Here's What You Need To Remember: By concentrating on London, the Germans inadvertently spared much of the industrial Midlands and the North, regions vital to the war effort. It was a major tactical error, a mistake that would be repeated by Hitler’s Luftwaffe in World War II. Britain’s Royal Air Force was on the verge of defeat in 1940, its airfields bombed out, its personnel near exhaustion, when the Germans switched to attacking London and gave the RAF a welcome respite.
Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson was not a happy man, and his sour mood was made worse by the weather. It was the evening of September 2, 1916 and slate-gray clouds were producing an incessant drizzle that dampened spirits as well as uniforms. Frequent rain is a fact of life in England, but to the 21-year-old Royal Flying Corps pilot the inclement weather meant another day of stultifying boredom.
German Zeppelins Bedevil England
Robinson was stationed at Sutton’s Farm near London, where a makeshift airstrip had been carved out of somebody’s pasture. Pilots and mechanics were gathered inside a crude canvas hangar, where the smell of damp air mingled with the pungent odor of oil, to vent their feelings of frustration. German airships, popularly called “zeppelins” after their original creator, had been bombing England with impunity since 1915. Despite their best efforts, the pilots of the Royal Flying Corps had been unable to down a single raider over home territory.
The young lieutenant paced the hanger like a caged tiger, blue eyes blazing with frustrated rage. Robinson was a tall man, about six feet in height, and like many pilots he had grown a mustache to give himself a military bearing and possibly hide his youth. “Look at this bloody headline!” Robinson shouted, pointing to a dog-eared newspaper clipping with the legend “What is the Royal Flying Corps Doing?”
The Cover Of Night Made Giant Airships Almost Invisible
Civilians didn’t understand. How could they? Zeppelin raids occurred at night, when flying was at its most hazardous. Robinson’s unit, “B” Flight, 39th Squadron of the Home Defense Wing, was flying BE-2Cs, a ubiquitous biplane that was the workhorse of the Royal Flying Corps. Slow but sure, the BE-2C was a stable aircraft—but its stability was bought at the price of maneuverability. It might seem a paradox to a civilian, but giant airships were hard to spot at night. Unless caught by a searchlight beam, or betrayed by the telltale flashes of detonating bombs it just dropped, a zeppelin was almost invisible in the dark.
But night landings for airplanes were the toughest challenge. Airfields were primitive, often scarcely more than dirt tracks, and crudely lit by rows of burning gasoline buckets. In 1915 alone, 87 British planes had attempted to intercept zeppelin raiders, all in vain. Of those 87, 15 had crash-landed.
English Pilots Scramble For Night Action
Robinson went over to his airplane, a black-painted BE-2C, serial number 2093. He inspected every inch of his machine, taking particular note of the Lewis machine gun that was mounted in the front. The BE-2C was a two-seater, but a gunner/observer was not used in the interests of speed and weight. Satisfied, the young lieutenant settled down in his cot for some sleep. His repose was rudely interrupted by the noisy jingle of a telephone. Groggily picking up the receiver, Robinson heard the words “Take immediate air raid action” crackle through the earpiece. The “show” was on; somewhere in the dark, enemy zeppelins were approaching London.
It was 11:30 pm when Robinson’s flimsy machine wobbled off the cow pasture runway and ascended into the pitch-black void. Little did Robinson know, but he and his RFC comrades were going to face the greatest airship raid of World War I. No less than 16 giant airships were lumbering toward England, intent on bringing London to its knees. Could Robinson and others like him stop this aerial onslaught? Only time would tell.
“God Shall Punish England”
It was not surprising that Great Britain and Germany would find themselves on opposite sides during the war; they had been rivals since the turn of the century. Britain was the richest and most powerful nation on earth in 1900, a fact that excited the envy and admiration of rising powers like Germany. Its colonial empire was the largest in human history, encompassing one-fifth of the earth’s surface and boasting a population of 385 million.
When war came on August 4, 1914, German envy of things British turned to active hatred. Locked in a fearsome struggle with France along what later became the Western Front, Germany resented England’s alliance with its Gallic foes. Within weeks German public opinion was in favor of “punishing” England for its “transgressions,” real or imagined. “Gott Strafe England” (“God Shall Punish England”) was the national watchword, and there was no doubt, at least in German minds, that they would be the instruments of the Almighty.
English Isles Become Vulnerable From the Air
But how to attack England? It was an island, separated from the continent by a channel that, as Shakespeare put it, “served as a moat defensive to a house.” More importantly, this channel was patrolled by the powerful Royal Navy, historically the country’s first bulwark against invasion. Yet England was vulnerable from the air, and the zeppelin seemed tailor-made as an agent of aerial destruction.
Around 1914-15 conventional aircraft were still crude, almost rickety affairs, barely capable of takeoff, much less delivering any kind of significant bomb payload. Sleek and stately, capable of lifting several tons, hydrogen-filled airships seemed the future of aviation in peace as well as war. Is it any wonder, then, that German children sang a song in the autumn of 1914 that expressed the nation’s hopes as well as its aspirations? It ran, “Zeppelin, flieg, Hilf uns im Krieg, Fliege nach England, England wird abgebraunnt, Zeppelin, flieg.” (Zeppelin, fly! Help us in the war, Fly to England, England will be destroyed by fire, Zeppelin, fly!)
At the war’s outset the German armed forces were woefully ill prepared to carry out the song’s brave threat. In August 1914 the Naval Airship Division had only one zeppelin in service, while the army had six. Even that number was reduced when four of the German army’s zeppelins were brought down by enemy ground fire. In spite of public expectations it seemed the zeppelin had little future as a weapon of war. German admirals, conservative by nature, were lukewarm about airships but did concede their value for long-range reconnaissance missions at sea.
Advocating For Zeppelin Use
Into this confused situation stepped Kapitanleutnant (Lieutenant Commander) Peter Strasser, head of the Naval Airship Division since 1913. If the lifelong bachelor had a passion, it was airships, and he was a tireless advocate of their use. The army had been using zeppelins as low-level reconnaissance craft, with predictably fatal results. “Zeppelins are designed to fly high,” Strasser counseled, “operate at night or in cloud cover, and carry payloads of bombs or incendiary devices.”
Strasser’s arguments, fueled by an absolute and unwavering faith in the airship’s potential, began to bear fruit. The Fuhrer der Luftschiffe (airship leader) wore his superiors down with a barrage of reports, proposals, and conferences that hammered away resistance. Later, Strasser’s single-minded zeal would harden into fanaticism, but in the early years it served him well. Admiral Alfred von Tripitz sniffed that Strasser “was slightly mad and carried away with the idea that airships are more important than battleships.”
Zeppelin Production Ramps Up With Improved Models
While his superiors hesitated Strasser took action, building new zeppelin bases at Towdern, Hage, Seddin, and Nordholz. He also ordered new zeppelins from the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin (Zeppelin Company), the original prewar manufacturer of the giant aircraft. It was immediately recognized that the exigencies of war demanded a tougher breed of zeppelin. The Zeppelin Company met the challenge. Dr. Paul Jaray, a leading designer who was an expert in aerodynamics, helped streamline the hull to reduce drag. New construction sheds were built at the company’s headquarters at Friedrichshafen, and an assembly plant established at Postdam, near Berlin.
Strasser’s hard work and perseverance paid off. By December 1914 the new zeppelins, L-4, L-5, L-6, L-7, and L-8 had been delivered to the Naval Airship Division (the “L” designation stood for “Luftschiff”). More were to follow. The Zeppelin Company’s efforts swung into high gear, and during its peak period from 1915 to 1917, it turned out an average of two airships a month.
Zeppelins Excelled At Reconnaissance
Germany’s vaunted High Seas Fleet featured a stunning array of battleships, but relatively few destroyers or small cruisers. German military thinking of the time envisioned a decisive set-piece battle with the Royal Navy, a modern-day Trafalgar-in-reverse that would wipe away centuries of English naval supremacy. That battle never materialized, but in the meantime there was a lack of destroyers, those “eyes of the fleet,” to perform scouting missions. The Zeppelin admirably performed such reconnaissance duties. Weather permitting, the Naval Airship Division dispatched at least one zeppelin to search the North Sea for British submarines or surface vessels.