Zeppelins were a type of rigid airship used during World War I by the Germans as both reconnaissance vessels and for air raids. Named after the German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the air ships were developed in the late 19th century. The ships were able to achieve 20 mph at top speed, and could fly high, at 10,000 feet, thus keeping themselves out of range of anti-aircraft artillery.
Used commercially before WWI, the zeppelin became a military tool when several were ordered by the Germany Navy in 1912. During WWI, the German Army and Navy both used the airship, but separately. The Navy used the zeppelin primarily for surveillance as they patrolled the North Sea during the war years. The airships were able to easily spot submarines and British naval vessels, preventing the Allies from getting close to the German fleet. In addition, they patrolled for mines placed by Allied forces and then assisted the German navy in disposal of those mines.
The German Army used zeppelins to conduct air raids in Britain during WWI. This kind of “strategic bombing” was unattainable before this invention. Flying at high altitudes and under the cover of darkness helped to hide the zeppelins during the air raids. The first raid occurred in 1915 and the Germans continued to bomb London until 1918. Zeppelin raids over Britain killed more than 500 people, and injured twice that amount, despite the huge number of bombs dropped.
(Image retrieved from http://www.hallofgiants/com/images/airshipimages/GrafllFoldoout/CompositeDetail.jpg).
As technology increased, the effectiveness of the zeppelins diminished. The zeppelins moved slow and had to fly at increasingly higher altitudes to stay out of range of the more advanced anti-aircraft weapons. Overall, the zeppelins were not deadly, but were terrifying, keeping people awake more often than taking their lives (Wired article). Of the 84 built during the war, more than 60 were destroyed in battle or by accident.
Zeppelin travel continued to exist and thrive after WWI, albeit not as a military weapon. As part of some of the reparations after the war, Germany built zeppelins for the Allied Powers. A golden age for the Zeppelin company occurred in the 20s and 30s, and in 1929, the Graf Zellepin circumnavigated the Earth in just over 21 days. However, the end of the zeppelins began in 1937, with the crash of the most famous zeppelin, the Hindenburg.
While landing after a transatlantic flight, the Hindenburg caught fire in Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing 35 people. Up until this point, zeppelins were still in use by the Nazi government as a form of propaganda, in addition to being used for commercial transportation. This event spelled doom for the zeppelin and by the beginning of World War II, they were out of commission entirely.
BBC. (2014, August 4). World War One: How the German zeppelin wrought terror. Retrieved from www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-27517166
Golson, J. (2014, October 3). WWI zeppelins: Not too deadly, but scary as hell. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2014/10/world-war-i-zeppelins/
Klein, C. (2014, June 2). London’s World War I zeppelin terror. Retrieved from www.history.com/news/londons-world-war-i-zeppelin-terror
Mason, E. (2015, May 28). 9 things you (probably) didn’t know about London’s first zeppelin raid in 1915. Retrieved from www.historyextra.com/article/military-history/9-things-you-probably-didnt-know-about-londons-first-zeppelin-raid-1915-first-world-war