On the morning of October 2, 1916, locals descended upon a field in Potters Bar, each paying the farm’s owner a shilling to see the wreckage of a German zeppelin that had been brought down there during the night. Germany’s Super Zeppelin L31, commanded by Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy, had crossed the North Sea on a mission to bomb London, a city that had been under attack from the air since early 1915.
Despite their relatively low casualty rates, zeppelin air raids were a terrifying aspect of the new warfare confronting Britain. Of an air raid in late 1915, D.H. Lawrence famously wrote:
I cannot get over it, that the moon is not Queen of the sky by night, and the stars the lesser lights. It seems the Zeppelin is in the zenith of the night, golden like a moon, having taken control of the sky; and the bursting shells are the lesser lights.
So it seems our cosmos is burst, burst at last, the stars and moon blown away, the envelope of the sky burst out, and a new cosmos appeared, with a long-ovate, gleaming central luminary, calm and drifting in a glow of light, like a new moon, with its light bursting in flashes on the earth, to burst away the earth also. So it is the end—our world is gone, and we are like dust in the air.
A new natural order, unnaturally wrought, had overturned the world, and Londoners lived each night knowing that they may be blasted out of existence from on high without warning. Even so, many on the ground—including Lawrence—could not resist witnessing the massive zeppelins as they floated through the night sky. These spectators stood in the streets, unprotected, knowing the power of the bombs that might be dropped at any moment.
On the German side, Mathy and his crew were impressed by the destructive power of the zeppelin, as well. In a 1915 diary entry, Mathy describes the “flames bursting forth” as he orders bombs to be dropped judiciously on Holborn and then rapid-fire over Liverpool Street Station. All the while, he is aware that “at any moment we might be plunged below in a shapeless mass of wreckage.” The Chief Machinist on L31, Viktor Woellert, shared Mathy’s anxiety: “I dream constantly of falling Zeppelins. There is something in me that I cannot describe. It is as though there were a strange tunnel of darkness before me into which I am compelled to go.”
Having set out from Nordholz, L31 advanced toward London in the dark of night on October 1; the other ten zeppelins that had set out from Germany had turned back due to ice build-up or had been blown off course. Mathy drifted as silently as possible toward the heart of the city, but was discovered by the search lamps. In a decision of self-preservation, he ordered all of the bombs to be released so that L31 could climb out of danger as quickly as possible. More than 50 bombs were dropped at once on Chestnut, damaging hundreds of homes, but injuring only one person.
As Mathy turned west, a single B.E.2c fighter plane pursued and—in reportedly one pass, all while steering and hand-cranking a broken fuel pump—the British pilot fired incendiary ammunition into L31, an act which at first seemed ineffective but quickly transformed the gleaming central luminary into “an immense Chinese lantern.” More than a million cubic feet of hydrogen erupted into flame as the zeppelin plunged toward the earth, the British pilot frantically maneuvering to save his own life from the wreckage raining down toward him. He would later crash on landing and sustain minor injuries.
Meanwhile, the 19 crew members of L31 faced an overwhelming decision: ride down with the ship and burn to death or jump into the darkness and hope to be killed instantly by the fall. Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy wrapped around his head a scarf, which had been a gift from his wife, and climbed over the side. He landed in the Potters Bar field as the ruin of his mighty zeppelin drove itself downward. Nearby, the aluminum skeleton of the nose enfolded what would become known as Zeppelin Oak.
Mathy and his crew would be given a funeral with military honors in a local churchyard in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire. According to Mathy’s diary, this act of generosity by his enemy had also been afforded to another zeppelin captain, Lieutenant Peterson, who had been found in a field in Essex, wrapped in his grey army coat, having jumped from his own burning ship.
Among the crowd of Potters Bar onlookers on October 2 was Second Lieutenant Wulstan J. Tempest, the B.E.2c pilot who had singlehandedly brought down Mathy and L31. After nose-diving and cork-screwing his wooden plane to avoid being consumed by the fireball and then nearly killing himself as he destroyed his plane’s undercarriage on landing, Tempest discreetly paid his shilling to behold the scene that he had created. Surely if there were any time in the course of a human life when one would be excused, even praised, for gloating, that morning in the field of Potters Bar would have been the moment for Tempest. And yet he chose to walk through the throng anonymously.
To hear people cheering his accomplishment and to see the great oak that had become Zeppelin Oak must have pushed the young man to a state of disbelief. But to see the very spot of earth where German captain had fallen and lain for a few minutes before his death was surely uncanny.
In that moment alone amid a crowd, Tempest thought of King and Country, of his family, even of the widow Mathy. These thoughts dissolved into the background, though, as Tempest was confronted by a realization that nothing in his life had yet prepared him for (indeed, nothing in the life of the world before this war had prepared any of them for): that, only hours before, he had been diving toward the ground, perhaps toward this very spot in perhaps this very bodily position; yet it was he who moved anonymously through the crowd, gazing silently at the ghostly mark on the landscape.