Defending the dockyard from German bombs

Portsmouth Dockyard. This photograph was taken from the airship Gamma in 1914
Portsmouth Dockyard. This photograph was taken from the airship Gamma in 1914
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This is the view of Portsmouth Dockyard in June 1914, two months before the outbreak of the First World War.

It was taken from the British airship Gamma shortly after it had taken off from its sheltered berth in the moat of Fort Grange, Gosport.

It’s mission was to prove that the naval base could be attacked from the air by a German Zeppelin.

Gamma’s crew proved the point. Dummy bombs hurtled successfully on to selected targets while crowds marvelled at the advances of modern technology.

There were many scares, but it was to be another two years before a Zeppelin did attack the dockyard.

On September 25, 1916, Commander Heinrich Mathy and his crew climbed into the gondola of Zeppelin L31 on the north German coast and weighed off, heading for England.

His main target was London, but he concluded that an attack on the heavily-defended capital would be difficult because of the clear weather.

Instead he decided they would bomb the dockyard in Portsmouth where, as Mathy pointed out to his crew, ‘nobody has ever visited and it is sure to be very interesting’.

Mathy attacked from the south. One of his crew members recorded: ‘Dozens of searchlight clusters find us and fix on us. An unearthly concert is unleashed conducted by Satan himself’, probably referring to anti-aircraft fire from Point battery and Whale Island as L31 came over the harbour.

A heavy bomb load of 8,125lb was dropped and Mathy, blinded by the searchlight, reported that ‘all bombs has fallen on the city and the Dockyard’. However, the bombs appear to have fallen harmlessly into the harbour.

Six days later L31 was attacked by a fighter pilot, Second-Lieutenant WJ Tempest over Potters Bar and the crew were burned alive.

Mathy chose to leap to his death from the plunging inferno and his body was found embedded in a field.

nAll the pictures on the page today come from John Sadden’s Portsmouth & Gosport At War, a history of the two towns during the First World War. It is published by Amberley at £14.99.