is the largest online archive of world war 1 photographs and texts. the Archive of World War 1 Photographs and Texts
History of World War 1 The Western Front The Russian Front Italian Front The Middle East Air Warfare War at Sea
A First World War Soldier

Prev | Next | Contents


Although Germany, as compared with France, was relatively slow to recognise the immense possibilities of aircraft, particularly dirigibles, in the military sense, once the Zeppelin had received the well-wishes of the Emperor William, Teuton activities were so pronounced as to enable the leeway to be made up within a very short while. While the Zeppelin commanded the greatest attention owing to the interesting co-operation of the German Emperor, the other types met with official and royal recognition and encouragement as already mentioned. France, which had held premier position in regard to the aerial fleet of dirigibles for so long, was completely out-classed, not only in dimensions but also in speed, as well as radius of action and strategical distribution of the aerial forces.

The German nation forged ahead at a great pace and was able to establish a distinct supremacy, at least on paper. In the light of recent events it is apparent that the German military authorities realised that the dawn of "The Day" was approaching rapidly, and that it behoved them to be as fully prepared in the air as upon the land. It was immaterial that the Zeppelin was the synonym for disaster. By standardisation its cost could be reduced while construction could be expedited. Furthermore, when the matter was regarded in its broadest aspect, the fact was appreciated that forty Zeppelins could be built at the cost of one super-Dreadnought, so that adequate allowance could be made for accidents now and then, since a Zeppelin catastrophe, no matter how complete it may be, is regarded by the Teuton as a mere incident inseparable from progressive development.

At the beginning of the year 1914 France relied upon being strengthened by a round dozen new dirigibles. Seven of these were to be of 20,000 cubic metres' capacity and possessed of a speed of 47 miles per hour. While the existing fleet was numerically strong, this strength was more apparent than real, for the simple reason that a large number of craft were in dry-dock undergoing repair or overhaul while many of the units were merely under test and could not be regarded therefore as in the effective fleet. True, there were a certain number of private craft which were liable to be commandeered when the occasion arose, but they could not be considered as decided acquisitions for the simple reason that many were purely experimental units.

Aerial vessels, like their consorts upon the water, have been divided into distinctive classes. Thus there are the aerial cruisers comprising vessels exceeding 282,000 cubic feet in capacity; scouts which include those varying between 176,600 and 282,000 cubic feet capacity; and vedettes, which take in all the small or mosquito craft. At the end of 1913, France possessed only four of the first-named craft in actual commission and thus immediately available for war, these being the Adjutant Vincenot, Adjutant Reau, Dupuy de Lome, and the Transaerien. The first three are of 197,800 cubic feet. All, however, were privately owned.

On the other hand, Germany had no fewer than ten huge vessels, ranging from 353,000 to 776,900 cubic feet capacity, three of which, the Victoria Luise, Suchard, and Hansa, though owned privately, were immediately available for war. Of these the largest was the Zeppelin naval vessel "L-1" 525 feet in length, by 50 feet diameter, of 776,900 cubic feet capacity, equipped with engines developing 510 horse-power, and with a speed of 51.8 miles per hour.

At the end of 1913 the effective aerial fleet of Germany comprised twenty large craft, so far in advance of the French aerial cruisers as to be worthy of the name bestowed upon them-- "Aerial Dreadnoughts." This merely represented the fleet available for immediate use and did not include the four gigantic Suchard-Schutte craft, each of 847,500 cubic feet, which were under construction, and which were being hurried forward to come into commission early in 1914.

But the most interesting factor, apart from the possession of such a huge fleet of dirigible air-craft, was their distribution at strategical points throughout the Empire as if in readiness for the coming combat. They were literally dotted about the country. Adequate harbouring facilities had been provided at Konigsberg, Berlin, Posen, Breslau, Kiel, Hamburg, Wilhelmshaven, Dusseldorf, Cologne, Frankfort, Metz, Mannheim, Strasburg, and other places, with elaborate headquarters, of course, at Friedrichshafen upon Lake Constance. The Zeppelin workshops, harbouring facilities, and testing grounds at the latter point had undergone complete remodelling, while tools of the latest type had been provided to facilitate the rapid construction and overhaul of the monster Zeppelin dirigibles. Nothing had been left to chance; not an item was perfunctorily completed. The whole organisation was perfect, both in equipment and operation. Each of the above stations possessed provision for an aerial Dreadnought as well as one or more aerial cruisers, in addition to scouts or vedettes.

