Stock History
By Charles Phillips
The idea of bombing Britain in the First World War did not come from Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was only initially only interested in attacking military targets. Apparently it was on Korvetten Kapitan Peter Strasser of the German Imperial Navy who is credited with the idea of using mass airship raids into Britain. He persuaded his superiors who persuaded the Kaiser. On 19th January 1915 the raids started, when two Zeppelin's raided Great Yarmouth killing two people and injuring 16. The first air raid against London took place against London on 31st May 1915 killing seven and injuring 35.
The British did take counter measures. Blackouts. Anti aircraft guns and searchlights. Home defence airfields, such as North Weald Bassett, Rochford and Hornchurch. At Hall Lane, Mountnessing an emergency landing ground was established in April 1916, when the airship raids were causing a real panic. The landing ground had a problem in that it sloped steeply to the north with a wood on one side and undulating fields that fell away in all directions on the other three sides. Not the ideal place. When it was realised that Mountnessing was not the ideal place, another emergency landing ground was established at Palmers Farm near Shenfield. This opened in September 1916 and Moutnessing closed in December 1916. Somewhat later in August 1917 an emergency landing ground was opened in Church Farm Lane Runwell.
On the night 23rd/24th September 1916 twelve airships in two groups set out from their base in Nordholz Germany for England. Eight of these made for the Midlands and Northern England and four (L31, 32, 33 and 34) raided London and the Home Counties. The L32 commanded by Oberleutnant Werner Peterson made landfall over England at Dungeness and set out with the intention of attacking London. However a heavy barrage from anti aircraft guns forced Peterson to abandon his plan to bomb London and his dropped his bombs in the Thames. Flying at BE2c on patrol from Suttons Farm Hornchurch was Second Lieutenant Frederick Sowrey of the Royal Flying Corps. Sowrey was attracted by the concentrated attention given by the searchlights to an area of sky to the east, which revealed the silver cigar shape of an airship scudding through patches of clouds. However the searchlights lost their quarry and the airship slipped away. At 12.45 a.m. on 24th September Sowrey flying at 8,000 feet again saw an airship heading east and climbed to 13,000 feet and gave chase. He quickly overhauled the airship, which was the LZ32 and opened fire with his machine gun. His first and second sweeps failed to produce results, so he reloaded with incendiary ammunition. One short concentrated burst caused a small glow which suddenly exploded into a crimson flash and within seconds the whole airship was a blazing inferno. Feeling elated by his achievement Sowrey returned to land at Sutton's Farm. This is however not quite the whole story. Miller Christy writing in the Essex Review in April 1926 was living in Chignal St James at the time said that 'About twenty minutes to one, I was awakened - not by the explosions [of distant bombs](which had ceased temporarily), but by the exited crowing of the pheasants in the woods round the house and the loud bellowing of the cows in the neighbouring farm. I knew 'something was up' (in more than the colloquial sense), so I arose and went to the window. At once I heard a Zeppelin - L32, as was ascertained later -passing in front of the house, a mile or so distant, coming from the direction of London and proceeding east or south-east. I could not see it in the darkness; but came to the conclusion that it would not be passed as 'fit' by a medical tribunal; for it lacked the familiar note of a healthy Zeppelin and was both 'wheezy' and slow of gait. I decided that it had been 'pricked' (as one would say of small winged game) in the London district, where the guns had been so busy. It passed slowly into the distance and I went back to bed.' This suggests that the anti aircraft guns had done some damage to the L32 This was later confirmed, as according to obituary in The Times Group Captain Sowrey (as Second Lieutenant Sowrey became) in October 1968 the airship was twice hit by shells from anti aircraft guns near Purfleet. .
The population of east London and south east Essex that night had been denied the pleasure of sleep by the sound of police whistles sounding the air raid alert, followed by the gunfire. Some took shelter in air raid shelters, but others stayed up with late night revellers to watch the progress of the searchlights. These were joined by many others in towns, villages and hamlets to watch the impending duel. Over the noise of the airship's engines they heard the noise of the machine gun of the aircraft and saw a stream of red tracer bullets leave the aircraft and smash into the airship. As the fire took hold a mighty cheer arose from the ground.
