Saturday, July 7, 2012

Death in flames in the night

A non-New Zealand topic, this. I bought this postcard recently, and thought of my grandmother Elinor Smith who was in London during the zeppelin attacks of World War I.

The image, like a fish swimming in a dark sea, is a photo of 18 men dying in flames or falling to their death.
The feat of Lieuts. Sowrey and Brandon accounted for the second and third Zeppelin brought down in England in the space of three weeks; before a month had elapsed a fourth met its doom. It was the L31 which was brought down at Potter's Bar in the early hours of 1st October. Credit for its destruction is given, to "the anti-aircraft defence organisation," and up to the time of the inquest nineteen bodies had been discovered.

The importance of the destruction of the L31 is greatly enhanced by the disclosure that its commander was the ablest and most successful of German airship-commanders, Captain-Lieutenant Mathy, who boasted that down to September, 1915, he had taken part in every Zeppelin attack in England, and he thus had obtained a knowledge of English air conditions such as no other German officer possessed. Entering the German Navy in 1900, he made a great reputation as a bold destroyer officer. When Zeppelins were introduced he entered the air branch of the German Navy, and was specially selected to watch the trials of the first two. When war broke out he was placed in command of one of the largest and latest airships. Immediately after his September visit to London he gave to an American journalist a full description of his attack on the Metropolis and he said, "The English can darken London as much as they want, but they can never remove the Thames, from which we can always get our bearings. London was darkened, but there was sufficient light on this night to enable me to see its reflected glow in the sky nearly forty miles away shortly before 10 p.m.; soon the city was outlined silent below. A large city seen at night from a great height is a fairylike picture. There is no sign of life."

Then he proceeded to relate how he had dropped bombs, "with success," in the vicinity of the Bank of England, the Tower, and on certain railway stations. "There was a succession of detonations and bursts of flame, and I could see that I had apparently done great damage. I turned my L for home. We had not been hit. I have never experienced a fight with an aeroplane; in fact, I have never been bothered by them! The men are always at the guns watching for them. I am not afraid of them, and I think I could make it interesting for them."

All this happened a year ago. Conditions have changed and on this his last visit, things were made "interesting" for him by London's "anti-aircraft defence organisation," and the charred remains of Mathy and eighteen of his crew were disentangled from the .burning wreckage. A "bag”, of four Zeppelin-loads of baby-killers within the space of four weeks is not a bad record for England; one can only hope that it causes disturbance in Germany.

(Evening Post 14 November 1916)

There is already a fine article on the incident online: Decisions at Potter's Bar. Also The Potter's Bar Zeppelin, and a photo of a piece of the remains of L31.


  1. That is such an incredible image. Considering the era when it was taken - that's quite special. A bit of very important history captured on a camera.

  2. Certainly agree with Liz on that one!