WW1 action over Daws Heath

Zeppelin L15

On the night of 31st March 1916,  L15 a German naval airship is in trouble having lost 4 of its 12 airbags and with damaged engines.  The shortest way to home and safety would be North East and out of Britain on a similar route to the one they came in on, however, this would be expected and British forces would be waiting.

A crippled airship to be brought down was a major prize. Heading East roughly down the Crouch estuary,  the Royal Flying Corps at Canewdon Rochford will all be after him, with no machine guns to drive off aircraft and at low height so they could easily get on top and set fire to the airship. Worse still was the gun battery at Foulness at the weapons proving ground. What would they have waiting? (The most modern anti-aircraft guns?) In fact, exactly where they had just circled.

If L15 turned south then east across Southend, dropping off the remaining bombs (the least defended route) and the British forces will be elsewhere looking for the airship. An eyewitness recorded,  “It was about 12.15am on April 1st 1916 that she came across Essex from north east at a height of about 14000 feet.”   L15 turned south over Rayleigh. Was the circling a feint to confuse? L15’s crew could not have known the least defended route home was the exact one they were taking.

L15 crossed Rayleigh and as two engines stopped, the airship went into a wide left-hand turn. If anything was not needed, it was thrown overboard;  the airship still had six bombs and these were now dumped. Mr Warren of Clyst Nurseries looked over at the huge airship, he was surprised and stood there in a moment of shock,  then shouted for others to see.

Mr Clayton the manager of Oakwood Pumping station heard the drone of the airship’s engines and rushed out of his office. He recorded in the station’s log book “Zeppelin very low over the pumping station travelling south.”


L15’s route, 5 of the remaining 6 bombs exploded where the circles are.   What happened to the 6th is unknown.

0_1.png   A typical bomb of the type used

One bomb landed on Oakwood reservoir  and crippled the water supply to Southend.


Oakwood reservoir, picture taken a month before

Flight magazine noted, just outside an ancient South East Town bombs were dropped straddling a lane. The damage was a number of glass panes and 3 hens were killed.

Most of the airship’s fuel was dumped except enough for four hours flying. As the engines failed, they were also thrown out, even the exhaust manifolds.  Across Belfairs Park a number of items have been found; a German Luger pistol and an exhaust manifold from one of the Maybac engines.

L15 came to a halt over the Elms Public House in Leigh. In the darkness above at only 300 feet residents could hear the Germans swearing and shouting to try to get the giant airship going.

In for the final kill
The Royal Flying Corps took action. A single pilot who had managed to take off in the dark from Eastwood airfield, (better known today as Southend) closed for the attack with flaming darts. He had taken off as L15 first circled Foulness and was waiting, armed with Ranken darts. These darts were in clusters of 3 and were located in what was called a dropped box, inside the fuselage of the aircraft. Each box contained 24 darts. As the flying officer came in to attack; L15 was a sitting target, it could not have been easier.   Suddenly the pilot realised where he was. His mum and dad lived below. Strangely the log recalls. “Engaged airship with flaming darts failed to score a hit driven off by machines guns.”

0_3.png    BE2c 1164 the middle aircraft

A resident had produced a shotgun but had no ammunition for it. A large crowd gathered in a very short time below the airship and despite its size and very low height it was difficult to see in the darkness and cloud.   Strong words were exchanged. My witness had to be taken home, not the language a young girl should have been hearing!

Hammering, banging and,  although in another language, the swearing and shouting above.
L 15 started one engine and slowly moved, then a second and by the time it crossed Southend Pier all four were running.  L15 was going home. The airship as she stayed motionless had rotated and headed southwest, turning over where Thames Drive stands today.

Charlie, a local duck hunter of Leigh, was asked in 1924 “What was the biggest bag you’ve ever had?”  “A Zeppelin!” said he laconically. “Come over Southend in the 1914 war, went up tew London, dropped her owd bombs, and then I reckon she got hit, for she come back over Canvey Point right low. I laid out on Leigh Marsh with me big owd double eight-bore charged with swan shot, and this old airship, she come over me no more’n a gunshot high. So I let her have tew barrels right in the under-carriage where the bloody jerries was. I reckoned that ‘ud warm some of their backsides for ‘em! Didn’t do me no good though. One of our officers come down from Leigh next morning, April Fools day and give me a rare flea in me ear. Towd me as how Jerries might ha’ dropped a bomb on Southend out of revenge, jest because I shot at ’em. Well, says I, yew soldier chaps hev got bigger guns than me; why didn’t yew shoot her down?
 Charlie confirmed it was L15.

The guns on the Pier failed to engage L15 due to the surprise of it being there. The notification that it had halted over Leigh had failed to filter through anywhere. This was due to the collapse of the communication system over the previous days.  However, a newspaper report of the time tells a different story.

A newspaper correspondent from a Thames coastal town says that eyewitnesses concur in asserting that the Zeppelin raider never previously met such a cannonade from anti-aircraft guns it could clearly be seen careering through the sky. Residents cheered as a concert of engagement occurred.  This could be explained by; At Chalkwell park approx. a mile from the Elms, word had got through to the newly installed anti-aircraft battery that a Zep was just down the road.

Years later the captain wrote “Several civilians had reported a Zeppelin halted over the Elms farm lime works, sent a runner to investigate and confirmed.  Awaited orders to engage. Heard the Zeppelin start its engines and as it passed over a large tear could be seen in the side. Order to engage finally came through and it had become lost from view and without search lights fired randomly out to river.

Another report from a south eastern coastal town states:
“The zeppelin came over in a wide arc clearly distinguishable at some speed. The evil raider was viewed for some time as it descended from view across the coast line many persons in the darkened streets roared abuse.”

The pilot that failed to engage the airship returned to Southend airport at 02:41 after what was originally claimed an uneventful night sortie, Be2 1189 flown by Sub Lieutenant E P Hicks took over.

Another view of  the outcome for L15.  (Connects to an external site over which we have no editorial control.)

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