German Airships, Part Two

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
July 2019

An orange blimp flew over my house a while back. It was probably advertising something, but since it was directly overhead - and less than 200 feet up - I have no idea what might have been painted on its sides. I ran outside and chased it for about 15 minutes until it finally pulled away.

That's exactly why I wanted to do the Zeppelins book for the Great War at Sea system: a simple, child-like fascination with airships. Zeppelins is one of the best products we've ever done: game, book or otherwise. At least I think so. And what really makes the game is the set of giant-sized zeppelin pieces and their fantastic artwork.

In our last installment, we started a look at the book’s German pieces. Let’s continue:

Parseval’s Rubber Cow

While Peter Strasser had shown a clear preference for the Zeppelin Works’ rigid airships and wanted more of them, many more of them, his superiors felt differently. They spread the wartime profits to the Luft-Fahrzeug-Gesellschaft of Bitterfeld, better known for its “Roland” series of fighter planes, buying two of its Parseval airships and requisitioning a third.

Strasser hated the Parseval “pressure airships” even more deeply than the Schütte-Lanz wooden ships. August von Parseval’s design used a rubberized fabric envelop that kept its shape, more or less, when deflated but had no framework or keel. So it was not by definition a rigid or semi-rigid ship, but it had a shape not provided solely by its gas, so it wasn’t a blimp, either. What it was, according to Strasser, was “militarily useless” and “unsuited for naval purposes, and also for operations over land.”

The Naval Airship Division’s three Parsevals all began as someone else’s project. The small PL.6 had belonged to Stollwerck Chocolate and before the war flew over Berlin with a projector playing advertisements on its envelope. PL.19 had been one of four ships ordered by Britain’s Royal Navy and seized at the outbreak of war, while PL.25 was originally ordered by the Army and diverted to the Navy as part of the one-for-one principle (her sister PL.26 remained with the Army).

The little chocolate airship was used briefly for training, while the other two were exiled to the Baltic with the Schütte-Lanz ships. PL.19 was shot down by the Russians, while PL.25 was dismantled in March 1916 after making 95 flights.

The Zeppelin Critic

Major Hans Georg Friedrich Gross, commander of the Imperial Army’s balloon battalion stationed in Berlin, disliked the Zeppelin rigid-frame approach and championed the semi-rigid, style with a rigid keel but an unfettered balloon above it. Together with his fellow balloonist Nikolaus Basenach he founded a small airship construction firm and built a small series of semi-rigid airships, numbered M.I through M.IV.

After setting an endurance record in 1908, the Gross-Basenach airships steadily fell behind the performance standards of the Zeppelin ships. Gross grew more frustrated as his new ships could not match the hated rigid airships. By 1913 the Army had had enough as well and transferred him to Karlsruhe to oversee telegraph units.

His last airship was still around when war broke out, and the Navy bought it for the Airship Division after ordering it enlarged. Strasser, just as unimpressed with this craft as with the Parseval castoffs, sent it to the Baltic where it made 24 patrols and unsuccessfully tried to bomb a submarine that turned out to be German. In November 1915 the airship was dismantled and her crew transferred to more useful rigid ships.

The Mass-Produced Zeppelin

The improved design seen in LZ26 (which served the Army while a duplicate was built for the Navy as L9) served as the basis for the Zeppelin Works’ P-class ships, the first ordered for mass production. They were big ships compared to their earlier versions, with a gas capacity of 1.1 million cubic feet and a length of 163.5 meters. They incorporated a number of new patented features from the Schütte-Lanz ships, and were much more streamlined than previous Zeppelin designs, another feature adopted from their wooden rivals.

The duralumin frame featured sixteen bays, each holding its own gasbag. The gasbags needed to be as light as possible, and were made of fabric coated with what’s known as goldbeater’s cloth, the processed intestine of an ox, a lightweight, gas-tight and extremely tear-resistant material. Some 80,000 oxen had to give up their guts to produce the gasbags of a single airship, and between them the Navy and Army had ordered 22 P-class ships (eleven each to the Navy and the Army). Some of the ships therefore flew with gasbags made of rubberized fabric, a heavier alternative that impacted their performance.

The new ships had much heavier armament than the early craft, with eight machine guns rather than one or two. They could loft 2,000 kilos of bombs (4,400 pounds, or two tons) which they carried within the envelope attached to the girders; they were electrically released from within the control car. An Army ship of the class (LZ38) was the first to bomb London in late May 1915; her Navy sister L10 hit the British capital four days later.

Despite the improvements, British air defenses more than kept pace and the Zeppelin Works introduced an improved model in late 1915. The Q-class ships had an extra bay and gasbag inserted, increasing their length by 15 meters and their gas volume to 1.2 million cubic feet. That, and more powerful engines, increased their ceiling by 1,500 feet. A dozen Q-class ships were built, with five going to the Navy and seven to the Army. In addition, the Army re-built six of its P-class ships to Q-class standards.

The sixteen naval airships performed most of the reconnaissance missions for the High Seas Fleet in the operations that most depended on airship scouting: the Sunderland Raid in April 1916 and the Battle of Jutland the following month. They also made the first large-scale bombing raids on British targets. Their missions represented a great deal more experience that the handful of small airships previously available had been able to compile, and those lessons went into a new larger and more capable airship.

The Improved Zeppelin

Previous airship designs had been limited by the size of existing airship sheds, which had only just been built or were still under construction. The Navy did not wish to make those investments instantly obsolete, but the designs returned by Zeppelin and Schütte-Lanz were disappointing. The Navy ordered new proposals, ignoring previous limits to build a ship with six engines rather than the four of previous classes. The Navy began building larger sheds in anticipation of the larger ships.

The R-class was enormously larger than previous ships, with a volume of 1.9 million cubic feet and a length of 196.5 meters. She was faster and could carry close to twice as many bombs as the previous class, and climb much higher as well, to 13,000 feet. Of the seventeen ships built, only two went to the Army as the land service abandoned the airship and transferred its ships and personnel to the Navy. Those two ships would join the Naval Airship Division as well.

Peter Strasser, the Naval Airship Division’s commander, was greatly impressed, as were his officers, and ready to open a massive bombing offensive against English targets. They not only had the airship of their dreams, they had it in quantity.

Results did not meet expectations. Raids launched in late 1916 suffered heavy losses despite their new, modern ships; the Airship Division needed still more capable ships. The Zeppelin Works responded quickly, with designs for even larger and faster ships. But Strasser had new information that drove him in a new direction: higher.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.