Zeppelins in World War I

By: Madison Trent

On May 6, 1937, the great airship, known as the Hindenburg, suddenly erupted into flames and in thirty two seconds was gone. The Hindenburg was the last passenger airship of the world’s first airline, and in that day, it was the fastest way to cross the Atlantic ocean. On this disastrous day, thirty five people of ninety seven passengers died and the age of the airship was brought to an end. (“The Hindenburg Disaster”, 2017) Today, airships are known as blimps and are generally seen flying across football stadiums and racetracks. Before their use for entertainment, airships were once used as a weapon in World War I.

Airships were not known as blimps in the 1900’s. They had a more fearsome name called Zeppelins. Zeppelins, unlike blimps, are made with a rigid framework that maintains their shape. Early twentieth century airships were filled with hydrogen gas, which is very flammable and is why the Hindenburg evaporated so quickly. Now the airships use helium, which still gives them the airlift, but is not as dangerous. (“What is a blimp filled with?”, 2017) Zeppelins were given their name by the Zeppelin Airship Construction Company of Germany founded by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. (Airships, Dirigibles, Zeppelins, and Blimps: What’s the Difference?”, 2017) By the late 1800s engineers were trying to develop an aircraft that would be more powerful and could carry heavier loads. They also had to create an aerodynamic shape to maintain speed faster than a crawl. Zeppelin’s design broke the technological barrier that other engineers were encountering. His first airship the Luftshiff Zeppelin 1, was not perfect, but sparked interest in the people. Airplanes at this time were flimsy and extremely limited, but Zeppelin’s airship provided a great performance advantage. (“Zeppelin”,  2017)

By 1914, Germany had the largest airship fleet of any other nation and it was just in time for the start of World War I. It began on June 28, 1914 when a Serbian nationalist assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The assassination set off a chain of events that led to the start of World War I on July 28, 1914 and would end four years later. (“Outbreak of World War I”, 2017)

During World War I, Zeppelins were commonly used by Germany, a part of the Central Powers which included Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire. The Allies, which included Serbia, Russia, France, Italy, Belgium, the United Kingdom, and the United States, tried to use airships, but were not very successful in their attempt. (“World War One is a conflict between the Central Powers and the Allies”, 2017) The Joint Airship Board of the United States assigned the U.S. Navy with the task of developing and acquiring rigid airships. Nothing new was developed, but the U.S. Army ended up using French observation balloons. These balloons did not have any motor, so they were only directed by the wind and needed to be tethered down when on the ground. Most of the United States experience with zeppelins didn’t come about until after World War I. (“U.S. Army Airships”, 2017)

Germany was eager to go to war and was looking for a good reason to do so. (“Why did Germany enter World War I, and who were Germany’s allies?”, 2017) They discovered that their airships could travel at eighty-five miles per hour and could carry up to two tons of bombs. With military deadlock on the western front, Germany decided to use the airships against towns and cities in Britain. (“World War One: How the Zeppelin wrought terror”, 2017)

On the morning of January 19, 1915, two German zeppelins, the L3 and L4, took off from Fuhlsbüttel, Germany. They both carried thirty hours worth of fuel, eight bombs, and twenty-five incendiary devices, which were used to cause fires. The German pilots had been given permission to attack military and industrial buildings, but Emperor Wilhelm II forbid attack on London for fear of injuring a member of the Royal family, to whom he was related. The zeppelins crossed the coastline around eight thirty at night and split off in different directions with L3 heading north, and L4 heading south. The incendiary bombs were dropped to allow the pilots to navigate their way to their main targets of Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn, since they flew at very high altitudes to avoid being hit by artillery. (“WWI Zeppelins: Not too Deadly, but Scary as Hell”, 2017) Residents reported hearing an “eerie throbbing” sound above them that was followed by sounds of explosions. The horror of aerial warfare was unleashed and when the attack was over Britain’s first-ever-air raid revealed a total of nine people killed and damaged buildings. Kate Argyle, a historian, said “There was no military advantage. It was all about instilling terror and really that’s what these aerial bombardments did.” The zeppelins were described as “coming out of the dark - you couldn’t see them and it was totally random. You didn’t know if you were running towards danger, or away from it.” The overall purpose of the air raids was to force the British government to fight their war in the trenches. The propaganda value grew enormously. Now people weren’t just dying on the battlefields, but in their beds at home. (“World War One - Zeppelin Raids”, 2017)(“World War One: How the Zeppelin wrought terror”, 2017)

