The "Tring" Zeppelin

3rd September, 1916
by
Christopher Finch Reynolds
© 1995 1

 

Places

Tring

[This booklet is reproduced here with minor editorial changes]

Introduction

2.25 a.m. on the morning of Sunday, 3rd of September, 1916, was an important one in the history of German airship raids on England. It was at this moment that the Schütte-Lanz 11 exploded to produce a fireball which was clearly visible over most of Hertfordshire and North London, and crashed in flames at Cuffley.

What is less well known is that, at the same time, members of the local observer corps were reporting that another airship was in the air over Tring. This was the Zeppelin L32 - commanded by Werner Peterson. This report gives the military history of the L32 and its commander, and describes its movements from contemporary accounts. Brief details are given of the two Zeppelins that came close to Tring in the "Silent Raid" which took place a year later.

Air Raids and Blackouts

  2a

The first of a number of airship raids on England took place on Yarmouth on January 19th, 1915, when four people were killed and sixteen injured. Intermittent raids took place on dark moonless nights over the next three years, but on only two occasions did Zeppelins come near to Tring.2 On the ground their movements were monitored by a network of observers, many of them special constables, who would listen for the noisy airship engines, which could easily be heard on the ground up to two miles below. Invaluable information was obtained by operators who, unknown to the Germans, were able to decode the airships' radio messages, and were hence aware of the danger of attacks while the airships were still over the North Sea.

To keep the Germans guessing about what they had bombed, press censorship restricted the reporting the movements of alien airships, and bomb damage. In addition blackout was introduced to make it harder for the airship commanders to identify where they were. The police and special constables who were responsible for enforcing the blackout regulations were often over-zealous, and while the position in Tring is unclear, there were many complaints that the rules were interpreted far more harshly in Hemel Hempstead and Berkhamsted than in London. For instance, in 1916 a stoker at one of the steam driven pumps owned by the Hemel Hempstead Borough Council was fined £1 for stoking the boiler when the door of the engine shed had been left open. The cartoon nicely sums up the attitude of many of the locals.

As a counter measure searchlights were installed, artillery guns were assigned for anti-aircraft use, and several squadrons of aeroplanes were allocated to air defence. However a problem was that was that the airships consisted of a large number of separate gas bags, and shells and bullets would go straight through without immediately crippling the ship. The breakthrough came in the autumn of 1916, when the aircraft were armed with special bullets which could ignite the escaping hydrogen gas.

Werner Peterson

Oberleutnant zur See Werner Peterson has been described as a gay youngster with a reputation of being the best ship-handler in the service. His first command was the Zeppelin L7, which was used for naval patrols over the North Sea. In June, 1915, he took command of the L12. In August he flew on his first bombing raid over England. He got lost, like many other airship commanders and he reported dropping a load of bombs on "Harwich". In fact they fell in the sea off Dover. The ground-based defences opened fire and the ship received a direct hit. Because of the leaking gas the L12 came down in the English Channel. A German boat towed it to Ostend - where it was destroyed by fire.  

His next airship was the L16 - and on 13th October the 18 explosive and 30 incendiary bombs he believed he had dropped on "Stratford, East Ham and West Ham" actually killed nine people, and injured fifteen, in Hertford3. The following January the planned target was Liverpool, but he had to turn back for technical reasons. Peterson claimed to have dropped two tons of bombs on "Great Yarmouth" but ground-based reports only record that two bombs fell at Swaffham, some 43 miles away. At the end of March the bombs he dropped on "Hornsey" actually fell north of Brentwood, in Essex. On 2nd May the Zeppelin L23 dropped an incendiary bomb on an empty part of the North York Moors, setting the heather alight. Peterson, following in the L16, unloaded his bombs onto open moorland, thinking that Stockton on Tees was ablaze. On his return to Germany he optimistically claimed "well-placed hits on buildings at the site of the fire, as well as clearly recognisable railroad tracks and embankments".

