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Luftschiff / Airships

Few efforts in the history of world armaments may be said to parallel in their intensity the creation of the airship fleet by the use of which Germany intended to become supreme in the air and so attain the mastery of the world. H.G. Wells wrote The War in the Air in 1907, which featured German airships that attacked the U.S. Navy and pulverized cities from the sky. "... the great airships with which Germany attacked New York in her last gigantic effort for world supremacy — before humanity realized that world supremacy was a dream — were the lineal descendants of the Zeppelin airship that flew over Lake Constance in 1906... These monsters were capable of ninety miles an hour in a calm, so that they could face and make headway against nearly everything except the fiercest tornado. They varied in length from eight hundred to two thousand feet, and they had a carrying power of from seventy to two hundred tons. ... across this landscape of an industrial civilisation swept the shadows of the German airships like a hurrying shoal of fishes. . . . Below was cloudland and storm, a great drift of tumbled weather going hard away to the north-east, and the air ... was clear and cold and serene save for the faintest chill breeze and a rare drifting snow-flake. Throb, throb, throb, throb, went the engines in the stillness. That huge herd of airships rising one after another had an effect of strange, portentous monsters breaking into an altogether unfamiliar world. . . ."

The building and manuvering of airships was not a pastime within the reach of a private purse. The British Government had taken advantage of the enterprise and rivalry of private makers of aeroplanes, whom it wisely permitted to run the risks and show the way. No such policy was possible in the manufacture of airships, which is essentially a Government business. There was therefore, it is perhaps not fanciful to say, something agreeable to the German temper, and disagreeable to the English temper, in the airship as a weapon of war.

The great military nations of Europe were all engaged in building up airship fleets; but it seems that Germany alone focused from the beginning on the exact nature of the advantages a persistently followed up airship policy would confer upon her military and naval forces. The nations now forming the Grand Alliance seemed chiefly concerned with the development of the aeroplane, convinced as they were that a fleet of such mosquito craft would quickly be able to put out of action any "gasbag," as airships were contemptuously referred to by their detractors.

In the Great War, these costly monsters were quickly removed from combat over the western front, first from daylight sorties, then sorties on moonlit nights, and ultimately altogether, as they made irresistible targets for gunners. They thereby fulfilled the unheeded prewar warning of German ballistics expert General Rohne that dirigibles would be vulnerable to incendiary shells. The zeppelins continued to serve successfully as scouts for the German navy, and then they were launched against Britain in the first strategic air raids of the war. They ultimately failed in the strategic assault as aircraft and antiaircraft defenses drove them so high that they became vulnerable to gale­force winds that would blow returning dirigibles all over the European continent and occasionally further.

Despite repeated setbacks, involving huge monetary losses, to which the war added severe casualties, the forging of this weapon wrent on unabated for ten years-till the armistice spelled the doom of Germany's mighty aerial armada. The magnitude of this effort may be appreciated from the fact that between 1908 and 1918 Germany launched and commissioned a total of 140 war airships, of which number 14 were at hand when the war broke out and 109 were built during the period of hostilities. Of the latter all but three airships were of the rigid type and of a size vastly exceeding anything the Allies produced in this line, the capacity of these vessels running from 800,000 cubic feet to 2,400,000 cubic feet, the horsepower from 630 to 2,000, the maximum speed from 52 m.p.h to 77 m.p.h.; and the useful load from 9 tons to 52 tons.

In 1885 Gottlieb Daimler developed an internal combustion engine for dirigibles. Developing 2hp and boasting a single cylinder, it made a successful trial flight in August 1888. Subsequently, Daimler's attention was diverted to developing internal combustion engines for the early automobile; further refining of the internal combustion engine for dirigibles was carried on by Dr Karl Woelfert, who flew an airship powered by a two-cylinder, 6hp engine at the 1896 Berlin Trade Fair. This performance was witnessed by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who offered Woelfert facilities to continue development. The German interest in airships dates from this time.

German airship development proceeded under the visionary leadership of the legendary Graf (Count) Ferdinand von Zeppel in. He successfully tied airship development to German national pride, obtaining the Kaiser's support and the German press' enthusiastic backing. From 1897 on, experiments were conducted by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin of the German Army on an immense airship to carry five men.

Commencing with the launching of his first airship, the Luftschiff Zeppel in No 1 (LZ1) in July 1900, German airship development grew apace. The LZ1 was 420 feet long, 38.5 feet in diameter, and capable of 20 mph. It consisted of a rigid cylindrical aluminum framework with pointed ende. The craft made a speed of 18 miles per hour and traveled over 3.5 miles before an accident to the steering gear forced it to descend. A second airship, whose two motors developed 85 horsepower, was built in 1905, but was wrecked in a storm. A third ship, built in 1906, traveled around Lake Constance and reached a speed of 36 miles per hour, remained in the air for several Lours, carrying a number of passengers. A fourth airship, of similar design but more powerful motors, in 1908 succeeded in traveling 250 miles in 11 hours, but was wrecked when on land and burned at Echterdingen. Subscriptions were at once raised to help Zeppelin build another, and from this beginning grew Germany's fleet of monster airships which were used in bombing raids and for purposes of observation in the European war.

