Zeppelins over Essex
PUBLISHED: 10:08 07 May 2020 | UPDATED: 15:18 07 May 2020
September marks the 100th anniversary of the shooting down of Zeppelin L32 over the skies of Essex – a moment which provided a beacon of hope in a time when it seemed that there was no defence to the German air attacks terrorising Britain.
Most people think of the Blitz as the German bombing of British towns and cities during World War II, so it is hard today to imagine the psychological terror that the very earliest German Zeppelin raids had on the civilian population during World War I. A generation before the Blitz, Zeppelins brought terror from the skies to a population that had not before seen war arrive on the ‘home front’. This was a threat so deadly and one to which there appeared no defence until, 100 years ago this month, Zeppelin L32 was shot down in the skies over Essex.
In the early hours of Sunday, September 24, 1916, four German Zeppelins flew high over the skies of eastern England, targeting their bombs on London. British fighters had had only one success in the night skies against the German airships, earlier that month over Hertfordshire. The BE2 bi-plane fighters flying from Sutton’s Farm airfield (later RAF Hornchurch) knew that the odds on shooting down the mighty airship were slim.
When war came in 1914, civilians in Britain had been largely unaffected by war, but Zeppelin raids from 1915 onwards would dramatically change that. With the military situation on the Western Front in 1915 at a stalemate, the German High Command decided to deploy their Zeppelins against British towns and cities. Maldon, Southend, Heybridge and Harwich were all bombed and by 1918, 835 civilians would be killed in Zeppelin raids.
The press dubbed the airships ‘baby-killers’ and the Zeppelins were truly weapons of terror for a population unaccustomed to the horrors of war. Raids caused considerable fear within the county. Essex Police was rigorous in enforcing the blackout and local shops were quick to advertise ‘Anti-Zepp’ blinds for protection.
L32 was a new Zeppelin launched in August 1916. That night it navigated over the coast at Dungeness, using the Thames as a guide. However, it ran into searchlights and heavy anti-aircraft fire which damaged the engines and its captain decided to return to base, discarding his bombs near Purfleet. The silhouette of the massive airship trapped by the beams was seen by one of the RFC fighters on patrol, piloted by 23-year-old Lieutenant Fredrick Sowery. He banked east and flew towards the airship. His plane was armed with new incendiary ammunition but by the time he arrived over the Thames, the Zeppelin had evaded the searchlights and disappeared.
At 12.45am, Sowery spotted the Zeppelin heading towards the coast and he climbed to close in on his target. He tried three times to shoot down the airship, finally succeeding with his last pass. He later described a small crimson patch appearing, which suddenly burst into flames. Within moments the whole airship was ablaze. Sowery returned to Sutton’s Farm having become only the second British airman to shoot down a Zeppelin.
South of Chelmsford in the village of Stock, Lewis Jarvis remembered watching, ‘the Zeppelin being hit by one of our aeroplanes and drifting in flames low over towards Billericay. The whole village was lit up.’
What was happening in the skies over Essex was being witnessed by an enthusiastic public below. Across the county, spectators looked up and saw the death throes of the airship. One witness in the village of Ingrave remembered, ‘a red glare that became a roaring ball of flames falling to earth’. While 11-year-old Elsie Whale described it as, ‘a spectacular sight’.
The doomed airship took a long time to fall from the sky crashing onto Snails Farm off Greens Farm Lane in Great Burstead, killing all 22 crewmen. The crash-site covered nearly 7,000sq m. Police and special constables were quickly on the scene to guard the wreck and keep looters away. Despite this, local people rushed to the crash site, many grabbing pieces of the wrecked airship from the debris field as souvenirs before the area could be secured.
Thousands of people descended on Great Burstead. The area around Snails Farm became a muddy quagmire and narrow village roads were congested with bicycles, motor cars and carts. Souvenirs commemorating the event were quickly offered for sale, although in the aftermath of the crash some souvenir hunters were prosecuted under the Defence of the Realm Act. One enterprising man purchased horsemeat from kennels at Little Burstead, which he cooked and sold as ‘hot beef’ sandwiches at 2s 6d each. The Great Eastern Railway even laid on special trains to Billericay to enable people to visit the site. The public wanted success given the bad news from the Battle of the Somme and the shooting down of L32 provided it.
L32 was not the only Zeppelin that crashed over Essex that night. Zeppelin L33 raided London bombing an oil depot, a timber yard, the Black Swan pub in Bow Road and killing 11 civilians. It turned east to head home and was struck by anti-aircraft fire. The airship crashed near Little Wigborough close to houses on Copt Hall Lane. The captain destroyed his codes and went to warn local residents that he intended to set fire to his airship. While the ship burned, he marched his crew towards the local village.
Constable Edgar Nicholls was cycling down the same road and asked some men if they had seen a Zeppelin crash? Their leader said he had and asked, in impeccable English, for directions to Colchester. He and his crew marched on followed by a suspicious Nicholls. At Peldon, PC Charles Smith arrested the men, and they were turned over to the military authorities at Mersea Island.
The Zeppelin raids brought the horror of warfare to the civilian population. The events over the skies of Essex on September 24, 1916, caused a rethink in how the German High Command used the Zeppelins. They realised that Zeppelin attacks alone would not defeat Britain. Their use as front-line bombers declined over the next 18 months, the airships becoming primarily used for reconnaissance.