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THE MILITARY VALUE OF GERMANY'S AIRFORCE
Although the Zeppelin undoubtedly has been over-rated by the forces to which it is attached, at the same time it must not be under-estimated by its detractors. Larger and more powerful vessels of this type have been, and still are being, constructed, culminating, so far as is known, in the "L-5," which is stated to have a capacity of about 1,000,000 cubic feet, and to possess an average speed of 65 miles per hour.
While it is generally maintained that the Zeppelins will prove formidable in attack, greater reliance is being placed upon the demoralising or terrifying effect which they are able to exercise. Owing to the fact that from 3 to 5 tons of fuel--say 900 to 1,500 gallons of gasoline or petrol--can be carried aboard, giving them a wide radius of action, it is doubtful whether they could travel from Cologne to London and back upon a single fuel charge, since such a raid would entail a journey of about 600 miles. The latest types of this craft are said to possess a high ascensional speed, which offers a distinct protection against aeroplane attack. According to such official information as has been vouchsafed, a Zeppelin, when hard pressed, is able to rise vertically 3,500 feet in about three minutes. This is far in excess of the ascensional speed of even the speediest aeroplane. of course, the penalty for such a factor has to be paid: the loss of gas is appreciable and may lead to the craft's ultimate undoing. At the same time, however, it is able to maintain the superior position as compared with the aeroplane for a considerable period: the upper reaches of the air are its sanctuary.
Nor must the nocturnal activities of the Zeppelin be overlooked. So far as night operations by these vessels are concerned, little has leaked out, so that the possibilities of the airship in this direction are still somewhat hypothetical. The fact remains, however, that it is night movements which perhaps are the most to be dreaded by the enemy. According to official German sources of information the latest types of Zeppelins are engined by "noiseless" motors. There is nothing remarkable in this feature, since the modern motor-car virtually answers to this description, although in this instance quietness is obtained for the most part by recourse to the sleeve-valve engine. Still, the ordinary Otto-cycle internal combustion engine can be rendered almost silent by the utilisation of adequate muffling devices, which, in the Zeppelin, are more possible of incorporation than in the aeroplane, because the extra weight imposed by this acquisition is a minor consideration in comparison with the lifting power of the vessel.
Night operations, however, have not proved eminently successful. The very darkness which protects the aerial prowler also serves a similar purpose in connection with its prey. But aerial operations under the cover of darkness are guided not so much by the glare of lights from below as betrayal by sound. The difference between villages and cities may be distinguished from aloft, say at 1,500 to 3,000 feet, by the hum which life and movement emit, and this is the best guide to the aerial scout or battleship. The German authorities have made a special study of this peculiar problem, and have conducted innumerable tests upon the darkest nights, when even the sheen of the moon has been unavailable, for the express purpose of training the aerial navigators to discover their position from the different sounds reaching them from below. In other words, the corsair in the skies depends more upon compass and sound than upon compass and vision when operating after dark. The searchlights with which the Zeppelins are equipped are provided merely for illuminating a supposed position. They are not brought into service until the navigator concludes that he has arrived above the desired point: the ray of light which is then projected is merely to assist the crew in the discharge of the missiles of destruction.
The Zeppelin, however, owing to its speed, both in the horizontal and vertical planes, is essentially a unit for daylight operations. The other airships which Germany possesses, and which for the most part are of the non-rigid type, are condemned to daylight operations from the character of their design. Owing to their low speeds they may be dismissed as impossible aerial vessels for hazardous work and are not regarded by the German authorities as all-round airships of war.
Craft of the air are judged in Germany from the one standard only. This may be a Teutonic failing, but it is quite in keeping with the Teutonic spirit of militarism. Commercialism is a secondary factor. To the German Emperor an airship is much what a new manufacturing process or machine is to the American. Whereas the latter asks, "How much will it save me on the dollar?" to the War Lord of Germany--and an airship notwithstanding its other recommendatory features is judged solely from this standpoint--the question is "What are its military qualifications?"
