Midnight Raiders

How zeppelin bombers during World War I terrorized the British-and their own German crews.

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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.

The downing of SL11 boosted British morale. The citizens held celebrations and rang church bells. For the German commanders, the loss prompted an all-out effort to counter airplanes that could now match their zeppelins’ altitude. By August 1917, Strasser leapfrogged ahead of the British with redesigned “height climbers.” The new airships were 700 feet long and 10 stories high, and due to lighter materials, a reduced bomb load, and even fewer amenities for the crew, they could reach more than 20,000 feet. For protection, the zeppelins carried 10 machine guns, four tons of bombs, and a new, more accurate bombsight.

The crews of the height climbers paid a heavy price for safety, however; the higher cruising altitudes were near the limit of human endurance. Oxygen deprivation caused dizziness and nausea in the gondolas, and in remote areas of the airship, men who lost consciousness risked death. Gloves were essential—those who touched the ultra-cold metal with their bare hands would leave their skin on it.

Even by World War I standards, zeppelin duty was a miserable assignment. Otto Mieth, watch officer aboard airship L48, wrote in his memoir that at 15,000 feet, “We shivered even in our heavy clothing and we breathed with such difficulty in spite of our oxygen flasks that several members of the crew became unconscious.” As soon as the ship dropped its bombs on Harwich, 20 or 30 searchlights converged on the intruder. Guns fired from the ground, and in an instant the ship was ablaze. “I heard the man next to me say, ‘It’s all over,’ and I sprang to one of the side windows to jump out, the thought of being burned alive was so horrible,” Mieth recalled.

“At that moment the ship’s skeleton collapsed, the gondola swung over and I fell into a corner with others piling on top of me. I felt flames against my face and I wrapped my arms against my head, hoping the end would come quickly. That was the last I remember.” When the ship’s metal frame hit the ground it telescoped, breaking the fall. Mieth surmised afterward that the pile of comrades on top of him had shielded him from the flames. English soldiers heard his groans and pulled him from the wreckage—he was one of the very few men to survive the downing of a zeppelin.

Despite the losses, the raids continued. In October 1917 Strasser launched 11 height climbers in a massive attack. As they descended to a lower altitude on their return trip, half the zeppelins were destroyed by French and British fighters. Three months later five airships exploded in their hangars at Ahlhorn, Germany. Sabotage was suspected, but the cause was never established.

By this time, it was obvious even to their staunchest defenders that the airships were having little success. In late 1916 the German command had begun air assaults with twin-engine Gotha bombers, which had speed, range, and bomb loads that nearly matched the zeppelins’. In a single raid in June 1917, 23 Gothas did more damage than all the zeppelin raids combined.

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