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A duel across the skies of London
1:00pm Monday 5th May 2014 in News
In 1916 a pilot was forced to leave the civilised atmosphere of a dinner party in Epping to take to the skies and shoot down a German airship.
Wulstan Tempest was a second lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps, the forerunner of the RAF.
He was part attached to No. 39 Home Defence Squadron, based at Suttons Farm, in Hornchurch, flying the BE2s, single-engine two-seat biplanes.
The Germans had begun using airships. popularly known as zeppelins, in bombing raids against Britain in January 1915.
During the war there were more than 50 bombing raids against the United Kingdom.
Although the raids were not militarily significant, they had a great impact on civilian morale and the zeppelins were widely dubbed “baby-killers”.
On October 1, 1916 Tempest was one of five pilots on duty at Sutton’s Farm and was dining that evening at a doctor friend’s house in Epping High Street.
During the evening he got a phone call from headquarters telling him there were Zeppelins heading towards London.
He made his way to the airfield and took his aircraft up.
He was told to patrol at 8,000 feet between Suttons Farm and Joyce Green near Dartford.
Deviating from his course, he flew over London and noticed search lights concentrating on the north of London, which revealed a zeppelin about 15 miles away at a height of about between 15,000ft.
The airship was the L31, captained by Kaptitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy.
The bombs dropped by his zeppelin had killed more people than any other, and all attempts to shoot him down had failed.
He had written a chilling letter to the New York Times in September 1916 stating his intention to smash London on the first day of October.
Disregarding the searchlights L31 began to make straight for London.
Tempest immediately flew towards the airship. But his aircraft was illuminated by the searchlights and spotted by the crew of the zeppelin, which turned about and started to climb.
Unable to shake off Tempest, Mathy ordered his crew to jettison their bombs, which fell on open ground outside London.
Tempest’s petrol pressure pump then failed, meaning he had to use the hand pump to keep the supply going.
By now he was close enough to attack. He opened fire, all the while having to pump fuel with his other hand.
His first attack failed so he turned and fired again. Turning to fire a third time, he was positioned under the zeppelin’s tail, where it was difficult for the German gunners to fire at him.
Suddenly flames burst from the zeppelin and it took a nose dive with the burning wreckage falling on Tempest’s plane.
Tempest put his machine in a spin and got out of the way leaving Mathy to leap to his death as the flaming zeppelin crashed into a field in Potters Bar, in north London. At first Tempest was so disorientated he wondered if he was above France.
It was only when he descended to 5,000ft he saw the familiar sight of the airfield at North Weald Bassett.
When landing he miscalculated the altitude and crashed, fracturing his skull.
He made a full recovery and later returned to Epping High Street on his motorcycle to cheers and was hailed a hero.
He was later awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his exploit.
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