The Zeppelin war of World War One

The First World War is often seen as the first industrialised war and across the course of the war it is possible to see how technologies that were invented before the war were militarised and new technologies came into existence. From the development of poison gas, to the use of tanks and submarines, from improvements in wireless radio to the enormous leaps in the targeting and use of artillery, one thing is clear; each side hoped that it could develop a war-winning advantage.

The war in the air is no exception. Whilst the concept of heavier than air flight had existed since the Wright Brothers’ first flights in 1903, lighter than air flight had a longer pedigree, dating back to the Montgolfier brothers pioneering balloons in 1793. By 1794, the French used a balloon, l’Entreprenant, for observing enemy positions during the Battle of Fleuris. Tethered lighter than air balloons were used for military observation purposes during the American Civil War. It was during this conflict that at 25 year old Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin was attached to Union forces as an official observer where he saw and took a flight in an observation balloon.

In 1891, von Zeppelin resigned from the army and devoted his time to the development of airships. In 1900, his first airship, or more accurately a dirigible, an airship with a rigid frame, was complete and undertook its maiden flight on the 2nd July. Damaged on landing, the airship was repaired and completed further flights. Falling into financial difficulties, Zeppelin’s company folded but was bailed out by money from a lottery, loans and public donations. By 1914 rigid civilian airships, colloquially known as ‘Zeppelins’ were well established and were regularly carrying passengers on scheduled flights.

At the start of the first world war, Germany led the world in lighter than air flight. As such it was probably inevitable that Germany would seek to explore the military uses of the Zeppelin. The French had invested heavily in aircraft and smaller non-rigid airships but rapidly accepted that the Germans had the advantage, however, the threat was never really existential for France.

The British had explored the idea of military airships and had built an experimental craft, The Mayfly, in 1911 but this ship had been broken in two when the unwieldy craft was being taken out of its hangar. The British never really devoted much effort to developing airships after this incident as Churchill and other senior naval officers took against it, instead concentrating on heavier than air flight and using non-rigid balloons, or blimps, for naval reconnaissance purposes.

Germany entered the war with an existing force of military airships, having led the civilian development of this form of transport. The German army had the most airships, with 7 in service by August 1914. The navy lagged behind because Grand Admiral Tirpitz, drawing on his experience of how the weather affected surface ships, couldn’t see how Zeppelins would cope in high winds and vetoed expenditure that detracted from the development of the surface fleet. However, the German view changed rapidly as the need for naval reconnaissance became clear; how else would they be able to spot the British Grand Fleet bearing down from its moorings in Scapa Flow? Within 4 months of the beginning of the war, the German navy had built 4 airships.

From the outset of the war the Germans were committed to using the Zeppelins for offensive purposes, in fact, by the second day of the war, they were using the Zeppelin force to bomb the forts at Liege in an attempt to force their surrender as they were impeding the German Army’s progress. Perhaps the most telling part of this episode is that the Germans threatened the defenders with a Zeppelin attack in order to encourage them surrender; from the outset, the Germans knew that the Zeppelin had potential as an awe-inspiring terror weapon

During August 1914, the Zeppelins, mainly from the Army wing of the service, flew almost daily observation missions at low altitude, reporting on troop movements and dropping artillery shells with blankets acting as fail feathers as improvised bombs. Between the 5th of August and 23rd of August, three airships had been brought down by ground fire as their gas envelopes were peppered with bullets from the ground; whilst the airships didn’t explode, they were just too easy to easy to hit and force down through lack of gas.

For the rest of 1914, the German airships were switched from close observation to tactical bombing missions, hitting Antwerp and targeting railway stations and other tactical targets. As the war of movement came to an end, it became increasingly clear that the airspace above the static trench lines were too dangerous for slow-moving airships to operate.

The obvious target for the German airships was to bomb Paris. The capital of France was a high value target and easily reached over land. However, the position of the capital meant that any attackers were likely to approach via one route and this route was not as straight forward as it could be.

