AUGUST 2017

AUGUST  2017
FACING DOWN THE RULERS OF WALL STREET A HUNDRED YEARS AGO. THEY ARE BACK.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

ZEPPELIN

I would like to have been there when they walked the monster out of its shed on the first day of October, 1916. I would like to have asked the people shepherding the behemoth from its cage and those watching if any of them really thought this idea could have ever worked?Each of the “Air Ships” that left their sheds on that Sunday afternoon were floating contradictions. Almost ten city blocks long and more than 200 feet in diameter, and weighing 32 tons, they bobbed mystically, gently suspended four feet above the ground, steered by tugs on their guide ropes from the 100 plus ground crewmen who walked each monster out as if it were a well trained dog. For all of 1915 the Zeppelins had invaded England with impunity, undetected on moonless nights, untouchable even when in full view, unreachable at 10,000 feet.The new “Super Zeppelin”, L-31, was the lead ship in this eleven ship mission. It had been commissioned just 3 months earlier. It carried 5 tons of bombs and a crew of 20. It’s six, 240 horsepower Maybach engines propelled the giant through the thin air above 15, 000 feet at over 60 miles an hour.But like all of her comrades, old and new, within the aluminum ribs and buttresses of the L-31 were confined great bags of buoyant hydrogen gas. These ‘ships of war’ sailed into battle separated from becoming an instant inferno by only a casual spark.At the age of 33 years, Capitanleutnant Henruch Mathy, commander of the L-31, was at the peak of his profession. He had been picked for Zeppelin command straight out of the Naval Academy. This was his 15th combat mission and he was personally responsible for more than two/thirds of all the damage the Zeppelins had done over Britain in the war. On one raid alone, on September 8th, 1915, Mathy’s bombs had killed 22 Londoners and caused a million and a half pounds of damage. It was an achievement that earned him in England the infamous title of “Zeppelin Scourge”.Newspaper readers in Germany were thrilled at his accounts of action over London. “A sudden flash and a narrow band of brilliant light reached out from below; then a second, third, fourth and fifth, and soon more than a score of crisscrossing ribbons ascended. From the Zeppelin it looked as if the city had come to life and was waving its arms about the sky, reaching out feelers for the danger that threatened it, but our deeper impression was that they were tentacles seeking to drag us to our destruction…"When the first searchlights pick you up, and you see the first flashes of the guns below, your nerves get a little shock, but then you steady down and put your mind on it, what you are there for….When we are above the Bank of England, I shouted through the speaking tube…”Fire slowly!”…I soon observed flames bursting forth in several places. I tried to hit London Bridge and believe I was successful, - to what extent in damage I could not determine…Having dropped all bombs, I made a dash for home. We had not been hit.”But on the second of September, 1916, a British fighter plane using new incendiary ammunition brought down the German Army Zeppelin SL-11 over London. And from that moment every Zeppelin was doomed.Henry Tuttle was just ten years old, but he remembered the reaction of the citizens of London when one of the tormenting giants was finally brought down. “It was a fantastic sight, like a big silver cigar, and it seemed to be going very slowly by this time. A lot of people came out of their houses and then all of a sudden flames started to come from the Zeppelin and then it broke in half and was one mass of flames. It was an incredible sight: people were cheering, dancing, singing and somebody started playing the bagpipes. This went on well into the night.”
The view was different on the German side of the lines, of course. Pitt Klein, an engineer aboard the L-31 wrote, “...you know that I'm no coward… But I dream constantly of falling zeppelins. There is something in me that I can't describe. It's as if I saw a strange darkness before me, into which I must go." And privately even the commander of the L-31, Henruch Mathy had admitted to his wife, “If anyone should say that he was not haunted by visions of burning airships, then he would be a braggart.”As darkness fell on Sunday October 1st, 1916, eleven German airships struggled through a cold rain to cross the English Channel. Some were forced to return when too much ice formed on their canvas hides. Some were blown off course.But by 8:00 PM the L-31 was approaching London from the northwest, alone. Gliding silently, using his engines only when needed to maintain headway, Mathy tired to creep onto his target. Then, at about 11:45 PM, the L-31 broke through clouds over the Thames and was immediately caught in the shafts of a handful of searchlights. Desperate to quickly escape, he dropped most of his bomb load and struggled to seek the safety of the high clouds. An American reporter was there below, and described the scene. “Among the autumn stars floats a long gaunt zeppelin. It is dull yellow – the color of the harvest moon. The long fingers of searchlights, reaching up from the roofs of the city, are touching all