War of Words – ‘Zeppelin’

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The German inventor Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin was behind the rigid airship, which first flew in 1900.

‘Zeppelin’ appeared in English that same year in Whitaker’s Almanack: ‘The Zeppelin Air-ship… is a cylindrical frame of aluminium in partitions, each holding a gas-bag.’

The German Zeppelin LZ 18 (L 2) at Berlin-Johannistal.
The German Zeppelin LZ 18 (L 2) at Berlin-Johannistal.

It would later gain infamy as an aerial weapon of terror, being used as a bomber over the Continent from the outset of the First World War.

On 12 September 1914, the magazine Land & Water reported that ‘a Zeppelin has dropped bombs on Antwerp’. It would become even more loathsome when night bombing raids on Britain itself began in 1915. They continued until 1918.

‘Zeppelin’ quickly became a verb. ‘They will Zeppelin the fleet and walk through our army’, wrote H.G. Wells in 1916’s Mr Britling Sees It Through.

Buoyed skyward by hydrogen gas contained inside cells, the Zeppelin was steerable, with motive power provided by petrol engines linked to propellers. Its primary attributes were its long range and lofty service ceiling.

Many Zeppelins flew so high that the slow-climbing fighter aeroplanes of the day struggled to reach them.

But the Zeppelin had severe drawbacks. Chief among them was its low speed, which even in the advanced ‘R’ class was a mere 62 miles per hour. The hydrogen was also extremely flammable.

Their effectiveness was also questionable. The Zeppelins did little damage to Britain, being more of a vexation to public morale.

Meanwhile, German losses mounted as defences against the nocturnal intruders were developed, including anti-aircraft guns, searchlights, fighters, and incendiary or explosive ammunition. This was well suited to setting the hydrogen-filled balloons aflame.

Yet the memory of the giant German airships has persisted since the Great War. The oxymoronic name of the rock band Led Zeppelin, for example, conveyed the disjunction of an ostensibly lighter-than-air dirigible made of lead.

Marc DeSantis

This article was published in the April 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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