The airships had to fly over a number of forts laid out between the front line and the city itself and these forts were capable of effective anti-aircraft fire. In addition to this, the French took the decision to maintain a standing patrol of two fighter aircraft at sufficient altitude, ready to attack any intruders.

But perhaps the best defence of all against air attacks from German territory into French was the Western Front itself. Zeppelin Kapitanleutnant Von Buttlar (I’ve shortened his full name and title somewhat!), writing in his memoirs after the war, vividly described the dangers of flying over the static Western Front;

“It was not pleasant to have that glowing white streak behind one — the bleeding wound. For that huge gleaming gash across the night-covered world was the Western Front! Thousands of simultaneous shots, explosions, star-shells and light rockets kept that streak constantly glowing. It knew no night for years and to fly over that streak of fire meant certain death.”

Into 1915, the Germans switched much of their Zeppelin fleet to the Eastern Front where, operating at high altitude in a war of greater movement, they were able to make a contribution to German successes in a tactical bombing role. It was here in August 1915 that airship LZ.X11 commanded by Ernest Lehmann, made one of the most effective bombing raids of the war when he bombed Bialystok in modern day Poland, hitting an ammunition train and destroying the entire station and railway junction.

Technical aspects

There were multiple types of German airship in service throughout the war, with new types being developed during the war. Generally, each new type was bigger, with more lifting power and the ability to operate at higher altitudes than the previous versions. Whilst all the airships were generally named as “Zeppelins”, another manufacturer Schütte-Lanz was encouraged to promote competitive development. Here the major difference was that the Schütte-Lanz airships used plywood frames whereas the Zeppelins use Duralumin, an alloy of Aluminium, Copper, Manganese and Magnesium.

Whatever the make, all “Zeppelins” were lifted with lighter than air Hydrogen gas contained in thin envelopes made from cow intestines that were treated and then sewn together to form extremely thin but durable envelopes. Whilst the number of envelopes needed depending on the size of the airship, it’s reasonable to assume that a minimum of a quarter of a million cows were needed to create the envelopes for one airship! One consequence of this demand was that sausages could no longer be made in Germany, occupied France and Austria, as the cow intestines used for the sausage skins now had to be imported for airship construction.[1]

The use of Hydrogen, before the viability of Helium, meant that the airships could catch fire, relatively easily and with catastrophic results. German airships were constructed around a rigid frame, Zeppelins being made of Duralinium and Schütte-Lanz airships being made of plywood, and then covered with a cured fabric covering. The dirigible (rigid airship) frame was divided into a number of sections that contained the gas envelopes but the crew, often over 20 men, could move around inside the airship using gantries and ladders to navigate the airframe.

The airships were enormous, measuring two football pitches long and requiring hundreds of men to manoeuvre them on the ground and in and out of their hangars, which in turn could be an eighth of a mile long! Upon the return of the airship, landing was no easy proposition. The captain would manoeuvre as close as possible and would drop mooring ropes for the ground crew to catch, allowing the airship to be captured and pulled into its shed.

Filled with hydrogen gas, the risk of explosions was a very real danger to the twenty or so men on board, whether caused by enemy action or lightning strikes. Zeppelins were difficult to fly, relying on multiple engines, each controlled by individual engineers and directed from the command gondola by the Captain using speaking tubes. The airships carried water as ballast and by releasing it could rise, then, to descend, hydrogen was released from the envelopes as a part of a tricky balancing act that had to be sustained over the course of the mission.

Being lighter than air, the Zeppelins were at the mercy of the weather, with ice and rain weighing them down and high altitude winds making navigation difficult. As they climbed, the crew were exposed to extreme cold in the unheated gondolas and especially when exposed in machine gun nests on the top of the airship. Then, to make things even more unpleasant, altitude sickness caused by lack of oxygen but barely understood at the time, would give the crews terrible headaches and impair their judgement.

Despite these limitations, the “Zeppelin threat” had the politically powerful capability to strike at the enemy heartland, bypassing protective armies and the First World War saw a series of Zeppelin attacks on Antwerp, Warsaw, London and Paris.

