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Raid on the North East Coast, 1916

During the First World War England sometimes came under attack by German Army Zeppelins, which could be terrifying and destructive, but they were not unbeatable. This is the story of one shot down by Sub-Lieutenant Ian Pyott of Seaton Carew RAF base.

Imperial German Army Zeppelin L-34 illuminated by searchlights. Image courtesy of Middlesbrough Museums Service.

On the night of 27th November 1916, the North East Coast came under attack by an Imperial German Army Zeppelin, referred to as L-34, commanded by Kapitanleutenant Max Dietrich.

The North East had already been raided by a Zeppelin earlier in the year, which had dropped two bombs in the Longhill area near Durham and damaged houses before disappearing without the land defences getting a chance at retribution. This time the German Army would not be so lucky.

Wreckage of Zeppelin L-34, currently on display at the Museum of Hartlepool. Image courtesy of Hartlepool Museums Service.

Zeppelins were a form of aircraft, designed by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in the 1890s. They were made up of a metal framework which encased several cells that could filled with hydrogen to make the craft airborne. The controls for the Zeppelin could be accessed inside a cabin or ‘gondola’ fitted on the underside of the craft.

The Kaiser was convinced by Count von Zeppelin in 1909 to buy the Imperial Army’s first Zeppelin, and by 1914 the Army had a total of 7 Zeppelins.

Zeppelins were capable of dropping high explosive bombs and were large and terrifying sights. But they could be taken down if hit hard enough and if the very thing used to keep them in the air, the hydrogen, was used against them.

Zeppelin L-34 was part of a group of ten aircraft that invaded British airspace on that November night. At first it managed to evade the coastal defences by approaching over Blackhall Rocks and moved in the direction of Castle Eden, but it was soon spotted by a searchlight based in the village of Hutton Henry. As it started making its way southwards it was picked up by another searchlight in Elwick.

Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 biplane. User Rlandmann on en.wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Those on the ground began firing with anti-aircraft guns, and other defences in the form of RAF biplanes arrived. One of the pilots was a 20-year old Sub-Lieutenant Ian Pyott, originally from Port Elizabeth in South Africa, he was studying in Edinburgh at the outbreak of war and enlisted into Royal Flying Corps. Pyott had only just finished his training three months prior, and had been stationed at Seaton Carew when the call came for him to board his biplane, flying solo in order to conserve fuel, and defend the North East.

The Zeppelin began dropping bombs on Elwick, in an attempt to put out the searchlight and also to release some weight in an effort to dodge the guns and biplanes. Pyott made his first attack, opening fire and then diving underneath the craft. His bullets had failed to find an opening.

Thirteen bombs fell on Elwick, but only landed in nearby fields and caused insubstantial damage. The Zeppelin started making its way over West Hartlepool, dropping six more bombs on the outer suburbs and being picked up by a third searchlight.

Pyott meanwhile decided to take a different approach and flew his biplane parallel to the aircraft for around 5 miles, slowly sneaking up and getting into position for a second attack.

As the Zeppelin approached the more built-up areas of West Hartlepool, it targeted Hart Road, Hartley Street and Lowthian Road, dropping 29 bombs. This attack resulted in the deaths of 4 people and injured seven others and four children. At least 15 houses were destroyed and more received structural damage.

The hydrogen in Zeppelin L-34 is ignited. Lt. Ian Pyott’s aircraft can be seen in the top right corner. Image courtesy of Middlesbrough Museums Service.

These proved to be the Zeppelin’s last bombs as Pyott made his move and fired 71 rounds into the craft. This time his bullets hit and the hydrogen within ignited. The fire quickly spread until the Zeppelin was completely engulfed in flames. Passing over the Headland, it began to plunge towards the coast, falling nose first and breaking into two parts. It crashed into the sea and continued to burn until it sank half an hour later. Max Dietrich and his entire crew of 19 men all perished.

On his return to Seaton Carew base, Pyott was greeted as a Hero. In the following days he was invited to dine with a number of dignitaries, including Sir Robert Ropner, and was awarded a Distinguished Service Order in recognition of his war duties. The Order was presented to him by King George V at Buckingham Palace and his father and brother had both sailed to England to witness the proud event. There is also a tribute to Pyott on Seaton Carew’s sea front.

Zeppelin L-34 goes down in flames. Image courtesy of Middlesbrough Museums Service.