly on LZ.98. He could have closed the distance more rapidly by diving, but preferred to maintain his 800 feet height advantage until ready to make his attack. However, Lehmann cleverly steered LZ.98 into a cloudbank, disappearing from the probing searchlights and becoming lost to the pursuing airman.
Robinson searched for his elusive quarry for another 15 minutes but finally he finally abandoned the hunt and turned for home. Ten minutes later though he observed a red glow over North London; fires were burning. Ignoring the fact he was already overdue back at Suttons farm, Robinson flew on to investigate.
Having swung around London, Wilhelm Schramm and SL.11 passed south of St. Albans and, when over London Colney at 1.20am, began dropping bombs between there and South Mimms. About 20 minutes later bombs fell near Enfield, followed by others at Southgate; these creating the fires that Robinson now homed in on.
From Southgate, after a westward detour, Schramm gradually closed in on central London. But over Hornsey, just before 2 am, the searchlights positioned in Finsbury Park and Victoria Park, pierced the night sky and caught SL.11 in their beams. Now, brilliantly illuminated, the airship shied away to the east, but almost immediately came under heavy fire from the anti-aircraft gun deployed in Finsbury Park. Schramm swung the airship to the north-east, heading over Tottenham as the guns at Victoria Park, at West Ham, Beckton and Wanstead joined the attack; more searchlights locked onto the target too. The central London guns opened fire now, from King’s Cross, Paddington, Green Park, and Tower Bridge, adding to the crescendo of noise thundering across the city.
Awoken by this storm of fire, London was wide-awake. Watching breathlessly, tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands stood in their doorways and gardens, peering up into the night sky to watch the unfolding drama as SL.11 desperately attempted to escape the beams of light that seemed to trap her like a fly caught in a spider’s web. Previous Zeppelins over London had been viewed with apprehension; these vast airships, shining silver in the searchlights, with their droning throbbing engines, and threatening the city with a brooding menace, had always appeared to be beyond reach and impervious to attack. But this time it was different. Never before had such a volume of fire filled the London sky.
If SL.11 disappeared briefly behind a cloud, then the on-looking crowds cheered enthusiastically when the lights caught her again. Now over Wood Green, Schramm steered a course to the north-east and, taking advantage of a bank of clouds or heavy fog, which swirled around north London that night, was lost again to the searchlights and thundering anti-aircraft guns.
Perhaps feeling he had escaped the worst, Schramm began dropping bombs again over Edmonton, but his respite was brief, for a searchlight piercing the night sky from Chingford quickly pinpointed him again. Twisting to the north, and now at about 11,000 feet, he released more bombs at about 2.15am over Ponders End and Enfield Highway. Now, three more sweeping searchlights caught the airship and the anti-aircraft guns positioned near Waltham Abbey opened up.
Ten minutes earlier, Lt. Robinson had caught his first sight of SL.11 in the searchlights. With his experience over Gravesend fresh in his mind, he decided to abandon his height advantage, put his nose down and gain on the airship as quickly as possible. As he sped towards the fugitive, he could see the bursting anti-aircraft shells, but noted they were falling short.
Schramm dumped a great quantity of water-ballast in a desperate attempt to gain height and escape the net of searchlights. He also dropped his remaining bombs to lighten the craft, while those watchers with the keenest eyes caught glimpses of an aircraft flitting, like a moth, through the searchlight beams.
Although dwarfed by the massive airship, Robinson headed directly towards it and, from a position 800 feet below, flew along the underside from bow to stern, emptying a drum of ammunition into her, a cocktail of mixed explosive rounds and tracers.
Much to his dismay, they had no effect. And now, alerted to his presence, the six machine guns on SL.11 opened up in response, seen from below as ‘flickering red stabs of light’ in the dark. Undaunted, Robinson turned to make a second approach, this time spraying another drum of mixed ammunition all along one side of the airship, but again, frustratingly, without result.
Meanwhile the Temple House anti-aircraft gun, near Waltham Abbey, continued firing at SL.11. There is evidence to suggest that a shell from this gun did damage one of her engines, but, officially, this was never recognised. Robinson, of course, was unaware of this as he turned for a third attack, noting as he did so, that the searchlights had lost their target and the anti-aircraft fire had now ceased.
SL.11 had risen to 12,000 feet as Robinson closed up behind her, and from a position about 500 feet below, he emptied a third drum, this time concentrating his fire on just one spot. As he finished firing, he noticed a dull red glow, then, seconds later, the whole rear of SL.11 burst into flames. For a brief moment, the intense flare of light illuminated other raiding airships over neighbouring counties. Their commanders saw the blaze, they understood its meaning and they turned for home. One observer wrote, ‘I shall never forget the sight of the blazing airship as it fell… the scene was terrifying in its grandeur.