When the semi-rigid airship "V-I" was brought before the notice of the German military department the pressing point concerning its military recommendations arose at once. The inventor had foreseen this issue and was optimistic. Thereupon the authorities asked if the inventor were prepared to justify his claims. The retort was positive. Forthwith the Junkers decided to submit it to the test.
This ship is of quite a distinctive type. It is an aerial cruiser, and the inventor claims that it combines all the essential qualifications of the Zeppelin and of the competitors of the latter, in addition to the advantage of being capable of dissection, transportation in parts, and rapid re-erection at any desired spot. The length of the vessel is about 270 feet; maximum diameter approximately 42 feet, and capacity about 300,000 cubic feet. The outstanding feature is a rigid keel-frame forming a covered passage way below the envelope or gas-bag, combined with easy access to all parts of the craft while under way, together with an artificial stiffening which dispenses with the necessity of attaching any additional cars. The frame is so designed that the load, as well as the ballast and fuel tanks, may be distributed as desired, and at the same time it ensures an advantageous disposition of the steering mechanism, far removed from the centre of rotation at the stern, without any overloading of the latter.
The lifting part of the airship comprises a single gas bag fitted with two ballonets provided to ensure the requisite gas-tension in the main envelope, while at the same time permitting, in times of emergency, a rapid change of altitude. Self-contained blowers contribute to the preservation of the shape of the envelope, the blowers and the ballonets being under the control of the pilot. Planes resembling Venetian blinds facilitate vertical steering, while the suspension of the keel is carried out in such a manner as to secure uniformity of weight upon the gas bag. The propelling power comprises two sets of internal combustion engines, each developing 130 horse-power, the transmission being through rubber belting. The propellers, built of wood, make 350 revolutions per minute, and are set as closely as possible to the centre of resistance.
But the most salient characteristic of this machine is its portability. It can be dismantled and transported by wagons to any desired spot, the suspension frame being constructed in units, each of which is sufficiently small to be accommodated in an ordinary vehicle. Upon arrival the parts may be put together speedily and easily. The authorities submitted the airship to exacting trials and were so impressed by its characteristics and the claims of the inventor that undoubtedly it will be brought into service during the present crisis.
At the same time the whole faith of the German military staff so far as airship operations are concerned, is pinned to the Zeppelin. Notwithstanding its many drawbacks it is the vessel which will be used for the invasion of Great Britain. Even the harbour question, which is admitted to be somewhat acute, has been solved to a certain degree. At strategical points permanent harbours or airship sheds have been established. Seeing that the airships demand considerable skill in docking and undocking, and that it is impossible to achieve these operations against the wind, swinging sheds have been adopted.
On water the practice is to anchor a floating harbour at one end, leaving the structure to swing round with the wind. But on dry land such a dock is impossible. Accordingly turntable sheds have been adopted. The shed is mounted upon a double turn-table, there being two circular tracks the one near the centre of the shed and the other towards its extremities. The shed is mounted upon a centre pivot and wheels engaged with these inner and outer tracks. In this manner the shed may be swung round to the most favourable point of the compass according to the wind.
In the field, however, such practices are impossible, and the issue in this connection has been overcome by recourse to what may be termed portable harbours. They resemble the tents of peripatetic circuses and travelling exhibitions. There is a network of vertical steel members which may be set with facility and speed and which are stayed by means of wire guys. At the top of the outer vertical posts pulleys are provided whereby the outer skin or canvas forming the walls may be hauled into position, while at the apex of the roof further pulleys ensure the proper placing of the roofing. The airship is able to enter or leave from either end according to conditions. The material is fireproofed as a precautionary measure, but at the same time the modern aerial bomb is able to penetrate the roofing without any difficulty and to explode against the airship anchored within.
