HMAS Sydney versus a Zeppelin

Courtesy of Peter Sinfield

This action occurred on 4 May 1917 in the North Sea, and is described by the Official Historian as follows:

On the 3rd of May the Sydney, with the Dublin and four destroyers (Nepean, Obdurate, Pelican, Pylades), left Rosyth for a sweep along certain cleared channels between the mouths of the Forth and the Humber; three destroyers in line abreast did the sweeping with their anti-submarine paravanes, the cruisers and the Obdurate (whose paravanes were out of order) following. About 10 a.m. on the 4th the southward sweep was completed, and the six ships turned north-north-west towards Rosyth at 18 knots. Five minutes later a small vessel was sighted eastwards, and the Obdurate was sent to examine her. At 10.25 a.m. the Dublin observed a Zeppelin (afterwards ascertained to be L 43) about 17 miles away to the east, rapidly approaching the strange vessel; both cruisers promptly made for the enemy, opening fire on it at extreme range and ordering the three destroyers to cut their sweeps loose and follow in support. The Obdurate , meanwhile, had been attacked by a submarine just as she reached the suspected vessel, and at 10.30 sighted another about 1,000 yards away; she dropped two depth-charges near the first and one near the second, sighted the distant Zeppelin, and started independently in chase of it. As soon, however, as she got within four miles of it, it rose steeply and sheered off to the south-east.

The cruisers now had their turn. At 10.54 the Dublin saw the track of a torpedo passing ahead of her, at 11.12 a submarine, and at 11.15 another, which fired two torpedoes at her. At 11.20 she sighted a third, which she engaged with her guns and on which she dropped a depth-charge. [Captain J.S.] Dumaresq (who was in command of the whole British force) came to the conclusion that he was being deliberately led into a submarine-infested area; recalling his companions, he resumed his original course to the north-north-west , at the same time signalling to the Obdurate to board the suspect from which she had been lured away - "if there is any presumption whatever of connection with Zeppelin and submarines, you are to sink her and take back crew with you." Seeing the British ships in apparent retreat, the Zeppelin took heart and came after them. Dumaresq at once spread his ships, the cruisers maintaining their course, the Pylades making north-east to join the Obdurate, the Pelican and Nepean diverging south-west to get behind the airship, so that soon after noon it was technically "surrounded." At 12.10 the cruisers doubled back on their tracks, bringing the L 43 within 7,000 yards' range at an elevation variously described as 50 and 80, and opened fire. This angered the Zeppelin into a direct attack: making for the stern of the Dublin, and rising hastily as it flew, it endeavoured to obtain a position vertically above the cruiser in order to drop bombs on her - an attempt which was foiled by the Dublin's hurried swerve to starboard. The Zeppelin thereupon flew above the Obdurate (which had completed her examination of the suspected vessel) and from a height of about 20,000 feet dropped three bombs within 30 feet of her, splinters coming aboard; 20 minutes later it flew above the Sydney and dropped 10 or 12 bombs , six of them in two salvoes; then, the Sydney hav ing used up all her anti-aircraft ammunition and the L 43 all its bombs, "the combatants," to quote an officer who was in the fight, "parted on good terms." During the latter part of the fight L 43 used its wireless vigorously, and a little before 1 p.m. another Zeppelin was seen far off in the north-east, but by 1.10 both had disappeared eastwards.

This fight well illustrates the defects of the Zeppelin as an instrument of aggression. Airships can rise quickly and fly fast, but, compared with cruisers and destroyers, are slow in lateral steering; their plan of attack, therefore, when once an enemy ship is sighted, is to fly high out of range while observing her course and speed, and then, manoeuvring into a position well astern of her, to catch her up and bomb her while flying directly above. Obviously the vertical height should not be too great, or bombing becomes a matter of chance. The attacked ship has two main defences - sudden alterations of course, especially when the airship is just about to get into bombing position, and steady anti-aircraft fire, which, though it has little chance of inflicting actual damage, compels the airship to keep to a great height. Dumaresq's method of fighting the Sydney was in accordance with these principles. In his report of the 5th of May he says:

During the latter part of the action the Sydney manoeuvred to prevent L 43 from coming up astern, by keeping her on or before the beam, turning often, whereby L 43 was obliged to drop her bombs while crossing Sydney's track ... The gunnery officers of Sydney and Dublin made very good shooting with the H.A. guns, thereby keeping the airship at such a height as to make her bomb-dropping inaccurate."

The action was also described by a member of Sydney's ships company, Leading Signalman J.W. Seabrook:

On Thursday, 3 May, 1917, H.M.A.S. Sydney, H.M.S. Dublin and eight destroyers under the leadership of Captain Dumaresq, left Rosyth with orders to sweep "L" Channel, which was approximately 120 miles long. On this occasion, also, as the ship passed under the Forth Bridge there was no train on the bridge, and the word soon went round - "What's going to happen?"

Nothing of any note occurred until 10.28 a.m. on Friday, 4 May, when H.M.S. Dublin reported having been fired at by a submarine, the torpedo missing astern. The destroyer Obdurate next reported a submarine, and the Sydney and Obdurate steamed over the spot and let go depth charges. At 10.30 a.m. the signalman of the watch on board H.M.A.S. Sydney reported "Zeppelin right ahead, sir."

