The Effect of Zeppelins Upon British Morale
During the Great War
April 14, 1998
Chapter One - Intent 1
Chapter Two - Implementation 5
Chapter Three - Impact 13
May 31, 1915 - The First Raid
Chapter One : Intent
From the beginning of the war, German strategists believed the zeppelin could be useful in a novel, albeit allegedly barbarous, fashion. Apart from simply destroying military and industrial installations, bombing could also be employed in a lethal endeavor to weaken the resolve and morale of British society. This was a unique and utterly modern strategy. For the first time in history, it was technologically possible to bombard civilians from the sky. Once the British population realized they could not be protected, the theory went, public opinion would force the government to capitulate.
This was quite a controversial development. Up to this point, there were time-honored rules concerning the conduct of warfare. Non-combatants had a certain sanctity, a special status, which was intended to differentiate them from the soldiers. Of course, warfare is a tumultuous, dangerous and unpredictable undertaking. Civilians were never completely shielded from misfortune, injury or death. Sieges and blockades were centuries-old powerful strategies to strangle an enemies' capability to sustain a war. Britain established a blockade one week after declaring war against Germany. In the long run, this would become an much more effective tactic than zeppelins would ever be. Nevertheless, destruction of a nation's morale by indiscriminate bombing of its civilians - including women and children - was unheard of.
In the beginning, the general spirit pervading the British population regarding the potential zeppelin offensive was one of imperturbability. 1 No stretch of the imagination was necessary to realize that these recent inventions could have a martial application. Yet the vast majority of the population anticipated a violent but brief conflict, transpiring over-seas, which would terminate in a victory for British arms, culture and civilization. They saw no need to radically alter the deeply ingrained perspectives and well-respected institutions that British society valued. They were not preparing for the unimaginable. The Germans, however, were.
Zeppelins were a source of national pride for Germany, a symbol of technological supremacy which fit so well with the competitive spirit of her populace. Originally, after several public failures, the future of Count Zeppelin's invention had to be salvaged by popular subscription. If it were not for the people of Germany's deep interest in zeppelins, the technology would have stagnated (as it did in other countries). In the three years previous to the war, zeppelins had carried 37,250 passengers throughout Germany - totaling 100,000 accident free miles. Nearly every German had seen one. 2 Unfortunately, this innovative zeppelin technology could easily be transferred from a commercial to a military enterprise.
Military applications for zeppelins were discussed even before war broke out. Once war was declared, strategists wasted no time in theorizing about zeppelin utilization. As early as August 20, 1914, Konteradmiral Paul Behncke wrote to his superior, Admiral Hugo von Pohl, that bombardments may be expected, whether they involve London or the neighbourhood of London, to cause panic in the population which may possibly render it doubtful that the war can be continued. 3 At that time, however, zeppelins were not sufficiently powerful enough to transport bombs to Britain. Nor was it considered necessary while the Schlieffen plan was succeeding. There were critics of this drastic policy, included the Kaiser, who were not conscientiously prepared to raid British towns and civilians. The war, however, would not continue to go well for Germany. As Captain Lehmann, a zeppelin commander comments:
The bitterness of war was increasing almost daily; and as the wounded came back from the front, there developed a public demand for the most drastic measures against the enemy, particularly France and England. Above all, England, in German eyes, safe across the Channel, must be made to suffer. The best way, according to those who talked the loudest but who undoubtedly knew least about the subject, was to raze London by fire. 4
Any lingering belief in the sanctity of civilians and open cities was mitigated by the existence and declared purpose of the British and French blockade. Bombing civilians was rationalized as being morally no worse than starving them. Both sides rationalized that their tactics would end the war quicker, thereby actually saving lives in the long run. This was a defining moment for the introduction of true total war. Any and all inventions and weapons should and must be ruthlessly applied towards the objective of absolute victory. Due to her powerful Royal Navy, England could not be reached directly and effectively by any other method. England should no longer be allowed to simply perform as paymaster for other countries' troops. To achieve the complete, unconditional German victory desired, the horror of total war would have to be experienced on British soil itself.
