The Zeppelins were still in reality almost untouchable due to the higher altitude they could fly at compared to aircraft and the AA guns and searchlights were still too few. Of the 79 sorties flown by aircraft during 1915, eight aircraft crashed on landing killing three pilots and no Zeppelins were sighted. Night flying was in its infancy. Prior to the outbreak of war, only experimental night flying had taken place and at the start of the enemy raids no pilots with night flying experience were available. Instruments in the aircraft were not illuminated. Flare paths were simple affairs of petrol tins filled with a mixture of petrol, paraffin and cotton waste. The attempt to intercept Zeppelins with aircraft was looked as a forlorn hope.
Opinion was questioning whether aircraft were the correct way to challenge the “German sausages”. One suggestion was that the best way to meet Zeppelins was with airships, which could rise when notice of an attack was received and wait aloft to attack them when they arrived.
During the first quarter of 1916, Zeppelins continued their raids. On Jan 31st, nine Zeppelins manoeuvred over the Midlands, one almost reaching Shrewsbury. A total of 70people were killed during this raid and as a consequence lighting restrictions were now applied to most of the country. Of 15 aircraft that took off in pursuit, eight crashed on landing.
Against this, definite improvements in the aircraft defence were taking place from lessons learned during 1915. The R.N.A.S. was now becoming increasingly occupied with the U-Boats and in January 1916 the R.F.C took over the responsibility of Home Defence. One key lesson was the need for more searchlights – a Zeppelin could quite easily fly out of range of a beam and if not handed over to an adjacent searchlight it would be difficult to pick up again. To overcome this, two concentric circles of searchlights were established round London and nine electric trams were fitted with searchlights to act as mobile units. It was also recognised that the scattered aircraft, all from different squadrons, would operate much better under a single command. At first they were placed under the command of Major Higgins, commanding No 19 Reserve Squadron on 1st February. Soon after, in March, the formation of 10 Home Defence squadrons was authorised, the aircraft under Major Higgins command formed part of No 39 Home Defence Squadron. The landing grounds were also concentrated as it was impossible to operationally command such scattered aircraft. Two flights of six aircraft each were based at Hainault Farm and Sutton’s Farm with arrangements made to establish a third flight at North Weald Basset. Permanent hangers of wood began to replace the canvas hangers and accommodation and workshops were constructed.
Pilots were gaining in experience in night fighting and the number of crash landings had reduced substantially. Aircraft were now armed with Lewis guns firing the Brock explosive bullet and the Pomeroy bullet. Cockpit illumination had been introduced in early 1916. Night landing grounds were safer with the introduction of Money flares and a standardisation of flare-path lengths and the distance between flares.
These improvements in the defences began to be noticed by the Zeppelin commanders following the raid by five Zeppelins on London on March 31st. Two of these had to turn back before reaching the British coast due to engine trouble. A third developed engine problems on the way to London and decided to bomb the Humber area instead. The other two, L13 commanded by Mathy and L.15 by Breitaupt crossed the Suffolk coast at about 8pm. Mathy decided barometric conditions would prevent him from reaching a safe height over London so he attacked targets in the Stowmarket area instead. After dropping 12 bombs on the explosives works near Stowmarket, his airship was damaged by an AA shell, so he turned for home. L.15 pressed on for London. Caught in searchlights she was hit by a gun at Purfleet. From Hainault Farm, Lt Brandon flying a B.E.2c was on patrol and due to the barometric conditions, L15 was flying lower than usual; Lt Brandon managed to get above her and attacked with explosive darts, incendiary bombs and machine gun. Damage was caused to L.15, and she eventually fell into the sea off the Essex
Right: Wreckage of L.15
Raids continued into April, including one in conjunction with a naval bombardment on Yarmouth and Lowestoft to coincide with the rebellion in Ireland. After a pause until July due to the short summer nights, raids continued but with little results. On Aug 24th, Mathy commanding L.31, a new “super Zeppelin” attacked London; several 240 lb bombs, the largest then known were dropped causing considerable damage in south-east London. This heralded a period of growing danger as Zeppelins began to raid in packs in a determined effort to cause panic in London. Zeppelins were also now raiding in dark nights instead of in periods of full moon. On Sept 2nd, 14 Zeppelins set off to raid London. The Admiralty received warning of this raid and No 39 squadron ordered each flight to dispatch one aircraft on patrol. Zeppelin S.L.11, in the van of the approaching raiders, crossed the coast at Foulness Point at 10:40pm and then made a wide sweep over Essex and Hertfordshire to approach London from the north-west. Beginning her attack, she was caught in searchlights and heavily engaged by AA guns. Despite the heavy AA fire, Lt Robinson on patrol from Sutton’s Farm did not hesitate to attack and after firing his third drum of incendiary bullets, S.L.11 burst into flames falling from the sky near Cuffley. Many of the other Zeppelin commanders witnessed this and decided not to risk their ships and turned off short of London, dropping their loads and making off at speed.