A Zeppelin, which we subsequently learned was the L 43, had been sighted. Captain Dumaresq immediately ordered full steam (25 knots), and his plan of action was as follows: to rush at the Zeppelin and fire a 6-inch gun, with the object of making the Zeppelin engage the Sydney. Immediately the Zeppelin was sighted Captain Dumaresq thought that it was working in conjunction with U-boats, the Zeppelin doing the scouting and the U-boats the sinking of British merchantmen. With this thought in mind the captain of the Sydney did not intend to rush in too far. It seemed obvious that the Sydney sighted the Zepp. first, because, on the Sydney's 6-inch projectile landing in the water, the Zeppelin stuck its nose up and tail down and rose rapidly. Here I may explain that the Germans claimed that their Zeppelins could rise at a speed of 500 feet per 30 seconds. The Zeppelin continued to rise and turned away, either because she did not want to fight or else to draw the Sydney on in order to get her to steam over the position on the water that the Zeppelin had been manoeuvring, which was thought to be a submarine nest or rendezvous.

If such was the game, it failed, because as soon as Captain Dumaresq thought he saw the Hun manoeuvre he turned and ran away from the Zeppelin. As soon as the Zepp. saw this move it turned round and chased the Sydney, which was exactly what that good ship wanted. Just before the Zeppelin overtook the Sydney, Captain Dumaresq ordered "open fire" with the anti-aircraft gun. The shots from the Sydney went as straight as a gun barrel for the Zepp. amidships, leaving a thin trail of smoke in their wake, and appeared to anxious eyes on the deck of the Sydney to reach their culminating point not many feet below the undercarriage of this mighty Zepp. Groans went up when it was realised that the Zepp. could have it all its own way by keeping outside the Sydney's anti-aircraft vertical range of 21,000 feet and take its time in letting go whatever bombs it had on board. Captain Dumaresq recognised this point, and tried just one more ruse to "kid" the Hun to come a little lower. He ordered all ships to "scatter."

The manoeuvre "to scatter" is used for several reasons, but had never before been used for Captain Dumaresq's reason. On the order "scatter" all ships turned away from the Sydney and, selecting a point on the horizon, set their various courses and steamed outwards at full speed. The result of this was that the Zepp. and the Sydney were left to it, and the remaining ships were in a complete circle around them but steaming away. Captain Dumaresq hoped that, when the Sydney ordered the remaining ships apparently to run away, the Zepp. would close down on the Sydney in order to have a good shot at her with some heavy bombs. As soon as the Zepp. commenced to come down, the Sydney hoisted the "recall" to all ships and to "open fire." The result of these signals was that the Zepp. was the centre at which shells from one light cruiser and eight destroyers were coming, the height of the Zepp. being at one time 14,000 feet. She immediately rose to a safer height, and then began to act. Her first bomb of 250 pounds missed, off the Sydney's port bow. The second missed, also off the port bow but nearer. The Sydney altered course and steamed over where the second bomb fell. The third bomb missed and dropped off the starboard bow. The Sydney straightened her course. The Zepp. then let go three bombs in "rapid fire" which straddled the Sydney, two dropping to starboard and one to port. Had the Sydney repeated her manoeuvre of steaming over where the last bomb fell, I would not be able to finish this story.

The Sydney next altered course to starboard, this time over where the nearer of the last two bombs to starboard fell. The Zepp. let go two more bombs "rapid fire", missing with both (off the port bow) and causing Captain Dumaresq to say "You can't drop two in one place, old chap." The Sydney again steamed over the point where the nearer of the last two bombs had dropped, and the Zepp. again let go a "rapid fire" of yet two more bombs, which duly missed - off the starboard. After the Zepp. had let go her third bomb, the destroyer Obdurate joined up with the Sydney and asked for orders. Captain Dumaresq replied: "Follow me round." Then, with his back up against the bridge screen, his feet on the base of the compass, and intensely watching the Zepp., he remarked, "This fellow is doing some good shooting, but he won't damn well hit us." The signalmen of the Sydney had huge grins all over their faces, because they thought the little destroyer was absolutely bound to get all the "overs" - that is to say, those bombs that missed the Sydney by dropping astern. However, good fortune or the God of Justice or the Sydney's manoeuvring favoured the little Obdurate, because all she got were two punctures in her funnels and no one wounded.

While the Zepp. was bombing the Sydney, the Commander of the Sydney was driving would-be spectators down a hatchway under cover. At the same time others were pouring up another hatchway to see all the fun.

A second Zeppelin, which had been sighted during the bombing, had by this time joined up with the first, and signalling commenced between them. As it was most galling to see the Sydney's projectiles going straight for the Zeppelins and then turning over before reaching them, Captain Dumaresq ordered "Cease fire." The crew of the Sydney now said their good-byes, thinking they had no chance in life of having the good luck to dodge another round of bombs. However, after five minutes both Zeppelins turned towards the German coast, much to the relief of all concerned, and sailed for home.

The Sydney, Dublin and destroyers now finished the interrupted work of sweeping "L" Channel, and returned to Rosyth. To show how monotonous the members of the Sydney's ship's company considered life in the North Sea, I will relate an incident which happened about four days after this action. On return to harbour, four hours' leave was given. A certain stoker who failed to return on board was arrested three days later, and was brought before Captain Dumaresq on a charge of desertion. When asked what he had to say, he answered, "I'm fed up sir. Nothing ever happens." Captain Dumaresq said: "Nothing ever happens! Why you just had a fight with a Zeppelin; isn't that something happening?" The stoker replied in a most lugubrious voice, "Not one of 'em hit us, sir."

Source: Jose, Arthur W. The Royal Australian N avy 1914-1918. 3rd Ed. Sydney : Angus & Robertson, 1935. Pages 294-297 and 589-591.

Last Updated: 16 June 2002.

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