About World War 1: First Zeppelin Downed In Air-to-Air Combat

WWI: Portrait of Flight Sub-Lieutenant R.A.J. Warneford VC. Photo taken 17 February 1915.
WWI: Portrait of Flight Sub-Lieutenant R.A.J. Warneford VC. Photo taken 17 February 1915. | Source

Rex Warneford Brings Down the LZ-37

At the beginning of 1915, Germany started bombing targets in England using their giant dirigible airships, often referred to as Zeppelins, after the manufacturer that made most of them. The British soon found that these huge, cigar-shaped monsters were extremely hard to shoot down. It wasn't until the night of June 6-7, 1915, that one was lost to enemy action in aerial combat. Flying a night mission, British Sub-Lieutenant Reginald “Rex” Warneford, happened to spot the Zeppelin LZ-37 as it returned from a raid on Calais. After a two hour chase, Rex managed to bring it down-- but he didn't shoot it down.

It's commonly believed that dirigibles, with their rigid aluminum skeletons containing large hydrogen-filled gasbags and covered with a treated “skin” of fabric, were great huge floating bombs just waiting for a stray bullet or two. The iconic image of the Hindenburg exploding into flames over Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937 ended the dirigible age once and for all, though the actual cause has never been determined with certainty. In fact, even filled with explosive hydrogen gas, Zeppelins were extremely hard to shoot down and they ruled the skies over World War One Europe, at least during the early stages of the war.

The Zeppelin LZ 129 Hindenburg catching fire on May 6, 1937 at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey.
The Zeppelin LZ 129 Hindenburg catching fire on May 6, 1937 at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. | Source
WWI: Engine gondola of a Zeppelin airship. Painting by Felix Schwormstädt (1870–1938).
WWI: Engine gondola of a Zeppelin airship. Painting by Felix Schwormstädt (1870–1938). | Source

Zeppelins Ruled the Skies-- For a While

There were several reasons for this. One was their enormous size. Most were more than 500 feet long and, while that made them bigger targets, it also meant they could take a lot of punishment, because the fallacy of their explosive nature was: ordinary bullets and shrapnel merely punched little holes in them. Even if the gasbags were hit, the gas did not ignite because there was no ignition source and Zeppelin crews followed the rules related to sparks religiously. It would take almost freakish luck for ordinary bullets to strike something that would ignite any escaping gas. Also, repairs to leaking gasbags were made during flight. It wouldn't be until May 1916, when incendiary and explosive rounds were introduced, that the defending fighters began to turn the tables on the Zeppelins.

Until then, enemy planes could empty drums of machine gun bullets into a Zeppelin and still not bring it down. That's if they could get close enough to shoot at it. Zeppelin's were not like hot air balloons drifting in a direction dictated by a small motor; they could reach speeds of 50 to 60 mph. Considering that the early fixed wing aircraft might reach 80 mph, Zeppelins weren't exactly sitting ducks. They also could fly higher than most aircraft of the time, so it wasn't an easy task to even get within range of a Zeppelin, but if a plane did close in, it would then also be within range of multiple machine guns mounted in the Zeppelin's gondolas. And in the early months of the war, airplanes themselves were not equipped with forward-firing machine guns.

For all these reasons, during the first half of 1915, the Germans carried out their bombing raids against English and French cities without losing a single Zeppelin to enemy action. In fact, their biggest adversaries were bad weather and accidents.

WW1: A captured Moran-Saulnier Type l (note the German insigna). It was a "parasol" monoplane (a single-wing above the fuselage).
WW1: A captured Moran-Saulnier Type l (note the German insigna). It was a "parasol" monoplane (a single-wing above the fuselage). | Source

Warneford Spots a Zeppelin

On the night of June 6-7, Sub-Lieutenant Rex Warneford was on his first night-bombing mission for the Royal Navy Air Service (RNAS). His destination was the Zeppelin sheds near Brussels, Belgium and his Morane-Saulnier monoplane held six small 20-lb Hales bombs. His top speed was about 75 mph and the only weapon he had was a carbine. As he approached Ostend on the Belgian coast, he spotted the Zeppelin LZ-37 as it returned from a raid on Calais, France. During training, his commander had said “This youngster will either do big things or kill himself”. True to form, Warneford decided to attack the airship with his carbine and closed on it, but LZ-37's four machine guns forced him to turn aside even as the Zeppelin dumped ballast and rapidly climbed away, leaving him far below. The enemy dirigible continued on its way home, unaware that the Morane-Saulnier was still following, though struggling to gain altitude. It took Warneford two hours to get his fragile plane up to 13,000 feet and then, near Ghent, Belgium, the LZ-37 started descending.

