The L33 Raid: A game changer

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

References:

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

The very first raid on England: LZ38 Bomb Run

“If one could set fire to London in thirty places, then what in a small way was odious would retire before something fine and powerful”, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, January 1915. With those words, the world was ushered into the age of aerial bombardment.

When the Great War broke in Europe on August 1914, the Imperial German Army, as well as the Navy, had their own Luftschiff Zeppelin airship fleets. The first German air attack against England was carried out in December 21st 1914, and, contrary to some accounts, it was not done by a dirigible. A Heinkel-designed Albatross sea plane dropped a pair of twenty pound, fragment bombs in and around the Dover area that fateful day. Although no injuries, and only a minor infrastructure damages were reported, the idea of a German-lead, massive air assault on the British Isles, an idea already sheared by many Brits, rapidly achieved almost mythological status.

From late 1914 to the early spring of 1915, there was profound discussion inside the German military and political establishment regarding the effectiveness of an all out bombing campaign against Great Britain. Not that there were doubts about attacking the British Empire, the question was more precisely: how to do it? On the one hand, there were those, mostly civilian leaders, who were in favor of an all out bombing campaign on military targets only. The other side of the isle belonged to the military which desired a truly universal campaign designed on infrastructure and moral attacks. In order to achieve both of those objectives, Germany must be willing to attack population centers without remorse, the thinking went. As with many major political decision, a compromise was reach were the Zeppelins would indeed operate against both military and civilian targets with the caveat that any attack on populated areas must be short in nature.

German Chancellor, Theodore von Bethmann-Hollweg, fearing a public backlash if civilian causalities started to mount do to the Zeppelin raids, added a clause to the newly adopted air doctrine. “Any attack on civilian centers must be undertaken by a few ships with long intervals between raids”.

On February 12th, German Kaiser Wilhelm II issued an Imperial Order that permitted attacks to take place on oil, petroleum and dock facilities in London. Although the order did not specifically called for the bombing of civilian, because of the inaccuracy of the dirigibles and the close integration in the British capital of civilian houses near the pre-selected target sectors, the decree, for all purposes, permitted airships formations to unleash terror from the skies upon the population of London.

On the afternoon of May 31st 1915, Luftschiff Zeppelin 38 took off from its pen at Brussels-Evere. Its mission profile called for a short bomb run of the important industrial east side of London. After encountering a brief, southwest thunder storm, LZ-38’s commander, Hauptmann Karl Linnarz, ordered a sharp east turn towards England’s south east coast. The massive airship was first sighted over Southend at around 9:15pm. By 10:50pm it was over the storied British capital. Flying at around 10,000 feet, at 10:59, Linnarz gave the order to ‘release bombs’. One hundred and twenty high explosive and incendiary bombs rained down on Stoke Newington and Dalston. Also hit were Hoxton, Whitechapel and Leytonstone.

At 11:01pm, members of the Home Guard, utilizing rudimentary anti-aircraft, commence to fire at Linnarz’s ship. Search lights pounded the London night sky in search of the intruder. Fighters took off in search and destroy missions. In a nut shell, all of the British anti air raid assets were deployed in a matter of just a few minutes. Unfortunately for the defenders, their turn of the century guns were completely ineffective falling to land a single shoot near the huge air platform. Search lights could not locate the ship either and the fighters took so much time getting into the Zeppelin altitude profile that by the time they arrive on one spot, the ship was surely to be somewhere else. Bottom line, no one that fateful night would find LZ-38.
On the ground, the effects of the bombing, seven Londoners perished and twenty five were reported injured, were minimal if compared to the carnage of the now dreaded Western Front, but, unlike the fields of northern France, this was the heart of the British Empire. For the first time since the Dutch raids of 1667, London was subject to bombardment.

The consequences of the attack were profound, not only in England but in Germany as well. England fell uncomfortably vulnerable while the German Reich was emboldened with a new sense of omnipotence. Omnipotence also carried out a felling of wondering. As a pure military operation, the LZ-38 was, at best, a side show. A distraction. No military target was hit during the fifteen minute raid. And although the civilian casualties were relative low for such an inaccurate attack, it did happen.

The image the world took out of LZ-38’s attack was that of a ‘Hun barbarians’. Germans attacking innocent civilians while praying, as was the case with a middle age couple who perish during the Stoke Newington raid while doing its night prayers, was the image British newspapers sold to the world. An image that was only enhanced a few moths later during the battles for Flanders.
Even if it was a military failure, the 38’s attack, German leaders though, proved to Britain, and to rest of the world one thing: that German technical superiority will help win the war for the Central Powers.

Back on England, the reaction assumed a more somber tone. As late as 1913, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, mocked the value of ‘these gaseous monster’ as tools of war. By June 1915, no one in the Admiralty was ridiculing the Zeppelins. As the summers months drag along, the British shifted resources to the development of long range anti aircraft guns, pure interceptors and the establishment of a coordinated airship detection units along the English Channel coast.

On July 11th 1915, Wilhelm lifted what ever constraints the German armed forces operated. Now ‘Huns’ Zeppelins were free to roam the London skyline. All targets around the venerable British capital were to be subjected to bombardment, all of them except St. Paul Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. Historic structures that was closely associated with the Kaiser’s English royal relatives.

– Raul Colon

References:

Fire Over England: The German Air Raids in World War I, HG Castle, Secker & Warburg, 1982
Zeppelins Over England, EK Poolman, Evan Brothers 1960