Gallery - First world war: The day the Zeppelin fell from the skies over Suffolk, crashing into a field along the coast

Soldiers guard wreckage of the Zeppelin at Theberton

Soldiers guard wreckage of the Zeppelin at Theberton - Credit: Archant

Shot down by aircraft from Orfordness, 16 of a Zeppelin’s crew died as it fells blazing into a Suffolk field. Don Black looks at its short life in World War I and tells of flying in a new Zeppelin from the place in Germany where this story began.

Newly-built Zeppelin L48 at Friedrichshafen

Newly-built Zeppelin L48 at Friedrichshafen - Credit: Archant

There were three survivors from the crash of Zeppelin L48 at Theberton near Leiston on June 17 1917, the first and last men to escape from a burning airship in England.

Another died from his burns on the last day of the war.

What happened to them is evidence of respect and compassion shown to those generally regarded as ruthless enemies.

A 1930s visitor to Theberton recalled: “When we came across the grave of the crew of a German airship we found a man trimming as he would trim the graves of Englishmen. Friendly hands were bringing wild flowers.”

The man trimming the grave was a war veteran, one of two survivors of a 40-strong company that fought in France. Yet every November 11 he stood there, observing the two minutes’ silence.

All 16 men buried at Theberton were later moved to the German military cemetery in Cannock Chse, Staffordshire.

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A previous class of Zeppelin was no match for the defences that Britain had built up. Four had been brought down over England, three of them in flames, in a little over two months in late 1916.

The fourth crash-landed at Little Wigborough near Colchester.

Their most effective adversary was the aeroplane. The only answer was for Zeppelins to reach greater heights.

The new L40 class, which went into service in in 1917, could operate smoothly at 17,000 ft. One of the new airships delivered in the spring was the L48, which had a control gondola much lighter than her sisters and other improvements that fitted her for a new wave of raids.

It was warm and clear on the Suffolk coast on the afternoon of June 16.

At the Royal Flying Corps’ Orfordness airfield Captain Robert Saundby relaxed on a bench outside the frame-ad-canvas hangar. Lieutenant Frank Holder was playing tennis with friends at Sudbourne.

Both had seen intensive action over the Western Front in France so Suffolk was probably seen as a quiet sector where they could recover for a spell.

That same afternoon four Zeppelins lifted off from Nordholz near Cuxhaven north Germany. L48, commanded by Franz Eichler was the last to get into the air.

She crossed the Suffolk coast a little north of the Deben at 17,000 ft. Eichler decided to head towards Ipswich, dropping nine high explosive bombs on Falkenham, 16 on Kirton and three on Martlesham.

They fell mostly in fields, doing little damage. But that and ground anti-aircraft fire made some people think that a naval battle was happening.

At 3 am the Zeppelin received a radio message from a German observation ship in the North Sea. It reported a good westerly at 13,000 ft, which cheered Eichler. He was in trouble and reckoned that the tail wind would blow them safely home.

His luck had run out over Harwich harbour. L48 was losing height, her forward engine failed and rudder controls were faulty. Worse, an air attack was under way.

The Zeppelin started drifting from side to side and, instead of going east, turned north towards Aldeburgh and Leiston at a height that favoured three fighters from Orfordness. They shared the honours for downing her.

Often out of sight from each other as they attacked in the dark from different angles, they fired incendiary bullets a target into a target that, once they closed to within 500ft, must have looked like a barn door to a rifle club.

Both Holder and his observer, Sergeant Sydney Ashby, were equipped with guns in their aircraft, the first to be built by Ipswich company Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies at their Fore Street factory.

Holder’s jammed after emptying his first drum of ammunition, but they used seven drums in all and saw flames spreading in the airship.

Saundby reported: “In the middle of my third drum the Zeppelin caught fire at one point and almost immediately became a mass of flame.”

Second Lieutenant Watkins, a Canadian flying the other fighter, saw the Zeppelin burning after he had triggered a series of short bursts.

“She broke into a V shape and fell slowly past me, the flames roaring so loudly that I could hear them over the sound of my engine,” he wrote.

L48’s second in command, Otto Meith, was hurled back against the wall of the radio compartment. With earphone on he had not heard a warning of the attack.

A big explosion was followed by smaller ones as gas tanks were touched off. He was pushing against the wall then the Zeppelin struck the cornfield.

The control gondola was split from the rest of the airship, something broke Meith’s thighs and he suffered burns. He woke up in hospital to hear a voice asking him: “Do you want a cigarette?”

Executive officer Heinz Ellerkamm was the other L48 man to survive the war. “The ship was crashing at a terrific rate and the air whistled as she cut her way through it,” he remembered. “The gas bags were burning away like mad – a sound just like greasy paper does when you throw it on the fire.

“Suddenly the ship’ stern crashed to pieces with a fearful din. I only knew that a chaotic jumble of girders, bracing wires, benzene tanks and metal fittings were coming down on my head.