A newspaper reporter watching the action in the sky described the scene that followed Robinson’s attack:
“…the blazing airship swung round for an instant, broadside on, as though unmanageable; then the burning end dipped, the flames ran up the whole structure as her petrol tanks one after another caught fire. In another second or two the Zeppelin, now perpendicular, was falling headlong to earth from a height not much short of a couple of miles, a mass of roaring flame. So tremendous was the blaze and so intense the light that she seemed to be an immense incandescent mantle at white heat and enveloped in flame, falling, falling, and illuminating the country for miles around…With ever-increasing momentum she sped down, until at last she struck the earth with a crash that could be heard for miles. A dull red glow brightened the heavens for a few seconds, and a distant mass of still burning wreckage was all that was left.”
Hauptmann Wilhelm Schramm and all his crew perished in the flames.
The final moments of SL.11 – now a flaring, roaring inferno – illuminated the countryside up to thirty miles away. Those watching had observed the final action in silence, but as the flames engulfed the stricken airship, the mood changed.
A Special Constable, viewing the destruction of SL.11 from some ten miles away, recalled the reaction of those around him:
“This harrowing spectacle was rendered still more terrible by the extraordinary cheers following prolonged tension that greeted the destruction of the great Baby-killer. Defiant, hard, merciless cheers they were, and wherever the cheers rose there was the same inexorable note in them.”
People began to dance in the streets in celebration, and to this triumphant tumult was added the sound of bells, hooters and the screech of train whistles… and even bagpipes! At a stroke, Londoners no longer felt defenceless in the face of the Zeppelin menace that had haunted the city for the last fifteen months.
The doomed airship fell to earth at the village of Cuffley, near Potters Bar, in Hertfordshire.
When the elated Lt. Robinson finally arrived back at Suttons Farm, he had been in the air for three hours and thirty-seven minutes and his petrol tank was almost dry. He also discovered that the intense heat of the burning airship had scorched his jacket, and in his excitement he had managed to shoot away part of the centre section of the upper wing and the rear main spar of his own aircraft. He was fortunate to arrive back in one piece.
With the arrival of daylight, an extraordinary exodus began from London and the surrounding districts. Tens of thousands of curious sightseers headed for Cuffley that morning, by train, motorcar, cart, bicycle and on foot, to see the wreckage for themselves – and to hunt for souvenirs. The Press dubbed it ‘Zepp Sunday’, while The Times referred to the whole episode as ‘the greatest free show London has ever enjoyed.’
In a year that so far had brought nothing but bad news from the war, including the seemingly endless casualty lists from the Battle of the Somme, here, at last, was something positive to report. The newspapers filled their columns with stories of the destruction of SL.11 – the first airship shot down over mainland Britain – and elevated Lt. Robinson to celebrity status. The government was not slow to react either; just five days later, he received the Victoria Cross from the King at Windsor Castle. The souvenir industry was quick to cash in too; producing numerous lurid postcards of Robinson’s deed, while the Red Cross sold off much of the wire salvaged from the wreck as souvenirs to raise funds.
And from the moment William Leefe Robinson’s bullets set SL.11 on fire in the early hours of Sunday 3 September 1916, the air war over Britain changed dramatically.
The German army had never fully embraced the use of their airships in an overseas strategic bombing role and, following the loss of SL.11, they turned away from it entirely. The army looked instead to aircraft to take the war to London and in the summer of 1917 unleashed the Gotha bomber on the city in broad daylight. But that is another story.
The navy, however, remained convinced that airships could effectively take the war to Britain and persevered, sending a 12 Zeppelin raid against London and the Midlands on the night of 23/24 September, three weeks after the destruction of SL.11, and exactly 100 years ago tomorrow! The outcome was even more spectacular.
Kapitänleutnant Alois Böcker, commanding the latest Zeppelin, L.33, on her first raid, came inland over Foulness at 10.40pm and steered a course towards London. As he approached the capital, he passed between the guns at Beckton and North Woolwich, making for the close-packed and unsuspecting streets of East London. He began dropping his bombs at ten minutes past midnight.
Böcker’s bombs had already killed six occupants of a house in Bromley-by-Bow when L.33 suddenly shuddered. As the first bombs fell, the guns at Victoria Park, at Beckton and Wanstead had opened up on her. The volume and accuracy of their fire shook the Zeppelin, even though it was flying near to 13,000ft. A shell exploded near her, destroying one of the gas bags and damaging part of the framework, while splinters slashed through at least four other gas bags.
