"Burn or jump - what will you do?"
Outside his favorite cafe,
reporters badger Heinrich Mathy,
dashing captain of Naval Zeppelin L-31 –
Burn or jump, what will you do?
Your ship’s on fire, you see death
and have seconds to decide. . .
eyes screened against flash-pops,
answers, I won't know until it happens.
|Near to the upper pool in Oakmere Park,
Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, is an oak tree. Or, rather, what remains of
one. A shadow of its former self, it has lost most
of its branches and all of its bark, having been turned into
brightly-coloured, natural totem-pole - a work of public art.
No doubt it was unveiled in a happy atmosphere, surrounded by people who had come specially to admire it and to celebrate it. Today it stands rather starkly - but not exactly out of place - among the gambolling children, joggers and dog-walkers who frequent the park.
Not far away, close to the lower pool, there used to be another oak tree. Once upon a time it, too, was stripped of its branches and bark, but in a less artistic and altogether more violent way when, one night, a glowing inferno of sparking aluminium and flaming hydrogen fell out of a cloudless sky and drenched it in fire. It, too, was soon surrounded by crowds of spectators who came not to admire but out of a kind of dumb curiosity, and if they came to celebrate anything, it was revenge and death. Today, this tree no longer survives, not even as a dead totem, and no trace of it remains. This was "The Zeppelin Oak" - a tree which, until it was finally cut down in the 1930s, marked the spot where, amid hoots of triumph and hatred audible from miles away, the Zeppelin L31 crashed to earth.
The Zeppelin Oak - October 2nd, 1916
The airship was the original "stealth bomber." Cruising under cover of darkness so high that it could barely be heard, it could cross the North Sea from its base in Germany and bring terror to the British Isles. They say that war makes technology develop quickly. This is certainly true of aircraft. You only have to look at the flimsy aeroplanes which existed at the start of the Great War and compare them to the aeroplanes which existed just four years later to see that, and it was true of airships, too. They developed considerably during the war - in terms of size especially. And the bigger the airship, the greater the volume of hydrogen available to lift greater loads. Engines, too, became bigger (and therefore faster) and more reliable and there were eventually completely new types of engine designed to run in the low atmospheric pressures at high altitude.
There were two types of ship. The first was the Schütte-Lanz airship, which had a wooden frame. These machines were operated by the German Army. The other type was the aluminium-framed Zeppelin which found favour with the German Navy. It was the Naval fliers, in their Zeppelins, who carried out most of the airship-borne bombing-raids over Great Britain.
At first, the German Navy used their Zeppelins for escort, scouting and observation duties, flying them high over their fleet, looking for submarines and bombing enemy warships which dared to come too close. But it was not long before people began to consider the use of the airship as a strategic weapon. Perhaps the foremost thinker in this respect was Peter Strasser, who became the head of the German Navy's Airship force early on in the war. He was a fierce champion of the Zeppelin, and saw it as a potential war-winner. With this aim in mind, Strasser oversaw the development of the Zeppelin type, encouraging improvements and refinements until the Zeppelin had reached a state of reliability which meant that it could be used for offensive raids.
This was in April, 1915. The Kaiser was not completely convinced. He was mindful of the possibility that neutral countries might see Zeppelin bombing-raids - especially if they killed civilians - as some new atrocity at a time when people were willing to think the worst of the Germans. But he allowed himself to be persuaded, just as he had allowed himself to be persuaded to sanction the use of poison-gas, which was also used for the first time in April, 1915. In order to gain maximum support from the German people, and also to cause the most consternation in the United Kingdom, the phrase "bombing England" was taken at this time to mean, "bombing London" and the Kaiser gave strict instructions that his Naval fliers were to bomb military targets only, and were to take the greatest care not to destroy any historic buildings or Royal palaces (where, of course, members of his own family might be hurt!) The naval advisers must have listened to this Imperial command with a wry smile, for they knew that the accurate bombing of a single selected target was just about impossible from an airship. They would have to fly at night to escape detection, they would have to fly high to avoid the attentions of any British aircraft which might come looking for them, and thus they could only bomb big targets which they could easily see and which they could hardly miss - such as whole cities. Finesse was impossible and "pinpoint bombing" was a concept still decades away.