Looking at reports of Zeppelin missions, one aspect of the offensive that comes through strongly is the sheer technical difficulty of the whole process of operational flying; this is warfare at the leading edge of what was technologically possible at the time. Looking at the detailed descriptions of the missions undertaken through the war, crashes, technical failures, acts of God and other mishaps are common then, to top it all, add in the danger of a determined enemy doing their level-best to destroy the fragile ships; it is no wonder that the death toll amongst Zeppelin crews was to run at around 40% over the course of the war.

Initial response

At the beginning of the war, and for much of the next two years, the Zeppelins were largely invulnerable to counter-attack. Whilst slower than fixed wing aircraft, they could climb faster and were capable of operating at altitudes far above the maximum operating ceiling of aircraft.

Impotent in the air, the British attempted to mount attacks to destroy the airships or their operating bases, the enormous Zeppelin sheds, with bombing raids. The first British use of aircraft for offensive purposes away from the front lines was by the Royal Naval Air Service. In a break from their reconnaissance role, the first R.N.A.S raids were directed at Zeppelin sheds at Dusseldorf and Cologne in September 1914, while in October a Zeppelin was hit while in its shed in Dusseldorf.

One problem of this approach was the range of the Zeppelins; their bases were a long way away, far beyond the operating range of British aircraft. To counter this, in a raid on the Cuxhaven Zeppelin sheds on Christmas Day 1914, British seaplanes were carried to within striking distance by improvised carrier ships which, it was planned, would recover the returning aircraft and carry them home.

As a part of this raid, the German Zeppelin L-6 spotted the carrier ship ‘Empress’ and attempted to bomb her but the airship wasn’t manoeuvrable enough to keep up with the evasive action taken by the captain. As Captain Frederick Bowhill, commanding the Empress wrote, “My method of defence was to watch carefully as she manoeuvred into position overhead. I went hard over. I could see her rudders put over to follow me, I put my helm the other way.

Using this technique, the Empress was able to avoid the three 110 pound bombs dropped by L-6, leading Commander Tyrwhitt (who was in charge of the Royal Navy’s Harwich Force) to remark that “Zeppelins are not to be thought of as regards ships. Stupid great things, but very beautiful. It seemed a pity to shoot them.”

When L-6 ended the attack, it made its way home damaged by more than 600 bullet holes in its skin.

The raid on Cuxhaven failed to neutralise the Zeppelin threat but it did help to prove that the airships were not a credible threat to shipping. However, the threat to the home front was still weighing heavily on Churchill, now in charge of defending the home front, who wrote;

“There are approximately twenty German airships that can reach London now from the Rhine, each carrying a tonne of high explosives. They could traverse the English part of the journey, coming and going, in the dark hours. The weather hazards are considerable, but there is no known means of preventing the airships coming, and not much chance of punishing them on return. The un-avenged destruction of non-combatant life may therefore be very considerable.”

Admiral Jackie Fischer, was as alarmed as his friend and advocated executing any Zeppelin crews who happened to fall into British hands. To his credit, Churchill did not share this view but it acts as a sign of the concerns.

There was a kind of spilt-personality in the British view of airships. There was little impetus to use the technology themselves as the limitations of the ships were only too apparent, however, operated by the Germans, the airship became a daunting terror weapon with a greatly inflated (pun intended) reputation for being able to roam freely over enemy territory.

In reality, this is understandable. Firstly, it is too easy to imagine that the enemy is vastly superior in technology; if the allies had greater insight into the daily trials of operating the airships, they would have been greatly reassured. Secondly, the raids were bringing the war into areas and to people unaccustomed to the threat of death and injury; exposing civilians to the dangers of the war was seen as wrong. So much so that coroners, when passing verdict on early victims were recording verdicts of murder against the Kaiser and Crown Prince of Germany.

The campaign against England

In January 1915, the Zeppelin raids against Britain began in earnest. The German Navy split its air effort between reconnaissance for naval missions and a gradual move towards the strategic bombing of England.

