The End of the Zeppelins: September 1916–May 1917

WW1, On the night of 2/3 Sept 1916, Cpt William Leefe Robinson succeeded in shooting down an airship over Cuffey, Hertfordshire. Flying a B.E, 2c, lightened and with the forward cockpit faired over, Robinson was able to attain the 12.000ft at which the German airship was flying. At the fourth firing pass the airship burst into flames. Artist Roger H Middlebrook GAvA, Hansen Fine Art, RHMA-141

On the night of 2/3 September 1916 the German army launched their first and only coordinated Zeppelin attack on London. It was an utter disaster, largely because of atrocious weather conditions and poor navigation.

The German navy Zeppelins L11, L13, L14, L16, L17, L21, L22, L23, L24, L30 and L32 were involved. The navy’s Schütte-Lanz’s SL8 and the army SL11 were deployed. The army also sent their Zeppelins, LZ90, LZ97 and LZ98.

The L14 made landfall close to Wells-next-the-Sea at around 2150. Owing to a number of problems, including weather and navigational and technical difficulties, six navy airships (L11, L13, L22, L23, L24 and SL8) abandoned the attack on London and tried for other targets.

Searchlights at Lowestoft spotted an airship at around 2300. Flight Lieutenant E. Cadbury and Flight Sub-Lieutenant S. Cemball, in B2Cs out of Great Yarmouth and Covehithe respectively closed in, but the airship disappeared. It was most probably the L30, which went on to bomb Bungay. Alternatively, it could have been the L11, as later in the war, when one of the crewmembers was captured, he reported that the L11 had been attacked by at least two aircraft, which could have been those flown by Cadbury and Cemball.

Flight Sub-Lieutenant E. L. Pulling, in a BE2C from Bacton, had initially taken off just after midnight on 3 September in response to reports of German airships. He returned to base at 0043 and took off once more just fifteen minutes later. After about fifty minutes he saw bombs exploding close to the aerodrome at Bacton. This was the work of the L24, which was trying to bomb Great Yarmouth. Despite the visual clues Pulling could not find the airship. After returning to base and taking off once more at 0257 he failed again to locate L24.

Meanwhile, No. 33 Squadron at Beverley had scrambled to meet the threat of the L22. It had passed within 10 miles of the airfield and was bombing Humberston. To the south, London had been alerted at around 2240, when the SL11 appeared off Foulness. A further alert was raised at 2305 when the LZ90 was spotted off Frinton. The LZ90 slipped away to the east and attacked Haverhill, whilst the SL11 took a circuitous route to approach London. By 2300 aircraft of No. 39 Squadron were patrolling between North Weald and Joyce Green.

Lieutenant W. L. Robinson (B Flight, No 39 Squadron, Suttons Farm), in a BE2C, caught sight of a Zeppelin illuminated by searchlights close to the end of his patrol period. It was discovered to be the LZ98, which had crossed New Romney at around 2400 and had begun bombing Gravesend at 0115. Robinson closed in on it, but because of cloud and the fact that it was gaining height he lost sight of it. He headed back to base at North Weald and at 0150 decided to detour to investigate a red glow in the distance. Around fifteen minutes later he encountered the SL11, which had been bombing the northern outskirts of London. He was considerably higher than it and attacked with the advantage of around 800ft of altitude. He emptied a full drum into the belly of the airship then reloaded and attacked the side. There was still no noticeable effect so he descended until he was 500ft below the airship and emptied yet another drum into the underside. This time there was a red glow and the airship burst into flames.

Second Lieutenant J. I. Mackay (A Flight No. 39 Squadron), also in a BE2C, had left North Weald at 0108. At that time his was the only aircraft from his flight aloft. He was somewhere over Joyce Green when he saw the SL11 about 12 miles to the northeast. It took him twenty-five minutes to reach it and by the time he did so it was aflame. Shortly afterwards he saw another German airship off to the north-east and chased it, but with no success. It was later believed to be the L32, which was heading back to base after a bombing attack on Ware.