In Stock young Lewis Donald Jarvis wrote in his diary 'I watched the Zeppelin being hit by a shot from one of our aeroplanes, and drifting in flames low over the village towards Billericay. The whole village was lit up (and the amount of traffic through the village all the day following was enormous). It was said when L32 was burning that a newspaper could be read from the glow within a distance of twenty miles and that the sky was lit up for sixty miles. The Rev Andrew Clark in Great eat Leighs wrote in his diary that those who saw the light of the burning Zeppelin said that it was so bright that you could have seen to pick up a needle from the road. He however got the place of the crash wrong in his diary and said that the Zeppelin came down between Billericay and Brentwood.
The airship fell to the ground . In a field of turnips Miller Christy,had got up having been puzzled by a rather extraordinary noise, which turned out later to have been the falling petrol tank of wounded L33, which also been shot down, the L32 fell very deliberately and by stages. To him at certain points the fall appeared to have been arrested and the airship remained almost stationary blazing furiously - a huge volume of black smoke above the flames. Then perhaps blazing petrol seemed to fall out at the bottom and then this in turn seemed to stop, to blaze more furiously, and then to drop more blazing material out of the conflagration. This was repeated several times before the whole blazing mass finally settled down behind the crest of a distant hill. Miller Christy thought that the fall lasted no less than two minutes. The airship came to land at Snail's Farm Great Burstead. Of those in airship's crew of 22 all were dead. One had reached the ground alive, but had died immediately after being found. The first people to reach the airship were the people of the neighbourhood. Next came the police and the fire brigade. The latter to put out the fire in the hope of rescuing any members of the crew who it was thought might still be alive or at least recover the bodies.
One of the first police officers on the scene was Inspector Allen Ellis of Billericay, who had watched the airship crash and cycled to the site arriving ten minutes after the crash. He was soon joined by special constables from Billericay and Little Burstead and Great Burstead and constables from Hutton and Brentwood. The special constables under Chief Special Constable E M Magor were given the task of guarding the bodies of the crew until the arrival of the army who came to guard the crash site when they handed them over to them. The bodies after being put in a shed which served as a temporary mortuary were later buried in Great Burstead churchyard, where they remained until the 1960s when they were exhumed and taken to the German Military Cemetery in Cannock in Staffordshire. The wreck of the airship was 250 yards long and 25 yards in diameter. Bits of the airship were scattered all over the place. It took two weeks to clear away the wreckage and longer than that to repair the damaged farm hedges and gates. And then all hell broke loose. News of the airship's crash had spread by various means -word of mouth, telegraph and by four o'clock some hours before daylight a large crowd had gathered and all around, especially from London. By mid morning according to Miller Christy thousands of troops had formed a closed circle round the airship and no one was allowed to approach within a couple of hundred yards or so, the crowd forming a broad band outside the ring of troops, even Second Lieutenant Sowrey had difficulty in getting to the wreck of downed airship and had to provide a very lengthy explanation to the soldiers guarding it. Overhead a British airship sailed continuously backwards and forwards and everywhere roundabout. To Miller Christy it 'seemed as if half the population of Essex and East London were already there, and new comers were arriving continuously. Motors were 'parked' in side rods and cycles were almost stacked in cottage gardens to the great profit of the occupants. According to The Times of 25th September tradespeople who had motor delivery vans (probably from London) took large family parties to see the crash. Some Australian soldiers who were either in London or Essex (The Times is not clear about this) hired a taxi cab to go and see it.
However before the troops had cordoned off the airship, people had got to the scene. One, Mrs Izzard the wife of W P D Izzard the garden expert of the Daily Mail, who lived in Billericay had tried to approach the fallen airship, which was still burning but was driven back by the heat and lost a shoe. When this was found it led the rumour that there had been a woman on board the airship.
