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Medals document Zeppelin history
By Kerry Rodgers
February 14, 2017

Few weapons of World War I delivered the same shock and awe as did Zeppelin rigid airships. For many their name is synonymous with the war.


From Germany’s point of view, they were a unique weapon. They were one their enemies could not match. They allowed the Kaiser’s forces to reach into the heartlands of Britain and France far from the front lines.


For Allied soldiers they became an object of fear and loathing, a direct threat to distant loved ones. They became a symbol of all they were fighting against. In the propaganda war they were dubbed “baby killers.”


In the circumstances it is to be expected that all medals celebrating the might of the Zeppelin would be struck in Germany. It was a favorite topic for Karl Goetz as it had been before the war and would remain so post-war.


During World War I no coins or bank notes would depict a Zeppelin. That would come after the war, during the days of the Weimar Republic in general and the rise of the Third Reich in particular.


Zeppelins were developed long before the war. They were the brainchild of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, a pioneer of rigid airships. He spent over 20 years, from 1874 to 1895, working through the problems before submitting a patent in Germany in 1895. It was entitled: Lenkbares Luftfahrzug mit mehreren hintereinanderen angeordneten Tragkörpern [Dirigible aircraft having multiple, successively arranged, carrier bodies].


Within 10 years the count’s Zeppelins were being flown commercially by Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-AG, the world’s first commercial airline. Prior to World War I the company had carried over 10,000 fare-paying passengers on some 1,500 flights.


Each Zeppelin consisted of a rigid copper-aluminum alloy (duralumin) framework containing several gas cells. Initially the cells were made from rubberized cotton but in later craft goldbeater’s skin was used, i.e. the outer membrane of calves’ intestines.


Early Zeppelins had long cylindrical hulls and tapered similarly at both ends, but during World War I they followed their rivals, Schütte-Lanz Luftschiffbau, and adopted a more streamlined shape with cruciform tails.


Each was propelled by several engines mounted in dedicated gondolas attached to the outside of the structural framework. Other gondolas carried passengers and crew.


Zeppelin’s first airships were 420 feet long and 38 feet in diameter. The gas bag contained approximately 40,000 cubic feet of hydrogen in 17 gas cells.  


Some two dozen Zeppelins had been manufactured prior to the war. The German military watched with interest. They saw them as ready-made for both reconnaissance and as attack weapons. At the outbreak of the war the German army had six operational airships and the navy one.


In August 1914 Zeppelin started constructing his first M class airships. These were 100 feet longer than his original vessels and used 80,000 cubic feet of gas. Their useful load was 20,000 pounds. They were powered with three Maybach C-X engines and could reach speeds of up to 52 miles per hour. These would become the Zeppelins feared by both enemy combatants and civilians.


When war was declared the German Army explored the potential of their Zeppelins. They bombed the major cities of Liege and Antwerp in neutral Belgium. They had no specially designed aerial bombs and dropped cannon shells.


The initial results were not encouraging. Three airships were destroyed by crude by effective anti-aircraft fire. But the threat was not lost on the French and British who promptly targeted airship hangers.


Meanwhile the German navy was getting enthusiastic. It lacked a large number of light cruisers, which were traditional reconnaissance vessels. The navy viewed airships as cheaper and far less vulnerable. They quickly acquired more airships, which they used throughout 1914 for reconnaissance patrols over the North Sea and the Baltic. All told the navy would fly some 1,000 such missions in the course of the war.


However, the German Admiralty was  keen to emulate their army counterparts. They pressed the Kaiser to let them attack England. He eventually agreed and the first strike was carried out by a Zeppelin on Jan. 19, 1915. Just two civilians were killed and 16 injured, but the propaganda value was immense.


Further raids were conducted at about two a month in conjunction with the navy’s reconnaissance patrols. Once French bombers had attacked German cities the Kaiser gave the thumbs-up to bomb  London. The first such attack on the city was carried out on May 31, 1915. Seven people were killed and 35 injured. Again the German media trumpeted the success.

The most damaging raid occurred on Sept. 8, 1915 when one airship caused more than half a million pounds of destruction. However, it proved a strictly a one-time event.

 

The Germans also bombed Paris commencing on March 21, 1915, when two Zeppelins killed 23 and injured 30.  Despite Paris being much closer, London was the preferred target. The expanse of sea between Germany and England lessened the chances of an attacking Zeppelin being spotted and intercepted.

 

However, the German airships had navigational problems. Once the British adopted blackouts it became even harder to locate cities. Bomb aiming was poor and only 10 percent of the bombs dropped from Zeppelins hit any substantial target.

 

However, the psychological impact of these raids was immense and the British took 12 air squadrons from the front line and committed them to home defense.

