Terror Bombers! Imperial Germany's Zeppelin Campaign over Great Britain, 1915-1918

Perhaps no other weapon of war of its age was as fear-inspiring than the Zeppelin dirigible bombers of the Imperial Germany Navy and Army during the Great War of 1914-1918. These behemoths of the sky were originally designed for reconnaissance and intelligence gathering as a tool for scouting infantry movements and for artillery ranging, becoming a potent if ultimately ineffective heavy bomber and reconnaissance "flying boats" during later period of conflict, January 1915-August 1918.

Period German postcard of a Zepplein Raid on London

The Zeppelins of Imperial Germany succeeded in spreading fear throughout England but at such a high cost that ultimately the first experiment in “terror bombing” had little influence on the course of the war between Entente and Central Powers. Regardless of their overall effectiveness, the ingenuity of zeppelin and anti-aircraft warfare seems to resonate today as one of the more intriguing portions of the Anglo-German struggle for victory.
German Development and the introduction of the 
Zeppelin airship as a weapon of war

Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin (b.1838-1917), the progenitor of zeppelin technology and the founder of the Zeppelin Company which made all of Imperial Germany’s airships before and during the Great War must be mentioned for his immense influence on aeronautics technology and on the development of aerial warfare in general. Count Zeppelin had begun to develop the first rigid, lighter-than-air ship in 1898, in the year 1900 the flight of the first LZ Zeppelin was a tremendous milestone in the history of aerial combat and its influence on world history though zeppelin technology was still fifteen years away from being a stable moderately stable means of transportation let alone sound combat-capable vessels.

German airship during the Great War

By 1911 however zeppelin technology had grown rather rapidly with the first passenger airship starting operations in the same year. The Italians had used zeppelin bombers against the Turks & Libyan tribesman in their war in Libya during 1911-1912 and throughout 1912-1913 Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz had the oversight into the formation of a German naval airship division. Count Zeppelin and others in the German military must have been somewhat impressed by the zeppelins usage both in Libya and in Germany. With the outbreak of the Great War the Zeppelin War seems almost inevitable after 1914 passes in total stalemate in the West between Anglo-French alliance and the German Empire.

Though initially hesitant, Kaiser Wilhelm II eventually assented to the German high command's demands to begin what we now know as the first major strategic bombing campaign in the history of warfare. The Imperial Germa campaign against England, more specifically London and southern England, became known colloquially as the First Blitz. The reasoning behind and the ultimate justification for the German's launching of the first zeppelin attacks in 1915 was simple in that it was believed by some (Airship commanders aside) that Germany could theoretically knock out significant military and civilian targets in England with aerial bombing and win the war.

Inside the dirigible-airship control tower

Civilian targets which had been unreachable before the zeppelin and airplane, became targets of direct military strategy and targets of opportunity. German zeppelin bombers attempted to disrupt war goods production greatly whilst severely lowering civilian morale in the process, initiating the masses to call for peace, as the Parisians had done in the face of severe German bombardment during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.

The German Imperial staff wanted to cause catastrophic mayhem and chaos that could ultimately break the stalemate in the West and give the German Empire a victory on the front especially in 1915-1917, and then as a tool of retribution in the desperate last months of 1918. Eventually raids, sorties, and other assorted mission were carried out over Paris, Belgium, the Baltic, and over Africa. The only major bombing campaigns of civilian and military targets was conducted over England.

Imperial airships were first employed over the North Atlantic against the British navy as early as October-November 1915. Airship squadrons first attacked the English east coast in purely offensive operations on 19-20 January 1915. In this action, a squadron of zeppelins "dropped numerous bombs successfully in misty weather and rain. The ships were fired on, but returned undamaged." (Report signed by the Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff, Rear-Admiral Paul Behncke.)  This action and the raids which would follow over mainland England would soon devastate life and property alike.

German Zeppelin in Combat, 1914-1915. A British publication noted in November 1914 that Zeppelins like this were the "Kaisers aerial bodyguard"and that two armed dirigibles circled above his private apartments in 1914-1915, perhaps a piece of propaganda.

While other ships raided off the coast Dutch coast that evening into the early morning hours, under the cover of night two Imperial Navy airships, L 3 and L 4, drifted over East Anglia and Great Yarmouth; dropping bombs that killed four people. The zeppelin bomber campaign had begun and a new tool of war had made its debut in the skies over South England. Admiral Behncke in a public announcement of the (relatively minor) success on the 21st January proclaimed that the Zeppelin was a "most modern air weapon, a triumph of German inventiveness-[showing] itself capable of crossing the sea and carrying the war to the soil of old England!" In a memorandum signed by the Kaiser, the German military was ordered to send Army and Navy airships in the strategic bombing of military and industrial targets, especially oil, telegraph offices, and war factories. Public monuments were to be spared as were the population centers originally. The Kaiser had urged his zeppelin bomber commanders not to attack his cousins' royal palaces in London as well.