This set back led the Germans to conclude that future raids against London could not take place at heights below 16,000 feet. To attain such a height, the bomb load would have to be halved. For the future, only the super-Zeppelins should be used. By September 1916, three of these super-Zeppelins were available (L.31, L.32 and L.33). The super-Zeppelins had a capacity of 2,000,000 cubic feet compared with the 1,300,000 cubic feet of S.L.11. They were of metal construction and were driven by six engines giving a total of 1,440 h.p.
On Sept 23rd, the weather was favourable again for raiding and 11 airships left their sheds, but only the super-Zeppelins were to attack London. The L.33 was the first of the super-Zeppelins to reach London, and was damaged by AA fire over the East End. A second shell caused further damage and the commander decided to turn for home. Near Chelmsford, she was engaged by Lt Brandon on patrol in a B.E.2c. For twenty minutes, Brandon engaged in a running fight with L.33. Although Brandon saw his bursts of fire hitting the Zeppelin, she did not catch alight. However she was losing much gas and the commander, realising he had no hope of reaching Germany, crash landed the airship near Little Wigborough in Essex.
Right: Wreckage of L.33
Mathy, commanding L.31, pressed home his attack against London. Dropping a parachute flare, he was able to dazzle the defence and drop his bombs, resulting in 22 dead and 74 injured. Mist enabled him to return safely, avoiding the patrolling aircraft from No 39 squadron waiting for him. However the commander of the third super-Zeppelin, L.32, hesitated after crossing the coast. Eventually he headed towards London but to avoid the central defences headed to the east, crossing the Thames at Dartford. The airship had been covered by mist to the south of the Thames but was exposed to clear skies north of the river where the airship was at once illuminated by several search lights. He dropped his bombs between Aveley and South Ockendom and made for home. The airship flew straight into the patrol line of Lt. Sowrey, who had taken off from Sutton’s Farm thee quarters of an hour earlier. Lt Brandon, who was still in the air, watched Sowrey attack and described the ill-fated airship being “hosed with a stream of fire”. The airship fell in a blazing mass of flames near Billericay, Essex.
Right: L.32 in flight and
Despite this setback, another raid was ordered for Sept 25th when four Zeppelins bombed Sheffield and narrowly missed Manchester. Another two approached the Norfolk coast, but the cautious commanders would not cross over. Mathy was ordered to attack London again but to seek an alternative target if the night was too bright. He crossed the Channel, and judging the conditions to be unfavourable, headed towards Portsmouth. Blinded by searchlights he dropped his bombs, which all fell into the sea and headed for home, on what was to be his last voyage back to Germany.
On Oct 1st, 11 airships left for yet another raid. Three made an innocuous tour of Lincolnshire. Mathy, in L.31, crossed the coast at Lowestoft at about 8pm and made for London. Approaching the capital he was met with heavy gunfire and decided to abandon his bombing run, getting rid of his bombs on Cheshunt. However he was held by searchlights, and Lt Tempest on patrol from No 39 squadron, noticed the searchlights “concentrated in an enormous ‘pyramid’”. Heading towards this “pyramid” of light through very heavy AA gunfire, Lt Tempest quickly closed with L.31 and brought her down in flames at Potter’s Bar. Three other airships that witnessed Mathy’s end immediately headed for home. Lt Tempest crashed on landing at North Weald Bassett but was unhurt.
Right: Wreckage of L.31 and
Germany's best Zeppelin
Commander - Mathy
This raid signalled the end of Zeppelin attacks against London – the defences had got the better of them. In the wreckage of the gondola of L.31, a map was found with Sutton’s Farm airfield clearly ringed in blue. Just before the raid, an unsuccessful attempt was made to fire a group of ricks near the airfield, attributed at the time as an attempt by enemy agents trying to locate the airfield for the attention of the raiders. The pilots of No 39 squadron had certainly made the skies too dangerous for Zeppelins.
The Zeppelin raids were not quite over though. The German command instead turned their attention to the north of the country. On Nov 27th, ten airships left Germany. Of these, eight came in over land. One was shot down by Lt Pyott, R.F.C., near Hartlepool. One mad a remarkable journey right across England to Cheshire, but was caught just as it was getting light when crossing back over the coast at Yarmouth. Three Naval planes came up to attack. The first two pilots where unsuccessful, but the third, Lt Pulling, closing to within 60 ft of the airship shot it down into the sea from 8,000 ft. Other raiders who had witnessed the disaster at Hartlepool turned for home without crossing the coast. The British casualties caused by this raid were one man and three women killed.
During 1916, a total of 18 raids were made on England by aeroplanes and seaplanes. These were of the “tip and run” variety and consisted of coming in over the coast, dropping a few bombs and heading for home. These attacks had very little impact. The first raid on London by aeroplanes took place on Nov 28th. The aircraft was a single engine L.V.G biplane powered by a 235hp Mercedes-Benz engine. The aeroplane, crewed by Deck-Offizier Brandt ad Leutnant Llges took off from Mariakerke early morning with orders to take photographs and bomb the Admiralty in Whitehall. They dropped their bombs from 13,000 ft, between the Brompton Road and Victoria station. They were forced to land in within the Allied lines near Boulogne due to engine trouble, both taken prisoner.
Right: Route taken by the
raider on Nov 28th and a
sketch of an L.V.G biplane