This view was also shared by German schoolchildren. In the fall of 1914, they had a song which avowed their war aims : Fly, Zeppelin! Help us win the war, England shall be destroyed with fire, Zeppelin, fly! 5 In a classic example of the ends justifying the means, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, though he stated bombs were repulsive when they hit and kill an old woman, decided pragmatically that if one could set fire to London in thirty places, then the repulsiveness would be lost sight of in the immensity of the effect. 6 Tirpitz wrote to von Pohl, the day after Christmas, 1914 :
...The measure of the success will lie not only in the injury which will be caused to the enemy, but also in the significant effect it will have in diminishing the enemy's determination to prosecute the war. 7
The Bombs & Bombers
Ominously, the Kaiser relented his opposition. This yielding of control over policy to the military was a pattern the Kaiser would disastrously follow throughout the war. Initially, he allowed the zeppelins to bomb only strictly military targets. London itself would be off-limits to the zeppelins - for the time being. As the war progressed, however, so did the maliciousness of the tactics.
The zeppelin was particularly terrifying in several ways. Primarily, it delivered random and violent death from a entirely new direction - the air. Since this was a technological innovation from the German side, the British military authorities were originally completely unprepared to combat this threat. 8 The people of Britain were forced to experience the war directly, on their own soil. Their first line of defense, their invaluable Navy, was suddenly useless. The faith placed in this institution was questioned, their country's inviolability shattered. An entirely new defense system was required, at a time when all the able - bodied men and best weaponry were also needed at the Front. This translated into a double benefit for Germany, since any men and material used to combat the zeppelin menace would not be available elsewhere. 9
Soon, London lost her `open city' status. It would be necessarily and specifically targeted because of its unique prominence. It was the center of the British Empire's government, military, society, business and banking. The heart and head of the Empire, it was the most populous city in the British Isles. Simply being able to bomb London at will was quite a military and technological feat. Though Scotland and the Midlands were also targeted, the destruction of London would have inestimable strategic and morale-oriented consequences.
To add to the personal apprehension, misery and anxiety, bombing was in essence indiscriminate. There was always an element of uncertainty. Shelters and defensive procedures were haphazard and make shift. Anyone could be killed or maimed, usually during the darkest hours, with no regard to age, sex or occupation. Everyone and everything one held dear was at risk. There was little or no warning, and no way to be entirely protected. This situation was deliberately designed to produce stress and sorrow for the British people. The ordeal of experiencing the horrors of war would be placed not only on British soldiers, but British society itself. Many times, the future of the country depends on how well its national character responds to the most horrific conditions. How the populace managed its predicament would influence the outcome of the war itself.
Chapter Two: Implementation
At the outbreak of war, the initial response of the British was summed up in a Business As Usual philosophy. This unrealistic policy would be played out within a year. 10 Along with the casualty lists, the enormity, futility and longevity of the war were becoming indisputable. Even though as many as ten fronts would eventually be opened in W.W.I., 11 the British assumed their island realm itself would remain inviolable. Britain had a natural complacency concerning her vulnerability due to her long history of insularity (last successfully invaded in 1066) and her powerful, well-respected Navy. This presumption of national invulnerability and the essential ability to safeguard her civilians would collapse within months.
On January 19, 1915, two zeppelins dropped the first bombs on England. Four British civilians were killed, and sixteen injured. Less than a hundred thousand dollars worth of material damage was sustained. 12 A new kind of warfare, with dire and unanticipated psychological, physical and ethical objectives and consequences, began.
For Germany, the significance of this raid was referred to two days later in a German editorial:
It has come to pass, that which the English have long feared and repeatedly have contemplated with terror. The most modern air weapon, a triumph of German inventiveness and the sole possession of the German military, has shown itself
capable of crossing the sea and carrying the war right to the
sod of old England! 13
For Britain, the significance was that these raids shattered British complacency. At first, combating these raids became the duty of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Churchill believed in taking the pressure off England by utilizing airplanes for pre-emptive strikes against the zeppelin bases themselves. They managed to damage or destroy five zeppelins in this fashion. 14 Under enormous pressure from the military, the Kaiser decided to allow zeppelins to bomb London - although targets were initially limited to strictly military ones. His many ties to England and the Royal Family were a huge impediment to the ruthless plans of the High Command, which was inevitably gearing up for total war. They believed the best course of action was to employ a fleet of zeppelins, carrying 300 incendiary bombs each, to burn London to the ground. 15 With their existing technology, this was not yet attainable, but the desire and drafting were there. Actual precision bombing was known to be nearly impossible, as conditions were not conducive to perfection. Natural impediments hampered navigation greatly. Zeppelins had to contend with fog, clouds, ice, snow, powerful wind currents, and lightning (which did hit, and bring down, zeppelins). The blandness of a darkened English countryside, after crossing a featureless sea, was very disorienting. For security reasons, zeppelins were forced to fly higher and higher. British planes and anti-aircraft were continually improving to minimize the virtual invulnerability the tremendous altitude attainable for zeppelins produced. Eventually one reached an elevation of four and a half miles. 16 The museums, schools, palaces, and other civilian targets (along with civilians themselves) the Kaiser would have preferred to protect could not be isolated from the military targets below.