Second Lieutenant B. H. Hunt of C Flight, No. 39 Squadron, Hainault, was also aloft at this time, having left base at 0122. He was close to the SL11 when it began to fall. In the light he saw the L16, which was around ½ mile away, having just bombed a village close to Hatfield. He lost sight of it but later spotted the L32. He could not find her, however.

Robinson was awarded the VC for his destruction of the SL11, but there was other work to do that night. No. 50 Squadron tried and failed to find the LZ98 when it arrived off the Kent coastline. Flight Commander A. R. Arnold had left RNAS Grain in a Farman F56, also hunting for it, but instead he saw the demise of the SL11. He then lost his bearings and tried to head for Broomfield Court, close to Chelmsford, but in the mist he landed in a ploughed field and turned the aircraft over. He escaped with an injured ankle and a few abrasions.

After the poorly coordinated attack there was no further German action over Britain until 22 September, when an unknown aircraft attacked during daylight hours. It was spotted off the coast at Deal at 1500 hours and five minutes later it dropped seven bombs on Dover. Major N. G. Christie and Captain Williams of No. 50 Squadron, Dover, flying a Vickers FB19 and a BE12 respectively, lifted off at 1510 and tried to close with it. No. 50 Squadron had no warning of the attack until the bombs actually fell. The German aircraft was probably a navy Albatros.

The German navy Zeppelins made another appearance on the night of 23/24 September 1916. In all likelihood the total force included the L13, L14, L16, L17, L21, L22, L23, L24, L30, L31, L32 and L33. The newer airships crossed Belgium and approached London from the south, whilst the others headed for the Midlands. The L21 crossed the British coast at Aldeburgh at 2140. Aircraft from Great Yarmouth were scrambled to find it, and indeed Flight Lieutenant C. J. Galpin attacked an airship about 30 miles east of Lowestoft, but he lost it whilst he reloaded at around 2055. In all probability the L30 crossed the British coast at Cromer. Flight Sub-Lieutenant E. L. Pulling, in a BE2C from RNAS Bacton, tried to find her but failed.

The slower-moving airships approached the British coast over Lincolnshire at some point between 2200 and 2300 hours. The L17 planned to attack Nottingham, but most of its bombs fell into open countryside. The L13 had bombed around Sleaford and an unnamed pilot from RNAS Cranwell had engaged her, but low cloud was favouring the airships.

Meanwhile, the L21 bombed Stowmarket and other airships were approaching London. The L33 crossed at Foulness at 2240 and began dropping bombs over Bow at 0012. It was hit by anti-aircraft guns, from either the Wanstead or the Beckton battery and was badly damaged. As it lost height, it was attacked by a number of aircraft. It was now almost defenceless, as the commander had ordered heavy items to be jettisoned, including machine-guns. It finally grounded just to the north of the Blackwater River estuary at Little Wigborough. The crew set fire to the airship and then surrendered to a local policeman.

At around 2245 the L31 and L32 crossed the British coast at Dungeness. The L31 approached London and began dropping bombs at 0030 then headed for Great Yarmouth, leaving the British coast at 0215. The L32 had slipped behind due to engine problems and by the time it reached south-east London at around 0100 the anti-aircraft batteries and searchlights had been alerted and it came under fire. Having dropped the majority of its bombs on South Ockenden it began to head north. Three of No. 39 Squadron’s pilots were hunting for it. Indeed Second Lieutenant F. Sowrey, in a BE2C of B Flight out of Suttons Farm, having taken off at 2330, saw it at about 0045 still 10 miles south of the River Thames. He emptied a drum of machine-gun bullets into its underside, then attacked for a second time, firing at the gun positions in its gondola. He turned for a third attack, firing into the hull. The L32 lurched and burst into flames. It plummeted to the ground, crashing near Billericay at 0120. Second Lieutenant J. I. Mackay of A Flight, No. 39 Squadron, out of North Weald, in a BE2C also managed to fire a few shots into the L32, but Sowrey could claim the kill.

