It was so horribly fascinating that I felt spellbound

Crowds surveying the wreckage near Potters Bar, Oct 1916
Photo: Nationaal Archief via Wikimedia

During World War I, the skies over Britain were periodically lit up by German Zeppelins in what would become known as “The First Blitz.” These enormous airships seemed almost invincible as they loomed over cities, striking terror into the hearts of civilians below, and between 1915 and 1918, 51 raids were carried out, claiming the lives of 557 people and injuring 1,358 more. As such, to the British public, each airship had become a symbol of dread, and their destruction was often met with a mixture of relief, triumph, and celebration. One person who witnessed the effects of such an event was journalist Michael MacDonagh. On the night of 1st October 1916, he saw Zeppelin L31 brought down in flames over London; the next morning he was sent to the crash site in Potter’s Bar to report on the incident. This was the gripping diary entry he wrote that day.

The Diary Entry

October 2 (Monday)

I saw last night what is probably the most appalling spectacle associated with the war which London is likely to provide—the bringing down in flames of a raiding Zeppelin.

I was late at the office, and leaving it just before midnight was crossing to Blackfriars Bridge to get a tramcar home, when my attention was attracted by frenzied cries of “Oh! Oh! She’s hit!” from some wayfarers who were standing in the middle of the road gazing at the sky in a northern direction. Looking up the clear run of New Bridge Street and Farringdon Road 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 hoarse shout of mingled execration, triumph and joy; a swelling shout that appeared to be rising from all parts of the metropolis, ever increasing in force and intensity. It was London’s Te Deum for another crowning deliverance. Four Zeppelins destroyed in a month!

In the tramcar homeward bound I wondered where the Zeppelin had fallen. Were it any thickly populated part of London the destruction to life and property would have been terrible. I also spared a thought of pity for the awful fate of the crew in that fiery furnace.

On getting to the office this morning I was ordered off to Potters Bar, Middlesex, where the Zeppelin had been brought down, about thirteen miles from London. These days trains are infrequent and travel slowly as a war economy. The journey from King’s Cross was particularly tedious. The train I caught was packed. My compartment had its twenty seats occupied and ten more passengers found standing room in it. The weather, too, was abominable. Rain fell persistently. We had to walk the two miles to the place where the Zeppelin fell, and over the miry roads and sodden fields hung a thick, clammy mist.

I got from a member of the Potters Bar anti-aircraft battery an account of the bringing down of the Zeppelin. He said the airship was caught in the beams of three searchlights from stations miles apart, and was being fired at by three batteries also from distances widely separated. She turned and twisted, rose and fell, in vain attempts to escape to the shelter of the outer darkness. None of the shells reached her. Then an aeroplane appeared and dropped three flares—the signal to the ground batteries to cease firing as he was about to attack. The airman, flying about the Zeppelin, let go rounds of machine-gun fire at her without effect, until one round fired into her from beneath set her on fire, and down she came a blazing mass, roaring like a furnace, breaking as she fell into two parts which were held together by internal cables until they reached the ground.

The framework of the Zeppelin lay in the field in two enormous heaps, separated from each other by about a hundred yards. Most of the forepart hung suspended from a tree. As in the case of the Billericay raider the final stab to the Potters Bar raider was appropriately administered by a British oak.

The crew numbered nineteen. One body was found in the field some distance from the wreckage. He must have jumped from the doomed airship from a considerable height. So great was the force with which he struck the ground that I saw the imprint of his body clearly defined in the stubbly grass. There was a round hole for the head, then deep impressions of the trunk, with outstretched arms, and finally the widely separated legs. Life was in him when he was picked up, but the spark soon went out. He was, in fact, the Commander, who had been in one of the gondolas hanging from the airship.

With another journalist I went to the barn where the bodies lay. As we approached we heard a woman say to the sergeant of the party of soldiers in charge, “May I go in? I would like to see a dead German.” “No, madam, we cannot admit ladies,” was the reply. Introducing myself as a newspaper reporter, I made the same request. The sergeant said to me, “If you particularly wish to go in you may. I would, however, advise you not to do so. If you do you will regret your curiosity.” I persisted in my request.

Explaining to the sergeant that I particularly wanted to see the body of the Commander, I was allowed to go in. The sergeant removed the covering from one of the bodies which lay apart from the others. The only disfigurement was a slight distortion of the face. It was that of a young man, clean-shaven. He was heavily clad in a dark uniform and overcoat, with a thick muffler round his neck.

I knew who he was. At the office we had had official information of the identity of the Commander and the airship (though publication of both particulars was prohibited), and it was this knowledge that had determined me to see the body. The dead man was Heinrich Mathy, the most renowned of the German airship commanders, and the perished airship was his redoubtable L31. Yes, there he lay in death at my feet, the bugaboo of the Zeppelin raids, the first and most ruthless of these Pirates of the Air bent on our destruction.


Further Reading

Michael MacDonagh’s diary was published in 1935, titled, In London During the Great War: The Diary of a Journalist. Long out of print, copies are now very scarce, but certain entries have appeared in other books, e.g. The Zeppelin Reader: Stories, Poems and Songs from the Age of Airships by Robert Hedin.

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