History of The Zeppelin. Germany’s World War I Flying Weapon. The zeppelin enjoyed brief, but brilliant, status as Germany’s preeminent weapon during World War I.
Advances in technology during World War I set the tone for 20th Century warfare. One of the most fascinating weapons was Germany’s rigid-frame dirigible, an airship that took on the name of its inventor, becoming known as the “zeppelin.”
What is a Dirigible?
A dirigible is a powered, flying craft receiving lift from a lighter-than-air gas, propelled by an engine, and using rudders to control its direction. The engine and rudders differentiate a dirigible from a balloon and enable it to be flown in any direction, independent of the prevailing winds.
Dirigibles are either rigid or non-rigid. A rigid dirigible has a solid, internal frame (usually made of aluminum alloy) to support its shape, with the gas contained in suspended compartments. A non-rigid dirigible does not have an internal frame. Its shape is maintained by the pressure of the gas. World War I zeppelins were rigid dirigibles. An example of a non-rigid dirigible is the Goodyear blimp. Rigid dirigibles can achieve higher flight speeds and can be flown during storms.
Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, The Inventor of the Rigid Dirigible
Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin (also known as Graf Zeppelin) traveled from Germany to America to serve as a Union Army military advisor during the American Civil War. He witnessed troop movements being directed from a hot air balloon tethered to the ground and was captivated by the idea of flight. He spent the rest of his life developing the rigid dirigible.
The Zeppelin Airship Company was organized in 1908 and Graf Zeppelin became a national hero in Germany. On June 22, 1910, the LZ-7 made the company’s first commercial flight, carrying 20 passengers on a 300-mile trip. Over the next four years, the Schwagen and the Victoria Louise carried a total of 5577 passengers over 21,700 miles of German countryside, making the zeppelin the first successful passenger flight system in history.
German law prohibited the sale of airships to anyone outside Germany. Inventors and manufacturers around the world attempted to mimic Zeppelin’s designs but were unable to perfect the technology soon enough to use dirigibles in World War I. Instead, the United States, Britain, and France concentrated on developing the airplane.
The Zeppelin as a Military Weapon
When war was officially declared in 1914, there were hundreds of well-trained zeppelin crewmen and a system of hangers and docks all over Germany. In addition, the craft was easily converted to military use by adding machine guns and bomb bays.
Dr. Hugo Eckener, Zeppelin’s second-in-command, was responsible for directing the transition. He was stationed at Naval Airship Division Headquarters and trained new pilots and mechanics. At the beginning of the war, Germany had thirteen zeppelins available for immediate military service and conducted early successful raids on Great Britain.
Initially, the zeppelin was considered an almost perfect weapon. It could fly easily at night. It was virtually silent upon approach as natural wind currents carried it over the English Channel without use of the engines. After releasing bombs, it could rise very quickly to a safe height and make its escape.
The only possible defense against the zeppelin was the airplane, but airplane flight was still new and very few British pilots had ever flown at night. British airplanes had no night-flying instruments, no illuminated dials and very little cockpit lighting and there were no lighted landing strips in Britain. Plus, the airplanes could not quickly attain great height compared to the speed of the zeppelin. By the time the British knew a zeppelin was there, it was too late to even chase it.
Zeppelin Raids over Great Britain
Between 1915 and 1918 there were 208 German zeppelin raids over Great Britain. During these raids, 5907 bombs were dropped, with 528 people killed and 1156 wounded. These statistics may not seem impressive by today’s standards, but it is important to consider conditions at the time to understand why the attacks were so devastating.
Until the zeppelin raids of World War I, the British people had enjoyed a sense of security within the shores of their island home. Enemies could easily be seen approaching from the sea and the strength of the British navy was an effective deterrent. With air travel so new, the threat of an attack by air in the cover of darkness had never before been experienced. The zeppelins left a major psychological impact.
Defeating the Zeppelins
Air transportation technology advanced rapidly during the course of the war. With airplanes flying faster and climbing higher, the zeppelin lost its advantages of surprise, speed, and altitude. It was left with only its two disadvantages: flammable gas (hydrogen) and enormous size (almost 800 feet long in some cases).
As the British pilots became more experienced and their aircraft more sophisticated, it became easy to down a zeppelin with only one direct hit of an incendiary bullet. The zeppelins were literally blown out of the sky.
After the military use declined, zeppelins were extremely successful for commercial flight. The Graf Zeppelin traveled constantly between Germany and South America and even made a trip around the world. However, widespread passenger use of zeppelins came to a tragic end with the infamous Hindenburg explosion on May 6, 1937. All German hydrogen craft were removed from service and the age of the zeppelin ended virtually overnight.