Terror Bombers! German Airship Campaign Over Great Britain, 1915-1918

Perhaps no other weapon of war of its age was as fear inspiring as the dirigible airship bomber, commonly, though incorrectly called Zeppelins (this generalization denoted the maker not the name of the aircraft), of the Imperial Germany Navy and Army during the Great War of 1914-1918. These behemoths of the sky were originally designed for reconnaissance as a tool for scouting infantry movements, enemy naval vessels, and for artillery ranging. For the Germans, the dirigible airship proved a potent if ultimately ineffective alternate heavy bomber from January 1915-August 1918.

Period German postcard of a zeppelin raid on London

Introduction: German Dirigibles 1912-1915

Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin (b.1838-1917)the progenitor of early dirigible technology and the creator of the original Zeppelin lighter-than-air craft, must be mentioned for his immense influence on aeronautics technology and on the development of the dirigible airship as weapon. Count Zeppelin had begun to develop the rigid, lighter-than-air ship in 1898 and by 1900, the first LZ Zeppelin made its maiden voyage. Moving forward to 1911, airship technology had grown rather rapidly with the first passenger airship starting operations in the same year. Throughout 1912-1913, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz had oversight into the formation of a German naval airship division.

Early tests pitted two different manufacturer's airships against the other, Zeppelin, designed by Count Zeppelin's Luftschiffbau Zeppelin (LZ) and Schütte-Lanz (SL). There were some early difficulties however. L 1 was lost at sea in September of 1913 with twenty of the crew perishing and a month later L 2 was lost in a fiery hydrogen explosion which killed all twenty-eight on board. During the Italian campaign in Libya the dirigible airship was first used in combat beginning in the year 1912.

Though initially hesitant, Kaiser Wilhelm II eventually assented to the German high command's requests to begin what is now remembered as the first major strategic bombing campaign in the history of warfare. The German airship and aircraft campaign against England by both the army and navy, more specifically London and southern England, became colloquially known as the First Blitz. The ultimate justification for the initial German raids in 1915 was simple-it was believed that German aircraft could knock out significant military and civilian targets in England and win the war on the Western Front. Furthermore, Germany had previously been attacked by Entente bombers when the French bombed Freiburg in December 1914, causing significant public outcry.

German airship, possibly L 72 c.1918

Civilian targets which had been unreachable before the airship and airplane had now became targets of direct military strategy and targets of opportunity. Airship raids and scouting missions were carried out over Paris, Belgium, the Baltic, and over Africa during the war, however the only sustained bombing campaign of civilian and industrial targets by dirigible airships was conducted over Great Britain from January 1915 to August 1918. Airship squadrons attacked the English east coast in purely offensive operations on 19-20 January 1915. In the first raid, two airships dropped twenty-four bombs which killed four and injured sixteen, causing over £7,000 in damages. While other airships appeared off the 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. One of those killed was a 26 year old widow whose husband had been recently killed on the front.

LZ 38, the first zeppelin bomber to attack London on 31 May 1915

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!" The first zeppelin over London was army airship LZ 38 commanded by Hauptmann Erich Linnarz. They scored a minor victory (but a massive propaganda boost), killing seven and doing £18,596 damage on the night of 31 May. Four days later, German Navy airship L 10 bombed Kent, causing only minor damage.

England Ablaze, the Zeppelin War 1915-1917

At the start of the airship campaign in 1915, forty-seven sorties were launched against targets in southern England and in the North Sea, with German Army and Navy dirigible airships dropping an estimated 37,000 kg or more of bombs and incendiary explosives on British cities and coastal regions alone, a small amount by more modern standards, but horrifying for the civilian populace who had never known nor experienced aerial bombardment and its destructive capabilities. An undisputed leader of airship captains quickly emerged in the first chapter of the terror bombing campaign in Käpitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy (b.1883-1916). Mathy had participated in the first attempted sorties against Britain in December-January 1915. As the commanding officer of L 9 on 3 May 1915, his airship engaged four Harwich Force submarines, damaging two in a heated mid-afternoon dual off the coast of the Netherlands near the island of Terschelling. Commanding L 9, Mathy bombed Hull to great effect on 6-7 June 1915, causing significant damage in what the public came to call the "Zeppelin scourge". Terror bombers had finally come to the shores of England.

Käpitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy, the "Ace" of airship captains

Commanding L 13, Mathy's crew was responsible for nearly half a million dollars damage in London on 8-9 September 1915. Twenty-two Londoners were killed and 87 wounded in this fiery raid. The night before, German Army airships SL 2 and LZ 74 had attacked London as well. Airship raiders returned on 13-14 October, killing 71 and injuring 128. In May-June 1916, German naval airships played only a very minor role in the Battle of Jutland. Reconnaissance of the German Bight by the airship division proved however to be more valuable to the minesweeper patrols stationed there during the period from 1915-1916. 111 airships would raid England in the year 1916, including a sustained five day campaign in April.

On April Fools Day, L 22, piloted by Käp. Leut. Martin Dietrich, who would become the senior surviving airship commander by wars' end, dropped a bomb which killed over thirty soldiers of the Manchester regiment at a church in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire. 2-3 April, L 14 and L20 dropped twenty-three bombs and incendiaries on Edinburgh and Leith in Scotland, floating as low as 2,200 feet during the raid on the lightly defended city, killing eleven. One of the targets hit was Innes and Grieves distillery, destroying all of its whiskey barrels and effectively bankrupting the company. On 2 May 1916, York in Northern England was bombed by L 21 captained by Käp. Leut. Max Dietrich. The city was undefended and nine were killed and three wounded. 24-25 August, thirteen airships set out to attack southern England but intercepted radio messages caused at least six of the airships to be fired on at sea. L 31 did most of the damage in the second costliest raid on London thus far, nine were killed, forty injured, and £130,203 damage was inflicted on London, Essex, and Suffolk.

Käp. LeutMax Dietrich

Perhaps the grandest raid of the First Blitz took place on 2-3 September when sixteen airships (both navy and army), consisting of Zeppelins and Schütte-Lanz, were directed to attack London. 463 bombs were dropped in this sortie, including sixty on the city although two zeppelins were lost, including the Army airship SL 11 which was shot down with incendiary bullets by pilot Leefe Robinson, who received the Victoria Cross for his actions. The German Army airship service never again raided England and would disband by 1917. 23-24 September was another costly raid for the under-prepared British, with forty killed (thirty-seven of those in London) and 130 injured. One of the German airships, L 33, was damaged and eventually brought down in Essex where the crew was captured. Another raid over the Midlands on 31 January-1 February, inflicted 70 killed and 113 injured and occurred when the German airships mistakenly bombed several small towns including Tipton. The airship crews had believed they hit the industrial city of Liverpool but instead firebombed residential homes and small businesses.

Ultimately the successes of the 'squadron raids' on Britain came to an end following the introduction of three different types explosive rounds and a more vigilant and comprehensive air defense throughout Great Britain. In September, L 32 was shot down over Little Wigborough, Colchester. The body of the commanding officer of the vessel, Oberleutnant zur See Werner Peterson, was recovered as were the secret German naval codes in his tunic. An even greater blow was dealt to the naval airship division in October when Käp. LeutMathy's  L 31 was shot down north of London, landing in a hulking wreck at Potters Bar. Mathy's airship was one of five airships lost over Britain in 1916, including L 34, commanded by Käp. Leut. Max Dietrich, shot down on 27 November (his 47th birthday) off the coast of Hartlepool after a sortie over the town.

On 19 October 1917, eleven zeppelin airships floated high above England in a planned raid on the factories of the north and middle country. These ships had been launched from hangers (sheds) at Ahlhorn, Nordholz, Wittmund, and Tønder, the latter in what is today Southern Denmark‡. Cloud cover concealed the zeppelins as a heavy wind from the north-east blew most of them due south. In total, 275 bombs were dropped during this raid with a British loss of thirty-six killed and 55 injured. One 660 pound bomb dropped by L 45 hit Piccadiily Circus, killing seven and leaving a five foot deep, one hundred foot wide crater. Four of the airships; L 44, which was shot down over Lorraine, L 45L 49, and L 50, were all shot or brought down. L 49 was forced down in France by intercepting aircraft where the British and Americans later copied it's pilfered design. The "Silent Raid" of October 1917 is significant because it was one of the last successful large scale airship attacks on England.

L 31 crew 1916, Mathy is on the end to the far left

‡On 19 July 1918, Tønder became the site of the first successful carrier based strike in history when Sopwith Camels launched from the H.M.S. Furious successfully damaged several airship sheds, destroying L 54 and L 60 in the process.

