At the commencement of the First World War in August 1914, Germany possessed six Zeppelin airships, named after Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the pioneer of navigable airships. The Zeppelin was an airship that included the use of aluminium alloy for the latticework framework and up to sixteen gas bags filled with hydrogen contained within compartments. Germany, unlike Britain, was a firm believer in the use of airships as an aerial weapon.
However, the Zeppelin fleet did not really come into being as an offensive weapon until 1915 when the Kaiser, giving way to German public pressure, sanctioned airship raids on England. On 31 May 1915, the first bombing raid on London took place when Hauptmann Linnarz, commanding the German Navy’s LZ 38, released his bombs and killed 7 people and injured 35 more.
After the raid, the gun defences around London were strengthened. A few weeks later, four airships were sent to bomb London again but none reached the city. In fact, Zeppelin L12 lost so much gas that it fell into the North Sea and engine troubles and damage from the anti-aircraft guns forced the others to turn back. In all 68 bombs were dropped on this raid, causing little damage. The War Office realised that although on this occasion the raid had failed, the potential for inflicting severe damage on large cities and London in particular was very real. Sir Percy Scott, a highly qualified gunnery officer, was appointed to organise London’s anti-aircraft gun defences. Scott realised that guns were only part of an effective defence and pushed for night fighters. He believed that aircraft would be “the Zeppelin’s worst enemy”. At the beginning of the war it was believed that the only way to destroy a Zeppelin was to drop bombs on it. Each aircraft therefore carried two 20 pounder Hales high explosive bombs and two 16 pounder incendiaries. No one believed a Zeppelin could be brought down by gun fire.
Lieutenant Leefe Robinson, of No 39 Squadron, proved this theory wrong when on 2 September 1916 he took off from Suttons Farm, near Hornchurch and shot down with incendiary and explosive ammunition SL11, a Schütte-Lanz airship (principally of wooden structure, unlike the metal framed Zeppelins). SL11 crashed at Cuffley in Hertfordshire and Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross. A few days later, two Zeppelins came to grief; the L33 was hit by anti aircraft gun fire and by bullets from a BE 2c of No 39 Squadron flown by Second Lieutenant Alfred Brandon. The stricken ship came down in the marshland of Mersea Island where the crew destroyed its remains with flares. A second Zeppelin was destroyed by another 39 Squadron BE 2c flown by Lieutenant Fred Sowery. The wreckage fell near Billericay, Essex where it burned for almost an hour.
By 1917 the strength of the Home Defence (HD) units stood at twelve squadrons, mostly operating from airfields with at least some night flying facilities. After a three month gap, a 5 airship raid on London was launched on the night of 16/17 March 1917. The attack proved ineffective due to bad weather. The same was true for three further raids during the summer of 1917.
The final Zeppelin bombing attack on England took place on the night of 5/6 August 1918 with 5 airships taking part. Once again bad weather was a factor in the effectiveness of the raid. None crossed the English coast and L70, Germany’s newest Zeppelin, was shot down by a DH 4 off Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk.
Such was the end of the Zeppelin raids. They had proved to be ineffectual due mainly to the weather conditions rather than the defence put up against them. The results they achieved in 51 raids were 196 tons of bombs dropped, 557 people killed and 1,358 injured. However 77 airships were lost before the raids were finally abandoned by the German High Command.
TWO ZEPPELIN MODELS BEING ATTACKED BY BRITISH SCOUT AIRCRAFT CAN BE SEEN IN THE FIRST WORLD WAR EXHIBITION IN THE MUSEUM’S TANGMERE HALL