Diary of the War No.20

L15

In the second part of our Zeppelin double bill, we turn now to the tale of L15 as a counterpart to the story of L19 and Franz Fischer in Part 1. Like L19, L15 was a veteran of the raid on the West Midlands of 31 January/1 February 1916, and had, unlike the former, returned safely from that operation. She would survive to see two more months of activity.

Her final operation, together with six other Zeppelins, was planned for the week beginning March 31, when there would be minimal moonlight. (1) Admiral Scheer’s signal, briefing the German High Sea Fleet on the impending raid on southern England that night, was intercepted by British intelligence and a minesweeper tracked the Zeppelin, sending a report to Lowestoft. The British naval machine swung into action, with destroyers taking station off the east coast, just as the raid began over Essex and Suffolk.

L15 crossed the coast over Suffolk and, according to the later British official history, ‘followed the track of the Great Eastern Railway towards London, dropping a few bombs on Ipswich and Colchester as she passed’. As she lumbered south-westwards over the Thames ‘she was heavily engaged by the numerous anti-aircraft batteries’ on both the north and south banks at Purfleet, Erith, and Plumstead. L15 was forced to jettison her bombs over Rainham and turn back towards Germany, but not before the Purfleet battery had scored a hit.

The disabled Zeppelin was then intercepted by Alfred de Bathe Brandon of the Royal Flying Corps at Hainault, in a BE 2C biplane: he climbed above his target, attempting to bring her down by means of Ranken darts, a specific anti-Zeppelin weapon designed to pierce the skin of the hull. The airship then circled over Foulness, Essex, and dropped away, crashing into the sea near the Kentish Knock.

Colour image of Ranken dart next to its casing plate.
Ranken anti-Zeppelin dart, © IWM (MUN 3278)

It has been a matter of speculation ever since whether the Purfleet gun battery or Brandon’s action was ultimately responsible for the Zeppelin’s demise, or whether it was the combination of the two that made her the first Zeppelin to come down within English territorial waters. Official sources say nothing about a small explosion on board, but contemporary newspapers suggest that the crew had drawn lots as to who would be the last to stay behind after the rescue and blow up the airship, which would have meant almost certain death for the unlucky crew member. (2)

Oil painting of the hulked Zeppelin against a red and orange sky reflected in the sea with the black hulks of vessels in attendance.
St George and the Dragon, Donald Maxwell, 1917, depicting the downed L15 in the Thames. © IWM (IWM ART 888)

 

In the event, no self-immolation occurred, although, as the patrol trawler Olivine approached, a small explosion in the motor room was noted just before the Zeppelin crew surrendered. (2)

In contrast to the story of L19, the crew were not left to their fate by the trawler. All but one of the crew were rescued by the Olivine, and taken prisoner, although one had drowned before he could be picked up. But then the Olivine was not out alone in the remote expanses of the North Sea, but in a busy shipping lane bristling with warships and civilian vessels alike. The Zeppelin came down ‘in a flotilla of net drifters’ which the Olivine was guarding (1) and other patrol vessels were nearby: ‘That stretch of water . . . swarms with patrolling craft.’ (2)

‘She came down like a sick bird, flopping at both ends as though they were wings’, said one witness. (2) An hour and a half later, destroyers from the Nore tried to take her in tow but the operation was fraught with  difficulty, since ‘her stern was under water, the envelope was partly broken, and her back was broken.’ (1) After proceeding a very short distance, she collapsed and sank within hours of coming down,  but was eventually salvaged off Westgate, Kent.

The crew were taken to Chatham and the New York Times conducted an interview with the prisoners at the barracks, interrogating them on the impact of the raids and the loss of life among civilians, particularly women and children, so that on the whole the authorities’ decision to allow access to the prisoners resulted in a pro-British piece in the US press.

It turned out that Lieutenant Kuehne had been married only 8 days previously and he ‘was rather surprised to learn that his captors would allow him to write a letter to his bride. He confessed that he had no idea that the British could be so sympathetic.’ (3) He also sent his greetings to a London newspaper editor whom he had met before the war, demonstrating that there was still a residue of the mutual cordiality of pre-war Anglo-German relations. One final detail that emerged from the interview was that the night had been so cold and the Zeppelin flying so high that it was coated in frost and they ‘suffered severely’.

I’d like to end this blog on a personal note. Zeppelins would continue their raids on England in 1916 and beyond: for me these raids are only two generations away. My paternal grandmother went to see the site of another Zeppelin which came down at Great Burstead, Essex, in September 1916. She found the wreck guarded by policemen and soldiers but was profoundly shocked on arrival to see that the soldiers had already looted pieces of debris and were selling them to the public! This was hardly surprising since souvenirs from L15 are also known to survive, with several being in the collections of the Imperial War Museum, London (no images available).

(1) Naval Staff Monographs No.31, Vol. XV: Home Waters: Part VI: From October 1915 to May 1916, pp178-180. Admiralty, London

(2) New York Times, April 2, 1916

(3) New York Times, April 3, 1916

Diary of the War No.19

Franz Fischer

Interned German vessels have been a recurring theme or leitmotiv in this Diary of the War blog. This month’s double bill begins with another example, the Franz Fischer, detained as a prize at Sharpness in 1914, and the doubts over her manner of loss.

