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31 March 1916 – Terror Weapon

The Kaiser’s airships proved unsuited for front line service very early in the war, when attempts at tactical engagement went poorly. Altogether, about four in five Zeppelins will be shot down or crash during the course of the war, producing the highest casualty rate in the German Navy. Slower than fixed-wing aircraft, mounting sometimes-unreliable engines, each one requires as many resources and personnel as an entire squadron of biplanes. Airframes are fragile and expensive, while the airship is supremely vulnerable when flying in bad weather conditions.

Yet rather than restrict themselves to auxiliary reconnaissance duties on the North Sea, proud aviators of both the Army and Navy pressed the Kaiser to greenlight their ambitions to achieve strategic impact by bombing the enemy at home. Beginning last January and expanding the permitted zone of operations throughout the year, Wilhelm unleashed his Zeppelins on British military and civilian targets with the conscious purpose of inspiring nighttime terror in the English people — ‘frightfulness,’ in Germany’s own public relations parlance.

A few airships had already been lost to ground fire before an armed British ‘scout’ pilot made the first successful fighter intercept in June. Yet the point of a terror weapon is not really how much destruction it wreaks, or how many of them are destroyed in turn. Larger and larger sorties of airships have succeeded mainly in polarizing the English public, imbuing an even more fanatical fighting spirit in most people while inflicting little material damage on the British ‘war effort’ — aside from pinning down airplanes and artillery in England that might otherwise fight on the Western Front.

The operation is intended as a seven-airship raid, but due to mechanical troubles, two Zeppelins must turn back before reaching England. First to make landfall over Norfolk after 8 PM, the L-14 circles one time, as if to throw off listeners on the ground, then heads for London. At about 10:30 PM, her crew begins their bombing run over Sudbury, dropping eight high explosive bombs and 19 incendiaries into the suburban neighborhood, killing five civilians and mortally wounding a billeted soldier of the London Rifles. A half-hour later, L-14 drops three more high explosive bombs over Braintree, killing four civilians before an antiaircraft battery in Kelvedon Hatch fixes the airship with a searchlight and opens fire. Dropping their remaining bombs to no effect as they leave, the crew passes back over the British coast near Dunwich at 3 AM.

Delayed by her unreliable Maybach engines, L-22 has altered course for the Grimsby docks, and does not reach the English coast until 1 AM, whereupon she is promptly spotlit and fired upon from the ground. Circling back out to sea for a second run after the first string of bombs landed in open ground, the L-22 manages to hit a Baptist church facility billeting reservists in the Manchester Regiment. Altogether, 31 men are either killed immediately or die of their wounds. Emptied of ordnance, the L-22 turns for home.

Captained by Oberleutnant-zur-See Werner Peterson, the L-16 reaches England a little after 10 PM over Winterton, reaching the town of Bury St. Edmunds about ninety minutes later, When two small guns open fire from the ground, Peterson releases 21 high  explosive and five incendiary bombs onto the community below in the space of fifteen minutes. One strikes a house at Mill Road, killing a soldier’s wife and two of their five children as well as a neighbor who was outside getting a glimpse of the terrifying enemy weapon. At Beaconsfield Terrace, a soldier on leave is killed at his back door in similar circumstances. One bomb destroys a pub; two land in the garden of St. Mary’s Vicarage, killing a man and his son as they walk past to check on an easily-spooked horse. Then Peterson turns east, dropping his last bomb over Lowestoft as he passes back out to sea.

Commanding the L-13, Kapitänleutnant Helmut Mathy is the most experienced raider of the night’s operation; he and his men dropped the infamous bomb on the Dolphin pub in Bloomsbury last September; rebuilt, it is the site of a famous plaque commemorating the death and destruction. Yet his sortie tonight fails to strike anything significant despite making two runs at Stowmarket.

The only airship captain to actually reach the center of London, Kapitänleutnant Joachim Breithaupt does not make it home again tonight. Before 10 PM, his L-15 receives a direct hit from a gun at Dartford. The shell punctures four of the sixteen gas cells, and despite dropping everything inessential overboard, the craft quickly loses altitude. A British pilot, 2nd Lieutenant Alfred de Bathe Brandon, makes a run at her in a B.E.2c, dropping incendiaries and ‘Ranken darts’ on the L-15 without success. She ultimately crashes shortly after midnight in the Thames estuary near the Kentish Knock lightship, drowning one sailor. Breithaupt and his other sixteen men are rescued and captured by a trawler and then a destroyer. In a later salvage attempt, the airship breaks apart under tow and disintegrates on the Margate Sand.

Altogether, British officials tally 48 deaths and 64 injuries as well as extensive damage to dozens of buildings. Yet tomorrow, not one factory in all of Britain stops producing war material, while the London docks hum with their usual wartime activity, and no training or planning or other wartime work lets up at all. Seeking to strike terror in the heart of the enemy, the night raiders have missed their mark.

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A map of the night’s operations. Click to embiggen