The model of a Gotha IV aircraft that was exhibited at the Cheltenham GWR Modellers Exhibition in October 2007 is now on display at Jet Age Museum in Staverton . However, to place the Gotha series of twin engined biplanes in their historical context, this feature examines the German strategic bombing campaign that began with Zeppelin airships
Never a popular subject with modellers due to their size and fragile nature, airships nonetheless played an important role in developing the concept of both civil and military aviation during the first four decades of the Twentieth Century.
Indeed, just as he was to forsee tanks, the science fiction writer Herbert George Wells anticipated strategic bombing two years before even the Wright Brothers first tested their heavier than air “Flyer” at Kitty Hawk in 1903. He wrote that “The victor in that aerial struggle will tower with pitiless watchful eyes over his adversary [ visiting upon him ] incredible disasters of shot and shell.” The Bromley-born visionary expanded on this notion in his 1908 novel “The War in the Air” in which a fleet of German airships bomb Broadway and engulf Manhattan in flames – and airships hovering over pulverised cities became a staple pulp fiction image.
The popular fear of airships was exacerbated by German propaganda to the extent that when war broke out in 1914 British authorities were inundated with imagined sightings. In an early precursor of the flying saucer “flaps” of the 1950s, it was even rumoured that a Zeppelin was hiding in the English Lake District and coming out at night. Certainly the Great Westen Railway authorised the villagers of Shakemantle in the Forest of Dean to use its 109 yard long Blue Rock tunnel as a Zeppelin raid shelter, although this refuge was so far down the valley from their houses that they might have been safer staying at home had a German airship ventured so far west. Indeed, such was the novelty of the appearance of the Zeppelins that many people rushed out into their streets to watch the flying giants rather than take shelter from them.
In fact the first of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s metal-framed Maybach-engined airships flew in 1900 and commercial airship services began in Germany in 1910. By 1914 37 000 civilian passengers had been carried 100 000 miles without incident.
However, the military potential of the uniquely long-range Zeppelin was realised by both German and British authorities from the outset of the Great War. For the Kaiser’s admirals, airships could provide an “eye in the sky” to counter entrapment by the numerically superior Royal Navy, which nonetheless blockaded German ports from the outbreak of hostilities.
In Britain meanwhile, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill was also concerned about the potential of Germany’s dirigibles and in October 1914 Lieutenant Marix of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) flew a Sopwith Tabloid biplane from Antwerp to destroy Zeppelin Z.9 at Dusseldorf.
Similarly, on 21 November 1914 three French based Avro 504 biplanes of the Royal Naval Air Service bombed the Zeppelin hangars at Friedrichshaven on the shores of Lake Constance. Taking off from an airfield at Belfort from 0930, the aircraft of Squadron Commander Edward Briggs, Flight Commander John Babington and Flight Lieutenant Sydney Sippe each carried four 20 lb bombs.
Later widely used as training aircraft, the 504s were converted to carry these bombs by Avro employee Roy Chadwick, later to design the Anson, Lancaster and Vulcan bombers.
During the raid, Briggs was forced to crash land after shrapnel punctured his fuel tank. A crowd of angry Zeppelin workers rushed towards him and he only escaped a beating when a German army officer threatened to shoot anyone who laid a hand on him.
The raid by the three Avros caused relatively little damage but the attack made the German government realise that their airships were vulnerable and that they were best defended by being used in attack, despite Kaiser Wilhelm II’s reluctance to destroy the historic buildings of London, the capital city of his cousin King George V.
Partly in retaliation for the Friedrichshaven raid , German destroyers shelled the East Coast ports of Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool in December 1914. Then, seeing the airship as the only way of taking the war to the vulnerable civilian heart of the British Empire, the German Navy made its first lighter than air bombing raid on English towns on 19 January 1915. Blown south by strong winds from their original target of Humberside,
Zeppelins L3 and L4 crossed the coast of East Anglia with L3 curving south east to attack Great Yarmouth while L4 turned north west to Kings Lynn. Shrapnel from a bomb dropped by L3 claimed shoemaker Samuel Alfred Smith, 53, as the first British civilian to be killed by aerial bombardment while after 8.25pm L4 was to drop seven high explosive bombs and leave two dead and thirteen wounded.
