from the book 'Many Fronts'
'The Passing of a Zeppelin'
edited by Lewis R. Freeman 1918

Zeppelins over Britain

two war-time illustrations


In the year that had gone by since the first great air-raid on London we knew that much had been done in the way of strengthening the defences. Just what had been done we did not, of course, and do not, know. We knew that there were more and better guns and searchlights, and probably greatly improved means of anticipating the coming of the raiders and of following and reporting their movements after they did come. At the same time we also knew that the latest Zeppelin had been greatly improved; that it was larger, faster, capable of ascending to a greater altitude, and probably able to stand more and heavier gun-fire than its prototype of a year ago. It seemed to be a question, therefore, of whether or not the guns could range the raiders, and, if so, do them any vital damage when they did hit them. The aeroplane was an unknown quantity, and, in the popular mind at least, not seriously reckoned with. London knew that the crucial test would not come until an airship tried again to penetrate to the heart of the metropolitan area, and awaited the result calmly if not quite indifferently.

The Zeppelin raids of the spring and early summer, numerous as they had been, had done a negligible amount of military damage and scarcely more to civil property. The death list, too, had, mercifully, been very low. It seemed significant, however, that the main London defences had been avoided during all of this time, indicating, apparently, that the raiders were reluctant to lift the lid of the Pandora's box that was laid out so temptingly before them for fear of the possible consequences. Twice or thrice, watching with my glasses after I had been awakened by distant bomb explosions or gunfire, I had seen a shell-pocketed airship draw back, as a yellow dog refuses the challenge that his intrusion has provoked, and glide off into the darkness of some safer area. "Would they try it again?” was the question Londoners asked themselves as the dark of the moon came round each month, and, except for the comparatively few who had had personal experience of the terror and death that follow the swath of an air-raider, most of them seemed rather anxious to have the matter put to the test.

Last night—just twelve "darks-of-the-moon" after the first great raid of 1915—the test came. It was hardly a conclusive one, perhaps (though that may well have come before these lines find their way into print), but it was certainly highly illuminative. I write this on my return to London from viewing—twenty miles away—a tangled mass of wreckage and a heap of charred trunks that are all that remain of a Zeppelin and its crew which—whether by accident, intent, or the force of circumstances will probably never be known—rushed in where two others of its aerial sisters feared to fly, and paid the cost.

There was nothing of the surprise (to London, at least; as regards the ill-starred Zeppelin crew none can say) in last night's raid. The night grew more heavily overcast as the darkness deepened, and towards midnight stealthy little beams of hooded searchlights pirouetting on the eastern clouds told the home-wending Saturday night theatre crowd that, with the imminent approach of the raiders, London was lifting a corner of its mask of blackness and throwing out an open challenge to the enemy. This was the first time I had known the lights to precede the actual explosion of bombs, and the cool confidence of the thing suggested (as I heard one policeman tell another) that the defence had something "up their sleeves."

It was towards one in the morning when I finished my supper at a West End restaurant and started walking through the almost deserted streets to my hotel. London is anything but a bedlam after midnight, but the silence in the early hours of this morning was positively uncanny. Now, with the last of the 'buses gone and all trains stopped, only the muffled buzz of an occasional belated taxi—pushing on cautiously with hooded lights—broke the stillness.

Reaching my room I pulled on a sweater, ran up the curtain, laid my glass ready and seated myself at the window, the same window from which, a year ago, I had watched those two insolently contemptuous raiders sail across overhead and leave a blazing wake of death and destruction behind them. On that night, I reflected, I had felt the rush of air from the bombs, and—later—had watched the firemen extinguishing the flames and the ambulances carrying the wounded to the hospitals. Would it be like that to-night? I wondered (there was now no doubt that the raiders were near, for the searchlights had multiplied, and far to the south-east, though no detonations were audible, quick flashes told of scattering gun-fire), or would the defence have more of a word to say for itself this time f I looked to the eastern heavens where the shifting clouds were now "polka-dotted" with the fluttering golden motes of a score of searchlights, and thought I had found my answer.

