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.