Zeppelin No L32 - The "Tring" Airship

An "R" Type Zeppelin of the type reported over Tring4 

(Tring Parish Church shown to about the same scale)

The L32 was one of 15 giant "R" type Zeppelins, the first of which became operational at the end of May, 1916. These huge airships had an overall length of 644 feet, maximum diameter of 78.4 feet and had 19 gas bags with a total capacity of nearly two million cubic feet of hydrogen gas. It had six engines. One was on the rear of the 50 foot long control car, two were amidships, on either side, while the three engine rear gondola had two of its propellers on struts to ether side. On the top, near the bow, there was a machine gun to defend the airship against attack from aircraft. Werner Peterson assumed command of the L32 on 7th August, his executive officer being Leutnant zur See Brodrück. The new ship was involved in patrols over the North sea during August and made its first raid on England on the night of 24th August. Because of strong head winds it was unable to reach London and bombed some ships off Dover before returning safely to Germany.

300 kg bomb4

The Raid of 2nd/3rd September, 1916

On the afternoon of 2nd September the Germans launched what was planned to be a major air raid against England. This consisted of 11 Naval Zeppelins and 5 Army airships including the Schütte-Lanz 115. A number of the airships, led by the SL11, and closely followed by the Zeppelin L16, came in over East Anglia intending to attack London from the North. The two leading airships flew south over Luton, some bombs were dropped near Markyate shortly after 1 a.m., and they then flew south over St Albans. The SL11 dropped bombs on London Colney, and on flying further south ran into a screen of searchlight beams. Fleeing north it dropped its remaining bombs in the Enfield area (perhaps as ballast to enable it to climb higher) but was shot down by an aeroplane firing the new bullets and crashed in flames at Cuffley. 

I have not yet located a contemporary report of the action from Tring, although this may well have been the zeppelin that the young Ralph Seymour saw crashing in flames.6 However there is no doubt that the action could clearly be seen from Aylesbury, 30 miles from Cuffley: "From various points the police and special constables who were called out for duty in the early hours of Sunday morning had a good view of the sudden illuminations caused by the searchlights and antiaircraft guns concentrated on the Zeppelin caught and destroyed at Cuffley. Their attention was first attracted by the searchlights which illuminated the sky in the direction of the Metropolis, and those of their number who were stationed on the Parish Church tower had a splendid view of the movements of the searchlights and the subsequent blaze of light when the Zepp fired and fell to the ground."7

To the east of Tring it was reported that "The light from the burning Zeppelin at Cuffley was so bright at Dunstable [about 20 miles away from the crash site] that a householder states that on looking out of the window he could see the apples quite plainly on the trees in the garden."8 

The L16 had observed the intensity of the defences and turned east, dropping its 3,765 pound load of bombs on Essendon. At the moment the SL11 was shot down the two airships were so close that the L16 could briefly be seen in the glare, but escaped north before the sighting aeroplane could give chase.


The Zeppelin Attacks in West Hertfordshire
The lines show the approximate tracks of the airships
in the area on the night of 2/3rd September, 1916

The Zeppelin over Tring.

Werner Peterson took off from the Nordholtz base in Germany at 4.30 p.m. on the 2nd September, carrying a 2,500 kg load of bombs9. He passed over Leighton Buzzard at 2.15 a.m., and would clearly have been able to see the action to the South. At 2.25 a.m. he was reported to be over Tring, apparently still with a full bomb load. The airship was observed to pause, almost certainly to allow Peterson to take in the consequences of scene before him. On returning to the Nordholtz base he described the view as seen from two miles above the town: "Over the City one of our airships suddenly burst into flames. The blazing mass radiated a red-yellow light, and illuminated the area over a wide radius and fell slowly. The resulting fire continued on the ground until out of sight." He presumably though he was over West London as his report states that L32 then "ran up from the suburb of Kensington towards the City and from there off to the north-east. In this matter the bombs were well placed. The two fires were still to be seen from previous attacks. [The bombs on Essendon] In spite of mist and scattered cloud the gunfire was again heavy. The number of searchlights has further increased."10