There was no wheeling and reeling of the lights in wide circles, as a year ago, but rather a steady persistent stabbing at the clouds, each one appearing to keep to an allotted area of its own. "Stabbing" expresses the action exactly, and it recalled to me an occasion, a month ago, when a " Tommy," who was showing me through some captured dug-outs on the Somme, illustrated, with bayonet thrusts, the manner in which they had originally searched for Germans hiding under the straw mattresses. There was nothing "panicky" in the work of the lights this time, but only the suggestion of methodical, ordered, relentless vigilance.

"Encouraging as a preliminary," I said to myself; "now" (for the night was electric with import) "for the main event!"

There was not long to wait. To the south-east the gun-flashes had increased in frequency, followed by mist-dulled blurs of brightness in the clouds that told of bursting shells. Suddenly, through a rift in the clouds, I saw a new kind of glare—the earthward-launched beam of an airship's searchlight groping for its target—but the shifting mist-curtain intervened again even as one of the defending lights took up the challenge and flashed its own rapier ray in quick reply. Presently the muffled boom of bombs fleeted to my ears, and then the sharper rattle of a sudden gust of gun-fire. This was quickly followed by a confused roar of sound, evidently from many bombs dropped simultaneously or in quick succession, and I knew that one of two things had happened—either the raider had found its mark and was delivering "rapid fire," or the guns were making it so hot for the visitor that it had been compelled to dump its explosives and seek safety in flight. When a minute or more had gone by I felt sure that the latter had been scuttled, and that it was now only a question of which direction the flight was going to take.

Again the eastward searchlights gave me the answer. By twos and threes—I could not follow the order of the thing—the lights that had been "patrolling" the eastern sky moved over and took their station around a certain low-hanging cloud to the south. The murky sheet of cumulonimbus seemed to pale and dissolve in the concentrated rays, and then, right into the focus of golden glow formed by the dancing light motes running wild and blind as a bull charges the red mantle masking the matador, darted a huge Zeppelin.

Perhaps never before in all time has a single object been the centre of so blinding a glare. It seemed that the optic nerve must wither in so fierce a light, and certainly no unprotected eye could have opened to it. Dark glasses might have made it bearable, but could not possibly have resolved the earthward prospect into anything less than the heart of a fiery furnace. Indeed, it is very doubtful if the bewildered fugitive knew, in more than the most general way, where it was. Cut off by the guns to the south- east from retreat in that direction, but knowing that the North Sea and safety could be reached by driving to the north-east, it is more than probable that the harried raider found itself over the "Lion's Den" rather because it could not help it than by deliberate intent.

What a contrast was this blinded, reeling thing to those arrogantly purposeful raiders of a year ago! Supremely disdainful of gun and searchlight, these had prowled over London till the last of their bombs had been planted, and one of them had even circled back the better to see the ruin its passing had wrought. But this raider—far larger than its predecessors and flying at over twice as great a height though it was—dashed on its erratic course as though pursued by the vengeful spirits of those its harpy sisters had bombed to death in their beds. If it still had bombs to drop its commander either had no time or no heart for the job. Never have I seen an inanimate thing typify terror—the terror that must have gripped the hearts of its palpably flustered (to judge by the airship's movements) crew—like that staggering helpless maverick of a Zeppelin, when it finally found itself clutched in the tentacles of the searchlights of the aerial defences of London.

All this time the weird, uncanny silence that brooded over the streets before I had come indoors held the city in its spell. The watching thousands—nay, millions—kept their excitement in leash, and the propeller of the raider—muffled by the mists intervening between the earth and the 12000 feet at which it whirred—dulled to a drowsy drone. Into this tense silence the sudden fire of a hundred anti-aircraft guns— opening in unison as though at the pull of a single lanyard—cut in a blended roar like the Crack o' Doom; indeed, though few among those hushed watching millions realised it, it was literally the Crack o' Doom that was sounding. For perhaps a minute or a minute and a half the air was vibrant with the roar of hard-pumped guns and the shriek of speeding shell, the great sound from below drowning the sharper cracks from the steel-cold flashes in the upper air.

