Or “defence” if you are on the right hand side of the big “pond”! The third novel in the series tells of Will Turner’s involvement in the air defence of the British mainland against the threat of the Kaiser’s fleet of rigid airships, or Zeppelins as they were known.
The story of the rigid airship, or “dirigible” begins with the ambition of Count von Zeppelin, well before the outbreak of the First World War, to create a veritable ship of the skies. His earliest efforts resulted in costly failure, but something about the sheer size and majesty of his craft captured the imagination of the German people and funds for constructing bigger and better ships continued to pour in from both the government and the public. The military potential was not lost on the High Command of both the Navy and the Army. By 1914 the Zeppelin airship had been developed to the point where a significant load could be carried over hundreds of miles.
To the German High Command, committed to a war on two fronts, it seemed the answer to their prayers. For propaganda purposes they had the ultimate terror weapon. They calculated that just the threat of these monsters, flying by night and scattering high explosive on helpless citizens below, might be enough to make the British sue for peace. In this they had been unwittingly helped by the English author H.G.Wells who had published a strangely prophetic novel, “The War in the Air”, in 1908. His novel tells of a fleet of German airships crossing the Atlantic and bombing New York.
In fact the operation of Zeppelins as a means of attack proved more difficult than envisaged, but the German Navy persisted under the leadership of the formidable Peter Strasser. Early attacks achieved some success. They inflicted little material damage but the propaganda effect was considerable. At first the “Zeps” seemed invulnerable. They could fly at heights defending aircraft struggled to reach, even when they could find them. Anti aircraft artillery, even aided by searchlights, often failed to find the range and set their shells to explode too low.
While the defenders tried desperately to come to grips with the Zeppelins, their crews had their own problems. Hypoxia posed a constant threat as they flew at altitudes where the oxygen content of the air was barely enough to sustain life. Even with the use of portable oxygen bottles the crews risked losing consciousness. Crewmen described the cold at altitude as drilling into their bones despite the many layers of clothing they wore. It was no wonder that navigators often failed to place their ships accurately over partly blacked out England. Working sextants with numb fingers, and used to navigating sea going craft, the fixes navigating officers supplied by astral navigation were often useless. The Zeppelin, travelling at 60m.p.h. in still air but shoved about the sky by the high winds at heights above 10,000 feet, could be thirty miles from the point calculated by the time the navigator concluded his computations. Captains had to rely on dead reckoning from known landmarks glimpsed below, in reality educated guesswork. Their reports frequently claimed attacks on targets, in some cases, many miles from where the bombs fell. In October 1915, Oberleutnant zur See Werner Peterson dropped a stick of bombs on the small country town of Hertford, convinced he was attacking the London docks thirty miles away. The High Command in Berlin relished these reports of attacks on major cities, when bombs had often fallen on small towns far from the reported target. For the Germans it was a case of the written report following the optimistic wish, with the voices of the few realists drowned by the din of propaganda.
Nonetheless, the British still had a major problem on their hands. For the first time in history civilians at home suffered casualties from aerial bombardment, there was uproar as the numbers of killed and wounded mounted. Demands grew for increasing numbers of aircraft and high angle guns to be kept at home to defend against the Zeppelin menace.
Ostensibly on home duties that were supposed to provide a rest from the stress of combat flying, many aviators found themselves flying missions potentially as dangerous as those they had endured over France. Night flying aids were primitive, the aircraft they flew unsuitable for the task, and when they did make contact after they had run the gauntlet of their own anti aircraft fire, the Zeppelins could mount a formidable defence.
This is the situation Will Turner finds himself in during the Spring of 1916. Once more serving under Major Ernest Simpson, he is induced by the shadowy organisation run by his uncle, Colonel Frank Penrose, to undertake a spying mission to the heart of the German Airship service. Read how Will Turner creates his own response to the threat in “Turner’s Defense”.