The Germans had begun using aerial bombing using zeppelins from the early days of the war with London becoming a target from May 1915. The population of England detested the concept of random bombing directed against civilians and the zeppelin crews were described as “baby killers” by the press.
Surprisingly the zeppelins proved hard to bring down, often operating at high altitude and at night, but defences gradually evolved, and the raids became far more dangerous for the Germans.
In the early hours of 1 October 1916 the German zeppelin L-31 was caught in a web of searchlights above London, allowing Second Lieutenant W. J. Tempest, flying a BE 2 night fighter aircraft to see it clearly.
He attacked from above, using incendiary ammunition and was amazed to see a red glow spreading from the interior of the airship as the hydrogen inside began burning. The fire spread and the entire massive structure was gradually engulfed in flames visible for miles around. A newspaper reporter, Michael MacDonagh, reported on the spectacle:
“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 hoarse shout of mingled execration, triumph and joy; a swelling shout that appeared to be rising from all parts of the metropolis, ever increasing in force and intensity.”
The zeppelin came down near Oakmere Park in Hertfordshire, with the crew of nineteen perishing in the crash. One of these was the commander Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy, a renowned airship commander who was well known to the British. He had leaped from the gondola, choosing death by impact with the ground, in preference to dying in the flames.
Image: L-31 in the air during 1916, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.