Europe entered World War One poorly prepared, despite the warning signs conflict was looming. Germany alone had developed large, powerful dirigibles capable of carrying and delivering payloads.
Britain’s cities in the South of England were obvious targets, with few military aircraft and only rudimentary anti-aircraft guns to defend against attacks from the sky above. The impact on the civilian population was terrifying. In hindsight it’s hard to imagine how the government allowed such a strategic gap to open up.
Germany Had Aerial Superiority over Britain and France
Germany entered World War 1 with seven operational airships all produced by Ferdinand Zeppelin. She also had a smaller, secondary supplier, the Schutte-Lanz Company. However, the latter made their airframes from plywood. These proved unsuitable over water, and in damp weather. However, they operated satisfactorily in dry conditions.
Schutte-Lanz dirigibles played a role in bombing Poland, France, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Britain, and Latvia before they withdrew from active service. Their immense size and noisy engines caused extensive panic, but little strategic damage because their bomb aiming systems were ineffective.
The Fighting Dirigible in World War 1
There’s little doubt Count Zeppelin saw his dirigibles as primarily military machines. He had quietly developed them with a capacity to fly from Germany to England and back.
The fledgling British air force understood this, and bombed the storage sheds when they could. However, the zeppelins had a tough time convincing the military they were ready for action. That’s because the army was accustomed to using cavalry for reconnaissance. Moreover, they lost three airships to anti-aircraft fire in quick succession.
The German navy was more enthusiastic. Their regular tactics included using light cruisers for observation, but they were short of these. And so they rapidly acquired a small fleet of them for reconnaissance patrols over the North Sea during 1914.
Meanwhile France was still struggling to catch up after a less spectacular start. Her early dirigibles were of the non-rigid, cigar-shaped type, and they were already becoming obsolete when World War I broke out. They also had single gondolas limiting their usefulness in battle.
France had several of these non-rigid aircraft in service when World War I broke out. She deployed them over German lines in the early days. However, multiple bullet- and shell hits considerably reduced their buoyancy and effectiveness.
The larger German dirigibles proved more effective. That’s because they had more powerful engines delivering greater speed and could carry heavier payloads.
However, the smaller French dirigibles were helpless in the face of German airplanes attacking from above on account of their rounded profiles, and soon ceased to have any strategic value. Meanwhile, the war on the ground in Europe was grinding to a halt, with both sides evenly matched.
Russia built two hydrogen airships in World War 1, although airplanes were a much higher military priority. The first of these, named ‘Air Cruiser’ was 490 feet long and cruised at 50 miles per hour. Russia also imported another five and used them to support ground troops.
The Aerial Battle Ground Moves to Britain
The German navy was itching to use its North Sea reconnaissance flights as a springboard to carry the battle to Britain. The Kaiser, apparently reluctantly agreed. The first German airborne assault on England took place on January 19, 1915 killing two, and injuring sixteen people in two seaside towns.
Another 15 bombing raids were made over London and other strategic sites in the south. However, the bombs were often way off target because of poor night visibility, and adverse weather. For this reason civilians were much more likely to be unintended victims.
The raids continued unabated at full moons, as newly positioned anti-aircraft sites proved ineffective. A number of strategic British sites received direct hits. However, it is an open question whether the cost and effort achieved much from a military perspective.
A total 20 raids, 37 tons of bombs, and several lost zeppelins killed 181 people and injured 455. This was a side show compared to what was happening on the European front, but terrifying at the local level.
The psychological effect on the British populace was immense. There was huge resentment against what the media termed ‘baby killers’. The military saw this as a good opportunity to recruit young men to replace losses in the European trenches. Such is war.
A New, More Powerful Class of Zeppelins Emerges
The Zeppelin company proposed a more powerful airship on August 5, 1915. This would be a larger version of LZ 26 with a duralumin framework, and a strengthening keel inside the hull structure. Moreover the more streamlined P Class would have a fourth engine and a greater range and bomb load.
The new, 536 ft Zeppelin was more of a fighting machine, with the front engine and the control room in the first gondola, and a machine gun mounting on either side. The second compartment contained the first engine driving a propeller at the rear.
