LONDON — Death from above began here, 100 years ago. It arrived with a low, barely discernible droning in the night sky. A huge leviathan moved darkly above the city, in brief shafts of moonlight its shadow was cast against the lowest clouds. This was the new face of war, bringing a terror unknown before.
On June 1, 1915, the London newspapers reported a trail of indiscriminate bombing that had left 28 people dead and 60 injured. The first to die was a three-year-old girl from horrific burns.
German Zeppelin airships had crossed the English Channel and began a bombing campaign that lasted for three years. For the first time in the history of modern war a civilian population far away from the military battlefields found itself suddenly a regular target. There had already been a few small raids on other cities in Europe but London was the greatest metropolis in Europe and the German high command realized that it was virtually defenseless from air attack—there were only 16 guns allocated to air defense, half of them useless.
Politicians were outraged at the killing of the innocents. And almost immediately there was a response from the Germans that will seem only too familiar today: that the intended targets were military, that navigational errors had confused the choice of targets, that in total war mistakes happen, and people had better get used to it.
From the beginning the Germans understood that the actual physical damage of aerial bombardment would be relatively small and its impact on the British military effort would be minimal but they believed that the psychological consequences on the population would be far greater—a belief that has consistently underpinned the doctrines of air power ever since.
Today the airship seems a crude and primitive machine. The first Zeppelins were more than 530 feet long, a spidery frame of aluminum covered with linen, kept aloft by bladders filled with hydrogen and moved by small propellers slung beneath. Crews were similarly slung beneath in small gondolas. They were barely able to reach 50 mph, considerably less in a headwind. But the beast carried a large bomb load, far larger than any airplane of the time could lift—as much 1.5 tons, mostly incendiaries. They were filled with a mixture of aluminum and iron called Thermite that on impact burned with fierce intensity. Fire was the most effective way of spreading terror.
It’s important to realize that the idea of terrorizing populations from the air had been well prepared by cultural influences. This was an age when a wave of new technologies, intended for benign purposes, were rapidly being applied to the waging of war. None were more potent that the arrival of the airplane and the airship. H.G Wells, the novelist who became the father of science fiction, fully imagined the ways in which death would arrive from above, whether delivered by airplanes, airships or Martians.
Airships, because of their size and because they looked like one very, very big bomb were visually scary in a visceral way. I have seen a grainy, flickering fragment of newsreel showing a Zeppelin over London that even now is spooky. It’s slowness makes it appear strangely menacing, rather than anachronistic, an invulnerable machine that loiters with malice in its vast belly.
British counter-propaganda produced posters that realized and drew from this new and popular visual language of the monster machine aloft. They depicted a Zeppelin caught in the crossing beams of searchlights, suggesting a vulnerability that was rarely true.
The reality was that for a long while the Zeppelin attacks were hampered more by their operational deficiencies than by British air defenses—even though those defenses steadily improved. Zeppelin raids were frequently aborted because of bad weather. Those that did make it across the Channel drifted miles off course, sometimes many miles, dropping their bombs into fields.
There were endemic command and control problems on both sides. Nobody had yet figured out that to operate with maximum efficiency air power needed its own independent air force. In Germany the airships were controlled and deployed by both the army and the navy; in Britain the defenses were similarly divided, with the navy operating the anti-aircraft guns and the army the airplanes.
But most alarmingly for the Germans the airships were themselves potential firebombs that could self-incinerate in a matter of seconds. The vulnerability lay in what lifted them aloft, the bladders full of hydrogen. These bladders were made of the guts of cows and pigs. At the peak of the air campaign the production of airships had used the guts of 250,000 cows, so many that the output of sausages was curtailed. The British knew that if these bladders were pierced with just one incendiary bullet the whole airship would become a ball of fire.
By 1917 the British had both the airplanes and the bullets to begin decimating the attackers. Of 80 Zeppelins built, 30 had been lost, either to accidents or to enemy fire. Invariably the entire crew of a Zeppelin would be killed as the flaming pyre fell to earth. First the army and then the navy gave up attacking Britain, but not before dropping more than 5,000 bombs, killing 557 people and injuring 13,358.
The airships were already superseded by a more efficient killing machine, the multi-engined bomber. Before the war ended in 1918 German bombers were attacking London and causing far more terror than the airships—at one point 300,000 Londoners were taking shelter every night in the underground stations of the Tube. One daylight raid killed 16 children in a school.
