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Historian remembers Chadwell Heath’s lucky escape during the First World War

PUBLISHED: 15:00 10 July 2016

Of the 44 Ilford residents to fly in the First World War, only nine survived. Credit: Norman Gunby

Of the 44 Ilford residents to fly in the First World War, only nine survived. Credit: Norman Gunby

Archant

During 1916, a German Zeppelin the length of a battle cruiser, filled with highly flammable hydrogen, narrowly avoided dropping a blazing inferno on Chadwell Heath.

Few passersby on the evening of April 25 gave a second glance at the tramcar crewed by Tommies, or the searchlight mounted on the open upper deck, as it rattled to a halt alongside Chadwell Heath police station; by then it had become a regular sight.

But, that night, the Ilford mobile searchlight combined with others to cone a cigar-shaped raider above Seven Kings in their beams.

Imperial German Army Zeppelins were not noted for their navigational prowess. The LZ97 had mistaken the River Roding for the Thames.

Assuming his craft was over the city, the commander ordered the release of 12 bombs, shattering cottage windows by Fairlop railway station.

Heading towards Seven Kings, the commander received warning from crew members; an English flyer was below the Zeppelin – it had taken the fighter half an hour to reach 8,000 feet.

A Zeppelin, by releasing ballast and bombs, could easily out-climb any of its contemporary aircraft to make a swift getaway, without putting itself in too much danger.

On that April night, however, in addition to bombs, the pursuing night fighter from 39 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps carried a brand new Lewis machine gun with incendiary bullets, meaning that unlike bombs to be dropped from above, the new flaming bullets could be fired up at an enemy.

Heedless to anti-aircraft shells exploding well below the Zeppelin, the pursuing airman, Lt William Leefe Robinson from Sutton’s Farm aerodrome, Hornchurch, realised his biplane, weighed down by bombs, could not climb any higher and so opened fire with his gun.

Sadly, his bullets fell short in the cloudy Redbridge sky.

As its last two bombs hit cottages between Goodmayes and Chadwell Heath, the fleeing Zeppelin vanished through the thick clouds above the capital to make its way back across the Channel.

As luck would have it, not one of the hydrogen-filled Zeppelins that fell on England touched people or property.

But it was a close thing, the night Chadwell Heath nearly went down in history, by going up in flames!


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