The second gondola had the other three engines driving starboard, port and rear propellers. There was a machine gun in the rear cockpit, and two or three more on top of the hull reached by a ladder.
The payload bombs hung from the girder below the main hull, and were released by an electric switch in the control car. The hull was lengthened by 49 feet at the end of 1915 and became the Q Class.
Germany lost a number of zeppelins in 1916. Some crashed on returning, while others fell victim to British fighter aircraft. The Germans responded by removing one of the Q Class motors so it could ascend to 16,000 feet.
The first 1917 raid on London deployed five of these high-altitude vessels during March 16 and 17. Strong winds forced all five to turn back. French ground fire downed one after an engine failed.
A second attempt a week later was equally unspectacular. The six zeppelins were confounded by high winds and thick clouds. A few bombs fell on the countryside killing a single person, but causing only minor damage.
Fixed Wing Aircraft Begin to Dominate Zeppelins
A new contender for dirigibles appeared during 1917 in the form of the German Gotha G.IV triplane bomber. This had a top speed of 83 mph, a range of 506 mi, and a service ceiling of 14,400 feet. It had double or triple machine guns and a bomb load of 1000 lb. This made it a superior fighting machine.
Germany deployed these fixed wing bombers in increasing numbers from 1917 onward, and they proved more effective in action. The huge zeppelins were gradually withdrawn, as Britain faced an even more terrifying form of aerial bombardment.
The dirigible’s total scorecard over England was 556 dead and 1,357 wounded. The first Gotha bomber raid on London stole 162 lives. The numbers no longer added up for Ferdinand Zeppelin. However, this was not the end of the road for balloons and dirigibles in World War I.
Observation Balloons in the First World War
Dirigibles faded from the war over Britain after reliable airplanes arrived, because they were too slow and cumbersome. Tethered observation balloons bypassed this problem because they were static platforms. They played a role in military conflict from the French Revolution onward. However, World War I was undoubtedly their finest hour.
Both sides to the conflict used observation balloons extensively. That’s because artillery weapons were able to reach targets out of sight of the human eye.
Balloonists ascended from points a few miles behind front lines, from where they could see where shells were landing. They relayed this information to the ground. This enabled their artillery to adjust their aim and strike their targets.
Germany enjoyed a distinct advantage in the beginning, because the British were still using spherical balloons. However, they adapted to tethered kite balloons after they discovered these were more directionally stable with less wind resistance / drag.
The Allied navies used kite balloons during the Atlantic U-boat Campaign between August and October 1918. A pilot kept a lookout for approaching German submarines, while standing in a basket suspended from the balloon from where he could detect shadows under water.
French engineers responded with Caquot type dirigibles able to hold position in 55 mph winds. They supplied these to the United States and British armies. It’s believed they significantly contributed to the allies’ supremacy in aviation, and eventually led to the final victory over Germany. We can only wonder at their gallant crews.
U.S. Airship Activity 1918 Onwards
Records are scarce concerning the use of airships by the United States during World War 1. However, we do know the US Navy operated air ships from the French Atlantic town of Paimbœuf from March 1, 1918 to the end of the war.
It appears they used at least 13 French-manufactured airships during this period. They deployed them for training, convoy patrols, mine spotting, and anti-submarine operations. Among them were
- Four Astra-Torres airships 223 ft long
- Chalais-Meudon airship CM-5, 263 ft long
- Two Vedette Zodiac airships VZ-7 and VZ-13
The base closed after the First Armistice signed in a railway coach on November 11, 1918. The Americans returned one airship to the French and shipped six back home where they were scrapped without further service. Thus it seems likely they lost six airships during 1918.
The Fate of the Zeppelin Fleet
The victorious Allies demanded the total destruction of the German war machine. Article 198 of the Treaty of Versailles insisted ‘The armed forces of Germany must not include any military or naval air forces … No dirigible shall be kept…’
As the war drew to a close 24 zeppelins were still operating of the 84 built. Half of the lost 60 had fallen in action. Accidents took out the rest.
Many zeppelin crews destroyed their craft to avoid them falling into enemy hands. Those that remained were shared among France, Italy, Britain, and Belgium in 1920. The war was over. Fixed wing aircraft now commanded the skies.