Articles on the History of Essex, Researching your Ancestors, and British History

Two Zeppelins on a bombing mission brought down in Essex.

remains of a crashed zeppelin
Framework of Zeppelin L.33 shot down over Essex.
Image courtesy of National Archives of the Netherlands on Flickr NKCR

How inhabitants of the sleepy villages of Great Burstead and Little Wigborough were suddenly thrust into the front line of the First World War when Zeppelins crashed in their fields.

In 1915, German Zeppelins commenced bombing missions over the UK. Targets included London, Edinburgh, the North East, the Midlands, and the Home Counties.

On the night of 23/24 September 1916, Zeppelins set out to bomb London. These were newly designed and built Zeppelins, superior to the Zeppelins which had previously flown over England.


Zeppelin L32 was shot down by Frederick Sowrey, RFC, aged 23, and crashed near Snails Farm, South Green, Great Burstead, Near Billericay. Its target was London, but because of an anti-aircraft barrage, it dropped its bombs near Purfleet. It began to make its was back to Germany when it was intercepted by Sowrey who was on routine night patrol. The airship was picked out in the night sky by searchlights and Sowrey launched his attack. Firing three drums of incendiary ammunition into the body of the airship, she caught alight and plummeted to the ground at sometime after 1 a.m. All 22 of the crew were killed.

One witness described how in the night sky he saw a pink glare which turned to coppery red, then a ball of flame emerged which changed its shape to a perpendicular cylindrical mass of flame.

A few days later the crew were buried at Great Burstead Churchyard. The bodies were later transferred to a church in Staffordshire.

By 3 o'clock that night, not only had the local people rushed to see the wreckage, but cars full of Londoners started to arrive to view the wreckage of twisted and broken aluminium struts. Access to the area was limited by a narrow country lane and by 8 o'clock it was reported that the lane was blocked with "motor cars, motor-cycles, bicycles, traps, tradesmen's carts, and pedestrians, all jammed together". By far the most popular transport was bicycles with hundreds laying abandoned on the fields.

Souvenir hunting was prevented by a cordon of soldiers armed with fixed bayonets, and police, but this did not deter the souvenir hunters who scoured nearby potato and mangold fields looking for debris. Even lemonade sellers set up their stalls in an attempt to profit on the spectacle.

Sowrey was later awarded the DSO; He died in 1966 aged 75.

remains of a crashed zeppelin
Image (originally incorrectly dated 1915, but appears to be L33 in Wigborough, 1916), courtesy of British Library on Flickr NKCR


The other ill-fated Zeppelin was L33. On the raid it was damaged by anti-aircraft fire and was forced to land at New Hall Farm, Little Wigborough, only twenty yards from a nearby house.

The occupants of the house, the Lewis family, ran for their lives as the airship hit the ground. The crew ran from the craft and shortly after it exploded.

mother and children in front on a house with zeppelin remains in the background
The Lewis family had a lucky escape.
Image courtesy of National Archives of the Netherlands on Flickr NKCR

Special Constable Edgar Nicholas, who lived nearby, made his way to the scene and came across the crew walking along a road. They identified themselves as the Zeppelin crew and he arrested them. Other officers later joined them and the local constable, Pc 354 Charles Smith, arranged for the prisoners to be handed over to the military to be taken off to a prisoner-of-war camp.

Once again the airship was the subject of great attention by spectators, but the guarding of it was expeditiously arranged by the military as parts of the airship were still relatively undamaged. Indeed, she was later studied in great detail and many aspects of her design were incorporated into later British airship designs.

However, some souvenirs were gathered up and even today parts of L32 and L33 can be found for sale on eBay and collectors' forums.

But other collectors found themselves arrested and in court, as can be seen from this newspaper article.

A run on relics.

Before an Essex Bench on Wednesday Jack Lewis, postcard vendor, and Edward Stradling, an innkeeper, were charged under the Defence of the Realm Act with being possession of fragments of a wrecked Zeppelin, and neglecting to report the same to the authorities. Lewis had been in custody for a week.

A constable said that he saw Lewis selling relics of the Zeppelin at 1s. a piece, and while he was watching him, Stradling came up with a large bag of aluminium. Arrested Lewis under the Defence of the Realm Act, but Stradling got away on his motorbicycle.

Both defendants pleaded guilty, and expressed regret.

The Chairman said that in the circumstances the two cases would be dismissed, but it was regrettable that, considering the great danger to their lives the inhabitants had just passed through, certain persons should endeavour to make money in this way.

Six other defendants appeared similar charges, and fines were imposed varying from 2s. 6d. to £1. During the hearing some interesting relics, which had been appropriated, were exhibited. Stradling deposited £2 in the poor-box. One defendant had sold a valuable piece of the wreck, but had gone to some trouble and succeeded recovering it.

Essex Newsman 07 October 1916 on the British Newspaper Archive

More photographs from a contemporary magazine. The zeppelin number was not given but it appears be L33.

remains of a crashed zeppelin

remains of a crashed zeppelin

remains of a crashed zeppelin

Place links: Great Burstead | Little Wigborough

Times 25 September 1916
Times 26 September 1916
Times 28 September 1916
Times 5 October 1916
Times 23 October 1968

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