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Zeppelins – Majestic and Deadly Airships of WW1 I THE GREAT WAR Special

October 9, 2019


Imagine seeing them crossing the skies, majestic
floating whales. Then imagine those whales dropping bombs on you before floating serenely
away. They’re not whales, of course, what I’m talking about is a great German invention
that pioneered the skyways, the zeppelin. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to a Great War
Special episode about German zeppelins in World War One. Graf Ferdinand von Zeppelin had been an observer
with the Union Army during the American civil war and had seen first hand the usefulness
of the hydrogen filled observation balloons. While these balloons were attached to a spot
on the ground by cables, Graf Zeppelin reasoned that if they could be steered and made to
move under their own power their potential as a mode of transportation could be unlocked. Graf Zeppelin developed and launched his design
for a steerable or “dirigible” balloon in 1900. His efforts finally led to a viable
passenger airship design and in 1910 the world’s first airline, the German Airship Transportation
Company or DELAG, which operated regularly scheduled passenger flights between major
German cities and there were plans for expanding operations to all the major cities in Europe
and beyond. War changed all that. When war broke out in July 1914 there were
11 large airships in operation in Germany and more being built at the Zeppelin manufacturing
facilities in Friedrichshafen and Potsdam. The entire fleet was immediately pressed into
service by the German Army and Naval high commands. The Army used the Zeppelins for reconnaissance
to determine the number and disposition of opposing ground forces and as tactical bombers.
On the western front, Zeppelins participated in the attack on Liege in August 1914 and
bombarded the city of Antwerp during its siege in September. On the eastern front, from August to October
1914, Army Zeppelins were sent on bombing raids against the Warsaw forts and key transportation
areas around the city. Zeppelins also saw action during the protracted battles around
Przemysl, raids were conducted against the fortresses of Grodno and Kovno, and plans
were even laid for long range bombing raids against St Petersburg, but while several attempts
were made, the distance between the airship base and their target was too great. The Naval Zeppelins were used to patrol the
North Sea area acting as the far ranging eyes of the fleet. German airships would directly
participate as advance scouts in the naval battle of Jutland. A report published by the
British on September 20th, 1917 said: “…It is no small achievement for their
Zeppelins to have saved the high seas fleet at Jutland; to have saved their cruiser squadron
on the Yarmouth raid, and to have been instrumental in sinking the Nottingham and Falmouth.” The Zeppelins in naval service were also highly
successful in detecting and mapping minefields and assisting minesweepers in clearing mines.
During the war years the German Naval Airship service flew a total of 971 flights on scouting
and reconnaissance missions over the North Sea in support of the surface Navy. Additionally,
between the Army and Naval airships, a total of 220 scouting flights were conducted in
support of the Baltic operations. In total on all fronts some 1,191 scouting and reconnaissance
flights were made during the war. During that same period, 46 bombing raids
were conducted in the Baltic area of operations and another 306 in the North Sea and British
Isles area. Despite the fact that the raids on England were barely a quarter of the total
number of operations, that’s what we often remember about German zeppelins from the Great
War. At 9:20 pm on January 19th, 1915 the first
Zeppelin bombs fell on Britain. This was the first instance of aerial attack on what had
otherwise been a nation protected by the sea and its fleet, and to say it came as a shock
would be an understatement, both for the British and the rest of the world. Nothing like this
had ever been seen before, though it would become commonplace in wars thereafter. At first London was off limits. Kaiser Wilhelm
would not approve operations that may damage historical architecture and would not allow
the King and the royals be targeted. By March 1915, the Kaiser had relented and London would
be bombed, though initially with only limited targets. The concrete objectives of the raids were
to interfere with supply and distribution and prevent equipment from reaching the front,
to destroy military facilities, to destroy the Bank of England, to force the British
to defend at home and keep troops from the front lines, and of course, to demoralize
and terrorize the civilian population. The last one totally backfired though; the raids
were used as propaganda to increase recruitment and actually stiffened British resolve. The Bank of London was never hit and the raids
continued until the end of the war, with the final raid occurring on August 5th, 1918. At first the Zeppelins operated with relative
impunity. As a flying machine, they were years ahead of airplanes. None of the British fighter-interceptor
aircraft at the time could fly as high or stay aloft as long as a Zeppelin and each
technological advance in airplanes was countered by a Zeppelin advance. Higher and higher the
zeppelins could climb, ultimately reaching ceilings of over 27,000 feet by the war’s
end. When a Zeppelin did find itself attacked by an airplane, the attacking pilots found
that the Zeppelins were surprisingly hard to shoot down. Hydrogen IS highly flammable and burns readily,
but only when mixed with oxygen. Putting several rounds of machine gun ammunition through a
zeppelin simply punched holes in one of the many independent gas cells and allowed the
lifting gas to leak out. Rarely was a zeppelin disabled to the point of being shot down by
this and could usually leave the combat area and return to base. That was, of course, until
the development of the incendiary bullet. The “Buckingham” bullet was hollowed out
and filled with phosphorus. When fired, the friction of the bullet moving down the gun
barrel would ignite the bullet and cause it to burn. On September 2nd 1916, British Lieutenant
William Robinson, using the Buckingham incendiary bullets mixed with explosive bullets, ignited
the hydrogen gas in a Zeppelin over the north end of London, becoming the first to shoot
one down. Londoners went wild and Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions. For the German aircrews this new form of destruction
was terrifying. In many cases now their first indication of being attacked was the large
red glow emanating from above their heads. Here’s a little zeppelin story from the
war, from Africa, actually. In German East Africa, General von Lettow-Vorbeck
was waging a guerilla war against the British with meager resources, both in men and material.
His former chief medical officer suggested to the high command the possibility of sending
medical supplies through by airship. The High Command modified one to make the perilous
voyage. The air mile distance between Germany’s southernmost Zeppelin base, Jamboli in Bulgaria,
and the area where it was thought Lettow-Vorbeck was operating was 3,600 miles- 5,760 kilometers,
and the plan was to fly 11 tons of ammunition and three tons of medical supplies to support
the general’s operations. However, the German command soon decided von
Lettow-Vorbeck’s situation was too precarious and recalled the zeppelin mid-flight. By the
time it received the recall order and headed back to Bulgaria, though, it had reached the
Sudan. That zeppelin, an L-59, had accomplished something pretty remarkable. It had been in
flight for 95 hours and had covered 4,200 miles in some of the worst environmental conditions.
When they reached Jamboli, they still had fuel for another 64 hours in the air. During the war 88 Zeppelins were built and
deployed. Technology that allows safe air travel today such as accurate weather reporting,
weather radar, long range communication systems, things that we take for granted now had not
yet been invented. When it was cold, the crews froze. When they flew high, they got altitude
sickness. And when they were shot down it was usually in a raging inferno where they
had to decide between burning to death or jumping to their death. They saw action as
the eyes of the fleet, as bombers, and as reconnaissance aircraft against, and while
their success as a weapon of war is debatable; the bravery of the men who operated them is
not. Now, it wasn’t only Germany that used zeppelins
in the war, several other nations did and you can look that up. Time constraints prevent
me from covering that here. To learn more about von Lewttow-Vorbeck and German East
Africa, click here for our bio about him. Don’t forget to subscribe and see you Thursdays.

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