"OH, MOTHER, I DO THINK IT UNFAIR ABOUT THE ZELLEPIN! EVERYBODY SAW IT BUT ME. WHY DIDN'T YOU WAKE ME?"
"NEVER MIND, DARLING, YOU SHALL SEE IT NEXT TIME - IF YOU'RE VERY GOOD."11

In fact the L32 took a far more northerly route. After leaving Tring there is a possible report of a bomb falling on the "Queens Hipes" at Berkhamsted12, before flying east, possibly over Berkhamsted Common13. Mr. G. Stanbridge, of Church Farm, Little Gaddesden wrote in his diary that "An enemy airship came over last night, frightened our sheep, so that they broke the hurdles down and some got out. They were frightened in the night hearing a Zeppelin overhead."14

The Markyate correspondent of the Hemel Hempstead Gazette15 was restricted by censorship to report that "Last weekend we, in common with many of thousands of our fellow country folk, were roused during the midnight hours by an occurrence which we must not talk about, perhaps the 'specials' can." The Luton News16 was less constrained by censorship and an unidentified rural correspondent reports that "It was soon after the Sabbath day was ushered in that the first alarm came. I was still busy in my sitting room when there was a dull thud which shook the house, and within a minute of two there were two further shocks, and then there was a sound resembling the distant roar of an express train immediately overhead. It quickly passed out of hearing, and a few minutes later I went to bed. [Presumably this refers to bombs dropped by the SL11 or L16 which flew over the area shortly after 1 a.m.] It was about an hour later when a couple more thuds woke me, [The bombs dropped at 2.45 a.m.] but when I looked out there was nothing to be seen, and I returned to bed and was soon fast asleep." The account then describes visiting a large crater in a corn field [part of the Luton Hoo estate?] the following day.17

The L32 continued east, and in St Albans "Three o'clock approaches and the visits of Zeppelins are not at an end even yet. The plodding, churning approach of still another - the fourth - is plainly heard overhead. No 4 has evidently travelled further inland than the others ... It steers a south-easterly direction after coming from almost due west, and is either making for the coast or resolving to make for London from a different angle. Its machinery throbs and rattles as it makes its nearest approach to us, and then the sound gradually diminishes as it pursues its errand elsewhere."18 Having passed St Albans it continued east, dropping the rest of its bombs near Ware before returning to Germany.

After the Raid

As soon as the possibility of a raid was known the police and special constables were alerted, and some took up observation duties, while others went round the local towns ensuring that the blackout was being observed. Several prosecutions resulted in the local magistrates' courts. In addition the events of the night had been so spectacular that even those who had slept through the night were well aware of how close the zeppelins had been. Local tradesmen were quick to jump on the bandwagon with adverts for blackout materials. Within a week of the event Blundell Bros. of Luton were advertising "anti-zeppelin blinds, curtains, and light excluding materials", illustrated with a zeppelin caught in searchlights19.

At the time of the next new moon Werner Peterson, in the L32, took part in another raid over Southeast London. He came under attack, and crashed in flames at Great Burstead, Essex. The crew of 22 were all killed. A week later the leading German airship commander, Heinrich Mathy, was shot down in the L31 over Potters Bar. This was seen by very many more people in Hertfordshire than the Cuffley event, as by this time everyone wanted to see a zeppelin shot down, and they flocked into the streets to watch as soon as they knew a raid was in progress.

The "Silent Raid"

The only other time that zeppelins are known to have come near Tring was in the Autumn of 1917. After the losses of 1916 the Germans had designed Zeppelins which could fly at a height of 20,000 feet, which put them out of range of ground-based guns or aeroplane attacks. On 19th October eleven Zeppelins set out to attack the Midlands - and like the Spanish Armada they were defeated by the weather. The wind at 10,000 ft was reasonable, but as the airships approached the English coast they rose to the operational height and encountered gale force winds which blew them south. In addition the crew suffered from the cold and lack of oxygen at that altitude, and there were many engine failures due to crew error. Because of the wind the zeppelins could hardly be heard on the ground, and there is some uncertainty about the routes taken. The L52 passed over Northampton at 8.50 p.m. and may have passed close to Tring as it reported to have turned east over Aylesbury, before dropping bombs on Hertford, and returning to Germany. The L45 definitely came close to Tring a couple of hours later. It had dropped twenty-three bombs on Northampton, before following the main railway line to London. As it approached London further bombs were dropped, resulting in significant deaths and damage in Piccadilly Circus, Camberwell and Hither Green. With failing engines she was unable to fight against the wind, and finally crashed in the south of France. Only seven of the zeppelins returned to Germany, and there were no further flights over Tring.

