Woolwich & Districts
Death of a Zeppelin, 1916
German Zeppelins were the ultimate terror weapon of their day.
Silent behemoths, they prowled the night skies seemingly impervious
to attack by plane or antiaircraft fire. Just the mention of
the name “Zeppelin” was enough to send cold chills
up and down the spines of their intended victims.
dirigible's name came from one of its German designers - Ferdinand
von Zeppelin - who introduced his first giant dirigible at the
turn of the 20th century. With the outbreak of war, they were
quickly pressed into service as bombers and reconnaissance aircraft.
The first bombing raid on London was made during the night of
May 31, 1915 by a single ship. Other raids followed, with as
many as 16 Zeppelins attacking in a single night.
defenders were powerless as the Zeppelins flew at altitudes too
high for defending aircraft or artillery to reach. Mother Nature
was the Zeppelin's primary enemy as the unwieldy craft were easily
thrown off course by high winds. Additionally, the darkness of
their night raids made it difficult for crews to find their targets.
first Zeppelin to raid London
The LZ 38
At its home base, 1915
the actual material damage inflicted by the Zeppelins was minimal,
their psychological impact on the British population was significant.
Precious air and ground units were diverted from the war front
to the home front to counter this threat from the sky.
the war progressed, technological advances that allowed defending
aircraft to reach or exceed the Zeppelin's altitude and the
introduction of incendiary bullets, turned the advantage to
the defenders. By the end of the war, the Zeppelin had been
withdrawn from combat.
saw high in the sky a concentrated blaze of searchlights...”
MacDonagh was a reporter for a London newspaper. He witnessed
the destruction of one the giant airships as it took part in
a raid on the city during the night of October 1, 1916:
saw last night what is probably the most appalling spectacle
associated with the war which London is likely to provide -
the bringing down in flames of a raiding Zeppelin.
late at the office, and leaving it just before midnight was
crossing to Blackfriars Bridge to get a tramcar home, when my
attention was attracted by frenzied cries of 'Oh! Oh! She's
hit!' from some wayfarers who were standing in the middle of
the road gazing at the sky in a northern direction. Looking
up the clear run of New Bridge Street and Farringdon Road I
saw high in the sky a concentrated blaze of searchlights, and
in its centre a ruddy glow which rapidly spread into the outline
of a blazing airship. Then the searchlights were turned off
and the Zeppelin drifted perpendicularly in the darkened sky,
a gigantic pyramid of flames, red and orange, like a ruined
star falling slowly to earth. Its glare lit up the streets and
gave a ruddy tint even to the waters of the Thames.
spectacle lasted two or three minutes. It was so horribly fascinating
that I felt spellbound - almost suffocated with emotion, ready
hysterically to laugh or cry. When at last the doomed airship
vanished from sight there arose a shout the like of which I
never heard in London before - a hoarse shout of mingled execration,
triumph and joy; a swelling shout that appeared to be rising
from all parts of the metropolis, ever increasing in force and
intensity. It was London's Te Deum for another crowning deliverance.
Four Zeppelins destroyed in a month!...
from a member of the Potter's Bar anti-aircraft battery an account
of the bringing down of the Zeppelin. He said the airship was
caught in the beams of three searchlights from stations miles
apart, and was being fired at by three batteries also from distances
widely separated. She turned and twisted, rose and fell, in
vain attempts to escape to the shelter of the outer darkness.
None of the shells reached her. Then an aeroplane appeared and
dropped three flares - the signal to the ground batteries to
cease firing as he was about to attack. The airman, flying about
the Zeppelin, let go rounds of machine-gun fire at her without
effect, until one round fired into her from beneath set her
on fire, and down she came a blazing mass, roaring like a furnace,
breaking as she fell into two parts which were held together
by internal cables until they reached the ground.
framework of the Zeppelin lay in the field in two enormous heaps,
separated from each other by about a hundred yards. Most of
the forepart hung suspended from a tree. . .
crew numbered nineteen. One body was found in the field some
distance from the wreckage. He must have jumped from the doomed
airship from a considerable height.
was the force with which he struck the ground that I saw the imprint
of his body clearly defined in the stubbly grass. There was a
round hole for the head, then deep impressions of the trunk, with
outstretched arms, and finally the widely separated legs. Life
was in him when he was picked up, but the spark soon went out.
He was, in fact, the Commander, who had been in one of the gondolas
hanging from the airship. . .
From a contemporary illustration, 1915
another journalist I went to the barn where the bodies lay.
As we approached we heard a woman say to the sergeant of the
party of soldiers in charge, 'May I go in? I would like to see
a dead German.' 'No, madam, we cannot admit ladies,' was the
myself as a newspaper reporter, I made the same request. The
sergeant said to me, 'If you particularly wish to go in you
may. I would, however, advise you not to do so. If you do you
will regret your curiosity.' I persisted in my request. . .
to the sergeant that I particularly wanted to see the body of
the Commander, I was allowed to go in. The sergeant removed
the covering from one of the bodies which lay apart from the
others. The only disfigurement was a slight distortion of the
face. It was that of a young man, clean-shaven. He was heavily
clad in a dark uniform and overcoat, with a thick muffler round
who he was. At the office we had had official information of
the identity of the Commander and the airship (though publication
of both particulars was prohibited), and it was this knowledge
that had determined me to see the body. The dead man was Heinrich
Mathy, the most renowned of the German airship commanders, and
the perished airship was his redoubtable L31.
there he lay in death at my feet, the bugaboo of the Zeppelin
raids, the first and most ruthless of these Pirates of the Air
bent on our destruction.”
Michael MacDonagh's account appears in: MacDonagh, Michael,
In London during the Great War; the diary of a journalist (1935);
Robinson, Douglas, Giants in the Sky, a history of the rigid
Source: Death of a Zeppelin, 1916, EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com