Germany Launches the First Zeppelin Bombing Raids Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The use of zeppelins as bombing platforms marked the first use of strategic bombing in warfare. The purpose of the bombing was to destroy British industrial targets and affect British support for World War I by terrorizing the civilian population.

Summary of Event

When World War I broke out in 1914, airpower was still in its infancy. Airplanes, invented barely a decade before, were still unreliable and underpowered. The first significant use of airplanes was as reconnaissance platforms; they were not employed in combat. As the war progressed, aircraft technology improved dramatically, but in the early years of the war the airplane seemed destined to play only a minor role. Only one type of aircraft, the airship, seemed to hold any promise as a potential weapon. Aviation;zeppelins Zeppelins World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];air warfare Air warfare Airships [kw]Germany Launches the First Zeppelin Bombing Raids (Jan. 19, 1915) [kw]First Zeppelin Bombing Raids, Germany Launches the (Jan. 19, 1915) [kw]Zeppelin Bombing Raids, Germany Launches the First (Jan. 19, 1915) [kw]Bombing Raids, Germany Launches the First Zeppelin (Jan. 19, 1915) Aviation;zeppelins Zeppelins World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];air warfare Air warfare Airships [g]Germany;Jan. 19, 1915: Germany Launches the First Zeppelin Bombing Raids[03700] [c]Military history;Jan. 19, 1915: Germany Launches the First Zeppelin Bombing Raids[03700] [c]World War I;Jan. 19, 1915: Germany Launches the First Zeppelin Bombing Raids[03700] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan. 19, 1915: Germany Launches the First Zeppelin Bombing Raids[03700] [c]Space and aviation;Jan. 19, 1915: Germany Launches the First Zeppelin Bombing Raids[03700] Eckener, Hugo Strasser, Peter Zeppelin, Ferdinand von

Germany was the leading developer of airships, thanks to the work of Ferdinand von Zeppelin, a military officer interested in lighter-than-air craft. As a formal military observer for the Prussian army, Zeppelin saw the use of observation balloons during the American Civil War (1861-1865) and became convinced of their usefulness to the military. Balloons, however, were relatively fragile and immobile, and Zeppelin began to visualize a much more effective tool. He conceived the idea of an aircraft held aloft by gasbags filled with hydrogen, with the gasbags contained within a rigid metal frame covered with fabric to make the vessel sturdier. To solve the immobility problem, Zeppelin proposed to add engines to propel the craft, and the airship that came to be known by its inventor’s name was born. In 1900, Zeppelin completed construction of his first airship, the LZ-1, the first of many airships to follow.

The German military immediately became interested in possible uses for the new machine. Airships had long range and reasonably large cargo capacity, and the German army and navy saw their potential for playing roles in reconnaissance and logistics. The German navy, greatly outnumbered by the superior British navy, especially wanted airships as scouting craft to provide fleet reconnaissance. Zeppelin concentrated on passenger airships, however, and when World War I broke out the German army had only a handful of airships and the navy had only one.

The German navy increased its number of zeppelins, however, when the war began in earnest. Hugo Eckener, director of the Zeppelin Company’s factory, received an honorary naval commission and was put in charge of procuring airships for the navy and training their crews. Eckener worked closely with Captain Peter Strasser, who would lead the zeppelins in combat from a new airship base established at Nordholz, on the North Sea coast. Eckener, who would assume control of the Zeppelin Company after World War I, turned naval recruits into experienced aircrews, and Strasser molded these crews into effective fighting units.

The problem was that no one knew how to employ the airships and their crews. The German navy seldom went to sea, so reconnaissance missions were rare. Instead, the airships were used to observe British merchant shipping, to conduct antisubmarine patrols, and to monitor protective minefields off the German coast. From the start of the airship program, some officers proposed the idea of employing airships as bombing platforms, but this use was limited. German army airships had bombed Antwerp, Belgium, soon after the outbreak of the war, but the German emperor, William II, initially rejected the idea of bombing England, a country he admired and to which he had blood ties (he was the nephew of Queen Victoria and the cousin of the English king, George V).