So the raids began, and they met with great success from a propaganda point of view. Air-defences in Britain were minimal. All the most modern aircraft were in France and what was left for home defence was hopelessly outclassed by the airships with their superior speed, rate of climb and operational ceilings. The raiders found their targets easily as almost all British towns and cities were brightly illuminated at night, and the toll of damage and deaths began. There was much public anger in Britain, and demands for something to be done to combat the menace of what the German press had named the "iron thunderstorm". By the time the British air-defences had begun to take shape, with effective aircraft support, searchlight rings and anti-aircraft batteries around the main targets and an almost universal night-time blackout, the Navy Zeppelins had become bigger, faster, more deadly - and much harder to catch. Their intrepid commanders were becoming heroes and household names in Germany.
|One such "knight of the air" was 32 year-old
Capitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy, the most
experienced and audacious raider who, by October 1916 had taken part in
more raids than any other member of the Naval airship service - 14
combat flights in the course of which he had dropped about 34,000 kg of
bombs. A very skilled navigator,
Mathy showed real audacity, coolness and daring, and
he seemed unstoppable.
It was Mathy who had made the most successful single raid on Britain with Zeppelin L 13, when he attacked London itself.
This raid had taken place on the 8th of September 1915 and killed 22 people and caused 1.5 million pounds worth of property damage. This one raid would eventually account for nearly two thirds of all Zeppelin damage inflicted on Britain during the airship campaign.
On the night of 1st October 1916, Mathy was heading for London again, this time in one of the new larger "super-Zeppelins," the three-month-old L31. Things had changed since Mathy's famous 1915 raid on London. Defensive aircraft no longer sat on their runways, faced with an hour-long climb to reach the Zeppelin's height. They flew in relays now and there was probably at least one already at the same height as the Zeppelin, ready to attack as soon as the pilot was able to see the ship. The darkness of moonless nights was Mathy's friend in this respect, but there were new developments here, too. There was now a ring of searchlights around the capital, fully manned and ready to be switched on and begin searching the sky whenever the presence of a Zeppelin was suspected.
Worst of all was the knowledge that, using incendiary bullets, British aircraft had succeeded in shooting down airships. (Mathy and L31 had raided on the night of 24th/25th August, 1916, again causing considerable damage. The L31 was damaged on landing on this occasion and while it was grounded for repairs, news came in that the British had, for the first time, managed to "down" an airship.)
The "Knights of the Sky" were not finding it so easy as they used to and on their long voyages, they had plenty of time to think about this. Viktor Woellert, the Chief Machinist Mate on L31, is often quoted as having written;
"I dream constantly of falling Zeppelins. There's something in me I can't describe. It's as if I saw a strange darkness before me, into which I must go."
L31 leaves its base at Nordholtz
At altitude, it was very cold. In the control gondola, slung beneath the enormous envelope of the ship, silence and darkness were always insisted upon while over enemy territory. Crewmen quietly went about their tasks. Mathy and his officers busied themselves with ground observation or monitored the running of the ship, reading the glow from the radium-coated instruments. Below, and still many miles away, only a slight breeze plucked at the yellowing autumn leaves of the old oak tree in Oakmere Park.
L31 had crossed the North Sea without difficulty and had passed over the English coast near Lowestoft. Eleven ships had left their bases for the raid, but squally weather had blown some of them off course. Others, their envelopes encrusted with ice, were making very slow progress. Mathy, however, with his usual skill and luck, had brought L31 through these difficulties and set a solitary course for London. At about 8.00 p.m., though, L31 was caught in the beams of searchlights. Normally, Mathy would have simply ploughed on through, relying on the speed of the ship to stay ahead of any threats. But on this occasion he slowed down. Who can say why? Perhaps his extreme self-confidence had begun to desert him. He had himself written:
"It is only a question of time before we join the rest. Everyone admits that they feel it. Our nerves are ruined by mistreatment. If anyone should say that he was not haunted by visions of burning airships, then he would be a braggart."
Whatever Mathy may have been thinking, he seems to have taken the decision to abandon his raid on London, for, he dropped most of his bombs to lighten the ship. Thirty high-explosive and twenty-six incendiary bombs thus fell upon Cheshunt. There was only one casualty, a woman who was injured, but not fatally. However, Mathy's bombs damaged more than three hundred houses and shattered the panes in many glass-houses.
L31 then made off towards the west, still pinpointed by the beams of several searchlights and now being fired upon by anti-aircraft batteries.
||At about 11.45 p.m. Second Lieutenant
Wulstan J. Tempest was approximately two hours into his patrol. A large
portion of this time had been spent in climbing to bring his BE2c plane
to its patrolling height of about 14,500 feet - over two and a half
miles high. From this height he saw several of the
searchlights to the North of London - about fifteen miles away -
converge upon one distant, silvery, cigar-shaped object.
Tempest, of course, knew exactly what he was looking at, and headed towards the Zeppelin at top speed. He was not the only part of London's air-defence to have been jolted into action that night - by the time he got closer to the Zeppelin he found himself flying though large amounts of anti-aircraft fire as more and more batteries began firing at the airship.