“My fur coat was burning on my back. I was imprisoned in a cage, the bars of which were a glowing red-hot mass. With all my s strength, I pushed against a girder. Another girder gave way in front of me and left a gap free.

“ I crawled along he ground and felt grass. I rolled over two or three times, then found myself in the open air.”

Mr and Mrs Ulkey of Holly Tree Farm saw the crash a quarter-mile away. Over the coming hours they provided well water for thirsty servicemen, notably a cyclists’ battalion of the Suffolk Regiment that threw a cordon around the wreckage.

Despite all efforts to keep people away, countless bits and pieces were taken and may still be shown as souvenirs in Suffolk homes. An estimated 30,000 people visited the crash site.

It was hot again on June 20 when Ipswich coroner Bernard Pretty held an inquest in the front garden of the Staulkey farmhouse.

That afternoon the burial took place with men of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service, forerunners of the RAF, lining the route. A wreath on top of Eichler’s coffin read: “To a very brave enemy from RFC officers.”

Saundby continued his career in the RAF, rising to be deputy commander-in-chief of Bomber Command and thereby having a role in the destruction of Friedrichshafen in WW11. He was knighted in 1944.

Holder survived a crash at Eastbridge a few weeks after the L48 episode and much later became deputy mayor of Chelmsford.

Ashby died in a crash at Martlesham later in 1917; Watkins was killed in France in 1918.

German records show that L48 made her first flight at Friedrichshafen on May 22 1917 and flew a total of 6,099km before crashing at Theberton little more than hree weeks later.

One of her original three survivors, engineer Wilhelm Uecker, was badly burned and died in hospital on Armistice Day 1918.

Meith sent this message to friends from his prisoner-of-war camp: “The British fighter pilots now have machines with greater altitude capacities and longer range. Furthermore, they seem to have incendiary bullets that cannot fail. The Zeppelin is doomed.”

Well, not quite...

My zeppelin experience - Don Black

Pigs can fly, if we use a nickname given to Zeppelins. I had mixed feelings when I flew in a a new one earlier this month.

Its 1914-18 predecessors brought death and destruction to England. Now two modern versions give pleasure in what some say is Europe’s most beautiful setting, where snow still caps mountains beyond the far shore of Lake Constance, its blue waters busy with yachts and ferries.

Sunshine gave way to low cloud when we rose from Friedrichshafen airport, which was and is the base for Zeppelin development after its earliest days by the lakeside.

That cloud base meant a closer view of picture-postcard villages and their rose-filled gardens as we travelled at a sedate 30 mph.

Our propulsion, relatively quiet by comparison with powerful jet or conventional propeller-driving engines needed just to get aircraft off the ground, gave me an uncomfortable thought that this was an advantage enjoyed by those wartime Zeppelins.

By early1918 they had attained speeds of more than 80 mph, yet their motors could be switched off to enable them to drift silently with the wind towards and over their targets.

Our single tiny gondola, containing 12 passengers, has little relationship, except in shape, from those that rained terror. Its 21st century technology differs greatly from gear that took L48 in the wrong direction over Suffolk.

My sense of vulnerability beneath a great gasbag that hasn’t changed shape was eased by the knowledge that it contained inert helium rather than inflammable hydrogen that exploded over Theberton in 1917.

Allied air forces demolished Friedrichshafen, for good reason, in the Second World War. It has been completely rebuilt since the early 1950s.

Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin tested his first airship there in July 1900, towed out into the lake on floating platform. His birthplace, Constance City, escaped bombing because of its adjacency to neutral Switzerland.

Left alone also was Lindau island, which served Zeppelins as a turning point for testing and training exercises. While their crews drank in Friedrichshafen beer halls, the officers preferred to go by ferry to old-established hotels on the quieter and quaint little Lindau town.

We found it not so quiet after German football victories in the World Cup. In a less happy time men whose careers ended near St Peter’s church at Theberton would have known another St Peter’s church, one that served the Landau islanders for a thousand years.

It has been a war memorial since 1928, but not until after the 1939-45 war did it acquire this strong anti-war message:

“SS runes (Nordic lettering) seem disconcerting to identify fallen soldiers as being members of the SS (Schutz Staffel, “protection patrol” guilty of countless atrocities).

“They symbolise the criminal ideology of German National Socialism and the many victims of Nazi tyranny. Their warnings are intended to produce an awareness that all wars are pointless.”

Fragments of L48 in Theberton church give a similar message, along with a plaque marking the original grave with this Biblical quote: “ Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant”.

On a lighter historical note, our final Sunday morning on Landau was brightened by a band dressed in Bavarian costumes playing music on the quayside. One tune was Somewhere Over the Rainbow, a song that helped to keep up our spirits in WW11.

In the evening, our first sight of England on a budget airline flight from Munich to Stansted was Orford Ness. We passed over Harwich harbour, where wartime installations have given way to peaceable uses, and thought that in that very air space Zeppelin L48 began going to her doom.