Sunday, 20 January 2013

A Witness to History

Family legends are wonderful tools for the family historian. How often do they turn out to be real and how often complete fiction? It's usually the case that a story started out truthful but, through Chinese whispers, ended up somewhat different. Through careful probing and research, it's possible to get to the root of the matter so that the actual facts emerge. One of our family legends is that, as a young woman, my paternal grandmother, Esther May Cullip, observed a little bit of history as it happened. The story goes that, in 1916, Esther May witnessed the first ever shooting down of a German airship, watching it fall out of the skies. That year there were two incidents involving airships being shot down, both happening within a month of each other and in the same area. Family legend says my grandmother saw the first airship be destroyed, but whether or not this is the case, I do believe that Esther May witnessed one of these incidents in the autumn of 1916.

A Zeppelin airship

The Zeppelin Raids had begun a year earlier when Germany's ruler, Kaiser Wilhelm II, gave his approval for airships to cross the English Channel and target military establishments in places such as East Anglia and the south coast of England. He initially forbade the bombing of London due to the risk of killing a member of the royal family! King George V was his first cousin after all. However by the end of the year, raids were being carried out over the capital city.

The airship falling over Cuffley
The first airship to be shot down over British soil happened in the small hours of 3rd September 1916. Lt Leefe Robinson spotted the ship whilst on night patrol in his fighter plane. Approaching the airship from below he emptied his machine gun first into one the side of the ship, then the other, before firing shots into the rear. The back of the ship burst into flames resulting in the Schutte-Lanz SL11 ploughing into the ground in Cuffley, Hertfordshire. A dreadful choice had to be made by the crew. Should they jump or await the horrible fate of burning to death. Whatever their decision, the commander of the ship and his 15-man crew all perished.

As the crow flies, Cuffley is about eight miles from East Finchley and judging by newspaper accounts of the day, the event was witnessed by thousands of Londoners:

"The most amazing fact in connection with the downing of a Zeppelin on Saturday night, was the immense number of people who witnessed the spectacle despite the lateness of the hour. Warning of an imminent raid was given out early, and spread with astonishing speed by hundreds of channels which each fresh raid increases. Thus many thousand Londoners remained out of their beds out of curiosity awaiting development, in the hope that, if the raid materialised, they would see what was to be seen.
When the raiders approached the capital, the firing of guns and the dropping of exploding bombs seemed to wake up half London. Thus the actual burning was witnessed from every suburb and almost from every street. The Zeppelin's height enabled the watchers for miles around to gaze at the awe-inspiring spectacle, and its absorbing brilliancy as the airship fell."
(The Great War in Europe, Kalgoorlie Western Argus, 12 Sept 1916)

Esther May and Gladys, c.1917
My grandmother lived her entire life in East Finchley, north London, and by the beginning of September 1916 she was a new mother with a six week old daughter on her hands. Perhaps the crying of a small baby meant that Esther May was awake at 2am in the morning, or maybe it was the sound of gun fire and explosions that woke her up and drove her outside to watch this extraordinary event take place in front of her eyes. For my grandmother, a little bit of the war had come to her doorstep.

The Zeppelin L31 falling
over Potters Bar
The second airship was shot down less than a month later. On 1st October 1916, 2nd Lt Wulstan Tempest was responsible for the destruction of Zeppelin L31. This ship crashed into an oak tree in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire. Again, the whole crew died and their death was witnessed by thousands of Londoners who watched as the burning ship crashed to earth.

I'll never know which airship Esther May saw falling from the skies. I like to believe it was SL11, the first and most famous of the airships shot down over Britain. Either way, my grandmother did witness a bit of history in the making. But we mustn't forget that even though a burning airship would have been a dramatic spectacle to watch, it was also a tragedy, as all the German airmen died in horrible circumstances. The Zeppelin Raids aren't well remembered due to the overwhelming horror of the Blitz and the destruction wrought on Britain by the German air raids of the Second World War. So let us not forget the 500 civilians, all over the country, who died when a bit of World War One came to their shores.

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