The Times reported on 20 January 1915
“Motives of the Zeppelin Raid”
“Now that the long-threatened invasion of these islands by Zeppelins has become an accomplished fact, and especially considering the comparatively small amount of damage that has been its result, it is natural to ask ourselves what its object was. Ever since the beginning of the New Year the enemy’s aircraft have shown increased activity in several directions, but there has not been conclusive evidence that the Zeppelins have to any large extent taken part. As a result of the poor part they played in our combined sea and air raid on Christmas Day there has been an inclination to disparage their ability and to regard their powers as having been much over-rated. This being the case, it would not be surprising if the German authorities were anxious to show that they were capable of doing much more. In other words, this raid was intended to restore their prestige, particularly in Germany.
It would be a mistake however, to accept this as the primary reason for the raid on Tuesday night. The duties of aircraft are scouting and the destruction by means of bombs of objects of military importance. To these, the Germans have added a third, which they term “frightfulness” – raids by which the murder of non-combatants and the destruction of private property may strike terror into the inhabitants of a country in the hope that an influence may be exerted on the progress and direction of the war. In our case, of course, the hope evidently is that the flow of reinforcements to the Continent may be stopped, whereas in point of fact the excursion of Tuesday is more likely to have exactly the opposite effect.
In almost every case however, the air raids of the Germans have served a double purpose. They have combined reconnaissance with bomb dropping. This last exploit was almost certainly a test of the star of our defences against aerial attack on the East Coast if the objective in some future raid is to be apoint further inland. As these airships have a radius of action of about 1 200 miles, there is hardly any portion of the British Isles that they could not reach, provided that they were willing to make part of the journey in daylight”
In April 1915 German Navy Zeppelins returned to bomb Blyth and Wallsend on Tyneside while Army Zeppelins dropped bombs on Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds. In May, Southend, Ramsgate and Oxney near Dover were struck, killing six more civilians. These first Zeppelin raids on Britain inflicted a public terror out of all proportion to the actual damage done. Similarly, German expectations for the newly tried “wonder weapon” were high.
Fregattenkapitan Peter Strasser, commander of the German Navy’s Airship Division, commented that “England can be overcome by means of Zeppelin”
In fact, during 53 raids carried out between January 1915 and August 1918 Zeppelins dropped nearly 6 000 high explosive and incendiary bombs, causing 1 900 casualties and damage worth £ 1 500 000 – about a quarter of what Britain was spending on the war each day.
However, the German airships were more vulnerable and imprecise than their propaganda image implied. Aerial navigation was in its infancy and the Zeppelins relied on a mixture of dead reckoning and observation of the ground along with radio signals which gave away their position to British direction finding stations. Indeed, once German naval codes had been cracked, the defenders of Britain often knew where the Zeppelins were better than their own crews! Even when they found their targets, bomb aiming was primitive – and the Zeppelin crews, who were denied parachutes to save weight – also had a fear of burning to death in a tangle of wreckage if the hydrogen bags of their craft caught fire.
A 1922 report for the US National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, rediscovered in 2013, also revealed the economic cost of Zeppelin production as each airship required the guts of 250 000 cows – made wet, stretched and then allowed to dry again – to create its hydrogen cells. The bovine intestines – known as goldbeater’s skins – were collected from butchers in Austria, Poland and occupied France as well as Germany and as a result their more usual role in making sausages was banned.
Nevertheless in May 1915 there were only 33 anti-aircraft guns to cover the whole of the United Kingdom. Similarly, most British fighter aircraft had been despatched to the Western Front at the outbreak of War, leaving only slow and obsolete types for home defence. These machines struggled to reach the working altitudes of the Zeppelins, and at 19 000 feet the interceptor pilots and their machines would have faced both sub-zero temperatures and a lack of oxygen.