Böcker released water ballast in an attempt to gain height and turned away from London, dropping bombs as he went. These caused serious damage to a Baptist chapel and a great number of houses in Botolph Road, while a direct hit on the Black Swan public house in Bow Road claimed four lives. Böcker steered away over the industrial buildings of Stratford Marsh – now the site of the Olympic Park – where his final bombs caused severe damage to a match factory and the depot of an oil company.
The wounded Zeppelin was now heading in the direction of Chelmsford, and in spite of the frantic efforts of the crew to repair the damage, L.33 began to lose height.
Having been in the air for almost an hour, 2nd-Lt Alfred de Bathe Brandon of No.39 Home Defence Squadron had spotted L.33 from some distance away as she bombed East London. But as he closed with the target, his automatic petrol pump failed, requiring him to manually pump fuel while loading a drum of ammunition onto his Lewis gun and controlling the aircraft all at the same time.
Then, as he raised the gun to open fire, it jerked out of its mounting and fell, coming to rest across the cockpit. By the time he fitted it back into position, while still pumping fuel, he realised he had flown under and past the Zeppelin. He turned to attack, but, approaching from the bow this time, the two aircraft closed so quickly that Brandon was unable to take aim before the target flashed past. Undeterred, he turned again and approached from the rear port side, firing a whole drum of mixed ammunition. Frustratingly, the bullets appeared to have no effect. Loading another drum, he attacked again, but this time his gun jammed and he lost L.33 in the clouds.
On board L.33, Kapitänleutnant Alois Böcker ordered the crew to jettison any removable objects, including guns and ammunition, to lighten her in an effort to keep her aloft, but this did not arrest the descent. He had hoped to limp back to Germany but at 1.15am, L.33 struck the ground in a field close to the village of Little Wigborough in Essex.
What happened next bears more than a passing resemblance to the classic episode of the TV series Dad’s Army when Captain Mainwaring’s platoon are left to guard a captured U-boat crew!
L.33 hit the ground hard but remained intact. Determined to prevent his ship falling into British hands, Böcker first tried to warn the inhabitants of a pair of farm cottages only 25 yards away, to take cover – but unsurprisingly they did not answer the repeated hammerings on their door by what appeared to be the vanguard of a German invasion! Böcker then fired a signal flare into some leaking petrol. A small explosion occurred which burnt off the remaining hydrogen and the outer covering, but failed to destroy the looming metal skeleton of L.33. Having done all he could, Böcker called his men together, and marched them off down the adjacent lane.
Meanwhile, the glow from the burning Zeppelin had attracted the attention of Special Constable Edgar Nicholas. Nicholas cycled towards the flames to investigate, then, as he turned a corner, he saw a body of 21 uniformed men marching towards him. A little bemused, he dismounted, approached Böcker, and asked him if he had seen a crashed Zeppelin! In response, Böcker asked Nicholas, in English, how far it was to Colchester! Somewhat surprised by the request, he told him it was about 6 miles, for which Böcker thanked him – but in his report Nicholas added, “I at once recognised a foreign accent”. Böcker and his men then set off again, so Nicholas tucked in at the rear of the column, striking up a conversation with a rather chatty airman who handed over pieces of his equipment as souvenirs.
Nicholas asked him if the Zeppelin had been hit by gunfire, to which the German replied, in broken English, “Zeppelin explode, we crew prisoners of war”. The German then asked Nicholas if he thought the war was nearly over. Nicholas, with his stiff upper lip firmly in place, offered the now clichéd reply, “Well it’s over for you anyway.” Then, as the column approached the next village, Nicholas found another Special and a police sergeant who was on holiday in the area. The three of them decided to lead their charges to the village Post Office at Peldon where they found the local constable, PC Charles Smith.
Smith, who had also seen the flames, had been trying to phone headquarters for orders when the strange assembly arrived outside the Post Office. Smith arrested Böcker and his men but was somewhat surprised when Böcker demanded to make a telephone call! However, the request was refused and Smith then politely asked Böcker if he and his men would march with
Böcker agreed and the column of 21 German airmen marched off again, escorted by PC Smith and seven ‘Specials’. Eventually met on the road by a military detachment, the prisoners were taken to the village of West Mersea where, in the absence of anywhere else, they were placed in the parish hall. But the arrival of the hated Hun in their midst was not well-received by the gathering local residents.
However, the vicar defused the situation by raising the Union Flag outside the Hall and conducting the villagers in a rousing chorus of the National Anthem as the Germans filed in. Once inside the vicar then did the only thing that an English vicar could do at a time like that – he made them all a nice cup of tea. Later the crew were transferred to Colchester and after two weeks interrogation they were interned for the duration of the war. Meanwhile the intact framework of L.33 revealed many valuable secrets of modern Zeppelin design.
But that was not the end of the action that night.