Another reason for navigational miscalculation was the effects of altitude itself on human beings. At this height, oxygen depravation and severe cold could make the crews confused, nauseous, light-headed or unconscious. Some men were actually killed by faulty oxygen masks or engine fumes. 17 Others were incapacitated for days or weeks after their mission. On account of these problems in navigation, the countryside was inadvertently bombed as well. Zeppelins could wander off course as far as sixty miles. Their bombs dropped on fields, farms, woods and even the Channel as well as bona fide targets. Since chance played such an consequential and undesired role, no location was entirely safe.
With German mastery of the skies, the British population underwent a drastic crisis. The normal human response to danger is fight or flight. 18 Unfortunately for the civilian, neither situation was thoroughly achievable. The range of the original anti-aircraft guns were too weak to reach the zeppelins. In fact, since their pom-pom shells only detonated on impact, they were more dangerous to the people on the ground they were attempting to protect. British planes would take forty-five minutes to achieve the zeppelin's altitude, then would have to hover over and drop a bomb on it. Within that time frame, zeppelins would easily have outmaneuvered them.
Zeppelin over London lit by searchlights, Oct. 1915
The threatened population demanded immediate action. Colonel Rawlinson, in charge of developing London's anti-aircraft defenses, explained the change in public attitudes:
The result actually produced was a most effectual
waking up of the population of London, who until that time
had been inclined to be somewhat somnolent in their sense of
fancied security. There was, of course, no sign whatever of
any kind of panic, but there undoubtedly was a certain feeling
of dismay. This was immediately followed by a deep and universal
anger that such attacks should be made upon our defenseless women
and children. Above all arose a still deeper feeling of dissatisfaction when it was realized that no adequate system of defence existed, and that our homes lay at the mercy of the enemy, of whose murderous intentions no doubt
With its makeshift defenses, the population was naturally anxious. Other emotional and psychological problems in existence were: state of siege mentality, general and potential mass nervousness, depression, sheer fear, horror, loss of sleep (due to noise as well as anxiety), jumpiness, feelings of vulnerability (real and imagined), confusion, irritation, anger, a sinking feeling and, of course, terror. Bad colds and premature babies were also blamed on the bombings. 20
There were also affects from directly observing people, possibly ones known or even related to, being killed, wounded, maimed or mangled. People became homeless. Businesses were destroyed. On days following zeppelin raids, industry suffered inevitable absenteeism. 21 Familiar houses and streets were demolished. Funerals were held for children and entire families. War was being brought to the home front. The objectives targeted by the zeppelins were objects such as the Admiralty building, the Bank of England, railways, bridges, dockyards, depots, the Royal Mint, factories, warehouses, power stations, timber yards, military installations - anything that was considered valuable to the Entente war effort. There was also an effort to initiate fires, which accounts for the large percentage of incendiary bombs dropped. 22 Unfortunately, many civilian areas were also bombed. Restaurants, bars, a brewery, hotels, hospitals, museums, glasshouses, chapels, theatres, the headquarters of the Belgium Relief Fund, and tramcars were damaged or destroyed.
Private homes were also hit, producing appalling sufferings. On September 7th, 1915, a bomb fell on tenements in Hughes Fields, Deptford, killing nearly an entire family. The daughter, Teresa, recorded her statement for the Coroner's office: I identify the body of my father, William James Beechey, aged 56; my mother, Elizabeth Emma Frances Beechey, aged 47; the body of my brother and two sisters, William Beechey, aged 11, Margaret Beechey, aged 7, and Eleanor Beechey, aged 3, all residing with my parents at 34, Hughes Fields. 23 Possibly the worst tragedy occurred on October 19, 1917. The seven children (ages' three to thirteen) and young cousin of Mrs. Kingston were bombed in London. Only Mrs. Kingston survived. 24 This type of pitiless devastation gave the zeppelins their baby - killer image.
