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 a Zeppelin L.33 shot down over Essex
Reproduced courtesy of Great War Primary Document Archive.

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.


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, a man, his wife and three children, ran for their lives as the airship hit the ground. The crew ran from the craft and shortly after it exploded.

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.

More photographs from a contemporary magazine. The zeppelin number was not given.

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
Images of the destroyed airship L32
Images of the destroyed airship L33
Little Wigborough Church history
Essex Police History web site
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