Monday, 16 November 2015

Zeppelin versus camels

Just look at this magnificent thing. A poster for one of the most insanely ludicrous movies never made, Hammer Films' unmade classic, Zeppelin V. Pterodactyls.* As a pre-pubescent kid, I thrilled to One Million Years B.C. and The Blue Max at an age when the heaving embonpoints of Raquel Welch and Ursula Andress were nothing but boring interruptions to the far more exciting business of stop-motion dino action and death-defying stunts in replica Fokker triplanes. My little head would have exploded at the sheer awesomeness of a planned film about dinosaurs** and daredevil flying aces ... AND Zeppelins, had I known of such a thing.*** It would have taken more than a few heaving embonpoints to rain on that parade.

This poster briefly popped into my head on holiday this summer, as I was enjoying a coffee and a waffle in a pavement cafe in Tønder, in the south of Denmark. Why? I'd seen a sign for a Zeppelin museum and was wondering, vaguely, what such a thing was doing in Denmark (albeit very close to the German border). We had other things to do that day and a long-ish drive back to where we were staying, so I never investigated at the time and forgot all about it. But just the other day, the thought popped back into my head and I googled it. It turns out that there was a very good reason for such a museum being there. Not only was Tønder once a home to Zeppelins, but  Tønder's Zeppelins were themselves the target of the world's first ever successful attack by aircraft flown from an aircraft carrier, carried out some 23 years before Pearl Harbour.

What were Zeppelins doing in Denmark? Well, that goes back to the interminable dynastic/territorial squabble between the Danish crown and the German Confederation, which Brits remember chiefly for launching Lord Palmerston's most quotable quip ("Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it"). Anyway, the Schleswig part of the business was settled - for more than half a century, anyway - by the Second Schleswig War of 1864, when Prussian and Austrian troops occupied the disputed territory. The subsequent Treaty of Vienna designated Schleswig as part of the German Confederation.

So Tønder, in North Schleswig became part of the German Confederation, then, from 1871, part of the new nation of Germany. And that's how it stayed until after the German defeat in World War One. Then, after centuries of people having their identity determined by the outcome of inhertance disputes between various monarchs and aristocrats, the people**** who lived there got a say. A plebiscite was held in 1920 and the locals of North Schleswig (or South Jutland, as the Danes call it), voted to return to Denmark (South Schleswig voted to remain German).

Anyhow, in 1918, the then German town of Tønder (Tondern in German) was doing its small bit for pan-European carnage by hosting a Zeppelin base with three airship hangers, run by the Imperial German Navy. By that stage in the war Zeppelins had been superseded as bombers by heavier-than-air R-planes, but were still being used for naval patrols. On the other side of the North Sea, the Brits had been doing their bit by adding a flight deck to the battlecruiser HMS Furious, so creating the world's first aircraft carrier. The Royal Navy chose the Tondern Zeppelin base as Furious's first target.
HMS Furious, complete with flight deck and U-boat-confusing dazzle camouflage

A first attempt to attack the Tondern Zeppelins, in June 1918, had to be called off due to bad weather. Furious and her escort set sail for the German North Sea coast again on July 17th. She was carrying a small contingent of Sopwith Camels, fitted with bomb racks.

Ship's Camels on board Furious

In the early morning of July 19th, seven Camels flew off Furious's flight deck, in two waves of three and four aircraft, bound for Tondern. Bombs from the first wave of three aircraft hit the largest airship hanger, setting Zeppelins L.54 and L.60 on fire. The second wave's bombs destroyed a captive balloon in another hanger.
Zeppelin L 54, outside its hanger in Tondern/Tønder

Although this was a hazardous operation which destroyed two Zeppelins, casualties on both sides were light, especially when compared with the numbers being routinely slaughtered in this conflict. Total casualties consisted of four Germans injured and one British pilot dead. None of the planes was able to return to Furious and land (the ship had an aft flight deck for landings, but these hadn't been perfected and pilots were expected to ditch in the sea and await rescue); one pilot experienced engine trouble and never made it to Tondern, but was recovered after ditching his plane near the fleet. Three pilots judged that they hadn't enough fuel to make it back and landed in neutral Denmark. The other three headed back for the fleet. Two of them ditched near the fleet and were recovered but one, Lieutenant Walter A "Toby" Yuelett, DFC, was never seen again and probably drowned after running out of fuel and being forced to ditch early.

It all sounds terribly primitive and quaint now, but it was deadly serious and high-tech at the time. A modern equivalent would be killer drones with Hellfire missiles (although your modern drone operator doesn't face the same physical dangers that killed Lieutenant Yuelett). In fact, the Tondern raid would have seemed even more cutting-edge - in 2015, the military has been using armed drones for nearly a decade and a half, but the Tondern raid came less than year after the first ever successful flight of an aircraft from the deck of a moving ship (the Furious). Rather than old-hat killer drones, the modern analogue would be something really novel, like the drone-based biryani delivery system currently being trialled in Milton Keynes (or its weaponised equivalent), which may, coincidentally, be the wierdest high-concept idea since Zeppelins V. Pterodactyls.

*First seen (by me, at least) here. Bless you, Internet.

**Yes, I know pterodactyls and dinosaurs are different things. OK, were different things. Shut up.

***Easy with the nostalgia, though - having just taken the Offspring to see Inside Out, I have to admit that the sort of family entertainment that got me going at his age was a good deal less nuanced, sophisticated and thought-provoking than some of the stuff that's being specifically made for kids today.

****I presume that people of both genders got a say, as - according to Wikipedia - Danish women got the vote in 1915 and their German sisters were enfranchised on the founding of the Weimar Republic in 1919.