Remembering the Potters Bar and Cuffley Zeppelin crashes of the First World War
- Credit: Derek Revell/Herts Memories
The horrors of trench warfare on the Western Front seemed far from home during the First World War, but the conflict did come to British soil in the form of Zeppelin bomber raids, with Hertfordshire often at the centre of these. Here’s the story of the airship crashes at Potters Bar and Cuffley.
With flight in its infancy in the early 20th century and aeroplane design still developing, lighter than air flying machines – pioneered by Count von Zeppelin – were used in a number of roles, including civilian travel and military reconnaissance.
When it became clear the First World War would be drawn out, bloody affair, airships were sent to bomb British cities, with early raids leading to many casualties due to inadequate defences.
But, by 1916, more guns, searchlights and new technology saw the tide turn in the ‘First Blitz’ – and bring the war to Hertfordshire.
Flying from bases on the north west coast of Germany, the flight path of the Zeppelins would take them over the county on their way to London, with a number crashing on their way to or from the target.
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On the night of the September 3, 1916, a Schutte-Lanz airship SL-11 – a wooden airship which was lighter than a Zeppelin – was returning from a bombing mission over the capital when it was attack by William Leefe Robinson of the No.39 Home Defence Squadron over Cuffley.
No airship had been shot down on British soil before, but Robinson’s biplane was loaded with high-explosive incendiary ammunition which set SL-11 on fire before crashing behind the Plough Inn, killing the entire 15-man crew.
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Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions, while a memorial to those who lost their lives was erected at the site.
Just over a month later, in the early hours of October 1, 1916, another airship would come down three miles to the west of Cuffley in Potters Bar.
Zeppelin L-31 was part of a major raid of 11 airships on London, but it would soon run into to trouble in the form of a rouge Royal Flying Corps pilot.
Wulstan Joseph Tempest of the No.39 Home Defence Squadron had heard the raiders were en route and ignored orders to patrol the Thames, instead taking his biplane to high altitude in an attempt to find them.
L-31 was attacked and caught fire. Reporter Michael MacDonagh described the moment, writing: “A gigantic pyramid of flames, red and orange, like a ruined star falling slowly to earth.”
The Zeppelin managed to limp as far as Potters Bar before crashing in Oakmere Park, with the entire crew losing their lives, including Lieutenant Heinrich Mathy – the record holder for the most raids over Britain during the First World War.
Mathy decided to jump from the burning airship before it crashed – the only example of a commander choosing to do so during the conflict. He momentarily survived the landing and was found alive by farmers, still wrapped in his leather flying jacket, face up in the field near the burning wreckage, but he passed away shortly after.
Despite disobeying orders, Tempest was honoured for his actions in the skies over Potters Bar, earning the Distinguished Service Order, while Tempest Avenue near to Oakmere Park is named after him.
The pilot wasn’t the only person recognised following the destruction of L-31, with the men of Hertfordshire-based Barnet Searchlight Detachment also praised for their work.
On the night of October 1, the crew were specially equipped with a tram, painted in dark green, and with a searchlight mounted on top. From their position outside Barnet Church, they illuminated the airship which helped Tempest locate and shoot down his target.
They were praised for their actions by the residents of Bedford Avenue, who wrote in a letter: “We witnessed the approach of the Zeppelin in our direction, and we were greatly impressed with the efficiency which the men in question displayed in keeping their light in touch with the craft, notwithstanding the imminent danger to themselves.”
Zeppelin raids would stop in 1917 after 77 of the 115 craft sent on raids had been lost, although bombing of cities would resume when the Gotha bomber entered military service.
The crashes of SL-11 and L-31 bought the war to the residents of Hertfordshire, but the actions of those involved in taking down the airships ultimately helped end the bombing raids and protect those on the Home Front.