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

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