War history: The Zeppelin airship was like an airbourne version of the submarine in the German’s onslaught on the Allied forces

A German Zeppelin

A German Zeppelin - Credit: Archant

A new and terrifying form of warfare was unleashed against East Anglia by the German military 100 years ago this month.

Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin pioneered rigid airship technology at the start of the 1900s

Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin pioneered rigid airship technology at the start of the 1900s - Credit: Archant

Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, looks at the menace in the skies.

My column last week talked about the coming of the new year, the expansion of the British Expeditionary Force and the air of optimism that pervaded the allied headquarters on the Western Front during the first weeks of 1915.

If we can take off our all-seeing hindsight goggles and put ourselves in the boots of the allied generals, it was not an unreasonable outlook at that time.

The German advance had apparently run out of steam and the coming spring was looking like the long-awaited opportunity to go on the offensive with something near a level playing field.

You may remember, though, that in October and November 1914 the Imperial German Navy had mounted a series of hit and run raids on east coast ports. These naval raids ? targeting civilian ports, shipping and Britons in their homes ? had created some panic and a real fear among the population that an invasion of East Anglia was imminent.

There was worse to come.

Peter Strasser. 'Technically minded, he was an exceptional gunnery officer and was selected to work

Peter Strasser. 'Technically minded, he was an exceptional gunnery officer and was selected to work at the heart of the new imperial navy in the German admiralty' - Credit: Archant

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The German Imperial Navy’s order of battle included a host of modern surface ships and an increasing number of submarines; it remained a very real threat to the shipping lanes carrying the trade that was the lifeblood of Britain and its empire.

In addition to this arsenal of naval assets, the Kaiser had another high-tech weapon up his imperial sleeve; a weapon that many German commanders believed was, if handled correctly, impervious to Britain’s limited home defences.

The German military had developed a version of the Zeppelin airship that could be used like its seaborne counterpart to raid the British mainland.

The German High Command invested in these new airships in the belief that unlike its more conventional counterpart at sea, a Zeppelin would simply hop over the Royal Navy’s ships, the English Channel and the fledgling Royal Flying Corps and then be free to roam the skies of England at will, carrying out reconnaissance missions and dropping bombs.

Thankfully for the population of East Anglia and the rest of the UK, the Zeppelin was not without weaknesses. The very nature of their design made them extremely susceptible to air currents and vulnerable to extremes of weather.

In addition, the weight of engines, fuel, weapons and the crew all reduced the payload of bombs that could be carried.

If a Zeppelin campaign launched against the British homeland was to be effective, it would require a strong leader with a complete understanding of every technical aspect of Zeppelins.

The German Navy found the perfect man to meet the challenges of commanding the new force: Peter Strasser.

Hanover-born Strasser had enlisted in the German Navy as a cadet at the age of 15. He served on numerous warships, gaining promotion to lieutenant in 1895.

Technically minded, he was an exceptional gunnery officer and was selected to work at the heart of the new imperial navy in the German admiralty.

In September 1913 the newly formed Naval Airship Division lost its commander when its first airship, the L1, crashed at sea. Shortly after, the navy’s only other airship, the L2, was lost with further fatalities.

Peter Strasser had to rebuild the airship division and the morale of the men who were being asked to crew these seemingly deadly craft. He set about the task with some vigour, applying all of his technical know-how and energy.

He studied every aspect of the design and theory of Zeppelins while learning to fly in a civilian airship. While he waited for new aircraft, Strasser oversaw the training of his crews on civilian airships.

When war broke out, Strasser’s force had just a single operational airship ready for combat. Only the solitary L3 had been ready in time to take part in pre-war manoeuvres shortly after entering service.

It was from these difficult beginnings that Peter Strasser forged a professional airship division.

Initially in 1914 the Imperial German Navy used their new air fleet for reconnaissance, mine-hunting and submarine-spotting duties. However, 100 years ago next week, all of that was to change and the civilian population of East Anglia would be the first in the world to fall under the shadow of the Zeppelin, when they would experience the new terror of strategic bombing.

More about Strasser and the Zeppelin menace next week.

Galloway have day excursions to the Western Front on February 10 and 26, and two guided four-day tours of the Western Front travelling on April 17 and May 1.

Further details are available at www.travel-galloway.com or visit a Galloway Travel Centre for information.

You can also follow the battlefields feed on Twitter @GallowayBattles, or find battlefield tour reports on Galloway’s Facebook page.