The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

030 Samuel Smith and death coming from above

Samuel Smith

Samuel Smith

Zeppelins make England tremble

It is Sunday 17 January 1915. It is the 30th  week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The fighting between the French and the Germans in the Bois-le-Prêtre, in the Argonne, goes back and forth.

They are also fighting very hard about the Hartmannswillerkopf, a mountain top in the Vosges.

Dunkirk is shelled from the air by the Germans and Zeebrugge by the British.

In East Africa a British-Indian force has to lower the flag at Jasin.

The Russians succeed in occupying the town of Skempe in northwest Poland.

The Turks have to continue their drawback in Armenia.

Adolf Wild von Hohenborn is appointed Germany’s minister of war, as successor of Erich von Falkenhayn, who remains chief of staff at the front.

British plantations in Nyasaland, present-day Malawi, are attacked by African nationalists under the command of John Chilembwe.

During this rebellion, which was not very successful, the grandson of the legendary David Livingstone is decapitated, because he is said to have oppressed Africans.

In the Bukovina the Austrians succeed in recapturing within a week the mountain pass of Carlibaba, or Ludwigsdorf, from the Russians.

And two German zeppelins drop bombs over England, killing four people, among whom Samuel Smith.

On the night of 19 January 1915 Samuel Smith, a 53-year-old cobbler, goes into the street to see what is going on. Loud bangs lured him away from his workshop. They are explosions of primitive bombs which were dropped from the German zeppelin L-3 across Samuel Smith’s dwelling-place, Great Yarmouth. This seaside town in the county of Norfolk harbours a naval base. When one of the bombs drops on a house, Samuel Smith is hit by shrapnel. He dies on the spot. That day Smith and three other civilians are the very first British victims of an air raid.

Samuel Smith’s fate marks the beginning of perhaps the most gruesome part of twentieth century warfare, demoralizing the enemy by bombing its civilians. Rotterdam, Warsaw, London, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be introduced to these ruthless tactics. Coventry in the heart of England, though,  lent its name in the Second World War to the German verb meaning bombing complete districts: coventrieren. The English call this nightly shower of bombs ‘The Blitz’, referring to the absolute arbitrariness of fate.

Samuel Smith, who provided for his mother and the two orphans she had taken into her home, cannot have been aware of what happened to him that night. The English were totally unprepared for air raids. No sirens went off. No air defence aiming at the skies. No airplanes storming at the bombers. Never before had death come from above.

Hans Fritz, captain of the crew of fifteen of the L3 zeppelin, could freely throw his explosive cargo overboard for ten minutes. At eleven o’clock in the morning he had taken off from home base Fuhlsbüttel near Hamburg together with the L4. At half past one in the afternoon the two airships had been spotted over the Dutch coast, after which the L3 started its mission of terror over Great Yarmouth at eight twenty-five at night, English time. Somewhat at random, for navigation did not amount to much in those days.

The L4 had veered northward to dispose of its bombs over King’s Lynn, which is still Norfolk. The four casualties of that day were shared equally by the two airships. Afterwards they quietly floated back to Germany. The next morning Fritz and his men could disembark again at Fuhlsbüttel. But they could not enjoy their freedom very long. When the L3 returns from a new raid on England on 17 February 1915, it is having engine problems when flying over Denmark. An emergency landing on Danish soil follows.The crew escape with their bare lives. Following orders captain Hans Fritz destroys his confidential documents after which he also sets fire to the damaged ship. He and his men are detained by neutral Denmark for the rest of the war.

Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn were the first to withstand the zeppelin attacks, but it was not the first time that an airship carried out a military task. Already on 6 August 1914, when the war has been on for two days, a zeppelin takes part in the attack on the Liège belt of fortresses. The Belgian defenders open fire at the airship. The Z-6 manages to escape, but once on the ground the airship is a total loss. Antwerp also becomes the target of a zeppelin raid. At the end of August a missile from a zeppelin hits a hospital. Twelve people are killed.

What would the very old count Ferdinand von Zeppelin have thought of the fact that his invention had been given a new life as ‘instrument of murder from the air’? Von Zeppelin lived to see the first three years of the First World War. The count was struck down by pneumonia in 1917. In the 1870-1871 war he had witnessed how the French used air-balloons for observation and communication. Some had even managed to escape from Paris in the basket underneath such an air-balloon. This made Von Zeppelin think. And in 1895 he was ready to obtain a patent for an airship that was to bear his name.

Its special feature was its rigidity. A zeppelin consists of a lightweight aluminium structure which does not expand, but contains a number of gas-filled bags. Underneath it the gondolas and engines with propellers are suspended. The development of the airship was accompanied  by numerous design faults. The military took their time in realizing the strategic use of airships. Quite a few pleasure trips were already undertaken with zeppelins, when the German army ordered ten of them. They seemed especially suitable for reconnaissance purposes and escorting ships.

