On afternoon hours of September 23rd 1916, one of the ‘next generation’ super-Zeppelins, L33, took to the air for its first operational mission: the bombing of downtown London. Just a few months before, L33 was on the ground, getting its final fittings and adjustments. The L33 was truly a remarkable piece of engineering. She was 649′ long, with a 78 feet diameter and with a total gas capacity of 1,949,000 cubic feet. Six powerful Maybach 240hp Hslu engines gave the lumbering giant a top speed of 59 mph at a maximum operational ceiling of 13,500 feet. Beside its sheer size, what separated the L33 from its predecessor was its bomb load capacity. An impressive five tons of ordnance could be stored.
That fateful afternoon, L33 was accompanied by ten additional super-Zeppelins of the Imperial German Navy. The mission called for the eleven to reach the British coastline at the same time. After which, each craft will take off to its pre-designated target area. Eight Zeppelins were assigned to strike targets around the Wash. The remaining three units were to hit the British capital. Taking part in the London raid was L31 under the command of Heinrich Mathy, L32, lead by the enigmatic Werner Peterson and the L33, controlled by Alois Bocker.
L33, which departed Nordholz, was fitted with almost three tons of free fall bombs. At approximately ten o’clock GMT, L33 flew over Britain’s coast. The huge dirigible was spotted by some local boys near the Thames Estuary. From the Estuary, it moved on towards the north east in order to avoid the heavily saturated British defenses on the east. At the same time, L31 and L32 were crossing the coast headed towards Dungeness, a path seldom explored by German and British planners.
At 11:48 pm, Bocker ordered L33’s bombs to be dropped. Six high explosive bombs landed on Hornchurch. Twenty minutes later, the 33 craft was seen passing West Ham by a couple of street policemen. They promptly alerted the authorities. Searchlights blanketed the pass between Ham and London. After five intensive minutes of search, no Zeppelin was discovered, thus, the search was called off, for the time being.
A little over 12:05 in the morning, London’s powerful searchlights were turned on. The spotters must have seen the undisputed sight of the German slow moving dirigible, because an intense ground attack commenced shortly afterwards. Bocker’s airship was cruising at 12,000 feet following the Ham’s banks when fire erupted. Despite it all, he and his crew kept L33’s attack direction all the way up to Bromley-by-Bow, where the gas giant dropped its main ordnance. One 100kg bomb and five small, incendiary bomblets landed on St. Leonard’s and Empress Streets.
Four urban houses were damaged and six people were killed in this early stage of the raid. L33 went on to deliver several more bombs in and around Bow. But by this time, the airship was shadowed by British defenses. Low trajectory shells began to find their mark. Several fragments of high detonation shells exploded only a few feet away from the ship’s skin puncturing one gas cell. Now the big air platform was in trouble. It began losing altitude fast. At 12:20 am, L33 was seen crossing Buckhurts Hill, leaking gas. Besieged by heavy ground fire, and declining altitude, Bocker decided to dump water from the ship’s ballast tanks, which caused the L33 to regain some of the height it had lost. But the damage was done.
Near Kelvedon Common, a new and more ominous treat arrived: a British pursuit airplane. Second Lieutenant Alfred de Bathe Brandon was ready for the opportunity to engage the German ship. He had gained valuable experience in March 1916, when he almost single-handedly severely damaged L15. Brandon met L33 head on, emptying his Lewis gun, fifty explosive incendiary bullets, into the airship’s stern section. He swung around to hit the stern again, but his gun jammed forcing him to call off the engagement. L33 escaped, at least for the moment.
It was now 12:45 and the dirigible was passing by Chelmsford, still losing precious high. In an attempt to steam the decline, all non-essential materials aboard were jettisoned. Twenty five minutes after, at 1:10, Bocker’s ship passed over the Essex coastal area near Mersea Island. Its destination was the security of the Belgium skies. Unfortunately for Bocker and his crew, L33 was doomed. The Zeppelin was almost out of gas, losing altitude fast and its structure was compromised. It would go down, the only question for Bocker was where.
A crash landing at sea, at that hour, was deemed too risky. Better off, the commander thought, to make a semi-controlled decent in British territory, then deal with the imprisonment issue. Immediately, the ship began to turnaround, now headed back to Essex. She managed to enter the coast. Two and a half miles inland, at 1:20am, L33 went down on a deserted field near Peldon and Little Wigborough church. The crew managed to escape before the gas giant was engulfed in a fire storm.
Soon after the fire died down, and with the metal frame still standing, Bocker ordered his men to climb back into what was left of the super-Zeppelin to destroy any classified material. Despite their best efforts, the British still were able to gather many essential documents and systems out of the wreck. Data that would be later incorporated on the R33 platform.
When the crew saw the first police cars arriving on the field, they promptly left the area. But the trip back to the coast was short lived. Specialist, Edgar Nicholas, apprehended the entire crew without even taking a shot.
The crew of L33 was questioned extensively by British military and scientific personnel. Even psychologists were brought in to examine the men’s mental profile. Such was the depth of the debriefing phase. As for the dirigible’s debris, they were studied by engineers for days. After authorities were satisfied that every drop of information was collected, the ship’s frame was burn to the ground.
In the final analysis, the end of L33 did not alter the rate of Zeppelin attacks, but what it did was to enforce a view held by many German commanders, Zeppelins alone would not defeat Great Britain. A new weapon was needed. One year later, that weapon would make its present felt.
– Raul Colon
World War I, HP Willmott, Covent Gardens Books 2003
The First World War, Hew Strachan, Penguin Books 2003
The Encyclopedia of Military Aircraft, Robert Jackson, Parragon Publishing Book 2002