But airships still struck fear across Great Britain during World War I
by JAMES SIMPSON
Airships. Big, lumbering bags of gas. They might seem awkward and quaint today, but the silent and immense, lighter-than-air zeppelins were a terrifying sight during World War I.
In trailers and gameplay footage from their upcoming game Battlefield 1, it’s clear that developers EA DICE have taken this to heart. In the background of the game’s promotional poster, a German airship explodes in a fireball.
The magnificent image is clearly inspired by the 1937 explosion of the Hindenburg at Lakehurst, New Jersey. The fire emanating from the airship’s hydrogen cells shines through the metal lattice that supports the zeppelin’s rigid envelope. It looks truly apocalyptic.
From the pre-alpha gameplay footage that EA DICE showed at the E3 conference in mid-June 2016, shooting down airships is an important part of the Battlefield 1 experience. As they burst into flames, the enormous vehicles crash into the ground, causing damage across a large area.
But in fact, EA DICE has taken some major liberties with the zeppelins, transforming them from strategic bombers into troop-transporting gunships.
As a silent and looming flying beast that could carry bombs and strike far beyond the enemy’s lines, zeppelins performed the same terroristic role as the V-1 and V-2 rockets and firebombing missions did during the World War II. Accuracy and precision didn’t matter. What was important was striking fear in enemy populations.
But the zeppelin’s effectiveness as a military platform ended with the Great War. By 1917, the British had developed the technology and tactics necessary to shoot down the airships. All the same, the story of England’s first Blitz — the “Zeppelin Scourge” — is an interesting example of progressive German military thinking in a new age of total war.
Airships and zeppelins
Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin made the first flight of a rigid airship in 1900 — three years before Orville Wright managed to take Flyer off the ground at Kitty Hawk. The Luftschiff Zeppelin 1’s primary innovation the use of bags of hydrogen to fill its rigid frame instead of just pumping the lighter-than-air gas into the envelope.
Over a series of four iterations, the elderly Count von Zeppelin managed to ignite the passions of the German populace. With more than six million German marks in donations, he founded Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH in 1908.
Zeppelin fever spread across Germany — and across the world.
Strictly speaking, a zeppelin is any rigid airship made by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, but the term has come to denote dirigibles of all kinds. Not all airships are zeppelins, but all zeppelins are airships. There are also non-rigid pressure airships and semi-rigid airships, neither of which maintain their form when deflated.
For the purposes of this article, I’ll write “zeppelin” to mean the German rigid airships from both Luftschiffbau Zeppelin and Luftschiffbau Schütte-Lanz that the in the German army and navy deployed during World War I.
The first Schütte-Lanz airship took to the air in 1912. Joint products of engineer Johann Heinrich Karl Schütte and industrialist-financier Karl Lanz, Schütte-Lanz airships defined many of the core technologies of sound airship design. Inspired by seeing a zeppelin in the sky over Germany, Schütte developed the streamlined shape and cruciform tails that would eventually be incorporated back into Luftschiffbau Zeppelin’s own dirigibles.
One of the core differences in the two companies’ airships was the construction of their frame. Zeppelin used an aluminum-copper alloy called duralumin, while Schütte-Lanz used laminated plywood. In contrast to a zeppelin’s metal frame, plywood frames absorbed moisture over time.
Water absorption in the envelope’s skin was a common problem for all airships, as it increased the overall weight of the craft. But weight was not the only side effect of moisture-retention in Schütte-Lanz dirigibles. The glue holding together the laminated segments of plywood could degrade, increasing the chances of catastrophic structural failures.
This limitation confined their sales to the Germany army, but this didn’t stop Schütte-Lanz airships from seeing action throughout World War I, including over the British Isles.
The zeppelin’s popularity in 1908 touched the nerves of military commanders all over the world. The Great Powers all saw the advantages of lighter-than-air transport— and even pooh-poohed the likely usefulness of the burgeoning heavier-than-air plane technology.
Throughout 1914 and early 1915, the German army and navy both conducted largely uncoordinated aerial raids of France, Belgium and the English coastline. But from July 1915, these raids became more coordinated — designed to instill an insidious fear upon the British population to undermine its will to fight.
Impressed with the lobbying of Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff Paul Behncke, State Secretary of the Imperial Navy Office Alfred von Tirpitz sought permission from Kaiser Wilhelm II for a strategic bombing campaign.
“All available ships should be concentrated on London,” Tirpitz wrote in a letter to the Chief of the Admiralty Hugo von Pohl. “The measure of the success will lie not only in the injury which will be caused to the enemy, but also in the significant effect it will have in diminishing the enemy’s determination to prosecute the war, which will be greater than if the bombs are scattered singly.”
