The Zeppelin: A terror in the skies, a new kind of warfare

Welcome to another World War One blog post.  I do hope you have enjoyed reading each of our posts on the war as much as we have been writing them!  This time I bring to you a post on the mighty Zeppelin airship.  Now air combat really started during this war.  It was the war where so many new ways of killing people were invented.  The plane or airship was only a recently invented machine, yet it was turned within a few years to be a killing machine.  I bring you a quote “Thank God, men cannot as yet fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth.”  This is from Henry David Thoreau in 1861.  A few decades later and man would be laying waste to the sky.

The Zeppelin was originally invented in the latter part of the 19th century, remember it is not a plane, but an airship, the plane was supposedly invented in 1903 by the Wright Brothers (although I contest this, I leave that argument for another post).  The Zeppelins purpose was to be a passenger airship, to transport people to far away places, but as usual, the military got hold of it, and therefore we have the first ever bomber raids.  Sir Arthur Harris noted that “War is a nasty, dirty, rotten business. It’s all right for the Navy to blockade a city, to starve the inhabitants to death. But there is something wrong, not nice, about bombing that city.”  Bombing has always been a controversial topic, and the Zeppelin is technically the first machine to start bombing raids.

Germany had two airship manufacturers, the Schutte-Lanz Company, and the Zeppelin Company.  The Zeppelin Company was funnily enough led by a man named Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the world’s foremost designer of airships.  It is not surprising that the Zeppelin Company was the larger out of the two and that we call these airships Zeppelins, his legacy lived on.

So how effective was the Zeppelin in bombing?  Well the raids on Great Britain killed around 500 people during the course of the war, strategically it didn’t do a lot, it didn’t destroy a lot of industry and the way of bombing, usually by dropping bombs over the side definitely did not ensure accuracy.  London was banned from being attacked by the Kaiser himself, and all historic buildings were not to be touched.  A weird request, considering that bombing was by no means accurate and that they were at war.  Therefore the raids didn’t achieve a lot militarily, but they did have a physiological impact, it terrified the populace, they were being attacked, the war now involved them.  It brought the war home to the populace who now could feel what it was like being attacked and bombed.  It wasn’t pleasant.

So the first raid on English soil happened on the night of 19 January 1915. Two Zeppelins, L 3 and L 4, were sent from Germany intending to attack Humberside, however like most things in British history, the weather got involved and they were diverted by strong winds, the Zeppelins then dropped their bombs on Great Yarmouth, Sheringham, King’s Lynn and the surrounding villages.  Four people died in this raid, it is hard to imagine that a few decades later thousands would be killed in bomber raids.

The airships were vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire; however, the first one to be shot down by a plane was in September 1916 by pilot Leefe Robinson, whom died in 1918 to the Spanish Flu.  A Zeppelin originally could fly at a higher altitude to that of an ordinary plane such as Robinson was flying, which was a B.E.2 bi-plane.  If you Google an image of a B.E.2 you may wonder how on earth he managed to shoot down a Zeppelin with it, I honestly haven’t a clue!

The raid of 1915 on British soil was not the only circumstance of being attacked.  Scarborough was shelled by the German navy.  It has been argued that this was total war, everyone was involved and it can certainly be argued that way.  If you got one side’s morale to break they would give up, and that was what the Zeppelin was used for, creating terror and as was used as a physiological tool.

At the end of the war, the Zeppelins were handed over to the allies, as reparations for the so-called defeat of Germany.  As was the German fleet given to the British to be destroyed, the Zeppelins were soon to be handed over in 1921 and limitations were put on what the Germans could build, so that the Zeppelin industry was grounded to a halt.  The Zeppelins made a comeback towards the end of the 1920s, as passenger ships as they were originally attended for.

I did find an interesting statistic whilst looking up on these airships.  One author noted that of the 115 Zeppelins constructed by the German industry, 53 of them were destroyed and a further 24 were too damaged to be operational.  That is a huge loss, that is over half that were gone by the end of the war.  Another statistic found was that crews suffered a 40% loss rate; again this figure is very high and shows the risk that these men were put through.  Finally, the cost of constructing those 115 Zeppelins was approximately five times the cost of the damage they inflicted.  Were they even worth it, did they do sufficient damage?  The answer appears to be no.  These were never used like in the Second World War with a thousand bomber raids of cities such as Cologne.  Sir Arthur Harris said that “There are a lot of people who say that bombing cannot win the war. My reply to that is that it has never been tried. . . and we shall see. “Technically it was already tried, in WW1 with the Zeppelins, but never to the scale seen in the war to follow.  From the First World War, we see the physiological impact of bombing on a populace, and this is added to in WW2.  The Zeppelins were never going to win the war, but they started a tactic that would prove controversial in years to follow, but maybe one that actually works?  That’s an entire different question!

The Zeppelin met its end is the 1930s; I will let you the reader tell me which disaster led to its demise! I know it, my Grandfather saw it fly above him, but do you know which airship’s demise caused the end to the Zeppelin!?

2 thoughts on “The Zeppelin: A terror in the skies, a new kind of warfare

  1. Great article! Insightful quotes from Bomber Harris. And of course the disaster that ended the airship dream was the crash of the Hindenburg in ’37. How did your grandfather see it? (You’ve got to tell us now…). I look forward to hearing further thoughts on aviation (esp. the Wright brothers! 😉 ).


    1. Many Thanks for the comment, Bomber Harris never strived away from controversy, and I think his comments apply to WWI, why I put them in too :). Well done you are correct that it was the Hindenburg in 1937, it was a famous airship that travelled across Europe, whilst working in the Sheppey Docks, which once housed the British Home fleet, he saw it fly above him. Keep an eye out for more updates, I have many ideas! 🙂


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