The general approach to a bombing raid against Britain was for one or more Zeppelins to set off in the afternoon of one day, fly through the night to bomb its targets and the return to its base in the following day. Flights of 20–30 hours were routine and the airships had hammocks to allow the crew to rest and hot plates heated from engine exhaust fumes to allow food to be heated.

Following routes over Belgium and the North Sea to avoid the Western Front, the airships were targeted against pre-agreed objectives. The nature of these objectives changed over time as 1915 developed. At first the Kaiser was insistent that military targets only, such as docks, arsenals and military bases, could be attacked. However, it was never really practical, given the technical limitations, that this constraint could be sustained and cities became legitimate targets.

The first raid took place on the 19th and 20th of January. L.3 an ‘M’ type Zeppelin set out to bomb targets along the Humber Estuary but due to navigation difficulties decided to bomb Great Yarmouth 150 miles from the initial target instead. The Zeppelins carried a mixture of explosives and incendiary bombs made from metal cannisters, with a mixture of thermite, benzol and tar inside, all wrapped in a tarred rope and designed to burn intensely and start fires in the houses and factories below. L.3 dropped 7 incendiaries and 6 high explosive bombs, hitting a number of buildings and killing two civilians.

March saw the first use of a new invention, the cloud car. This was a capsule dangled below the airship on a cable. A crew member sat inside and was lowered 2500–3000ft, allowing the Zeppelin to remain out of sight in the clouds while still able to see the ground. Amazingly, duty in the cloud car was considered a privilege as it was the only place where it was permissible to smoke as there was no risk of igniting the airship’s hydrogen! During its first use over Calais the cloud car was deployed at 2500ft whilst the Zeppelin hid in the clouds. Despite searchlights roaming the sky, the airship remained concealed and spent about 45 minutes bombing the docks, railway installations and the town’s arsenal.

By May the Kaiser had agreed that London could be bombed, but certain restrictions were imposed, such as avoiding the Royal Family’s residences. Then, in July, the City of London could be struck but only outside of normal banking hours! By the end of July, anywhere in London was considered fair game, with the exception of historic buildings such as Tower of London and St Paul’s Cathedral.

From the ground, the Zeppelins looked and sounded like nothing ever seen in the sky. They approached with “an odd, clunkety, clunkety noise… as if a tram with rusty wheels was travelling through the sky.[2] Sylvia Pankhurst, the suffragette campaigner recalled that the Zeppelins made flew with an “ominous grinding… growing in volume… throbbing, pulsating, filling the air with its sound.[3]

On the ground, air raid warnings were non-existent or rudimentary, often consisting of the local policemen cycling around wearing a “take cover” placard. In towns, when a raid was expected, the electricity and gas companies cut the power so that lights would go out, acting as a warning. However, given the novelty of the Zeppelins, human nature meant that not everyone rushed to shelter. The Evening News newspaper was to remark in April 1916 that,

‘the most surprising thing is the way everybody rushes into the street. Nobody takes any notice of the police warning; they just look upon these raids as a good show, and all are eager to miss nothing’ [4]

One interesting aspect of the difficulty of navigating accurately is that German after action reports are often wildly inaccurate about where their bombs were dropped and the effect they had. Each mission intended to target a particular town, but the crew were forced to improvise new targets if conditions meant that they couldn’t go where they intended.

Additionally, reports from the raids often claim that bombs were dropped on a target but, when compared to where the bombs actually fell reveal either that the Captain was totally lost or was embellishing his report to make it seem more accurate than it was. Once the airship was airborne, in reality it was only the Captain or navigator who had even the slightest inkling where they were. Neither the crew or anyone back in Belgium or Germany had any idea what their Zeppelins actually achieved and it is hard not to suspect that some Captains, particularly Bussar, was deliberately dropping their bombs as safely as possible and then fabricating their reports to satisfy their bosses!

Even the radio direction finding system developed by the Germans wasn’t capable of resolving the fundamental reliability of airship navigation. The system involved the Zeppelins broadcasting a message requesting a radio navigation fix. Remote monitoring stations recorded the direction of the radio signals, allowing the airship’s position to be triangulated. Once the position had been calculated, the information was radioed to the airship.

