Tuesday 10 May 2022

Book Review: Zeppelin Inferno: The Forgotten Blitz by Ian Castle

This is the second book in a planned trilogy by author Ian Castle and is a detailed study of the German air offensive against Great Britain during 1916.

As with the previous volume which covered the years 1914-1915, the author deals with each individual raid in some detail, whether it was carried out by conventional aircraft, or as was more often the case, by airships either the lesser-known wooden-framed Schütte-Lanz type, or those constructed by the Zeppelin Company, which give the book it’s title. The descriptions of these raids are enlivened by eyewitness personal accounts by those on the ground and in the air, as well as reports from contemporary newspapers.

As well as describing each raid, the author also deals with the countermeasures introduced by the British such as the improvement of the anti-aircraft defences on the ground and the work done to bolster the squadrons devoted to home defence. We also learn about the work done to develop and introduce into service incendiary ammunition for the fighter aircraft that was capable of bringing down the hydrogen-filled airships.

We also read about the personalities on the German side, vilified by the British press as “Baby Killers”, such as Joachim Breihaupt, Heinrich Mathy and Peter Strasser, the commander of the Imperial German Navy’s Airship Division. We also learn about the development and introduction into service of the “R” Class Zeppelins, known to the British as the “Super Zeppelins”, impressive machines that were 198 metres long, with a diameter of 24 metres, capable of carrying a bomb load of up to four tons.

Although the British had brought down their first Zeppelin on 31 March 1916, it had crashed into the sea off the Kent coast. The British public had to wait until 3 September before an airship was shot down over British soil, when the SL-11 was brought down by the guns of a B.E.2c aircraft piloted by Lieut. William Leefe Robinson, who was awarded a VC for his work. The fact that this was a Schütte-Lanz airship rather than a Zeppelin was kept from the public as this stage of the war, as it was felt that this might detract from the achievement!

This was a portent for the future and during the remainder of 1916, the German side lost a further five Zeppelins and although the British weren’t to know it at this stage, 1916 marked the peak of the Zeppelin offensive against the United Kingdom; the majority of future air attacks against this country would be made by conventional aircraft.

The book is well illustrated and also contains many useful maps charting the location of German airship bases in 1916, Air Raid Warning Districts, the penetration of the various Zeppelin raids during the year, location of RFC Home Defence squadrons, and tracks of the final flights of many of the destroyed airships. There are also several useful appendices, which explain the airship numbering systems used by both the German Navy and Army, lists of airship and conventional aircraft raids in 1916, which give the numbers of casualties and the values of material damage caused. The final appendix follows the pattern introduced by the author in the first book, by providing a list of the names of those killed in Britain by enemy air attacks during the year in question. Unlike the later Blitz, there is no central register as such and Mr Castle has done a considerable amount of detective work to identify all but six of the 300 British deaths on the ground in 1916.

As one would expect from this author, this is a superbly-researched and well-written work that will interest anyone who wishes to discover more about this sometimes overlooked aspect of the air war in 1914-1918 and I have no hesitation in recommending it to you.

Published by Frontline Books

RRP £25.00

hardback, pp 382