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Book Review: The Zeppelin in Combat

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The Zeppelin in Combat: A History of the German Naval Airship Division 1912-1918, but Douglas H. Robinson


This might sound like an Osprey title, but it's not. It's a real book, originally published in the early 1960s from research done in the late 1950s. It has tons of information, ranging from stats and operational histories of every naval zep, to narratives of all raids and each loss, plus all the patrols that made enemy contact. There's also a glossary of terms which not only provides the bare meanings, but goes into context and thereby largely explains how the airships were constructed and actually functioned as flying machines. This latter subject is actually a lot more technical and counter-intuitive than I had thought, so I really learned a lot from this book. There are also beaucoup excellent photos. But what really makes it special to me is that it was written when many zep vets were still alive, so has a bunch of their 1st-hand accounts in it, too, including that of one of the very few people to survive being shot down in flames in a zep.


I, like probably most of you all, had always thought zep crewmen had cast iron balls even by the standards of WW1 aviators, but until reading this book I had just been thinking in terms of riding 2 million cubic feet of hydrogen over enemy territory. As it turns out, that was actually one of the least of their problems. After all, being burned alive was pretty common in all forms of WW1 aviation. What makes the zeps more extreme is that they were essentially the space program of their day. They were on the bleeding edge of many different new, untried, and unreliable technologies, all used to explore the uncharted territory of the upper atmosphere. And on top of that, most of this R&D was rushed through under war-emergency conditions and was tested under hostile fire. So taking this all into account, the big surprise to me is that ONLY 40% of zep crews were killed in the line of duty, in combat and accidents.


The book highlights the many problems the zeps had operating for extended periods (like most of a day) at 15-20 thousand feet. Everything from the crew freezing and becoming useless from lack of oxygen, to the immense navigational problems, to the many different types of hardware failures and inadequacies revealed up high, are all covered, besides the unpredictable and violent nature of the winds aloft. which ruined many missions and zeps even on those relatively rare occasions when the other factors could be dealt with. Think about how duralumin contracts more in cold than steel, so that all the control cables would jump off their pulleys. Think about radiator water freezing and splitting radiators during the time it took cold-numbed and anoxic mechanics to clean oiled-up spark plugs. But while until mid-1918 zeps could fly higher than any airplane, and could easily outclimb the late models, the relative saftey of high altitude came at the price of mission inefficiency. The higher they went, the more clouds were between them and the ground, so the less they could see on scouting missions, the less accurately they could bomb, and the less certain their navigation. The Germans developed radio bearing navigation systems, but it wasn't until after the war that anybody realized how far off these systems were, and what was needed to correct them.


All in all, the book shows that zeps were a fascinating mix of high and low technology. The above technical snags are to be expected given our OFFer's understanding of the era in general, but until reading this book I never realized several amazing things. For instance, despite being at the then-apex of aviation technology, it only took about 6-8 weeks to build a new zep from scratch. Major repairs, such as rebuilding about 1/4 of the ship's length after a landing accident, could be accomplished in a matter of days. But what really gets me is that the Germans, from first to last, relied on a battalion of ground personnel to manhandle the zeps in and out of their hangars. There were no mechanical devices used apart from sliding mooring bitts on tracks in front of the hangars, to which zeps were secured against crosswinds. But actually pushing them in and out of the hangar, plus holding them to the ground, was all done by the muscles and weight of about 400 guys pulling on ropes. In fact, when a zep landed off the field, these guys would march over and literally carry it back, sometimes several miles. This brings up images of building the pyramids, but remember that the zep service was naval, and this was the early 20th Century. Most naval personnel of any service length in those days had been raised on square-rigged ships, where using a few hundred guys to pull ropes was part of the daily routine. Thus, I suppose this didn't seem so odd to them at the time.


Anyway, this is a great book that all here should read.

