the airships

The dream of floating fortresses that could rain devastation on the enemy was tested in World War One. The reality proved to be very different. The German Air Command's plan for the conquest of Britain failed to achieve it's intended goal. The promise of the Airship's potential was an empty one

Photograph of a German Zeppelin taken in 1916.

Italian Dirigible tipo M was powered by Fiat S76 A Engine.

Italian Forlanini Airship powered by Isotta Fraschini V5 Engine .

The First Zeppelin Kill

Zeppelin LZ 37
Country: Germany
Length: 521 feet
Volume: 935,000 cubic feet
Lifting Gas: hydrogen
Armament: four machine guns

On June 17, 1915, Lt. R.A.J. Warneford of the RNAF was flying toward Ostend. I was his first night flight, and he was going to bomb theZeppelin sheds at Evere. He spotted a large cigar-shaped object in the clouds. As he drew nearer he saw that it was the German Zeppelin LZ 37.

Warneford's Morane Saulnier L only carried a few bombs and a carbine. The Zeppelin continued to fire at him as it's crew dumped ballast. The LZ 37 rose rapidly higher into the sky. Warneford struggled to gain altitude. Warneford pursued the Zeppelin into the early morning.

Suddenly the Zeppelin nosed down and began to lose altitude. Warneford pushed his plane until he was over the zeppelin and released his bombs. After a few moments, there was a tremendous explosion, and the Zeppelin LZ 37 fell to the earth engulfed in flames. Lt. Warneford was the first Allied flier to bring down a Zeppelin.

View from a German Zeppelin

the birth of strategic bombing


The Birth of Strategic Bombing was in WWI when German Zeppelins began raiding London from bases in occupied Belgium. Small attacks against England were carried out early in the war, but by October 1915, "squadron-size" raids by numerous Zeppelins had begun, always at night and in the dark of the moon. Early in September 1916, a British fighter shot down an airship, and three weeks later, two Zeppelins attempting to attack London were also destroyed. Although Zeppelin performance was gradually improved, so were British balloons, and improved anti-aircraft defences and heavy losses continued. After a disastrous raid on August 5, 1918, the Germans practically discontinued Zeppelin warfare. There were 159 Zeppelin attacks against England in WWI, resulting in the death of 557 people, primarily civilians, and damages of $7,500,000.

The L33 Raid: A game changer
June 21st, 2009
Raul Colon

During the afternoon of September 23rd 1916, one of the Ďnext generationí super-Zeppelins, L33, took to the air for its first operational mission: the bombing of downtown London. Just a few months before, L33 was on the ground, getting its final fittings and adjustments. The L33 was truly a remarkable piece of engineering. She was 649í long, with a 78 feet diameter and with a total gas capacity of 1,949,000 cubic feet. Six powerful Maybach 240hp Hslu engines gave the lumbering giant a top speed of 59 mph at a maximum operational ceiling of 13,500 feet. Beside its sheer size, what separated the L33 from its predecessor was its bomb load capacity. An impressive five tons of ordinance could be carried.

On that fateful afternoon, L33 was accompanied by ten additional super-Zeppelins of the Imperial German Navy. The mission called for the eleven to reach the British coastline at the same time. After which, each craft would take off to its pre-designed target area. Eight Zeppelins were assigned to strike targets around the Wash. The remaining three units were to hit the British capital. Taking part in the London raid was L31 under the command of Heinrich Mathy, L32, lead by the enigmatic Werner Peterson and the L33, controlled by Alois Bocker.

L33, which departed Nordholz, was fitted with almost three tons of free fall bombs. At approximately ten oíclock GMT, L33 flew over Britainís coast. The huge dirigible was spotted by some local boys near Thames Estuary. From the Estuary, it moved on towards the north east in order to avoid the heavy saturated British defences in the east. At the same time, L31 and L32 were crossing the coast heading towards Dungeness, a path seldom explored by German and British planners.

At 11:48 pm, Bocker ordered L33ís bombs to be dropped. Six high explosive bombs landed on Hornchurch. Twenty minutes later, the L33 was seen passing West Ham by a couple of street policemen. They promptly alerted the authorities. Searchlights blanketed the pass between Ham and London. After five intensive minutes of searching, no Zeppelin was spotted, thus, the search was called off, for the time being.

A little over 12:05 in the morning, Londonís powerful searchlights were turned on. The spotters must have seen the  sight of the German slow moving dirigible, because an intense ground attack commenced short after. Bockerís airship was cruising at 12,000 feet following the Hamís banks when fire erupted. Despite it all, he and his crew kept up L33ís attack all the way up to Bromley-by-Bow, where the gas giant dropped its main ordinance. One 100kg bomb and five small, incendiary bomblets landed on St. Leonardís and Empress Streets.

Four urban houses were damaged and six people were killed on this early stage of the raid. L33 went on to deliver several more bombs in and around Bow. But by this time, the airship was shadowed by British defences. Low trajectory shells began to find its mark. Several fragments of high detonation shells exploded only a few feet away from the shipís skin puncturing one gas cell. Now the big air platform was in trouble. It began losing altitude fast. At 12:20 am, L33 was seen crossing Buckhurts Hill, leaking gas. Besieged by heavy ground fire, and declining altitude, Bocker decided to dump water from the shipís ballast tanks, which caused the L33 to regain some of the height it had lost but the damage was done.

Near Kelvedon Common, a new and more ominous threat arrived: a British pursuit airplane. Second Lieutenant Alfred de Bathe Brandon was ready for the opportunity to engage the German ship. He had gained valuable experience in March 1916, when he almost single-handedly severely damaged L15. Brandon met L33 head on, emptying his Lewis gun, fifty explosive incendiary bullets, into the airshipís stern section. He swung around and hit the stern again, but his gun jammed forcing him to call off the engagement. L33 escaped, at least for the moment.

It was now 12:45 and the dirigible was passing by Chelmsford, still losing precious high. In an attempt to stem the descent, all non-essential materials aboard were jettisoned. Twenty five minutes after, at 1:10, Bockerís ship passed over the Essex coastal area near Mersea Island. Its destination was the security of the Belgium skies. Unfortunately for Bocker and his crew, L33 was doomed. The Zeppelin was almost out of gas, losing altitude fast and its structure was compromised. It would go down and the only question for Bocker was where.

A crash landing at sea, at that hour, was deemed too risky. Better off, the commander thought, made a semi-controlled decent in British territory, then deal with the imprisonment issue. Immediately, the ship began to turnaround, now headed back to Essex. She managed to return to the coast. Two and a half miles inland, at 1:20am, L33 went down on a desert field near Peldon and Little Wigboroug church. The crew managed to escape before the gas giant was engulfed in a fire storm.

Soon after the fire died down, and with the metal frame still standing, Bocker ordered his men to climb back into what was left of the super-Zeppelin to destroy any classified material. Despite their best efforts, the British still were able to gather many essential documents and systems out of the wreck. Data that would be later incorporated on the R33 platform.

When the crew saw the first police cars arriving on the field, they promptly left the area. But the trip back to the coast was short lived. Specialist, Edgar Nicholas, apprehended the entire crew without even firing a shot.

The crew of L33 was questioned extensively by British military and scientific personnel. Even psychologists were brought in to exanimate the men mental profile. Such was the depth of the debriefing phase. As for the dirigibleís debris, they were studied by engineers for days. After authorities were satisfied that every drop of information was collected, the shipís frame was burned to the ground.

In the final analysis, the end of L33 did not alter the rate of Zeppelin attacks, but what it did was to enforce a view held by many German commanders, Zeppelins alone would not defeat Great Britain. A new weapon was needed. One year later, that weapon would make its present felt.

World War I, HP Willmott, Covent Gardens Books 2003
The First World War, Hew Strachan, Penguin Books 2003
The Encyclopedia of Military Aircraft, Robert Jackson, Parragon Publishing Book 2002