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.