diamond geezer

 Saturday, September 24, 2016

100 years ago today a bomb fell on the Black Swan pub in Bow Road, and five people were killed, including the publican's two daughters.

And this might be just another wartime tale, except that the flying machine causing the damage was a Zeppelin, the German crew were later captured by a village policeman, and the two daughters reputedly came back as ghosts.

This is the story of L33, one of four Super Zeppelins which targeted London and the South East on the evening of 23rd September 1916. At 200 metres long, these rigid airships were Germany's latest masterweapon and on their inaugural mission, and only one of the four would return safely to base.

Zeppelin L33 was captained by Alois Böcker and had a crew of twenty-one, plus a cargo of high explosive bombs and incendiaries stashed in a compartment in the centre of the keel. After crossing the Channel it passed over Foulness Island at 10.40pm, approaching the capital via Billericay (11.27pm) and Upminster (11.40pm). Here it dropped its first bombs on the common, causing no damage, before reaching Wanstead at a minute to midnight. A change of course took the Zeppelin down towards the Thames, passing between the anti-aircraft guns at Beckton and North Woolwich, then zigzagging back towards West Ham. It was a misty night, but East London was well served with searchlights and these picked out the aerial invader with ease, and a few minutes into Sunday 24th September one of the ground-based defences scored a direct hit.

With hydrogen now leaking from within, the German crew needed to lose weight fast, so an impromptu bombing raid began. The first cluster of high explosives landed off St Leonard's Street near to the junction with Empson Street (today just off the A12 opposite Bow School). Four terraced houses were wrecked, many nearby windows were shattered, and six people were killed. Some larger bombs were dropped on the North London Railway Carriage Depot, a maze of sidings and engine sheds beside what's now the DLR, north of the Limehouse Cut. Considerable damage was done to a boiler house, to rolling stock and to the tracks themselves. The next bomb damaged several houses and a Baptist Chapel on Botolph Road, a slum street long since vanished (behind the betting shop on Stroudley Walk). And then the Zeppelin reached Bow Road.

The Black Swan pub had stood on the corner of Bromley High Street for a hundred years, opposite St Mary's Church in the heart of the old village of Bow. The landlord in 1916 was Edwin John Reynolds, and he and his extended family lived in a suite of rooms above the bar. At precisely 12.12am a single 100kg bomb hit the pub dead centre, taking out all the floors down to the basement, and leaving a heavy pall of smoke in the air. The wife of the licensee was found in the cellar, and his two daughters Cissie and Sylvia were killed by the blast. His mother-in-law Mrs Potter also lost her life, and firemen found the dead body of Sylvia's one year-old daughter stuck in the rafters. Seven other local residents were injured when the neighbouring premises were destroyed, after what had been a wholly unexpected and tragic night.

The Zeppelin continued to the north, dropping another 100kg bomb at the eastern end of Wrexham Road (now the junction with the A12 dual carriageway). Three women were injured here, but little damage was done. Turning east towards Stratford the flight path now crossed what was then an industrial zone along the River Lea. A bomb fell on Cook's Soap Works (on Cooks Road) and failed to explode, while the British Petroleum works on Marshgate Lane were not so fortunate - several underground oil pipes were broken and a large water main damaged. Most of the airship's remaining bombs fell inconsequentially on Stratford Marsh (now the southern part of the Olympic Park), but one hit Judd's Match Factory, setting it on fire and destroying most of the stock.

Even with its ammunition dropped, L33 was still losing height and the captain made the decision to withdraw into Essex. The wounded Zeppelin headed off via Leytonstone, Woodford and Buckhurst Hill, taking another hit from ground defences at Kelvedon Hatch, eventually reaching the coast near West Mersea. Böcker's plan was to sink his airship in the North Sea to prevent the British from recovering its technology, but at 1.15am a gust of wind brought the craft down tail first in fields outside Little Wigborough. All of the crew survived the crash landing, and promptly set their craft alight in the hope that it would be destroyed. Then they marched off down the lane, where they promptly bumped into a Special Constable on a bike with a flashlight, attracted by the blaze. He was, understandably, suspicious.

"How many miles is it to Colchester?" asked Kapitänleutnant Böcker, in a not-quite-convincing English accent. Suspicions confirmed, the constable followed the Germans up the lane to Peldon, where they were delivered to the village constable who formally arrested them. Böcker and his crew became the only armed soldiers to be captured on English soil during the First World War, and were swiftly transferred to the military base on Mersea Island. Meanwhile the frame of the Zeppelin was still mostly intact, and attracted a quarter of a million sightseers and souvenir hunters over the subsequent weeks. The military were also delighted to have foreign technology to investigate, and incorporated aspects of the German design into later British airships.

The crash of the L33 is the most exciting thing ever to have happened in Little Wigborough, and is being celebrated this weekend with a centenary event called Zepfest. A £10 ticket will allow you to walk the crash site, hear talks from experts and see a selection of World War 1 vehicles, as well as experience a flypast (weather permitting). You should also be able to pop into St Nicholas church to see the memorial to Zeppelina Williams (1916-2004), a baby girl born in the neighbouring village on the day of the crash and whose name was suggested by the doctor who delivered her.

Back in Bow, the Black Swan pub was eventually rebuilt in 1920. All sorts of apocryphal tales exist of the ghosts of Cissie and Sylvia Reynolds appearing in the building, and of beer taps starting and shutting off by themselves. It's clearly tosh, especially any supposed sightings in the last 40 years because the pub was demolished in the early 1970s to make way for the widening of Bromley High Street. Head down today and you'll see Hardwicke House, a none-too exciting block of flats, and absolutely no pubs at all. So entirely has pre- and post-war redevelopment wiped away the Bromley side of Bow that few who live here now could even begin to picture the scene 100 years ago when fire rained down from a Zeppelin overnight. But what a story.

» Other accounts of the L33 raid
» Ordnance Survey map of Bow (1898)
» Photos of the Black Swan before demolition (1970)
» Two-minute video clip from Little Wigborough (BBC)
» An incendiary bomb that fell on Bromley-by-Bow (now at the IWM)

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