Despite this system, which had the disadvantage that it resulted in coded position information being broadcast for anyone to record, Zeppelin reports often reveal the difficulties in navigating. As such, unlike in the Second World War, the Germans weren’t really capable of returning to any target smaller than London over and over again! Instead the raids roamed across multiple towns, distributing their bomb payloads on an almost random basis.

Nevertheless, the Zeppelin raids had a disproportionate impact on the country compared with their effect. In reality, very few people were killed and, even if nothing had been done to combat the Zeppelin raids it is unlikely that the death toll would have been significantly higher when bombs couldn’t be reliably delivered into population centres.

A raid on Edinburgh at the beginning of April killed 13 and injured 24, the regalia of Scotland, the Scottish crown, sceptre and sword of state were moved out of the crown room in Edinburgh Castle and placed in a bomb proof vault. However, later in the war, when the threat was reduced, the regalia were put back on display for the benefit of colonial and American troops who were stationed in the city.

The 13th and 14th of October 1915 saw the highest death toll of any raid against England during the war. Five Zeppelins bombed the east coast and London, killing 71 people and injuring 128 as bombs fell onto villages, a military barracks and London’s theatre district.

As the bombs dropped on London, political pressure grew for political action. The first reaction of the government was to impose reporting restrictions to prevent panic from spreading. The Defence of the Realm Act had given the government wide reaching executive powers, including censorship of the press and these were invoked to suppress news of the Zeppelins. One notice to editors read.

“It is undesirable that too much space should be given to describing Zeppelin raids. The actual military damage that has been done is slight. But at the same time so long as the Germans think that the raids have great effect they will be continued, and long accounts tend to produce an impression both in England and Germany that they are of greater importance than they are in reality.”

The second reaction was to hurriedly improvise some defences, with mobile searchlights driving around the supposed path of the airships and Boer war era guns being set up as anti-aircraft guns. Over time, French anti-aircraft guns were imported and aircraft were pulled back from the Western Front back from France but the defences were woeful.

On the 31st of January and 1st February 1916, a major raid was sent against Liverpool but fog and navigation issues mean that a number of towns such as Scunthorpe, Derby, Burton on Trent, Dudley and Loughborough were bombed, killing 70 and injuring 113.

However, although some raids succeeded, there were many more that failed, dropped bombs on farmland or caused negligible damage. However, despite the limited destructive effect of the raids, there was a significant disruptive effect. In some areas workers refused to work on night shifts, morale was affected and thousands of people were engaged in defence activities. Amid calls for improved defences, aircraft were diverted from the Western Front to the defence of Britain. As well as losing the services of those aircraft, pilots were to lose their lives as they were forced to learn the difficult art of night fighting.

As one pilot, Arthur Harris, recalled, “the station commander, who was also the duty pilot, went up and killed himself before he’d got 100 yards beyond the end flare. The next night it was my turn![5]

It is perhaps the impact of having to organise and resource the defences that was the greatest contribution to the German war effort. In exchange for relatively small amounts of German lives, British industry and war making ability was disrupted and distracted.

The wide-ranging attacks on the Midlands at the end January 1916 provoked a strong public reaction that something had to be done to end the menace. Foreign businesses were attacked and the press led a concerted attack on the Asquith government. Despite regular attacks throughout 1915, this raid on unprotected towns seems to have struck a nerve. It was all very well the Zeppelins attacking London which had its searchlights and anti-aircraft guns to fight back but attacking defenceless towns was quite a different matter and something needed to be done!

Local councils held meetings and a conference was held on the 8th of February 1916 in Birmingham that called together the mayors, town clerks and chief constables from major towns in the Midlands. Neville Chamberlain (yes that one) chaired the meeting and was duly elected to the committee formed to liaise with the military authorities. The committee met with Sir John French, who had commanded the British Expeditionary Force in France in the opening months of the war and was now in charge of home defence, shortly afterwards. French had been coming under pressure from multiple directions and now he acted to bring together the disparate elements of the defensive systems together.

