The Night the Zeppelin fell to Earth – WW1 centenary

On the morning of 24 September 1916, two vast, skeletal wrecks lay sprawled across the Essex countryside – the remains of two of the German naval air service’s newest and most potent weapons. The residents of Little Wigborough and Billericay woke to find the two gargantuan frameworks of zeppelins L33 and L32 broken and defeated in nearby fields. The night before had been one of the most disastrous for the German naval airship fleet, and as the news spread, the night became a turning point in the propaganda war against the ‘Zeppelin Menace’. It’s also a small but important part of my own family history.

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In the First World War, naval aviation was a driving force in the development of strategic aerial bombing. In the British forces, the Royal Navy’s sponsorship of the giant Handley Page bombers sowed the seeds of Bomber Command campaign of WW2 (see review of Bloody Paralyser: The Giant Handley Page Bombers in WW1), but before that, the German Navy was able to send huge, lighter-than-air vessels over Britain to bomb towns and cities. The German army also operated zeppelins, and, surprisingly in view of later arguments about the ‘indivisibility of air power’, both services successfully collaborated on joint bombing raids. However, it was the Navy that really took up and ran with the Zeppelin as an offensive weapon, motived by the airship service’s head, Peter Strasser, who was an evangelical advocate of rigid airship warfare. Later in the war the Army passed its airships to the Navy while it concentrated on fixed-wing bombers. The Navy was probably able to use the craft more efficiently, as they were useful for reconnaissance over the North Sea as well as on offensive missions. (See also Naval Aviation in the Battle of Jutland).

The German Navy’s ability to bomb the British homeland virtually with impunity caused serious worry to the British authorities. Early in the war, a daring raid using seaplanes launched from ships in the North Sea attacked zeppelin sheds at Cuxhaven in an attempt to hamper their operations. (The results were modest, but the raid persuaded the German Navy to base its airships further in the rear in case of repeat raids). Defensive measures such as home defence squadrons of fighting aircraft and anti-aircraft artillery directed by large numbers of searchlights were also implemented. However, zeppelins were not easy to defend against. They could fly higher than most fixed-wing aircraft and could fly safely at night in a way high-performance fighters could not. Moreover, they were relatively immune to machine gun fire as their gas capacity was so huge (the ‘R Class’ contained nearly two million cubic feet of hydrogen) they could shrug off the damage a few drums of Lewis Gun ammunition could cause should an aircraft manage to intercept.

As countermeasures developed, so did the zeppelins. In 1915, the German Navy Ministry commissioned a new generation of airships so big they would not fit in the existing sheds, which had to be enlarged or replaced with bigger structures.

The first of the new, six-engined ‘R Class’ zeppelins was the naval airship L30, launched in May 1916. The giant craft quickly gained the soubriquet of ‘super zeppelin’ from the Allies. The new airship was a success in trials and further vessels in the class followed. L30 and her first sisters L31 and L32 took part in raids in August 1916 and early September along with older designs of zeppelin. During a raid on 2 September, the home defence services claimed their first ‘zeppelin’ – actually a plywood-framed Schütte-Lanz airship, shot down by Captain Leefe-Robinson, who was awarded the VC.

The best time for the zeppelins to attack was the period of the new moon, and the next opportunity for the force to make an attack on Britain was the night of the 23 September. By this time, a further ‘R Class’ zeppelin had arrived – L33.

L33 was commissioned on 2 September at Friedrichshafen under Kapitänleutnant der Reserve Aloys Böcker. Five short flights were made by way of trials, before the brand new airship was deemed ready for combat.

Strasser ordered twelve zeppelins to raid targets in England on 23 September. Böcker steered L33 across the North Sea, making landfall at Foulness before heading for London. At 11pm, the airship neared Brentwood and dropped a stick of bombs, some of which fell on a farm and others on an aerodrome, which had flares lit for night flying. L33 continued towards London, but by this time, the city’s defences were aware of the ship’s presence. In fact, defences were already on alert as the Royal Navy’s decoders in Room 40 had intercepted and read messages that revealed when the raid was to take place.

As L33 passed over Bromley-by-Bow and Stratford over the next 40 minutes, releasing 300kg, 100kg and 50kg high explosive bombs and large numbers of incendiaries, the zeppelin was subjected to heavy and accurate anti-aircraft fire. The bombing did serious damage, hitting a timber yard and an oil depot which began to burn so fiercely that other zeppelins miles away reported seeing them as they conducted their own raids. L33 had still not exhausted its bomb load, and dropped the remaining weapons over Bromley at around 00.40 on the morning of the 24th. Homes were damaged and a pub destroyed. Ten people were killed and more were injured, some of them badly.

But the searchlights had L33 pinned, and the airship was subjected to every gun in range. The shrapnel bursts tearing through the fragile gasbags began to take their toll, and one shell even passed right through the hull. Although it did not explode, the shell caused huge damage to the gasbags and duralumin framework. L33, heading East over Essex, was doomed, but miraculously, the zeppelin was still flying and the hydrogen had not ignited. To seal the airship’s fate, a BE2c flown by 2nd Lt Brandon of 39 (Home Defence) Squadron caught sight of the damaged craft and attacked, firing a drum of incendiary ammunition into the already riddled flanks before losing contact in the darkness. Still, L33 kept flying.

