Reported in Scientific American, This Week in World War I: March 27, 1915
Airships with rigid frames were developed by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin of Germany starting in the late 19th century. He had envisaged them being used in a viable business for mail delivery, fee-paying travellers and sight-seers—and also for military use.
After the Great War broke out, pleasure flights were set aside and Zeppelin fleets were co-opted for military or naval use. Any new weapon system, though, comes with questions about what it can really do in battle and whether it is useful enough to justify its expense and risk.
In this issue of Scientific American an article titled “A Personal Narrative from a German Observer” gave an excerpt from a German airship officer as told to an Austrian journalist. “Originally the idea had been to cause destruction to fortified places, but now it has also been found possible to be useful against the armies in the field.” The mission described was a reconnaissance flight by a German Zeppelin against hostile Russian forces fighting near Warsaw in Poland:
“The forts of Ivangorod lay like small four-cornered cubes round the fortress; we turned away from them. The heights of Radom were crowded with soldiers. It was obvious that the Russians were in strong force and were prepared to receive the enemy.”
The Zeppelin flew at about 6,000 feet, within range of rifle and machine-gun fire. Yet before the advent of proper anti-aircraft artillery and incendiary bullets, small-caliber projectiles could do very little damage to the hydrogen-filled Zeppelins. As the ship was returning home:
“Then, again, right under my feet, the bullets hit but recoiled harmlessly from the metal covering of the gondola. Then a bullet went by my ear, into the outer covering of the balloon which hung over our heads like a gigantic silver roof , bored a tiny hole in it, ripped a strip of the inner lining, and lost itself in the hydrogen .... Bullet now followed fast on bullet; we counted twenty-five hits, twenty-five holes through which the gas escaped, also the shells came nearer, a splinter fell in our gondola like a stone. A telegraph message came from the front gondola, ‘Full speed!’ All four motors drove. Then came the order to patch what needed patching. Swinging between heaven and earth we repaired what was possible to repair.”
Because of their ability to “sail over the lines and fortresses of the enemy” while dropping bombs from a height of about 7,000 feet, Zeppelins began strategic bombing of civilian towns in England in early 1915. The map shows the route of attack of one of these raids. A dispassionate assessment of these raids, however, reveals that in comparison with the huge losses in the trenches in France, few bombs were dropped and few people were killed. The most significant achievement for the Germans was to terrorize the inhabitants of any town that could become a Zeppelin target—which was most of southeast England. And there was little the Allied governments or military could do to prevent such raids: in the years before radar and incendiary bullets, it was difficult for slow-flying aircraft to find (usually at night) and destroy Zeppelins, which lent them an aura of menacing invincibility. Both the Germans and the Allied populations seemed to believe in the powers of the Zeppelin in the opening months of the war:
“As to its effect on towns, we know a great deal from actual witnesses in the bombarded towns. Liège, Namur, and Antwerp were the first towns to make acquaintance with the fear of the air, and undoubtedly the moral impression of these visits hastened the surrender of all these towns.”
Perhaps the early successes bred overconfidence by the German leadership in what terror bombing could achieve. In late 1915, incendiary bullets were deployed by the Allies—very useful against a large, slow, hydrogen-filled bag—and a more efficient organization of home defense put more Zeppelins within range of the guns of faster defensive fighters. And certainly in Britain, the government decided to capitalize on the civilian casualties as a propaganda tool. By 1916 most Zeppelins were withdrawn from use.
Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918 on zeppelins and aerial warfare. It is available for purchase at www.ScientificAmerican.com/wwi