Britain had a well-developed code breaking operation run by the Navy under the name of “Room 40” at the Admiralty, so often knew when a raid was coming. As well as code-breaking, the British were also intercepting and interpreting the radio direction finding calls issued by the Zeppelins that gave their position away. Once over the land, the army had spotters looking for Zeppelins and calling in what they saw. Police forces were warned that raids were coming but there was no system for getting warnings out. The various bits of the effort needed bringing together.

One of the first decisions made was for the Royal Naval Air Service to take responsibility for the Zeppelins as they approached over the sea, with the Royal Flying Corps being responsible for them once they crossed the coastline. Most importantly, it was decided that all signals from both Room 40 and the Army’s direction finding operation would all be routed through the GHQ Home Forces Control. By the end of 1916, the army had around 17,000 spotters deployed on nights when raids were predicted by Room 40, as they heard or saw the Zeppelins, they called them into their sub-station that relayed the news to GHQ; this way an overall picture was developed.

The overall picture was plotted onto a map table in the central operations rooms for the various regions in much the same way as bomber raids would be plotted during the Battle of Britain in World War 2. Once plotted, anti-aircraft batteries and night fighter squadrons could be targeted against the raids.

It was the establishment of this air defence system that enabled Britain to effectively end the Zeppelin raids, but first effective anti-Zeppelin weaponry was needed.

The response

At first, the Zeppelins were able to roam freely. The airships were slower than aircraft, unable to travel at more than around 60 mph, but could fly higher and for much longer; most planes could fly for a few hours whereas a Zeppelin could fly for 25–30 hours. Even if a pursuing plane got close, the airships could climb out of trouble at a much greater rate than their pursuers and then stay out of reach.

Despite this advantage, they were still encountered and here it is surprising that the Zeppelins were so difficult to bring down. In theory, as they were filled with hydrogen gas, the airships should have burnt at the slightest spark, and the crew engaged in fire prevention precautions as a matter of course, but it was soon found that an airship could weather a storm of bullets and still fly home.

The problem was that normal bullets would simply fly straight through without hitting anything, puncturing a few gas envelopes as they went. A Zeppelin could lose gas from some envelopes but still make it home; what was needed was a way of releasing the hydrogen from the envelopes, mixing it with air and then administering a spark to the volatile mixture.

The first Zeppelin destroyed in air to air combat was LZ.37. On the 7th June 1915, the airship had been on a mission to bomb England but had aborted the mission due to engine trouble. As LZ.37 returned home, Sub Lieutenant Reginald Warneford who had been sent in a French Morane Parasol monoplane to attack Zeppelin sheds at Bercham-Sainte-Agathe, in Belgium and was flying at around 11,000ft, chanced upon the Zeppelin as it passed below him at an altitude of 4000ft. Warneford gave chase and a game of cat and mouse ensued for the next hour as the airship rose to 11,000ft and he tried to shoot at it with a carbine.

Eventually he was able to fly just 150–200ft above the Zeppelin and drop a 20lb bomb. Warneford was to recount… “Whilst releasing the last, there was an explosion which lifted my machine and turned it over. The aeroplane was out of control for a short period, went into a nosedive, but control was regained. I then saw the Zeppelin on the ground in flames.[6]

Warneford then found that his aircraft had lost power and he was forced to land in French territory to repair a fuel line before cadging more fuel and heading home safely. He was rewarded the French Légion d’Honneur and the Victoria Cross for his success. Sadly, Warneford was to be killed just ten days later in a flying accident.

Warneford’s success, whilst seen as a great step forward, actually led the quest for counter-measures against the Zeppelin threat astray. Suddenly effort was put into projectiles that could be dropped onto an airship, resulting in a new weapon called the ‘Ranken Dart’ which was to be dropped and, once it hit, would become lodged in the airship allowing an incendiary charge to ignite. Difficult to use, in the end Ranken darts were only used once in an inconclusive attack on an already crippled Zeppelin on the 1st April 1916 by Alfred Brandon of №19 Reserve Aeroplane Squadron flying B.E.2ea fighter. Unfortunately, the Ranken dart represented a blind alley that detracted from the development of suitable machine guns and incendiary bullets.