After 01.00, L33’s crew started to throw heavy equipment overboard and, when it was clear that the airship could not escape, began to tear up confidential documents and throw them away. At 01.20, the zeppelin was flying so low that when the tail suddenly dropped, it made contact with the ground. The wind blew the airship along for some distance before it finally came to rest by a farmhouse just outside Little Wigborough, not far from Colchester. The crew set fire to the zeppelin, which, remarkably, had still not burned despite everything thrown at it and even a small explosion in the gondola as it hit the ground. There were no casualties among L33’s personnel, and they all handed themselves over to a local policeman who arrived on the scene soon afterwards.

This is where my family history comes to it. My great-grandfather (on my father’s side) lived in Little Wigborough at the time, and, according to my grandmother, having seen the giant airship come down, ran to the site with many other people from the local area and took a small piece of aluminium from the framework. This he had made into a brooch in the shape of a zeppelin, inscribed ‘Zepp L33’, which remains in my family to this day. How accurate this is I’m not sure – a large crowd certainly did converge on the site, some of them there before sunrise. It’s hard to imagine how it must have felt to experience what greeted them – a framework 650 ft long and 80ft high, over 100 ft longer than Canterbury cathedral and as high as its nave, appearing outside their village.

A few locals did take souvenirs, even brass instruments and large sections of girder, but soon after L33 came down it was surrounded by a cordon of soldiers who prevented most people getting to the site. The authorities realised that a substantially complete zeppelin having fallen was a huge coup, and the last thing they needed was for the great skeleton and any remaining instruments and equipment to be stripped by souvenir hunters, so police and soldiers went round the area later that day demanding the return of anything taken from the wreck. There were even prosecutions of people who had taken anything and not returned it. When the Admiralty had had the chance to thoroughly inspect and record the details of the wreck, it was broken up, and small pieces of it were sold to raise money for the Red Cross. It was probably at this stage that my relative acquired his piece of L33.

The story of L33’s sister, L32, is much shorter for reasons that will become apparent. In the case of L33, we have the accounts of the crew of their voyage, crash and what happened to them afterwards. In the case of L32, we have none of this, as there were no survivors. What we do know is that the prior knowledge of the raid meant that the airship was located before it could get over London and bracketed by a great many searchlights. This enabled Captain Frederick Sowrey of 39 Squadron, flying a BE2c, to acquire the target and he attacked the airship, firing three drums of incendiary ammunition at it from close range. In contrast with Brandon’s attack on L33, Sowrey’s assault on L32 was devastatingly effective. The hydrogen caught fire and soon the whole reservoir was burning, a vast pyre in the night sky sinking slowly to earth. It landed at South Green Farm near Billericay. The structure of the airship was far more badly damaged than that of L33, but the crew had not even had time to destroy their confidential documents, and an intact code book was found in the gondola.

The destruction of not one but two airships had a huge effect on the population’s morale. The loss of SL11 could have been put down to a fluke, but for the home defence services to claim two of the giants in a single raid so soon after the first showed that the zeppelins were now genuinely vulnerable and could not expect to stage further raids without incurring heavy losses. The relative completeness of L33 was a huge boost to Britain’s naval airship designers, who had been struggling to match the German craft. The Admiralty commissioned several ships that were largely straight copies of L33 – R33 and R34 were built as such with a few slight improvements, while L36 was further modified when a more modern zeppelin was shot down and could be examined later in the war.

A few weeks later, L31 was shot down too. While ‘R Class’ zeppelins were built until the middle of 1918 – they were still extremely good maritime reconnaissance platforms – it was clear to all (except possibly Strasser) that they were too vulnerable for bombing missions. In Germany, the ‘height climber’ zeppelin was developed, sacrificing speed and structural strength for light weight that would enable it to fly above the ceiling of aeroplanes and the range of anti-aircraft guns. In Britain, a wave of publicity greeted the defeat of the zeppelin force, with postcards and special souvenir editions of newspapers marking the September 23-24 victories in joyful style. A baby born near L33’s final resting place on the night of the attack was even named ‘Zeppelina’.

The first and only raid of L33 has fascinated me ever since I first heard about it, and I have been lucky enough to acquire some pieces of memorabilia related to this and other zeppelins forced down in England. A century later, the vast German airships still have the power to captivate.

Sources:

Ray Rimmell, Zeppelin: Vol.2, Windsock, 2008 (this volume contains a wealth of information about the life and demise of L33 as well as the other R-class zeppelins, and is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in rigid airships)

Douglas H. Robinson, Giants of the Sky: A History of the Rigid Airship, Foulis 1973

Len Deighton and Arnold Schwartzman, Airshipwreck, Henry Holt & Co 1979

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