Tempest closed with the airship and dived at it, firing a burst from his machine-gun as he approached, and another burst into the underside of the L31 as he passed below. His gun was loaded with a mixture of tracer, incendiary and ordinary ammunition, so he could see that he was hitting his target, but nothing happened. Tempest got unto position under the tail of the ship and fired a long burst as he flew along its length. He saw the envelope begin to glow from the inside like "a giant chinese-lantern" and then flames began to spurt out of the forward end and almost at once, it seemed, the Zeppelin began to fall.
|The spectacle of the Zeppelin caught so dramatically in the searchlight beams had attracted tens of thousands of people over a wide area. Because of the height involved, the people were able to see it from many miles away. As the tiny jet of flame spread to engulf the ship, an enormous, exultant roar burst forth from the throats of the watchers. At least one photograph was taken. Of course, no-one could see Tempest's tiny black-painted plane, which was diving as fast as he could make it, trying to get out of the way of the flaming Zeppelin, which roared down directly above him, threatening to engulf him. Tempest managed to spin out of the ship's line of descent, and flew back to his base where he almost crashed on landing.|
It was time for Mathy and for each member of his crew to come to a personal decision. The awful moment they had dreaded had arrived. They must have spent many sleepless hours formulating their answers to the Last Question - "Burn or jump - what will you do?" Now each man had to decide, and quickly.
Mathy chose to jump. He wrapped a thick scarf (a present from his wife) around his head and leaped from the gondola, falling to earth a little way from the ship, which crashed with an indescribable roar onto the "Zeppelin Oak." The hissing of burning gas was combined with the wrenching sound of the aluminium framework, the splintering of branches and seconds later, as the burning wreckage settled, the rattling detonations of the Zeppelin's ammunition and the explosions of its fuel tanks. But Mathy heard none of this. He is sometimes said to have lived for a minute or two after the crash, but this must be no more than myth, Mathy's reputation investing him with some kind of legendary super-human strength. No-one could have known the truth of this. The fact is for some time, no-one could come anywhere near the wreck, because of the heat and the explosions. There were other dangers, too. A policeman hurrying across the fields was horrified to see one of the L31's huge propellers cartwheeling madly, coming straight towards him at colossal speed. He dived to one side, watched the propeller demolish a hay-rick and sensibly decided to wait until things had quietened down just a little before going any closer. When Mathy was eventually found, embedded some inches into the soft earth, he was certainly dead. No-one survived the crash.
It was not long before a degree of organisation came to the chaos of the crash-site. The fire-brigade arrived and began moving the bodies of the crew into a barn for the time being. Next morning, huge numbers of sightseers descended on Potters Bar but the Army had got there first, placing a cordon of soldiers around the whole area so that no-one could get too close. The owner of the field in which the wreckage lay got permission from the local army commander to charge a shilling a head to allow visitors to enter his land for the best view, the proceeds being promised to the Red Cross after deductions to put right the damage to his land. One of his customers that morning was Wulstan Tempest, who would certainly have been allowed in gratis if he had revelaled his identity, but who quietly paid his shilling to see the results of his efforts of the previous night.
It was left to History and the passage of time to decide what would remain as memorials to those who took part in Potters Bar's most famous night.
The bodies of Mathy and his comrades were buried in the local churchyard, the second airship crew to be buried there, for an Army airship, the SL11 - the first airship to be shot down - had crashed not far away in September. There were many visitors to the grave immediately afterwards, of course, as Mathy and the manner in which he died made this little part of Potters Bar a magnet for the curious, but after the war, few people came. Mathy's wife, however, visited the grave on at least two occasions. Her first visit took place in 1926 when she was dismayed to find the graves rather neglected. The original wooden crosses had decayed considerably and Frau Mathy was upset to see that a kind of wooden screen had been erected, separating the Zeppelin graves from the rest of the civilian graves in the churchyard. She complained to the German Embassy who reacted quickly, erecting individual heastones and planting shrubs. She then left, not to return again for more than 50 years.
In 1930, the Potters Bar branch of Toc-H noted the appalling neglect of the graves and decided to clean up the burial-site, on their own initiative and without asking approval of any authority. This act of reconciliation and kindness was reported in the local press and the story reached the national papers. Before too long the Potters Bar Toch-H branch began receiving requests from relatives of the crew-members for photographs of individual sailors' graves, and they complied when asked. On Armistice Day, November 11th 1931, a Toc-H member visited the churchyard to lay a wreath and found someone else there doing the same thing. It was Baron von Nidda, the German Ambassador to Great Britain. The two men, one with a local interest in the graves and the other with a national interest, decided to instigate an annual remembrance event which, they hoped, would help cement Anglo-German relations. This excellent idea was not the long-term success they had hoped for. By 1933, when Hitler had come to power, the annual ceremony began to have a strong Nazi presence, until by 1935 it was wholly a German event, with Nazi salutes and with the whole ceremony being conducted in German. The last "Heroes Day" was held in 1939, attended by the then German Ambassador, von Ribbentrop. After that, of course, the Second World War prevented any further recognition of the event and by the time the world had steadied itself after that conflict, there was a new development anyway.