By May 1915 Kaiser Wilhelm was also bowing to pressure from his military commanders to allow his 60 mph Zeppelins to bomb London – although initially only to the east of the Tower of London. On 31 May 1915 a Zeppelin bombed Stoke Newington, Southgate, Hoxton, Shoreditch and Whitechapel in what was seen as the first foreign enemy strike on London in nearly 1 000 years. Seven people died, including three year old Elsie Leggatt and her sister Elizabeth May, aged 11.
On the night of 8-9 September 1915 Zeppelin L13 – commanded by renowned navigator Heinrich Mathy – crossed the Wash and headed for London which Mathy had vowed that he would ” bomb three times in succession or perish in the attempt.”
Bombs first fell on Golders Green while at 10.40 pm a 50 kg ordnance blew in the frontage of The Dolphin Tavern in Lamb’s Conduit Passage in the Borough of Holborn.
Mathy was then able to start massive fires in textile warehouses at Batholemew’s Close north of St Paul’s Cathedral and scored direct hits on two packed buses. In total this raid caused £ 500 000 worth of damage and included the dropping of a 660 lb (300 kg) bomb- the largest air dropped weapon so far seen – close to St Barts Hospital. Despite fire from 26 anti-aircraft guns and sorties by seven home defence fighters, L13 returned to Germany where the crew were hailed as heroes. Including those aboard the 35A bus near Liverpool Street station, 22 people died that night and 87 were injured.
However, the fifth and most devastating Zeppelin raid on London came on the night of 13 October 2015 when, at 2135, an army officer on leave from Flanders was in a taxi on The Stand when the driver suddenly stopped the cab and ran off.
The officer recalled “Right overhead was an enormous Zeppelin. It was lighted up by searchlights and cruised along slowly and majestically, a marvellous sight. I stood gaping in the middle of The Strand, too fascinated to move. Then there was a terrific explosion, followed by another and another.”
The first bomb hit the corner of the Lyceum Theatre, killing one man. Another fell seconds later nearby, catching theatregoers enjoying an interval drink and igniting a gas main. Seventeen were killed.
The commander of the Zeppelin responsible later recalled:
“The picture we saw was indescribably beautiful – shrapnel bursting all around (though rather unfortunately near us) our own bombs bursting, and the flashes from anti-aircraft batteries below.”
Bombs also fell on sites in the City including the Royal Courts of Justice but due to inclement weather this was to be the last Zeppelin attack of 1915.
In the days that followed, the British press raged against “Murder by Zeppelin” and politicians addressed packed public meetings demanding effective defence and retaliation. The Daily Telegraph of Friday 15 October 1915 reported:
“There was very decided support evidenced at a City meeting yesterday of a policy of reprisals for Zeppelin raids. The great hall at Cannon Street Hotel was unable to accommodate all those desirous of being present at the assembly, which had been organised by the Globe [newspaper] Lord Willoughby de Broke, who presided, said they had not gathered together to squeal, or whine, or panic, or call the Germans names, but to endeavour to urge upon the Government the necessity of adopting measures to combat what had happened the previous night (Cheers). Raids had got to be stopped (Loud Cheers) What they wanted to know was whether the Government was doing all in its power to stop them. (Cries of “No” and “What about Haldane?” [the scientist John Scott Haldane, famous for his work on poison gas]
A definite policy was required with reference to Zeppelin raids. We were at war with the German nation, and we had to treat them in the same way as they treated us – (Loud Cheers) – or else they would continue in their policy while we sat still and suffered and became the laughing stock of the whole of Europe. (A voice, “We are now”) He did not agree with the interrupter. They had not gathered together to depreciate themselves, but to tell the Government that the more strenuous the measures taken the more support it would receive. (Cheers) The Government had turned a deaf ear to the inventions of science. There should be a special department to deal with our air service, instead of it being hawked about between one Government Department and another. The air service was going to be as important as the Navy, and at present it was not being sufficiently organised.”
