Local History: The First Zeppelin Ever Shot Down…in Potters Bar
Wednesday 3 March 2021
In the latest of our series on local history, Assistant Head, Pupil Data Teaching and Learning Stephen Daughton recounts the story of the first ever shooting down of enemy aircraft on British soil, on a spot very close to Queenswood School, in 1916.
Capitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy
Outside his favourite cafe, reporters badger Heinrich Mathy, dashing captain of Naval Zeppelin L31. ‘Burn or jump, what will you do? Your ship’s on fire, you see death and have seconds to decide…’
Mathy, eyes screened against flash-pops, answers, ‘I won't know until it happens.’
32 year-old Capitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy, was a ‘Knight of the Air’, the most experienced and audacious of the German Zeppelin Commanders, who by October 1916 had taken part in more raids and dropped more tonnage of bombs than anyone else. A skilled navigator, cool, young and daring, he seemed unstoppable and was adored by a German public in need of heroes amid the stalemate of World War One in late 1916.
The bombing of England began in late 1915 and German Zeppelins found the cities totally undefended. Major cities in the South East and all the way up the East coast to Sunderland were targeted in what the Germans dubbed the ‘Iron Thunderstorm’. It was Mathy who made the most successful of these early raids in September 1915, causing 20 fatalities and considerable damage to London in a solo raid on the capital.
By August 1916 things were very different. Britain's cities were defended with searchlights and anti-aircraft artillery. 2 September 1916 saw the first Zeppelin downed over Britain, the Royal Flying Corps successfully using incendiary bullets that ignited the hydrogen inside to bring down one of 16 Zeppelins involved in a mass attack on London. The explosions lit up London and thousands watched the giant fireball slowly fall to the ground. It crashed in Cuffley and burned in a field behind the Plough pub. A local boy drew a picture of the crash and the pilot was awarded the Victoria Cross for the success.
In the late summer of 1916, against this changing background of shifting advantage, Mathy took charge of one of the new ‘Super-Zeppelins’, designated L31. On 16 October Capitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy took off on another bombing raid in L31. Breaking land at Lowestoft, Mathy turned south-west to attack London. His skill had seen him first of the crews across the icy North Sea skies and through the storms that night. Over Essex at about 8pm, he was caught in searchlights and instead of choosing to try and outrun the guns and inevitably soon-to-be-arriving aircraft he decided instead to slow down, and released nearly 60 high explosive bombs over Cheshunt. Lighter and faster, he now turned west to try and make his escape.
By 11.45 a lone British patrol plane, part of the London defence force, had at last climbed the 14,000 feet to meet Methy’s Super Zeppelin. With a combination of incendiary, tracer and regular ammunition they managed to cause the Zeppelin frame to burst and explode and L31 began to plummet to the ground. Mathy and his 18 crew members now had very little time to make that terrible decision all knew they someday might have to make – burn or jump. Mathy waited as long as he could in the fireball before choosing to wrap his woollen scarf (a gift from his wife) around his head and jump – unsure, in the night, of how low he was.
He landed in Oakmere Park in Potters Bar and the Zeppelin crashed and folded its molten burning framework around a large tree in the park. Fuel tanks and ammunition tanks exploded, and the large propellers of the L31 scythed across the ground. The fire of the wreckage was so intense that no one could approach it for two hours.
Mathy almost certainly died on impact and the arrival of the fire brigade ensured the removal of the bodies. The owner of the field (it was not yet part of what is now Oakmere Park) charged a shilling to enter the field and crowds of sightseers descended on Potters Bar to see the wreckage.
Mathy and his crew were buried in the local cemetery on Mutton Lane, their graves largely neglected until Hitler came to power in the 1930s and instituted ‘Heroes Day’ on 16 March, to laud the soldiers of the past. An annual Nazi event honouring Mathy and his crew then took place in Potters Bar cemetery, conducted entirely in German, involving Nazi salutes, swastikas and the whole shebang. In 1939 Nazi Ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop attended the ceremony in Potters Bar.
It is amazing to think that prominent Nazi ceremonies were held annually in Potters Bar only a little over 80 years ago and that the first two Zeppelins shot down over Britain, both occured in this area 105 years ago. And there’s plenty more that happened around us...
Memorial in Cuffley to Lieut. W. L. Robinson, V.C., who shot down the L31 Zeppelin.