Despite this distraction, by mid 1916, incendiary and explosive bullets were available, along with a decent night fighter. The BE2c aircraft was, by this stage, not good enough to survive on the Western Front but was easy to fly, an attribute that made it a forgiving night fighter. Kitted out with wing mounted machine guns that could be clamped into position so that they pointed up at angle, it became an ideal platform for shooting into the belly of an airship. It was the shift towards acknowledging that Zeppelins should be attacked from underneath rather than above that, after an awkward period where both Ranken darts and machine guns were carried, led to a sustained period of success against the Zeppelins.

The move to incendiary and explosive bullets took time, mainly over the legality of the weapons; novel bullets that were designed to cause maximum damage had been prohibited in the Hague Convention of 1899 due to the effects on the human body and there were concerns that these bullets would be seen as being similar weapons. However, this objection was overcome by a a stipulation that these bullets would only be used against the Zeppelins. Ironically, the same convention had prohibited dropping explosives from balloons but only for a five year moratorium. By the summer of 1916, with the new types of ammunition, such as Pomeroy’s nitro-glycerine bullets, Brock’s explosive bullets and Buckingham phosphorous tracer bullets, the hunters now had a weapon that could reliably ignite hydrogen.

On the 2nd of September 1916, Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson of 39 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, became the first person to shoot down a Zeppelin in the air when he brought down SL.11 with a mixture of explosive and incendiary bullets. Taking off from Sutton Farm he climbed steadily for nearly an hour to reach around 10,000ft. Patrolling over the Thames Estuary on the approach to London, he spotted the Zeppelin lit up by searchlights from Woolwich at around 12,000ft and closed in. He lost the airship in the clouds and searched for another hour before finding SL.11 over Hertfordshire. Once in range he emptied two magazines of New Brock and Pomeroy incendiary and explosive rounds into the airship to no effect, however at a range of about 500–800ft below he fired his third magazine and was rewarded by a sudden glow in the Zeppelin’s tail region.

“It literally lit up all the sky around me… I saw my machine lit up as in the firelight and sat still, staring at the wonderful sight before me… As I watched the huge mass gradually turn on end and gradually sink, one glowing blazing mass. I gradually realised what I had done and grew wild with excitement.”[7]

Leefe Robinson was, in fact, so wild with excitement that he had accidentally shot off a bit of his own wing in the attack and now celebrated by firing off his warning flares.

The airship fell burning to the ground, crashing near Cuffley about 30 miles north of central London. Within days, tens of thousands of sightseers came to see the wreckage, so many that special trains were scheduled to cope with the demand. The crew are now buried at Cannock Chase German Military Cemetery alongside 4787 of their compatriots from the two world wars. Leefe Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross, given £4000 from a consortium of businessmen (over a million pounds these days!), was feted in a series of publicity events before returning to operational flying in 1917. He was shot down on his first operation over the Western Front and taken prisoner, surviving the war he returned home but caught Spanish flu and died just after the end of the war.

Leefe Robinson’s success marked the point when the tables turned and the balance of power shifted. Soon, the successes against the Zeppelins were mounting as the new tactics and ammunition were augmented by standing patrols above London.

Zeppelin L.32 was shot down overnight on the 23rd September by Second Lieutenant Frederick Sowrey, who was aged just 23 at the time. The airship crashed at the village of Great Burstead, near Billericay. The same night, L.33 was forced down when it was hit by a mixture of anti-aircraft fire and an attack by Alfred Brandon (if you were paying attention earlier, you’ll remember him from the only successful attack with Ranken darts). The crew survived and were captured by one Special Constable Edgar Nicholas as they walked along a road!

