The first raiders flew at an altitude between 3,000 and 8,000 feet—out of range of anti-aircraft guns and safe from the fragile and underpowered British fighters, like the Royal Aircraft Factory BE2c that rose to challenge them. Once over their target, the zeppelin crews dropped parachute flares to blind the gunners below, or ducked into a cloud or fog bank to hide from their pursuers.
Flying a zeppelin was more like sailing a ship than piloting an airplane. The captain stood, binoculars around his neck, with the watch officer and control surface operators in a small (seven- by nine-foot) forward gondola, also known as the command gondola, slung underneath the hull. There they maintained the ship’s altitude and course with two nautical-style steering wheels. The captain gave orders through an intercom-like speaker tube to mechanics in the engine gondolas as well as to crewmen manning the bombs and ballast or to lookouts and machine gunners atop the ship. Another pair of gondolas housed the massive diesel engines that powered the airship to speeds as high as 50 mph.
Zeppelins weren’t simply balloons filled with gas; they had a rigid frame. The inside of the 650-foot-long hull was a gargantuan cage of duralumin girders and steel wires housing up to 19 hydrogen cells. Catwalks along the skeleton allowed 16 to 20 crew members to move through the ship, and a vertical ladder gave access to the outside through the top of the hull. Those not on duty could rest in hammocks slung along a gangway inside the hull between the forward and rear gondolas.
For the zeppelin crews, exhilaration and fear went hand in hand. Recalling a 1915 bombing run over London in a magazine article published 13 years later, Lieutenant Commander Joachim Breithaupt described flying high above the darkened city as he followed the windings of the Thames River to his target: “We watched the beams of the searchlights slashing into the sky like unsheathed swords looking for our airship…. The ship rocked when a round came close and shrapnel filled the sky. How could the enemy fail to hit the huge target that was my airship? One hit from the incendiary shells and they would go up in flames with no chance of escape. No zeppelin carried parachutes, for it had been decided every extra ounce of payload would be given to bombs.”
While Breithaupt found the scene “indescribably beautiful—shrapnel bursting all around…and the flashes from the antiaircraft batteries below,” he couldn’t help remembering a sister zeppelin bursting into flames after being hit by enemy fire. As that ship fell to Earth, it was engulfed in a sickening glow for three agonizing minutes, its crew burning alive.
Nor was the destruction one-sided. Moments after he released his bombs, Breithaupt could see pools of fire and smoke on the ground below. The bombs had hit, but where? He knew aerial bombing was far from precise, and that many of his bombs would likely miss their military or industrial targets, hitting homes and innocent people instead. In fact, he learned later, the bombs had fallen on London’s theater district, where they started fires from shattered gas mains and killed a number of civilians.
When the zeppelins first appeared over English skies, the British countered by setting up listening posts and observers along the coast and on patrol ships to pick up the sound of airship engines. Anti-aircraft gun and searchlight batteries were placed around target cities. And fighter squadrons based in northern France made a series of daring raids on the few German airship bases they could reach in occupied Belgium.
The zeppelins’ Achilles’ heel was the hydrogen that gave them lift, which could easily be set ablaze by incendiary shells or even bullets. Early in the war the airships generally flew too high for Allied airplanes to reach, but luck or resourcefulness sometimes helped the defenders. On June 17, 1915, Royal Flying Corps Sub-Lieutenant Reginald Warneford spotted LZ37—one of the few zeppelins owned by Germany’s army instead of its navy—while flying his Morane-Saulnier L low near the Belgian coast. His account of what ensued is in the Imperial War Museum in London: “I arrived at close quarters with the zeppelin a few miles past Bruges, and the airship opened heavy machine gun fire, so I retreated to gain height and the airship turned and followed me. I came behind, but well above the zeppelin, and then slowed to descend on top. At 7,000 feet, I dropped my bombs, and, whilst releasing the last, there was an explosion which lifted my machine and turned it over. I went into a nose dive and regained control. Then I saw the zeppelin on the ground in flames.” Warneford received the Victoria Cross for being the first pilot to down an enemy airship.
The British raced to improve both airplanes and guns. By early 1916 they had replaced their anti-aircraft batteries with more accurate French guns, and began deploying new fighters like the de Havilland DH2 and the Sopwith Camel with ceilings matching those of the airships. More important, pursuit aircraft began firing phosphorus incendiaries, called “flaming bullets,” which caused so much grief to zeppelin crews that the Germans called them “the invention of the devil.”
The improved defenses were tested in September, when the Germans attacked with an armada of 16 airships, the largest fleet ever sent against England. The early warning system along the coast gave Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson of the Royal Flying Corps time to scramble his new single-seat BE2c fighter. It took an hour to climb to the zeppelin’s cruising altitude over London; the city was blacked out, the only illumination coming from searchlights. The higher Robinson climbed, the more numbing the cold in the open cockpit. For protection, the pilot had only his heavy flying suit and gloves.