The night of October 1st, 1916, was moonless with visibility further restricted by patches of dense fog.
Just before 10 o’clock, Second Lieutenant Wulstan Joseph Tempest took off from his base, on the outskirts of London, in a two-seater, BE2c, biplane.
The single engined aircraft, design three years earlier and on its way to becoming obsolete, was slow to climb and it took Wulstan some two hours to achieve his patrolling height, of 15,000 feet, above Potters Bar, to the north-east of London..
The two-seater BE2c bi-plane of the type that Wulstan Tempest Flew
Although he could not know it, the 24-year-old pilot was about to earn Nationwide fame, and the thanks of a grateful Nation, by sending one of Germany’s best known and most feared Zeppelin commanders to a fiery death.
Who Was Wulstan Joseph Tempest?
The sixth son of Wilfried Francis Tempest and Florence Helen O’Rourke, Wulstan was born on at Ackworth in Yorkshire on 22 January,1891. His father, a wealthy landowner and Justice of the Peace, had him educated at the Catholic Stonyhurst College where he excelled in mathematics.
On leaving school, he spent three years training for the Merchant Navy before abandoning a navy career to become first a mining engineer and then a sugar planter in South Africa. In 1911 he, and his brother Edmund, emigrated to Canada.
Soon after war was declared, the two returned to England and enlisted.
Commissioned as a second lieutenant, with the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, Wulstan saw action at the first Battle of Ypres. He was almost killed when a dugout, in which he was sheltering, received a direct hit from enemy artillery fire.
After recuperating, in England, he joined the newly formed Royal Flying Corps.
With training completed, he was posted to the recently opened Suttons Farm airfield in Essex. During WW2 this became RAF Hornchurch, one of the air force’s largest fighter stations.
Zeppelin killer Wulstan Tempest
As a pilot with the London Air Defence, Wulstan’s job was to defend the city’s eastern approaches from the increasingly numerous and damaging bombing raids by Zeppelins.
The Rise of Germany’s ‘Stealth Bombers’
Designed by Ferdinand von Zeppelin, in the early 1900s, the hydrogen filled airship which bore his name, was originally intended to transport large numbers of passengers and cargo around the world. When war began, the Germans recognised its potential as a long-range bomber and reconnaissance aircraft.
There were two types of Zeppelin.
The wooden framed Schütte-Lanz, operated by the German Army, and an aluminium-framed version favoured by the Navy. It was these airships that were responsible for the majority of bombing raids over Britain.
Layout of an airship. This is an American design, but Zeppelin’s followed a similar plan
In the days before radar, the Zeppelin’s relatively silent running made it the ‘Stealth Bomber’ of its day.
The Zeppelin’s ability to fly at high altitudes, well above the range of both anti-aircraft fire and fighter planes, compensated for its slow speed and, since it was filled with hydrogen, vulnerability to attack.
The Ultimate Propaganda Weapon
Initial raids on the East Coast of England were followed, on the night of May 31, 1915, by one on London. Before long as many as 16 Zeppelins at a time were bombing England on a regular basis.
Gliding high above the clouds they sent death and destruction plummeting from sky onto a terrified and largely unprotected population below.
Damage caused by the Zeppelin Raid
Within weeks, Zeppelins had become Germany’s ultimate terror weapon.
While the number of dead and injured were relatively low, certainly compared to the Blitz less than two decades later, the destruction of property ran into millions and struck right at the very heart of the British capital.
In one raid on London, for example, seven civilians were killed and many more injured when bombs fell on theatre goers leave the Strand Theatre.
The result was a psychological propaganda weapon of immense value to the Germans, who firmly believed it would soon cause the population to demand surrender at almost any price.
Over the next two years the Zeppelin fleet, under the energetic command of the German Navy’s Airship Force commander Peter Strasser, swiftly became ever more technically sophisticated and reliable.
So too did the British counter measures.
Britain Increase Air Defences
Although, Winston Churchill had ordered anti-aircraft guns to be placed at various locations around London as early as September 1914, for the opening months of the war the country’s other major cities remained vulnerable to air attack. Blackout restrictions were not universally imposed until well into 1915 and only patchily enforced.
By 1916, many more Ack Ack batteries and rings of searchlight had been established and the machine guns on fighter planes were firing incendiary bullets.
All of which proved deeply worrying to Zeppelin crews and their commanders.
In Germany the most famous of these, and the most notorious in Britain, was Capitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy, commander of Zeppelin L31.
Mathy and the L 31
Capitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy, commander of Zeppelin L31
Born on 4th April, 1883, in Mannheim, Mathy made up his mind, as a boy, to follow a career German Navy.
An exceptionally gifted cadet he was given early command of his own vessel and selected for a possible role with Naval Staff.
During the two years he spent at the Marine Akademie he learned to fly in one of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s dirigibles.
During the summer of 1915, he was given command of the newly constructed L31.
