Warneford VC and the Destruction of Two Zeppelins on 7 June 1915

The first raid on the United Kingdom by German airships took place on 19 January 1915. In February Kaiser Wilhelm II relaxed his previous ban on raids on London: military targets east of the Tower of London could now be bombed. L8 had to abandon an attempt to bomb London on 26 February because of high winds. She tried again on 4 March, but was hit by gunfire and wrecked on landing in Belgium. A number of attacks were made on other targets on the East Coast of England and in France, including Paris, in March and April.[1]

In April the German army received LZ38, the first of the new P class Zeppelins. They had a maximum speed of 60 mph, a cruising speed of 40 mph, a crew of up to 19, a defensive armament of 7 or 8 machine guns and a bomb load of over two tons.[2]

The first raid on London was made by LZ38, captained by Hauptmann Erich Linnarz, on 31 May. She dropped over a ton of bombs, killing five people and injuring 35; damage worth £18,596 was done to property.[3]

Attempts by the Royal Naval Air Service to destroy airships, both by intercepting their raids and attacking their bases, had by then resulted in the destruction of only Z9. She was bombed in her shed by Flight Lieutenant Reginald Marix, flying a Sopwith Tabloid, on 8 October 1914. Squadron Commander Spenser Gray was unable to find the airship sheds, so bombed Cologne railway station.[4] Both were awarded the Distinguished Service Order. The Cuxhaven Raid on Christmas Day 1914 failed to find the German navy Zeppelin base.

On 3:15 am on 17 May the army Zeppelin LZ39 was spotted off Dunkirk. Seven RNAS aircraft took off from Dunkirk to join two other that were already on patrol. Grey and Flight Sub Lieutenant Reginald Warneford attacked the airship from below, but she climbed away from them and headed towards Ostend. Flight Commander Arthur Bigsworth, flying an Avro, managed to get 200 feet above her as she flew 10,000 feet above Ostend. He dropped four 20 pound bombs on the airship, which emitted some smoke from her tail, but continued on her way. She landed roughly but safely. One of her officers was killed and several men wounded, five gasbags damaged and one propeller lost.[5]

LZ37, LZ38, LZ39 and the navy Zeppelin L9 set out to bomb London on 6 June, but encountered strong winds and fog. Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Mathy’s L9 diverted to her alternative target, the Humber, using flares to find the docks.. She dropped 13 explosive and 39 incendiary bombs on Hull according to the British Official History: the German one says nine and 50 respectively. Around 40 shops and houses were damaged, a sawmill burnt down, 24 people killed and 40 hurt. Rioters sacked shops owned or allegedly owned by Germans. Hull had no anti-aircraft guns, so the only defensive fire came from HMS Adventure, under repair in the port. Mathy dropped seven more incendiaries on Grimsby, causing little damage, before heading home. Guns at Immingham and Waltham fired at L9 without hitting her.[6]

The fog also prevented British aircraft from taking off from Killingholme. The light cruisers HMS Aurora and Penelope, each carrying a seaplane, left Harwich in pursuit of L9, but she escaped.[7]

LZ39 suffered problems and had to turn back to her base at Evere. The other two army airships encountered fog, ad were unable to reach England, so also headed back home.[8]

In the early hours of 7 June, the RNAS airfield at Dunkirk sent four aircraft to bomb the airship bases at Evere and Berchem St Agathe. Two Henri-Farman biplanes, flown by Flight Lieutenant John Wilson and Flight Sub-Lieutenant John Mills, headed for Evere. Wilson took off at 12:40 am and arrived at 2:05 am. He replied to a series of long flashes from a searchlight with a series of short flashes, which kept the anti-aircraft guns quiet whilst he circled until there was enough light to attack. At 2:20 am he could just see the airship shed, so dropped his three 65 pound bombs from 2,000 feet. One hit the centre of the shed, sending up dense smoke but no flames. Mills turned up at 2:30 am, but was forced by anti-aircraft fire to turn away and gain height. He came back at 5,000 feet, dropped his four 20 pound bombs, setting LZ38 alight and destroying her. Both pilots had problems with fog, but got home safely, although Mills had to land on the beach between Calais and Dunkirk and Wilson in a field near Montreuil.[9]

