WWI: Fifty two months, fifty two posts – 14 – Total Warfare and the Zeppelin

Peter Strasser was the Chief Commander of the German Imperial Navy Zeppelins during WWI and a fierce proponent of the idea that Total Warfare i.e. when a country was at war, everything became a target, including that countries general population. Strasser and the other proponents of Total Warfare thought that by focussing on non-traditional targets they would bring terror into the homes and hearts of the population that had not gone to the front line. In cowing the people, they would therefore sap all resistance from the countries they were at war with. The various governments, unable to manage a terrified and unhappy populous, would be forced to concede defeat and therefore a German victory would be overwhelming and achieved swiftly*.

It was thanks to this belief, and the support of many other high ranking German Officials, including Naval Admiral Paul Behncke, that Strasser was able to persuade the Kaiser to authorise his actions. Thus he turned the Zeppelins from purely military vessels (that were being used to spy, map terrain and harry the Allied Navy) into weapons of total warfare, equipped and intent on attacking and killing civilians across mainland Britain, as well as Paris and other strategic cities and ports well behind the front lines.

Zeppelin over Westminster, 1915 (from Chanel 4 documentary)
The Zeppelins raids on Britain can be seen in hindsight as a mild – although I’m sure it seemed nothing of the sort for those who lived through it – forerunner of the Blitz during WWII. The Zeppelin raids between 1915 and 1918 resulted in the death of at least four hundred and ninety eight civilians and fifty eight soldiers, as well as significant damage to property and injuries – some serious, some not – to almost two thousand people.  As well as London, the Zeppelins targets cities and towns across the country, including Great Yarmouth, Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Ramsgate, Hartlepool, Wigan, Coventry, Hull, Rosyth, the Forth Bridge, Cleethorpes, Tonbridge, Folkestone, Dover, Ipswich, Hertford, and Leith.
WWI Propaganda Poster

During the course of the war the German forces spent significant amounts of money and time enhancing the Zeppelins and during the peak of the bombing raids they were making much use of the new R Class Zeppelin. At almost 200m long, and powered by six 240 horse power Maybach engines, this Zeppelin could reach speeds of sixty four miles per hour and carry up to four tons of bombs, making it a rather unpleasant beast indeed. What the engineering improvements never managed to overcome, however, was the fact that the Zeppelin remained at the mercy of the winds and weather and was still difficult to steer. Thankfully this meant the Zeppelin fleets never achieved the level of threat and damage that the Luftwaffe, with their Messerschmitts, managed in 1941.

That said, there was one raid that came close, and that raid is the reason that this particular post is going live at this particular point in my Fifty two posts series:

On 8th September 1915 a Zeppelin raid effected the complete destruction of the premises at 61 Farringdon Road (the first complete flattening of a building in London in WWI). During the same raid twenty two people were killed, eighty seven were injured and the cost of the damage was over one sixth of the total cost of damage inflicted during the bombing raids over the whole of WWI (largely thanks to several textiles warehouses north of St Paul’s Cathedral going up in flames and causing nearly half a million pounds worth of damage).

There is a plaque on the front of 61 Farringdon Road (it was rebuilt in 1917) and you can see it to this day:

Taken by me one dark and stormy night in London
Taken by someone else with a much better camera, in better light

Had every Zeppelin raid been as “successful” as the 8th September raid then I suppose it is possible that Strasser’s belief in the Zeppelin’s ability to bring the war to a swift conclusion might have been correct. However they weren’t, despite Strasser’s best efforts. He often flew on the raids himself, trying out new technologies and gadgets and fully immersing himself in the use of the vessels he so ardently believed in and continued to champion them right up until his death which occurred, fittingly enough, on the last Zeppelin raid on British mainland. Strasser, and the other twenty two members of his Zeppelin crew, lost their lives during a night raid on 5th August 1918, when their L70 Zeppelin was shot down just off the coast of Norfolk by Pilot Major Egbert Cadbury and Gunner Major Robert Leckie (who were in an Airco D.H.4 on a reconnaissance mission).

And on that note I am now off to indulge in some further commemoration of the Zeppelin raid that happened 100 years ago today by joining a guided walk entitled “Zeppelin! Terror over London – a Centenary Battlefield Tour”. I’m sure I’ll many facts that I’ve not included here, plus take a few more pictures, so I might update this at some point to include it all!

* It should be noted that the Germans were not the only ones indulging in Total Warfare during WWI – the Allied blockade of Germany was a far more successful example of Total Warfare, the starvation of the German population being one of the main reasons for their Government’s eventual surrender in November 1918.

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