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