Very early on in the First World War, the aeroplane proved itself to be more practical than the airship as a ‘weapon of war’ – cheaper to produce, harder to spot and a much less substantial target to hit. However, the Germans retained immense faith in the odd-looking vessels right up until around 1916, partly because of a special national investment in their success, and partly because the airship was a uniquely intimidating intruder in enemy skies.
Picture it… a night that’s blacker than black, since no light of any sort is permitted to shine out of the windows and disturb the darkness. Despite hearing no approaching engine, and having no assailant in sight, the skin starts to prickle on the back of your neck as you instinctively feel that something is up there, watching, waiting. Then, without warning, the bombs start to fall. For the most part that would be all anyone was aware of… the fire, the chaos, and the knowledge that something truly terrible hung above Britain, hidden in the shadows. On the rare occasions, though, when the spotlight managed to catch a Zeppelin in their glare, its real power would be revealed. A ghostly mass, perhaps 700 feet long, hovering like a grotesque bat over familiar buildings and streets, any one of which could be its next victim; the anti-aircraft guns, meanwhile, unable to reach it. Big enough to dwarf St Paul’s Cathedral, yet deathly silent –and just as soon as it was caught in the light, it would melt away again into ominous nothingness.
The first airships - gas filled envelopes - were being experimented with as early as 1850, but according to Gary Sheffield’s ‘The First World War in 100 Objects’, the German General Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin was the first to really make a go of commercialising airships, starting his experiments in 1900 and getting better and better with each attempt. He was the first to successfully construct a rigid framed airship – thereafter dubbed the ‘Zeppelin’. This first vessel, LZ 1, was a modest 420 feet long, but Zeppelin’s lighter-than-air ships really started to gain fame in 1906, after LZ 3 managed to stay airborne for an impressive eight hours. R G Grant explains in his ‘Flight- 100 years of Aviation’ that, so proud were the German people that their country was seen to be pioneering this impressive new technology that, when Zeppelin’s larger LZ 4 was wrecked on the ground during a tour of the Rhine Valley in 1908, they all rallied around him. Von Zeppelin, who had financed the company himself, risked bankruptcy, but the German public donated six million Marks out of their own pockets to bail him out and help to keep his work alive. It’s no wonder that the Zeppelin airship subsequently became something of a national icon.
By the time the Great War dawned in 1914, von Zeppelin had a fleet of airships that he had been using to transport passengers, ready to be converted into warships. In its most basic form, a Zeppelin airship was built with a solid aluminium frame supporting a fabric covering, with compartments filled with hydrogen arranged along the inside of the cylindrical shape, and the control car and engine suspended below. (Non-rigid airships, meanwhile, held up by an envelope of air on the outside, were known as ‘blimps’.) According to Mark Adkin’s ‘The Western Front Companion’, early ships were a little over 500 feet in length, able to climb to 4-6,000 feet weighed down, or 9,000 feet by discharging ballast, and capable of carrying 28-38 tons and reaching speeds of up to 60mph. Later they grew to a large as 800 feet, went as high as 18,000 feet and edged up to around 80mph. Initially they could carry just 10 men and four to six machine guns, as well as a ton of bombs, and by 1916 they could take four large machine guns and six maxims, 28 men, plus four tons of bombs.
Their use was two-fold. First, as described, airships were initially sent on bombing raids. As symbols of terror, they were wonderfully effective. Shortly before the war began, in 1908, H G Wells had released ‘The War in the Air’, his military science fiction book, in which German airships launched a terrifying attack on the people and buildings of New York City. The novel filtered into the national consciousness of the United Kingdom, making the possibility of an attack from the sky seem even more terrifying than it would have otherwise and branding the distinctive silhouette of the Zeppelin as something to be feared. So, what better to send to intimidate the British public that an airship? The night raids on the British mainland from bases in Belgium began on 19th January 1915, when two naval Zeppelins dropped bombs on Great Yarmouth, King’s Lynn and Sheringham, killing four and injuring 16. Each airship attack pulled British planes away from their duties at the Western Front towards home, weakening the position of Britain’s army. The awesome psychological impact of the Zeppelin was evidenced in British recruitment posters from 1915, showing the dreaded silhouette hanging over St Paul’s Cathedral, alongside the slogan, “It is far better to face the bullets than to be killed at home by a bomb. Join the army at once & help stop an air raid; God Save the King.”
The other main use of airships was for reconnaissance, as they burned fuel more slowly than aeroplanes, so they could go further and last for longer. They helped to spot and attack submarines and minefields, thereby protecting the German ships, and acted as observers to determine how close artillery fire was falling to its intended target, allowing the aim to be adjusted to increase the probability of a hit.
Airships had many weaknesses, though – in fact, by the beginning of the war they were already starting to be phased out in most countries. Gary Sheffield’s book points out that, even in 1914, 34 aeroplanes could be constructed with the money that it took to build just one airship. As bombers they lacked accuracy, making it difficult for them to hit any specific target, such as an aircraft factory, and often the wind dictated that they ended up over a completely different town to that intended. Weather could affect an airship in a number of ways, as it was effectively a large balloon. Heavy gusts and storms could easily cause it to crash, while heavy fog veiled markers, so that the airship risked losing its way and either running out of fuel or straying into the path of an enemy gun or aircraft. Navigating was also notoriously tricky.