Upon the outbreak of hostilities Germany's dirigible fleet was in a condition of complete preparedness, was better organised, and better equipped than that of any of her rivals. At the same time it constituted more of a paper than a fighting array for reasons which I will explain later. But there was another point which had escaped general observation. Standardisation of parts and the installation of the desired machinery had accomplished one greatly desired end--the construction of new craft had been accelerated. Before the war an interesting experiment was carried out to determine how speedily a vessel could be built. The result proved that a dirigible of the most powerful type could be completed within eight weeks and forthwith the various constructional establishments were brought into line so as to maintain this rate of building.

The growth of the Zeppelin, although built upon disaster, has been amazing. The craft of 1906 had a capacity of 430,000 cubic feet and a speed of 36 miles per hour. In 1911 the creator of this type launched a huge craft having a capacity of 627,000 cubic feet. In the meantime speed had likewise been augmented by the use of more powerful motors until 52 miles an hour was attained. But this by no means represented the limit. The foregoing vessels had been designed for land service purely and simply, but now the German authorities demanded similar craft for naval use, possessed of high speed and greater radius of action. Count Zeppelin rose to the occasion, and on October 7th, 1912, launched at Friedrichshafen the monster craft "L-I," 525 feet in length, 50 feet in diameter, of 776,900 cubic feet capacity, a displacement of 22 tons and equipped with three sets of motors aggregating more than 500 horse-power, and capable of imparting a speed of 52 miles per hour.

The appearance of this craft was hailed with intense delight by the German nation, while the naval department considered her to be a wonderful acquisition, especially after the searching reliability trial. In charge of Count Zeppelin and manned by a crew of 22 officers and men together with nearly three tons of fuel--the fuel capacity conveys some idea of her possible radius of action--she travelled from Friedrichshafen to Johannisthal in 32 hours. On this remarkable journey another point was established which was of far-reaching significance. The vessel was equipped with wireless telegraphy and therewith she kept in touch with the earth below throughout the journey, dropping and picking up wireless stations as she progressed with complete facility. This was a distinct achievement, inasmuch as the vessel having been constructed especially for naval operations she would be able to keep in touch with the warships below, guiding them unerringly during their movement.

The cross-country trip having proved so completely successful the authorities were induced to believe that travelling over water would be equally satisfactory. Accordingly the "L-I" was dispatched to the island of Heligoland, the intention being to participate in naval manoeuvres in order to provide some reliable data as to the value of these craft operating in conjunction with warships. But in these tests German ambition and pride received a check. The huge Zeppelin was manoeuvring over the North Sea within easy reach of Heligoland, when she was caught by one of those sudden storms peculiar to that stretch of salt water. In a moment she was stricken helpless; her motive power was overwhelmed by the blind forces of Nature. The wind caught her as it would a soap-bubble and hurled her into the sea, precipitating the most disastrous calamity in the annals of aeronautics, since not only was the ship lost, but fifteen of her crew of 22 officers and men were drowned.

The catastrophe created consternation in German aeronautical circles. A searching inquiry was held to explain the disaster, but as usual it failed to yield much material information. It is a curious circumstance, but every successive Zeppelin disaster, and their number is legion, has been attributable to a new cause. In this instance the accident was additionally disturbing, inasmuch as the ship had been flying across country continuously for about twelve months and had covered more miles than any preceding craft of her type. No scientific explanation for the disaster was forthcoming, but the commander of the vessel, who sank with his ship, had previously ventured his personal opinion that the vessel was over-loaded to meet the calls of ambition, was by no means seaworthy, and that sooner or later she would be caught by a heavy broadside wind and rendered helpless, or that she would make a headlong dive to destruction. It is a significant fact that he never had any faith in the airship, at least for sea duty, though in response to official command he carried out his duties faithfully and with a blind resignation to Fate.

Meantime, owing to the success of the "L-I" in cross-country operations, another and more powerful craft, the "L-II" had been taken in hand, and this was constructed also for naval use. While shorter than her consort, being only 487 feet over all, thisvessel had a greater beam--55 feet. This latter increase was decided because it was conceded to be an easier matter to provide for greater beam than enhanced length in the existing air-ship harbours. The "L-II" displaced 27 tons--five tons in excess of her predecessor. In this vessel many innovations were introduced, such as the provision of the passage-way connecting the cars within the hull, instead of outside the latter as had hitherto been the practice, while the three cars were placed more closely together than formerly. The motors were of an improved type, giving an aggregate output of 900 horse-power, and were divided into four separate units, housed in two engine-rooms, the front car being a replica in every detail of the navigating bridge of a warship.

