Vince here from Mythopoeia, and boy do I have a story to tell! And yes, this one is about airships :D If you've read up on Skies of Fire, you'll know that I have a fascination (some might say obsession) with airships.
But the way I came about writing this piece was actually through some work I've been doing for our latest campaign on kickstarter, Pro Patria Mori. It's a WW1 mini-RPG zine that puts you into the shoes of a soldier on the frontlines of the Great War. I knew I had some WW1 related items lying around the house, and was able to find the pin you can see below hidden in a Princess Mary Gift Box (check out that story here).
The First World War was a different kind of war. One where technological advancement changed military philosophy forever. One of these technologies was the Zeppelin airship. Invented by Ferdinand von Zeppelin at the turn of the century, these behemoths of the skies were initially used for civilian transport in Germany.
With the start of the war, their value as observation platforms was quickly utilized and on January 1915, the first airship raid on British soil occurred. Citizens and politicians were horrified at this development. It was unprecedented, and there was no effective defense against such attacks. With airships, no one was safe...
The British papers called these bombings the Blitz, doled out by the "Zeppelin Terror." And for most of 1915-1916 this was true. Time and time again, airships would come to bomb key military targets, striking fear over the city of London. Dozens of Zeppelins were built and hundreds of crew trained in the art of bombing.
But it was not meant to last and the days of the airship as a war machine were coming to an end.
The night of the 23rd of September 1916 was clear with favorable winds, and Germany decided to launch an air raid against Britain using 12 airships. Eight were older models designated to strike the Midlands, while four newer models (L30, L31, L32, and L33) were ordered to bomb strategic targets in the London area - their first operational sortie.
The scale of the operation was not by chance. Just a few weeks earlier on the 2nd of September, the first airship was lost over Britain. The introduction of incendiary bullets were deadly against the flammable hydrogen that held the airships afloat, but airship command wanted to prove that Zeppelin raids were still a viable form of combat. They were going to put everything on the line to prove their point.
The new model L30s were supposed to be more robust and capable of fending off fighters and escaping anti-aircraft fire. Even so, their crews couldn't shake the fact that things had been growing more and more dangerous over the skies of London.
The Night Raid
Nevertheless, the mission was a go and the ships made their way across the channel. L30 had engine troubles and turned back, but the others pressed on. Reaching the coast, the fleet separated and went for their respective targets.
A couple of direct hits resulted in the ship losing hydrogen, forcing it towards the ground. Böcker ordered his crew to throw anything and everything - machine guns, tools, crates - to lighten the load. They turned the ship around and made for the Channel.
The Night Fighter
Unbeknownst to them, they were being pursued by Alfred Brandon in an B.E.2c biplane. A night fighter, Brandon's biplane was fitted with machine guns and incendiary rounds capable of turning the L33 into a blazing inferno. Taking a run at the airship, Brandon's gun came off its mount and lost a magazine of incendiary rounds. Doubling back, he reloaded the gun with fresh ammo and fired at L33, riddling it with bullets. Böcker and his crew braced with fright as incendiary rounds punctured through gas tanks and the ship's hydrogen cells.
Alfred would try a third pass, but his gun jammed and he had to return to base. Luckily, for the crew of L33, the ship didn't catch on fire. However, it was now evident that they would never make it across the channel with the state of their ship and Böcker decided to land in Little Wigborough, Essex.
L33 came crashing down to a halt on a road in rural England. Böcker and his crew scrambled out in fear of it catching fire. The captain ran to a row of nearby houses, banging on the doors to inform their inhabitants to leave in case the ship exploded. But none of the families responded out of fear of hearing all the chaos and German voices outside.
In the end, the ship never blew up, and Böcker and his crew of 21 began walking down the country road in hopes of reaching the coast.
The Cycling Constable
One can only imagine what it must've felt like to be cycling out to an airship crash, only to come across 22 German airmen casually walking down the road. This is what happened to Constable Edgar Nicholas. Approaching the men, Böcker greeted the constable and asked him in broken English "How many miles is it to Colchester?" The exact conversation is clouded by history, but Constable Nicholas was able to arrest the airmen and escorted them back to a nearby village.
Tea in a Church Hall
It was 4:00 in the morning and the constable had to wait the rest of the night with the airmen as the military would not come around to pick them up until morning. Not knowing where to house them, the village vicar offered up the local church hall, where the men were given a place to rest and some tea and biscuits.
End of an Era
The results of the raid proved disastrous for Germany. Not only were Böcker and his men captured, but L33 was left largely intact, offering great insight into the technology for Britain. L33 was also not the only ship to be lost that night. L32 was also hit during the raid, coming down in a ball of fire. Kapitän-Leutnant Werner Petersen would later be found someways away from his ship. He had decided to jump rather than burn aboard the L32. All 21 crew perished and were offered proper burials.
It was a great blow for Germany and its airship crews. One that they would never recover from. By war's end, airship raids were seen more of a nuisance than a direct threat. And when surrender came, many crews destroyed their ships rather than hand them over.
When researching the history of this pin, I was pretty shocked at its story. Fit for a Hollywood epic, the lives of such crews were harrowing and filled with the thrill for flight. A crew stranded from home, led by their chivalric captain who would go out of his way to ensure the safety of the families he just landed on.
But, we must remind ourselves of the consequences of the war. Many of the bombs dropped during the Blitz fell on civilian homes. 40 people lost their lives that fateful night in September.
Either crafted by an enterprising individual to sell as a souvenir, or by the government to drum up funds for the war effort, this pin is a piece of L33, taken from its resting place. A small remembrance of that September night.
Kenneth Poolman, Zeppelins Against London, 1961
Arch Whitehouse, The Zeppelin Fighters, 1966