It was guns that were built for the job—not the hastily gathered and wholly inadequate artillery of a year ago—that were speaking now, and the voice was one of ordered, imperious authority. Range-finders had the marauder's altitude, and the information was being put at the disposal of guns that had the power to " deliver the goods" at that level. What a contrast the sequel was to that pitiful firing of the other raid! Only the opening shots were "shorts" or "wides" now, and ten seconds after the first gun a diamond-clear burst blinking out through a rift in the upper clouds told that the raider—to use a naval term—was "straddled," had shells exploding both above and below it. From that instant till the guns ceased to roar, seventy or eighty seconds later, the shells burst, lacing the air with golden glimmers, and meshed the flying raider in a fiery net.

For a few seconds it seemed to me that, close-woven as was the net of shell-bursts, the flashes came hardly as fast as the roar of the guns would seem to warrant, and I swept the heavens with my glasses in a search for other possible targets. But no other raider was in sight; there was no other "nodal centre" of gun-fire and searchlights. Suddenly the reason for the apparent discrepancy was clear to me. The flashes I saw (except for a few of the shrapnel bullets they were releasing) were only the misses; the hits I could not see. The long-awaited test was at its crucial stage. Empty of bombs and with half of its fuel consumed, the raider was at the zenith of its flight, and yet the guns were ranging it with ease. It was now a question of how much shell-fire the Zeppelin could stand.

In spite of the fact that the airship—so far as I could see through my glasses—did not appear to slow down or to be perceptibly racked by the gun-fire, I have no doubt what the end would have been if the test could have been pressed to its conclusion in an open country. But bringing a burning Zeppelin down across three or four blocks of thickly settled London was hardly a thing the Air Defence desired to do if it could possibly be avoided. The plan was carried to its conclusion with the almost mathematical precision that marked the preliminary searchlight work and gunnery.

From the moment that it had burst into sight the raider had been emitting clouds of white gas to hide itself from the searchlights and guns, while the plainly visible movements of its lateral planes seemed to indicate that it was making desperate efforts to climb still higher into the thinning upper air. Neither expedient was of much use. The swirling gas clouds might well have obscured a hovering airship, but never one that was rushing through the air at seventy miles an hour, while, far from increasing its altitude, there seemed to be a slight but steady loss from the moment the guns ceased until, two or three miles further along, it was hidden from sight for a minute by a low-hanging cloud. Undoubtedly the aim of the gunners had been to "hole," not to fire the marauder, and it must have been losing gas very rapidly even— as the climacteric moment of the attack approached— at the time increased buoyancy was most desirable.

The massed searchlights of London let go shortly after the gun-fire ceased, and now, as the raider came within their field, the more scattered lights of the northern suburbs wheeled up and fastened on. The fugitive changed its course from north to north-easterly about this time, and the swelling clouds of vapour left behind presently cut off its foreshortened length entirely from my view. A heavy ground mist appeared to prevail beyond the heights to the north, and in the diffused glow of the searchlights that strove to pierce this mask my glasses showed the ghostly shadows of flitting aeroplanes—manoeuvring for the death-thrust.

The ground mist (which did not, however, cover London proper) kept the full strength of the searchlights from the upper air, and it was in a sky of almost Stygian blackness that the final blow was sent home. The farmers of Hertfordshire tell weird stories of the detonations of bursting bombs striking their fields, but all these sounds were absorbed in the twenty-mile air-cushion that was now interposed between my vantage point and the final scene of action.