By 1908 German airship enthusiasm had grown such that von Zeppel in and his partner, Hugo Eckener, founded Deutsche Luftschiffahrts Aktien Gesellschaft (DELAG), which operated a fleet of five airships from dirigible airports all over Germany. By the eve of World War I in August 1914, DELAG had made more than 1600 passenger flights, logging over 100,000 mi les and carrying over 10,000 passengers. Thanks largely to von Zeppelin and DELAG, Germany was the best-prepared belligerent at the start of the war with respect to airships.

Other dirigibles were the Parseval, developed by Major von Parseval of the Bavarian army, whose airship was of a collapsible type without a rigid frame, which could be readily transported by an army and inflated in the field from cylinders of compressed gas or generators ; the Gross airships, designed by Major von Gross of the German army, of a semi-rigid type; the Schutte-Lanz, a rigid airship with wooden frame and large gas capacity ; the Suchard, built for long distance travel, but not used for the ocean flights for which it was designed.

Germany placed a great deal of reliance on her Zeppelins. Those huge dirigibles, capable of lifting a useful load of thirty-eight tons and of traveling at the rate of seventy miles per hour, seemed ideally suited to carry German frightfulness into the very home of the Briton. But they were afraid - these great airships - afraid of the little battleplanes that attacked them. The airplanes traveled so fast and dodged so quickly that the Zeppelin's guns could not find them. They would mount above the airship where the huge gas-bag hid them from the gunners. Even when guns were mounted on top of the balloon, the Germans had reason for dread because the battle-planes fired incendiary bullets, and it needed but one of these to penetrate the skin of the Zeppelin and set fire to the hydrogen gas it contained. The Zeppelin commander's position was about as enviable as would be that of a naval commander who went forth to war in a boat molded out of TNT. He was afloat under two million cubic feet of highly inflammable gas. which needed but to be mixed with a suitable quantity of air to become a powerful explosive.

By 1912, the Germans were touting the zeppelin as a bomber, although French aviators derogatorily referred to it as a "soap bubble" that they obviously planned to pop in a future war. Fred Jane wrote in his "Fighting Airships" (1913) : "A single aeroplane should be able to disable or destroy without very great difficulty the finest dirigible yet built (supposing it able to find the airship in the vastness of the air)."

The constructional features of these ships as well as their production figures formed a strict secret during the war and the Germans even succeeded in withholding much valuable information until after the War. As a consequence much of the data published initially was only approximately accurate, while some of it was absolutely inaccurate.

The German Empire attempted and achieved improved performance, by adding a gas cell, by increasing the horsepower, by lightening the construction, until, having exhausted every possible means of improvement for a given type, they were forced to seek further progress in a much larger type of ship. And as soon as the latter would pass its acceptance tests and be put into production, the same process of detail improvements would be applied to it.

As a result of this policy which was applied only to the rigid Zeppelin and Schutte-Lanz ships - the number of basic types was kept down to a minimum and airship construction became strictly a production problem. With reference to the Zeppelin airships, there were actually but three production types, namely, those having a diameter of 49 feet, 61 feet and 79 feet, respectively, the Z.XII-L.9 class being an experimental one. The advantages of this system from the viewpoint of production are particularly obvious in the case of the Zeppelin airships, where the framework is composed of punch pressed duralumin rails and webs which are assembled into triangular girders. As these girders run longitudinally and transversely, the latter forming on the 79-foot diameter type a number of 25-sided polygons, the importance of having a minimum of standard parts becomes evident. This is further emphasized by the fact that each gas cell-that part of the framework comprised between two or three polygon frames-is braced by a large number of diagonal and radial wires, for which again a standard length is desirable.

Another reason which prompted the Germans to adopt a small number of standard diameters was the limit in height of their airship sheds. It is a curious fact that even the Germans - who were often assumed to foresee everything - did not think far ahead enough to provide housing facilities for the inevitable increase in size of their airships. They built, it is true, sheds wide enough to hold two ships side by side, but tor their larger Zeppelins these sheds were not high enough. As a consequence, all through the war the Germans experienced much inconvenience in concentrating Zeppelin squadrons and many of their ships were lost through fire or collision owing to crammed quarters and restricted maneuvering space in front of them. Thus, on one occasion, four of their largest and most modern airships were destroyed by a fire which started in the big shed at Ahlhorn, while at another time two ships collided and burnt up in attempting to enter the Tondern shed.

During the war the Germans strove with all their might to remedy this situation by building additional sheds, but in fact this work never kept up with their airship production, for about ten Zeppelins would be built in the time it took to erect a single shed of large size.