Serving on German Airships, 1915-1917

A standard naval airship crew consisted of the following personal; the Commanding officer and Executive officer (Oberleutnant zur See), a navigator (Steuermann), the engineer who worked the back end gondola, two signalmen, two boatswains to control the rudders, two radio operators, two machinists, and one petty officer who was rated as a sail-maker. The sail-maker was vital as he managed the gas cells inside the zeppelin (for lift & descent control) and made repairs to the outer cover as well. The machinists manned the defensive guns which were nearly useless against fast moving attack aircraft like the DH.4. Additional enlisted crew members staffed the larger Height Climbers.

Navy and Army airship crews faced a variety of challenges in their service over the North Sea and England. The bitter cold, which was as a low as -10 degrees inside the control gondolas, made the crews absolutely miserable as sleep was impossible and even basic motor functions became difficult. During some flights, temperatures became so low that the alcohol froze in the airship crews' navigational instruments. Standard issue naval uniforms offered little warmth so additional leather and fur items were purchased, most likely by officers who could afford them. Some airship crewmen even stuffed their overcoats with newspaper for extra insulation from the bitter cold. Dirigible airships were always subject to the whims of the brutal North Sea weather and this made navigation of the ships extremely difficult. All of these factors added to the immense danger and unpredictability of serving on an airship.

Artist depiction of a German airship crew 1917

In this period, altitude sickness was crudely understood and the airship crews were slow to use the canned oxygen which was supplied, though it tasted horrendous and had debilitating side-effects. In one instance, an airship captain was temporarily removed of command during a raid because he became nearly catatonic due to altitude sickness. In another instance, a warrant officer making his night rounds discovered two machinists incapacitated in the starboard gondola from carbon monoxide poisoning. Smoking was only allowed in the sub-cloud car (where duty was highly sought) and evidently chocolate was one of the few comforts due to the staggering effects of high elevation.

Zeppelin crew members on the lookout for intercepting planes

Floating Leviathans: Height Climbers, 1917-1918

Height Climbers were the new class of dirigible that could rise over 20,000 feet in the air for 16-22 hours. These quiet leviathans first attacked England on the night of 16-17 March 1917, dropping 79 bombs which caused no significant damage. Additional piece meal raids were launched in May-June but the most significant sortie (from the perspective of British anti-airship defense) took place on 17 June 1917. L 42, commanded by Käp. Leut. Martin Dietrich, descended over Kent dropping bombs on the seaside town of Ramsgate. The only other airship which made the English coast in this raid, L 48, had been crippled by anti-aircraft fire before being shot down by several aircraft but credited to Lt. L.P. Watkins of No.37 Squadron. For the first and only time in World War I, there were survivors among the zeppelin crew. Three of the Germans miraculously lived through their infernal descent, including the executive officer, Oberleutnant zur See Otto Mieth, who suffered two broken legs. One minor success away from the British coast came in April 1917, when L 23 captured a Norwegian merchant vessel off the Danish coast, the only airship to ever take an enemy vessel as a prize. The last zeppelin raid of any consequence took place on 12-13 April 1918, when five zeppelins attempted to bomb Wigan, Coventry, and Birmingham.

Height Climbers L 41 & L 44 after a raid in August 1917 on their descent to Ahlhorn

L 61 was responsible for a majority of the damage in Wigan, dropping fifteen bombs which killed seven and injured twelve. L 62, commanded by Army Hauptmann Kuno Manger§, notched another notable action during this raid. Dropping two and a half tons of bombs and incendiaries but failing to hit any targets except cow pastures, L 62 fought off an intercepting F.E.2b from No.38 Squadron for half an hour before downing the plane after wounding it's pilot. Author and dirigible historian Douglas H. Robinson (b.1918-1998) relays in his voluminous book, The Zeppelin in Combat: A History of the German Naval Airship Division, 1912-1918 (1994), that this was only time in the war that an airship defeated an airplane.

§Manger had previously commanded L 14 and L 41. There is a great picture here of the L 62 crew-Hauptmann Manger sticks out like a sore thumb with his grey German Army uniform among the dark blue of his naval crew. L 62 exploded under unknown circumstances over Heligoland in the North Sea, 10 May 1918, killing Manger and his crew.

The Height Climbers quickly became the preferred craft of Naval officer and chief of the German Naval airship division, Fregattenkapitän Peter Strasser (b.1876-1918). Strasser learned airship piloting aboard the commercial dirigible Sachsen following his appointment as Chief of Airships in October 1913. Awarded the Pour le Mérite in September 1917, from December 1916 until his death in August 1918, he was styled Führer der Luftschiffe, Leader of Airships. He made his first raid on England in January 1915 and became known as a black cat to his division; any airship that Strasser flew aboard during the zeppelin campaign either ran into unfavorable winds, had mechanical issues, or heavy fog and cloud cover made bombardment futile. Strasser had flown L 42 during the first high altitude raid in March of 1917 but his airship did not reach the English coast and he dropped none of his payload during this sortie either.