On the night of 25/26 September the German navy Zeppelins L14, L16, L21, L22, L30 and L31 were all part of a raid on both London and industrial targets in the Midlands. The L23 was supposed to join in the attack, but it turned back as a result of technical problems. At 2005 the L14 and L16 crossed the British coast near Hornsey. At 2300 the L14 dropped bombs on York and then headed for Leeds, but turned for home after it had dropped some bombs on Wetherby. At 2145 the L21 crossed the British coast at Sutton-on-Sea. After skirting Sheffield at 2300, it dropped bombs on Bolton at 0045 and then headed back for the coast, leaving via Whitby at 0305. A similar track was taken by the L22 around fifty minutes later, but it made bombing runs against Sheffield. Meanwhile, the L31 crossed at Dungeness at 2135. It approached Portsmouth at 2350 then headed for St Leonards and left at 0230 from Dover.

There were just fifteen defensive sorties by the RNAS and the RFC that night. The RNAS scrambled aircraft from Calshot, Cranwell, Manston, Great Yarmouth, Bacton and Holt. The RFC had primarily responded by scrambling aircraft of No. 33 Squadron, out of Coal Ashton and Bramham Moor, while No. 50 Squadron scrambled out of Dover and Bekesbourne. Although some of the aircraft saw the enemy airships they were unable to engage.

On 1/2 October the German navy launched another night attack involving the L14, L16, L17, L21, L24, L31 and L34, the L13, L22, L23 and L30 all turned back prematurely. There was heavy cloud that night across central England, and not exactly perfect weather over the North Sea either. The L31 approached the coast at Lowestoft at 2000 and headed towards London. Most of the rest of the airships came in between Cromer and Theddlethorpe between 2120 and 0145. The L17 managed to penetrate to within 15 miles of Norwich, the L16 was reported as having attacked targets near Horncastle, the L14 was seen near Digby, the L24 was seen over Hitchin and the L21 over Oakham. The L34 managed to get as far as Corby, but it dropped most of its bombs into the countryside.

Meanwhile, the L31 was making steady progress towards London. Searchlights at Kelvedon Hatch illuminated it at 2145 and it was spotted again close to Buntingford at 2230. By 2340 it was near Cheshunt and caught in the beam of several searchlights. It was at this point that Second Lieutenant W. J. Tempest, flying a BE2C of A Flight, No. 39 Squadron, North Weald, came onto the scene. He was at approximately 14,500ft and about 15 miles away from the airship. He could see it in the distance amidst a barrage of anti-aircraft shells. He attempted to close with it but his petrol pressure pump failed and he had to hand pump the petrol. He had been spotted by the L31, but it was also attracting the attention of other pilots in the area. Second Lieutenant J. I. Mackay and Second Lieutenant P. McGuiness, also of A Flight, were accompanied by Lieutenant L. G. S. Payne of C Flight. When the crew of the L31 saw all these aircraft they began to jettison their bombs and head west. Tempest, meanwhile, had got within firing range. He fired two bursts and then swung round to finish the drum. Before he had a chance to fire off all of the bullets, however, the L31 erupted into flames. It crashed near Potters Bar at 1154. Despite still suffering from pressure pump problems, Tempest managed to land back at North Weald at 1210.

On 22 October, at 1337 hours, one German aircraft attacked Sheerness. In all likelihood it was a Luft Verkehrs Gesellschaft (LVG) CIV seaplane. It managed to drop several bombs, but only four of them fell on the land. The RNAS started scrambling aircraft out of Dover and Manston from 1348 but no contact was made. Approximately an hour later a second aircraft approached North Foreland. It was fired on by two naval vessels and turned back. In all likelihood this aircraft was the one claimed by Lieutenant D. M. B. Galbraith of RNAS Dunkirk. He was piloting a Nieuport and saw a German seaplane coming in from a westerly direction at around 8,000ft. He dived to attack it and emptied two drums of ammunition, seeing it crash into the sea off Blankenberghe at 1530.