Zeppelin L 31 at her base in Germany
Within a year the 32-year-old had carried out more raids over England than any other commander. In one attack alone, on 8th of September 1915, his bombs had killed 22 people and caused £1.5 million worth of damage to property. Almost two thirds of all the damage caused by Zeppelin attacks on the UK.
By the autumn of 1916, Mathy was becoming increasingly anxious and fatalistic.
In his diary he gloomily noted: ‘It is only a question of time before we join the rest. Everyone admits that, they feel it…If anyone should say that he was not haunted by visions of burning airships, then he would be a braggart.’
Mathy’s Final Flight
On the night of 1st October 1916, Mathy and his eighteen-man crew were once again heading for England aboard his three-month-old ‘super Zeppelin’ L31.
After crossing coast, near Lowestoft, they reached the northern outskirts of London soon after eight.
Which is where L 31 met its end in a hail of machine gun fire from the bi-plane of Wulstan Tempest.
Here’s how the young pilot described that historic encounter:
‘About 11:45 PM I found myself over south-west London at the altitude of 14,000 feet… I was gazing towards the north-east of London where the fog was also heavy, when I noticed all the searchlights in that quarter concentrated in an enormous pyramid.
Following them to the apex, I saw a small cigar-shaped object, which I realised was a Zeppelin. It was about 15 miles away and heading straight for London.
I was having an unpleasant time, as to get to the Zeppelin I had to pass through a very heavy inferno of bursting shells from the AA guns below.
All at once it appeared the Zeppelin must have sighted me, for she dropped all her bombs in one volley, swung round, tilted up her nose, and proceed to race away, rapidly rising northwards.
I made after her at all speed at about 15,000 feet altitude. The AA fire was intense, and I being about 5 miles behind the Zeppelin had an extremely uncomfortable time.’
After firing three flares, to alert the gunners below to his presence,Wulstan closed in for the kill.
‘I dived straight at her, sending a burst straight into her as I came. I let her have another burst as I passed under her and then, banking my machine over, sat under her tail, and flying underneath her pumped lead into her for all I was worth. I could see tracer bullets flying from her in all directions, but I was too close under her for her to concentrate upon me.
As I was firing I noticed it begin to go red inside like a Chinese lantern. The flame shot out of the front part of her and I realised she was on fire.
She then shot up about 200 feet, paused, and came roaring straight down on me before I had time to get out of the way.
I nose-dived for all I was worth, with the Zeppelin tearing after me, and expected every minute to be engulfed in the flames.
I put my machine into a spin, and just managed to corkscrew out of the way as she shot past me like a roaring furnace.
I righted my machine and watched her hit the ground with a shower of sparks. Then I proceeded to fire off dozens of flares in the exuberance of my feelings.
I then started to feel very sick and giddy and exhausted, and had considerable difficulty in finding the way to the ground through the fog and landing. In doing so I crashed and cut my head by machine gun.’
The Fate of the L 31 Crew
The sight of a silvery, cigar-shaped, Zeppelin caught in the searchlight beams high above Potters Bar, attracted the attention of thousands of Londoners, who cheered and jeered during the three minutes it took the blazing airship to fall slowly to earth from 15,000 feet.
Aboard the doomed L31 the nineteen-man crew faced a terrible decision. To jump or to burn.
A contemporary artist’s impression of Wulstan Tempest’s aircraft and Heinrich Mathy leaping from the doomed L 31
After wrapping the thick woollen scarf, a present from his wife, around his neck Heinrich Mathy jumped.
A Journalist Views the Bodies
The following day London journalist Michael MacDonagh visited the crash site and reported: ‘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.
The tangled remains on L31. The oak tree survived until the 1930’s when it was cut down at the request of the householder in whose garden it grew
One body was found in the field some distance 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.’
The impression in the earth left by Heinrich Mathy’s falling body
MacDonagh persuaded the police sergeant, on guard ,to let him view the bodies which had been laid out in a nearby barn.
‘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 around 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.’
The destruction of L31 and its crew marked the end of Zeppelin attacks on England. It was now obvious to the Germans that they were far too vulnerable to fight planes equipped with incendiary rounds. Airship raids declined as the development of long-range bombers became a more urgent priority.
The nineteen dead airmen were originally buried in the local cemetery. In the 1960’s the bodies were transferred to Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, to lie among other Germans, from both World Wars, who had died on British soil.
Awarded the DSO for his success in shooting down the L31, Wulstan Tempest was promoted to Major and served with 100 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, operating night-bombers on the Western Front, for the rest of the war.
He left what had become the RAF in 1921 and died in 1966.
In Potters Bar his feat is commemorated by two road signs, Tempest Avenue and Wulstan Park.
Although few people living in the area are aware of Wulstan’s victory or why his name was chosen.
A Google image of the entrance to Wulstan Park. L31 came down with its front end more or less when the road sign now stands. The remainder of the Zeppelin lay down the length of the present road.
For more information on this subject, see Tom Morgan’s excellent account at Decisions at Potters Bar – HELLFIRE CORNER