Sunday, October 01, 2006


"The memory of that night has stayed with me all my life," said the late Mrs Elsie Whale in 2001 when she was interviewed for Weekly News. An 11-year-old girl, she witnessed the destruction of the L32 German Naval Zeppelin airship during the early hours of Sunday, 24th September 1916. "It was a spectacular sight!"

Billericay certainly made worldwide headlines that morning when the airship was shot down over Great Burstead. This ‘super’ new zeppelin was one of four that flew that night, via Belgium, over London and the Home Counties, intent on destruction.

Although Britain boasted that her armed forces on land and sea were among the best trained and equipped in the world, at the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, little had been achieved in the development of aircraft for military use. However, Germany had aggressively pursued the science of aeronautics from its inception. Before the turn of that century, German strategists had determined the military role of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s dirigible airships. They were huge: 92 feet high including gondolas, 650 feet long, 78 feet in diameter and displacing 50 tons of air, they were capable of 65 mph, with 5-ton bomb-loads.

Commanded by Oberleutenant Werner Peterson of the German Naval Airship Division, the L32was forced to jettison its bombs over the River Thames before its intended attack on London. Flying from Suttons Farm, Hornchurch 23-year-old Second Lt. Frederick Sowrey on routine patrol in his BE2c (Bleriot Experimental) aircraft spotted the airship in the searchlights and began firing repeatedly into the Zeppelin, hitting the centre of the ship. Within seconds, it exploded and the vessel plunged earthwards, crashing into John Maryon’s fields in Greens Farm Lane. There were no survivors.

All this time, the action had been watched by sightseers who woke children from their beds when gunfire sounded and rushed to the crash-site to gather souvenirs. Pieces of the Zeppelin were sold off at sixpence each, although the local police quickly secured the area. Vendors selling horsemeat sandwiches set up in Jacksons Lane.

One of the first police officers to arrived at the scene was Inspector Allen Ellis who had watched the stricken airship crash. Cycling to the scene, he arrived shortly after the crash and was joined by constables from Great Burstead, Hutton and Brentwood. They guarded the bodies of the crew until the army arrived.

Twenty-two crew were buried at Great Burstead with full military honours, but in 1966 were exhumed and re-buried at the military cemetery at Cannock Chase. Between the two World Wars, several high-ranking Germans visited the churchyard at Great Burstead, to pay homage to the crew.

Poor John Maryon of Snails Hall Farm had to wait three years before the government coughed up compensation for the destruction of his trampelled crops. Remains of Zeppelin L32 can be seen in Billericay’s Cater Museum.

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