Peter Strasser, Leader of Airships, 1917

Though not defensively sound, British aircraft were originally slow in their efforts intercept the quiet but massive Height Climbers. In many of the raids, German airship captains turned off some of their engines, making them nearly silent in the dark of night. With good cloud cover,  naval zeppelins were a tough target to spot. Without proper bomb sights and targeting equipment, coupled with the strains of altitude sickness on the airship crews, Height Climbers had reached their zenith by the spring of 1917. Strasser still desired nothing more to than to watch London burn as late as 1918, like the German children's poem of 1914 had cried out, "Fly, Zeppelin! Fly to England, England shall be destroyed by fire!" Disaster struck the German Naval Airship Division on 5 January 1918 when one of the sheds at Ahlhorn caught fire, killing several dozen ground crew and destroying five dirigibles.

In comparison to their predecessors, the new class of Height Climbers were equipped with seven Maybach MB IVa "altitude motor" engines and could do over 60 mph at higher altitudes. Rated to 19,700-23,000 feet, these were true leviathans of the clouds. The first built was L 70, which made it's maiden test flight 1 July 1918. Strasser had total confidence in these new machines-ignoring the fact that intercepting pilots were now better trained and their planes could fly higher and for longer. By late-1916, the British were using three different types of incendiary bullets which could destroy any airship in mere minutes. The newer class of zeppelins was designed to bomb England effectively and eventually the United States' East Coast as well. At almost 694 feet long, L 70 had seven Maybach engines and recorded an astounding trial speed of 81 mph. Besides a large catch of bombs and incendiaries, Strasser's airship was armed with Oerlikon 20mm cannons instead of the standard .303 or 8mm machine guns on the top, rear, and in the command gondola. Had the Germans built more of the Height Climbers they may have played a decisive role in the campaign against London, however the lack of any armament and the absence of advanced bomb sight technology doomed the zeppelin-airship as a reliable weapon of war.

The Final Raid: August 1918

The final raid of the terror bombing campaign over Britain took place on 5-6 August 1918 after a four month stoppage in the campaign. Strasser was still blindly convinced that he could successfully bomb the “heart of England” and return unscathed, winning at least a symbolic victory for Germany. On 5 August, a new moon night-ideal conditions for a zeppelin sortie, Strasser issued his last airship order: "ATTACK ON SOUTH OR MIDDLE LONDON ONLY-WIND MEASUREMENTS FROM GERMAN BIGHT AS REQUIRED. AFTERNOON WEATHER MAP WILL BE WIRELESSES, NIGHT MAP WILL NOT. PRESERVE CAREFUL WIRELESS DISCIPLINE. LEADER OF AIRSHIPS ABOARD L70."

German Naval Airship Zeppelin L 70

Leading from the front in a “V” bomber-attack formation, the Führer of Airships, Strasser and the five other Height Climbers in this ad-hoc 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 anti-aircraft fire none of the airships delivered their payloads on this final raid though some bombs fell close to a British schooner. Strasser was floating low and was likely slowed by his heavy payload. Robinson claims according to the interviews he conducted with Strasser's comrades in the 1950's-60's, that the airship commandant likely gave away his position over the radio with a final communique at around 9pm. Less than two hours later, Strasser perished along with all twenty-one of his crew, the last great Height Climber crumbling into the sea off Norfolk. Pilots Egbert Cadbury and Canadian gunner Robert Leckie, both of whom had shot down airships in 1916 and 1917 respectively, were the victors. None of the other zeppelins in the final flight of the Führer of Airships were shot down.

Robinson remarks in Strasser's defense 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."

Dirigible airships dropped an estimated 220 tons of bombs on England causing what was then $10 million in damages, wounding 1,500 people, and killing around 600 British citizens, many of them women and children. Though their service record proved costly in lives and material, seventy-nine airships were destroyed out of 123 that were deployed by the both the army and navy in the North Atlantic and Channel theater, dirigible airships and zeppelin bombers remain an integral study in the history of both strategic bombing and anti-aircraft defense.

Tail gun on the back of German Army LZ 90, 1916

Suggested Further Reading

The Zeppelin In Combat (Schiffer Military/Aviation History, PA) By: Douglas H. Robinson 

Zeppelin Blitz: The German Air Raids on Great Britain During the First World War By: Neil Storey

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