As the war continued, however, the emperor’s resistance to bombing England eroded, and the German navy received permission to conduct limited bombing to test English defenses. On January 19, 1915, two German airships bombed the port of Yarmouth, on the Norfolk coast, killing four civilians. The attack became the prototype for every subsequent zeppelin raid. The airships, slow and vulnerable because of their massive volume of highly flammable hydrogen, attacked only under the cover of darkness and on moonless nights, making them difficult targets to locate.

The coastal raids continued, aided by Germany’s acquisition of new L-31-type airships. Powered by four engines that gave a top speed of sixty miles per hour, the L-31s were more than six hundred feet long and contained more than one million cubic feet of hydrogen. Protected by numerous machine guns, an L-31 could carry two tons of bombs and had sufficient range to hit any target in Great Britain. Weak British defenses aided the effectiveness of the zeppelins. The British possessed few searchlights to locate the nighttime raiders and even fewer antiaircraft guns to shoot them down. Also, zeppelins typically flew at an altitude of fifteen thousand feet, beyond the reach of early wartime airplanes.

In May, 1915, the German airship force received permission to bomb targets in London, and on May 31, an L-31 conducted a solo attack on the city. In a raid that lasted ten minutes, the craft dropped 154 small bombs, starting numerous fires, killing seven people, and injuring thirty-five. Raids against London continued through the summer of 1915, reaching a crescendo on September 8, when the most damaging raid took place. Two zeppelins targeted the Bank of London in the center of the city, and their bombs caused heavy damage and greatly demoralized the city’s population. The massive airships seemed to bomb at will, impervious to any attempts to shoot them down. Other British industrial cities were targeted as well, with the airships causing havoc everywhere they went.

The impact of the zeppelins declined by 1916, however, as the airships never fully lived up to their promise as weapons. The German navy never had enough airships to conduct a proper aerial campaign, and the zeppelins’ performance was insufficient. The airships were slow, vulnerable because of their flammable hydrogen, and unable to handle rough weather, and they did not allow for great accuracy in bombing. Moreover, after 1915 British defenses improved to the point that zeppelin raids became increasingly suicidal. More searchlights aided the British in targeting the slow-moving airships, and larger numbers of antiaircraft guns defended British cities.

The biggest threat to the airships, however, was the improving performance of airplanes. In 1915, only a single airship was brought down by an airplane, which managed to drop a light bomb on top of the airship as it descended to land near the German coast. By 1916, however, better airplanes could easily reach the same altitude as the airships, and a few machine-gun bullets were enough to turn a zeppelin into a fiery death trap. Soon, airships began falling in flames all over England, and numerous crew members died, including Strasser himself in a late-war raid. Of the approximately one hundred airships in German wartime service, thirty-seven were shot down by British and French defenses. By June, 1917, the airship raids ended as Germany turned to bombing by conventional aircraft.

Significance

The German airship raids of World War I foreshadowed the bombing of civilians that became common in World War II, when London again became a target for German bombs. The zeppelin raids also demonstrated the difficulties of strategic bombing and the resistance of a civilian population to bombing as a means of terror and intimidation. The zeppelin raids dropped nearly one million pounds of bombs on Great Britain, killing 556 people and injuring 1,913, but the bombing neither weakened British determination nor seriously hindered the British war effort. Aviation;zeppelins Zeppelins World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];air warfare Air warfare Airships

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Botting, Douglas. Dr. Eckener’s Dream Machine: The Great Zeppelin and the Dawn of Air Travel. New York: Henry Holt, 2001. Both a history of the zeppelin and a biography of Hugo Eckener. Devotes a full chapter to the role of the airship in World War I.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brooks, Peter W. Zeppelin: Rigid Airships, 1893-1940. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992. A comprehensive history of zeppelin airships from the first machines to the great passenger airships of the 1930’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duggan, John, and Henry C. Meyer. Airships in International Affairs, 1890-1940. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Economic history of the airship places the zeppelin in context with its rivals in the international market of global travel.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nielsen, Thor. The Zeppelin Story: The Life of Hugo Eckener. London: Wingate, 1955. The first major biography of Hugo Eckener, published after his death in 1954.

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