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Airship as Weapon of Terror

As a military man, Count Zeppelin was eager to promote the offensive uses of his grand airship and he painted vivid descriptions of these huge airborne vessels transporting men and material to the expanding corners of the German empire, dropping bombs and generally reinforcing Prussian invincibility.

With the outbreak of war in 1914, Zeppelin got his chance to prove the value of his weapon of terror and soon the great airships were dropping tons of explosives over England in an attempt to bring the British to their knees.

Air raid damage in Hull
Air raid damage in Britain during the First World War. Scene in Hull after a Zeppelin Raid. June 1915. First World War. (photo: Imperial War Museum Q49396)

Despite early success that translated more to a psychological victory than a tactical one, British air defences quickly improved. With the advent of incendiary bullets fired from high altitude fighter aircraft, the hydrogen-filled zeppelins were doomed and soon began plummeting from the night skies like roman candles.

Nevertheless, airship technology, like so much technology of war, had blossomed. A total of 84 zeppelins were built during the war and by the end of hostilities in 1918, although discredited as offensive weapons in favour of conventional bomber aircraft, had proven themselves able to cover enormous distances with respectable resistance to weather. They flew higher and faster than ever before carrying increasingly heavy payloads. In one heroic attempt to re-supply beleaguered forces in Africa, L-59 flew a round trip of 4200 miles (6,757 km) in 95 hours carrying fifteen tons of supplies.

After the war, Germany’s surviving airships were distributed as spoils amongst the victors and the bankrupt nation was forbidden from raising an air force or developing new airships. The great Count died in 1917 but by 1919, Eckener was already planning the airship’s peacetime revival and talking to potential investors in America, where he saw the future of airship travel – and his all-important source of funds.

It was at this time that Dr Hugo Eckener began to show his mettle. Driven, tireless and inspirational, Eckener motivated those around him with impressive proposals and plans that began to take shape. Despite numerous setbacks and the confiscation of his first two airships by Italy and France, Eckener persisted and by 1924 he had built and sold LZ-126 to the USA as ZR-3. This latest and greatest airship was the pinnacle of design and of great pride to the German people. Its sale to the USA was seen by some as treachery, but Eckener knew where his future lay, and it wasn’t in the strife-torn Germany of the ‘20s.

The transatlantic delivery flight of the LZ-126 had been fraught, but Eckener dug deep into his knowledge of meteorology and altered course to make use of changing conditions, bringing the uninsured airship into New York amid great fanfare. Eckener was feted like a hero and was quickly consumed by a schedule of banquets, lectures and meetings. Essentially a man of peace, his efforts also caused many to reappraise Germany’s intentions in the post-war world.

More >> The Golden Age of Airship Flight

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