The story of the airships - part one.
Zeppelin! The legend of the Great War. Giant, slow airships that taken their name from German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin - the man who, after his resignation from the army in 1891, devoted his full attention to airships. In his opinion the airships were the perfect weapon that might counteract the British naval superiority and strike at Britain itself, without being afraid of Royal Navy ships.
Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich August Graf von Zeppelin
Today the words „airship / dirigible“ and „zeppelin“ are often considered synonyms and other airship designs are almost forgotten. Certainly there were some other designs in German service, as Parsevals and Schütte-Lanz. Those designs are forgotten today mainly because of the British and French propaganda and newspapers, who called all the German airships as „zeppelins“. Well, we have to admit that „zeppelin“ is much better name to use in the headlines than Schütte-Lanz. And this is worth mentioning here that the very first German name for the airship was Lenkbarer Luftfahrzug – a controlled air train.
Naval airship L.15, about to land.
The zeppelin’s road to the active service was not easy – there were many opponents of airships among the German staff officers. Considered slow and vulnerable the airships had to prove their abilities and versatility.
Today, the same opinion prevails – the airships were just the waste of money, effort and primarily the lives of their crews. But is this a reasoned opinion?
The British had a real problem with the zeppelins and their air raids. There were no effective ways to protect the British from the bombs dropped by airships. The newspapers and propaganda posters were full of the pictures showing the burning zeppelin falling from the sky. Those pictures were very suggestive and they could be a morale-booster, but the British air defense was not as effective as in the propaganda materials.
Zeppelin air raid over London - German propaganda postcard.
January 19th, 1915 was the day the idea of strategic air raids was born. On this day four German airships were sent on a mission over England - deep into the enemy territory. There were 4 people killed, 16 wounded and the damages were worth of ca. 1,5 million pounds (in today’s value).
Certainly we cannot compare this to the German air raids over Britain in the World War II, but the airships (and later the heavy bombarders) made the British land a part of the battlefield. We cannot overlook how the British morale was influenced by the fact that the German airships were dropping the bombs on London, while the Germans in Berlin were safe and far away from any direct danger.
Air-raid damage to houses in Baytree Road caused by a Zeppelin L31
It was 1915 when the British (and some of the French) newspapers started the propaganda campaign against the airships. The air raids were really effective and still more and more airships were sent over London and the countryside. The press turned „the Zeppelins“ into „the Baby killers“ and the newspapers‘ pages were full of suggestive photographs showing the children with the dud bombs or near the damaged houses.
No one cared that the reality was a bit different – Wilhelm II, as British royal family relative, was against the air raids on London. This was the reason that during the first air raids the airships were dropping the bombs only around the British capital. Later on, he allowed the bombing of military targets in London, but dropping the bombs on important historical, royal and cultural buildings was strictly forbidden (certainly the airships were dropping bomb from the 10.000 feet, so it was rather impossible to hit only the military targets, but it was still far away from being the real „Baby killers“). (see the note below)
"The End of the 'Baby-Killer'" - British poster.
The air raids over Britain are widely known, but they were just a part of everyday routine for German airships. Reconnaissance missions and long range patrols were also very important, especially on the Eastern Front and over the North Sea. The German Imperial Navy owes most of its successful operations to the airship reconnaissance missions. The airships were active on most theatres of the Great War: Western Front, Eastern Front, North Sea, Balkans and even Africa.
The rumour is that the service of the airship was not a long one and after a short time they were shot down or destroyed. Well, it’s true that for some of them the very first mission was also the last one – but some zeppelins had a very impressive record, for example L 9 – with 74 reconnaissance missions, 4 air raids, 5683 kgs of bombs dropped or L 13 – with 45 reconnaissance missions, 15 air raids, 20667 kgs of bombs dropped.
Zeppelin attack on Yarmouth - German propaganda postcard.
And were the airship bomb raids effective? There are many opinions that they couldn‘t change anything, but the statistics are proving them wrong:
- There were 118 airships in German military service during the Great War, 40 of them were shot down or destroyed.
- 14 – 15 thousand soldiers were taking care of British air defense, with search lights, cannons, and aircrafts. All those men and that equipment couldn’t be used on the front line just because of the airships. This means that one man from the airship crew required thirty-three British soldiers engaged against him – one of the highest ratios in the Great War.
- The casualties’ ratio of Zeppelin crews was 11% (79 men) in the Army, 26,3% (389 men) in the Navy.
- The newspapers were full of photos and drawings showing the shot down airships. The pilots who managed to shot down the zeppelin were national heroes. However it was not so easy to shot down the airships: there were nine zeppelins shot down by airplanes in 1916, six in 1917 and only three in 1918!
British propaganda poster.
The final statistics for German airships were: 231 bomb air raids, 1189 air reconnaissance missions, 197 tons of bombs dropped, 557 people killed and 1358 wounded. We may compare this to the German airplane raids over Britain: 22 raids with Gotha airplanes (85 tons of bombs dropped, 61 airplanes shot down), 11 raids with Zeppelin R V (27 tons of bombs dropped, 2 airplanes shot down).
A curious detail is that Manfred von Richthofen wasn’t the only „flying baron“ of the Great War. There was another one among the airship crews - Horst Julius Ludwig Otto freiherr Treusch von Buttlar-Brandenfels, „the Zeppelin baron“, one of the two airship commanders awarded with the „Blue Max“. He started his military career as wachoffizier on board of L3 and then, as a 25-years-old Lieutenant, he became a commander of L6 in November 1914. Then he was a commander of two giant airships L30 and L54. Zeppelin baron’s skills made him very famous - Buttlar-Brandenfels always managed to fly back home with his airship, even if it was damaged by the storm or AA fire.
Horst Julius Ludwig Otto freiherr Treusch von Buttlar-Brandenfels
Note: Paradoxically the French airplanes that dropped their bombs on Karlsruhe (15th and 22nd June 1915) deserved this nickname much more than the German airships. During the first air raid on Karlsruhe – the city proclaimed as the „open town“ – the bombs were dropped during one of the church holidays, when the streets were full of worshippers (the casualties were 112 dead and 300 wounded). The second air raid was even worse – one of the main targets was the former railway station, the place where the circus was playing. The direct hit caused the death of 120 people, mostly the children...(JD)