The End of the L.23.
From "Zeppelin Adventures".Pages: <1>
This is the tale told by Signalling Petty Officer Emmerlich, who was formerly a steersman on her elevator.
"Yes, that was in September, 1916. We were about 5,000 metres high over London, where we were to bomb the waterworks. The time was 12.15 a.m. Of London's great sea of houses we saw nothing on account of a thick belt of clouds that covered the town like a helmet of darkness. Our skipper, Commander Boker, was supposed to find those waterworks somehow, but it was a rotten business.
Then about one o'clock the sky suddenly became clear - much too clear for our liking. Naturally they had us taped; from all sides the white fingers of the searchlights came feeling up for us; they grabbed us and did not let us go again. But when the shooting began, we were not the target.
They were after the L.32. My friend, Mahnke, was the man in charge of her elevator, and I knew that he'd be thinking more or less what I was thinking at the moment. And then, just as I was looking out across the void, I saw that nasty blue flame shoot out of the ship and wipe away the lives of all the men on board the L.32. Down went the ship to earth from her 5,000 metres, and that was the end of her.
'Now it's our turn,' I thought, but for some reason they did not shoot at us.
Then they tried a devilish trick. Out went all the searchlights, except two, which intersected to form a right angle on our ship.
'Aha, that's to get our height,' I thought, and the next moment I saw another light shoot up straight under our bow. The ship ran bang through it, and that gave them our speed.
Then the shooting started. Up came the incendiary shells that looked first like little glow-worms and then like shooting stars going the wrong way and finally like Old Nick himself. Biff, bang! The ship shivered all over as the shells tore our bags out, but, thank God! we didn't take fire.
But our gas was escaping, and so we began to fall!
Down we went - deeper and deeper and deeper. No use trying to pull her up with the elevator or by throwing ballast out. The ground whirled up to meet us, and 'Oh, Lord!' I thought, when I saw the houses. Our car was heading at full speed for a small country house, but just at the last moment Wolf pulled the helm round, and we shot into some mud about twenty metres away from the building.
I don't know to this day how we got out of the car. It might have been a matter of seconds or minutes, but to us it seemed hours.
A couple of our people ran across to the house to waken its inmates. Others- fired light-pistols at the ship and set it on fire.
All this happened very quickly, and at last we stood alone in the enemy's land, gazing at the smoking remains of our proud ship.
But we could not stay there indefinitely. Boker, our 'old man,' gathered his flock around him, and we marched off. We were a sad column of semi-invalids.
With Boker leading us, we marched along a fine, broad road. There was not a soul in sight, and so we marched for quite a while, until at length we became aware that a crowd was accompanying us at a respectful distance of a couple of hundred metres on either side. No one dared to come near us; why, I do not know, for we did not wish them any harm.
Once a cyclist pedalled past us at top speed. We badly wanted to ask him where we were. At last we reached a village where we found a real English policeman, to whom the 'old man' explained our identity, telling him that we had dropped down from, the sky.
Here we learnt that we had come down not far from Colchester. We remained three days in Colchester as prisoners, and then with all possible precautions - a soldier to right and left of every man of us - we were transported to London. Although they questioned us every day in Colchester, the business started again in London, where we spent whole days under cross-examination, After three weeks we were through with all the questions, and they sent us off to a prison camp at Stobs, in Scotland. There we were well treated, and I grew quite an expert in agricultural matters.
But captivity is a bitter business, and so it was no wonder we fell to concocting fantastic plans of escape. In August, 1917, nearly a year after our capture, they began to take serious shape when the right people got together.
On August 22nd, when a heavy thunderstorm raged over our camp, six of us climbed over the wire fence. For thirteen nights we wandered among the hills, guided by a pocket compass, until at last we reached the coast. In the daytime we hid like rabbits in spinneys or behind woodstacks.
"On the seashore we discovered an old boat, in which we decided to risk an adventurous voyage across the sea.
"We did not take long getting the old tub ready. From our overcoats and a few rags we rigged up a sail; then we unanimously elected helmsman Jensen our captain and started off.
"That was on a Thursday night. Three English patrol boats loomed into sight; we struck our sail and hove to. Our hearts were in our mouths, but after an anxious hour we saw them make off again. They had not spied us.
"We hoisted sail once more and headed out to sea with a favouring breeze, our chart being a small map that some one had torn out of a child's atlas. We made fair progress until 5 a.m., when we sighted a steamer which approached to within 200 metres of us. Once more we lowered our improvised mast and crept under our sail. For the second time we escaped the danger that threatened us, after which we looked forward confidently to the dawning day which should bring us a stretch nearer home.
"At 10 a.m. we sighted a number of trails of smoke. Our hearts sank into our boots, for it looked as if the whole British fleet had put to sea to catch us. But after an hour's wait we were able to convince ourselves that we had been scared by a fishing fleet of some forty steam trawlers. We knew, however, that their leader would carry guns and that we should have to explain ourselves and our presence to her captain.
"Our skipper told them in his best Scotch-English that we were shipwrecked Dutchmen, whose boat had been torpedoed by a German submarine. When they had heard our tale they became quite friendly and wanted to take us on board. We pretended to be scared to death, and skipper Jensen protested that the submarine was still knocking about in the vicinity and that he did not fancy being torpedoed a second time. That put the wind up those fishermen, and they steamed off as quick as they had come. We had a good laugh and sailed on in a merry mood.
"Everything went well until sunset, and then we had to tackle another enemy in the shape of bad weather. Our cockleshell of a boat began to dance up and down; the waves became white horses that ran furious races with us. Luckily we had a stern-wind behind us, which filled our ragged sail and drove us along at a good ten knots an hour. But it was an unpleasant business, and we were hungry as well; for the last fortnight we had not had a square meal, as the carrots, turnips, and bits of fruit we had contrived to get hold of were no fare for an honest sailor to fill his stomach with. That Friday night looked as if it would never end, but it brought us nearly into home waters.
"When the Saturday's grey dawn broke, we told ourselves that the evening would see us off the Frisian coast. The sea was more than nasty, and we were hard put to it to tack, but about 4 p.m. we thought we were out of danger. We were as pleased as schoolboys at the thought of seeing home once more, and began to tidy ourselves up a bit so that we could cut a decent appearance when we landed.
"Then the twilight came down on us. There was a clear strip of sky to westward, and it contained a straight column of smoke which we in our foolhardiness did not bother to spot until it was too late. That smoke came uncomfortably near us, and we guessed that anything hailing from westward was not likely to bode much good to us.
"Half an hour later we knew for certain that the smoke came from a British destroyer. We pulled ourselves together and determined to bluff it out. We tried our old trick, letting Jensen pitch the tale that we were shipwrecked Dutchmen and did not want to go aboard because we had no hankering after being torpedoed a second time.
"But they did not believe us. We were taken on board, and our hopes of seeing home again sank to zero. It did not sugar the pill when the English skipper said all sorts of nice things about our sporting effort, our pluck and our bad luck.
"We were prisoners once more."