Tirpitz’s letter foreshadows the strategic logic behind the horrific strategic bombing campaigns of World War II three decades later, but in 1914 the possible payload and accuracy available could not deliver on Tirpitz’s Clausewitzian dreams. But that wouldn’t stop the German Empire from trying.
The army and navy both embraced terrorism as a tool of total war, with one military commander standing out for his embrace of dirigibles— Korvettenkapitän Peter Strasser.
When Strasser became chief of the naval airship division in 1911, the German navy had just two airships. The navy trained its crews on the civilian passenger airships Luftschiff Zeppelin 17, Sachsen and Luftschiff Zeppelin 13, Hansa. Strasser learned firsthand how to pilot an airship aboard Sachsen under naval reserve officer Ernst Lehmann and pioneering zeppelin commander Hugo Eckner.
The military use of airships became Strasser’s life’s work. Under naval command, only Luftschiff Zeppelin 24 — redesignated as L.3 — took part in operations prior to the war, and did so under Strasser’s command. By the time of his death in 1918, the fleet had grown to 72 dirigibles with 300 bombing and 1,000 reconnaissance missions to their name.
The army also contributed to the campaign, but its primary mission was to support army operations over the Western and Eastern Fronts. Navy airships dropped 400 tons of bombs over the British Isles, nearly double the tonnage dropped by the army on all of the war’s fronts.
A naval gunnery specialist by trade, Strasser regularly flew on bombing runs over England — including the first raid on Jan. 19, 1915. Navy zeppelins L.3 and L.4 left their base at Fuhlsbüttel and joined with Strasser’s navy zeppelin L.6 out of Nordholz.
The airships departed in daylight to help their crews navigate across the North Sea. Their target was the coastal towns of Humberside, but winds pushed them south to the Norfolk coast. Disappointingly for Strasser, L.6 suffered engine problems and had to return home before even reaching England.
The two other zeppelins split north and south along the coast, bombing the towns of Great Yarmouth, Sheringham and Kings Lynn.
In 1916, Strasser wrote to German naval leaders demonstrating his full conversion to the power of the airship. “The performance of the big airships has reinforced my conviction that England can be overcome by means of airships, inasmuch as the country will be deprived of the means of existence through increasingly extensive destruction of cities, factory complexes, dockyards, harbor works with war and merchant ships lying therein, railways, etc.”
But despite Strasser’s grand strategic claims, the zeppelins struggled to hit targets of strategic importance and frequently hit schools, pubs and other centers of civilian life. The British media labelled the zeppelins “baby-killers,” much to Strasser’s chagrin.
“We who strike the enemy where his heart beats have been slandered as ‘baby killers,’” he complained in a letter to his mother. “Nowadays, there is no such animal as a noncombatant. Modern warfare is total warfare.”
“If what we do is frightful,” he added, “then may frightfulness be Germany’s salvation.”
Over the course of the war, Germany made about 51 bombing raids on England killing 557 and injuring 1,358 more. The silent creeping aerial behemoths sparked fear across Britain and provoked an air-defense arms race.
Vulnerable but untouchable
World War I was the first war of the air. Across the Western and Eastern Fronts, airplane pilots flew aircraft made of fabric and wood dropping measly amounts of supplies, conducting reconnaissance and laying down the foundations of dogfighting.
But zeppelins were a world apart from the nimble one- or two-manned aircraft over the trenches.
Zeppelins were crewed by about 20 men and carried machine guns for air-to-air fire, explosive bombs and thermite-loaded incendiary devices. They could be surprisingly nimble when turning or changing altitude and they far out-ranged the airplanes of the day in terms of both horizontal distance and operating altitude, and in the early days of the campaign they seemed untouchable. Fighters couldn’t reach them and anti-air defenses had yet to be invented.
That was soon to change. In fact, the greatest effect of the zeppelin campaign — certainly greater than the fear it stoked — was the rallying of the British home-defense front. The British people were angry — so angry that there were reports of soldiers being beaten in the streets and aircraft being stoned for failing to stop the airship scourge.
At first, the zeppelins were only vulnerable on the ground, so Royal Navy Air Service pilots sought out the unmistakable large hangars during their sorties. Mounted on turntables, the enormous buildings could rotate so the airships could be towed out with the wind to minimize the risk of colliding with the hangar walls.
The British got their first kill on Oct. 8, 1914. Flight Lt. Reginald Marix succeeded in destroying army zeppelin Z.9 in its hangar at Düsseldorf with bombs dropped from his Sopwith Tabloid.