One of the aircraft sent to attack Berchem St Agathe suffered technical problems, got lost and had to land in a field near Cassel. Warneford, flying the other, a Morane, spotted an airship just after 1:00 am. At 1:50 am he caught the Zeppelin, which was LZ37, over Bruges. Its machine guns fired on his Morane, forcing him to retire and climb. The airship turned after him and continued to fire for a period. Once Warneford had reached 11,000 feet, he headed back towards LZ37, switched off his engine, dived and dropped his six 20 pound bombs as he flew along the airship 150 feet above her. The Zeppelin exploded, throwing Warneford’s Morane upside down. He managed to regain control as it dived. One of LZ37’s crew fell through the roof of a nunnery and somehow survived, although the wreckage that fell with him killed two nuns.[10]

The explosion had damaged a petrol pipe in Warneford’s aircraft, forcing him to land behind enemy lines. He initially intended to destroy his aircraft, but then realised that he had not been seen, so set about repairing it. After 35 minutes on the ground behind enemy lines he was able to take off and landed safely, although at Cape Gris-Nez rather than Dunkirk because of the fog.

Warneford, the first pilot to destroy an airship in the air, was awarded the VC. The citation, available on naval-history.net, said that:

 29189 – 11 JUNE 1915

Admiralty, 10th June, 1915.

The KING (is) pleased to approve of the grant of the Victoria Cross to Flight Sub-Lieutenant Reginald Alexander John Warneford, Royal Naval Air Service, for the conspicuous act of bravery specified below:

For most conspicuous bravery on the 7th June, 1915, when he attacked and, singlehanded, completely destroyed a Zeppelin in mid-air. This brilliant achievement was accomplished after chasing the Zeppelin from the coast of Flanders to Ghent, where he succeeded in dropping his bombs on to it from a height of only one or two hundred feet. One of these bombs caused a terrific explosion which set the Zeppelin on fire from end to end, but at the same time overturned his Aeroplane and stopped the engine. In spite of this he succeeded in landing safely in hostile country, and after 15 minutes started his engine and returned to his base without damage.

 

He was killed on 17 June when an aircraft that he was testing crashed.

Wilson and Mills received the DSC:

 29201 – 22 JUNE 19….. award of the Distinguished Service Cross to:

Flight Lieutenant John Philip Wilson, R.N., and Flight Sub-Lieutenant John Stanley Mills, R.N., for their services on the 7th June, 1915, when, after a long flight in the darkness over hostile territory they threw bombs on the Zeppelin shed at St. Evere, near Brussels, and destroyed a Zeppelin, which was inside. The two Officers were exposed to heavy fire from anti-aircraft guns during the attack.

The bulk of the German army’s airships were transferred to the Eastern Front soon afterwards, where they bombed railway lines in support of the German offensive in Poland. However, two of them bombed London in July.[11]

 

 

[1] W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vol. iii, pp. 93-97.

[2] J. H. Morrow, The Great War in the Air: Military Aviation from 1909 to 1921 (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), p. 108.

[3] Raleigh, Jones, War in the Air. vol. iii, pp. 97-98.

[4] Ibid. vol. i, pp. 389-90.

[5] Ibid. vol. ii, p. 350.

[6] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 103.

[7] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1925 vol. xiii, Home Waters part iv, February 1915 to July 1915. p. 237.

[8] Raleigh, Jones, War in the Air. vol. iii, pp. 104-5.

[9] Ibid. vol. ii, pp. 351-52.

[10] Ibid. vol. ii, pp. 352-53.

[11] Morrow, Air, p. 109.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Warneford VC and the Destruction of Two Zeppelins on 7 June 1915

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