LONDON, MAY 31, 1915. The moon has set and a cold north wind brings the promise of heavy weather. It’s a night to seek shelter, yet hundreds of people made bold by curiosity have spilled into the streets or found a rooftop perch. They speak in whispers or silently gaze up into the darkness, ears cocked to pick up the distant drone of engines, which has already been reported by listening posts on the east coast of England.
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A searchlight beam pierces the sky and is instantly joined by several others, all warping into odd angles where they’re blocked by clouds. For a fleeting second, one of the beams touches the underside of a silvery, cigar-shaped object. The beam slides past, then snaps back. The rest quickly converge on the spot, their white tips locking onto the ghostly intruder.
With the airship exposed, the big guns of anti-aircraft batteries ringing London go into action. Flashes light the horizon and booming sounds shatter the silence. The response—from German Zeppelin no. LZ38, a million-cubic-foot airship under the command of Hauptmann Erich Linnarz—isn’t long in coming. The crew begins dropping 3,000 pounds of conventional and incendiary bombs, their dull thuds followed by explosions that make the ground tremble, setting fires and collapsing buildings. Shrapnel from the anti-aircraft shells rains down, pelting buildings and pedestrians and adding to the pandemonium.
The aerial assault by a lone zeppelin raider that night in 1915 was the first in a series of attacks on London, launched to crush England’s will to fight during World War I. Londoners had no doubt read newspaper accounts of earlier raids that had set nerves on edge in coastal towns, beginning with Great Yarmouth, on the Norfolk coast, on January 19, 1915. But those attacks were intended for naval bases, docks, troop camps, and factories making war goods. The London raid had a different psychological impact. Although property damage was minimal and only seven people were killed, the English now knew they could no longer count on the sea surrounding their kingdom or on their powerful navy to protect against attack. Even the heart of the empire, hundreds of miles from the frontlines, lay exposed to the horrors of war.
Well before the August 1914 beginning of combat, as both sides cranked up their military machines, the German navy had been building a fleet of large, advanced airships—referred to as zeppelins after their creator, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, a career army officer who had been advocating the use of lighter-than-air craft since the 1890s. Despite the count’s plan that the airships be used “for the observation of hostile fleets and armies but not for active participation in actual combat,” the German military routinely boasted about the zeppelins’ range and bomb-carrying capacity. To accommodate the growing fleet, Germany constructed more than a dozen large bases, mostly on the North Sea coast, each with revolving hangars so the airships could be pointed into the wind at launch.
When war finally broke out, the question was not whether but how soon Germany would unleash its new weapon on England. The emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, at first resisted aerial bombing for humanitarian reasons. But he finally agreed, with the stipulation that Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament, and royal palaces were off limits—Wilhelm was, after all, related to the British royal family.
What had helped change his mind were the heavy losses in the trenches of the Western front and the “hunger blockade” of German ports by the superior British navy. Peter Strasser, the energetic and discipline-minded commander of the Naval Airship Division, argued to his superiors that “England can be overcome by means of airships, inasmuch as the country will be deprived of the means of existence through destruction of cities, factory complexes, dockyards, harbours and railroads.” The raids, Strasser hoped, would force the British to shift troops and guns from France to protect their homeland, and would demoralize soldiers at the front when they learned their families were suffering under the fury of aerial attack.
Moonless nights were ideal for the raids, since the defenders could not spot zeppelins approaching in the darkness. Raiders lifted off from seaside bases in early afternoon, crossed the English coast at dusk, arrived over their targets around midnight, attacked, and headed for home before daybreak. Since the airships’ navigational devices were primitive, the crews relied on railroad tracks, the glow of city lights, or the soft sheen of rivers and lakes to guide them to their targets.
Weather was the wild card. Cloud cover made navigation a nightmare, and unexpected storms could damage airships or cause them to drift off course. Strasser responded by building a string of meteorological stations along the German coast. While weather predictions were generally accurate for lower altitudes, upper atmosphere forecasts were useless.
“Leaving England forty minutes after we had started the bombing,” Captain Ernst Lehmann recalled in his 1927 book The Zeppelins, “we ran into another heavy snow squall, and the wind became a hurricane. At one time it gripped the L11 and bore her straight up 3,000 feet. When she settled back again, the tail steering fins were jammed. Before we could balance the craft she again was tossed up for more than half a mile. Finally we got our ship on an even keel by shifting the crew back and forth in the gondola, and held her there until the damage was repaired.”