Pilots who dared to fight the Zeppelins
PUBLISHED: 07:25 30 November 2016
In late November 1916, Great Yarmouth-based airmen exacted partial revenge for the historic Zeppelin attack on the town in January 1915. Steve Snelling recounts a story of dauntless courage and distinctions unfairly distributed.
It was an act of folly born of frustration and youthful exuberance. Bertie Cadbury had spent four nocturnal hours spread across two flights in a futile hunt for Zeppelins over the Norfolk coast. And as he returned to base, cold and disconsolate from another fruitless sortie, he decided to indulge in some aerobatics close to shore.
The result of his impromptu display was a farce that nearly turned into tragedy. In the process of his wild manoeuvres his goggles slipped, momentarily blinding him, and before he could straighten them his Sopwith biplane had plunged into the sea at a speed of almost 140 mph.
He had crashed within a few yards of beach at Great Yarmouth, almost opposite his own billet. But having by some miracle survived the impact the drama was far from over.
“I found myself upside down in about two feet of water,” he wrote in a letter home. “I unfortunately could not get my head clear; I was just wondering how many mouthfuls of beastly salt water I could swallow with impunity when, by a superhuman effort, I managed to clear my lungs, and just got my head clear… ‘I managed to clear myself and get out, being greeted by a huge cheer from hundreds of people collected on the foreshore! Old men and maidens were wading up to their waists collecting souvenirs.”
Despite suffering a gashed head, a split nose and a badly bruised ego, he was able to walk back to the mess without assistance to have his injuries treated.
He would later make light of the incident, remarking that his size - he was 6ft 3ins and solidly built - had saved him, “for instead of the machine breaking me - I broke the machine”.
But no amount of joking could disguise his disappointment at so little success to show for all his determination to meet and defeat the enemy’s airship fleet that had brought the war to Britain’s door. Reflecting on his night of woes in that autumn of 1916, he observed: “I do have sickening luck.”
All that, however, was about to change.
A little more than eight weeks after his self-inflicted misfortune, Yarmouth’s naval air station would be celebrating its first victory over the Zeppelin raiders with the patched-up aviator playing a central role in the headline-grabbing triumph.
The remarkable story behind that morale-raising success in the early hours of November 28, 1916, features in a new ground-breaking study of the Kaiser’s aerial blitz on Britain.
In two volumes, spanning almost 900 pages, Nigel Parker has set out in painstaking detail the full cost of the German air assault carried out during the First World War.
A progression from his epic record of enemy aircraft losses sustained over Britain during the Second World War, it continues a single-handed research project dating back almost half a century.
Gott Strafe England represents the distillation of a two-year trawl through a treasure trove of archives in the course of which Parker’s ambition grew exponentially. “What began as no more than a 12-page list of losses expanded out of all proportion when I discovered just how much information was available in the National Archives,” he says.
“The more I dug, the more I realised what a vast amount of material was there, much of it untouched and previously unpublished.”
Together, the mass of reports, from commanders on the ground and young aviators combating the aerial menace, tell an in-depth story of courage and skill on both sides in what was as much a technological struggle as a human one.
“Each side was constantly trying to gain an advantage, trying to get one step ahead of the opposition,” explains Parker. “Aircraft and airships were developing fast, becoming more efficient and more effective as a means of trying to out-smart one another.
“But no matter what the machines, the degree of bravery required to fly them never changed. From the German point of view, the airship crews faced the frightening prospect of a journey in darkness over a blacked-out country in a machine that was both highly inflammable and susceptible to the elements with only the most basic navigational aids.
“At the same time, the British pilots, who were bent on shooting them down, had their own problems to contend with - taking off in the dark, hoping they might spot an airship silhouetted against the moon or be guided by searchlight beams and concentrations of anti-aircraft fire onto a target, all without radio or navigational assistance and with no guarantee that their engines would not fail.”
Worst of all was the fate suffered by some airmen involved in pursuits and combats over the sea. “There are a number of instances of aircraft chasing Zeppelins out into the North Sea only to find themselves lost or out of fuel,” says Parker.
“In situations like that, particularly at night, it was very hard to judge distances and very easy to lose sight of land. And if they were forced to come down in the sea and were lucky enough to survive the impact their chances of being saved were slim as there was no air-sea rescue service and little prospect of them being found.”
Such were the perils willingly faced by the young airmen flying out of Yarmouth’s South Denes Air Station in what Parker describes as “a spirit of great adventure”.
Typical of them was 23-year-old Egbert ‘Bertie’ Cadbury, a scion of the chocolate-manufacturing dynasty who had abandoned his studies at Trinity College, Cambridge to enlist as an able seaman in the Royal Navy shortly after the outbreak of war.
After a few months at sea, mostly spent clearing mines, he was accepted into the naval air service and proved a natural, flying solo in less than a fortnight with just three and a quarter hours’ instruction recorded in his logbook.
Posted to Yarmouth just six months after the town had suffered the first civilian casualties to aerial attack in history, he found himself at the sharp end of the country’s as-yet primitive but burgeoning defences against the Zeppelin threat.
Swiftly trained in the art of night flying and dropping bombs from both seaplanes and land-based aircraft, Bertie initially found the challenge understandably daunting and not a little “nerve-wracking”.