The following day saw another hit-and-run attack, this time against Margate by a single aircraft. In all likelihood it was again a seaplane. It approached Margate at an altitude of around 12,000ft and at 1005 dropped three bombs on Cliftonville. Several RNAS aircraft were scrambled from Dover, Eastchurch, Manston and Westgate but only one, a Bristol Scout D, flown by Flight Lieutenant J. A. Carr from Manston, spotted it, but by the time he had visual contact it was too far away and he had no hope of catching it.

On the night of 27/28 November 1916 the Midlands and Tyneside were the targets of the German navy Zeppelins L13, L14, L16, L21, L22, L24, L34, L35 and L36. It was to be a disastrous night for the Germans, who lost two of their Zeppelins, the L21 and L34.

The group targeting Tyneside comprising the L24, L34, L35 and L36, approached the British coast at around 2215. The other group, aiming for the Midlands, came in from 2110 between Spurn Head and Filey. The only real damage caused by this second group was inflicted by the L21, which killed four people in Hartlepool.

A BE2C of A flight, No. 36 Squadron, Seaton Carew, piloted by Second Lieutenant I. V. Pyott, was flying over Hartlepool at 2330, at an altitude of 9,800ft when he saw the L34 clearly illuminated in the Castle Eden searchlight. He dived and attacked, and then banked around to fire bursts into its hull. A small flame erupted and then in seconds the entire airship was ablaze. It fell into the sea just off the mouth of the River Tees. Its destruction frightened the crew of the L35 and they immediately turned for home.

Meanwhile, the L22 had been severely damaged by anti-aircraft fire, probably from around York, and was heading home. The L21 passed between Leeds and Sheffield and commenced bombing, but was suffering from engine problems. It flew to the south of Nottingham, straight into several British squadrons’ patrol zones. At 0250 it was reported that it was heading for home, but there were several aircraft searching for her. Captain G. H. Birley of B Flight, No. 38 Squadron, Buckminster, spotted it, caught in his own airfield searchlight. It was flying at about 7,500ft and Birley was about 2,000ft higher. He dived to attack but lost sight of it. He continued to search until he saw it again at an altitude of around 11,000ft, apparently making very little headway because of its engine problems. Birley came in to attack from an altitude of 9,000ft and emptied a drum at it.

Meanwhile Second Lieutenant D. S. Allan, of A Flight, No. 38 Squadron, Leadenham, in a BE2E spotted it at 0300. It was flying at a height of 13,000–14,000ft. Allan tried to engage it but lost sight of it. At around 0400 it was spotted once more, this time by Lieutenant W. R. Gayner of C Flight, No. 51 Squadron, Marham. It was now close to East Dereham, but just as he was coming into range in his FE2B the engine stopped and he was forced to crash land at Tibbenham. By 0605 the L21 had reached Great Yarmouth and could be seen clearly in the dawn light, flying at 8,500ft. It was spotted some 9 miles east of Lowestoft by Flight Lieutenant Egbert Cadbury, who had flown out of RNAS Burgh Castle shortly after 0600 hours. Anti-aircraft guns around Great Yarmouth were firing at it, which alerted Flight Sub-Lieutenant E. L. Pulling, in a BE2C from RNAS Bacton, and Flight Sub-Lieutenant G. W. R. Fane, also in a BE2C from Burgh Castle. Cadbury made an attack from below and emptied four drums into it. Its crew fired back just as Fane came to within 100ft of its starboard side, but his Lewis gun jammed. Pulling now made his attack, but his gun also jammed after just a handful of shots. He pulled away and as he did so the L21 burst into flames. Cadbury’s attack with tracer, incendiary and explosive ammunition had probably done the trick. As Pulling had been the last man to fire at the airship, however, he was given the most credit and was awarded the DSO. Cadbury and Fane were awarded the DSC.