Notes

 1 First issued as the Tring & District Local History & Museum Society Local History Notes No. 1. Later reissued (limited circulation) as report TRI95-01. Loaded on the web with minor editing 2008.

2 Much of the information about the zeppelin flights over England comes from Joseph Morris's The German Air Raids in Great Britain (London, 1925) and the official war history, H A Jones' The War in the Air, Volumes 2, 3 & 5 (Oxford, 1928-1935). Additional information from German archives is given in Douglas H Robinson's The Zeppelin in Combat (London, 1966) and Wilbur Cross's The Zeppelins of World War One (London, 1991)

2a Hemel Hempstead Gazette 18th December 1915

3 A detailed account of the effects on the ground is given by A M Foster in Hertfordshire Countryside, April 1978 (No 288) pp 36-37.

4 Illustration from The Zeppelin in Combat.

5 The Schütte-Lanz 11 was not a Zeppelin, but to those on the ground the manufacturer's name was not important - and in England the term "zeppelin" was used for all raiding airships.

6 Ralph Seymour remembers seeing a zeppelin in flames from Tring, Private communication, 1994.

7 The Bucks Herald, 9th September, 1916.

8 Luton News, 7th September, 1916

9 This would have presumably included a mixture of 300kg, 100kg, 50kg, 10kg explosive bombs, together with some small incendiary bombs.

10 The Zeppelin in Combat, page 174

11 From Punch; reprinted in The Times History of the War, 1914-1918, Volume XII page 426

12 The Inns of Court Officer's Training Corps was based in Berkhamsted during the First World War. Fifty years later a soldier returned to the town and in The Devil's Own Time, (Probus Press, circa 1965) mentions that he revisited the room in the "Queens Hipes" where the bomb exploded.

13 Beorcham, Berkhamsted in the Great War: On The Home Front, in Berkhamsted Review, October 1964

14 Quoted by Howard Senar in Little Gaddesden and Ashridge, (Phillimore, 1983)

15 Hemel Hempstead Gazette, 9th September, 1916. A comparison of this paper with those in surrounding areas suggests that censorship was very uneven. The Luton News gives details of bombs falling, while the Herts Advertiser had over a page of news, including the times that airships were heard passing over a large unnamed Hertfordshire town which is quite obviously St Albans. A month later the Gazette published details of the shooting down of the Zeppelin at Potters Bar - including some comments on the Cuffley incident which it had not given at the time. Presumably the local military censor now considered that shooting down zeppelins was good news.

16 Luton News, 7th September, 1916

17 Wilbur Cross, in Zeppelins of World War 1, states that the L32 had become tail-heavy due to icing and dropped some 50 kg bombs in the neighbourhood of Luton. These were presumably the ones that fell on Markyate.

18 Herts Advertiser, 9th September, 1916

19 Beds & Herts Saturday Telegraph, 9th Sept., 1916


The book The London Gunners come to Town contains a chapter Street Lighting and Air raids. This deals with the implications on the ground, such as blackout, the air raid siren, prosecutions, etc., and also includes reports of actual attacks - including some detailed press reports. The above booklet contains material from my research notes which is not included in The London Gunners.


Donald Massey reported (October 2008) that the remains of crews of all the airships shot down have been interred in The German Military cemetery on Cannock Chase, Staffs.  Each crew is named and buried together, with details of the place shot down, etc


The post Zepplins, Walkern, October 1916 discusses whether there was a Zeppelin related incident at Walkern. Link to a picture of a bomb crater at Redbourn added.

 

 

Page updated October 2008