When World War One began in 1914, aviation was very much in its infancy. Only eleven years had passed since Kitty Hawk, and while balloons had flown since 1783, powered airships were only three years older than airplanes. Key military planners on both sides of the war were not slow to appreciate the value of aviation, but until a fair amount of practical experience was accumulated, the uses to which aircraft were put were haphazard and governed as much by arbitrary decisions as by physical realities. This was certainly true of strategic bombing. The German air raids on London and its close neighbors, the first long-term strategic bombing campaign, developed in fits and starts.
In 1914, airships and airplanes were seen more as complementary manifestations of air power than as competitors. Airplanes might be faster and more maneuverable, but airships could fly much higher and remain aloft for much longer, and they could also carry a much heavier load. Major powers saw reasons to have both kinds of aircraft available, and anticipated different missions for each. Germany, Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, and Russia all began the war with a number of airships; Italy had some as well, even though a year would pass before it joined the war.
Germany had eleven airships in 1914. Strictly speaking, only ten of these were Zeppelins, for the eleventh had been built by a competing firm, Schütte-Lanz. The distinction is significant, in that Zeppelins were built with an aluminium skeleton, and the Schütte-Lanz airships had a wooden skeleton, but seen from the outside (and especially, from the ground or from a distance in the air) the difference is negligible. In practice, all German airships were known as Zeppelins.
Of these eleven, eight were built for the military and three were civilian in origin, but available for training purposes. Seven were held by the army, and only one by the navy. Naturally, these service arms had very different views on the proper role of airships. The army was keenly interested in using them in close tactical support. Not only were army airships to perform reconnaissance duties, but they were also put to a tactical bombing role as early as August 6. It was the Zeppelin’s load-bearing capacity that recommended it for this role, and the effort was successful, but the army used the Zeppelins too close to the action and several were lost. This prompted a revision in the use of Zeppelins; by September, they were being used to bomb strategic targets, such as Antwerp.
The army’s first instinct had been to use the Zeppelins as a tactical weapon; the navy was interested in their strategic value from the start. The Naval Airship Division had been led since 1913 by a vocal advocate for airship power, Korvettenkapitän (Commander) Peter Strasser. As Fregattenkapitän (Captain), he would exert a powerful influence on his superiors in the navy. These superiors argued for the bombing of strategic targets in Britain during the first weeks of the war; in this, they needed to overcome resistance on the part of the Kaiser himself.
The Kaiser was, after all, a close relative of the English royal family, and laboring under the false assumption that the war would be brief, saw no reason to inflame unnecessary ill-will, as the bombing of British cities inevitably would do. His opposition persisted for several months, and as it wavered, it did so by degrees. It was January, 1915, before he was willing to permit air attacks on British soil of any sort, and he specifically forbade attacks on London itself. This stipulation was relaxed with respect to the dockyards in February. The scope of permitted attacks on London expanded in May and again in July, with the July 20 ruling accepting the entire city as a potential target.
Once the principle of bombing targets in London became accepted, the realities of the available technology made it absurd to insist on particular boundaries where the attack would be permitted or forbidden. Precision bombing was a matter of the distant future. Airships operated at an altitude where targets could not be selected with any expectation even of a near miss. Rather, an intended target was an entire district, over which a number of bombs would be dropped in sequence, hoping that some of them would damage militarily useful activity. Even the choice of district was less than a certainty. It was easy for Zeppelins to become lost in clouds or at night, and when this happened, the bombs would be dropped at the nearest targets of opportunity. German planners could not count on any particular outcome from a single Zeppelin air raid, but at the risk of only eighteen men at a time, there was at least the chance of accomplishing at one stroke far more than any infantry squad or small boat might accomplish during the entire war.
If the attackers faced unlikely prospects on any given mission, the defenders fared much worse. Neither the airplanes nor anti-aircraft guns of early 1915 were capable of reaching Zeppelins near their natural ceiling. Furthermore, even detecting the location of the Zeppelin was problematic, for the same reasons that Zeppelins so easily became lost: cloud cover and darkness rendered the Zeppelin nearly invisible. Even without those elements, pinpointing the location of a Zeppelin could be difficult. Until aircraft and air defense guns were improved, and measures like searchlights were employed, the defenders had few effective countermeasures. The few early victories were accomplished by intercepting a Zeppelin as it descended to its airbase, or by bombing the airbase itself after the Zeppelin landed.
Back in Germany, Zeppelin production continued with improved versions. Both the army and the navy were allocated new Zeppelins, and both carried out bombing missions over London, sometimes at the same time. Joint action, however, did not occur until September, 1916. During the first months of the campaign in 1915, the Zeppelins raided with relative impunity, but then missions were largely curtailed in the height of summer when nights were short and afforded little cover. When bombing resumed in earnest later in the fall, British countermeasures led to several losses.
1916 saw increased Zeppelin activity, with 22 missions in all. On September 2, 1916, sixteen Zeppelins set out for England in a single formation, marking the first joint army/navy raid. The net effect of this raid was negligible, however, and within the next month, three new Zeppelins were lost. The army concluded that Zeppelins had outlived their usefulness, and devoted their strategic bombing energies to new heavy bomber airplanes, like the ones produced at the Gotha Flugzeugwerke.
The navy, on the other hand, continued to see a use for the Zeppelins, and so Zeppelin bombing raids continued through 1917 on a reduced level. In part, this was due to the nature of the navy’s strategic needs; a single Zeppelin could perform high-level reconnaissance for a naval formation over a lengthy period, whereas airplanes could not do the job nearly as well for nearly as long. Continuing to invest in new Zeppelins, the navy would naturally proceed with bombing missions as long as the results offered some benefit. At the same time, the navy also had a powerful partisan for Zeppelin warfare in Fregattenkapitän Peter Strasser, who was promoted to Führer der Luftschiffe (leader of airships, with a status comparable to a junior grade admiral) in November 1916.
Strasser was not free to do all that he would have liked; Admiral Reinhard Scheer attempted to exert a moderating influence when he assumed command of the High Seas Fleet. Still, Strasser’s passion and his rapport with his subordinates did much to keep the program alive until his own death. In 1918 he mustered four attacks against Britain, although none of these attacks had London for their targets. The last mission set forth on August 5, and Strasser commanded it personally. His Zeppelin, the L.70, was shot down as it neared the coast, and all hands were lost.
Taken as a whole, the Zeppelin campaign had a mixed performance. In all, 26 missions were sent against London itself, although only nine of these actually struck the city. Physical damage was limited. 181 people were killed, with a total of 557 deaths in all of the attacks on British soil. In this sense, the Zeppelins failed to accomplish very much. Certainly, they did little to undermine British morale. On the other hand, they forced the British to devote far more resources to defense than the Germans expended in the attack. Perhaps in this sense alone, they were an effective strategic weapon.
Castle, Ian. London 1914-17: The Zeppelin Menace. Osprey, 2008
Herris, Jack et al. Essential Aircraft Identification Guide: Aircraft of World War I 1914-1918. Amber, 2010
Livesey, Anthony. Great Battles of World War I. Smithmark Publishers, Inc. 1997
Treadwell, Terry C. and Alan C Wood. The First Air War: A Pictorial History 1914-1919. Barnes & Noble, 1996
© 2013. All rights reserved.