Airship Bomb Crew Meet their Match in Policeman

Charles "Zepp" Smith on his birthday in August, 1972. Photo:
Charles "Zepp" Smith on his birthday in August, 1972. Photo:

by Ray Setterfield

September 24, 1916 — A local police constable rounded up and took into custody the crew of German Zeppelin LZ-76 on this night, forced down near the Roman town of Colchester after its First World War bombing mission on London. Or so the story goes . . .

The airship crash-landed in a field after being shot down by British fighters led by 2nd Lt. Alfred Brandon, a New Zealand pilot serving with the Royal Flying Corps.

After the crash, to protect the secrets of the design, German Captain Alois Böcker ordered his crew to set the Zeppelin ablaze. He then had his crew of 22 fall in and march down a country road hoping to find a boat to make their escape across the North Sea.

According to the Time-Life book, "Epic of Flight; The Giant Airships,” they were soon confronted by a lone English policeman riding his bicycle. Böcker said to the policeman: "Can you tell me how far we are from Colchester?

"Never mind about Colchester," he replied; "You come along with me." Falling in behind the policeman, they obediently followed and were taken into captivity.

It’s a nice story, but not quite correct, according to records of the Essex Chronicle, the local newspaper. It records that part-time Special Constable Edgar Nicholas was cycling along the lane, attracted by the distant blaze, and was taken aback by the sudden appearance of a body of men marching along the lane at that hour.

When Böcker asked how many miles it was to Colchester, Nicholas replied: "About six.” He was thanked by Böcker who continued on his way with his men.

Nicholas later reported that he "at once recognised a foreign accent" and followed the men.

As they approached a nearby village, he was joined by two other special constables. The men considered their next move and eventually decided to escort the Germans to the local Post Office, where they knew they would find PC Charles Smith, the official full-time constable for the area.

PC Smith took charge of the situation and formally arrested the German crew, ordering them to march to the nearest military garrison, where they were handed over.

Böcker’s bombs had set fire to a lumber yard and an oil depot while demolishing a row of houses in which six people were killed and a further 12 injured. Also hit in that raid on East London was the "Black Swan" public house, four of its patrons being killed.

The German attempt to destroy the Zeppelin by fire was only partly successful. British engineers examined the burnt-out 650ft skeleton and used information they gleaned to help build their own airships.

As for PC Smith, he was promoted to Sergeant and for ever after was known as “Zepp”. He died in 1977 at the grand old age of 94.

Published: August 3, 2016

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