The first air-to-air zeppelin kill took place nearly a year later. Flight Sub-Lt. Reginald “Rex” Warneford caught army zeppelin LZ.37 on its way to Calais.
Rex was headed towards an airship shed at Berchem St. Agathe in Belgium when he spotted a zeppelin in the night sky. When he approached in his Morane-Saulnier Type L, the dirigible’s crew let rip with their Maxim machine guns, forcing Rex to retreat.
The airship gave chase as Warneford began climbing above the zeppelin’s altitude. At 7,000 feet, the airship’s envelope covering the sky below him, Rex dropped six 20-pound Hale bombs. The impact fuse of one bomb ignited upon hitting the rigid outer skin of the zeppelin and ignited the dirigible’s 950,000 cubic feet of hydrogen.
Rex’s aircraft lifted into the air and rolled over, plummeted into the nose dive. The zeppelin’s skeleton crashed onto a convent in Ghent and killed two nuns and two orphans. One German crew member survived. Rex recovered from his dive and glided to safety, landing at a farmhouse with a broken fuel line.
Warneford’s kill scored him a Victoria Cross and the French Legion of Honor, but he didn’t live long to celebrate his enormous new-found popularity. On the afternoon of June 17, just 10 days later, he crashed and died while taking an American journalist out on a flight in a Farman biplane.
The demise of LZ.37 gives an inkling of the artistic liberties Battlefield 1’s developers have taken with the destruction of zeppelins in-game.
First, altitude. Zeppelins bombed at a relatively high altitude — 8,500 feet — but in the game, the airships are so low that they fill the sky above the player’s horizon. In reality, the dirigibles flew high to avoid airplane, machine guns and artillery. At double the length of a jumbo jet, a zeppelin would have to be exceptionally low to appear like it does in the game.
Second, role. The zeppelins in Battlefield 1’s pre-alpha footage are weapons of mass destruction. They bristle with machine guns to attack ground and air targets. While real-life airships did carry MG.08/15 and later MG.14 guns, there is no record of them being used against targets on the ground.
Even the zeppelins’ bombs, the largest being three kilograms, were ultimately very poor weapons against enemies in the open.
Battlefield games operate on a spawn ticket system where each side gets a limited number of times to respawn. Once you die, presuming your team has enough tickets left, you reappear at a location on the map or alongside a squadmate.
In the new game, the zeppelin acts as a force-multiplier for the losing team — and not just for the Germans — by entering at the halfway point of the game under the control of the losing team. Team members can then spawn on the zeppelin and man its machine guns or pilot it into a new position.
Players can even parachute back into the battlefield.
There is no record of anyone parachuting from a zeppelin. In fact, for most of the war, fixed-line parachutes were the only ’chutes in use, and then only by static balloon operators. Military leaders generally thought that zeppelin crew and aircraft pilots were unlikely to even have the chance to deploy a parachute before crashing, but from 1918 the Central Powers allowed their pilots to carry them in their airplanes.
The reality was that zeppelin crews generally had to decide whether to burn to death or to jump to their deaths.
Finally, while the crashing debris did occasionally cause death and injury, most airships descended slowly as the fire consumed the envelope. From images of zeppelins brought down over England, there is very little evidence of extensive fire damage on the ground.
While gas, fuel and oil did explode on impact, and the metal frame glowed with heat, images also show trees holding up the metal skeleton of the envelope.
In Battlefield 1, downed zeppelins demolish trees and buildings when they land, killing the soldiers stuck in the procedurally-generated landing site. In real life, the horror of these crashes came mostly from the burned-out gondola, complete with bodies of those who couldn’t decide to jump and instead faced the flames.
What Battlefield 1 manages to capture really well, however, is the sheer spectacle of the zeppelin. They awed onlookers on the ground, particularly as the means of bringing them down improved — as the events of 1916 proved.
The air-defense arms race
Bombing the behemoths from above was still not feasible for air-defense aircraft. The airplanes dedicated to Britain’s defense were typically old and obsolete. Most of the Army’s Flying Corps and Navy’s Air Service aircraft were deployed over the Channel.
In response to the zeppelin threat, the government deployed rapid-firing artillery guns in an anti-aircraft role around the capital, and used searchlights to help spot and track the airships’ course through the skies. On March 31, 1916, machine guns of the Purfleet ranges — now a bird sanctuary — ripped through four of the L.15’s 18 gas cells, causing it to slowly descend to the sea.
But this was a rare triumph.
The reality was that despite being inflated with hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of incredibly flammable hydrogen gas, zeppelins were hard to shoot down. Bullets could tear through the envelope and puncture the gas bags, but the effect was closer to a slow puncture than an explosion.
