Airships of War: Not So Successful in the Real World

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British navy airship
A submarine scout airship flies over a British Royal Navy minelaying sloop during World War I

The golden age of airships began at the turn of the last century with the launch of the first Luftschiff Zeppelin, named after the Count von Zeppelin who pioneered the construction of rigid airships in the last decade of the nineteenth century. The prospect of airships as bombers had been recognized well before the airships were up to the task, however. George Griffith’s The Angel of the Revolution (1893) has airship bombarding Russia’s major cities. H.G. Wells’ The War in the Air (1908) describes the obliteration of entire fleets by airship attacks.

The First World War marked the airship’s real debut as a weapon. Count Zeppelin and the German military believed they had found the ideal weapon with which to counteract British naval superiority and strike at the United Kingdom itself. More realistic airship advocates believed the zeppelin was a valuable long range scout and attack craft for naval operations. Raids began by the end of 1914, reached a first peak in 1915, then were discontinued near the end of the war.

Zeppelins proved to be terrifying but inaccurate weapons. Navigation, target selection and bomb aiming were difficult even under the best of circumstances. The darkness, high altitudes and clouds that were frequently encountered during missions reduced accuracy further. The physical damage zeppelins inflicted was trivial and the deaths that they caused amounted to a few hundred at most.

British propaganda poster
1916 British propaganda poster depicts a German airship shot down

The zeppelins were initially immune to attack by aeroplane and antiaircraft guns. As the pressure in their envelopes was only just higher than ambient, holes had little effect. But once incendiary bullets were developed and used against them, their flammable hydrogen lifting gas made them vulnerable at lower altitudes. Several were shot down in flames by British defenders. Others crashed en route. They then started flying higher and higher above the range of other aircraft but this worsened their accuracy and success.

Ultimately the bombing campaigns proved to be disastrous in terms of morale, men and material. Many pioneers of the German airship service died in what was the first strategic bombing campaign in history.

The airship’s historic failure as a weapon does obviously not stop authors and artists of the steampunk genre from presuming otherwise. Dirigibles of all sorts are frequently exploited in steampunk settings as weapons of war. Airship battles in the vein of H.G. Wells’ predictions are depicted while adventures as Jules Verne’s Robur the Conqueror and his Clipper of the Clouds speak to the imagination of steampunk enthusiasts. Airships must be powerful masters of the skies as the ultimate symbols of freedom and defiance, roaming the clouds without hindrance and restraint.

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