sides of the death messenger with their white tips. Great booming sounds shake the city. They are zeppelin bombs – falling – killing – burning. Lesser noises - of shooting – are nearer at hand, the noise of areal guns sending shrapnel into the sky."A streak of fire was shooting straight down at me, it seemed, and I stared at it hardly comprehending. The bomb struck the coping of a restaurant a few yards away, then fell into London Wall and lay burning in the roadway. I looked up and at the last moment the searchlight caught the ‘zepp’ full and clear. It was a beautiful but terrifying sight.” In the Chestnut neighborhood of London, the windows of 300 homes were shattered by the German high explosives, but only one woman was injured. High above, Mathy tried to turn his massive ship back to the west. As he did a single tiny British fighter pulled up unseen behind the L-31 and fired one long burst of tracer and incendiary rounds.The Canadian pilot, Wulstan Tempest, saw the huge ship begin to glow from within like “a giant chinese-lantern”. Two million cubic feet of hydrogen sucked in the oxygen. The flames broiled through the canvas skin, and quickly consumed the vessel. The monster began fall apart and to plummet.Also underneath the Zeppelin was English reporter Michael MacDonagh. He wrote later that night, “I saw high in the sky a concentrated blaze of searchlights, and in its centre, a ruddy glow, which rapidly spread into the outline of a blazing airship. Then the searchlights were turned off and the Zeppelin drifted perpendicularly in the darkened sky, a gigantic pyramid of flames, red and orange, like a ruined star falling slowly to earth. Its glare lit up the streets and gave a ruddy tint, even to the waters of the Thames. The spectacle lasted two or three minutes. It was so horribly fascinating that I felt spellbound - almost suffocated with emotion, ready hysterically to laugh or cry. When, at last, the doomed airship vanished from sight, there arose a shout the like of which I never heard in London before - a swelling shout, that appeared to be rising from all parts of the metropolis, ever increasing in force and intensity.”Just at midnight, the second of October, the great dying ship crumpled into a ball of brilliant light. The doomed craft crossed Cotton Road in the village of Potters Bar at 30 feet, and a final guest of wind carried the ship into the open space of Oakmere Park (below). An explosion threw the gondola from the ship and the frame broke in two. The skeletal bow smashed onto a 700 year old 120 foot high English Oak tree. A bobby, rushing to scene of the crash, had to dodge a spinning propeller.The aluminum frame bent and screamed on impact, and collapsed and melted in the white hot flames. The diesel fuel and ammunition exploded. The crew either burned alive before impact, or jumped into the darkness to their deaths. Henruch Mathy leapt to his death. He left behind his impression in the soft soil of England. Seventy miles to the south, over Norfolk, the crew of the L-21 saw their fellow zeppelin caught in the searchlights and falling to earth in flames. They would report back to Gemany that another mighty zeppelin had fallen to the English innovation. At first light a “thick clammy mist” shielded Potters Bar, and the young reporter, Michael MacDonagh, stepped into the barn just beyond the still smoldering “Zeppelin Oak”.Inside he found a row of blanketed bodies. He stooped and lifted the edge of the first and found himself staring into the blank face of a clean shaven man wearing a thick muffler. MacDonagh recognized the face instantly from German propaganda photos, Henruch Mathy.It is hard not to think that Mathy's life, and the lives of his crew, were wasted by the German leadership. There were 115 Zeppelins which flew 150 raids over England during World War One. Each of those ships cost over one hundred thousand pounds apiece.Seventy-seven of those ships were destroyed either by the Allies or in accidents on the ground. The crews suffered a 40 % casualty rate. All told the raids killed only 557 civilians (no soldiers or sailors) The cost of building those seventy-seven ships was five times the damaged the Zeppelin raids had inflicted upon the English. The idea of using zeppelins filled with explosive hydrogen gas as weapons was insane, and had more to do with the investment of egos than in practicalities. But in every war you find such insanity. It is buisness as usual. It is war. In 1926 Frau Mathy quietly visited her husband’s grave in Potters Bar. She came back in 1976, shortly before she died. And I find myself wondering what she tried to tell her husband about his sacrifice.

But she left behind no diary or writing to explain to anyone else what she felt.

- 30 -

2 comments:

  1. Interesting account, with some unusual pictures. Zeppelin crews tried to ride the falling airships down, and a few survived. I've read elsewhere of the great shout going out across London, when a zeppelin was shot down.

    Ian, Cumbria England.

    ReplyDelete
  2. intrestingly, according to german sources the defence of the Zeppelins needed 35 times more people than the whole Zeppeline stuff, so it was highly efficient in the first years

    Dominik
    Germany

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