Mr Joynson Hicks MP moved the following resolution:
“That this mass meeting of City men states its definite belief that the only effectual method of putting a stop to Zeppelin raids upon London and other English towns consists in the formal announcement on the part of this country of a systematic policy of reprisal raids by British, or British and French, aeroplanes upon towns in Germany, and that this meeting hereby calls on his Majesty’s Govenment to render protection to the lives and property of British subjects through the issue and prompt fulfilment of such a declaration.
That great meeting, he said,indicated the uneasiness in the hearts and minds of City people and the growing dissatisfaction with the Government in this matter. We knew that our shores were no longer inviolate, that the aircraft was unable to protect us ( A voice:”That was known before the war”) It was known by many, and he believed it was known to some Ministers ( Hear Hear)
Just as the demand for materials was reaching a peak on the Western Front in France, the authorities were forced to bring guns, aircraft and pilots home, while blackouts – imposed on London from the summer of 1916 – and shutdowns seriously disrupted war production. However, it is interesting to read this article from “An Officer in the Berkshires [Regiment]” printed in The Times of 26 October 1915.
“Since I last wrote our battalion has had the severest test that can ever be set to any body of me, and the price paid was enormous. We have been in what were, perhaps, two of the most terrible battles ever fought. We were ordered to lead the attack on September 25 and so were in the very front of the charge. Within four hours we had captured four lines of the German trenches and two field guns. We remained isolated under heavy shell fire for three days and nights without food or water. Then we were relieved and went back, as we thought to rest, but at the end of three days we were ordered back again, and thrown into another attack. It is a miracle how I escaped, for although I was with the Commanding Officer and did not go right into the charge, yet the artillery fire was so heavy that it became almost impossible to exist anywhere. The strain of the last month has been so great and so intense that my nerves are nearly shattered; it was a heartbreaking sight to see so many fine men, amongst whom were one’s friends with whom one had lived continually for a whole year, falling like trees torn up by a gale. I see from the papers that Zeppelins have dropped bombs on London again. I cannot say that I am even sorry. It is the only thing that reminds the people at home that the war is still continuing. If only they were sufficiently awake to realize one-hundredth part of what our men suffer out here, how differently they would behave! I was interested to read what the newspapers said about the great push on September 25. The first one I picked up disgusted me. This is what I read: “There is no need to read the newspapers this morning, in the tubes and trains everybody could see the victory smile” I can assure you that there were very few “victory smiles” on the battlefield. I foresee a prolonged winter campaign, and I thank you very much for the warm clothing you sent. They will be agreat blessing the next time we go back into the trenches. At present we are billeted ina town some distance from the front. This is indeed an acid test of one’s patriotism. If it were not seated right down in bedrock, I am afraid it would soon vanish. Men suffer just as much, if not more, for their beliefs as they did in the Middle Ages.”
Indeed, the full illumination of a number of cities in the English Midlands in January 1916 led to 70 civilian deaths when nine Zeppelins – lost en route to bomb Liverpool – attacked.