In the 1960s a caller came to the vicarage, a neatly-dressed German, who brought with him the necessary papers to allow him to supervise the removal of the remains of the airmen for reburial in the large German Cemetery at Cannock Chase, in Staffordshire, where all German war-graves from all over Britain were being concentrated. Today, not far from the entrance to the new cemetery, in a little courtyard of their own, lie the crews of the four German airships shot down over British soil, including the L31. The small area of the airship graves is not really inside the cemetery proper. From there, the visitor's eyes are drawn away and upwards across the valley, towards the trees, the skyline and the horizon. There is nothing of the downward- and inward-looking aspect of the main cemetery. I don't know if this was a deliberately-planned memorial to these early fliers, but the difference in visual aspect is very striking. The "grave" of the L31 is the second one along from the right, and all the members of the crew are buried together in one casket. The stone covering the graves bears their names and ranks.
|Jochen Werner||Leutnant zur See|
Wulstan Joseph Tempest
|Tempest was awarded the Distinguised Service Order for his Zeppelin-hunting exploit. He was soon promoted to Major and served with 100 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, operating night-bombers on the Western Front, eventually commanding the unit until June 1918. He left the RAF in 1921 and died in 1966. Tempest Avenue, a residential street not far from Oakmere Park, was named after him. More recently, another street-sign bears his name (see below).|
The wreckage was soon cleared away. Most of the valuable aluminium went for scrap to help Britain's war effort, although many fragments found their way into the hands of souvenir-hunters. In fact, to this day, the church of St. Mary the Virgin and All Saints, at Potters Bar, has an altar-cross made from metal taken from the wreck. It can be seen in the All Souls Chapel. Larger components, such as the engines, were taken away for inspection in the hope that any German advances in high-altitude engine design might be revealed.
The field in which the tree stood returned to its peaceful existence until the early 1930s, when Potters Bar began to expand and this lower section of Oakmere Park was given over to housing. The oak was left alone, though, standing in the driveway of No. 9, Tempest Avenue, Potters Bar. It was cut down later in the 1930s following a complaint from its next-door neighbour at Number 7, who feared that its still-cracked and twisted branches might fall and injure his children as they played in their front garden. (Mr. Bill Crawley, who sawed down the tree, recalled the difficulty he had in sawing through the trunk, which was full of fragments of saw-snagging metal.) The position of the tree was thus lost and, with it, all indication of the precise location of the spot where the L31 fell. In recent years, though, a new marker has appeared. The houses numbered 9 and 11 have gone and a private road, named Wulstan Park in further honour of Tempest, now leads to a small group of new houses on the site where these two houses stood.
The present Wulstan Park name-sign, on its neat little grass verge, just happens to mark the exact spot on which the tree stood, and where the front of L31 came to rest. The remainder of the ship, in two large heaps, lay just along the line of the present private road.
German Naval Airship
After the loss of Mathy and the L31, it became clear that the days of the airship as an offensive weapon were numbered. The crash marked the end of deliberate Zeppelin bombing raids on London. The Germans began to develop long-range heavy bombing aeroplanes instead.
A year or so ago, I had to visit a school in Potters Bar, to talk about the Great War. Naturally, I decided to begin with their very own local Great War event - the crash of the L31. The teachers were very professional and well-prepared. I was a teacher myself for over thirty years, and I recognised that they were doing a good job. The students were alert, informed and interested in the subject. But to my surprise, although everyone knew where Tempest Avenue and Wulstan Park were, no-one knew why these street names had been chosen and no-one had ever heard of the L31. I mention this not to criticise the school, but to show that while we concentrate on the wider picture of the Great War, we risk forgetting the Great War events which took place (literally) in our own front gardens.
(R. J. McCaffery)
his favorite cafe,
eyes screened against flash-pops,
airmen live months in that imagined moment,
captains go crazy,
Mathy flies, bombs London,
33; receives perfumed letters,
31st, 10 PM, Mathy coasts,
hears a plane. Does it see them?
wakes. What happened?
morning, a crowd's come to the meadow
farmer sells souvenir bits of the ship.
For a direct link to the author of this article, email Tom morgan
Copyright © Tom Morgan, April, 2004.
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