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Inside Out investigates why air raid on Midlands led to British fisherman being accused of war crimes

Category: West Midlands TV

Date: 15.02.2005
Printable version

Inside Out, BBC ONE West Midlands, 7.30pm, Monday 21 February

During the First World War, the people of the West Midlands were among the first to experience the horror of air raids.

But when an air raid went wrong it was the German airmen themselves who paid the ultimate price.

Nearly 90 years ago, 16 German airmen were left to drown in the North Sea. It was an event that even in the middle of the First World War was described as barbaric.

Inside Out on Monday 21 February reveals evidence that the King Stephen trawler, that found the L19 airship stranded in the North Sea, was actually illegally fishing in prohibited waters - a serious offence, especially during the war.

On 31 January 1916 the L19 Zeppelin took off from its base in Tonder in Denmark.

That night airships dropped high explosive bombs and incendiaries on Bradley, Tipton, Wednesbury and Walsall.

Just nine Zeppelins had carried out one of the largest air raids Britain had ever seen.

Newspaper reports vary but across the Midlands 70 people were killed and more than 100 were injured in the raid.

The final bombs of the night devastated the centre of Walsall.

Even decades later the events of that dreadful night were still fresh in many people's minds.

Tom Morgan is a local historian. He thinks that it was simply bad luck that Walsall was a target:

"I think it was purely a matter of chance, the commander must have decided to lighten the ship, get rid of the bombs before setting off for home. It is just pure luck that it fell here, which, just as it is now, was a busy part of town. Buses stop here now: trams stopped here then."

While the Zeppelins were returning from their raid, on the East Coast of England British fishermen were setting out to sea.

As they left Grimsby on that cold January morning, the crew of the King Stephen can hardly have imagined the bizarre series of events that would unfold in front of them over the next few days.

Soon they would all be at the centre of an international controversy. and the skipper would be accused of committing war crimes.

As the King Stephen reached its fishing grounds, things were going badly wrong for the crew of the L19.

Three of its four engines had failed, and rifle fire from the ground had punctured its gas cells.

As dawn broke the following morning, the crew of the King Stephen noticed a strange white object floating on the horizon.

Robb Robinson, a fishing historian, explains what the crew would have encountered:


"Suddenly they would see this great hulk of the remains of the Zeppelin. It would be enormous and surreal and there would have been great trepidation about how to deal with these people."

Perhaps that's why - even as the German airmen continued to plead for help - the King Stephen turned and headed for home.

It was the last time the crew of the L19 were seen alive.

So was the captain of the fishing boat really guilty of a heinous war crime or was he acting in the best interests of his crew and his country?

Top secret documents at the National Archives support the theory that trawler captain, William Martin, was indeed trying to protect his crew.

But Inside Out reveals that the King Stephen was doing something wrong and, when it found the airship, it was actually illegally fishing in prohibited waters.

If found out, the captain could have been banned from fishing.

So was that the real reason that the crew of the L19 were never rescued?

William Martin died a few months later. Some say he just could not live with the guilt.

Inside Out, BBC ONE West Midlands, 7.30pm, Monday 21 February



Category: West Midlands TV

Date: 15.02.2005
Printable version


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