The London Times of 24 August 1916 ran the following article:
“A remarkable description of “Zeppelins in their lair” has been sent to the New York Times by its Berlin correspondent. The writer indicates the base from which the Zeppelins start on their raids by saying that it is situated “somewhere amid white dunes and salt meadow weeds.” He was taken in the evening”over causeways and dikes” to a group of buildings where he found the airmen sitting at a flower decked horseshoe table. They were all men between 30 and 40 years of age. In a characteristic Teuton touch the writer describes how the commander took with him on his baby-killing expedition a small brown plush teddy bear which hangs among the measuring instruments and signal wires, so that amid the storm song of the propellers and the thunder of the motors you seem to hear the shrill laughter of children. The commander’s small daughter sent him the teddy bear as a souvenir when sailing over England. A description of the flight over the North Sea is then given. When the barometer showed 3 300 feet the captain remarked “Now we are in the zone of explosion danger. At this height the atmosphere is most inclined to creep through the thin skin of the gas cells, producing that explosive mixture, hydrogen and oxygen which you know from chemistry. if a man with hobnailed boots were to strike a spark on the steel plates now he could blow us all into the air.” Shrill bells sounded through the airship, commands were called through the telephone and wires were pulled. Instead of flying toward England the Zeppelin turned back and passed over a large white cross in the midst of a plain. Four bombs fell, and the writer enthusiastically adds, “Not one of them fell outside the circles of of which the crossed lines were the diameters.” The difficulties of landing are next described, and it is stated that frequently an airship is held in a storm 24 hours before it can descend into the hall. “The commanders all laughed when they read in the English papers that the English salved the framework of L15 which was sunk in the waters of England in order to copy its construction. We might make them a present of a brand new one and they would still not learn how to sail it in five years.”
By the autumn of 1916 however, more than 17 000 men were allocated to searchlights and anti-aircraft guns while 110 aircraft were committed to home defence. In addition, remote listening stations and observation posts could telephone warnings to the Admiralty, who then scrambled fighters to pre-arranged patrol lines around London.
However, despite a tenfold increase in anti-aircraft guns stationed around London between September 1915 and September 1917, only one in 8 000 of the 3″ shells launched up to 18 000 feet in the air by the quick firing guns actually hit its target while falling fragments of these shells claimed some civilian lives.
The first airbourne Zeppelin to be destroyed – LZ37 – fell to a bomb dropped by RNAS Sub Lieutenant Reginald “Rex” Warneford’s Moraine parasol monoplane over Belgium in June 1915. However, burning debris damaged his fuel pipe, forcing Warneford to land 35 miles behind enemy lines, repair it with a cigarette holder and then take off again to return to base. For this feat Warneford – born in India but brought up in Exmouth, Devon – was awarded the Victoria Cross but died in an aeroplane accident ten days later.
The Royal Navy were also prompted by the Zeppelin menace to find new ways of launching fighter aircraft from ships. One German airship was destroyed by Lieutenant S.D. Culley, flying a Sopwith Camel that had taken off from a lighter towed at high speed by a destroyer. Other nimble biplanes took off from platforms built over the gun turrets of battleships although the challenge of recovering such aircraft at sea required the development of the aircraft carrier.
Nevertheless, anti-aircraft fire forced Zeppelin L15 to ditch in the sea off the coast of Kent in March 1916, while in May 39 Squadron – based at Sutton’s Farm near Hornchurch in Essex – became one of four new home defence squadrons founded by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC).
Despite this, on 10 August 1916, Peter Strasser was still able to write to his superiors:
“The performance of the big airships has reinforced my conviction that England can be overcome by means of airships, inasmuch as the country will be deprived of the means of existence through increasingly extensive destruction of cities, factory complexes, dockyards, harbour works with war and merchant ships lying therein, railways etc..airships offer a certain means of victoriously ending the war.”
By the summer of 1916, though, British fighter aircraft were equipped with a potent mix of tracer, explosive and incendiary machine gun ammunition – the last designed by Jim Buckingham. Their aim was to blow holes in the outer fabric of the Zeppelins and ignite the flammable hydrogen gas as it escaped.
As a result, on at 0200 on 4 September 1916, 39 Squadron’s Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson – flying at 10 000 feet – became the first man to shoot down a German airship – the plywood framed Schutte-Lanze 11 – over British soil when it crashed behind The Plough Inn, Cuffley, Hertfordshire. For this act he was promoted to Captain and awarded the Victoria Cross two days later.
SL11 – commanded by Hauptmann Wilhelm Strasser – had been one of 16 airships – 12 from the German Naval Airship Division and four from the Army – sent to bomb London as part of the largest air raid of the war. It had dropped its bombs but was then coned by searchlights and attacked by anti-aircraft fire over Enfield by the time that Leefe Robinson, low on fuel after two hours in the air searching for Zeppelin LZ98, arrived.
