The Vanishing Hero and the Revenge that Never Happened

Excerpted from Myths and Mysteries of the Great War in the Air, Part 1 by O’Brien Browne. Published in World War One Illustrated #1, Fall 2013. This issue is still available for purchase here. This issue also included an introductory game: Zeppelin Raider! that can play solitaire. Read more about the other issues of WWOI and our projects here. Help us to preserve the stories of this critical period of history. Here’s how.


Georges Guynemer

Georges Guynemer by “Lucien” (unknown painter), Musée de la Légion d’Honneur et des Ordres de Chevalerie, Paris

Never underestimate the power of a good story. World War I was perhaps the last opportunity for a fighter pilot to become a hero in the medieval sense the word. It was not unusual for propagandists to embellish the career of popular pilots to the level of heroic legend. However, the facts usually do not match up to the myths.

One such myth is that Capitaine Georges Guynemer flew into the clouds, never to be seen again.

Guynemer was a French ace with 53 air to air kills credited to him before his death. At his memorial service, a French general stated, “[Guynemer] had disappeared in empyrean glory through a miraculous assumption.” This is certainly a romantic notion.

Writers picked up on the general’s statement and repeated it endlessly. The repetition made it as though the good Captain had actually vanished into the clouds rather than met his death. In fact, Capitaine Guynemer had been shot down on September 10, 1917 by Leutnant Wissemann near Poelkapelle. A German doctor examined his body. A shot through the head had killed him.

The French Get Revenge?

A myth related to the first is that French Ace of Aces René Fonck Killed Ltn. Wissemann, the Pilot Who Shot Down Guynemer. Propagandists credited Fonck with killing Wissemann in a delicious and often repeated tale of vengeance for the death of Guynemer.

Not true. Captain Geoffrey Hilton Bowman and Lt. T. C. Hoidge of the Royal Flying Corps shot down Wissemann on September 28, 1917, a little over two weeks after the fall of the French ace.

Terror in the Sky: The Zeppelin over Britain

In 1937, the luxury Zeppelin airship Hindenburg burned in a devastating fire.  Instead of non-flammable helium, the Germans used hydrogen as the lifting gas for their airships.  Public opinion labeled Zeppelins as unsafe because of the disaster, which was seen worldwide on newsreels.

With that disaster in mind, one might not consider them to be a terrifying vehicle of war. However, Zeppelins plagued the British skies with near-impunity during the first two years of World War I.

Zeppelins were much more difficult to bring down than one would think. Zeppelins used multiple cells made from cow intestines and suspended in a rigid structure of an aluminum alloy called duralumin to contain the hydrogen. For the hydrogen to ignite, it needed to mix with oxygen and a spark or flame. Normal machine-gun fire and tracers could not bring them down.

The huge airships carried explosives and incendiaries to drop on targets. The world’s first Zeppelin bombing campaign caused 557 deaths and 1558 wounded, most of them civilians.

The ammunition at the beginning of WWI could not bring them down. This changed when the British developed incendiary and explosive ammunition. It was now possible to shoot a Zeppelin down, but it required concentrated machine-gun fire to do so.

Excerpted from Zeppelin Scourge: The First Aerial Battle of Britain by Steve Suddaby. Published in World War One Illustrated #1, Fall 2013. This issue is still available for purchase here. This issue also included an introductory game: Zeppelin Raider! that can be played solitaire. Read more about the other issues of WWOI and our projects here. Help us to preserve the stories of this critical period of history. Here’s how.