Until 1917 the principle weapon used by Germany against the British Isles during World War One was the rigid airship. Before the First World War airships had been used as commercial airline carriers and for reconnaissance vehicles by the Army, no one had considered using them as bombers. Designed by Count Ferdinand Von Zeppelin, the airships were built from a rigid cigar shaped metal structure of circular frames connected by longitudinal beams. This made them strong enough to be fitted with engines and to carry a useful payload.
There were steering fins at the rear and gondolas suspended below for the crew and engines. More crew compartments were inside the main frame as well as spaces for cargo and bags that contained the hydrogen gas for lift.
Loaded - 584kg (1,289 lb)
At the outset of the war the German High Command had high expectations of the Zeppelins but, after a number of craft were shot down during daylight raids on well defended targets, it soon became obvious that they were at a serious disadvantage due to their poor ability to sustain even minor damage; hydrogen gas is extremely flammable and can be ignited by static electricity as well as by hot bullets.
It was left to the German Naval Air Service to develop the craft's military role; using them successfully for reconnaissance to help locate enemy vessels at sea. In January 1915 the Kaiser authorised the first raid against the British Isles. On January 15th two Zeppelins of the Naval Air Service dropped over a ton of explosives around Great Yarmouth killing two, injuring sixteen and causing several thousands of pounds worth of damage. The British responded with anti-aircraft guns, a blackout, searchlights and defensive fighter patrols, but results were poor due to inexperienced crews and unsuitable technology; one tactic was to fly above a Zeppelin and drop bombs on to it!. There were a total of 20 raids during 1915 and a further 23 raids in 1916 but the British defences were becoming much more effective, forcing the Zeppelins to operate at night and above the cloud layer, where the cold affected performance, the blackout made navigation difficult and unpredictable winds tended to disperse the Zeppelin formations.
By mid 1916 Britain had introduced fighters equipped with forward firing synchronised machine guns capable of firing incendiary rounds. The number of raids dropped significantly to a total of 11 during 1917 and 1918, the last being in August 1918. A total of 80 Zeppelins were produced of which more than three quarters were destroyed due to combat or accidents.
In terms of the actual damage that they caused, the Zeppelins were a failure. However, they forced the Allies to divert a huge amount of war material and resources from the front line to participate in home defence.
After the war the Allies demanded that all German Airships be handed over as part of the war reparations. The Treaty of Versailles specifically stated that the German Air forces must be disbanded and that no Airships were to be kept.
Count Von Zeppelin died during 1917 and was succeeded by Dr. Hugo Eckener, a man who favoured a peaceful role for the Airships. After the war he continued to build airships as luxury passenger liners carrying people in comfort across the Atlantic Ocean. Amongst the most famous of these were the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg, the largest airship ever built.
The Hindenburg was filled with inflammable Hydrogen. Helium was a safe alternative but at the time it was only produced in the United States, and it was denied to Eckener because of a military embargo due to the perceived threat against world peace by the emerging German Nazi Party. On May 6th 1937, whilst landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey, the Hindenburg caught fire and became engulfed in flames in a matter of seconds killing 34 of the passengers and crew and one person on the ground. With it crashed the heyday of the Airship.
Since then there has been some limited use of smaller semi-rigid airships, but heavier than air flight has developed to the point where it is much safer and more economic.
Footage of Zeppelins from YouTube