As the ascendency changed, the dangers began to take their toll on the Zeppelin crews as their already dangerous missions became almost suicidal. As Pitt Klein, an engineer who flew with L.31 was to write,

“It is only a question of time before we join the rest. Everyone admits that they feel it. Our nerves are ruined by mistreatment. If anyone should say that he was not haunted by visions of burning airships, then he would be a braggart.” [8]

Klein himself only survived the war because he wasn’t on the fateful final mission of L.31 where the crew were face with the awful dilemma of burning alive or leaping to their deaths.

On the 1st of October, Sub Lieutenant Wulstan Tempest 39 Squadron RFC was on patrol over London when he saw L.31 in the distance and closed in. Despite anti-aircraft fire from the ground and having to manually pump fuel into his engine due to a mechanical failure, he successfully attacked the airship and observed;

“As I began firing I noticed her begin to go red inside like an enormous Chinese lantern.”

The airship crashed to the ground at Potters Bar in Hertfordshire with members of the crew, having to decide whether to jump or burn. Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy, commanding the airship made his decision and jumped to his death, his body being found near the wreckage embedded into the earth.

Tempest crashed on landing but got away with a bang on the head. Visiting the site of the Zeppelin’s wreckage he found that the only way he could get close enough to see was to pay a shilling to the enterprising farmer with all the other sightseers. Tempest was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his exploits that night.

Despite near obsolescence as defences improved, the threat continued to make itself felt as Zeppelin raids continued and German heavier than air bombers began to make themselves felt. In the year running from May 1917 to May 1918, the London underground was used to shelter from attacks by over 300,000 people. [9]

When you look at a catalogue of German airship raids, it is remarkable how many mishaps befell the crews as the dirigibles crashes, exploded, suffered from engine loss, simply floated away or broke up on landing. The scale of the effort required to keep these machines operational must have been enormous and, in my mind, probably wouldn’t have stood up to a cost benefit analysis of it wasn’t for their potential as a reconnaissance platform and the psychological effect on the enemy.

Nevertheless, the ability to fight beyond the confines of the Western and Eastern front campaigns was a key element of German Navy strategy, with the bombing raids being seen as a part of the overall effort against the Allies at a time when they were unwilling to risk their surface fleet. Alongside the U-Boat campaign, the strategic air campaign intended to take the battle beyond France and Belgium, which it did, although in a limited way.

The German Zeppelin airship bombing campaign of the First World War is one of the aspects of the conflict where it is possible to glimpse the age of modern warfare as new technology is deployed and developed. Ultimately, it is also a case study of a technology that was unable to overcome its inherent limitations as new, better technologies surpassed it.

Whilst it is unlikely that the Germans would ever achieve the strategic bombing objectives that certain commanders hoped for, the campaign did have a powerful propaganda effect, as intended. However, this effect also had an unintended consequence; the establishment through trial and error of a workable British air-defence capability. The opportunity to develop this capability in what, with hindsight, was a low-stakes environment was to create the foundation of the successful defence during the Battle of Britain in 1940. The lessons learnt in the First World War against an enemy that often didn’t know which towns it was bombing and was struggling stay aloft long enough to return home were invaluable when pitched against the Luftwaffe’s more capable forces in 1940. If the chaos of 31st January 1916 raid were replayed in 1940, perhaps events in the Second World War would have played out differently.

If you enjoy reading stories like this and want to support me as a writer, consider signing up to become a Medium member. It’s $5 a month, giving you unlimited access to stories of Medium. If you sign up using my link, I’ll earn a small commission.

Footnotes

[1] Dr Hugh Hunt, Attack of the Zeppelins Channel 4.

[2] Great Britain’s Great War. Jeremy Paxman

[3] 100 days to victory. Saul David

[4] Evening News April 1916

[5] Arthur Harris. Imperial War Museum sound archives.SR3765 Reel 1

[6] 100 Days to victory. Saul David, quoting Stevenson 1914–1918

[7] No Empty Chairs. Ian Mackersey

[8] Bombs Away! Zeppelins at war. Pitt Klein

[9] IWM website

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Chris Stevenson

I’m interested in lots of things and write about them. History, nature, environment, business topics, experimental stories and anything else I fancy.