Two streets meet at the edge of Oakmere Park in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire. Their names are Tempest Avenue and Wulstan Park. The casual visitor will never guess it, but this junction marks the spot where a Zeppelin fell to earth.
We tend to think of the Great War as a conflict shorn of all chivalry. We remember horrors amid the churned mud of Flanders, but there was another theatre: one in which Knights of the Air jousted. The designation of the Zeppelin was L31, and she was a flagship of the German fleet. At her helm rode Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy, the most celebrated and audacious of the airship raiders.
Imagine yourself high in the night sky above southern England. This is the autumn of 1916, and the scene is frozen in your mind's eye by the sweep of the searchlights. Squalls of cold rain hammer against the airship's envelope. In time to come, Mathy's nemesis will lend his name to streets below, streets where today there are only tracks among the fields.
A thousand feet beneath this looming monster, a tiny black-painted biplane is labouring in the sparse air. Despite the distress of his engine, 2nd Lieutenant Wulstan Tempest is determined to gain Mathy's altitude.
The Context of the Zeppelin Campaign
For around two years, beginning in April 1915, the Zeppelin campaign was played out over London and the towns of south-east England. The spectacular demise of the L31 on 1 October, 1916 helped to hasten its end.
Zeppelins were not always deployed as weapons in war. They were first used by the military as escorts for naval convoys. An airborne vantage-point was particularly effective for keeping an eye on enemy craft and dropping bombs on any encroaching warship was a straightforward development. The idea of bombing enemy territory soon followed.
At first, the Kaiser rejected the plan, on the decent grounds that attacking civilians had no place in warfare. Eventually, he was persuaded that the psychological menace of the Zeppelins would be effective only if their ominous presence spelled a tangible threat.
Until the autumn of 1916, the campaign enjoyed success from the German standpoint. The direct damage caused by the Zeppelin raids was rather slight and substantially random, but the impact on the enemy's morale was powerful. The sleek, grey cigars seen in the skies over England seemed imperious and invincible.
The British knew, though, that the Zeppelins would be sitting ducks, if only a suitably armed aircraft could fly high enough to reach them. The airships relied on highly combustible hydrogen gas for their buoyancy. Fireballs in the sky before the eyes of a million Londoners would turn the symbolism of the Zeppelin to the advantage of the defenders. With stakes like these, an arms race soon ensued.
Mathy and Tempest
Heinrich Mathy was born in Mannheim in 1883, and resolved at a young age to join the Navy. He proved to be an exceptional cadet, and rose to his first command at the age of 25. In recognition of his prowess, Mathy was sent to Germany's elite Marine Academy, where he was introduced to dirigible aircraft in the summer of 1913. The following year war broke out, and Mathy's mentor, Peter Strasser, was given command of the airship fleet. Strasser personally selected a small, elite band of Zeppelin pilots. They called themselves the Luftritter, or Knights of the Air, and one of them was Mathy.
The protégé came to prominence in September 1915, when a raid on London by his first airship, the L13, inflicted extensive damage. Within a year, he carried out fourteen missions and dropped over thirty tonnes of ordnance. Dashing and good-looking, he became a household hero in Germany, and his name was well known in England too.
Wulstan Joseph Tempest was ten years Mathy's junior. Though born in Pontefract, West Yorkshire, he was farming in Saskatchewan with his brother Edmund when news of war came to him. Both men promptly returned to England, joining the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and later transferring to the Royal Flying Corps. By the autumn of 1916, Wulstan was stationed at Hornchurch aerodrome with 39 Squadron, and flying a range of the Royal Aircraft Factory series of BE (Bleriot Experimental) craft.
Pimping the Ride
In plane-to-plane combat, these early British fighters were decisively second-best to the German machines. Back in England, though, the performance criteria were different. Tempest and his colleagues had a simple and singular mission: to learn the secret of downing the Zeppelins. The BE series were bizarre contraptions of canvas, wood and wire, and customising them was a way of life.
Skin-breaching incendiary ammunition was already available. The missing trick was a means of raising the operational ceiling of a gun-carriage to around fifteen thousand feet. The BE2c, ostensibly the equipment of the North Weald pilots, was nominally rated at eleven thousand. The gap may not seem like much, but a petrol-engined aircraft driven to its altitude limit is afflicted by two problems at once. Thinning air disrupts fuel combustion, while at the same time depriving the flight surfaces of lift.
The machines were doctored empirically. Unknown engineers bore spare engines aloft, to discover set-ups that would work at extreme height. An exhaust modification was developed that raised the range close to the target, and the last few feet were eked out by weight-saving. The resulting aeroplane misfired horribly at ground level and often broke its back on landing, because the fuselage sub-frame had been stripped out and replaced with a flimsy skeleton of canes. It didn't matter, because the nameless contrivance that resulted would sometimes fly high enough.
On 3 September, 1916, the squadron claimed its first kill. The victorious pilot was 2nd Lieutenant Leefe Robinson. The victim wasn't strictly a Zeppelin, but a wood-and-canvas predecessor known as the Schütte-Lanz dirigible.
Mathy was at his home base at Nordholz when he heard report of the loss of the SL-11. His own L31 was a little less than three months old, and had carried out a successful raid on London on 25 August, but was now grounded by damage incurred on landing. Before she flew again, the dreaded but inevitable news came through : her sister-craft, the L32, had been shot down over Essex. The date was 24 September, and even the high-flying aluminium-framed Zeppelins were now within the machine-gun range of daring and lucky airmen.
