Monday 25 August 2014

Heinrich Mathy, Blackheath and the 'First Blitz'

Tranquil Vale, Blackheath in 1916 (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

Whilst looking through my photograph collection for something else, it is all to easy to become sidetracked and end up looking at something completely unrelated to one's original search. On this occasion, it was rather uncanny as the photograph I came across is one that features regularly in my Blackheath and Greenwich Blitz walk but which happened to be on the exact anniversary of the subject incident taking place. The photo in question is reproduced above and comes courtesy of the excellent Greenwich Heritage Centre, from whose archives it comes. It is actually a reproduction from an unknown local newspaper of the period which perpetuates an error in the caption but which offers a fascinating insight into the 'First Blitz' on London, during the Great War when the Zeppelins of the Imperial German Navy brought the war right to the doorsteps of the British civilian population.

The raid in question actually occurred on August 24th 1916 when thirteen airships headed for London, including the L31, commanded by 33 year old Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy. Due to a combination of adverse weather conditions, poor navigation and technical problems with the craft, twelve of the Zeppelins turned back without finding their targets. Only Mathy in the L31, skillfully flying through the low cloud cover, managed to reach London to make a successful bombing run and in the space of ten minutes, proceeding at it's maximum speed of 65 mph, the L31 dropped a total of thirty six bombs on the Isle of Dogs, Deptford, Greenwich, Blackheath, Eltham and Plumstead before heading back to it's base in Northern Germany. The L31 was one of the new generation of so-called 'Super Zeppelins' and at nearly 200 metres in length and 24 metres width, it was truly a monster. Although the L31 had been undamaged in the raid, it suffered from a heavy landing upon it's return to Germany, which required repairs putting it out of action until October 1916.

Heinrich Mathy (IWM)

The raid in which Blackheath had been hit, albeit unwittingly caused in excess of £130,000 worth of damage, which at 1916 prices, was no mean sum. 

Heinrich Mathy was by 1916, a veteran of fifteen bombing raids on Great Britain and had made his first attack on London in 1915 in command of an earlier and smaller airship, the L13. These raids on British cities and the indiscriminate nature of them, a precursor of what was to come during the next conflict, led to the Zeppelin crews being dubbed by the British press as the 'Baby Killers' and in the eyes of the British, Mathy was one of the leading exponents.

During his enforced absence whilst L31 was being repaired following it's heavy landing, Mathy learned that the British had shot down their first Zeppelin, when Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson flying a BE2C fighter, brought down the SL11 near Cuffley, Hertfordshire. The hydrogen filled gasbags of the airships made them hugely vulnerable to the newly developed incendiary bullets and the fact that German airmen, in common with their British counterparts, were not issued with parachutes at this time, ensured that they faced an awful choice; death by fire in the crashing airship, or jumping to avoid the flames but still facing the same end result. For his skill, determination and no little bravery in carrying out this first successful downing of a Zeppelin, Leefe Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross, only for him to later die from influenza at the end of 1918, his health having been weakened by a period of captivity in Germany from April 1917, during which time he was singled out for rough treatment by his captors.
Wulstan Tempest, William Leefe Robinson VC & Frederick Sowrey (IWM)

Hearing of more and more Zeppelins being destroyed saw Mathy make the following diary entry:

"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 the visions of burning airships, then he would be a braggart."

Rather strangely, Mathy himself had previously sent a somewhat bragging letter to the New York Times in which he stated that he and his comrades were going to "smash London", so it was somewhat ironic that on the newly repaired L31's next raid to London, Mathy and his crew did indeed "join the rest" as predicted in his own diary entry.

Zeppelin L31 (IWM)

On October 1st 1916, L31 was once again heading towards London with Mathy in command and once more, his skill in navigation through questionable weather had ensured that his machine was the only one of eleven that had originally set out from Germany to near it's intended target. This time however, they were picked up searchlights over Kelvedon Hatch in Essex and turned away to try and avoid further detection. Taking a course over Stevenage and Hatfield, the L31 was once again picked out by searchlights over Cheshunt and three BE2C fighters of 39 Squadron, based at Hornchurch Aerodrome intercepted the giant airship. One fighter, piloted by the splendidly named 2nd Lieutenant Wulstan Tempest, engaged the Zeppelin shortly before midnight. Three long bursts from the fighter's Lewis gun set fire to the airship and the burning monster crashed into a field near Potters Bar in Hertfordshire, resulting in the death of all nineteen on board, including Mathy. The commander had faced the awful choice mentioned earlier and elected to jump from his blazing Zeppelin; his body was found quite close to the wreckage, embedded some four inches into the ground.

The Zeppelin raids continued into 1917 but their days as a terror weapon were finished and the Germans would make increasing use of their giant biplane Gotha bombers to continue their bombing campaign against the British.

Combined deaths from both airship and aircraft raids against Britain during the Great War caused 1,392 deaths, which compared to what was to come in the Second World War, are small beer but it has to be remembered that almost one hundred years ago, the bombing of civilians was a new and terrifying method of waging war. The deaths of 60,000 British, 600,000 German and possibly a similar number of Japanese civilians are testament to how this embryonic new form of warfare in 1914-18 was to develop in later conflicts.

Printed sources:

A Wander Through Wartime London - Clive Harris & Neil Bright, Pen & Sword 2010

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