Midnight Raiders

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

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The zeppelins still posed a threat, however, so the British decided to take the fight to their North Sea bases. The first target chosen was Tondern, near the Danish border in northern Germany. Tondern was beyond the range of Allied bombers launched from England, but the British solved the problem by taking the cruiser HMS Furious and replacing its superstructure with a deck, thus transforming the ship into an aircraft carrier.

Escorted by several smaller ships, Furious left Britain on July 18, 1918, carrying seven Sopwith Camels. At dawn the next day, the squadron led by Captain B.A. Smart took off for the German coast, 90 miles away. The attackers followed roads to the base, dove from 5,000 feet, and dropped their bombs on the huge hangar, destroying two zeppelins inside. The Tondern raid was the first successful attack ever launched from an aircraft carrier.

In August 1918, Strasser, ever the optimist, introduced yet another airship advancement. The L70 was a long-range, six-engine giant that could cross the Atlantic, drop an 8,000-pound load of bombs on New York City, and return to base without refueling. The Americans had recently joined the Allies, and Strasser hoped that such a raid would shock the Americans, knocking them out of the war. Before taking such a bold gamble, though, the commander decided to try out the L70 himself on a raid over England. He had already escaped death twice and won Germany’s Iron Cross for bravery. The high command attempted to dissuade him, but Strasser would not be turned back.

Joined by four other airships, the L70 took off on August 5, just three months before the end of the war. To improve accuracy, Strasser decided to approach the target at low altitude, drop his bombs, then ascend to maximum height and be gone before the British could react. But the accompanying airships were picked up by coastal listening posts, and a swarm of British fighters were scrambled to meet them.

One of the swift, new de Havilland DH4 two-seaters, with Major Egbert Cadbury piloting and Captain R. J. Leckie in the gunner’s seat, climbed unobserved and approached Strasser’s ship. As Cadbury made his pass, Leckie fired bursts of incendiaries from close range. Flames spread along the hull, first toward the tail, then toward the bow. In less than a minute the airship, along with its crew, plunged to the ground in a mass of burning fabric and twisting metal. Strasser met his death in the last zeppelin raid of the war, and with him perished the German Naval Airship Division.

All in all, zeppelins fared badly in World War I. Of 123 airships that the German navy and the army flew during the war, 79 were destroyed by enemy action, weather, or accidents. Forty percent of zeppelin crew members, most of them volunteers, were killed in action—exceeding the percentage of losses suffered even by the U-boat service.

And for all the drama of the zeppelin raids, they did little to influence the outcome of the war. In 57 raids on England, the airships dropped an estimated 220 tons of bombs, causing $10 million in damage, injuring 1,500 people, and killing about 600 (of the nearly 10 million killed in the war). The raids did succeed in tying down more than 20,000 British soldiers and diverting guns and military airplanes from the front. They also caused blackouts that disrupted war plant production.

But the airships’ greatest effect was probably on British morale, particularly early in the war. Even though the English came to realize the zeppelins were less of a threat than they had seemed, the raids had psychological consequences. “The scars of World War I air raids were never healed in the British mind,” wrote Hanson Baldwin, a respected military analyst for the New York Times, half a century later. “Peoples’ thoughts instinctively fly upwards,” wrote British historian Liddell Hart. The zeppelin raids and lesser known attacks by Gotha bombers had made an indelible impression in the collective mind, according to Hart. ”The tendency, whenever they think of war, is for the thought to be associated with the idea of being bombed from the air.”

At the beginning of the next European war, Luftwaffe head Hermann Göring would play on these fears, boastfully threatening in 1939, “Once again as the German zeppelins did 25 years ago, German squadrons will unleash air raid alarms over London. The German Air Force will strike at Britain with an onslaught such as has never been known in the history of the world.”

So Strasser’s vision survived, even if the technology didn’t. In the 1920s and 1930s, zeppelins were used only as passenger ships, the Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg being among the most famous. But the goal of demoralizing an enemy from the air remained the same—whether from zeppelins or buzz-bombs or B-29s—as the citizens of London, Dresden, Tokyo, and Hiroshima would find out all too soon.

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