The one great objection to the Zeppelin harbour is the huge target it offers to hostile attack, which, in the event of a vessel being moored within, is inevitably serious. Thus, for instance, upon the occasion of the air raids conducted by Lieutenant Collet and of Squadron Commander Briggs and his colleagues at Dusseldorf and Friedrichshafen respectively, little difficulty was experienced in destroying the airships riding at anchor. The target offered by the shed is so extensive that it would be scarcely possible for a flying enemy to miss it. A bomb dropped from a reasonable height, say 500 feet, would be almost certain to strike some part of the building, and a Zeppelin is an easy vessel to destroy. The firing of one balloon is sufficient to detonate the whole, for the simple reason that hydrogen gas is continuously oozing through the bags in which it is contained. According to a recent statement the Germans are said to be utilising an inert or non-inflammable gas, equal in lifting power to hydrogen, for the inflation of military craft, but scientific thought does not entertain this statement with any degree of seriousness. No gas as light as hydrogen and non-explosive is known to commerce.
Will Germany invade Great Britain by air? This is the absorbing topic of the moment--one which has created intense interest and a certain feeling of alarm among the timorous. Although sporadic raids are considered to be possible and likely to be carried out with a varying measure of success--such as that made upon the British East Coast--eminent authorities ridicule an invasion in force. The risk would be enormous, although there is no doubt that Germany, which has always maintained that an invasion of this character will be made, will be compelled to essay such a task, in order to satisfy public opinion, and to justify official statements. It is a moot point, however, whether the invaders ever will succeed in making good their escape, unless Nature proves exceptionally kind.
The situation is best summed up in the unbiassed report of General George P. Scriven, Chief Signal officer of the United States Army to the U.S. Secretary of War. In this report, which deals exhaustively with the history, construction and achievements of airships, such an invasion is described as fantastic and impracticable. Writing on November 10th, 1914, the officer declares that "he is not prepared to recommend the American Army to take up seriously the question of constructing dirigibles, as they are not worth their cost as offensive machines, while for reconnaissance or defence they are of far less value than aeroplanes." In his words, "Dirigibles are seemingly useless in defence against the aeroplane or gun-fire."
In order to be able to make an invasion in force upon Great Britain's cities extremely favourable weather must prevail, and the treacherous nature of the weather conditions of the North Sea are known fully well both to British and Teuton navigators. Seeing that the majority of the Zeppelin pilots are drawn from the Navy and mercantile marine, and thus are conversant with the peculiarities and characteristics of this stretch of salt water, it is only logical to suppose that their knowledge will exert a powerful influence in any such decision, the recommendations of the meteorological savants not withstanding.
When the Zeppelin pride of the German Navy "L-1" was hurled to destruction by a typical North Sea squall, Captain Blew of the Victoria Luise, a Zeppelin with many great achievements to her credit, whose navigator was formerly in the Navy, and thus is familiar with the whole issue, explained that this atmospheric liveliness of the North Sea prevails for the most part in the latitude of Norway, but that it frequently extends as far south as the gate of the Channel. He related furthermore that the rain squalls are of tropical violence, while the vertical thrusts of air are such that no dirigible as yet constructed could ever hope to live in them. Under such conditions, he continued, the gas is certain to cool intensely, and the hull must then become waterlogged, not to mention the downward thrust of the rain. Under such conditions buoyancy must be imperilled to such a degree as to demand the jettisoning of every piece of ballast, fuel and other removable weight, including even the steadying and vertical planes. When this has been done, he pointed out, nothing is left with which to combat the upward vertical thrusts of the air. To attempt to run before the wind is to court positive disaster, as the wind is certain to gain the mastery. Once the airship loses steering way and is rendered uncontrollableit becomes the sport of the forces of Nature, with the result that destruction is merely a matter of minutes, or even seconds.
Every navigator who knows the North Sea will support these conclusions. Squalls and blizzards in winter, and thunderstorms in summer, rise with startling suddenness and rage with terrific destructive fury. Such conditions must react against the attempt of an aerial invasion in force, unless it be made in the character of the last throw by a desperate gambler, with good fortune favouring the dash to a certain degree. But lesser and more insignificant Zeppelin raids are likely to be somewhat frequent, and to be made at every favourable climatic opportunity.