The Zeppelin was considered the supreme war dirigible, but with the increasing defensive ability of the anti-aircraft guns and the armored aeroplanes the destructive power of the big rigid airships was greatly reduced. Many Zeppelin raids on London and other towns in England were undertaken during the European war, at first with success but later with disastrous results to the huge airships, some of which containing from 750,000 to 2,000,000 cubic feet of gas, and costing from $1,000,000 to $2,500,000, were captured by the British forces. Toward the end of 1917 the Zeppelin had been discarded for the heavier-than-air machines, and squadrons of bomb-carrying aeroplanes took up the work of raiding.

From first to last the German Navy had at its disposal 78 airships. Six were either air training-ships or were used for special purposes, so that 72 took part in actual scouting and operations. The figures show that the average for each vessel was 16 cruises and three attacks. The maximum number in commission at any one time was 19. The highest number in commission in a single year was 39 in 1917, but the greatest number of cruises and attacks was made in 1916. In that year the 31 airships in commission at various times made 296 cruises and 107 attacks. But it was also the year of the greatest losses. Eight were destroyed by enemy action, four by storm, and four by explosion. In the following year nine were lost by enemy action, and five by storm. The total loss for the whole period of the war was 52,.made up as follows: Destroyed by enemy action 26; destroyed by storm, 14; destroyed by explosion, 12. Besides these, however, 17 others went out of service for various reasons. Of the 52 airships lost, the crews of 19 were killed, the crews of six taken prisoners, and the crews of three were interned. In the case of the other 24 there was no loss of personnel. Nine airships were left in commission when the Armistice was declared, including the two school airships at Nordholz. One was in course of construction.

It was height against artillery, German Zeppelins against British guns and gun-carrying airplanes, and the Zeppelins got the worst of it. Nevertheless, the German airship-makers were prepared to try conclusions once more, at an altitude of 22,000 feet, when the war ended. Airplanes had since, of course, far surpassed this height, but a Zeppelin sailing over four miles high, especially aided by darkness and occasional clouds, could have met and beaten off any planes able to reach this altitude, so the Germans argued.

The Zeppelin war had been a continuous struggle on the part of the Germans to attain altitudes that could not be reached by the defense. In the summer of 1917 they had reached altitudes at which human beings could not live without oxygen (afterwards compressed air was used). The type L-53 to L-55, then in use, had a cubic capacity of 56,000 cubic meters and a maximum altitude of 18,000 to 20,000 feet. But in 1918 they found their attacks badly hampered by British airplanes and the "excellently organized artillery" in England, and they were at best able, to attack only in cloudy weather. After Captain Prolz was brought down with L-53, it was decided temporarily to abandon attacks till the new type, with a cubic capacity of 62,000 cubic meters and an altitude of 22,000 feet, was ready. But the German Navy mutinied and the German front collapsed before this was ready.

The "LZ" - Luftschiff Zeppelin - number is the building number used by the Zeppelin works. Ships for the German Navy used the letter "L" (Luftschiff) followed by a numeral. The German Army used the letter "Z" (Zeppelin), but later used the "LZ" symbol, except that beginning with LZ-72, the numeral was 30 units ahead of the building number (LZ-42), evidently to mislead the Allies. Schutte-Lanz ships were built under the letters " SL" followed by a numeral. The army ships retained this designation, but the navy changed to "L" followed by a numeral indicating its sequence in the combined (Zeppelin and Schutte-Lanz) naval fleet.

Length (ft.)
Diameter (ft.)
Capacity (cub.yads.)
Lift (lbs.)
Engines (H.P.)
Air Speed (ft.per sec)
Ceiling, ft.
1 L.3( L.7) 518 48 29,430 19,180 3 210 69 6,560
L.Z.38 L.10 536 61 41,725 34,390 4 210 85 9,185
L.Z.97 L.20 585-1/2 61 46,825 39,240 4 240 84 10,500
4 L.30 643 78 71,940 62,830 6 240 88 12,470
5 L.60 643 78 73,050 87,300 5 240 100 19,680
6 L.71 743 78 89,595 112,435 6 260 111 21,650
7 L.100 781 96 141,260 180,780 10 260 121 30,180 (Planned)
8 S.L.3 513 64 42,375 29,100 4 210 74 7,870
9 S.L.6 (S.L.7) 534 64 45,780 34,835 4 210 85 8,530
10 S.L.8 (S.L.10) 571 65 50,615 42,990 4 240 85 11,485
11 S.L.20 651 74 73,245 77,825 5 240 93 16,405
12 P.L.19 302 51 13,080 7,275 2 180 71 8,200
13 P.L.25 369 52 18,440 13,230 2 210 72 9,840
14 P.L.27 515 60 40,740 39,685 4 240 82 14,765

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Page last modified: 07-07-2012 19:26:39 ZULU