Women in the Great War could not play an active role in fighting the Germans, but they could be important in supporting the war effort. The most direct way was in munitions factories, making ammunition to help the armed forces win the war. Kathleen Passfield worked in a factory with a more immediate war purpose – to bring down the Zeppelins spreading terror across London.
Kathleen Hamilton Devonald was born in 1897 in New Cross (also known as Hatcham New Cross), the eldest of five children of crane driver William James Passfield and his wife Ellen. The family lived in Edmonton, with William’s mother Sophia; in 1911 they were living at 6 Exeter Road.
In May 1915, the German aerial campaign against Britain began with Zeppelins dropping bombs with apparent impunity. Londoners suffered air raids for more than a year without seeing one of these huge cigar-shaped raiders destroyed (although one was brought down in the Channel in March 1916). Forty-six people had been killed in the raid on 13/14 October that later led to the suicide of J.N. Petre, the landlord of the Old Bell Pub. In the summer of 1916, they returned in force. A raid on 24-25 August saw 44 bombs dropped on the Isle of Dogs and south-east London killing nine and injuring 45.
The breakthrough came on the night of 2-3 September 1916, as one witness described it:
“Never shall I forget…hearing an odd chunkety, chunkety noise. It sounded as if a train with rusty wheels were travelling through the sky. I ran out on to the balcony and saw something which looked like a large silver cigar away to my left, and I realized that it was a Zeppelin. Almost immediately it burst into flames and the sky turned red. Then came the sound of cheering. It seemed as if the whole of a rather far-away London was cheering, and almost unconsciously I began to cry ‘Hooray! hooray!’ too. But suddenly I stopped. We were cheering whilst men who were after all very bravely doing what they thought it their duty to do were being burned to death.” (Quoted in Mrs Peel, How We Lived Then)
Zeppelin SL11 had been destroyed by Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson, a 21-year-old pilot with 39 Squadron flying a BE2c.
As he wrote in his report of the action (from wikipedia):
“At about 1.50 a.m. I noticed a red glow in the N.E. of London. Taking it to be an outbreak of fire, I went in that direction. At 2.05 a Zeppelin was picked up by the searchlights over N.N.E. London (as far as I could judge).
“Remembering my last failure, I sacrificed height (I was at about 12,900 feet) for speed and nosed down in the direction of the Zeppelin. I saw shells bursting and night tracers flying around it.
“…I flew about 800 feet below it from bow to stem and distributed one drum among it (alternate New Brock and Pomeroy). It seemed to have no effect;
“I therefore moved to one side and gave them another drum along the side – also without effect. I then got behind it and by this time I was very close – 500 feet or less below, and concentrated one drum on one part (underneath rear). I was then at a height of 11,500 feet when attacking the Zeppelin.
“I had hardly finished the drum before I saw the part fired at, glow. In a few seconds the whole rear part was blazing. When the third drum was fired, there were no searchlights on the Zeppelin, and no anti-aircraft was firing.
“I quickly got out of the way of the falling, blazing Zeppelin and, being very excited, fired off a few red Very lights and dropped a parachute flare.”
Key to the victory was having the right ammunition. Lt Leefe Robinson’s report notes the mixture of Pomeroy (exploding) and Brock (incendiary) ammunition, which he fired into a particular gas drum in the Zeppelin to set it alight.
John Pomeroy, the New Zealander who invented the explosive bullet had had a long fight to get it adopted for attacking Zeppelins. After an initial rejection by the War Office, he came back to London in 1916. He and his wife apparently made the first 5,000 rounds of this ammunition in a room at the top of Adastral House (the headquarters of the Air Ministry at No 1 Kingsway). The ammunition was adopted and went into full production in August 1916. According to a 1924 newspaper article, Mrs Pomeroy and 500 ‘girls’ worked on this ammunition order in Edmonton.
One of the women who worked at the Pomeroy factory in Edmonton was Kathleen Devonald, who married Private J.H. Passfield in Essex in late 1916. Kathleen became a superintendent at the factory. Through their work, the Pomeroys, Kathleen and their colleagues helped in a very direct way to end the Zeppelin raids, which died out over the winter of 1916/17. In 1919, Kathleen Passfield was awarded the Medal of the Order of the British Empire for her work at Pomeroy’s factory: ‘for great courage in continuously exposing herself to serious personal risk in the court of the manufacture of munitions of a peculiarly dangerous character’.
Kathleen’s husband James Harold Passfield had joined the Middlesex Regiment in 1915 and served with them – and later the 6th Highland Light Infantry – at Ypres, the Somme and Cambrai. He was wounded twice and suffered from shell shock. Her brother Ernest also served on the Western Front and in Egypt in 1917-1918, first in the Queen’s Regiment (West Surrey) and later in the Machine Gun Corps. Both men survived the war. After the war, James and Kathleen lived first on Durley Road in Stamford Hill and later on Grays Inn Road
National Roll of the Great War
Dictionary of Australian Biography on John Pomeroy
A War Narrative, Northern Advocate , 22 January 1924;
Anti-Zeppelin Bullet, New Zealand Herald, 14 February 1919