It’s been eighteen months coming, but I’ve finally reached a week short on centenaries to get excited about. True, 8 February 1916 was the day on which the British government made a formal request on to its Far Eastern ally, Japan, for naval aid, but that didn’t get exciting for a couple of decades. As I’ve mentioned before (23 August, 1914: Prowling Tiger), the squadron of Japanese destroyers that eventually arrived to join Allied Mediterranean patrols in April 1917 did nothing of any military significance, but did learn plenty about the latest naval techniques and equipment.
The last rites of the Central Powers’ invasion of the Balkans were also in progress, with Bulgarian and Austrian forces mopping up in Albania and Montenegro respectively, while the remnants of the Serbian Army were still being evacuated to Corfu, where a government in exile was established on 9 February. Again, I’ve been there and done that (25 November, 1915: The Hard Way), and the same is true of the increasingly bonkers British Naval Africa Expedition, which was busy with its gunboat war for control of Lake Tanganyika (15 June, 1915: Do So, Mister Allnut…).
Early February also saw the usual trickle of naval losses, most notably the Amiral Charner, an old French cruiser stationed off the Syrian coast. Part of the naval blockade of the Ottoman Empire, she was torpedoed by the U-21 on 8 February and went down with only one survivor. Three days later, the British lost a much more modern light cruiser, the Arethusa, when it struck a mine off Felixstowe, a disaster that cost only ten lives but, so close to home, fuelled the pathological caution of British naval commanders in the North Sea.
Otherwise, on all the main battlefronts, the weather was being watched while offensives were being prepared. Russian forces in the Caucasus were almost ready to begin a push into Armenia towards Erzurum; in northern Italy, yet another Izonso offensive was grinding towards action; and the German Army, after a year with its focus firmly to the east, was about to start punching its increased weight on the Western Front. This was the quiet before the storm and everybody in the belligerent countries knew it.
That didn’t mean everybody was talking about it. Offensives being of a necessarily secret nature, this was a good time for the official and unofficial press (and thus popular opinion) to focus on issues at home. That, along with the sensational nature of the subject and the existence of some excellent illustrations, explains why newspapers and magazines in Britain and France were still full of news about Zeppelins. It also gives me an excuse to go back a few days to an anniversary I skipped.
The source of most press coverage had been two Zeppelin raids at the end of January. During the misty night of 29/30 January a single airship, the LZ77, bombed Paris, killing 29 civilians and injuring thirty. This would turn out to be the last Zeppelin raid on Paris, and a turning point in German bombing strategy.
Two nights later, a fleet of nine German Navy Zeppelins set out from bases in northern Germany to bomb the British mainland, with instructions to fly right across the country and demonstrate their long-range power by attacking the vitally important port of Liverpool. Nothing so bold had ever been attempted before, by Zeppelins or winged aircraft, and though the raid’s main purpose was to frighten the enemy, it was also an experiment to test the viability of very long-range bombing.
At this stage in the development of powered flight, Zeppelins were the only weapons available to those who advocated, and would later practice, the monstrosity of strategic bombing theory. That’s the theory, popularly associated with Göring and Harris but tried out by many others during and since the First World War, that bombing the Hell out of civilian targets can win wars on its own. By 1914 the theory, first proposed by the Italian air theorist Douhet as early as 1911, had advocates in all the major belligerent states, but they all faced the problem that aircraft technology couldn’t deliver machines with the range or payload to make massed bombing of distant enemy targets feasible.
Up to a point, Zeppelins solved the problem. Designed by German nobleman Graf (Count) von Zeppelin, and first flown in 1900, they were accepted into German Army service from 1909. By August 1914, the German Army was using ten Zeppelins and the German Navy one, all attached to the high command for strategic operations.
Little use as frontline reconnaissance craft, because they took so long to get into the air, Zeppelins announced themselves as bombers at the very start of the War, when the Z6 successfully attacked Liège on the night of 6/7 August. But the Z6 had to be withdrawn from service after ground fire forced it to crash land, and that set a pattern for Zeppelin operations: they could deliver long-range bombing raids, but were extremely vulnerable to attack and bad weather why not try this out.
By the spring of 1915, with eight new airships commissioned and six lost, the German Army fleet was concentrated in Belgium for bombing missions over Flanders, France and England. Paris suffered regular small-scale attacks, and the first raid on London took place on 31 May. Despite the introduction of new, bigger Zeppelins, with their trademark extendable observation cars slung beneath the ship, a bomb load of 1,200Kg and the ability to attack from above clouds, losses remained high throughout the year, even after bombing operations were restricted to moonless nights.
By the start of 1916 only six German Army Zeppelins were operational. Still too slow and fragile for effective frontline operations, as would be confirmed by a final deployment at Verdun that saw three of four ships destroyed almost at once, their bombing role was being undermined by improvements in air defence technology. That the gathering of naval Zeppelins for the raid on Liverpool was essentially a propaganda operation reflected the German high command’s fading faith in their ability to deliver a strategic blow.
On one level the raid failed miserably. Mechanical problems and poor navigation in difficult conditions meant that the Zeppelins got hopelessly lost, scattering bombs around various towns and factories in the English Midlands. Around 70 civilians were killed and about 115 injured (exact figures vary), making it the second most lethal wartime attack on Britain, but it failed to inflict any serious infrastructural damage. On the other hand the Zeppelins suffered only one loss, when the L19 was shot down and crashed in the Channel, proving that very long-range attacks were possible, and they fulfilled their propaganda role by causing a genuine sensation. With new, higher-altitude models about to come into service, the airships had earned one last chance to prove their strategic value.
They did well. Attacks on England by flotillas of four and five ships were carried out without loss in April 1916 and, as numbers of operational ships grew, the next few months saw the climax of their career as long-range bombers. Britain suffered twenty more raids during the year, five German Army airships performed well on the Eastern Front, suffering just one loss, and three more were deployed in the Balkans, though with less success. Yet just as the Zeppelins were starting to deliver as promised, aircraft technology was finally passing the tipping point that ended the argument about their strategic value.
By late 1916, modern fighter aircraft could reach and destroy the highest airship, and heavier, multi-engine aircraft could deliver bigger, more efficient strategic bombing attacks. A reorganised German Army Air Service lost interest in airships, preferring to concentrate on its heavy aircraft programmes, and ceased Zeppelin operations altogether from June 1917. German Navy Zeppelins continued in service until the end of the War, carrying out small raids and occasional supply missions, but they were never more than a marginal nuisance. The day of the military airship had passed.
In some ways the raid that shocked the Midlands during the last night of January 1916 was the Zeppelins’ finest hour. The sheer distance they travelled and the surprise they caused took strategic bombing to a new level, and foreshadowed massed raids to come, as did the incidental fact that the attack caused only civilian casualties. In other ways it was their last hurrah, bigger than any operation subsequently attempted with airships, and the last time they carried the baton for strategic bombing theory before it passed to the ancestors of the B-52.