It is a story that exemplifies the dangers of the sea as the war drew near to its half-way mark, with terror from above and a message in a bottle.

As with most other detained prizes, Franz Fischer helped to fill the gaps in the ranks of sunken colliers, being one of 34 ships managed as colliers for the Admiralty by the Newcastle firm of Everett & Newbigin.(1) (Ironically she was the ex-British Rocklands, sold to Germany in 1913.) Despite reverting to Britain as a prize, she retained her recent German name, and it was as the Franz Fischer that she set off on her final voyage from Hartlepool on 31 January 1916, bound for Cowes with 1,020 tons of coal.

Around 9.30pm the following evening, having been informed that there were mines to be seen ahead, Franz Fischer prudently joined a group of laden vessels at anchor off the Kentish Knock Buoy.

What happened next was shrouded in some mystery. At 10.30pm Franz Fischer was rocked by an explosion amidships and sank within a couple of minutes at most. Only three men out of her 16-strong crew – a seaman from Newfoundland, the chief engineer, from Tyneside, and the steward,  a Londoner – survived to be picked up alive by the Belgian steamer SS Paul, by which time they were ‘close to collapse’, having heard the cries of other survivors gradually dying away overnight. (2)

Their story was told by Alfred Noyes in his serial for the Times, “Open Boats”, (3). (His radio drama of the same name was published in the New York Times as a powerful illustration of the sufferings endured by torpedoed crews.) The crew heard a noise approaching from the SE, which appeared to go away, then became ‘deafening’. As they investigated in the ‘black dark’ they were knocked off their feet by a ‘great mass of sea water which had been heaved up by the explosion.’ One survivor described an eerie sense that there was an aircraft ‘circling overhead in the darkness, dropping closer and closer to the vessel, like a great night-hawk’, the noise ‘several express trains all crossing a bridge together’ followed by a brief silence, then the explosion.

The chief engineer managed to swim to the lifebelt box, which rolled over when some of the crew tried to get onto it, so he decided to swim away. He managed to grab a lifebelt before passing out in the water: when he came to, he was aboard the Paul. (3)

The British press kept a beady eye on their German counterparts in a war of words that mirrored the physical war. The Wolff Bureau circulated a press release to German news outlets, claiming that the Franz Fischer had been sunk by a Zeppelin returning from the raid on England. The raid is well-documented, taking place on the night of 31 January to 1 February, so even at the Zeppelins’ lumbering speed they had already crossed the North Sea by the time the Franz Fischer was attacked.

All except one. L19 had engine trouble and crashed into the North Sea, where she was eventually found by a British fishing vessel, the King Stephen. The trawler crew rejected appeals from the Zeppelin crew for rescue, fearing that they would be overpowered and their vessel hijacked. The last heard from L19 was a despairing final report cast away in a bottle, dated at 1pm on 2 February, ‘wohl die letzte Stunde’, ‘at our last hour’. This message would wash up on the Swedish coast some 6 months later.

Front cover of French newspaper, with colour pen and ink illustration depicting an airship upended into the sea against a sunrise.
The front cover of Le Petit Journal, 27 February 1916: the headline reads “Punishing the Pirates”. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The trajectory of L19 can be reconstructed, from the Midlands (although the crew believed they had targeted Liverpool) to the east coast at Winterton, Norfolk, well north of the Kentish Knock, whence she drifted as far east as the Dutch coast. Anti-aircraft fire from the Dutch drove her away again and she came down in the North Sea.  The wreckage was eventually discovered some 120 miles off the Spurn, so her wanderings throughout appear to have been too far north for her to be Franz Fischer‘s nemesis.

The most likely cause of the explosion was not from the air but from below. UB17 was in the area, and her Kriegstagesbuch, ‘war diary’ or log book survives (4) noting an attack on a steamer at the Hoofden (the Kentish Knock). The first torpedo missed her target, but the second struck, sinking her within a minute and sending up a ‘column’ of smoke. This sounds close to British accounts, and by the time the official history of the war had been written in the 1920s, the wreck had been attributed to UB-17. The official history of the war at sea also came to the same conclusion: UB-17 was responsible, since ‘no enemy aeroplane or seaplane from Belgium is known to have gone out that evening; and probably the aircraft heard was one of our own.’ (5)

One hundred years ago the survivors of Franz Fischer felt themselves overshadowed by an aerial presence, which had nothing to do with the loss of their ship. L19 has overshadowed the story ever since. However, recent research and retranslation of the very difficult Suetterlin script of the original Kriegstagesbuch has uncovered that the first torpedo not only missed the target, but also misfired. ‘No track was to be seen: it was a dud.’ Could this misfiring have been part of the ominous noise heard by the survivors?

With especial thanks to Thomas Foerster,who transcribed the Kriegstagesbuch, and helped unlock its meaning, and to everyone who helped in various ways with this story – Angela Middleton and Marion Page of Historic England, and Matt Skelhorn of the MoD.

(1) Hansard, 2 June 1919

(2) Times, 4 February 1916, No.41,081, p.7

(3) Times, 23 December 1916, No.41,358, p.4

(4) UB-17 Kriegstagesbuch, 22 January-6 February 1916, Deutsches U-boot Museum, Cuxhaven

(5) Naval Staff Monographs No.31, Vol. XV: Home Waters: Part VI: From October 1915 to May 1916, pp62-5. Admiralty, London