Zeppelin Bombers & High Climbers

In 1915 alone, 47 sorties were launched against targets in England and in the North sea, with Imperial zeppelins dropping an estimated 37,000 kg or more of bombs & incendiary explosives on British cities and coastal regions alone, a small amount by more modern standards, but horrifying for the people of this era who had never known nor experienced aerial bombardment and its destructive capabilities. Of course the citizens of Europe and Asia would experience these terrors in the 1930’s and 1940’s on a much greater and costlier scale during the many campaigns and conflicts of World War II. Of the many raids on England, the October Raid of 1917 is most significant because of the eleven airships which attempted to attack Britain that night, all were High Climbers, the new breed of dirigible that could rise to 20,000 feet in the air for close to 15-22 hours. [1] They were the favorite of Imperial Naval officer and Chief of the Naval Airship Division, Fregattenkapitän Peter Strasser (b.1876-1918).

Captured German Army Zeppelin crew, Salonika 1916

Though defensively sound because no planes could intercept them at first without proper bombsights and targeting equipment the High Climbers had reached their zenith in a war that was coming rapidly being decided on the Western Front. Several of these High Climbers were even contracted to reach and bomb New York City by Imperial German Navy Korvettenkapitän Strasser who desired nothing more to than to watch London burn, as the children's poem of 1914 had cried out "Fly, Zeppelin! Fly to England, England shall be destroyed by fire!"

His long range L 70 zeppelin was allegedly designed for the single purpose of being able to cross the Atlantic to bomb America’s East Coast. In comparison to their slow and hulking predecessors the High Climbers were true leviathans of the skies, behemoths of aerial power which Strasser had total confidence in, ignoring the fact that defending airplanes could fly higher for longer and were using  incendiary bullets which could instantly destroy any airship. Had the Germans developed more of the High Climbers earlier together with Commander Strasser's burgeoning tactics the airships could have played a major role in the campaign against London. However the bomb sight technology and delivery technology needed to be successful was still 20+ years in the future, the German Zeppelin may of had a major impact on the outcome of the war.

Peter Strasser German Naval officer, and the commander of the Airship Division

The Final Raid

The final raid of the Zeppelin War on Britain took place on August 5-6, 1918 after a four month stoppage in the campaign, time in which Commander Strasser became convinced that he could successfully bomb the “heart of England” and return (virtually) unscathed, winning at least a Pyrrhic victory for the German Empire .

Leading from the front, in the zeppelins' classic “V” bomber-attack formation, the Leader of Airships Korvettenkapitän Strasser and the five other high climbers in his specially created attack squadron attempted a sortie which ended in a total strategic failure, causing no noticeable damage to the defenders and taking the life of the father of the German Naval Airship Division. Under heavy flak artillery fire none of the airships delivered their payloads on this fateful August sortie. Strasser, flying low to ensure that he hit his targets and perhaps slowed down by his much heavier bomb load, was shot down by RAF pilots Roberts Leckie and Egbert Cadbury. [2] Strasser along with the crew of his L 70 went down in an unerring inferno;  zeppelin airship crumbling to earth, as he and his crew members either were incinerated or killed jumping to their deaths as the airship exploded.

Zeppelin crew members on the lookout for intercepting planes

Though their service record proved costly in lives and material, with 79 ships destroyed out of just 123 that were deployed by the both the Army and Navy in the North Atlantic and Channel theater, airship-dirigible and zeppelin bombers still have left a lasting  legacy in regards to the history World War I if they are ultimately a sort of novel or macabre interest of the conflict. Strasser seems to be somewhat misunderstood, most often portrayed as a sort of fanatical, psychotic Anglophobe bent on the destruction England with the Zeppelin bomber.

There is no question that he was indeed a more fanatical imperialist Prussian who wanted to see London burn if Germany could not win the war, Douglas H. Robinson remarks in Commander Strasser's defense however that "[He] was one of the first naval officers to combine a knowledge of war and men with special technical skills which enabled him to get the utmost out of a complex and novel weapon. Even his faults-which led to his death-were those of strong character."

During the Zeppelin War, dirigible-airships dropped an estimated 220 tons of bombs causing what was then $10 million in damages, wounding 1,500 people, and killing around 600 British citizens, many of them women and children. [3] None of the High Climbers survived the war due to the sabotage of the fanatical Zeppelin crews who in 1919 destroyed their last flying machines rather than let the British, French, or Americans take them effectively ending the collective operational history of the combat dirigible. [4]

Period British propaganda poster celebrating the destruction 
of a "baby killing" zeppelin bomber in 1916-1917

Related Posts

[1] Stephenson, Charles Zeppelins: German Airships 1900-1940 (Osprey Publishing, 2003)
[2] Douglas H. Robinson The Zeppelin In Combat (Schiffer Military/Aviation History, PA)
[3] Robinson
[4] Robinson

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