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Zeppelin Onslaught: the Forgotten Blitz 1914-1915

24 August 2022

Zeppelin Onslaught: the Forgotten Blitz 1914-1915, Ian Castle, 2018, ISBN 978-1-84832-433-6, 356 pp.

Ian Castle’s recent talk made during Aviation Cultures Mk VI was highly interesting for a few reasons:

  • The tech software broke down but he segued to an extemporaneous talk which was entertaining and jammed full with facts, observations and insights. It was obvious to all in the internet conference that Mr. Castle not only knew his subject matter but had been carefully considering all the research he had uncovered.
  • He is quite knowledgeable in the types of airships, and makers, flown for the Kaiser during World War I (WW I) as well as intimately aware of the effects of the various bombing endeavors. So much that he is writing a trilogy on the subject with the first two books, Zeppelin Onslaught: the Forgotten Blitz 1914-1915 and Zeppelin Inferno: the Forgotten Blitz 1916, already published.
  • Castle pleasantly spoke of his keen insight as well as objectivity to both sides of the aerial conflict—England’s first blitz—and how each side matured their respective tactics and strategy.

The first title, Zeppelin Onslaught: the Forgotten Blitz 1914-1915 centers on Imperial Germany employing a new weapon (the airship and the airplane) in an innovative way (long range aerial bombing) and how Great Britain reacted defensively—and a bit offensively at times. Castle has sussed out the sequence of events, people who made significant decisions as well as a bit of their personalities. He writes brilliantly with a smooth easy style using clever word phrasing on occasion—like a chef adding layers of flavor while cooking.

Zeppelin Onslaught also describes the remarkable evolution of the airships made my Zeppelin as well as Schütte-Lanz during this time. This development continued rapidly during 1914—1915 both in production numbers as well as sizes. Additionally, bombing raids, novel for the time, increased in frequency as well as audacity. In brief, airships became more capable for the Imperial German forces (army and navy) in terms of range, load, altitude and speed while Great Britain struggled to find raiding airships much less intercept them with the aircraft of the day.

Castle addresses the anti-airship weaponry employed quite well. This ranged from conventional artillery to the dropping of bombs and grenades from aircraft flying above the raiding airships—including, incredulously, a grapnel like device loaded with TNT explosive at the end of a 1000 foot cable.  He also closely follows the thinking of Germany’s military leadership influencing the Kaiser’s decisions initially from greatly restricted targeting to essentially opening London up as a free-fire zone—while keeping the homes of his relatives off the targeting list. Balanced against this is his telling of Great Britain’s initial slowness to address the threat, especially the Admiralty.

There were the innovators, however, and Castle writes of their boldness and leadership. From Admiral Sir Percy Scott to a variety of German airship captains. People who have long been unknown for their great achievements such as the developer of an anti-aircraft artillery shell design to produce smaller fragments (increasing the safety factor for those on ground below the detonated shell) to the multitude of rescuers of bombing victims amid the rubble of destroyed structures as well as the bravery of aircrews.

Ian Castle details the deaths, casualties and monetary losses almost blow-by-blow and shows how extraordinarily ineffective this original blitz was. The overall destruction has been neatly tabulated but Castle also retains the suffering of the victims by noting their wounds and deaths on an individual basis. The dichotomy of airship crews braving electrical storms (recall the airship lifting gas was hydrogen) and inadequate navigation ability to somewhat randomly drop either high explosive or incendiary bombs is a running thread through this period of the air war over Great Britain. These fantastic machines flown by rugged aircrews to drop, what are by today’s standards, small bombs (10kg-100kg) without the use of any science to aerial bombardment—no concept of precision or accuracy like bomb drift, ballistic trajectory or aerodynamic drag—all to usually damage a garden or an apartment. Random navigation and random bombing—Castle does his best to describe Imperial Germany’s rationale—but it is an unfathomable rationale. But when does irrationality deter the efforts of a warring power?

Zeppelin Onslaught: the Forgotten Blitz 1914-1915  has an excellent compact index, flight paths charted of significant airship and seaplane missions, well reproduced glossy black and white images, as well as copious notes and a rich bibliography. Eerily, this blitz shows much commonality with the blitz to come during World War II with regard to the switch in raid timing as well as following the Moon’s phases and the strategic shift from military to civilian targets. The machines would change, the destructiveness would increase and civilians would be meant  to suffer—as Ian Castle states, this “forgotten blitz” opened a new dimension of warfare. Unfortunately, a warfare which would be employed by all major powers in the future—but these long range air assaults were part of that beginning. Historians as well as humanitarians will appreciate this book for its writing, depth of research and passion.

Readers will likely know these air raids failed, in the end, to achieve significant or even anything of lasting military value. This was the age when airships were approaching their zenith and aircraft were so nascent they were undergoing revolutionary redesigns nearly every six months. Engine reliability was also a challenge for both airships as well as airplanes. Yet, the blitz continued, but why? And what future changes were made by Germany as well as England? These details and inquiries will likely be addressed in the second book of Ian Castle’s remarkable trilogy, Zeppelin Inferno: the Forgotten Blitz 1916 which will be reviewed here shortly.

Interestingly, Ian Castle has a website devoted to this subject and it is quite complete with a talk schedule, his books, historical information and more—Zeppelins. Gothas & Giants

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