Not a sound, not a shadow, heralded the flare of yellow light which suddenly flashed out in the north-eastern heavens and spread latitudinally until the whole body of a Zeppelin—no small object even at twenty miles—stood out in glowing incandescence. Then a great sheet of pink-white flame shot up, and in the ripples . of rosy light which suffused the earth for scores of miles I could read the gilded lettering on my binoculars. This was undoubtedly the explosion of the ignited hydrogen of the main gas-bags, and immediately following it the great frame collapsed in the middle and began falling slowly toward the earth, burning now with a bright yellow flame, above which the curl of black smoke was distinctly visible. A lurid burst of light—doubtless from the exploding petrol tanks —flared up as the flaming mass struck the earth, and half a minute later the night, save for the questing searchlights to east and south, was as black as ever again.

Then perhaps the strangest thing of all occurred. London began to cheer. I should have been prepared for it in Paris, or Rome, or Berlin, or even New York, but that the Briton— who of all men in the world most fears the sound of his own voice lifted in unrestrained jubilation —was really cheering, and in millions, was almost too much. I pinched my arm to be sure that I had not dozed away, and, lost in wonder, forgot for a minute or two the great drama just enacted.

Under my window half a dozen Australian "Tommies" were rending the air with "coo- ees" and dancing around a lamp-post, while all along the street, from doorways and windows, exultant shouting could be heard. For several blocks in all directions the cheers rang out loud and clear, distinctly recognisable as such; the sound of the millions of throats farther afield came only as a heavy rumbling hum. Perhaps since the dawn of creation the air has not trembled with so strange a sound—a sound which, though entirely human in its origin, was still unhuman, unearthly, fantastic. Certainly never before in history—not even during the great volcanic eruptions—has so huge a number of people (the fall of the Zeppelin had been visible through a fifty- to seventy-five-mile radius in all directions, a region with probably from 10,000,000 to 15,000,000 inhabitants) been suddenly and intensely stirred by a single event.

It was undoubtedly the spectacularity of the unexpected coup that had made these normally repressed millions so suddenly and so violently vocal. Many—perhaps most—stopped cheering when they had had time to realise that a score of human beings were being burned to cinders in the heart of that flaming comet in the northeastern heavens; others—I knew the only recently restored tenements where some of them were—must have shouted in all the grimmer exultation for that very realisation. I can hardly say yet which stirred me more deeply, the fall of the Zeppelin itself or that stupendous burst of feeling aroused by its fall.


By taxi, milk-cart, tram, and any other conveyance that offered, but mostly on foot, I threaded highway and byway for the next four hours, and shortly after daybreak scrambled through the last of a dozen thorny hedgerows and found myself beside the still smouldering wreckage of the fallen raider. An orderly cordon of soldiers surrounding an acre of blackened and twisted metal, miles and miles of tangled wire, and a score or so of Flying Corps men already busily engaged loading the wreckage into waiting motor-lorries—that was about all there was to see. A ten-foot-square green tarpaulin covered all that could be gathered together of the airship's crew. Some of the fragments were readily recognisable as having once been the arms and legs and trunks of men; others were not. A man at my elbow stood gazing at the pitiful heap for a space, his brow puckered in thought. Presently he turned to me, a grim light in his eye, and spoke.

"Do you know," he said, "that these" (indicating the charred stumps under the square of canvas) "have just recalled to me the words Count Zeppelin is reported to have used at a great mass meeting called in Berlin to press for a more rigorous prosecution of the war against England by air, for a further increase of frightfulness? Leading two airship pilots to the front of the platform, he shouted to the crowd, 'Here are two men who were over London last night!' And the assembled thousands, so the despatch said, roared their applause and clamoured that the Zeppelins be sent again and again until the arrogant Englanders were brought to their knees. Well"— he paused and drew a deep breath as his eyes returned to the heap of blackened fragments—"it appears that they did send the Zeppelins again—more than ever were sent before—and now it is our turn to be presented to 'the men who were over London last night.' I wonder if the flare that consumed these poor devils was bright enough to pierce the black night that has settled over Germany?”

The tenseness passed out of the night, and— the raid was over. Who knows but what, so far as the threat to England is concerned, the passing of a Zeppelin marked also the passing of the Zeppelin?

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