World War 1 History: Germany's Giant Strategic Bomber
The Giant Zeppelin-Staaken Bomber
Air Warfare is Born
When World War One started in 1914, military aviation's main role was reconnaissance and observation. Most generals were dismissive of the upstart service, harboring the belief that cavalry could fulfill its traditional role better than the frail, newfangled contraptions. As the war progressed, even the most conservative and intransigent generals begrudgingly admitted the need for air superiority. Fighter aircraft were needed to shoot down the observation planes. More fighters were needed to shoot down the fighters that were shooting down reconnaissance aircraft and observation balloons. Planes started dropping hand-held bombs on enemy lines and tactical bombers were developed to be more effective at supporting the ground war.
Strategic Bombing is Born
With all this change brought on by the use of technology never before seen or used in war, it was inevitable that, sooner or later, non-combatants far away from the fighting would become embroiled in the fighting. The idea of strategic bombing was born. This new form of warfare was intended to destroy the enemy's capacity to wage war and reduce its citizens' support of the war. It required much larger machines to carry bigger bomb loads further and higher than those available barely a decade after the Wright brothers flew the first heavier-than-air powered aircraft 120 feet at Kitty Hawk. Surprisingly, it was the so-called backward Russians who pioneered the field of huge bombers as early as 1914 with their large four-engined Ilya Muramets bomber designed by Igor Sikorsky, who would later go on to create American helicopters.
All sides practiced strategic bombing, destroying factories to slow the production of war material, bombing bridges and infrastructure to hamper logistics and supply, etc. Inevitably, innocent civilians died, whether they were near the target or in the wrong place when bombs fell on the wrong targets, which was quite frequent. Sooner, rather than later, non-military sites were targeted.
Postcard Showing a Zeppelin
First, the Zeppelin Dirigibles
The Germans favored using their Zeppelin dirigibles, 550-foot lighter-than-air monsters that could carry large payloads and fly further than any other aircraft at the time. Germany especially wanted to target cities in Britain because, of all the other major combatants, Britain's territory was not under attack. The Germans thought that, if the war was taken to the British people, they might rise up in revolt against participating in the war. That pipe-dream never materialized (it rarely does), but the die was cast: Germany would expend large amounts of resources to drop bombs on British soil.
Starting in 1915, the Zeppelins raided British towns and cities. At first they were careful to bomb military targets, but mistakes and bad weather resulted in ordinary places being bombed. Then the Germans accused the French of bombing German civilians and the whole idea of Strategic Bombing pretty much devolved into: try to get to one of your targets, drop your bombs, hope for the best and get home.
The Zeppelins ruled the skies until 1916 when British fighters were equipped with new incendiary and explosive ammunition, which allowed them to ignite the hydrogen gas inside the dirigibles. The Germans continued to use dirigibles for most of the war, but many were shot down in blazes seen a hundred miles away.
Zeppelins Are Like Kleenex
Germany's dirigibles were commonly referred to as Zeppelins, even though some were not made by the Zeppelin company-- like asking for a Kleenex when you should ask for a tissue.
Next, the Gotha Heavy Bombers
In May 1917. the Germans started sending in waves of their new twin-engine Gotha bombers. Gothas could fly at 15,000 feet, higher than the British fighters defending the cities could reach. These heavy bombers had a wingspan of 78 feet, weighed 8,800 lbs and could carry a bomb load of 1,100 lbs. At first, they, too, seemed invincible. In a daylight bombing of London in mid-June, 18 Gothas were attacked by 90 British fighters, but not one bomber was lost. It wasn't until later in the year, when the British home defenses were equipped with the advanced Sopwith Camels that the Germans started losing bombers in significant numbers. At that point, the Gothas, like the Zeppelins had already done, switched to night bombings, with the night's inherent decrease in accuracy.
Germany's Gigantic Strategic Bomber
Finally, the Giant Zeppelin-Staaken Bombers
In September 1917, the Gotha raids were joined by Zeppelin-Staaken bombers, so-called Riesenflugzeug (“giant aircraft”) and also nicknamed Giant. This monster biplane, probably inspired by the Russian Ilya Muramets bomber, had a wingspan of nearly 139 feet-- almost the same as the American Boeing B-29 Superfortress used in World War Two-- and also was larger than any German bomber used in the next war. It had an enclosed cockpit, weighed over 26,000 lbs, had a maximum bomb load of 4,400 lbs and a maximum range of 500 miles. Its four engines, arranged in two-engine pairs with each pair having one tractor engine (“pulling”) and one pusher engine “pushing”, gave it a maximum speed of 85 mph. The Giant normally had a crew of seven: commander, pilot, copilot, radio operator, fuel attendant and two mechanics. Each mechanic flew outside the fuselage and actually in the engine housing between the pusher and puller engines so they could maintain and repair the engines in flight. Crew members manned machine guns as necessary. The Giant had a biplane tail arrangement that, in itself, was as large as a fighter plane.
Diagram of the Giant
As the raids over Britain continued, the British defenses got stronger. They were equipped with better and more fighters, better anti-aircraft batteries. London was surrounded by 50 miles of barrage balloons. All this started to take a severe toll on the two-engine Gotha bombers, until, in January 1918, they were pulled from their strategic bombing role to provide tactical ground support for the upcoming German Spring Offensive.
The Zeppelin-Staakens, however, kept up their raids, though there were only ever about five or six available against the British. The Giants flew a total of 52 missions over British cities. The few other Giants were used on the Eastern Front as well as against the French. In February 1918, one Giant dropped a 2,200 lb bomb over London-- the largest bomb dropped in the war. It fell on the Royal Hospital in Chelsea.
The Giants were tough. One was damaged when it ran into a barrage balloon's cable, but, after plunging a thousand feet, the pilot was able to regain control of the aircraft. They were intercepted and shot up by fighters and anti-aircraft guns, but no Giants were ever lost over British territory, though two were lost over France.
War Comes to Civilians
Minimum Physical Damage-- Maximum Psychological Damage
Only 38 Zeppelin-Staakens were ever built and roughly only half of those saw actual service. There were many variants-- some had five engines (one in the nose, or one inside the fuselage used as a super-charger), some were even equipped with floats for use as seaplanes. Giants were extremely complicated to build and were very expensive-- about 600,000 marks-- for the times. There were disagreements about resources being kept from the front lines and whether it was cost-effective. It's true the physical damage done to Britain was relatively minor, but the strategic attacks did tie down 10,000 men and many anti-aircraft weapons and fighter aircraft.
The hoped-for uprising by a terrified population never emerged, but it was a huge psychological blow to the British. Their navy could do nothing to stop these attacks on the homeland and the fact that no Giants were shot down over Britain gave rise to the pessimistic belief that “the heavy bomber will always get through” which would affect political and military thinking when World War Two loomed.
The Versailles Treaty specifically demanded that all Gotha and Giant bombers were to be handed over to the Allies. When the Germans delivered the Giants, the Allies couldn't believe so few had caused so much trouble and accused the Germans of holding them back until the truth was verified.
Zeppelin Staaken (Giant) Variant with 5 Engines
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© 2012 David Hunt