To try and ignite the gas, the British adopted the phosphorus-charged Buckingham round. These bullets acted like tracer rounds, carrying a short trail of flames through the air behind them. But as the bullets entered the hydrogen cells of the zeppelin, they snuffed out. Without access to oxygen, they had no effective source of ignition.
The answer was the Brock and Pomeroy explosive rounds, which punctured the envelope and exploded, tearing into the gas cells to allow oxygen to mix with the hydrogen. Pilots loaded their Vickers machine guns with alternating Brock, Pomeroy and Buckingham rounds to increase the chances of catching a zeppelin alight.
This cocktail of firepower became standard for Britain’s home-defense aircraft from May 1916 and it didn’t take long for the Royal Flying Corps to get the fireworks started.
On Sept. 3, Lt. William Leefe-Robinson earned a Victoria Cross for shooting down SL.11, an army Schütte-Lanz dirigible.
A 10-year old boy at the time, Henry Tuttle described the sheer spectacle of the event in Martin Gilbert’s The First World War: A Complete History. “It was a fantastic sight like a big silver cigar and it seemed to be going very slow by this time. A lot of people came out of their houses and then all of a sudden flames started to come from the zeppelin and then it broke in half and was one mass of flames.”
“It was an incredible sight,” Gilbert continued, “people were cheering, dancing, singing and somebody started playing the bagpipes. This went on well into the night.”
The public labelled the event “Zeppelin Sunday.” They had finally overcome their fear of the Zeppelin Scourge.
The end of Strasser’s zeppelins
21 days later, 2nd Lt. Frederick Sowrey scored his first air-to-air kill against navy Zeppelin L.32 at Great Burstead, Essex, and on the same night anti-aircraft fire brought down L.33 at nearby Little Wigborough.
L.31 had also been out that night, successfully bombing the towns of Streatham, Brixton and Leyton. It was the airship of Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy, seen by both Germany and Britain alike as the most experienced and daring of the zeppelin commanders. Mathy had commanded the first bombing raid on London back in May 31, 1915.
Having escaped on Sept. 24, Mathy returned to England on Oct. 2, where he was shot down over Potters Bar. He had 14 combat flights with around 37 tons of dropped bombs to his name. He died on the ground after leaping from the zeppelin’s gondola. His victor was 2nd Lt. Wulstan J. Tempest in his BE2c biplane. Tempest described the zeppelin’s explosion as “a giant Chinese lantern.”
Mathy’s loss hit the Naval Airship Division very hard. Strasser wrote to Mathy’s widow, calling her husband “cheerful, helpful, a true comrade and friend, high in the estimation of his superiors, his equals and his subordinates.”
But Strasser’s belief still burned strong. From March 1917, S-class “Height Climber” zeppelins entered naval service. Lightweight and packed with two million cubic feet of hydrogen gas, they could operate at altitudes exceeding 20,000 feet.
With such a high operating ceiling, they were truly safe from the British, but the gondola was unpressurized so they instead faced the creeping enemy of the cold and altitude sickness. They were also useless as bombers without descending into range of British aircraft and anti-air guns.
Strasser’s faith was misplaced. On June 16, 1917, the first of the S-class zeppelins, L.48 embarked on its first mission to England, dropping bombs on the port town of Harwich. As it tried to return home, its compass frozen from the high-altitude flight, searchlights and anti-aircraft fire lit up the sky.
Flight Cmdr. Henry Saundby and 2nd Lieutenants Frank Holder and Don Watkins gave chase. Despite starting the chase out of range of the British fighters, L.48 had begun to descend to compensate for a loss of engine power. It was easy prey for the three pilots, whose Vickers guns tore through the envelope and set fire to the largest zeppelin to yet reach the English homeland.
The final nail in the coffin for the zeppelin raids on England was the death of Peter Strasser. On Aug. 3, 1918, Strasser commanded L.70 on a bombing raid against Boston in Norwich. Maj. Egbert Cadbury, later to become managing director of the Cadburys chocolate company, spotted the zeppelin from his Airco DH.4 and shot it down — his second zeppelin kill of the war.
Flying balloons of flammable gas continued to popular after the war, with Luftschiffbau Zeppelin making not only civilian aircraft such as the Graf Zeppelin, but also the USS Los Angeles, which racked up more than 4,000 hours of flying with the U.S. Navy.
Even with the waning of the zeppelin’s popularity after the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin remained connected to the strategic bombing of London. The company was involved with the construction of the V-2 rocket — another terror weapon from Germany’s peculiar mix of Clausewitzian thought matched with technological prowess.
The company survives to this day. It’s now a purely civilian manufacturer supplying companies including Goodyear.