As well, airships made rather easy targets. For a start, they were huge, so a day-time raid was a no-starter. In daylight they would be instantly spotted and hit, as four were in the first month of the war. They were also filled with hydrogen, a gas which, as well as being very light, is extremely flammable. By 1916, the development of incendiary bullets made airships an increasingly vulnerable form of transport. One good hit, and they risked lighting up like a Christmas tree, which didn’t bode well for the unfortunate crew members. Finally, weight made a big difference to how high and fast the aircraft could go, so even rain on the canopy could slow it down, and the more bombs it carried, the more vulnerable to enemy attack it became. To recap, the airship was expensive, bulky, difficult to manage, vulnerable to the elements and hard to navigate, if able to move faster and higher than the early planes – but the British public didn’t know that. They just saw a horrific and invincible foe hanging over them… until mid-1915 that is.
In June that year, 23-year-old Reginald Alexander John Warneford of the Royal Naval Air Service earned the Victoria Cross by proving, with the help of a French Morane monoplane, that this shadowy enemy was mortal after all. The citation for the award, transcribed on the Forces War Records website from the London Gazette entry of the 11th of June 1915, describes what happened: “On 7th June 1915 at Ghent, Belgium, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Warneford attacked and completely destroyed a German airship in mid-air. He had chased the airship from the coast near Ostend, and succeeded in dropping his bombs on it, the last of which set the airship on fire, but the explosion overturned the attacking plane and stopped its engine. Having no alternative, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Warneford had to land in hostile country, but after 35 minutes spent on repairs, he managed to restart the engine and returned to base.”
The encounter was a triumph in British eyes, and according to ‘The Western Front Companion’, produced one of the strangest war stories ever told. While his nine companions on LZ 37 burned in agony, Alfred Müller was in the front gondola, and avoided the worst of the flames. As the mighty ship crashed down through the roof of a building, Müller went with it – only to roll from the wreckage, unscathed, onto a soft bed. The charmed chap survived the war, opened a pub, and earned free drinks for life by repeatedly airing his story. Flight Sub-Lieutenant Warneford, meanwhile, was not so lucky. He lived just long enough to receive the award, the ‘most hearty’ congratulations of King George V by telegram and the French Legion d’honneur, before being killed in a flying accident over Paris.
Still, his legacy lived on, as he had proved that the mighty airships could be destroyed, and by a single plane no less! The realisation provided a much-needed morale boost, and a corresponding body-blow to Germany, at a time when the British public was just realising that this war would not be finishing anytime soon. However, it was a different attack that placed the final nail in the military airship’s coffin. On the evening of the 2nd and 3rd of September 1916, William Leefe Robinson, of the Worcestershire Regiment and Royal Flying Corps, continued Warneford’s fine work, earning his own Victoria Cross in the process, by bringing down an airship right before the eyes of the British civilians.
Robinson’s citation, again transcribed on the Forces War Records website, this time dated the 5th of September 1916, states: “On the night of 2nd/3rd September 1916 over Cuffley, Hertfordshire, Lieutenant Robinson sighted a German airship – one of 16 which had left bases in Germany on a mass raid over England. The Lieutenant made an attack at a height of 11,500 ft., approaching from below and closing to within 500 ft., and raked the aircraft (a wooden-framed Schutte Lanz) with gunfire. As he was preparing for another attack, the airship burst into flames and crashed in a field.” Muriel Dayrell-Browning, who saw Robinson’s quarry, SL 11, plummet to the ground, is quoted in ‘Flight: 100 Years of Aviation’ as saying, “Those deaths must have been the most dramatic in the world’s history. They fell – a cone of blazing wreckage – watched by eight million of their enemies.”
Not that this was the end of German airship attacks on Britain; far from it. There were 11 more raids in 1917 and 1918, and the final attack of the war wasn’t until 5th August 1918 (the commander of the German Naval Airship Department was killed in this last raid). Still, compare that to 20 in 1915 and 23 in 1916, according to ‘The Western Front Companion’, and the drop in the airship’s significance to Germany is obvious. With other nations, the airship barely got off the ground. Britain hadn’t started producing them until 1912, so had few airships to work with in 1914, and soon concentrated its developmental efforts on the aeroplane instead. The country mainly made use of small, soft-framed airships for the purposes of naval reconnaissance. All in all, in the course of the war, the airship lost out to aeroplanes as the most used and effective form of bomber. Airships made 48 raids and killed 556 British citizens, while aeroplanes made 59 raids and killed 857. By World War Two, the airship had been entirely phased out as a weapon, and after a string of accidents, including the highly publicised Hindenburg Disaster in 1937, when 36 passengers and crew were killed in a ball of fire, the day of the airship – except in the US - was well and truly over.