This vessel was regarded as a distinct improvement upon the "L-I," although the latter could boast some great achievements. But her glory was short-lived. In the course of the Government trials, while some 900 feet aloft, the huge vessel suddenly exploded and was burned in the air, a mass of broken and twisted metal-work falling to the ground. Of the 28 officers and men, including members of the Admiralty Board who were conducting the official trials, all but one were killed outright, and the solitary exception was so terribly burned as to survive the fall for only a few hours.

The accident was remarkable and demonstrated very convincingly that although Count Zeppelin apparently had made huge strides in aerial navigation through the passage of years, yet in reality he had made no progress at all. He committed the identical error that characterised the effort of Severo Pax ten years previously, and the disaster was directly attributable to the self-same cause as that which overwhelmed the Severo airship. The gas, escaping from the balloons housed in the hull, collected in the confined passage-way communicating with the cars, came into contact with a naked light, possibly the exhaust from the motors, and instantly detonated with terrific force, blowing the airship to fragments and setting fire to all the inflammable materials.

In this airship Zeppelin committed an unpardonable blunder. He had ignored the factor of "internal safety," and had deliberately flown in the face of the official rule which had been laid down in France after the Severo disaster, which absolutely forbade the inclusion of such confined spaces as Zeppelin had incorporated. This catastrophe coming so closely as it did upon the preceding disaster to the pride of the German aerial fleet somewhat shook public confidence in these craft, while aeronautical authorities of other countries described the Zeppelin more vehemently than ever as a "mechanical monstrosity" and a "scientific curiosity."

The Zeppelin has come to be feared in a general manner, but this result is due rather to stories sedulously circulated, and which may be easily traced to Teutonic sources. Very few data of a reliable character have been allowed to filter through official circles. We have been told somewhat verbosely of what it can accomplish and of its high degree of efficiency and speed. But can credence be placed in these statements?

When Zeppelin IV made its unexpected descent at Luneville, and was promptly seized by the French authorities, the German War office evinced distinct signs of uneasiness. The reason was speedily forth coming. The captain of the craft which had been captured forgot to destroy his log and other records of data concerning the vessel which had been scientifically collected during the journey. All this information fell into the hands of the French military department, and it proved a wondrous revelation. It enabled the French to value the Zeppelin at its true worth, which was by no means comparable to the estimate based on reports skilfully circulated for the benefit of the world at large.

Recently the French military department permitted the results of their expert official examination to be made public. From close investigation of the log-book and the diagrams which had been prepared, it was found that the maximum speed attained by Zeppelin IV during this momentous flight was only 45 miles per hour! It was ascertained, moreover, that the load was 10,560 pounds, and the ascensional effort 45,100 pounds. The fuel consumption had averaged 297 pounds per hour, while the fuel tanks carried sufficient for a flight of about seven hours. The airship had attained a maximum height of about 6,230 feet, to reach which 6,600 pounds of ballast had to be discarded. Moreover, it was proved that a Zeppelin, if travelling under military conditions with full armament and ammunition aboard, could carry sufficient fuel for only ten hours at the utmost, during which, if the slightest head-wind prevailed, it could not cover more than 340 miles on the one fuel charge.

This information has certainly proved a revelation and has contributed to the indifference with which the Parisians regard a Zeppelin raid. At the outbreak of war the Zeppelin station nearest to Paris was at Metz, but to make the raid from that point the airship was forced to cover a round 500 miles. It is scarcely to be supposed that perfectly calm weather would prevail during the whole period of the flight, so that a raid would be attended by considerable risk. That this handicap was recognised in German military circles is borne out by the fact that a temporary Zeppelin hangar was established at a point considerably nearer the French capital, for the purpose of enabling a raid to be carried out with a greater possibility of success.

The capture of Zeppelin IV revealed another important fact. The critical flying height of the airship is between 3,300 and 4,000 feet. To attempt a raid at such an altitude would be to court certain disaster, inasmuch as the vessel would have to run the gauntlet of the whole of the French artillery, which it is admitted has a maximum range exceeding the flying altitude of the Zeppelin. That the above calculation is within reason is supported by the statements of Count Zeppelin himself, who has declared that his airships are useless at a height exceeding 5,000 feet. Confirmatory evidence upon this point is offered by the raid upon the British East Coast towns, when it is stated that the aircraft were manoeuvring at a height not exceeding 2,000 feet.

Prev | Next | Contents