Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Zeppelin Nightmare: Burning Alive

Zeppelin L-31 Cruises Over Battleship SMS Ostfriesland

Our nerves are ruined by mistreatment. If anyone should say that he was not haunted by visions of burning airships, when he would be a braggart. But nobody makes this assertion; everyone has the courage to confess his dreams and thoughts.

Pitt Klein, German Navy Airship L-31

On the night of 1 October 1916, the German Navy Zeppelin L-21 was pushing her way through the high, thin air over Central England near Norfolk. As the airship cleared a bank of clouds, her commander, Captain Kurt Frankenberg, saw another zeppelin held in the bright glare of the London searchlights 70 miles to the south. Strands of clouds drifted by obscuring his view, and then with wondrous clarity he again saw the other airship. She was in flames, glowing brightly in the evening sky and falling quickly to the earth. L-21's captain and the few other crew members who saw this dreadful sign were sure what they had witnessed. Another German airship was out there this night, and it had just plummeted to the ground in fiery ruin. They did not know it at the time, but the blazing ship they had seen was the German Navy Zeppelin L-31, commanded by airship ace Heinrich Mathy. His death and the loss of his crew had far-reaching repercussions for the German airship service.

Crash Site of L-31

Airshipmen dwelt heavily upon the subject of being in a burning zeppelin. To stay on board meant possible survival, but an overwhelming probability of burning alive. The alternative was to jump, a leap to certain, but quick, death! One of Peterson's men commented brusquely that there would be no time for deliberation, that it would all happen much too quickly. Either way, it was a personal decision which every man dwelt upon to the point of obsession. When L-31 went down in flames at Potter's Bar, her captain, Heinrich Mathy, chose to jump. He was the only zeppelin captain known to have done so, and also the only person to have momentarily survived the landing. When local farmers found Mathy still wrapped in his leather flight jacket, he was face up in the field near the burning wreckage of L-31. He was still alive, but only for a few minutes, and one wonders whether he had decided on jumping long before, or whether he leapt to his death in a last moment of fear and decision.

Capt. Mathy and His Crew—All Lost

Originally buried at Potters Bar, the bodies of Mathy and his crew were moved in the early 1960s to Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, where a new cemetery had been constructed for the burial of all Germans from both World Wars who died on British soil. He lies buried there with his crew, near the entrance, along with the commanders and crews of the other three airships that were shot down over England.

Source: Dark Autumn, "The 1916 German Zeppelin Offensive, War Times Journal," Last Flight of the L-31 by Ray Rimmel.

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