On the night of 19/20 October 1917, London was hit by a Zeppelin raid. Zeppelin L45 dropped a 300kg bomb onto the corner of Albany Road and Calmington Road, killing 10 people and injuring 23. Northampton, Hendon, Piccadilly and Hither Green were also hit.
Zeppelin engines were almost inaudible, and on the night in question weather conditions made the airships and their exploding bombs even harder to hear – producing a terrifying ‘silent raid’.
This was the last Zeppelin attack on London.
To add insult to injury, the raid wasn’t even intended to target London. The eleven Zeppelins which left base on the morning of 19 October planned to attack the centre of England. The fleet included Zeppelin L45, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Waldemar Kölle, and carrying enough fuel for 22 hours, plus a cargo of bombs.
The raiders crossed the North Sea and headed for a rendezvous to the east of Flamborough Head, but were driven off course by an unexpected north wind. Airships were susceptible to losing course, especially when flying high to avoid being spotted.
Flight of the L45 on the night of 19/20 October 1917
L45, aiming for Sheffield, comes in over the Yorkshire coast and avoids planes by climbing to 19,000 feet, causing temperatures to fall to minus 9˚C. The engines struggled in these freezing conditions, and the crew also suffered from cold and altitude sickness. In addition, they were unsure of their location. Kölle wrote later of the confusion:
Bearings could not be obtained. All the ships were calling. Well, the visibility seemed to be obscure everywhere.
L45 drifts over Northampton and drops its first bombs. One of the crew wrote later:
We dropped a few bombs at some faint lights but Providence alone knew where they went.
L45 reaches London’s north-west suburbs. After bombing Hendon, Cricklewood and Piccadilly, it pushes onwards, dropping a bomb on Camberwell before floating further south-east and offloading yet more deadly cargo on civilians in Hither Green.
Continuing eastwards, the airship is attacked by an aeroplane from 39 Squadron RFC, but gets away. The pilot, 2nd Lieutenant TB Pritchard, lands in a field near Bexhill and later dies of his wounds.
- 8am, 20 October
Having crossed the Channel and now losing height, L45 comes under fire from the French.
L45’s attempts to escape to Switzerland fail. Kölle brings the ship down on the dry bed of the River Durance in southern France. The crew is interned in the prisoner of war camp at Sisteron, 127km north-east of Marseille.
Of the original fleet of eleven Zeppelins, seven eventually returned to German territory. Three others – besides L45 – were driven southwards and were either destroyed or surrendered.