How zeppelin bombers during World War I terrorized the British-and their own German crews.
- By Nicholas Nirgiotis
- Air & Space magazine, January 2006
NASM (SI Neg. #7A45051)
(Page 2 of 5)
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.”
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.