There were smaller irritations as well. Trains would be forced to wait for hours, in the dark, with the threat of zeppelins in the area. 25 Whistling for taxis was prohibited, as was the chiming of town clocks. 26 Streetlights were dimmed, causing more accidents. 27 Previously consistent lighting on prominent streets were jumbled and even placed in Hyde Park to confuse the zeppelins. 28 Lighting on buses was reduced to the barest minimum required to collect fares. Outside lights for advertising were curbed. Air raid warnings, searchlights and anxious dashes to shelters became familiar. The sirens of ambulances and firetrucks became more frequent. Blackouts were haphazardly produced and enforced throughout the country - even in areas zeppelins could not reach. Children were sent to relatives in the country, disrupting family life. Men joined the civil defense units. Women tried to protect their families from a weapon for which no actual adequate protection existed.
Zeppelin Damage at Yarmouth, 1915For many, the noise of the sirens, the explosions of bombs, the shattering of glass, the cries of terror, and the inescapable fear of death or injury became horrifying aspects of life. The possibility of a violent death worthy of the battle-field suddenly existed on English soil itself. There was no glory involved, just shock, surprise and catastrophe. Bombed villagers would be apprehensive for weeks. 29 For other individuals, acclimation to air raids and the terror they inspired eventually became attainable. 30 To some, air raids could even become tedious. Schools, businesses, government, the theatre, etc. all endured. People went on with their lives. As in the trenches, there was no predicting as to how bombing would affect someone. For the soldiers in the trenches, there was suddenly a new fear - possibly worse than that of their own individual death. It was the anxiety over the loved ones in Britain, their families and friends. Now those at home were in danger as well.
Raids themselves were rarely as effective, incessant or deadly as to justify the psychological terror they inspired. They customarily were only carried out seasonally (March through October) and in the period of the dark of the moon (about eight days before and after the new moon). 31 The approximately fifty raids into England over three and a half years caused nearly two thousand casualties. In contrast to this, Britain endured 57,470 casualties at the Battle of the Somme on its first day. 32 Weather, navigational problems and mechanical failures made many missions abortive or ineffectual. One example is a raid that occurred on August 21, 1917. Of the eight zeppelins sent out, only one managed to even reach England, bombing a chapel and injuring one man. 33 The largest raid comprised eleven ships (October 19, 1917), of which only seven managed to return, with one seriously damaged. One ship had been captured, and nearly a hundred crew men were killed or apprehended. 34 Such loss of ships and trained men proved enormously costly.
The most materially destructive raid occurred on September 8, 1915. Captain Heinrich Mathy, the most acclaimed hero of the zeppelin corps, dropped 4,000 pounds of bombs and caused, in 1991's money, 200 million dollars worth of damage. 35 One hundred and nine people became casualties. In an editorial in the London Times on September 10, Mr. F.H. Manners, a private secretary of the Lord of the Admiralty, wrote of the mood of the populace:
The Zeppelins appear to cause wonderfully little panic at the
moment of murder, and no permanent panic afterwards. Their
effect is, not a demand for peace, but a demand of the whole
nation to help in the war. The Germans do not understand
human nature, and they have never understood it less than in
this matter...Their anachronism does certainly produce a
psychological effect, only it is the opposite of the effect aimed
Six pages earlier in the same paper is an advertisement for the Pyrene Fire Extinguisher. The only illustration, other than the fire extinguisher itself, is a drawing of a zeppelin, followed by the caption, BE PREPARED FOR FIRE. The public was painfully adjusting itself to a new and perilous reality. 37
The positive and humane attributes of society itself became tested in this hostile predicament. Spontaneous outbursts of anger and hatred led to rioters damaging shops with German sounding names. Innocent people were falsely accused of signaling or radioing the zeppelins. Anxiety and suspicion became observable. Disgruntled citizens threatened and, in at least one case, actually beat soldiers (as in Beverly) for supposed inadequate protection - though there was nothing effective they could have done in any case. 38 Though the rule of law and order generally prevailed, tolerance, objectivity and civility became tarnished under the zeppelin threat.
An understandable lack of humanity was demonstrated once Britain became capable of shooting down the zeppelins. Powerful feelings were associated with those fearful instruments. An enormous emotional response accompanied the meteoric descent of a crashing zeppelin. An excitable populace could now see its government was doing something commendable. One eyewitness, then 10-year old Henry Tuttle, remembers the first downing of a zeppelin (Sept. 2, 1916):
It was a fantastic sight like a big silver cigar and it seemed to be
going very slowly by this time. A lot of people came out of their
houses and then all of a sudden flames started to come from the
Zeppelin and then it broke in half and was one mass of flames.
