Against the Zeppelins with ‘Night Fighters’

Chief of the German Admiralty staff in Berlin, Admiral Paul von Behnke, issued a communiqué stating his airships had attacked “fortified places between the Tyne and the Humber”.

German newspapers eulogised over the apparent success of the raid that, in their eyes, was seen as “ending the legend of English invulnerability”. Iron Cross medals were liberally distributed among the sixteen-man Zeppelin crews but retribution was not long in coming, for just one month later, both airships were wrecked in a storm over Denmark.

Night defences covering East Anglia’s coastal region, based on RNAS Great Yarmouth, were pretty meagre at this time. Although willing to undertake their difficult task, the defenders, poorly equipped and inadequately informed about the progress of the raiders, were unable to mount an attack on L4. As it headed for London, a few RFC aeroplanes had a go at trying to find L3 but were equally unsuccessful in engaging the enemy. First round to the Zeppelins.

It was shortly after this raid that Monsieur Frantz Reichel was interviewed by the British press. Described as “a famous French aeronautical expert” he expressed an opinion that: “Zeppelins cannot possibly come over London or Paris as long as the aeroplane patrol service is well organised.” With this confident remark he was not far from the truth, but it took some time before that confidence became a reality.

At this juncture, it will be of interest to touch upon some of the ways by which civil and military authorities were provided with information about enemy air activity over England. First indications of impending airship operations often came as a result of intercepted German radio signals traffic by British listening posts, such as the naval wireless station located at Hunstanton. Reports of air activity off the coast would most likely begin with observations by crews of lightships and lighthouses, these being reported by radio or telephone to navy or army command. The earliest system for detection and reporting of air activity over land began in 1914. In those days potential attacks on London were considered to pose the greatest danger and police forces were to telephone to report to the Admiralty (at that time responsible for defences) any aircraft seen or heard within a radius of sixty miles of the capital. In 1915 this system was extended to include East Anglia, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, police reports being submitted by telegram. A year later the War Office took over responsibility for defences and in view of the extensive German air offensive, military reporting areas were introduced for thirty miles around major targets. The intensity, particularly in the south of England, of enemy aeroplane activity, coupled with increasing altitudes and speeds flown, made this latest system rather cumbersome. By mid-1918, responsibility for such reporting was returned to the police, supported by all the AA gun and searchlight sites, but due to the cessation of enemy air activity over England by that time, the effectiveness of the revised structure was never really tested. These various schemes can be regarded as the forerunners of the later Observer Corps system and the records kept also account for the availability of much of the information about the raiders’ movements.

During the months that followed, German Army and Naval airships launched air raids directed principally at London and the Humber area. While both these targets were hit regularly, as a consequence of bad weather and poor navigation there were also sporadic attacks on east coast port targets situated between these two locations. However, the courses flown generally followed coastwise routes and there were no more incursions into this region until September 1915.

London was again the intended primary target for German Naval Zeppelins L13 (Kptlt Heinrich Mathy) and L14 (Kptlt Alois Böcker) on Tuesday, September 8. A third airship, L9, headed for the north-east coast in the Newcastle area.

L14 crossed the coast near Cromer, Norfolk, but developed engine trouble and returned to base early. It was 19.30 when Mathy in L13 turned north at Wells-next-the-sea, hugging the coast all the way into The Wash as far as King’s Lynn. Taking his bearings from the prominent landmark of King’s Lynn and guided by lights from un-blacked out towns and villages, he declined to leave a calling card on that fortunate town and set course directly for the distant glow that was London. Here he deposited his entire bomb load before retracing his course north for home. Altering direction to the east between Ely and Newmarket, Mathy re-crossed the coast at Great Yarmouth at 02:00, heading out across the North Sea to Zeppelin bases around Wilhelmshaven.

Once again, with just a handful of sorties flown from RNAS Great Yarmouth, the air defences were ineffective. In mitigation it should be pointed out that the art of flying at night had never been considered a high priority by the military prior to this time. From Berlin, the enemy’s version of events claimed good results against “great factories near Norwich and the Humber and ironworks at Middlesborough”. The airships were said to have been fired upon very heavily by AA gunfire but all returned to base unharmed.

Just over a month later, Wednesday night October 13/14, Kptlt Mathy in L13 led five Zeppelins in the largest raid so far, against London. Inbound over the Norfolk coast, despite later navigational errors, this force kept clear of the Fens on this occasion. Official records suggest only airborne defenders around the capital mounted sorties in search of the raiders but the mere suspicion of the presence of Zeppelins, however, could cause defensive activity over a very wide area. In its first edition following this particular raid, the Spalding Guardian newspaper reported a strange occurrence that seems to indicate the RFC, even in the Fenland region, was airborne in search of these hostile machines.

A young farm labourer had an eerie experience at 4.00am on the morning after a Zeppelin raid which passed over Spalding. As he was out in the darkness rounding up horses on Mowbray’s Farm, Surfleet (Gosberton) Fen, near Spalding, he saw a light near the Forty Foot river bank. Approaching cautiously, he was startled when the light rose into the air, accompanied by the clatter of an aeroplane engine. Later, as dawn broke, he found tyre tracks in the grass and several other people reported seeing aeroplanes in the area.