Churches that day had problems, as the congregations were rather sparse. Here is what the late Charlie Cottee of Stock wrote many years after the event. 'Early in War 1. Zeppelin brought down near Billericay Saturday night. Set on fire. Everyone in it died. Next Sunday morning in chapel not very interested in the service. Soldiers marching past - attracted us youngsters. Home to diner. Then off to see the Zep. We went nearly to South Green. Fragments of the Zep were strewn for quite long distances. Aluminium chips, burnt silk cord, and cloth. Quite a time it took, before getting home to a late tea. One incident. Mr J Madle from Stock, brought his sister Emma to see the Zep in his horse and cart. When Jimmy got to a corner of the road a lorry came along with the rudder of the Zep. This piece was longer than the motor carrying it, and on the corner as the motor turned the rudder swung round over the top of Madles cart. Emma ducked in time to save her head being knocked off. A memorable day. Stock boys sold pieces of the Zep and made quite a bit of cash. They were not the only ones. Quite a few people picked up souvenirs. Not everyone was as lucky as the boys of Stock. To quote Miller Christy again 'objects were to be found even two miles from the airship showing how it had drifted…..Occasionally, fragments of the airship's aluminium framing turned up, and a considerable trade was done with the latecomers. One vendor of them, a Londoner, who had gathered a bag full, found himself in trouble shortly after; he was charged at a neighbouring police court with being in possession of these fragments and 'neglecting to forthwith communicate the fact to a military post or to a police constable contrary to the Defence of the Realm Regulations.' A Billericay man who had taken pieces of the Zeppelin as souvenirs had them confiscated and was prosecuted for doing so.
Even soldiers sold souvenirs. The Rev Andrew Clark records that one of the soldiers stationed in Great Leighs had driven the wife of his Lieutenant to the crash site and being in uniform had strolled up to the cordon of soldiers stationed to keep the public off the site When the sentries changed he did sentry as if he was one of them and stopping down as occasion served to pick up some fragments and put them in his pockets. When these were full he put others under the collar of his tunic. When he got back to camp the next day he made about £1 from selling bits of the Zeppelin. He reported that one man from Billericay Camp who'd found the Zeppelin's compass refused an offer of £5 for it from a Londoner. Incidentally the Lieutenant's wife had also picked up bits of the Zeppelin as souvenirs. Another form of enterprise that may be held to be quite legitimate was carried out by a man who went to the Union Hunt Kennels at Little Burstead and acquired a lump of horsemeat, which he took home and cooked. He sold 'beef' sandwiches to the visitors who came that way at 2s 6d each. He wasn't the only one to provide refreshments. Some of the people who came to see the crash were still in their nightclothes having followed the glow of the fire for a greater distance than they realised. How embarrassing to be wandering around outside the house and worse in daylight in your nightclothes! Perhaps they weren't embarrassed or cared. The crew of the airship were buried on 27th September. All that week people came to see the site of the crash. A number of special trains were put on and the station staff were kept exceedingly busy. In booking the large number of sightseers back home the station ran out of tickets and the staff were obliged to issue substitutes. The Southend Standard issued a special supplement. Essex Chronicle was rather less lavish in its coverage of the crash and only had a couple of columns dealing with it. However the Times in its reports merely described the location of the crash as in Essex. People of the politically correct nature may ask at this point 'What about the crew of the doomed zeppelin?' The simple answer is people didn't care. They were fed up with being bombed by the zeppelins and some had been injured or even knew people who'd been killed by them. According to The Times of 25th September 1916 in the London area the air raid in which the L32 participated killed 17 men, 8 women and 3 children. 45 men, 37 women and 17 children were injured. So quite frankly they weren't particularly sympathetic to them. Equally the crew of the zeppelin were not concerned about who they killed or injured as this was war. All the same, one would not have wanted to have been on the doomed zeppelin knowing that you were almost certainly going to die.
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