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Zeppelin brought down over Potters Bar

A Zeppelin ready for takeoff
A Zeppelin preparing for take off
Image courtesy of Les Chevaliers Du Ciel

On the first day of October 1916, as a ‘thick clammy mist’ hung over Potters Bar, a young newspaper reporter, notebook in hand, made his way across ‘miry roads’ and ‘sodden fields’ to Oakmere Park.

He had just stepped off the train from Kings Cross after a ‘tedious’ and slow journey in a packed compartment, battling for space with people standing shoulder to shoulder.

His orders from his editor that morning were to travel to Potters Bar and report on the shooting down of a German Zeppelin airship a few hours earlier.

He knew he was expected to file a strong lead story, but he could not have known just how strong his story would be.

A group of visitors to the tree in Oakmere Park where the Zeppelin fell
A group of visitors to the tree in Oakmere Park where the Zeppelin fell
Image from Barnet Press 1966

By the time reporter Michael MacDonagh reached the site, a crowd of locals had gathered at the scene, where armed solders were guarding a barn near an old oak tree where the Zeppelin had crashed.

The front part of the airship was still smouldering in the branches of the oak tree.

The remainder lay in two ‘enormous heaps, separated from each other by about a hundred yards’.

The reporter approached the guard, explained who he was, and was allowed to enter the barn. In a corner lay a row of bodies, all covered with blankets.

Lieutenant Heinrich Mathy
Lieutenant Heinrich Mathy
Image courtesy of Les Chevaliers Du Ciel

He pulled back the blanket covering the first body and the importance of the event hit him.

Lying beneath him was a young, clean-shaven man, heavily clad in a dark uniform with overcoat and thick muffler.

The reporter knew immediately who the man was.

Before leaving his office that morning he had gathered pictures and information about the Zeppelins and the aircrews who flew them.

Young Michael MacDonagh was looking down at the body of Lieutenant Heinrich Mathy, the most renowned of the German airship commanders and the man who held the record for the most bombing raids on Britain.

Hours earlier the reporter had witnessed the moment when the Zeppelin was first hit as it soared above the City of London, 15 miles south of its final resting place.

A Zeppelin caught in the searchlights
A Zeppelin caught in the searchlights
Image courtesy of NMLHS

In his report, published soon after the event Michael MacDonagh wrote:

"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.

"The 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 swelling shout, that appeared to be rising from all parts of the metropolis, ever increasing in force and intensity."

The Zeppelin had drifted to the north, out of Michael MacDonagh’s view, and was falling slowly towards Potters Bar, where it crashed to the ground.

What the reporter didn’t know at the time was what had caused the Zeppelin to burst into flames and crash.

2nd Lieut. (later Capt.) W. Leefe Robinson and 2nd Lieut. (later Major) W.J. Tempest
From left to right: 2nd Lieut. (later Capt.) W. Leefe Robinson and 2nd Lieut. (later Major) W.J. Tempest
Image from Barnet Press 1966

While Michael MacDonagh had been clearing his desk shortly before leaving the office the night before, Wulstan Joseph Tempest, a 2nd Lieutenant in the 39th Home Defence Squadron protecting London from German air raids, started out on patrol from Hornchurch aerodrome.

Word came through that eleven German Zeppelins had been sighted heading for London.

Lieutenant Tempest (on the right of the picture) decided to ignore orders to patrol the Thames and decided instead to climb higher to where the airships normally flew.

At that point one of the Zeppelin, identified as L-31, was picked out by searchlights.

The crew of Lieutenant Mathy's airship tried to escape the beams, but without success.

Lieutenant Tempest was flying higher and faster than the Zeppelin and was able to close in and despatch a succession of incendiary bullets into its massive frame, setting it alight.

As the giant airship began to lose height and the flames took hold, some of Lieutenant Mathy’s crew were seen to jump from the Zeppelin as it fell to the ground.

Author R.J. McCaffery, in his work, 'Before Parachutes, 1917', describes what would have been going through Lieutenant Mathy's mind. Here is a verse from the poem.

Mathy coasts, engines off,
just south of London, so quiet and low,
he hears dogs barking. He grips
the gondola's rail: under his rubber-soles, tons
of firebombs, he can reach up, touch two million
cubic-feet of hydrogen, bound by his craft's fabric hull.
Mathy hears a plane. Does it see them?
As the engine's drone shifts to a dive,
Mathy knows they're done. A chatter
as the plane fires. L-31 chars, bursts;
seeds of burning men plunk to earth
as the zeppelin's shell flares-off
like a cotton ball soaked in turpentine.

© RJ McCaffery

This battle in the sky was the incident the young reporter Michael MacDonagh witnessed from the ground soon after midnight and the bodies in front of him on were the remains of the dead aircrew of L-31.

Wulstan Joseph Tempest was later promoted to Major and awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). Tempest Avenue, a road near Oakmere Park, was named after him.

A  German Schutte-Lanz Airship
A German Schutte-Lanz Airship
Image courtesy of NMLHS

It was the second downing of a German airship in the area in almost as many weeks.

On 3 September, a wooden airship, lighter than the Zeppelin, but no less threatening, was brought down over Cuffley.

The Shutte-Lanz SL-11 was also on a bombing raid over London, but again fell victim to the Royal Flying Corps pilots of 39 Squadron.

The man responsible for bringing the SL11 down was 2nd Lieutenant (later Captain) William Leefe Robinson.

A BE2C biplane
A BE2C biplane
Image courtesy of www.RAF-Waddington.com

Flying a BE2C biplane with an open cockpit, which had a top speed of only 70 miles per hour, he emptied two of his ammunition drums into the airship, but failed to damage it.

With his final drum he aimed for a different part of the hull, pumping a new type of incendiary ammunition into the airship.

The SL11 burst into flames and plunged to earth crashing behind the Plough Inn at Cuffley.

Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson was later made Captain and awarded the Victoria Cross (VC).

Note: Thanks to the North Mymms Local History Society for digging out cuttings, photographs and written documents about this topic from the society's archives.

There is an excellent article about this event at the site of the Wartimes Journal. The article includes an image of the wreckage of the Zeppelin in Potters Bar and a picture of it falling from the sky.

May 2003

The Faber Book of Reportage - edited by John Cory 1987
Barnet Press - September 1966
The Airship VC - Aston Publications
Before Parachutes, 1917 - The Alsop Review
Various cuttings and pictures from the Archives of the North Mymms Local History Society (NMLHS)

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