This was probably a pilot sent out on patrol during the night who, unable to find his home airfield, sensibly landed to await first light. Alternatively this may be the first known reference to the existence of the unlit landing ground, established for just this situation, less than a quarter mile from the South Forty Foot river in Gosberton Fen. Originally set up for emergency use by 38 HD (Home Defence) Squadron RFC based at Melton Mowbray, it was later used by elements of 90 (HD) Squadron, Buckminster.

Every Zeppelin raid mounted now was larger than its predecessor and the selection of targets was widened to include all major industrial areas. On this next raid, the first of 1916, nine Naval Zeppelins set out to bomb Liverpool on the night of January 31/February 1. Crossing the English coast randomly from 17.00 onwards between The Wash and the north Norfolk coast, their courses inland were quite erratic. Due to navigational errors and poor visibility in the bad weather, all were well south of their intended tracks and went nowhere near Liverpool. Zeppelin L11 had Kptlt Horst von Buttlar-Brandenfels in command but the head of the German Naval Airship Division, Korvettenkapitän Peter Strasser, was also on board that night. Von Buttlar, inbound down the centre of The Wash, turned north near Spalding, towards Lincoln. Meandering along the county border, unknowingly L11 reached the Scunthorpe/Grimsby area before leaving the coast without dropping any bombs, having been unable to identify a legitimate target. Meanwhile Kptlt Mathy, in L13, came in over Cromer and entered Fenland airspace in the vicinity of Downham Market. Turning north towards Sutton Bridge for a short time, then west, he exited the county at Grantham. Once again, L13’s course was very erratic, wandering around the Midlands area as far as Burton (bombed), Stoke-on-Trent and Buxton, before returning to the east coast near Skegness.

Meandering was certainly the most appropriate term to describe L14’s (Kptlt Böcker) progress. Making landfall at Wells-next-the-sea it set course across the southern Fenlands, passing west between Stamford and Grantham. Böcker penetrated as far west as Shrewsbury before returning equally erratically, bombing Derby on the way, to depart the English coast north of Skegness. Coming from the general direction of Cromer, L15 (Kptlt Joachim Breithaupt) flew towards Ely, turning north to skirt Wisbech, Spalding and Sleaford. Now Breithaupt changed course first towards Skegness, then Boston. From there he maintained a reasonably straight track across The Wash to King’s Lynn and Norwich, finally leaving the coast at Lowestoft. Hunstanton was landfall for L16 with Oberleutnant-zur-See (Oblt-z-See) W Peterson in command but it avoided the Fens by swinging in an arc to the south-east across Norfolk and out over Lowestoft. L17 also remained over Norfolk, while L19 (Kptlt Odo Loewe) made a protracted inland flight.

On his flight from the Norfolk coast, Loewe took a westerly course roughly from Downham Market via Stamford, eventually to reach Wolverhampton, Kidderminster and Birmingham. Reversing his course from the heart of the Midlands, L19 was spotted near Ely and Norwich on its way to the coast at Happisburgh. It was 05.00 next morning before it departed, having been at large over Britain for nearly ten hours! That morning, however, was a fateful one for L19 for it was lost in the North Sea with all hands after engine failure and being holed by gunfire near the Dutch coast.

Kptlt Franz Stabbert (L20) followed a similar route to his force commander until, reaching the vicinity of Spalding he, too, ventured westwards towards the same areas of the Midlands blindly attacked by his compatriots. Finally, L21 (Kptlt Max Dietrich) inbound from Cromer in poor weather, crossed the Fens from east to west on its way to the Birmingham area. Returning, Dietrich passed over the southern Fens near Ely and left these shores at Lowestoft.

Fenland skies throbbed to the sound of Maybach engines for many hours that night. Unintentionally and blindly for the most part, Zeppelins had wandered freely and with impunity across not only the Fens but also over large tracts of the industrial Midlands.

Airship crews seemed to have had little idea of their true whereabouts and defenders little idea of how to find them. The British believed the intended target was London but none went closer than sixty miles of the capital. Subsequent German communiqués erroneously proclaimed the airships had struck Liverpool and Birkenhead Docks, Manchester, iron foundries in Nottingham and Sheffield and great industrial works on the Humber and near Great Yarmouth. The silencing of a gun battery on the Humber was also claimed.

Sixty-one people were killed that night and the horror of war from the air was suddenly brought to the public in districts that previously had found it hard to realise quite what all the fuss was about. This raid therefore can be considered a significant turning point in the nation’s awareness of what airpower could mean.

There is no record of any anti-Zeppelin fighter patrols being launched specifically over the Midlands, although all but two of the marauders flew around and through the region for many hours.

The RFC and RNAS lost several aeroplanes and some lives that night carrying out abortive patrols in bad weather and in the wrong places. It was a fiasco for the defenders, precipitating a major reorganisation of the Home Air Defences in forthcoming months. Progress was, however, painfully slow and not without its share of mishaps.

