Zeppelins over literary London

A correspondence on Zeppelins in the letters column of the Times Literary Supplement  prompted a visit to a local Suffolk church where 17 German airmen were buried after crashing their Zeppelin in 1917. The letters have the slightly leaden header 'Led by a Zeppelin' and concern a remark of Katherine Mansfield's about how she was so attracted to the sound and sight of a Zeppelin during a raid on Paris that '…she longed to go out and follow it…' This reminds the correspondent of G.B. Shaw's reaction to a Zeppelin over Potter's Bar in October 1917 -'…  the sound of the engines was so fine, and its voyage through the stars so enchanting, that I positively caught myself hoping next night there would be another raid…'

This letter (from the American writer Stanley Weintraub) prompted a riposte about the metropolitan bias of the T.L.S. letters from Suffolk beer baron Simon Loftus (26/9/2014). He notes that Zeppelin raids were relatively common on the East Coast - "...towns such as Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Southwold were bombed more or less ineffectually by these strange  Leviathans of the skies…" He then alludes to the Zeppelin shot down near Theberton, noting that pieces of the aluminium structure, salvaged from the wreckage were auctioned in aid of the Red Cross. The 17 German airmen were buried in the peaceful graveyard at Theberton. Also buried there is the author of Arabia Deserta Charles M. Doughty. The airmen's  bodies have since been moved to a central burial ground in Staffordshire, although a memorial can still be seen in the cemetery across the road from the church.

Part of the framework of the Zeppelin itself is mounted in the porch of the church (below); whether this was bought at the auction is  unclear. At one point the church also boasted a German machine gun but this was subsequently rebuilt and is on permanent loan to the Anglian regiment.

The Zeppelin seen by Shaw over Potter's Bar on 1/10/1917 was seen by millions in London. One reporter Michael MacDonagh gave this eyewitness account:

I saw high in the sky a concentrated blaze of searchlights, and in its centre, a ruddy glow, which rapidly spread into the outline of a blazing airship.
Then the searchlights were turned off and the Zeppelin drifted perpendicularly in the darkened sky, a gigantic pyramid of flames, red and orange, like a ruined star falling slowly to earth.

Its glare lit up the streets and gave a ruddy tint, even to the waters of the Thames.
The spectacle lasted two or three minutes. It was so horribly fascinating that I felt spellbound - almost suffocated with emotion, ready hysterically to laugh or cry.
When, at last, the doomed airship vanished from sight, there arose a shout the like of which I never heard in London before -- a swelling shout, that appeared to be rising from all parts of the metropolis, ever increasing in force and intensity.

[The Zeppelin had drifted to the north, out of Michael MacDonagh’s view, and was falling slowly towards Potters Bar, where it crashed to the ground.]

The 'swelling shout' that came up from the London crowds is recorded elsewhere. The noise from tens of thousands of London street and garden parties at the midnight of the millennium in 2000 was possibly on a similar scale...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *