The Famous Zepplin Captain. Lt. Commander Henrich Mathy
This is a fasinating story told to the New York World MAgazine By Captain Mathy
THE ZEPPELIN CAPTAINS STORY
NEW YORK WORLD MAGAZINE OCTOBER 1915
THE following narrative has been published in the New
York World, and is the version given by Commander
Mathy, who was in charge of the airship which recently
visited London and scattered promiscuous murder
around amongst women, children and non-combatants, to
Mr. Karl von Wiegand, the World's correspondent in
Germany. We reprint the story, as a picturesque account
of what the narrator thinks (or the contrary) occurred.
As a journalistic effort it has considerable merit. As a
recital of facts anything more ludicrous can hardly be
imagined. We are prepared to accept the details of
what happened in the Zeppelin. If they are not facts, at
least they are painted with the brush of a consummate
artist; but if they are as accurate as the rest of the story,
well after reading the note of the Home Office
which prefaces Commander Mathy's little effort, let the
Zeppelin pilot speak for himself and be judged by facts
as we know them.
THE following is passed by the Home Office /or publication, with the
comment that it contains numerous statements which are quite
untrue, and one (to the effect that an anti-aircraft gun has been
placed under cover of St. Paul’s) which can only he characterized as
a falsehood apparently invented to excuse what German aircraft are
attempting to do.
London is a vast military centre and military-defended city in
every sense of the laws of war, written or unwritten, as applicable
to aerial warfare. Therefore property, from point of aerial attack,
so far concerns everything usable for military purposes, such as big
railway stations, banks, docks, shipyards, and industrial establishments.
If anyone believes London, is- not ' defended,' and pretty
well defended at that, he should have stood by my side in the front
gondola of my Zeppelin in my last attack on London a few nights
ago, and seen the red, angry flashes of scores of cannon belching
shrapnel at my craft."
So spoke Lieut.-Commander Mathy, of the Zeppelin aerial
cruiser squadron of the German Navy.
The day of battles in the air and attacks from the air, of which
romance writers have long dreamed prophetic, though, perhaps,
somewhat fantastic dreams, has come to stay. Only the future can
tell how much of the futuristic, impressionistic visions in the air
pictured by fictionists in their romances on the subject may come
true. Years ago anyone who would have believed Jutes Verne's
dreams would become more or less a reality would have been regarded
as being not entirely normal. Two years' training and service
in the big Zeppelin cruisers of Germany's airship fleet attached to
our Navy convinces me we are only at the dawn of day of war in
the air and from the air, and only at the beginning of a great era of
development of aerial crafts which will have great bearing on future
To-day I was so fortunate as to have an opportunity to talk with
the man in command of the latest aerial attack on London.
Mathy is commander of the L , one of Count Zeppelin's
latest, biggest, and fastest cruisers of Germany's aerial fleet, the
value of which as scouting craft for the navy has been much underestimated
abroad, and as fighting craft have, as Count Zeppelin told me in February, by no means reached their final development.
That, despite their size, they are not so easily hit and brought down
as has been the general impression is evident from the fact that the
Germans lost no Zeppelins in any of the numerous attacks on
England. Attacking under the cover of night, coming and going
with great speed, and disappearing within a few minutes, they are
like a vision in the night. The aero planes of England's flying
corps have so far proved no defense against the Zeppelin raids.
Mathy is a man of perhaps thirty-four years, with closely-cropped
hair, which gives him the appearance of an entirely bald, smooth faced
figure, slender and supple as a young woman. He was
formerly commander of a destroyer in the torpedo flotilla. Like
officers of German submarines I have met, he made the impression
of being all nerves, and those nerves of steel.
Mathy and his Zeppelin have participated in every attack made
on England from the air. His last, which was on the downtown
City of London, was his " century Zeppelin run," or hundredth
voyage in the air, counting his training and trial trips, he told
What I call luck has played a big part with me," he declared.
And Mathy has been lucky. Despite something which I cannot
mention, but which every superstitious believer in omens and signs
would regard as a very magnet of disaster and ill-luck, Mathy has
been lucky. The day before its destruction he was on a Zeppelin
which I saw burned and destroyed in the air above Johannistal two
years ago, and only missed that trip by some manie (?). He was
on a navy Zeppelin the day before the craft was wrecked in a storm
on the North Sea off Denmark two years ago, and in some way
missed the voyage on the fatal day.
As nothing in this war has appealed more to the popular imagination
or awakened greater interest than the war under sea and in the
air, I asked Mathy to tell me about his last attack on London. I
will so far as I can without disclosing what might touch upon
military secrets, and that is pretty much everything about a
Zeppelin. Even the secrets of Germany's famous submarines are
not guarded as closely or jealously as the Zeppelins. I have been
aboard one of the largest U boats and looked through the periscopes,
went through from stem to stern, but have never been able to get
within gunshot of one of the Zeppelin harbors. Even the officers
and crew of war Zeppelins have been carefully kept away from
correspondents, or, rather, the correspondents away from them.
I promised Mathy I wouldn't ask him any questions that would
get him into trouble with the Admiralty.
It was my hundredth Zeppelin cruise, counting my training
trips, and I was much interested in it because of that, and wondered
whether I would safely round out my century," said the commander
of the L . " I had taken my Zeppelin in safety to England and
back several times, and learned something of value each trip applicable
to the next time. The first time I took my Zeppelin to
England it was something akin to discovering a new country, and
my impressions were much more vivid than now. It and some of
the following were more or less experimental. We had much to
learn, despite all our practice and training. It was a new sort of
warfare, in which we had, more or less, to feel our way and study
aerial strategy, aerial tactics, and to learn to locate in darkness the
military points and objects we desired to attack.
We had to study the aerial currents above the North Sea and
England. What we have done to England so far is by no means
all that we can do now that we have learned many things we did
not know and are necessary to know. The Zeppelins had to be
their own scouts and information gatherers. Now, for the first time,
my instructions were to attack certain points in the downtown City of
London, such as railway stations, bridges, industrial establishments.
Strict orders to do everything possible to avoid hitting St. Paul's
and other churches, museums, Palace, Westminster Abbey,
Parliament, and, of course, residential districts.
I want to say there's not an officer or man in the aerial fleet
who doesn't feel it as deeply when he learns that women and
children and other non-combatants are killed, as does a gunner or
commander of big guns when he hears his shell didn't strike exactly
where he wanted it to, and resulted in the death and injury of noncombatants.
In fact, I would much rather stand on the bridge of
a torpedo-boat, fighting ship against ship, than attack a city from
the air, although not because the danger to me is much greater in
L e t me say that a Zeppelin voyage to England and back
depends largely on the weather and wind conditions. If very
favorable it can be made in less time with our new fast cruisers.
But you want to know about my last attack on London.
The weather stations and meteorological balloons attached to
the aerial service reported favorable conditions. The colder the
weather the more we can carry. The temperature was quite cool
when we started, with full magazine bombs which constitute
Zeppelin ammunition, and not much unlike shells fired from a ship
or siege artillery, which, after all, come through the air, too.
Soon we were out over the North Sea and moving upon
England through the air at a lively speed with a favorable wind.
Back of us were the receding shores of Germany, below us the
white-capped billows of the North Sea like a watery desert in
motion stretching out as far as we can see, without a sign of life
except a single fishing craft."
What was the principal emotion or impression up there on the
bridge of your Zeppelin ? " I asked the man who makes war from
My chief impression was speed, and we get very cold. Our
new Zeppelins are very much faster than a ship, and I always think
of the great difference in wind pressure as compared when I stood
on the bridge of my ship. Formerly when commanders' gondolas
on older Zeppelins were entirely open this was even more marked.
Our new ones have somewhat of a protection in the form of a
windbreak. But it's intensely cold 3,000 to 5,000 or more feet in
the air, moving at the speed. There is no chance to move about
much, of Course ; no way of warming pilots of aero planes, and
wearing thick felt boots. Despite that we get cold, very cold, especially
on the last trip. We ate before we started, then occasionally
took a pull at a Thermos bottle of hot coffee or tea."
" Nothing stronger, commander?" I broke in.
" No, absolutely nothing stronger."
Zeppelins have neither bar, kitchen nor dining-room. Zeppelins
are teetotalers. We have got to have clear heads up there, and cool
steady nerves, the nerves which spirits don't necessarily furnish.
And we can't while away our time between firing—for we call it
firing, too—and dodging shrapnel by smoking. A Zeppelin is the
strictest Sunday School institution ; there is no stink nor smoke.
Each man's pockets are his pantry, for he carries a snack. I take a
bottle of cognac, along with some first aid material, in case someone
gets hit." " N o doctor?" " No, we carry no doctor. If a shrapnel
ball hits any of us we bandage the wounded man as best we can,
and give him a drink of cognac, and he has to wait until we get
back. If we were brought down I guess there would be doctors
there, if we needed any, which would be unlikely. But to return to
In short, terse, staccato-like sentences Mathy told the story of the
attack. " As the sun sank in the west we were still a considerable
distance out over the North Sea. Below us it was rapidly getting
dark, but was still light up where we were. On one side or the
other was a Zeppelin, in grey war paint, like that of my craft, visible
in the waning light against the clear sky, gliding majestically
through the air. A low, mist-like fog hung over the spot in the
distance where England was. Stars came out and it grew colder.
We took another pull at our Thermos bottles and ate something. As
we neared the coast I set the elevating planes to go still higher in
order that our motors might not disclose our presence too soon.
I cannot tell you exactly the time or place we crossed the
coast-line, as that might be an advantage to the enemy. Men went
to the guns which fight off airmen should we be attacked, and the
others were each at his post. My lieutenant took his place at the
' firing apparatus,' which releases bombs and controls the speed or
rapidity with which they are dropped according to my orders from
the bridge on the front gondola. It is a cold, clear, star-lit night,
with no moon—one of those nights when distances and objects in
looking toward the sky are illusive, and it is difficult to get the range
on rapidly-moving objects, while our instruments tell us exactly how
high we are.
The mist disappeared, and in the distance we can see the
Thames river, which points the way to London. It is an indestructible
guide-post, and a sure road to the great city. The English can darken London as much as they like, they can never eradicate or cover up the Thames. It is our great orientation point
from which we can always get our bearings and pick up any point
in London we desire. That doesn't mean that we always come up
along the Thames, by any means. London is darkened, but was so
sufficiently lighted that on this night I saw a reflected glow in the
sky sixty kilometers away shortly before ten o'clock. I headed
straight for the glow in the sky, and then a point on the Thames, to
get my bearings for my objective attacks.
Soon the city was outlined, still and silent, below in the
distance. There were dark spots which stood out from the blur of
lights in the well-lit portions. The residential sections were not
much darkened. It was the dark spots I was after, and I bore
down upon them, as they marked the downtown portion of the
city. A large city seen at night from a great height is a fairy-like
picture. We were too high to see human beings in the streets
below. There was no sign of life, except in the distance moving
lights, which were probably railroad trains. All seems still and
quiet; no noise ascends from below that penetrates the sputtering
motors and whirring propellers. As if in the twinkling of an eye
all this changes. There is a sudden flash, and a narrow band of
brilliant light reaches out from below, and begins to feel around the
sky, a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth, until soon there are more
than a score of criss-crossing ribbons. As viewed from a Zeppelin,
it looks as if the city had suddenly come to life, waving its arms
around the sky, and sending out feelers for the danger that threatens.
But our impression was more, that they are tentacles seeking to drag
us to destruction.
London keeps a good watch on the sky. Our motors and
propellers soon revealed our presence. First one, then another and
another of those ribbons shooting out from the glaring, eye-like
searchlights, pick us up. Now from below comes an ominous sound
that penetrates the noise of our motors and propellers. There are
little red flashes and short bursts of fire which stand out prominently
against the black background. From north, from south, from right,
from left they appear, and following the flashes rolls up from below
the sound of guns.
It is a beautiful, impressive, but fleeting picture as seen from
above, probably no less interesting from below, the greyish, dim
outline of the Zeppelins gliding through the waving ribbons of light
and shrapnel cloudlets which hang thick. We can see thousand of
small lamps, and amidst these, especially in the black spots, the
baleful, gleaming, great eye-like searchlights, and constant red
flashes from many guns. But we have no time to admire ; our eyes
and mind must be concentrated on our work, for any moment we
may be plunged below a shapeless mass of wreckage and human
bodies shattered beyond recognition. You saw it at Johannisthal
two years ago. I had so little time to register impressions that I
have to think back now to give you a descriptive word picture of
the scene. When first the searchlight picks you up you see the first
flash of guns from below : your nerves get a little shock, but then
you steady down, and put your mind on what you are there for. I
picked up St. Paul's, and with that point of orientation laid a course
for the Bank of England.
There was a big searchlight in the immediate vicinity of
St. Paul's, and the English had placed a battery of guns under cover
of that church, as I could plainly see from the flashes as they
belched shrapnel at us. Perhaps from a military standpoint 1 would,
under the circumstances, have been justified in dropping bombs on
the battery, which was very near St. Paul's, but had neither the
desire nor the intention to do so, for fear possibly of damaging the
church. However, I don't think the English should use churches,
museums and similar buildings as a cover or protection for their
guns. Although we had been fired upon from all sides we had not
yet dropped a bomb. Above the Bank of England I shouted
through the speaking-tube connecting me with my lieutenant at the
firing apparatus, ' Fire slowly.' Now, mingling with the dim
thunder and vivid flash of the guns below, came the explosions and
burst of flames from our bombs. With the mind solely concentrated
on picking out places previously on the program for attack as being
factors having a military bearing on the preparation, concentration
or transportation of troops, or places of other military use, and
on stopping the Zeppelin and directing the firing, the comparatively
short time above London appeared much longer than it actually was.
We soon observed flames bursting forth from several places.
Over to what extent damage was done I could not determine.
Flashes from the Tower showed guns placed there which I had
already observed on a previous attack. They were keeping up a
lively fire. Maneuvering and arriving directly over Liverpool Street
Station, I shouted ' Rapid fire' through the tube, and bombs rained
down. There were a succession of detonations and bursts of fire,
and I could see that we had hit well and apparently done great
damage, which has been confirmed by reliable reports we have since
received. Flames burst forth from several places in that vicinity.
" Having dropped all my bombs I turned my ship for home.
My orders had been carried out, and carried out quickly. Despite
the bombardment of the sky we had not been hit. Several times I
leaned out and looked up and back at the dark outlines of my
Zeppelin, but she had no hole in her grey sides. In point of
damage done, and hitting objects which I had received instructions
to attack, it was my most successful trip in London or the vicinity.
Ascending or descending until we found a favorable wind current
we made a quick return."
How long were you over London ? " I asked the Lieutenant Commander,
or captain-lieutenant, as is that title in German, and
upon whose left breast was the Iron Cross of the First Class.
" The main attack was from 10.50 to 11, just ten minutes."
" Then the Zeppelin tactics of attack are to make a dash to
points to be bombarded and quickly get away ?"
"Yes ; attacks must be short and quick."
The carefulness with which the plans of attack are studied beforehand
developed during our talk. Mathy mentioned figures and
seemed to know to a yard how far it was from St. Paul's to the
Bank of England, thence the Tower and the different railway
stations, and how long it took his Zeppelin, given the velocity of the
wind and the revolutions of the propellers, to cover those distances.
He often referred to new instruments and apparatus in use in
Zeppelins for navigation, locating and measuring objects below, and
controlling dropping bombs. This gave me the impression that
there has been much research, experimenting and considerable
progress along those lines in recent months. There are a number
of interesting facts in connection with Zeppelins which, for obvious
reasons, I cannot include in this story, among others the number of
hours it now takes to make a dash to London and return. There is
good reason for assuming that in the latest Zeppelins there are
many improvements, that they are much faster, can carry more, and
go higher than formerly. Count Zeppelin told me in February that
those were three things he was working on.
Asked from what height he attacked London on the last raid, the
Zeppelin commander replied, " Sorry, but I don't want you to give
the English their range. They are doing well enough as it is, and
Holborn Viaduct, in the vicinity of Holborn station, we dropped
several bombs. From the Bank of England to the Tower was a
short distance. I tried to hit the bridge, and believe I was successful
Balfour said London was not a fortified city, and that its
defenses against aerial attack were poor," I ventured.
" We know there are several forts and batteries around the City
and outside, and had he stood by my side a few nights ago and
looked into those flashing guns, all over, he wouldn't say London
was not a militarily defended city, and perhaps not think so poorly
of its aerial defense."
When I asked how many bombs he carried and their size, Mathy
remarked that, much as he would like to oblige me, that was a
military question. "We carry two kinds of explosive bombs, and
similar shells and fire bombs for destruction by fire. I cannot tell
you their size, but they are of tremendous destructive force, as
probably you could convince yourself if you could see around
Liverpool Street Station. The number we carry depends largely
on the distance we intend covering, and the quantity of benzene for
the motors it is necessary to take." Mathy intimated that the new
Zeppelins have a considerably greater radius of action than
London and back. I asked the Zeppelin commander if he
had ever been attacked by aero planes on any of his raids on
I have never experienced a fight with an aero plane ; in fact,
have never been bothered by them. Men are always at my guns
watching for them, but so far none has attempted an attack. We
are pretty well prepared for them." He remarked, significantly :
I am not afraid of them, and think I could make it interesting
and take care of them unless, perhaps, there was a regular swarm.
So far as aero plane corps tor the defense of London could be
effective, it must be remembered that it takes some time for an
aero plane to screw itself up as high as we are, and by the time it
gets there we are gone. Then, too, a great difficulty is for the
aero plane to land at night, while we can stay up all night and longer,
if need be.
In my trips to and from Denmark I have observed Zeppelins out
as far as Copenhagen scouting for enemy ships. My impression is
that they have been of valuable service to the German Navy as
scouts, and this is confirmed by some things Mathy said.
What could a fleet of twenty-five or more Zeppelins do in an
attack on London ? " was my parting question to the commander.
If you mean an attack without consideration for anything or
anyone, that would be terrible, awful. Zeppelins then could stay
much higher than now, when we have to pick out certain points.
Such a fleet could probably cause more than a thousand fires, and
would mean the destruction of the greater part of London ; but I
don't think there is any danger of that. We have no wish to destroy
indiscriminately or to injure and kill women, children and other
Capitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy up until his death in
1916 was one of the most experienced airship captains of
He was a member of the German Naval Air Service.
He had flown over 14 combat flights during his career as a Zeppelin
He actually made the most successful single raid of a German Zeppelin,
the L-13 on London during the war.
Mathy was killed on October 1, 1916, while flying one of the new larger supper Zeppelin.