On 28 November 1916 an LVG CIV made a daring raid into the heart of central London. Commencing at 1150, the pilot, Deck Officer Paul Brandt, dropped six bombs in a line from the Brompton Road to Victoria Station. He and his fellow crewmen also managed to take several photographs. The target was the Admiralty building and the attack came perilously close, in fact just 13,000ft away. The aircraft had taken off from an airfield near Ostend and had arrived to the north of North Foreland at around 1035. It had approached London via Croydon and Mitchum and in all likelihood had been mistaken for a British aircraft, hence the long delay before anyone was scrambled from various RFC squadrons, commencing shortly after 1300.

Having carried out its audacious attack, the aircraft headed home, crossing the British coast close to Hastings. It was forced to crash land close to Boulogne at 1415 after the aircraft suffered from engine failure, however, and both crew members were captured.

Despite the fact that they had been the target, the Admiralty did not receive notification of the incursion until 1234 and consequently the Royal Flying Corps was not told to scramble until 1245. It took another fifteen minutes for the aircraft to get aloft, by which time the raider had already reached the British coastline and in all likelihood would never have been intercepted.

This was the last attack of 1916, a year which had seen a massive reinforcement of the home defence systems. There were no less than eleven home defence squadrons, the majority of which had three flights. Around 140 night landing grounds had also been established. Each squadron had been assigned a searchlight company. The anti-aircraft defences around London had been reinforced, with around sixty-five specifically deployed to defend the capital out of the total of 200 available. The RNAS also had an additional thirty aircraft to support the home defence.

Up until this point there had been 160 German airship incursions over the course of forty-two raids. They had managed to drop over 162 tons of bombs, in addition to the 2.5 tons that had been dropped by thirty-nine German aircraft. Although the damage and casualties had been minimal, the Germans had succeeded in one of their major tasks, that was to deflect resources away from the Western Front and force the British to use up equipment and manpower in the defence of the British Isles. Indeed some 17,000 men were directly involved in home defence.

Unfortunately, many of the home defence squadrons had to carry out their duties with a motley selection of aircraft. The latest models were automatically assigned to the Western Front, whilst the home defence squadrons had a mixture of prototypes and other unwanted aircraft. Some of them, whilst adequate to deal with airships, had no chance of catching the German seaplanes. Gradually, however, through 1917, they would begin receiving newer and better quality aircraft.

There were also other demands that needed to be fulfilled. The planned expansion of anti-aircraft gun manufacture was halted when there was a call for British merchant ships to be equipped with guns to protect them against U-boats. There was also a need to find at least thirty-six experienced pilots and provide nine replacement pilots a month to man new FE2B night-bomber squadrons. In the end experienced pilots from the home defence squadrons were stripped out and transferred. Similarly, some of the BE2Es of the home defence squadrons were transferred to the Western Front. It was firmly believed by many that the worst of the German airship raids had been dealt with and that their menace was nowhere near as grave as it once had been, so defence cuts were an acceptable risk.

The first attack of the New Year took place on 14 February 1917. A Sablatnig SF5 came in to attack coastal shipping at around 0800. It approached from an altitude of around 10,000ft, dropped around fifteen bombs and was immediately came under fire from anti-aircraft guns at Deal. There were no casualties and the raider escaped intact.

Two days later a similar attack was made by the same type of aircraft against coastal shipping. It was first spotted at 0750 to the east of Ramsgate flying at an altitude of 11,000ft. RNAS aircraft from Manston and Westgate were scrambled but the SF5 came in so fast and struck so quickly that none of them could intercept it. No casualties or damage were inflicted by the attack.

