- Issacs, Keith, AFC, ARAeS, Group Captain, RAAF (Retd)
- Naval Aviation
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Sydney I
- June 1974 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
This is the final part of Group Captain Isaacs’ feature on Australian Naval Aviation In this episode he deals with enemy aircraft in World War I and how they were combated by Australians. The author is currently writing the story of naval aviation between the wars.
COUNT VON ZEPPELIN, whose name has been perpetuated in the large airships he designed and built, was planning military dirigibles as early as 1874. He began constructing his first airship in 1898, and it was test flown on 2nd July 1900 as the Luftschiff-Zeppelin 1, or LZ1 Although he had a number of setbacks, Zeppelin went on to build bigger and better airships, and when war was declared in 1914, 25 were in civil and military service.
The German Army operated a limited number of Zeppelins whose serial numbers were prefixed by LZ, while the German Navy, which employed the majority of the Zeppelins, used the single prefix L. About 88 Zeppelins were used during the war and of the 61 operational types 19 were shot down, 11 wrecked by weather, and 11 destroyed by accidents or bombed in their sheds.
The German Navy also used other types of airships including eight Schutte-Lanz or SL dirigibles, three Parseval semi-rigid airships, and one non-rigid type. The SL-type had a cigar-shaped envelope, in contrast to the rounded bow, parallel body, and long streamlined stern of the Zeppelin.
When the war ended in 1918 the Zeppelins had progressed in gas capacity from 1,000,000 to over 2,400,000 cubic feet, in engine power from 495 to over 1,500 horsepower (with seven engines), in ceiling from 6,000 to about 25,000 feet, in length from 518 to 743 feet, and in speed from 47 to almost 80 miles per hour. They were used to raid French and English cities, but their attacks were more terrifying than damaging. In fact, the night raids were the first air attacks to bring the fear of modern warfare to civilians. Zeppelins L.3 and L.4 made the first raid on England on 19th January 1915, and London was bombed for the first time on 31st May. But by the end of 1916 the Zeppelin was all but driven from the sky by aircraft and anti-aircraft gun defences, and although the raids continued into 1917 they were sporadic and ineffective.
The flagship of the 1916 Zeppelin fleet was the five-engined L.43, pride of the German Naval Airship Division. On 3rd May 1917 L.43 was being prepared for an operational flight over the North Sea at the same time that HMAS Sydney, together with HMS Dublin and four destroyers, left Rosyth to sweep the channels between the rivers Forth and Humber. At 10.25 a.m. next day Dublin observed a Zeppelin approaching from about 17 miles to the east. The two cruisers wheeled in unison towards the intruder, which was L.43, and opened fire at extreme range. Concurrently, enemy submarines began attacking the warships with torpedoes. Dumaresq, commanding the force, spread his ships and concentrated on bringing the Zeppelin to attack. With the warships firing from all sides the Zeppelin commander was goaded into action. The dirigible rose rapidly and headed for Dublin, which swerved off to starboard. The L.43 dropped three bombs near the other ships and 20 minutes later, while above Sydney at about 20,000 feet, released 10 or 12 bombs, six of them in two salvoes. Sydney retaliated by firing all her anti-aircraft rounds, some 69 shots of shrapnel. But the Zeppelin was at a safe altitude and most of Sydney’s shot fell short. During this running attack L.43 was using her wireless vigorously and about 1 p.m. another Zeppelin was seen in the northeast. By now, however, L.43 was out of bombs and Sydney had no ammunition left so ‘the combatants’, stated an officer who was in the fight, ‘parted on good terms’.
Aboard Sydney the action had caused more curiosity than alarm, and at one stage Able Seaman G. Leahy casually laid down on his back on the upper deck striving to get a good photograph of L.43 ‘with a bomb on its way down’. He was most annoyed with the result – AWM photograph A.2576 – because the bomb could not be seen! Dumaresq was annoyed too, but for a different reason. He would have given anything for an aircraft to attack the Zeppelin, but had to wait another seven months before Sydney received a scout biplane. Six weeks later, on 14th June 1917, L.43 was shot down by a Royal Naval Air Service Curtiss H.12 flying-boat. The Zeppelin went down in flames over Vlieland, fell into the sea, and no survivors were seen. The mural presentation of Zeppelin L.43, in representative combat with two Sopwith 2F.1 Camels, shows the airship before it was camouflaged black, with light top surfaces, to avoid easy spotting by searchlight crews.