In August 1914, as storm clouds gathered over Europe, Britain steeled itself for immediate aerial attack by Germany’s much-vaunted fleet of rigid airships – Zeppelins (and its rival company, Schutte-Lanz).
Since his first less than convincing flight in July 1900, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin had persisted in his belief in the future of airships. Initially the authorities did not take the old Count too seriously; he appeared to many as just an old man squandering his fortune on his obsessive fascination with lighter-than-air flight. However, his sheer determination to continue after a number of potentially crushing failures won him the admiration of the German people, and the vital funding to continue his work. Eventually the military began to show an interest, first the German army, then the navy placed orders with Count Zeppelin.
For the population of Germany, Zeppelin’s airships became an iconic source of national pride and the very embodiment of German technical superiority.
The rapid technical progress made by the Count Zeppelin’s airships was well known in Britain and raised concerns. Britain had nothing to compare with Germany’s giant rigid airships. It had experimented with small, non-rigid types, but the royal Navy’s attempt to build a Zeppelin-type airship of its own – to evaluate the potential threat – ended in disaster when Rigid Naval Airship No.1 broke its back in a powerful gust of wind before it ever flew. Britain was left to wonder and fear the worst from the potential threat offered by Germany’s fleet of Zeppelins.
For centuries, the British nation had slept soundly in their beds, safe in the knowledge that the Royal Navy patrolled the seas around these islands and protected them from invasion. Yet from the moment in 1903 when the Wright Brother’s flimsy Wright Flyer took hesitatingly to the air to complete the very first manned, controlled and powered flight, everything changed. Then, when the French aviation pioneer, Louis Blériot, flew across the English Channel in 1909, the words uttered by a newspaper baron three years earlier now rang true: Britain was ‘no longer an island.’
Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin
German public enthusiasm for Zeppelins