Zeppelins and Air Balloons in Air Warfare
Historians often refer to World War One as the first “total war” because it was fought on land, water and, with the invention of zeppelins and planes, in the skies as well. Although aviation technology was advancing rapidly, with some of the first airplanes invented specifically for use in the First World War, zeppelins were still one of the main types of aircraft dominating the skies. In fact, some argue that hot air balloons, despite their flimsy structure and slow momentum, played a bigger role as military tools during the war than any other airship.
From Air Balloon to Military Weapon
The first dirigible balloons were designed and created using the work and ideas of Count Ferdinand Von Zeppelin. Ferdinand was a military observer by profession, serving in both the Civil War and in the Franco Prussian war. It should come as no surprise to learn, then, that he originally developed zeppelins to be weapons and tools of war. Unlike the original hot air balloons, which were constructed with light cloth pulled over a delicate skeletal frame, rigid dirigibles had a solid aluminum structure. This allowed the zeppelins to carry heavier loads and withstand more challenging conditions.
Contrary to this vision, the first rigid airships were actually used as commercial air services for civilians. This stint as a passive mode of transportation was short-lived though, since zeppelins were very quickly acquiesced by the military once the first stirrings of war began.
Zeppelins in World War I
During the war, zeppelins played a very diverse and varied role in assisting with military strategy and methods of attack. In previous wars, tethered air balloons had been exclusively used for reconnaissance missions or transportation. Years later, with a stronger structure and heavier load capacity, the balloons could now be used for more militant purposes.
Germany, in particular, became infamous for its fleet of “terror” zeppelins, which wrecked havoc on ground-dwelling enemies and seemed almost invulnerable to attack because of their unreachable altitudes. These brutal air vessels could also travel at speeds of 90 miles per hour and were able to haul almost 5,000lbs of small bombs and machine guns.
The First Air Raids
Not surprisingly, Germany initiated the first air raid bombings with their zeppelin fleet in 1915. These attacks were carried out over the East End docks of London, killing seven people and injuring more than 50. Over the next two years, the Germans unleashed several more air raids on the towns and cities of England and France.
In 1917, the Germans reluctantly withdrew their zeppelin fleet from air warfare. By this point, aviation technology was advancing quickly, and their iron-clad airships were no longer a viable option against enemy airplanes or biplanes. Compared to the aircraft piloted by the British, Germany’s zeppelins could no longer compete as reliable bombers; to add insult to injury, the British fleet also came equipped with explosives and incendiary bullets, which could pierce and disintegrate the balloons outer shell. Coupled with the zeppelin’s poor track record and high risk operating conditions, they quickly became the less favorable airship for dropping bombs and instigating air raids.
Zeppelins for Reconnaissance
Although zeppelins had been withdrawn from most offensive missions during 1917, they still played a very important military role in World War One. In fact, between 1914 and 1918, nearly 1000 reconnaissance missions were performed in rigid-structure dirigibles. Air balloons were particularly adept at fleet observation. Their large size and light-weight structure provided the best aerial platform, with the most stamina, for enemy fleet observation.
Germany’s Terror Fleet Falls
By the end of the war, the Germans had lost more than half their crew and airships. Although, officially obsolete as bombers, zeppelins were still seen as symbols of terror and destruction by the Allies. This was so much so that even one of the German’s conditions under the Treaty of Versailles stated they must relinquish all of their dirigibles. Although, it cannot be said that zeppelins played an instrumental part in the outcome of the war, it is clear they ended the lives of many and changed the way war was experienced by both civilians and the military.