A Time to Remember: Zeppelins and the Birth of Modern Warfare

holly-fisher-1BY HOLLY FISHER
Staff  Writer, UAS Whalesong

The London Blitz is a very recognizable term. The ongoing bombing raids of WWII scarred their way into the collective memories of all English people. Though the sandbag lined Underground entrances and blacked out Big Ben silhouette are iconic images of World War II, the idea for such raids was not a new strategy. London’s history as a prime aerial target began long before the first Luftwaffe planes appeared on the horizon.

As one of the main Allied combatants, England ran the risk of being a prime target from the beginning of World War I. But it’s position as an island nation with a notoriously dangerous channel between it and the mainland, gave it something of an advantage. Traditionally all threats came from the sea, so the British military forces had built up notable costal defenses. They were prepared to handle any incursions from the Imperial German Navy, but military airpower, and the concept of long-running bombing campaigns was not a known concept yet. 

In 1914, Zeppelins had been in service as pleasure crafts, so called “ocean liners of the sky”, for four years. Germany took only nine months to retrofit the large floating crafts into bombers fit for missions across the Channel. In retrospect, their highly flammable multi-gas-bag design seems like a poor choice for a warzone. However, the large crafts, with their ability to shut off engines and glide silently at high altitudes, proved very effective.

German high command saw this new strategy as a way to demoralize the British people, and to cause havoc within the enemy military as they scrambled for a way to meet the threat. It was even suggested that it could be enough to take England out of the War entirely. After much skepticism against the new technique, Kaiser Wilhelm gave his approval for the Zeppelin raids on Jan. 10, 1915.

The first official attack on London took place well after dark on May 31, 1915. While a few outlying areas of England had been bombed by smaller planes, no one in the city had any reason to suspect an attack in their own streets. The crew cut the engines and glided in, using the reflected light from the Thames to stay on course. When the moment was right, roughly 120 bombs and grenades rained across London, causing panic to erupt at the unexpected assault. The actual damage from the run was relatively light, with only seven deaths and thirty-five injuries. Most structural damage came from fires set off by incendiary rounds.

Zeppelin raids continued all but unhindered for almost two years, as British home defense struggled to catch up. Airplanes could not reach the same heights as the lighter-than-air craft, a fact that also made machine guns useless. The cost in injuries and deaths grew, though in comparison to airplane attacks the damage remained light. Sadly, one of the groups most injured by the airship attacks were children. The first death caused by the May 31 raid was of a three-year-old girl, and many more young children were wounded or killed in subsequent attacks, earning the airships the nickname ‘Baby Killers”.

At the time of the first attack, London was under the guard of the Admiralty, while the Royal Flying Corp had gone across to the warzone. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill had to defend the city with less than twenty guns and a handful of small aircraft. In an effort to boost defenses and protect the people, street and house lighting was dimmed or cut, and spotlights and observers were stationed to watch for raiders. The lake at St. James Park was drained to prevent attackers from using its reflection to orient on Buckingham Palace, and a detachment of the RFC was sent back to the city from the Western Front. After over a year of subpar defenses, the incendiary round was introduced in late 1916. Coupled with advanced fighter plane designs that allowed for higher altitude flying, these proved especially effective at igniting the gas-bags within balloons. During a sixteen-Zeppelin attack on Sept. 2, 1916, this new combination proved devastating to the German fleet. 77 German airships were destroyed or permanently damaged by British forces over the rest of the war. Germany’s advantage had been lost.

The roughly 2,700 deaths and injuries made a bleakly clear statement about the nature of modern warfare. The idea of “non-combative” was now defunct. The deliberate targeting of civilian population centers wiped away the old concept of war being fought solely on the battlefield.

These raids would have long-reaching consequences for both of the major powers involved. Germany learned a great deal about what it took to attack the great old city, what did and did not work, and where the weak points might be in the British defense designs. Communication systems, blackouts, spotters, and anti-aircraft weapons were the English lessons learned.

These would prove invaluable on both sides twenty years later, when the same techniques would be called back into service at the beginning of the London Blitz.

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