In terms of the Great War, the name Zeppelin is synonymous with the lighter-than air, hydrogen gas filled, airships (dirigibles) that terrorised the eastern parts of England, and the capital, London, in particular, from January 1915 to August 1918. However, due to increasing losses from more effective British homeland air defences of anti-aircraft guns, fighter aircraft and barrage balloons, they were largely replaced, from May 1917, by the heavier-than-air German bomber aircraft called the Gotha IV and V. These two Gotha types carried out 27 night raids over England; primarily London.
But there was another Zeppelin product, one of its stable of heavier-than-air aircraft that was also to terrorise the British population from the 17th September 1917. This was a strategic bomber aircraft called the Zeppelin-Staaken R.VI. (R=Riesenflugzeug = Giant aircraft). It flew 52 missions over Britain releasing 2,772 bombs weighing a total of 196 tonnes (193 tons) including the first bomb of 1,000kg (2,200lbs) which fell on the Royal Hospital, Chelsea in London on the 16th February 1918. It had the largest wingspan (= 42.2m/138.5ft) of any bomber aircraft of the Great War being even bigger than British Lancaster bomber of the Second World War (wingspan = 31.1m/102.1ft).
Conception and manufacture
The Zeppelin-Staaken was designed by Ferdinand von Zeppelin, aided by Robert Bosch GmbH engineers, and the first three engined prototypes – VGO I and VGO III - were constructed at the Gothaer Waggonfabriek A.G. site. In 1916, production moved to the Zeppelin Staaken Werke in the suburbs of Berlin, where several Zeppelin-Staaken R prototypes were built and evaluated.
In late 1916, the four-engined R.VI prototype was chosen for mass manufacture and went into production at the factories of: Luftschiffbau Schutz-Lanz GmbH (9 aircraft), Automobil-und- Aviatik-Werke GmbH (6) and Albatros Flugzeug-Werke GmbH (3) making 18 R.VI’s in all. A total of 13 of these production aircraft saw active service during the Great War.
Construction: Bi-plane wings and tail-plane. Fuselage, wings and tail-plane were fabricated mainly of wood and ply-wood spars, ribs and struts - braced with steel cables/wires - and some aluminium control surfaces, plus sheet steel and tubing reinforcements. Doped fabric was used to cover the naked wood-work except for the glazing of the innovative enclosed cockpit and the open forward and aft gun turrets.
Engines: Four Mercedes D. IVa, six cylinder, in-line, water-cooled, of 260 hp = 1,040hp. The Staaken R.VI’s supplied to the German Naval Air Service in a float-plane format were supplied with four Maybach 300hp engines = 1,200hp.
The basic arrangement was two sets of two tandem engines, back-to-back, driving tractor and pusher propellers, mounted in nacelles located between the wings on either side of the fuselage.
An additional Mercedes D.II engine of 120hp was installed on to two of the R.VI’s to power a supercharger. This permitted an operational altitude ceiling of about 6000m (19,695ft) for the avoidance of enemy anti aircraft fire and fighter aircraft.
Dimensions: Length = 22.1m (72.6ft); Wingspan = 42.2m (138.5ft); Height (on tricycle undercarriage) = 6.3m (20.7ft) carrying 18 wheels; front under-carriage of two wheels, main under-carriage two sets of eight wheels.
Performance: Maximum speed 135km/hr (84.4mph) at sea level, with an operational range of 800km (500miles), an altitude ceiling of 4,320m (14,180ft) and a flight duration of seven to 10 hours.
Armament: Four to six air-cooled machine guns of various types, and up to seven bombs carried on racks in the fuselage, or two 1,000kg (2,200lb) bombs suspended longitudinally under the fuselage between the wing spars. A small cabin and tunnel on the underside of the aircraft allowed a machine gun to be fired to the rear underneath the aircraft.
Aircrew: Total seven. Gunner/observer/bomb-aimer in the forward turret; two pilots; wireless operator; two mechanics (one located in each engine nacelle to service the engines whilst in flight) and a gunner for the main/rear turret.
The first delivery of the Staaken R.VI’s was made in June 1917 and the first deployments were to the Eastern Front (Kurland, Russia).
In September 1917, some R.VI’s were transferred to the Western Front (Ghent, Belgium) where they began operations against French and British targets. Later, more R.VI’s were transferred to France (Castinne) for operations against French targets, primarily sea ports and aerodromes.
The attacks using the R.VI against mainland Britain began in September 1917. Sorties by around five aircraft were flown against the capital at night and between September 1917 and May 1918. A total of 11 such raids took place during which 30 tonnes (29.5 tons) of bombs were dropped without the loss of a single R.VI aircraft over Britain; two aircraft crashed on returning to their home bases.
As was to be the case in the Second World War, London’s river Thames provided an ideal navigation tool, and individual R.VI’s were able make their independent way to their specified targets.
This ‘giant’ aircraft, in both name and size, was planned in the early months of the war, but did not become operational until June 1917, and then on a very limited scale – only 13 went operational. However, such was their operational superiority, not one was lost on the 11 operations (30 sorties) flown over Britain, and only one was shot down over France (Abbeville) in August 1918.
The R.VI was extremely complex to manufacture and it became a considerable drain on the German aircraft industry as the Allied blockade tightened over time.
Intended as an additional terror-weapon to the on-going air-raids by German airships and the Gotha bombers, it is impossible to evaluate the exact additional effect the R.VI had on the considerable panic, fear, anxiety and dislocation to British public life that the overall German bombing campaign definitely engendered, and in which around 800 British civilians were killed and 2,000 wounded. Damage to property was also widespread and estimated at £3 million. Indubitably, considerable additional manpower and material resources were diverted from the Western Front by the British to combat the aerial threat from Germany. But it is equally certain that the German air-raid campaign failed to spread the devastating panic, and even insurrection, that the German High Command hoped it would.
Additionally, the immunity of the R.VI’s to the British air defences did cause much concern to the British authorities, and ultimately spawned the defeatist slogan “The heavy bomber aircraft will always get through” that remained firmly fixed in the psyche of some British military men and politicians for many years after the war.
As far as the British public was concerned, The Zeppelin Staaken R.VI was as close to being the perfect terror weapon of the Great War as was the V2 rocket of the Second World War.