 

Controversy

On Jan. 31, 1916, Zeppelin L-19 commanded by Kapitänleutnant Odo Löwe took part in a nine-airship raid on central and southern England. Liverpool was the ultimate goal. The L-19 ended-up attacking Burton-on-Trent and the outskirts of Birmingham where it destroyed a pub.


The airship’s engines were playing-up and she had difficulty in getting an accurate fix on her position. She was last heard from off the Netherlands following failure of three of her four engines. The neutral Dutch spotted her and opened fire as they did at any non-Dutch aircraft. The L-19 came down in the North Sea.


The next morning a British trawler, King Stephen, stumbled over the floating airship with 16 of her crew clinging to the wreck. The trawler approached and Löwe asked to be rescued. The captain of the trawler refused. He later justified his action by the fact that his nine crew were unarmed and outnumbered. He considered they would have little chance of resisting the German airmen if they attempted to hijack his vessel.


He ignored the Germans’ pleas for help and sailed away. The L-19 remained afloat for only a few hours. Upon her sinking all her crew drowned.


The King Stephen’s captain reported the encounter on his return to his home port of Grimsby. The Royal Navy made a search but found nothing. However, it turns out the captain may have deliberately given an incorrect location. He had been fishing in prohibited waters and had no wish to alert the British authorities to this fact. It may well have contributed to his decision not to take the German airmen on board.


The incident received worldwide publicity. British public opinion became sharply divided. The King Stephen’s captain was vilified in the press although some media regarded the German deaths as just retribution for their “baby killing.”


When Karl Goetz heard of the event. His immediate reaction was to produce a memorial medal to underline the British criminal behavior.

 

Retaliation

On the night of June 6, 1915, Lt. Rex Warneford of the RNAS spotted a Zeppelin returning from a bombing raid against London. He attacked it with his carbine but was driven back by the Zeppelin’s machine guns.


The airship began climbing but Warneford continued the pursuit and after two hours had reached 13,000 ft. He was now above the ship and dropped six bombs. The Zeppelin was the first destroyed by airplane. For his efforts Warneford was awarded the VC and Knight’s Cross of the Legion d’Honneur by the French. He was killed 10 days later.


Otherwise, throughout 1915 Zeppelins raided London frequently. They flew too high for most planes whose ammunition had little effect.


Back on the front lines Germany lost four Zeppelins carrying out raids during the Battle of Verdun in 1916. This put a stop to the use of airships for tactical bombing. However, in the Zeppelin factory an entire new generation of larger, more powerful airships was emerging.


In Britain the RFC took over responsibility of home defense and by mid-1916 they were flying planes armed with explosive and incendiary bullets. This mix proved deadly to airships. Explosive bullets could easily pierce a Zeppelin’s outer skin while incendiaries could ignite the hydrogen gas.


William Leefe-Robinson was the first to shoot down an airship over Britain. He did so on Sept. 2, 1916. His victim was not a Zeppelin but a wooden-framed Schutte-Lanz dirigible. But three weeks later two of the most up-to-date Zeppelins were destroyed during a raid on London.


Germany resorted to using a new generation of Zeppelins known as “Height Climbers”. They could operate at 20,000 feet, beyond the operational range of British fighters. However, the Zeppelin crews experienced breathing difficulties.


A fleet of 11 of these craft attacked Britain on Oct.19, 1917. On their return journey half were shot down. One endeavored to avoid the fighters by staying up high. This saw the gas expanding in the early morning sun forcing the craft to a record 24,000 ft. The oxygen-starved crew lost control and the ship crash landed. By this stage of the war the German authorities were rapidly losing faith in airships.


A final throw of the dice was attempted on Aug. 5, 1918, using five “Height Climbers.” It was led by Fregattenkapitän Peter Strasser who had been chief commander of German Navy Zeppelins throughout the war.


But Britain now had planes capable of operating at 20,000 feet and Strasser’s airship was shot down by a two-man fighter piloted by Egbert Cadbury, one of the chocolate family. It was the end of Zeppelins in British skies.


In total Germany’s navy dropped 792,000 pounds of bombs, the majority on the British Isles with 127,600 pounds dropped over Italy, the Baltic and the Mediterranean. German army airships expended 352,000 pounds of bombs: 96,800 pounds hit Belgium and France, 79,200 pounds England, and 176,000 pounds Russia and eastern Europe. However, the loss rate was some 40 percent with the cost of constructing airships some five times the cost of the damage they inflicted.


Though Zeppelins proved a substandard weapon they did tie up of airplane squadrons in home defense.


Following the armistice the Treaty of Versailles required Germany to hand over all its airships. Many of their crews, however, preferred to destroy them. Of the 115 Zeppelins in German hands as war’s end, 53 were destroyed and 24 damaged beyond repair.



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