In a letter written to his mother, he gave a candid insight into what it felt like that to be a Zeppelin hunter in the summer of 1915:
“We all sit around the fire in the officers’ quarters… like so many doomed men. Suddenly, with a nerve-shattering roar the telephone rings and an officer is wanted immediately on the phone. Someone dashes to it, the rest sitting round in deathly silence trying to read the message by the look of the said officer’s face. Then a tremendous sigh of relief when his face lights up and he announces that the Zepp is travelling north, east, south or west, anywhere but towards us. Or the other thing - sickening roar of engines, everyone getting hopelessly rattled and up go the machines, racing backward and forward along the coast, searching the sky or the depths beneath them for any signs of enemy activity… “The feeling of absolute loneliness - no passenger being carried - is almost unbearable. Nothing to see save a thin gleam of silver where the waves break on the shore and give off a phosphorescent glint. If it were not for the compass it would be impossible to tell which was land and which sea. Then the awful descent knowing that there is enough TNT beneath one in one’s bombs to blow up the Air Station…”
However, with more experience came greater confidence but no more success - until, that is, November 27-28, 1916.
On a fine, largely cloud-free night, 10 Zeppelins left their sheds in Germany to raid targets in the Midlands. Of these, two were forced to abort over the North Sea, leaving eight to reach the English coast. The attack that followed was haphazard, ill-directed and costly.
Shortly before midnight, airship L34, caught in the cones of searchlights near Hartlepool, was attacked by a single Royal Flying Corps aircraft. Repeatedly hit, she fell burning into the mouth of the Tees.
Her destruction, however, was not the end of the raiders’ woes. For the second time in the war, and in only a matter of two months, the Zeppelin fleet would suffer a double disaster.
Following a meandering and largely ineffective flight over Yorkshire and the northern Midlands during which she had attracted a good deal of anti-aircraft fire, the L21 turned for home on a route taking it towards eastern England.
Along the way, her commander, 29-year-old Kurt Frankenberg evaded attacks by two fighters north of Peterborough and escaped again near Dereham when an aircraft sent up to intercept his airship suffered engine trouble just as it was preparing to move in for the kill.
From thereon, however, L21’s luck ran out. Approaching Norwich, Frankenberg reported a side engine out of order which further slowed her progress towards the coast. By the time, the airship passed north of Yarmouth, drawing more fire from an anti-aircraft battery, the sky was lightening and three aircraft were in the air searching for her.
Leading the way was Bertie Cadbury, who had already suffered his usual share of mishaps. His first flight the previous evening had ended after just 12 minutes with spark plug trouble forcing him to land at Burgh Castle, one of Yarmouth’s satellite strips.
Having kicked his heels for two hours waiting for replacements, he had resumed his patrol, joining 18-year-old Flt Sub Lieutenant Gerard Fane and Flt Sub Lieutenant Edward Pulling in the hunt for any airships returning home.
Their patient endurance was finally rewarded at around 6.30am when the L21 was finally sighted, out at sea, against the dawn.
Cadbury, flying in BE2c No 8625, was the first to attack, a few miles east-south-east of Lowestoft. According to Parker’s account, he sprayed the aft port side of the Zeppelin with four drums of .303 ammunition from his Lewis gun with no appreciable effect aside from prompting the airship to retaliate in kind and to increase its speed.
No sooner had he pulled away from a second attempt, Fane took over. But not for long. Having closed to within 100 feet and come under fire, provoking him into “a towering rage”, he managed to fire only one round before his gun jammed probably from the intense cold.
By then, Pulling, who had flown out of Bacton, had caught up. His intervention, however, proved short. In his report of the action, cited by Parker, he described witnessing streams of tracer ammunition from Cadbury’s unseen aircraft being directed at the retreating Zepp.
Then, around five minutes after the firing ceased, he bore in at right angles to the airship’s port quarter, passing 50 feet beneath her. Firing as he came on, he managed to score hits with just two shots before his gun jammed too.
With the airship crew firing back from their gondolas, he turned away and headed out of range to clear the jam. “A few seconds later, on looking over my shoulder, I saw that the Zeppelin was on fire by the stern,” he wrote.
Incredibly, the crew were still firing even as the flames were ripping through the envelope. Flying parallel to the blazing airship, Pulling saw her “sink by the tail and dive into the sea”.
Hundreds of others watched her death plunge from the shore. As well as a joyous crowd of civilians lining the shores from Yarmouth to Lowestoft, there were sailors from the two naval bases, including the Commodore-in-charge, Captain Alfred Ellison.
From the pier at Lowestoft, he looked on as the brief air battle ended with the L21 reduced to a “fiery furnace”. It was all over in a flash. “From my own personal observation,” he wrote, “I estimate that it took about a minute from the time of her ignition to the time that she struck the water.”
Ellison thought it commendable that the German crew had continued firing for “some appreciable time” as she fell burning to her destruction, but, not surprisingly, he reserved his highest praise for his own men, particularly Cadbury and Pulling who he felt were “undoubtedly responsible” for shooting L21 down.
“It is not always the fate of the brave to achieve success,” he wrote, “but as in this case they have done so, I most strongly recommend these officers to Their Lordships’ notice…”
The Admiralty responded quickly, perhaps too quickly. A few days later, the Eastern Daily Press announced that Pulling had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order, while Cadbury and Fane had both been given the lesser distinction of the Distinguished Service Cross.
“It was unfair on Cadbury but not uncommon,” says Parker. “They were in a hurry to find heroes and didn’t spend much time analysing combat reports.”
Had they done so, they would have discovered that the man chiefly responsible for the destruction of the first Zeppelin to fall victim to an aircraft flying out of East Anglia had to have been Bertie Cadbury by simple virtue of the fact that his was the only aircraft firing into the stern where the blaze began.
Cadbury accepted the mistake with good grace. In any case, Pulling had little enough time to enjoy his reward. Three months later, while stunt-flying over the South Denes aerodrome, his aircraft broke up in mid air and he plunged to his death.
As for the true conqueror of the L21, his finest hour was yet to come.
Gott Strafe England Volumes 1 and 2, by Nigel J Parker, are published by Helion, priced £35 each.