There were other countries that possessed airships, but these did not have the same quality as the German zeppelins. Peter Strasser was the biggest advocate in military circles. He was the commanding officer of the airship section which was the responsibility of the navy. He was convinced that using zeppelins as bombers could make a difference in the war. It was the emperor himself who did not want to accept bombardments of English towns for a long time. After all he still had relatives over there. Impressed, however, by the allied air raids on German targets, he would cast this hesitation from him. Already in September 1914 the British had started their first air raid. The zeppelin shelters at Düsseldorf and Cologne were the first target.

In the course of the war the Germans improve their zeppelins. They become bigger, faster and more aerodynamic. The carrying capacity increases, as does the height they can climb to, though the latter achievement produces its own problems. The thin air and extreme cold demand the utmost of the men, high up in their gondolas. Meanwhile the British increasingly get a hold on the deadly airships. With searchlights and tracers they scan the skies. London is protected by a ‘ring of steel’, the first air defence system in history. Fighter planes begin to climb just as high as the zeppelins. And the new incendiary bullet which does not ignite until it has hit its target, proves fatal to the majestic hydrogen-filled cigars.

The zeppelin crew are not to be envied. They are not allowed to carry parachutes: too heavy. So the crew members know that at a given moment they may face the choice, jump overboard or be burned alive. When the most notorious zeppelin commander, Heinrich Mathy, was presented with this dilemma, he answered that he would not find out until the supreme moment. And that moment arrived.

Mathy is the man responsible for the most horrendous zeppelin attack in the war. On 8 September 1915 London mourns the death of 22 people and a million and a half pounds worth of damage because of Mathy’s L13. But to Mathy himself in his latest airship L31, things do not look too good on 1 October 1916. Over London his ship is caught in beams of light, after which second lieutenant William Tempest climbs higher and higher and fires away in his fighter plane until L31 burns ‘like a Chinese lantern’, as Tempest will testify later.

It cannot have come as a surprise to Mathy, who was an ace among zeppelin commanders. Those who maintained not to be haunted by nightmare visions of burning airships, were braggarts, according to Mathy’s account. What tension it must have been to fear that one single moment, high in the sky, where it is terribly cold and mouse-still, the moment that an enemy pilot comes alongside. In October 1916 Mathy made his choice. He jumped over Hertfordshire. There is this famous photograph showing uniformed Brits looking at the contours Mathy’s body made when it hit the ground. He is said to have lived a couple of minutes on that spot.

By then the zeppelin had had its day as a bomber, so much is clear. Peter Strasser will, however, not give up and on behalf of the navy direct his latest zeppelins to perfidious Albion well into 1918. On 5 August 1918 Strasser himself is on board L70, when high over Norfolk it is shot out of the sky.

In the second half of the war it was mainly airplanes, Gothas, which were to cause death and destruction over British towns. The bomb which was dropped on a kindergarten classroom of a school in Upper North Street in London in 1917 left the deepest scar. On a London memorial one can still read the names of the eighteen dead Gotha children, aged five.

There is no memorial for Samuel Smith, though a documentary in the BBC series Timewatch paid attention to him in 2007. A camera crew joined a grandniece and her son to Great Yarmouth cemetery, where their great-uncle was buried. The voice-over says that until recently the relatives did not even know this. In the documentary mother and son first visit the simple grave of Samuel Smith and then the street where he died.

The impact the zeppelins had on the British people can hardly be exaggerated. The British were horrified and indignant, while German children merrily sang: ‘Zeppelin, flieg, Hilf uns im Krieg, Fliege nach Engeland, Engeland wird abgebrannt, Zeppelin flieg!’

But perhaps the morale of the British homefront became indeed stronger because of the German airforce, just as in the next world war the bomb carpets on Dresden and other German towns for which Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris was responsible also seemed to have had the same effect. A British poster from the Great War shows a zeppelin above the silhouettes of Big Ben, Tower Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral. Underneath it says: ‘It is far better to face the bullets than to be killed at home  by a bomb. Join the army at once and help to stop an air raid. God save the King.’

When the war is over, the Germans are forbidden in Versailles to build any more zeppelins. But already in 1922 the production of zeppelins in Germany starts again, with the American army as a customer. In the interbellum the beau monde chooses zeppelins as their luxurious means of transportation, until the Hindenburg, the biggest airship ever built, crashed in the United States in 1937. The Nazis then see no point in zeppelins any more. Once feared as deadly weapons, they have turned into a historic curiosity.

During World War One the Germans made a total of 159 zeppelin flights that cost 557 lives. One of these was an unmarried cobbler,  of whom we know little more than that one day in January 1915 he wondered what caused the hellish noise out there.

Next week: Franz Hipper

Translation: Peter Veltman

Advertisements

Single Post Navigation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: