German Airships at the outbreak of War 1914

By Raul Colon

“Nobody said it will be easy, but I think that this (bombing) campaign can shorter the ground war to a minimum. In fact, there’s a good enough chance that Britain’s public would rise and force its government to the negotiating table”, said a boastful Paul Behncke, Deputy Chief (Konteradmiral) of the German Imperial Navy Staff and one of the most ardent proponents for a saturated air attack on England’s capital, on a July 17th 1914 meting of the German Army High Command. The Konteradmiral’s remarks were based on his, and others high placed officers inside the armed forces, profound believe in the power of the airship.

Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin is considered by most to be the father of the dirigible. He was the first to take a powered machine to the air when Zeppelin I took off on July 2nd, 1900. Further development on lighter-than-air technology enabled the Count to built additional models, each more advance than the preceding one. Although design primarily as a commercial platform, it wasn’t long before the military began to realize the potential of the airship. In early 1909, the Army purchased two (Zeppelin I or Z.I and Z.II) units. Two additional samples were ordered in the fall. Not to be outdone, the Imperial Navy joined the fray and in 1912 ordered its first dirigible.

At the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, the Imperial German Army possessed 10 operational airships. Nine of them Zeppelins, three of them DELAG units militarized and one Schutte-Lanz. Johann Schutte and Karl Lanz entered the airship-building industry in 1909 and began selling its platforms to the armed forces, mainly the Navy, in 1911. Four of those Zeppelins were assigned to the Western Front while three others took station on Prussia’s eastern frontier. The Navy’s sole sample, L.3, was posted on western Germany (Duren).

The Army was slow at recognizing the true power projection of the Zeppelin. In the beginning of the war, Army’s airships were use more as a low-level platform supporting the infantry crossing into Holland and Belgium. Because of its relative low operational range, British and French troops deployed in the Belgium frontier were able to shoot them down with some ease. In the first five weeks of the conflict, the German army lost 3 dirigibles. Before August ended, one more airship was lost at the Battle of Tannenberg in the eastern front. That left just 4 (3 army, 1 navy) units, including one Schutte-Lanz, available for operations.

That number (4) began to increase steadily after August ended. The Navy was the first to augment its fleet two-fold. On September 1st, the service received the first of the M-class of dirigibles, the L.4. Next January, the L.10 joined the ranks. Not to be outdone on September 3rd, the army placed an order for the newer Zeppelin P-class ship. With a hull of 531 feet, a gas capacity of 1,126,00 cubic feet and the addition of a fourth engine which gave it a top operational speed of 62 mph, the P version was the most advance airship in the world. Twenty two (22) Ps were purchased. The first to be delivered was the LZ.38, which officially became operational on April 3rd 1915. The rest of the units were incorporated to the service between May and July.

With an increase fleet housing them became a top priority. Since early 1913, the navy and army began selecting locations where to build the huge sheds needed to service the airships. Places such as Nordholz and Cuxhaven, both located in northern Germany, were the first airship bases in Europe. Each of these locations was fitted to house four dirigibles. Other bases included Tondern, Hamburg, Duren and Wittmundhaven. Later on the war Namur (Belgium) and The Hague (Holland) were incorporated. The army bases were located at Düsseldorf and Spich (Germany). After August and following the invasion of the Lower Countries, the German army erected several strategically located facilities. Belgium became the center of operations for the army’s fleet. No less than five (Maubeuge, Eterbeek, Berchem Ste. Agathe, Gontrode and Evere) bases were developed with the sole purposes of attacking Britain.

With ships and bases ready to go, the process now shifted to the strategists inside Germany. With most of the airship commanders urging their superiors to unleash their platforms and bomb England, Germany Kaiser Wilhelm and his advisors, wanting to slip the Western Allies, decided to hold-off the decision until the following summer. Unfortunately for the Kaiser, events on the ground forced his hand.

Lead by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, the British struck first hitting several of the newly constructed sheds. On October 8th, the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) bombed the army complex at Düsseldorf destroying Z.IX. On the 21st of November, the RNAS attacked the main Zeppelin factory at Friedrichshafen causing server damage to the facility’s production line. A month later, on a clear Christmas Eve afternoon, the British attempted their most daring raid up to date. The target was the newly built Nordholz sheds. Although the attack failed to hit any structure, the German navy was very concern that if these types of attacks continued, England would eventually be able to destroy their nascent airship fleet before it could mount an offensive operation. Similar concerns were ushered by army officials. The pressure on the Kaiser was too much to bear and on January 15th 1915 he finally gave the go-ahead to bomb much of England. London would be spare for at leats s few more months as the Kaiser restricted attacks on the British capital.

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