It was an incredible sight: people were cheering, dancing, singing
and somebody started playing the bagpipes. This went on well
into the night. 39
Others were not so elated by the sight. Aghast, Sybil Morrison viewed the same spectacle. She elaborates:
To me, well to anyone I would think, it was what I would call
an awful sight. It was like a big cigar I suppose and all of the
bag part had caught fire - the gas part. I mean - it was roaring
flames; blue, red, purple... And we knew that there were about
sixty people in it - we'd always been told there was a crew of
about sixty - and that they were being roasted to death. Of course
you weren't supposed to feel any pity for your enemies, nether-
theless I was appalled to see the kind, good-hearted British
people dancing about in the streets at the sight of sixty people
being burned alive - clapping and singing and cheering. And my
own friends - delighted. When I said I was appalled that anyone
could be pleased to see such a terrible sight they said ;But they're
Germans; they're the enemy' - not human beings. And it was
like a flash to me that that was what war did; it created this
inhumanity in perfectly decent nice, gentle, kindly people. 40
A Crashed Zeppelin, Essex, 1916
The angry British contemplated the idea of retaliation. Either German cities would have to be bombed in reprisal, or one German prisoner of war would be executed for every civilian death. They considered the idea of building their own zeppelin fleet, even constructing the unfortunately named Mayfly - which broke her back before she could be of any use. The zeppelin crew members were considered Huns and baby - killers. They believed they would be executed if captured - and were quite surprised when this did not happen. 41 Of course, once hit, it was exceptionally rare that a crew was not killed outright by the landing itself. In the course of the war, seventeen airships were destroyed that left no survivors. Of the approximately fifty flight crews trained, about forty percent were killed. 42
On the positive side for Britain, the threat strengthened the fighting spirit of her populace. As they would demonstrate again a quarter of a century later, bombing alone could not subdue the British people. A sense of defiance and resistance developed. When Captain Oscar Grieg was captured by the Germans, the interrogator asked Grieg for his opinion of the zeppelins. Grieg replied, ...they were splendid, the best thing they had ever done, as recruits were now coming in so fast that we hardly knew how to deal with them. 43
Britain's relentless quest for finding technological solutions to the zeppelins finally paid off. As the Home Guard grew to twenty-five thousand men and officers, along with nearly 200 planes, the days of the invulnerable zeppelin (and of World War One itself) were nearing an end. 44 Many of these planes were equipped with newly invented incendiary bullets, tracer bullets and Lewis guns. Observation and listening posts, with new electronic ears called orthophones, were set up. British communication and intelligence - crucial as this comprised her warning system between the coast and the cities - became more efficient. The same goes for searchlights and artillery. Britain was increasingly becoming more costly, in both crews and zeppelins, to bomb. As Colonel Rawlinson wrote, In fact, the stress of war brought about a feverish activity and a most commendable, if somewhat tardy, desire for efficiency in defense such as could have been produced by no other means. 45
In 1917, as a last ditch effort, new super-zeppelins were introduced, which again flew higher than the defensive measures set up. But the altitude was so great, approximately 20,000 feet, that accuracy was severely impaired. Electronic navigation was ineffectual. Wind and weather created an even a greater strain at that height. Horrified zeppelin crew members had recently observed their comrades shot down in flames. The dream that zeppelins alone could bring the British Empire to her knees was dead. Their attempts to destroy British morale had failed. The Germans decided to concentrate their efforts and money on their airplanes, the Giants and the Gothas. The once mighty zeppelins, which for two years ruled the skies, were found to be strategically obsolete while the war was still in progress.
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2. Kenneth Poolman, Zeppelins Against London, (New York : John Day
Co., 1961), 21.
3. Douglas H. Robinson, The Zeppelin in Combat : A History of the
German Naval Airship Division 1912-1918, (London : G.T. Foulis
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4. Captain Ernest A. Lehman and Howard Mingos, The Zeppelins,
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5. Castle, 43.
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7. Robinson, 54.
8. Castle, 24.
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11. Martin Gilbert, The First World War : A Complete History, (New
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12. Cross, 20.
13. Cross, 20.
14. Cross 26-27.
15. Poolman, 32.
16. Cross, 156.
17. Cross, 132-3.
18. P.E. Vernon, Psychological Effects of Air-Raids, The Journal of
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19. Alfred Rawlinson, The Defense of London 1915-1918, (London &
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30. Playne, 142.
31. Cross, 24.
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34. Cross, 164.
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