First Worlds War: The day 22 German airmen marched through Little Wigborough after their Zeppelin came down near Colchester
PUBLISHED: 17:38 12 May 2014
East Anglia was both the target and the London-bound path for Germany’s dreaded airships, the near-silent Zeppelins. Don Black tells of the first one brought down in Britain – here, and unique because its crew escaped alive.
Under their own commander, 22 German officers and men marched stiffly along a north Essex lane at about 1.30am on Sunday, September 24, 1916. It’s the only time such a parade by a hostile force took place in Britain in two world wars.
They were then arrested by a bobby on a bike – another feature that surely could have happened only in our country. Furthermore, the man responsible was a special constable, Edgar Nicholas, who asked them where they were going.
“We are on a special mission,” replied Captain Alois Boecker, the 37-year-old commander of Zeppelin L 33, who spoke flawless English. “Can you tell me how to get to the docks?”
“Never you mind about docks,” SPc Nicholas replied, firmly but politely. “You just come along with me.”
Boecker, mindful of the myriad estuaries and creeks he had seen before crashing at Little Wigborough, near Colchester, evidently thought there was a chance of commandeering a boat to take them home.
In the event, they marched to Peldon, where regular constable Charles Smith took charge, and on towards the nearest army unit, on Mersea Island. At the causeway, Pc Smith handed his prisoners over to a military escort.
Their reception on the island was anything but militaristic. The vicar of West Mersea, the Rev Charles Edwards, accommodated them in the parish hall.
There, his wife Nancy organised nursing and meals by a newly formed VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment). Some of the crew needed treatment for burns.
The one really-injured crewman was given a bedroom to himself at the vicarage. He was machinist Arthur Piepkorn, who suffered a fractured rib.
Wireless operator Peter Morsdorf, the last living member of the airship’s crew, told an interviewer in Hamburg in 1973 that as a 25-year-old he particularly appreciated the comforts and consideration they received in the church hall.
Kindness of that sort contrasts with the story of the L33 itself, which caused death and destruction earlier in the night. But it did give up secrets. Enough of the airship survived for Britain to use her as a prototype for its own airship programme.
British peacetime progress, however, was halted by tragedy. On a demonstration flight to India, 48 crew and passengers were killed on October 5, 1930, when R101 exploded on hitting a hillside at Beauvais in northern France.
Twelve Zeppelins set out on September 23, 1916, for the biggest such raid on Britain: eight of an older type for the Midlands; four new superzeppelins, including L33, for London.
L33, scattering magnesium flares to blind the ground gunners, dropped bombs that killed six civilians in their east London homes, then wrecked the Black Swan pub in Bow Road without causing further casualties. It also set fire to an oil depot and timber yards.
Flying at 1,500 feet, however, the airship was caught by searchlights and made an easy target for anti-aircraft guns. A shell burst inside a hydrogen cell, but inexplicably did not set the gas afire.
But the loss of gas because shrapnel had punctured several of the cells caused the airship to sink at a rate of 13 feet a second.
Boecker ordered full speed and raced north-eastwards towards the North Sea and home. Somewhere over Essex a British fighter caught up with him and raked his ship with machine gun fire, but the gun jammed and the pilot turned back.
The airship was still losing height and Boecker jettisoned everything he could – guns, ammunition, tools and reserve fuel. But to no avail. His last desperate attempt was to land in water in the shelter of Mersea Island, but with a dying flutter she landed tail first near New Hall Cottages at Little Wigborough.
The men scrambled out more or less unhurt, but Boecker’s next duty was to prevent his ship falling into enemy hands and to warn civilians in the cottages that an explosion was about to happen. Hard knocking on the cottage doors brought no response.
Boecker quickly destroyed code books by firing a flare into the petrol-soaked documents. He tried to fire the hydrogen, but at first it simply hissed. He had a job finding more flares or matches; smoking, after all, was banned in Zeppelins.
Hydrogen alone does not burn, and only when mixed with oxygen does it become dangerous. If you fill a test tube with hydrogen, invert it so that the gas will not escape, then insert a lighted match, the match will go out immediately.
Eventually, a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen in the damaged cells of L33 did ignite and flames enveloped the airship. Its basic structure, however, stayed intact and proved invaluable to British investigators.
A plethora of airship books, with those by Ray Rimmell outstanding, makes the subject one of the best-documented in aviation history. Masses of newspaper cuttings gave Little Wigborough a niche of its own in the public imagination.
In Germany, the official record simply states: “L33. Used over NW Europe, eight flights (1,688 km). Stranded at Mersea (Essex) following enemy action. Crew prisoners of war. First flight 30.08.16... decommissioned 24.10.16.”