A swan-song moment of glory for Tilbury Fortress

I thought I would finish my little run of Tilbury Fort related posts but recalling its last great moments and some might say greatest of all, the night it shot down a Zeppelin in WW1.

The Zeppelin was invented by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. It was a rigid dirigible and he patented his idea in 1893 following a hot air balloon flight a few years later with the first commercial flight was in 1910.

Zeppelins were first used as a weapon in May 1915. Crossing the North Sea and flying up the River Thames they put fear in the hearts of all. London was bombed for the first time on 31 May 1915. Raids over London killed 557 people and injured 1,358. Whilst coastal towns especially in north-east England had been targeted by the German Navy at the start of the war, the zeppelins brought the war to the home-front in London for the first time.

The British public at this time were under the impression that the Zeppelins were indestructible delivering their bombs and incendiary devices and that aeroplanes could not fly as high as the hydrogen filled dirigibles.

The Lord Mayor of London, Sir Christopher Wakefield, in an effort to bolster morale, offered a reward of £500 for the first person or persons to shoot down a Zeppelin over mainland Britain.

On the night of 31st March 1916 Zeppelin L15 was under the command of Kapitanleutnant Joachim Breithaupt. Zeppelin L15 had been commissioned on 12 September 1915 and was 536 feet 5 inches. long and 61 feet 4 inches in diameter. The hydrogen bag was made up of separate cells.

It was a perfect night for an attack the clear almost cloudless sky and lack of wind over England was ideal. L15, one of a group of five Zeppelins, crossed the North Sea and made its way up the Thames towards London where it was due to unload its cargo of bombs and incendiaries.

As the Zeppelin approached the alarm went up. Factories flashed their internal lights three times going out on the third flash to warn their employees of the impending attack and allow them to move to safety.

Black out regulations were in force. Searchlights came on criss crossing the sky in search of the menace from the air. Kapitanleutnant Breithaupt dropped his bombs at random, over Essex.

Suddenly he became aware of an aeroplane above him. Its machine guns opened fire and explosive darts were dropped onto the Zeppelin. The damaged L15 began to make for the coast.

It was 9.45pm and Captain John Harris was in charge of the guns defending the powder magazines at Tilbury. He was ill and in bed on doctor’s orders but on hearing the alarm he wrapped a blanket round his shoulders and went to his post.

Seeing L15 the gunners opened fire even before it was caught in the cross beams of the searchlights. Caught in the lights L15 was hit. Despite it trying to manoeuvre away the gunners hit the Zeppelin a number of times.

The hits caused several leaks in the hydrogen bag. The gas escaped rendering the airship difficult if not impossible to fly and the metal framework of L15 buckled under the additional strain.

A Zeppelin that has been shot down in WW1

It nosedived into the sea off Margate. All except one crew member survived and were rescued. The only one not to survive was Signaller Albrecht who had stayed behind to try to destroy the remains of L15. The Royal Navy destroyer HMS Vulture tried to tow the remains ashore but they broke up and sank.

Back at Tilbury the gunners knew they had hit the Zeppelin and a huge cheer went up.
For days afterwards anyone who visited the area would be shown with great pride the gun that brought down L15.

Captain Harris wrote to the Lord Mayor asking for the reward of £500 for his men for bringing down the first Zeppelin over mainland Britain.

It was decided, however, that as the gunners were soldiers they were not eligible but it was agreed that the £500 could be used to produce gold medals for each man involved in the shooting down of L15. The gold medal had the name of the recipient on it.


For more related WW1 histories why not check out my WW1 book which was published a few years ago but is happily still totally up to date! Lest We Forget: A Concise History of WW1

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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