Taking Down A Zeppelin
14 May 1917

A Centennial Action

German Zeppelin LZ 77. The sheer size of Zeppelin airships in the skies over England could cause panic amongst civilians.
© IWM (Q 58481)

With the drive up the Belgian coast successfully underway, (the Battle of Messines ending June 14, 1917), it was hoped the cross-channel air raids would slowly be reduced. In the meantime, pilots and gunners continued to do battle with massive Zweppelin airships and winged bombers in the skies over England. One Canadian patrolling english skies in 1917 was Air Marshal Robert Leckie, CB, DSO, DSC, DFC, CD.

Just over 100 years and one month ago, in the early morning of 14 May 1917, then-Flight Sub Lieutenant Leckie was piloting Curtiss Flying Boat type H.12 No 8666, on a patrol to the north-east from RN Air Station Great Yarmouth. Off the coast of Terschelling, the Netherlands, the crew spotted Zeppelin L 22 10-15 miles away, seemingly at the end of its route patrolling the Dutch coast at 3,000 feet.

They increased speed and climbed to 6,000 feet. Nearing L 22 and still undetected, Leckie took control of the Curtiss from Flight Lieutenant C J Galpin, jettisoning three of their four bombs to lighten the aircraft as the crew moved to battle stations. CPO Whatling went to the rear Lewis Gun while Flt.-Lt. Galpin manned the two Lewis Guns in the bow.

Unspotted until only half a mile away from L 22, Leckie dove at the Zeppelin, roaring down out of dark fog and cloud to 3,800 feet, levelling out 20 feet below L 22’s gondolas. In the bow, Flt.-Lt. Galpin seized the moment and:

“opened fire with both guns at 50 yds range and observed incendiary bullets entering the envelope… the port gun jammed but the starboard gun fired nearly a complete tray before jamming also. We were then 100ft from her and turned hard a starboard while I tried to clear the starboard gun. As we began to turn I thought I saw a slight glow inside the envelope and 15 seconds later when she came in sight on our other side she was hanging tail down at an angle of 45 degrees… Five or six seconds later the whole ship was a glowing mass and she fell vertically by the tail. CPO Whatling observing from the after hatch saw the number L22 painted under the nose before it was consumed. He also saw two of the crew jump out, one from the after gun position on top of the tail fin and one from the after gondola. They had no parachutes. When the airship had fallen to about 1000ft four large columns of water went up below in quick succession either from bombs or engines becoming detached from the framework. After 45 seconds from the first ignition, the envelope was burnt off and the bare exoskeleton plunged into the sea, leaving a mass of black ash on the surface from which a column of brown smoke about 1500ft high sprang up and stood.” (Report by Flight Lieutenant C J Galpin on the destruction of Zeppelin L.22 on 14 May 1917, addressed to the Commanding Officer RN Air Station Great Yarmouth, dated 14 May 1917. Air 1/660 ).

The crew landed back at Yarmouth at 7:50 AM, with only two bullet holes from L 22’s return fire in their aircraft. For their actions that day, Flt.-Lt. Galpin received the Distinguished Service Order and Flight Sub-Lt. Leckie received the Distinguished Service Cross.

Curtiss H.12 ‘Large America’ flying boat, No. 8661. Flt. Sub Lt. Leckie flew the same aircraft, but No. 8666, on 14 May 1917.
© IWM (Q 67581)