World War One: An artist's impression of the destruction of German Zeppelin LZ37 by Sub-Lieutenant Reginald Warneford on 7 June 1915.
World War One: An artist's impression of the destruction of German Zeppelin LZ37 by Sub-Lieutenant Reginald Warneford on 7 June 1915. | Source

Patience Rewarded

Warneford decided his chance had come. He maneuvered his plane until he was about 200 feet above the 520-foot dirigible and dropped his six bombs. Then he tried to put as much distance between him and LZ-37 as possible.

One of the 20-lb bombs started a fire which spread rapidly and caused a massive explosion which lit up the countryside. The burning pieces of the great airship rained down over St.-Amandsberg. The blast also flipped Warneford's plane on its back and stopped its engine.

LZ-37 crashed on the Visitatie monastery in St.-Amandsberg near Ghent, killing seven of its eight crew and two nuns. The airship's cabin crashed through the monastery's roof and the eighth crew member landed in one of the beds. Although he spent several weeks in hospital, he survived.

Warneford fought to regain control of his plane and finally landed it in the dark, well behind enemy lines, where he managed to make emergency repairs and restart his engine. He then took off and returned to his base. He was the first aviator to destroy a Zeppelin in air-to-air combat.

WW1: Pall-bearers from the Royal Naval Division carrying the coffin of Lieutenant R.A.J. Warneford, VC. "Honoured by the King; admired by the Empire; mourned by all."
WW1: Pall-bearers from the Royal Naval Division carrying the coffin of Lieutenant R.A.J. Warneford, VC. "Honoured by the King; admired by the Empire; mourned by all." | Source
show route and directions
A markerOstend, Belgium -
[get directions]

Where Warneford spotted the LZ-37.

B markerSt.-Amandsberg, Belgium -
[get directions]

Where the LZ-37 went down.

Short-Lived Honors and Fame

The French awarded him their highest decoration, the Knight's Cross of the Legion of Honor; the British gave him the Victoria Cross, their highest award. A street in St.-Amandsberg, near the monastery, was renamed Reginald Warnefordstreet (presumably after the war when the Germans were gone).

Ten days after his triumph, on June 17, 1915, following a lunch in his honor, Rex Warneford took off in a plane accompanied by an American journalist. Shortly after takeoff, the right wings collapsed and the plane plunged to the ground, killing them both. Warneford's funeral in London, on June 21, was attended by thousands of mourners. He was 23 years old.

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Comments 24 comments

hockey8mn profile image

hockey8mn 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

Not only an intriguing story, but I had no idea Zeppelins could go that fast! It has always been interesting to see how countries over come obstacles in the presence of war. Voted up and interesting.


Peter Geekie profile image

Peter Geekie 4 years ago from Sittingbourne

Dear unnamedharald,

An excellent article about a little known aspect of aerial warfare during the Great War. These men with their rickety aircraft and no parachute certainly deserve my admiration. Voted up,awesome and interesting.

Kind regards Peter


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK

What a sad end for the young VC holder. I need to find out more about the war in the air during WW1 generally, this has whetted my appetite.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

hockey8mm, I know what you mean. I imagined a car going down the highway at 60 mph and then realized that Zeppelins could go as fast. The thought of a drifting gasbag has totally been transformed. Thanks for your comment.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Hi, Peter. If it was me trying to land my plane after being knocked around by a huge explosion with a dead engine, I hope I would have packed a spare pair of pants with my carbine.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks much, Judi. Also, you might want to check out some of aethelthryth's hubs on WW1 aerial warfare.


gmarquardt profile image

gmarquardt 4 years ago from Hill Country, Texas

Very informative and fascinating. Excellent!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks, gmarquardt. I know I learned a lot researching this-- like shooting Zeppelins full of bullet holes had very little effect until phosphorus bullets were produced. Thanks for the comment.


krillco profile image

krillco 4 years ago from Hollidaysburg, PA

Wow, what a great Hub! But then, I'm a history hound...thanks to adding to my knowledge base! Voted 'up'!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Hi, krillco. Us history hounds know better than many how fascinating history can be. We just need to get the word out that it's more than dates and dry facts. Thanks for your comment.


Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 3 years ago from London, England

Another good read, thanks David. I love airships, reading about them or seeing them in films and documentaries. That photo of the Hindenburg exploding, whoa, almost unreal, an 800ft long airship. How frightening it must have been for the people on board and the people waiting below, amazingly only 35 deaths but still, terrible.

