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 3 of 5)
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.
At 12,000 feet over the Thames, Robinson spotted the distinctive shape of an airship caught in the beam of a searchlight. Before he could maneuver into range, the zeppelin saw him and disappeared into a cloud. Pushing his single-engine biplane to the limit, Robinson climbed to 14,000 feet and resumed a zigzag search pattern. At 1:30 a.m., his fuel tank nearly empty, Robinson began thinking about the dangerous night landing he faced on a fog-bound field, when the glow of explosions on the ground a few miles northeast caught his eye. It could mean only one thing: German bombs hitting their targets. The zeppelin that had dropped them couldn’t be far away, so Robinson headed straight for the explosions.
By the time he was over the area, searchlights were combing the sky and he could see anti-aircraft shells bursting below him. There, its nose sticking out of a cloud, was the cigar-shaped gasbag of SL11.
Robinson dove to gain speed. “I flew along about 800 feet below it,” he reported on his return to base, “at an angle that blocked the view of the defenders, and fired one drum from my Lewis gun without effect. I moved to one side and gave it another drum, again with no effect.” The zeppelin turned away and began climbing. The crew had seen Robinson, and machine gunners on the top of the airship and in the engine gondola soon began firing back. Tracers came his way, but they were off the mark. “By this time I was close, 500 feet or less below. I aimed underneath the rear and emptied the remaining drum.”
The sky suddenly turned bright as day, and Robinson’s airplane began to wobble and turn in a sea of incandescence. As he struggled to regain control, narrowly avoiding the fireball, the zeppelin’s metal frame broke, and the pieces plummeted to earth, while men jumped from the airship to avoid being burned alive. Robinson was so elated by his victory he fired his Very pistol and dropped a parachute flare.