Another strategic bombing occurred on the night of April second and third of 1916. The commander in charge of the German fleet, Reinhard Scheer was anxious to provoke the Royal Navy and using surface ships, submarines, and airships in a combined operation, he attacked Leith and the city of Edinburgh. Warning of the attack was received at seven o’clock at night on Sunday, April 2, which gave Britain enough time to institute air raid precautions. The police were assembled, along with the Red Cross, and fire stations. Traffic was stopped, and the Electric Lights Department lowered all lights. The airship, L14, was headed towards Rosyth and the Forth Railway Bridge, but was unable to see its targets, so it dropped bombs over Leith and the center of Edinburgh while the L22 bombed the south side of the city. That night twenty-three bombs were dropped by the L14 and L22, killing thirteen people and injuring twenty-four. (“Zeppelin Air Raid on Edinburgh 1916”, 2017)

Zeppelins provided a great advantage for creating havoc, but were at a severe disadvantage when it came to being fought against. Leefe Robinson was the first British pilot to shoot down a zeppelin during World War I. On the night of September second and third of 1916, Robinson was assigned night patrol between Sutton’s Farm and Joyce Green over Cuffley, Hertfordshire, England, when he spotted one of sixteen German airships that had taken off for a raid over England. After identifying the airship, he lost it in the clouds. Later, when it came into contact again, he tried two methods for attacking, neither of which worked. With the remaining ammunition he had left, his third attempt was a success. The wooden framed Schütte-Lanz SL 11 erupted into flames and crashed. His action marked a permanent change in the war and later combat techniques like his were used to shoot down more airships. Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy for British and Commonwealth forces for his action. (“Leefe Robinson”, 2017)

When the largest airship, the L31 which was said to be bigger than a battleship, was shot down a turning point in the war began. The British had defeated the world’s first strategic bombing campaign. In command of the L31 was thirty-three year old airship ace Heinrich Mathy, a master navigator and aerial tactician, who was a veteran of numerous raids and also became known for his daring and cool determination. The L31 was one of a new generation of super-Zeppelins that was designed to overpower the growing British air-defences. The mood on this airship though was a somber one. Just the week before, on the night of September 23, two of the new super-Zeppelins were shot down. One of which turned into a “raging fireball which plunged to the earth, killing all on board.” The horror was evident to the rest of the airship fleet in the skies surrounding them. The crew of men, most of which were volunteers, slept uneasily with bad dreams of falling airships. The crew even noticed a change in Mathy, who seemed more serious with sharp graven features in his face. Despite the danger, Mathy remained determined to penetrate the enemy air-defences and bomb the capital. He had planned to head south-west toward London, but searchlights caused him to turn northwards. In an attempt to cross the northern gun defences, he shut off his engines, hoping to glide silently with the wind. When he restarted the engines, bursts of lights and guns from the L31 illuminated the sky and attracted the attention of fighter pilots circling the capital. In an effort to save itself, the airship began climbing in altitude, but was not fast enough. Second Lieutenant Wulfstan Tempest closed the gap with his BE2c fighter and dived toward the airship, which was twenty-five times bigger. He first fired as he began the  dive, but with no effect. Then flying under the airship’s hull, he open fire the length of it and was despaired when nothing seemed to happen again, but then he said, “I saw her begin to go red inside like an enormous Chinese lantern.” Mathy’s airship flew two hundred feet upward, paused, and then fell, while millions of hydrogen gas cells rushed out and exploded. Lieutenant Tempest only nearly escaped the burning ball of fire. Everyone of the crew was killed. The night of October 1, 1916 brought on spontaneous cheering and applause from the streets below, because three of the new super-Zeppelins had been shot down. (“German Zeppelins of WWI”, 2017) By the end of World War I, the British had become accustom to the air raids and bombardments. They developed useful precautions to protect themselves that would later be of great help during deadlier air raids in World War II.

The zeppelins had other uses in World War I. They were used for surveillance by both sides and could reveal submarines nearly invisible from ships, but easily seen from the air. They were also very useful for fleet maneuvers and would carry equipment and information to commanders on the ground. They provided protection to convoys  and had a tremendous cargo capacity that would carry men and supplies great distances. This was something ordinary airplanes could not do. The Zeppelins remained popular after the war and were still being developed and improved until the Hindenburg disaster in 1937. That catastrophe was seen by millions of viewers all over the world and would help end the interest in airships limiting them to the promotional flying and communication transport for the military they do today. (“WWI Zeppelins: Not too Deadly, but Scary as Hell”, 2017)

By the end of the war, there was a total of fifty-two zeppelin raids on Britain that would claim the lives of more than five hundred people. (“World War One - Zeppelin Raids”, 2017) Zeppelins may not be thought of as the world’s greatest weapon during the war, but overall they seem like they were a great influence on aircraft today. Now when people look up in awe by blimps flying overhead they can think about how much bigger of a story is behind its history and they will be ever more amazed at the sight.

Madison Walker is a Senior at the Shanksville-Stonycreek High School. She is the Student Council President, National Honor Society Vice President, writer for the school newspaper "Viklet",  member of Students Against Destructive Decisions, and Drama Club. Her extracurricular's include baton twirling for the New Centerville Spinnetts, Varsity Girls Soccer, and Track.  

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