Voted Up and Interesting.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

Well, well! Nice piece you've cobbled together here, UNH. There's a plaque on a wall down Farringdon Road - near where Clerkenwell Road crosses onto Theobalds Road - that commemmorates Zeppelin damage to buildings overlooking the Circle/Metropolitan line and the goods depot (as was, now offices).


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Steve, thanks for the comment. I just heard that the Discovery Channel is prepared to state what they believe is the cause of Hindenburg disaster. But in true TV-teaser mode, it won't be aired till the weekend. As far as I can tell, they ran a bunch of experiments on "full-size" mockups. Since they then mentioned 80-foot models, their credibility is already stretched-- but it will be interesting anyway-- if I remember to look for it.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Hi, alancaster. I understand that many cities were on the receiving end of the Zeps-- partly because the weather didn't cooperate over their intended target so they had to fallback on targets of opportunity. Thanks for the comment.


Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

Pavlo Badovskyy 3 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

I always thought of those big Zeppelins as about clumsy and helpless flying baloons and did not have any idea that they could actually defend themselves and more over to shoot enemy planes.

The death of this pilot reminded me the death of the fist Soviet astronaut - Yuri Gagarin. He was first to be into space but died in an ordinary crash of an airplane. Great info!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks for commenting, Pavlo. I thought pretty much the same thing. I guess some of them were bristling with machine guns-- even having them on top and even in the tail! Until the advent of tracer bullets and fighters that could more easily climb higher, they ruled the skies. They weren't the most accurate bombers though and, when fighters became more of a threat, they switched almost exclusively to night bombing.


fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 3 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

Sounds like the Zeppelin was the big, bad sky bully of WW I......But they met their waterloo when "Rex" spotted them...and persevered!......He earned the highest medals from both France and England and the honor of having a street named after him. Well deserving.

An excellent and fascinating tale..but such a sad ending. Although he died a Hero, he was much too young....23...just a baby.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Right you are, fpherj48. I thought I read somewhere that there were more aviation deaths due to accidents, pilot error or faulty equipment than from actual combat, but don't quote me on that. War loves twenty-somethings and teens. Thanks for your comment, as always.


joanveronica profile image

joanveronica 3 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

Hi David, I finally got here! Another GREAT read! I was familiar with the Zeps activity over Britain, so I knew something about their capacity as attackers. But I had never actually read something so specific about a duel in the air, as it were. Voted up, awesome and interesting!

As I look at my "young-adult" students of the present day, I always wonder how they would have managed during the war years. One can never really tell, of course, but I just don't see them in those roles and doing those deeds! Too much comfort and easy living nowadays, maybe? Again, thanks for a good read! Just keep them coming!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

joan, I guess it's all about the context of the times, isn't it. I can't see thousands of modern soldiers advancing over, say, desert sands against machine gun emplacements. Nor could we stomach getting up tomorrow and reading that 19,500 of our soldiers died in one day of fighting. Thanks, as always, for your comment.


Kieran Gracie 3 years ago

Just caught up with this interesting story, UnnamedHarald. As always. a well-researched Hub, voted accordingly. Nowadays, with Mach 2+ fighters, it is almost impossible to imagine how those early aviators managed to fight in such flimsy machines.

Then I thought about your comment that the dirigible crew could repair bullet holes in flight. The mind boggles at a crew member crawling about the thin skin inside the Zeppelin, sticky tape in hand, probably in the dark and (hopefully) a gas mask strapped on! Did they really do that?


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Hi Kieran. I'm not up on how the repairs were done, but I'm sure they didn't care about holes in the outer skin. I believe the internal gasbags were inside aluminum frameworks with ladders, etc which the crew could climb on and tend to the holes leaking hydrogen. I'd be interested in learning more myself. Along those lines, some of the largest bombers of WW1 also had engineers who performed maintenance on engines while in flight.


ryanjhoe profile image

ryanjhoe 3 years ago from Somewhere over the rainbow

Zeppelin is incredible vehicle that ever made in human history, sometimes I wonder if this kind of vehicle can be produce as many as commercial plane these days with more advanced technology to prevent from any accident or unwanted problems. Great hub you have, thanks for sharing!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks, ryanjhoe. I think there is a future for lighter than air aircraft-- especially for heavy lifting and staying aloft for long periods.

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    David Hunt (UnnamedHarald)560 Followers
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    My passion for Twentieth Century history and current events has lasted over 50 years. I try to make history readable and interesting.



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