During the night of 16/17 February the German army Zeppelin LZ107 was spotted off Walmer at 0145. Although an RNAS aircraft was scrambled from Manston and five from No. 50 Squadron, RFC, none of them managed to close with the airship and it did not drop any bombs on British soil. It was probably simply returning from a bombing raid on Calais.

There were further German floatplane attacks on 1 and 16 March. The first came in from Zeebrugge and attacked Broadstairs at 0945. Six people were injured and a minimal amount of damage was caused. The RNAS and RFC mounted several sorties, but the raider escaped unscathed. The second attack was against Westgate and coastal shipping, with the raider being spotted at around 0520. Around twenty bombs were dropped but only minor damage was caused. Sorties from Dover, Manston and Westgate by Nos. 37 and 50 Squadrons were launched, but to no avail.

A potentially more serious attack took place on the night of 16/17 March, when five German navy Zeppelins, the L35, L39, L40, L41 and L42 targeted London. The L42 turned back very early but managed to drop a few bombs, causing no damage. Between 2220 and 2240 the L35 and the L39 crossed the British coast near Thanet. The L35 headed first for Ashford and left the British coast via Dover at 0025. Meanwhile the L39 left via Pevensey at 2350. The L39 did not make it home, as it was shot down by French artillery. The L40 came in over Herne Bay at 0100 and left close to New Romney at 0215. The L41 was only spotted over Dungeness at some point between 0140 and 0205. Collectively the airships did very little damage and nobody was killed or injured. Aircraft from RNAS Eastchurch and Manston were scrambled, as were a number of aircraft from RFC’s Nos. 37, 39, 50 and 78 Squadrons.

During the remainder of March there were two ineffectual attacks by German aircraft against Dover on the 17th and against coastal shipping on the 25th. The attacks continued during April, but only two were reported, one against Ramsgate on the night of 5/6 April and another against coastal shipping during daylight hours on 19 April.

A second brave attack by a single German aircraft against London took place on the night of 6/7 May. An Albatros CVII, flying from an airfield near Ostend, approached the northern outskirts of London at 0100. It dropped five bombs between Holloway and Hackney and then sped off, crossing the British coast near Deal. Only four defensive sorties were mounted, owing to the speed of this attack, with two flying out of RNAS Manston and two from A Flight, No. 50 Squadron, Bekesbourne.

Navy Zeppelins returned to make another attack on London during the night of 23/24 May. Involved this time were the L40, L42, L43, L44, L45 and L47. The RNAS and the RFC managed to mount seventy-six defensive sorties. The Germans did minimal damage and only claimed one death. The Zeppelins were first spotted somewhere off the coast of Great Yarmouth at 2145. At around 0018 the L40 crossed the British coast to the south of Lowestoft. The L42 came in shortly afterwards over the Naze, the L45 crossed to the south of Orford Ness at 0100 and the L43 at a similar position at 0215. The L44 was stranded for some time off the coast between Lowestoft and Harwich after it lost power to its engines. The L47 by all accounts did not penetrate British airspace.

The L43 was flying at an altitude of 20,000ft, and from that height its crew mistook Harwich for Sheerness and proceeded to drop bombs on Suffolk villages, believing them to be London. The British responded by scrambling RNAS aircraft from most of their East Anglia bases, supported by RFC aircraft of Nos. 37, 39, 50 and 51 Squadrons. The only British aircraft to spot one of the raiders was a BE12A flown by Lieutenant G. D. F. Keddie of B Flight, No. 37 Squadron, Stow Maries. He saw a Zeppelin off the coast of Harwich and gave chase for around twenty minutes. Then he lost sight of it and his engine started to give problems, so he was forced to land at Covehithe. In all probability it was the L44, which had been suffering from engine problems off the coast. The airship finally reached its own base at 1900 hours. The major problem for both the airships and for the defending aircraft was the poor weather. There was particularly poor visibility and the closest any of the airships had got to London was the L42, which turned around near Braintree at 0145.

 

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