There is little doubt that Mathy fully understood his impending fate, but the composure of his diary entry proves that the Air-Knights earned their title:
It is only a question of time before we join the rest. Everyone admits that they feel it. If anyone should say that he was not haunted by visions of burning airships, then he would be a braggart.
Only a week later, on 1 October, 1916, his luck would run out.
A Rock and a Hard Place
This was a time before parachutes and the Zeppelin crewmen talked of a stark choice if their craft was set alight: a slight chance of surviving the fireball in a slow plunge to earth, or a jump to a cleaner but certain death.
According to some fanciful accounts, Wulstan Tempest was dining with his fiancée in an Epping restaurant when a telephone call urged him to engage the approaching L31. He purportedly straddled his motorcycle and completed the sortie in time to return and finish his meal.
In reality, the war in the air was not like that. It took an hour to reach the height of the airships. For the last fortnight, the Zeppelins had been seen only at night, and batteries of searchlights were now in place, sweeping the skies over London. The pilots of 39 Squadron were flying in relays from nightfall, and chance and the midnight roster had it that Tempest was the man now airborne.
There should have been eleven airships in the raid that night, but the weather was terrible. Several had been blown off course, while others were falling behind as ice encrusted their canopies. It was already dark as Mathy crossed the coast near Lowestoft, and he found himself alone. Worse was to come, as the searchlights locked onto the L31 and the anti-aircraft batteries opened up. Mathy jettisoned his bombs, shattering windows in Cheshunt, and began a long westward climb in the hope of getting above the clouds. Still far below him, Tempest was already in pursuit. It would be another half-hour to engagement, but the die was cast. There was still a chance that the straining engine might give out, or that the ground-fire aimed at the Zeppelin might hit the tiny aeroplane instead, or perhaps Tempest's gun might jam. If none of these things happened, Mathy and his crew of twenty were going to die.
It must have been a terrible wait, in the numbing cold and the silence and the radium-glow of the instruments, wondering whether a hunter was out there. In all probability, the men in the airship would not have seen or heard Tempest, not until his inexorable convergence was complete. Nor could observers on the ground have seen the little plane coming right up under the Zeppelin's tail, or the tracers of bullets tearing clean along the mid-line of the doomed giant. The first thing they might have seen was what Tempest later described: a glow beginning to bloom inside the envelope, and then the entire forward section of the L31 erupting in tongues of fire.
The airship began to fall with Tempest barely clear of it. He dived and banked as sharply as he dared, constrained by the flimsy air-frame that might fold up under the stress, and mesmerised by the monstrous craft disintegrating above him in a cataclysmic fireball. As the runway at Suttons Farm raced up to meet him, he struggled to ignore the impossible false sun blazing away to his right. Wulstan Tempest came down heavily, his senses swimming in confusion, and the sounds of his own craft's ruin were drowned out by the descent of a holocaust.
The Tree and the Shadow
Oakmere Park was so-named for a reason: there was a pool, and a straggle of oak trees. On the stroke of midnight, they were drenched in fire as a white-hot skeleton of aluminium and its incandescent shroud settled gently over them. What was left of the nose section enveloped a tree, and the photographs record its ravaged boughs projecting from the airship's carcass. It would be remembered as the 'Zeppelin Oak'.
There were few eye-witnesses in the direct vicinity, even though thousands saw the L31's plunge from afar, and so fortuitously there were no civilian casualties. The closest shave befell a policeman, who stood transfixed a little too long and had to dive out of the path of a cartwheeling propeller.
The crew of the L31 stood no chance.
Mathy made his choice. He jumped. They found him embedded in the soft soil, a scarf wrapped around his head in a futile attempt to break the fall. Or perhaps the scarf served another purpose, since it had been a present from his wife.
Some claim that the fallen airman showed signs of life for a few minutes. More certainly true, when they took him away, they left his imprint there in the field. The most potent symbol of the Potters Bar Zeppelin is thus the unmistakable outline of a man, pathetic and grotesque. The farmer charged a shilling a head to let visitors see it, but perhaps it was all right, because there was a lot of damage to pay for.
The next day, Wulstan Tempest came to the scene to see the devastation he'd wrought. He was too modest to declare himself, or possibly too awestruck, and so it cost him a shilling like everyone else. He later became a major, surviving the war despite a lengthy and fraught assignment night-bombing on the Western Front. He commanded Newbury's Home Guard throughout the next one, and finally passed away in 1966.
A man named Bill Crawley was given the job of felling the thoroughly dead Zeppelin Oak. The task wasn't undertaken until 1930, when it was decided that the memorial significance of the relic was outweighed by the injuries that it inflicted on children. The thing was full of shards of metal, so much so that it took the whole of a saw-snagged afternoon to cut down.
An altar-cross in the church of St Mary the Virgin and All Saints at Potters Bar is made from spars recovered from the wreck. Most of the aluminium was reclaimed for the war-effort. The L31's engines were dug out of the field and taken away by the Army, presumably in an attempt to reveal the German technology that sustained internal combustion at such prodigious altitudes.
It's easy to overstate the role of aviators in the Great War. This was still a time when getting aloft, and staying up there, was awkward and fraught. Resources in terms of both machines and pilots were scarce, and losses were severe and usually total. The military contribution of aircraft of all kinds was therefore slight and unpredictable, and much more significant in terms of reconnaissance than in actual fighting. And yet there are tales like this one, touching and somehow so very noble, imbued with valour and the acme of the human spirit.
Mathy and his men still lie in the military cemetery at Cannock Chase. This is where nearly all the Germans who died on British soil in the Great War were eventually brought to rest. The airship crews are all collected together, away from the main plot. They are in the right place, along a little aisle that leads off into the trees, in the direction of the setting sun.