Another of the Zeppelins intending to strike against London, L.32 commanded by Werner Peterson, had come inland over Kent and eventually reached the Thames to the east of Purfleet at about 1am. But once across the river a searchlight found her and anti-aircraft guns opened a heavy fire. All this activity attracted the attention of three pilots of No. 39 Squadron whose patrol area L.32 had entered. Brandon, who was still in the air after his earlier encounter with L.33, and Second-Lieutenant J. MacKay turned towards the illuminated airship, but as they were closing on the raider it exploded in a roaring inferno. They had been beaten to it by Second-Lieutenant Frederick Sowrey.
Sowrey pounced upon L.32. He opened fire with his Lewis gun. A whole drum of mixed bullets sprayed along the underside of the vast airship with no effect. As he turned to reposition himself for a second attack, the machine guns on L.32 spat out their bullets in response. Undeterred, Sowrey slid back into a position beneath her and fired off a second drum of ammunition, traversing the belly of the craft, but again his bullets failed to set her alight. One witness reported that, “It looked as if the Zepp was being hosed with a stream of fire.” Then Sowrey fired a third drum.
This time he concentrated his fire in one area and flames took hold inside. Those flames swiftly spread throughout the airship, bursting through the outer envelope in several places. L.32 sagged in the middle, forming a V-shape, before plummeting to earth in an incandescent mass. Another eyewitness described the demise of L.32 as it fell:
“Those few moments afforded a wonderful spectacle. Flames were bursting out from the sides and behind, and, as the gasbag continued to fall, there trailed away long tongues of flame, which became more and more fantastic as the falling monster gained impetus.”
The burning wreckage finally crashed to earth in a field just south of Billericay in Essex. Like the Cuffley wreck three weeks earlier, thousands made a pilgrimage to see it. The bodies of the crew were collected together in a nearby barn – many horribly burnt. Oberleutnant Peterson, however, had jumped to his death.
Then the following week, on 1 October, the most experienced Zeppelin commander of all, Heinrich Mathy, flying L.31, suffered the same fate, shot down over Potters Bar by 2nd Lieutenant Wulstan Tempest. And before November was out, two more Zeppelins came down in flames off the coast of Britain. All victims to the new bullets.
In 1916 Zeppelins raided Britain on 22 occasions, the following year this dropped to just six. One of these raids, on 16 June 1917, with London as its target, ended in tragedy for Zeppelin L48 when she was shot down at Theberton in Suffolk.
The last Zeppelin to bomb London did so on the night of 19 October 1917 and this, almost by accident. L.45, part of an eleven airship raid on northern England was blown off course by fierce winds and found itself driven rapidly across London at high altitude. Her commander dropped a number of bombs as they careered along. One of these, landing at Piccadilly Circus, killed 7 and injured 18 and others claimed lives in Camberwell and Hither Green.
However, the weather that hindered the raid proved disastrous for four of the raiders, including L.45, all lost as they were blown back across France and Germany at the mercy of the fierce and powerful winds.
In 1918, the last year of the war, only three Zeppelin raids bombed Britain, but none of these challenged London’s defences. The threat to London, however, had not diminished, for from May 1917 onwards Germany launched a new terror into the skies as the deadly long-range Gotha and Giant bomber aircraft brought a new rain of death and destruction to the streets of the capital.
While the German air campaign of WW1 bears no comparison to the devastation wrought by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War, to the population of the city, to whom the terrors of aerial bombing were an unimagined horror in 1915, it was a truly shocking and terrifying experience.
In London, Zeppelin bombs killed 181 people and injured another 504. Across the rest of the country there were another 1,200 casualties. Yet the bombing failed to deliver the devastating blow to British morale that Germany anticipated. Great fires did not sweep across the City, mass panic did not break out, the population did not demand peace at any price.
Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the driving force behind the development of the rigid airship, died in March 1917, having witnessed the tide turn against his great leviathan’s of the air. For two years these airships had maintained a dominance of the sky over Britain, but with the advent of explosive and incendiary bullets, the crews of these great ‘gaseous monsters’ – as Winston Churchill once dubbed them – lived their lives knowing that a terrible death was only ever moments away.
The crews of all these airships – like the pilots of the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps, who took to the skies over London to oppose them – were pioneers all, pioneers in this new age of aerial warfare – and they played a part in shaping the rules of how future wars would be fought. But, when you prepare for bed tomorrow night, let your mind take you back exactly 100 years, to that night in September 1916 – and remember. For on that night Germany brought the war to the British people once more. On that night the war ended for 40 civilians, one RFC pilot and 22 German airship men. The face of war was changing – aerial warfare and the opening of the Home Front, both virtually unheard of before the summer of 1914, were here to stay.
© 2016 Ian Castle