Despite being fired on by SL11’s gunners, Leefe Robinson raked the length of the dirigible twice with drums of ammunition before making a stern attack just 500 feet from his target – causing SL11 to burst into flames. The British airman then fired some Very lights and dropped a parachute flare before heading back to Sutton’s Farm at 0245 and discovering that his machine had been hit several times by the airship’s guns.
The home defence biplane fighter flown by Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson was a Royal Aircraft Factory Bleriot Experimental 2c. Better known as a BE2c, this aircraft was inherently stable, making it a steady attack platform against lumbering Zeppelins although far less effective against other aeroplanes. Some BE2cs were built alongside De Havilland DH2s by H.H.Martyn in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.
Two further German airships – of the new battleship-sized “Thirty” series – were to be destroyed as a 12 dirigible formation – led by Heinrich Mathy in L31 – attacked London on 24 September 1916.
Travelling at 60 mph, L33 was brought down in Essex after dropping incendiaries on the East End of London. The anti-aircraft shells that pierced its skin caused the hydrogen bags to leak and the Zeppelin made a soft landing that allowed all its crew to survive and surrender. Indeed, one of the engines was even salvaged by the British authorities for later re-use.
L32 meanwhile was hit by the incendiary bullets of 39 Squadron’s Lieutenant Frederick Sowery and crashed in flames at Great Burstead, near Billericay in Essex.
On the night of 1 October 1916, eleven Zeppelins took off from Germany to raid London. Once again, they were led by Heinrich Mathy, now in command of airship L31.
Meanwhile, Second Lieutenant Wulfstan Tempest of 39 Squadron flew his BE2c from North Weald on the eastern edge of London to patrol at 8 000. Just before midnight, Tempest saw in the distance “a small cigar shaped object” illuminated by a pyramid of searchlights. Anti-aircraft shells were bursting around it. Tempest sped toward L31 as Mathy began to climb, hoping to exceed the ceiling of the biplane fighter. Despite Tempest having to manually operate a broken fuel pump though, his wood and fabric aircraft closed the gap and dived on the target, twenty five times its size. Tempest’s first salvo of bullets seemed to have no effect, as did a second burst of fire underneath the airship. But on a third attempt he raked the entire underside of the Zeppelin with bullets before he saw it “begin to go red like an immense Chinese lantern”.
Mathy’s Zeppelin shot 200 feet up, hung in the air for a moment and then fell, flames bursting from the envelope. Falling on open ground at Potters Bar, in Hertfordshire, most of the crew were burned to death – except for its captain who jumped and was found half embedded in the earth, still breathing but soon to die. He was buried nearby .
German airship enthusiasts like Peter Strasser proposed even more advanced “height climbing” Zeppelins that would fly at 20 000 feet, but in the sub stratosphere the new airships were buffeted by winds unknown to existing meteorology. Engines seized and metalwork shattered in the bitter cold and crews in their aluminium alloy gondolas were crippled by altitude sickness and frostbite. Despite this, the 600′ long L48 was despatched to bomb Britain in June 1917 only to be shot down by three fighters and crash at Theberton, near Saxmundham, in Suffolk.
L48 was the last Zeppelin to be shot down over Britain, although on the night of 12-13 April 1918 Zeppelin L62 tried to reach Birmingham but shed its bomb load on Whitley Common near Coventry, killing two cows and leaving crater which rapidly became a tourist attraction.
By the end of 1917, 77 of 115 airships sent to attack Britain had been shot down. The future of strategic bombing now lay with heavier than air machines, beginning with the twin engined Gotha IV.
The novelist D.H. Lawrence wrote to a friend “We saw the Zeppelin above us, amid a gleaming of clouds, high up, like a bright golden finger. Underneath it were splashes of fire. It seemed as if the cosmic order were gone.. like a new moon, with its light bursting in flashes on the earth, to burst away the Earth also. So it is the end- our world is gone.”