As part of this reorganisation, 51 (HD) Squadron was formed with its HQ flight at Thetford and other flights based on airfields at Mattishall, Harling Road (south of Norwich), Marham/Narborough (west Norfolk) and Tydd St Mary (Lincs). Most of the Home Defence squadrons created were (under-!) equipped initially, with BE2 aircraft. However, in mid-1916 the single-seat BE12 and two-seat ‘pusher’ FE2b were being introduced. 51 Squadron began with a mix of BE2, BE12 and both single- and two-seat FE2b aeroplanes, standardising eventually on the latter type.

For several months the Midlands region was spared any incursion by the Zeppelin force. Practice sorties, by 51 Squadron, covering the region from the east, supported now by 38 Squadron at Buckminster (Leics), Stamford (the airfield was actually in the parish of Wittering) and Leadenham near Sleaford (Lincs) to the west, continued unabated. The latter unit was equipped initially with BE2s but had FE2bs by October 1916. Finally, to the north of the region was RNAS Cranwell, opened in April 1916. It had become clear that German airships would attack or traverse the Fens regularly and these squadrons were now – at least in theory – well placed all around The Wash to deal with such raids.

Although aeroplanes flying overhead had become commonplace, it was crashes that still captured the public’s attention. That summer, however, only one accident on July 20 caught the eye of the local press. The flight of what may well have been an FE2b of 51 Squadron, from Thetford or Tydd St Mary, was interrupted when its engine stopped suddenly over Holbeach Marsh and began to emit smoke. Gliding to earth at once, the pilot landed at Leadenhall Farm. Unfortunately potato ridges, onto which he alighted, are not conducive to safe landings and the aeroplane overturned. The pilot was unhurt, but his observer sustained a few cuts in the process.

After this lull, eight German Naval Zeppelins reopened the night battle by attempting another attack on London on July 31. It was yet another failure. Adverse winds over the North Sea completely scattered the force and airships were seen as far apart as Kent and Skegness. Fog inland also added to their problems but it was equally unhelpful to the defenders and the airships kept coming during that murky Fenland night. From landfall at Skegness L16 (Kptlt Erich Summerfeldt) crossed the north of the region and penetrated unchallenged as far as Newark, while L14 (Hauptmann Kuno Manger) flew around the March area. All bombs dropped, believed to total about thirty-two in number, fell in open countryside. The only casualties reported were two cows!

It was September 1916 before the fledgling night defences began to turn the tide. Airship SL11, a wooden-framework design built by the Schutte-Lanz airship manufacturing company and operated by the German Army, was destroyed on the night of September 2/3, by Lt Leefe Robinson, falling at Cuffley to the north of London. His success, in shooting down the first airship to be brought down on British soil, marked a significant upturn in fortune for the Home Defences.

On this momentous night, the greatest airship fleet ever assembled concentrated over East Anglia to mount an attack on London. Once more, though, it failed in its primary objective. Official records show that although many bombs were dropped by the fifteen airships most of these fell harmlessly in open countryside. Poor weather, strong winds, heavy rain and icing were factors chiefly responsible for the failure. It was 22.00 when Naval Zeppelin L14 (Hptmn Kuno Manger) was recorded passing Wells-next-the-sea. Manger swung south over The Wash, near Hunstanton, heading for King’s Lynn, which he circled an hour later. Reaching Downham Market by midnight L14 left the region south of Upwood and proceeded to undertake a grand tour of the Cambridgeshire, Essex and Suffolk countryside, scattering bombs as it tracked north to exit the coast at Mundesley after seven hours over British territory.

During the remainder of 1916 five more airships were destroyed over England. Apart from the natural dangers of adverse winds and bad weather, there had been little for the Zeppelins to fear from anti-aircraft (AA) gunfire or fighters in the early war years. Natural hazards were an ever-present danger but analysis of the airship fleet’s performance told the War Office that enemy airships were still only operating at altitudes of 8,000 to 10,000 feet. At these heights it should be vulnerable to AA fire, searchlights and more significantly to fighters, if only the performance and disposition of all these components could be improved.

From mid 1916 this improvement had begun to materialise. In particular, fighter aeroplane design and performance was showing noticeable, if modest, changes. Another much more significant change, however, was the introduction of explosive/incendiary machine-gun ammunition, like the Brock or Pomeroy types, and incendiary ammunition such as the Buckingham or SPK types, with which fighters could now attack these potentially highly inflammable raiders. It was well understood that the hydrogen gas that filled the Zeppelins was inflammable but it needed to mix with oxygen to create that unstable state. Ordinary ball (solid) ammunition simply punched holes in the gas cells – allowing gas to escape and mix with ambient air – but there was nothing to ignite the mixture at the point of impact, where it would be at its most concentrated. Aircraft machine guns were now generally loaded with a blend of explosive and incendiary rounds and this was found to be a lethal combination. All that remained was to catch the blighters!

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