Some recent work in the Borough of Havering introduced me to a figure from history who I just had to write about. Luckily enough the man has a number of mentions on websites, but considering his achievements he’s worthy of a little bit more attention!
I was recently reading an assessment by Oxford Archaeology on the former site of RAF Hornchurch, which was very well written and went into a considerable amount of detail about the site and the former RAF base. The borough of Havering put considerable money into identifying all the remaining parts of RAF Hornchurch as well as contacting the local community: you can see the website part of their outreach work here. Oxford Archaeolgy had lots of interesting suggestions on how the park could be enhanced. Let’s hope the Borough go through with some of them.
Anyway, RAF Hornchurch was a large site, covering most of the modern Hornchurch Country Park and some of the present housing estate. Google have a good community map showing the location of some of the features surviving:
RAF Hornchurch was one of the many bases close to London who were charged with the defense of the capital, both during World War One and Two. Of course, we all know about the Battle of Britain during World War Two, but I didn’t realise that during World War One Britain also came under airborne attack from Germany.
The only difference being, the Germans attacked with zeppelins!. I have to admit to being rather enamoured by the idea of travelling by zeppelin (obviously with a helium gas bag rather than the explosive hydrogen!) so the idea of fighting battles in the air with zeppelins is very exciting.
Interestingly, it turns out that during the first half (1915-1916) of the war, the Germans were able to use the Zeppelins to drop bombs on Britain pretty much unimpeded. This appears to be for a whole host of reasons. First, it appears we weren’t ready for them, and the searchlights necessary to identify these ships weren’t present until later. Our early attack techniques were limited to climbing above the zeppelins and dropping bombs on them, and it seems that the early machine guns couldn’t fire forwards due to the presence of the propeller blades. In addition, we had signed up to the Hague Convention of 1899, which banned the use of incendiary ammunition: normal bullets fired from our planes were unable to cause much damage.
Add to this the fact that the Germans had designed and made better aircraft engines, which allowed their zeppelins to travel at high altitudes, and speeds only 20mph slower than our intercepting planes, and you can see why they were unchallenged!
However there were successes against the Zeppelins, and in 2-3 September 1916 the first Zeppelin was shot down by an aircraft, not without controversy, as the pilot had been given incendiary rounds and the zeppelin fell burning to the ground with no survivors. The pilot had been stationed at RAF Hornchurch (then RFC Sutton’s Farm), however the pilot I was most interested in is Lieutenant Wulstan Tempest.
On October 1, 1916, the super-zeppelin L31 under Heinrich Mathy made it to London and was spotted by searchlights. Tempest was sent up to intercept. I can’t imagine what it must have been like flying during World War One. For starters, he was flying a biplane made of wood and paper. His engine didn’t match up well to the zeppelin – to reach the zeppelin’s height he had to fly for over an hour, and risk stalling his engine in the lower oxygen of high altitude. Once he was near the zeppelin, he was at risk from the craft’s machine guns, and had only a 20mph speed advantage.
From a personal perspective, he also had to survive the bitter cold of high altitude in an open cockpit, as well as risk the dangers of low oxygen himself. There was no radio, and no navigation equipment apart from a compass and map. Perhaps most astounding is that pilots during World War One didn’t even get parachutes! Although the technology was available, there’s some rumor that the British Army thought that it might encourage a lack of fighting spirit in the pilots and cause them to abandon Army property too early. Whatever the truth of that, British plane pilots didn’t get them until after the war.
I can only imagine how brave you had to be to fly under those conditions. And Tempest didn’t have an easy time – the fuel pump on his engine failed, and in order to keep flying he had to hand-prime it at the same time as flying his plane and firing his machine gun! There are lots of stories associated with Tempest’s flight, and some of them are a little contradictory, but it seems to be clear that Tempest shot the zeppelin and it caught flames, and when it began to fell he was beneath it. He was therefore luck to escape the falling, burning zeppelin. He managed to return to base despite fog, but was exhausted by the constant pumping and the cold, and crashed on landing. Fortunately he escaped with only minor injuries!
It is interesting that Tempest gets a bit more press than does his friend William Leefe Robinson, who was the first pilot to shoot down a zeppelin. Robinson probably suffered from the uncertainty surrounding the British breaking the Hague Convention and using incendiary ammunition, and had to keep quiet about his achievements. In contrast, Tempest defeated a well-known zeppelin commander of fifteen missions, who had boasted in a letter to the New York Times of the damage he would cause to London.
Of course, the German Capitan leutnant Heinrich Mathy doesn’t get much attention. But he must have been equally as brave as Tempest. By the time he flew his last mission, the Germans must have known that the British were using incendiary ammunition, as two zeppelins had already been shot down in this way. And if a zeppelin caught fire, there was no surviving. The only choice for the crew was to burn or jump to their deaths. It seems that the zeppelin crews were all to aware of their slim survival, but they still chose to do their jobs.
Mathy and the crew of the L31 died in the crash and were buried locally, to be repatriated before World War Two. The Germans switched to airplane bombing. Tempest was given a Distinguished Service Order and went on to operate night-bombers on the Front, becoming a commander by the end of the war. He died in 1966. RAF Hornchurch was decommissioned after World War Two, and sold to an aggregates extraction company. After much of the site was quarried, the site was used as a rubbish dump, before being redeveloped as a Country Park in the 1980s.
There’s lots more information on RAF Hornchurch and related stuff around on the web, but here are a couple of links…