On this day (23rd September) in 1916 German Zeppelin L33 crashed in Little Wigborough, Essex. The airship’s pilot, Leiutenant-Captain Böcker, had previously captained the L14 which killed 4 people in Braintree on 31st March 1916. Böcker handed himself in and became a Prisoner of the War for the remainder of the conflict. The full story of this Zeppelin raid is told in the museum’s WWI Centenary exhibition ‘Braintree District at War – 1914 -1918’.
Bocker was forced to land the Zeppelin because of damage received from anti-aircraft guns in London’s east-end, followed by an aeroplane attack by Lieutenant Brandon over Chelmsford. Bocker burnt the fabric covering of the airship so that the British military could not use the ship. © IWM (Q 63901)
The First World War was the first time that people at home in England were directly threatened by a war being fought overseas. The development of early aircraft and airships changed the nature of war forever. It was now ’Total War’.108 air raids were officially recorded over mainland Britain between 1914 and 1918. Although many were unsuccessful in hitting their targets they often resulted in building damage and sometimes even fatalities. The closeness of East Anglia to Germany and the Western Front meant that this area bore the brunt of many raids. Braintree suffered the first incendiary bombs dropped from a German aircraft in 1915, and in 1916 four local residents were killed during the air raid on the 31st March.
Britain was slow to set up adequate defences. Blackouts were introduced in January 1915 and in Braintree guns were eventually placed in Fairfield Road as anti-aircraft deterrents but they were never used. Most ground-based guns could not fire high enough to hit their targets rending them practically useless. The Admiralty were initially given responsibility for home defence with only naval guns and old artillery from the Boer War at their disposal. There were some aeroplanes available in London but not East Anglia. An attempt was made to set up a mobile anti-aircraft corps for East Anglia, using high angled mounted machine guns and searchlights. Their headquarters was at Newmarket however so they were never going to get to Braintree in time! Braintree residents were not impressed with the lack of defence, with a stinging article in the Braintree and Bocking Advertiser on the 9th June 1915.
Gradually defence started to improve. An advance warning system was finally put in place when the the railway’s telephone and telegraph system was put at the disposal of the military in February 1916. Just after the raid in Braintree home defence was handed over to the Army and by May 1916 an anti-aircraft scheme had been launched, with a clear and fast reporting system that enabled aircraft to be mobilised quickly. By this time certain organisations and companies had been identified as needing to know about a raid, including the Fire Brigade, Water Works, Gas Works, firms on war work and local authorities. In Braintree, Crittalls and Lake and Elliot were both on the list because of their munitions work. These companies also agreed to sound their hooters if there was a day-time raid to alert residents. If an alert was received the Fire Brigade would tour the streets to deal with any incendiary bombs whilst the police controlled traffic. If the raid was at night the police also ensured car headlights were masked and that the blackout was being observed.
When a large Zeppelin raid on London failed on 2nd September 1916 and one airship was brought down many people felt the war in the air had been won. However as Böcker’s crash on the 23rd of the same month shows the raids continued, with Britain being raided 40 more times before the end of the war.
On display in the exhibition is a bomb fragment dropped during the Zeppelin raid in 1916. It was found on the site of Warners silk mill and has been lent to the museum for the exhibition. Mike Bardell, President of Braintree and Bocking Civic Society, has also kindly given the museum a copy of his mother’s memoirs of that fateful night, and there are also images of Böcker’s crash in Little Wigborough.
Although we are never free of news reports of war and conflict going on in the world, the sheer scale and horror of the First World War, and the impact it had on so many countries and civilians, has made it a war that we continue to commemorate. The First World War Centenary encourages us to take time out to really reflect on and study the history of this global conflict, and I hope you find our exhibition an interesting way to learn about the local impact of the war, and the contributions local people made.
The exhibition is open until 19th December during normal museum opening hours.
by Jennifer Brown, Collections and Interpretation Officer