German Airships, Part Three

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
August 2019

Just like fixed-wing aircraft, the airship developed with astounding speed between 1914 and 1918. Our Great War at Sea: Zeppelins book tracks those developments, providing gigantic new playing pieces that show the airships’ improving capabilities as the war goes on. And they’re just a lot more fun to use.

By the second half of the war, the airships have far greater range and can achieve far greater heights (taking them, hopefully at least, beyond the reach of defending fighter planes). And they can carry a greater payload. By the time the war ended they had not yet begun to operate aircraft, but British experiments started soon afterwards and had the conflict continued there’s little doubt that the zeppelin-fighter combination would have appeared. We got into that alternative-history with The Second Great War story line.

Even so, the late-war zeppelins (by this point, all German airships were zeppelins as the other manufacturers could not keep up with the rapid advance of technology) are impressive machines. Let’s have a look at them.

The Height Climbers

In late 1916, the British released machinist mate Adolf Schultz, a survivor of the lost L33, as part of a prisoner exchange. The ship was first hit by an explosive anti-aircraft shell and then shot up by fighter planes, but managed to escape. She steadily lost altitude and her captain, Alois Böcker, brought her to a crash-landing in Essex with no fatalities among his 24 crewmen. Schultz, released in Bern, Switzerland, immediately wrote a full report of his experiences and gave it to the German naval attache, who forwarded it to Strasser.

Schultz’s recommendations told Strasser that the new airships didn’t need more speed, they needed to be able to climb higher. L33 had been unable to escape the British fighters, and only managed to elude them thanks to her captain’s skillful use of a cloud bank.

Strasser did not hesitate, demanding a ship that could reach 20,000 feet; the previous class, as well as British fighter planes, could only reach 13,000 feet. The Admiralstab quickly called the Zeppelin Works’ lead designers to a 27 January 1917 conference to discuss Strasser’s proposals. The conference turned out to be the mythical useful meeting: the airshipmen and the engineers quickly and efficiently decided how to craft the ship Strasser desired and the admirals blessed the results.

Following the conference, Strasser rushed back to the airship base at Nordholz to convert the four newest zeppelins to the new standard. All armament was stripped from the ships, along with the bomb releases on the port side of the ships and one of the rear engines removed. Thus lightened, the ships topped 16,000 feet and could reach 17,000 with their engines stopped. Ballast water froze in the sub-zero temperatures, and some of the crewmen required compressed oxygen to offset the effects of anoxia.

A month and a day after the Berlin conference, the Zeppelin Works delivered the first ship built to the new standard. The S-class outwardly resembled the modified R-class, except for the lower part of their hull having been painted flat black to make them more difficult to spot with searchlights.

The first ship, L42, reached 19,700 feet. Subsequent craft reduced their weight still further with modifications to their internal frame and topped 20,000 feet. The Zeppelin Works continued to seek out weight-saving measures, even as Strasser relented and ordered the armament returned to the ships (though only two machine guns and only for scouting missions and not for bombing raids).

Throughout 1917, the Zeppelin Works made incremental improvements, moving the maximum altitude higher and higher while retaining the same basic hull and frame. The new-model zeppelins were now proof against anti-aircraft guns – no zeppelin was lost to anti-aircraft artillery on any bombing raid over England. The nascent Royal Air Force had high-performance fighters that could reach 20,000 feet, but none of these were allotted to home defense until the end of the war.

The Last Operational Type

In October 1917, eleven zeppelins headed for England in the largest raid to date, known as the “Silent Raid” since they would fly too high to be heard from the ground. While the weather seemed fine at lower altitudes, when they reached their penetration height of 20,000 feet they encountered fierce gales and only seven of the ships made it back safely to Germany.

The Admiralstab reacted with a proposal for a new, larger ship that had to engine power to confront high winds and the lift to reach high altitudes. The Navy finally placed an order for four such airships in April 1918, for delivery in June.

The new-model zeppelin, known as the X-class, took the design of the last high-climber class and added one additional bay, increasing its length by 15 meters to 198 meters and its gas capacity to 2.2 million cubic feet. She was also the fastest airship ever flown at the time of her July 1918 trials, making 81 miles per hour. Strasser had her fitted with 20mm Oerlikon cannon in place of the usual machine guns, giving her a defensive weapon that out-ranged the machine guns of British fighters.

Only two of the ships would be completed before the war ended, with one more following shortly afterwards. Strasser died aboard L70 in August 1918 when she was shot down on the last airship raid over Britain. One of the surviving ships went to Britain as a war reparation, and the other to France.

The Super Zeppelin

Following Strasser’s fiery death, Capt. Hans-Paul Werther, head of the airship schools and attached ground troops, took over as Leader of Airships. Young Werther’s sorrows only increased, as less than a week later airship supporter Admiral Reinhard Scheer left the High Seas Fleet command to become Chief of the Naval Staff, with Admiral Franz von Hipper succeeding him.

As commander of the High Seas Fleet’s Scouting Forces for the entire war, Hipper had been continually disappointed by the reconnaissance performance of the airships, which he considered their primary reason for existence. The airship still had a purpose in long-range scouting, Hipper said, and the raids on England tied down significant enemy resources. Werther would be allowed to pursue new, larger airships, but the Naval Airship Division would never again enjoy the operational freedom and open purse it had experienced under Strasser and Scheer.

The Admiralstab held yet another conference in September 1918, attended by Werther and his top captains. The attendees agreed to extend L71 and L72 with one additional gas cell, bringing their ceiling to 26,000 feet. Five slightly older ships of the “height climber” classes would be stretched as well to the same size.

The conference approved a new class of flying monsters: 240 meters long with a volume of 3.8 million cubic feet, which would have been larger than the post-war Graf Zeppelin. She would have ten engines, a dozen 20mm cannon, and a maximum altitude of 28,000 feet.

Reality hit home a month later: Imperial Germany could no longer provide the materials or manpower to build such ships. Werther’s command would be reduced to seven operational airships plus two training ships. The new airships were cancelled on 2 November 1918 while L73 and L74, still under construction, would be completed. The war ended nine days later, with neither ship complete while only one existing ship had been lengthened.

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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.