The Dread Zeppelin

World War One saw both the introduction of, or the unprecedented use of a host of new deadly weapons. The submarine, for example, had been first used during the American Civil War. However, the First World War would see it become the great predator of the sea. Chemical weapons like chlorine and phosgene gas were deployed on a mass scale. The armored tank replaced the horse in the armies’ cavalries. And air warfare became a threat for the first time in history, bringing death and destruction to the doorsteps of the civilian population. No one was exempt from the ‘total war.’

German zeppelins were capable of traveling at speeds of 85 miles per hour and carrying up to 2 tons of payload. From the early days of the war, these new weapons of mass destruction were deployed in bombing raids on Liege, Antwerp and Paris. In January of 1915, the massive hydrogen filled war machines brought their deadly cargo to the shores of Great Britain, striking the coastal towns of Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn.

German Zeppelin corps commander, Peter Strasser was quoted as saying, “Nowadays, there is no such thing as a noncombatant. Modern warfare is total warfare.” The German aim in targeting civilian populations was to frighten the British into leaving the war. They upped their game in May, 1915.

As if it were straight out of an H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel, a massive airship darkened the starlit night over London on May 31, 1915. The 650-foot-long zeppelin, the largest ever constructed to date, glided toward the British capital, using the light reflecting off the Thames River as its guide. From the trap doors beneath the gondola of the craft, German troops dropped 90 incendiary bombs and 30 grenades onto the homes of the sleeping citizens below. The break of dawn brought with it the reports of seven deaths and the injury of thirty-five. But more than that, fear gripped the city.

Early on, the zeppelin was nearly unstoppable. It flew higher than artillery could fire, even higher than the airplanes of the day could fly. The planes couldn’t even get close enough to use their machine guns to bring them down. And not wanting to panic the citizenry with robust air raid warnings, the civil authorities’ only action in the face of imminent attack, was to send policemen with whistles out into the streets on bicycles with the cry of “take cover.”

The worst air attack came on September 8, 1915 when a zeppelin targeted London’s financial center. The three ton bomb –the largest deployed so far– caused heavy damage and killed 22 people, including 6 children. Public outcry was enormous, the zeppelins were now referred to as “baby killers” and the people demanded that their government do more to protect them from the menace in the air.

In response to the uproar, anti-aircraft defenses were recalled from the front lines in France, massive searchlights were installed, blackouts were instituted and the water from the lake in St. James’ park was drained so as not to direct the airships to the gates of Buckingham Palace. Additionally, British scientists were put to work developing ways to target the zeppelins’ vulnerable areas, namely the highly flammable hydrogen cells that made the ships lighter than air.

By mid-1916, the game had finally changed. British planes were able to reach higher altitudes and explosive bullets were employed to rip through the outer fabric of the death ships to ignite the hydrogen cells within. And though the Germans tried to press on with their air raids, sailing the zeppelins at higher altitudes, the crews began to suffer from the frigid temperatures and oxygen deprivation.

When the airships were brought down they were brought down in spectacular fashion. For example on September 2, 1916, the largest fleet of zeppelins ever to target London droned toward the city. One of the silver ships was caught in the searchlights and Royal Flying Corps pilot William Leefe Robinson was sent to deal with it. Robinson took his plane over 11,000 feet and drew close enough to fire his guns with the explosive bullets, ripping open the skin and igniting the hydrogen within. The massive fireball plummeted from the sky and could be seen from over 100 miles away.

With Britain’s now superior technology, the dread zeppelin was no longer the threat it once was. By the end of the war, German airships had staged more than 50 attacks on Britain, but at a heavy price with 77 of their 115 craft either shot down or disabled. And although raids on London killed nearly 700 and seriously injured almost 2,000, Germany’s goal of breaking the will of the British people was not achieved.

40 thoughts on “The Dread Zeppelin

  1. Very interesting and informative. Thank you. My auntie lived in London during the Blitz but said very little about it after the war. Virtually every night for two long years … it makes me think of the current situation in Aleppo and other places … defenseless people, women and children, so sad, so very, very sad …

    Liked by 1 person

      1. You know, I sort of feel bad being so one sided with these history posts. The Germans felt completely justified in their actions (although I don’t agree with their reasoning) Nevertheless, I might try to at least explain their point of view in one of these posts…

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      2. No I don’t think it can be justified either, but they certainly thought it was. The geopolitical wrangling that went on in the decade leading up to outbreak of hostilities is complicated. Germany felt they were being economically oppressed and/or excluded economically by the other European powers, namely France and Britain. They were a relatively new nation, having coalesced from the unification of the separate states of Bavaria, Prussia and so forth. And because they weren’t a colonial power like those two they didn’t have the depth of resources to draw on as did Britain and France. I do go on don’t I? Sorry…

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      3. It makes sense, I suppose, during the First World War. But the second? Not so much. That one is pure evil, hatred, and thirst for power. Don’t apologize, by the way. History is immensely interesting to me. So, keep the facts flowing. 😃

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      4. Yes, to the part about WW2, although historians argue that the heavy sanctions imposed by the victors against Germany after WW1 directly led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party. Of course they couldn’t know that at the time. Hindsight being 20/20 and all. I’m glad you’re interested!

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    1. I’m so glad you found it interesting. I’ve gotten sucked into the research vortex, I’m afraid. None of this stuff has anything to do with my book! 😀 But if I ever go on Jeopardy and WWI is a category, I’ll ace it!

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  2. I’ve just read a great book on WW1 fighter pilots called “No Empty Chairs”. The German bombing in the Great War definitely falls into the ‘terror bombing’ category, 20 years before Guernica (Spanish Civil War). The Zeppelins and the Gotha heavy bombers that replaced them, did comparatively little physical damage (fewer than 1500 deaths in the entire war, compared to the WW2 blitz on British cities that killed over 40,000 people). And the cost to the German war effort was high too, with most of the Zeppelin & Gotha aircraft & crews being destroyed. Much like the V weapons of WW2, they had invoked a dread of death from the skies, but ultimately achieved nothing except drawing resources away from where they would have had more impact. Even the horrific mass allied bombings of Germany in 1943-45 failed to ‘win’ the war. The only way to win a conventional war from the air is by use of atomic weapons, and even then the US had to do it twice against Japan.

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    1. Yes, I read that the Germans suspended production of sausages to divert the animal casings to use in the production of the hydrogen cells. Their people starved to put those things in the air. It took 250,000 cows to make one zeppelin. Truly staggering when you think of how little it accomplished. Thanks for the additional insights, Nick.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Meg, this is a wonderful history of the German zeppelins. So well written, and a pleasure to read. Strasser was on to something, sad but true, “Nowadays, there is no such thing as a noncombatant. Modern warfare is total warfare.” I read in the comments, “I might try to at least explain their point of view in one of these posts…” It’s part of history, and I think it would be a fascinating read if you did do that. Terrific post Meg! ~ Mia

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Mia. This war was an immensely pivotal point in history, even though it gets far less attention than its successor. German belligerence arose from their sense of being excluded on the world scene. The German story is an interesting one. I may tackle that subject soon. Thanks again for reading along!

      Liked by 1 person

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