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Thank you BH. I will keep an eye open for this book. Sounds like a great read. I recently found a French publication icare revue de l'aviation francaise 1968 about Ferdinand von Zeppelin. Fantastic photos but I can't read a stitch of it. My magazine would make an excellent companion to this book you reviewed.

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yes it's a pretty good book on the subject, covering lots of aspects. My hope is that if one of the OFF team ever reads it, maybe then Zeppelins might appear in OFF. grin.gif




This is FS 2004/FS9, but imagine that one in OFF :




and some hangars, or "airship halls":





Some excellent 3D-modelling, showing the inner hydrogen gas bags, along with rigging etc. - this is not in any sim, "just" an accurate 3d model from Alin:

















Just to remind, i have recently purchased an old german paperback (1960ies) were the most important planes of WW1 are listed, with some good description on performance, and numbers built. So while i understand that the "hat in the ring" N 28s are in the addon (maybe to attract the US market), there are much more planes that have been built in much higer numbers, but that are not in OFF.


The Fokker E.V//D.VIII, and the Nieuport 28, well. There must have been lots of aviators in WW1 who never actually saw one of those rare birds ... did i say there were more than a hundred Zeppelins ... bye.gif




Here are some numbers from Robinson, showing how much missions the naval branch alone did, with airships:




Reconnaissance flights - North Sea: 48

Days of rec. missions - North Sea: 35 of 148

Reconnaissaace flights - Baltic Sea: 10

Casualties: 0 airships




Reconnaissance flights - North Sea: 297

Days of rec. missions - North Sea: 124 of 365

Reconnaissance flights - Baltic Sea: 53

Tactical flights - North Sea: 47 in all, 27 over England

Tactical flights - Baltic sea: 4

Casualties: 10 airships




Reconnaissance flights - North Sea: 253

Days of rec. missions - North Sea: 89 of 365

Reconnaissance flights - Baltic Sea: 30 (naval)

29 (army) temp. in service of the Navy

Tactical flights - North Sea: 187 in all, 111 over England

Tactical flights - Baltic sea: 15

Casualties: 16 airships




Reconnaissance flights - North Sea: 242

Days of rec. missions - North Sea: 96 of 365

Reconnaissance flights - Baltic Sea: 42 (naval)

56 (army) temp. in service of the Navy

Tactical flights - North Sea: 54 in all, 28 over England

Tactical flights - Baltic sea: 27

Casualties: 16 airships




Reconnaissance flights - North Sea: 131

Days of rec. missions - North Sea: 55 of 315

Tactical flights - North Sea: 18 in all, 11 over England

Casualties: 11 airships





Reconnaissance missions - North Sea: 971

Reconnaissance days - North Sea: 399 of 1559

Reconnaissance missions - Baltic Sea:135 (naval)

85 (army) in naval service

Tactical missions - North Sea: 306 in all, 177 over England

Tactical missions - Baltic Sea: 46

Casualties: 53 airships


(Numbers from Robinson, "The Zeppelin in combat")


Not to forget the Zeppelin that went to Africa, and back. One of my wife's distant relatives was aboard that one, and later died over the gulf of Otranto during a bombing raid against maltese docks, in 1918.






Edited by Wels

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My hope is that if one of the OFF team ever reads it, maybe then Zeppelins might appear in OFF.


I recall somebody mentioning that the Zep mod currently available can only be flown dynamically. There's no mechanism to handle the static lift of the gas, nor do the complex balancing act of venting gas and dropping ballast from selected regions along the length. Without this part, it seems having a zep in the game would be very incomplete and inaccurate. I wonder how you'd go about doing this?


Another complication is that in real life, the control functions were located in different places around the control car, worked by dfferent people. Rudder in the front, elevator and ballast to port, and throttles to starboard. IOW, in OFF terms, it would be like having to hit F6 to jump between all these places, and I don't know if it's even possible to set it up like that.


Still, it would be fun to have zeps in OFF, that's for sure.

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