Of course once a weapon is unleashed in war and proves itself effective there is no turning back. The bombing of London was but the overture of a new arsenal, awaiting only more technical sophistication to make it more efficient and the proponents of a fully developed doctrine to make it politically and militarily expedient.
By the 1930s the bomber had grown large enough to carry a lethal load and much faster, and was able to fly great distances. Strategists of the day followed the same mantra that had once gripped supporters of the airship, that in sufficient numbers the bomber would be invincible and would level cities and thus win wars because citizens would demand surcease and surrender.
“The bomber will always get through,” one openly defeatist British prime minister warned the House of Commons, as Hitler stealthily embarked on building the air force that would emerge as the Luftwaffe.
The pumped-up strategists of air power wanted proof of concept. Spain provided the perfect opportunity. The Spanish Civil War was really much more than a local conflict, it was an opportunity for the future belligerents of another world war—Germany, Italy and Russia—to test and rehearse their fleets of bombers, using them as much on the populations of Spanish cities as on the battlefields.
There were soon newsreels of the residents of Madrid with the same haunted, sleep-deprived faces that Londoners had shown in 1918. But it was a small city in northern Spain, Guernica, that would forever be the marker of the coming apocalypse.
In April 1937 Guernica was, in the space of a few hours, gutted by a combined force of German and Italian bombers, introducing the technique of carpet bombing, a homely sounding term that meant, literally, laying down a tightly-woven pattern of bombing that would spare nothing and no one in its path.
To this day there are disputes about how many died in Guernica that afternoon. The numbers range from 400 to the thousands. It doesn’t really matter. You just have to see the photos of those who survived. Their faces are those of a nightmare, a nightmare without cease. The nightmare became immortalized in one primal scream, Picasso’s masterpiece in which art somehow caught and froze the nature of a new form of atrocity that was delivered with detachment, remotely from the cockpit and through the crosshairs of the bombardier.
Much worse was to follow. The London Blitz (42,000 dead), the fire-bombing of Hamburg in 1943 (42,000 dead), Dresden in 1945 (25,000 dead) and Tokyo in 1945 (Between 80,000 and 130,000 dead).
And then, on August 6, 1945, a Boeing B-29 bomber named the Enola Gay took off from the Pacific atoll of Tinian, heading for the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
Major Thomas Ferebee, the bombardier of the Enola Gay, released a single weapon, an atomic bomb, capable of killing in one blast many more people than any weapon before it. The bomb fell for 43 seconds and then, at a height of 1,968 feet, it detonated, engulfing the city in a searing radioactive blast. Sixty-nine percent of the city’s buildings were destroyed and 80,000 people, a third of the population, died, with many thousands more to die later from the radiation effects. On August 9 another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and that was enough to force the Japanese to surrender.
Finally, air power had ended a war.
But the evolution of air power that had begun in 1915 with those bombs carelessly tossed out from a Zeppelin over London now reached stasis. In the mind of the whole world, nuclear war became unthinkable. Certainly, a nuclear arms race between the West and the Soviet Union ensued, but it was constrained by something quite novel, the concept of mutual deterrence—the sheer prospect of retaliation was, we believed, enough to neutralize the weapon.
However, non-nuclear air power has remained an instrument of easy resort, particularly when used against nations that don’t have any air power, as in Vietnam, where civilians continued to be confused with combatants and were subjected to indiscriminate attack with horrors like napalm. Even then, air power had little lasting effect on the battlefield and could not stop defeat.
The same is clearly true now on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, where ISIS has been little hampered in its actions by air strikes.
It so happens that two blocks away from where I am writing this, there is a plaque on the wall of an office building:
“These premises were totally destroyed by a Zeppelin raid during the world war on September 8, 1915. Rebuilt 1917.”
It’s that final perfunctory and defiant sentence that has the message, an echo of that now widely promoted British attitude to adversity “keep calm and carry on.” History buffs on visits to London follow carefully documented maps showing where every bomb and missile fell during two world wars, including this site, now called the Zeppelin Building. It’s right across the street from the largest construction project in Europe, Crossrail, a new underground high-speed rail line that will transform the city’s travel connections.
I like to think of this as a parable of the resilience of cities and their populations; without minimizing the appalling cost in lives (the bombers did get through) all those cities subjected to the terror of bombing in World War II are long since repaired and thriving. It’s a pity that the doctrine of air power also thrives, despite the record of its futility. You can still hear senators talking about bombing ISIS “back into the stone age.” They have learned nothing.