Martin Lockwood (Issue No.7)
By the summer of 1916, the war in France had reached stalemate
with both sides dug in facing each other in a war of attrition.
At home an ever growing list of casualties appeared in the papers
and families lived in dread of the knock from the telegram boy.
In this country the civilian population were experiencing at first
hand the terrible effects of war. Raids by Zeppelins which took
place under the cover of darkness, had begun on the night of 19
January, 1915, when Great Yarmouth was attacked. During 1915, raids
on this country led to the deaths of over five hundred civilians.
The public outcry was enormous - England had lost her island security.
Counter measures were slow. Zeppelins were hard to shoot down and
it was 1916 before an effective defensive system was established.
Raids took place over Essex with Maldon and Heybridge being attacked
on the 15/16 April, Southend on the 10/11 May and again on the 26/27
May, when three people were killed. In March, 1916, an attack took
place at Braintree where four people were killed, and in April,
Harwich was bombed. An early deterrent to these attacks took place
at Southend when German prisoners of war were housed in Victoria
Night fighters were used to combat the menace and in Essex No.39
Home Defence Squadron was established, flying from fields at Hainault,
North Weald Bassett and Suttons Farm (Hornchurch) and No.37 Squadron
flying from Goldhanger, Rochford and Stow Maries.
The first success against Zeppelins took place on the 2/3 September
1916 when a BE2c night fighter flown by Lt. W. Leefe Robinson, flying
from Suttons Farm, intercepted and shot down the SLll, which eventually
crashed at Cuffley, Hertfordshire, killing its crew of sixteen.
At last people had something to celebrate, Leefe Robinson was a
national hero awarded the Victoria Cross, and in addition some £4,200
in prize money, donated by a grateful public. However his fame was
short-lived and he died in the influenza pandemic in 1918.
The next successes took place again over Essex on the night of
the 23/24 September when a number of Zeppelins, including the new
Super Zeppelins (L31, L32, L33 and L34), raided London and the Home
Counties. These new airships 650 feet long, 75 feet in diameter
and displacing some 50 tons were capable of a maximum 65 miles per
hour and carried a bomb load of 5 tons.
L32, commanded by Oberleutnant Werner Peterson of the German Naval
Airship Division, set out with the intention of attacking London,
but the heavy barrage from anti-aircraft guns forced him to jettison
his bombs over the River Thames.
Flying from Suttons Farm, Lt. Frederick Sowrey on routine patrol
in a BE2c, spotted the L32 picked out by searchlights and commenced
his attack. Firing repeatedly into the Zeppelin and despite being
fired on by the enemy he was rewarded by the awesome spectacle of
a rosy red glow within the heart of the airship. Seconds later the
L32 was rocked by explosions and the vessel plunged earthwards,
crashing at Snail's Hall Farm, Great Burstead, near Billericay.
There were no survivors. For his actions Sowrey was awarded the
Picked up in the beams from the search-lights, the action had been
watched by cheering sightseers who rushed to the crash site in their
thousands to gaze at the scene and gather what souvenirs they could,
pieces of the Zeppelin being sold off at sixpence (6d) a time.
One of the first police officers to arrive at the scene was Inspector
Allen Ellis from Billericay, who had watched the stricken airship
crash. He cycled to the scene arriving some 10 minutes after the
crash and was soon joined by special constables from Billericay
and Little and Great Burstead and the constables from Hutton and
Brentwood. The special constables under the charge of Chief Special
Constable E. M. Magor were given the task of guarding the bodies
of the crew until the arrival of the army when they were handed
over to them.
The bodies of the twenty two crew were buried at Great Burstead
with full military honours, but in 1966 were exhumed and re-buried
at the German cemetery at Cannock Chase in Staffordshire.
The L33 commanded by Kapitan Alois Bocker, was on its first mission
and bombed London causing the deaths of a number of civilians; but
eventually it was hit by an anti-aircraft shell causing considerable
damage. The Zeppelin turned over the Essex countryside and above
Chelmsford was attacked by a squadron of night fighters from Hainault
Farm. Notwithstanding several hits the Zeppelin managed to elude
its attackers. Despite jettisoning guns and equipment from the stricken
airship, Bocker realised his craft was doomed and would not make
the journey across the North Sea to its base.
The airship continued to lose height and eventually crash landed
near New Hall Cottages, Little Wigborough, much to the alarm of
the inhabitants who witnessed the dying moments of the giant airship.
Deciding to set the ship on fire, Bocker knocked on the doors of
the cottages to warn the families of his intentions, However the
terrified people refused to open the door and finally Bocker gave
up and set fire to the Zeppelin. He then gathered his crew together
and in a body they marched off down the lane toward Peldon.
Travelling on his bicycle in the opposite direction, attracted
by the fire, was Special Constable Edgar Nicholas who was surprised
by the sudden appearance of a body of men marching along a lane
at that hour of the morning. He dismounted and flashlight in hand
asked Bocker whether he had seen a Zeppelin crash.
Bocker in perfect English asked him how many miles it was to Colchester.
Nicholas replied, "About six". He was thanked by Bocker
and Nicholas in his subsequent report on the incident stated that
he `at once recognised a foreign accent.' The Germans continued
their march followed by Nicholas. As they approached Peldon they
were joined by Special Constable Elijah Taylor and Sergeant Ernest
Edwards from Hatfield Board Oak, who was enjoying a few days rest
in the area.
The men considered their next move and eventually decided to escort
the Germans to Peldon Post Office where they found the local constable,
Pc 354 Charles Smith, who was busy trying to contact the military
garrison at Colchester.
Pc Smith appears to have taken charge of the situation and formally
arrested the German crew. Bocker asked Smith if he might use the
telephone but the request was politely refused and he was told to
march his men towards Mersea Island so they could be handed over
to the military.
Pc Smith led the way assisted by Special Constables Fairhead, Clement
Hyam, Charles King, Elijah Taylor, Joseph May, Horace Charles Meade,
Harry Beade and Edgar Nicholas and on route they were met by a military
detachment and the prisoners were formally handed over to them Pc
Smith was rewarded for his prompt actions by being promoted in the
field to the rank of sergeant by the Chief Constable, Captain Unett
that same day and awarded the coveted Merit Star. Force orders dated
the 24 September recorded the event thus;
‘PC Smith is promoted Sergeant and awarded the merit badge
for coolness and judgement in handing over to the Military Authorities,
the Commander and crew of a Zepplin….’
From that day he was known as ‘Zepp’ Smith and he died
in 1977 at the grand old age of 94.
Sgt Edwards having handed over the prisoners to Smith, then decided
to leave it to him and the special constables and returned home.
This caused some raised eyebrows and Captain Unett sent a short,
terse memo to the officer saying `it is understood you did not accompany
the escort to Mersea Island. Why?' His two page reply appears to
have saved him and he retired from the force in 1924.
Such was the public euphoria at the destruction of two more Zeppelins
that a public subscription raised money to present each of the police
officers with an inscribed pocket watch - the one presented to Edgar
Nicholas can be seen in the Essex Police Museum, together with other
exhibits of that fateful night in September 1916.
At nearby Great Wigborough a baby daughter was born to Mr and Mrs
Clark at about the same time as the L33 was set alight. At the suggestion
of the doctor, Dr Salter, from Tolleshunt D'arcy, (himself a Chief
Special Constable), who attended the delivery, the baby, was christened
During both World Wars, the Special Constabulary gave valuable
support to the police service, in the maintenance of law and order.
Today Special Constables working alongside their regular colleagues
still provide an integral part of the policing of Essex and give
the public a level of service of which we can be proud.