Born 25 August 1893 in Twigworth, Gloucestershire, Frederick Sowrey was one of six children. The family moved during his childhood; it was in Mitcham, Surrey, by the beginning of the last century. Until age of 13, he was home-schooled and then went to King’s College School, Wimbledon. Here, he reached the position of school captain. At the outbreak of war, his parents were living in Yeoveney, Staines. Then, at the age of 21, on 31 August 1914, he enlisted as a volunteer in the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Fusiliers.
Posted to France, he was wounded at the Battle of Loos (Nord – Pas de Calais). Invalided out of the army, he learned to fly and in December 1915 joined the Royal Flying Corps. Starting on 23 April 1916, he received two postings in England, first with 39 Squadron based at Woodford Green (flying BE2 – single-engine, two-seater biplane used for reconnaissance and night fighters) and then with 39 Squadron at Woodham Mortimer (BE12-single-seater version of the BE2 and FE2 – two-seater fighter plane). Both of these bases were situated north-east of the capital. From December, the previous year, the RFC had assumed responsibility for anti-aircraft defence.
Fred Sowrey achieved fame for his role in the shooting down of a German airship – Zeppelin L32 – on the night of 23/24 September 1916. Whilst the Battle of the Somme reached its height on the Western Front in France, the Germans launched one of their largest Zeppelin raids against England involving twelve airships (L13-14, L17, L21-23, L31-33). The attacks focused on Nottingham, Grimsby and London where 40 were killed and 130 were injured. The losses and impact might have been greater if three other Zeppelins due to take part in the attack had not been forced to turn back without crossing the English coast.
During its time in service, the L32 had carried out three attacks on England, dropping a total of 6860 kilograms of bombs. Commanded by Kaptain-leutnant Werner Peterson, it was part of the R class of so called ‘Super Zeppelins’ (6 Maybach engines, speed max of 60 miles per hour, range of 4600 miles and operational height at 13 100 feet). Vulnerable to catching fire and exploding mid-air if attacked by anti-aircraft or aeroplanes, the advantage of the Zeppelin was the ability to fly at altitudes beyond the range of either.
At 22:50 on 23 September, L32 was over Dungeness, dropping six bombs which wrecked two houses. Five minutes later, the airship having set a course for London was over Ide Hill, near Sevenoaks, by half past midnight. Ten minutes later, a searchlight at Crockenhill (border of Kent and Bromley) caught the ship, which proceeded to dislodge bombs in an attempt to shut it down. Planes, loaded with new incendiary bullets from 39 Squadron, had been despatched to intercept and 2nd Lieutenant Sowrey, flying a BE2c, no. 4112, flying at altitude of 13000 feet, caused the airship to catch fire. The airship, having burst into flames, crashed at Snail’s Farm, south of Billericay; the entire crew was killed. Importantly, the German naval code book was retrieved from the wreckage. Another airship, the L33, crashed landed at Little Wigborough, Essex; the whole crew survived.
For his role in the downing of the L32, Frederick Sowrey was awarded the Military Cross and DSO. Indeed, his exploit made him a celebrity both locally and nationally.
Before the end of 1916, Frederick was transferred to 37 Squadron (Home Defence) and on 14 June 1917, was transferred from Home Defence to Number 19 Squadron, serving on the Western Front in France. He proved to be a highly successful fighter pilot; between 17 June 1916 and 15 October 1916, he was responsible for downing twelve aircraft, 7 on his own. This earned him the accolade of fighter ace. It also ensured him further publicity.
At the beginning of April 1918, he assumed command of 143 Squadron (based at Detling near Maidstone), again engaged in home defence. The squadron was established to bolster defences in case of a German invasion of the south-east (at this point, the German Spring Offensive – Operation Michael had been launched). He is mentioned in the Middlesex Chronicle as a pall bearer at the funeral of a Captain Robinson VC, with whom he flew on the night of 23-24 September 1916. On 1 August 1919, Frederick received a permanent commission in the newly formed RAF. He eventually retired from the RAF on 26th May 1940, with the rank of Group Captain.
German Strategic Bombing During World War One This provides a detailed account of the German imperial high command strategy. The air campaign against Britain was an innovation, a tactic which was to be reintroduced in later conflicts with devastating effect. the aim was to wear down civilian morale.
Lives of the First World War The Imperial War Museum website reference to the military service record of Fred Sowery also contains a detailed account of the attack onL32 in late September, 1916.
The Daily Mirror 20/9/1916: ‘Four Airmen the Best of Friends’ has a photograph of the 4 airmen who took part in the attack on the L32 over Essex.
Zeppelins over Essex A detailed account of the incident on 23-24th September. The article also makes reference to the fact that the Zeppelins were dubbed ‘baby killers’. This was, no doubt, alluding to the deliberate targeting of civilians.
Surrey Advertiser, 28/10/1916: ‘Recognition for War Services’