It happened today - September 8, 2015
On September 8, 1915, a Zeppelin piloted by the famous Heinrich Mathy struck central London with incendiary bombs, killing 22 and doing half a million dollars’ worth of damage in the resulting fire.
It seems somehow ludicrous. Zeppelins were so big, clumsy, slow and vulnerable, their large seize and massive steel frames making it necessary to levitate them with highly flammable hydrogen. The idea that sending one to chuck firebombs out a hatch might dramatically affect the course of a world war is hard to take seriously.
They nevertheless created great consternation in Britain with raids beginning on May 31, 1915. But after a year they had only killed 550 people, which is a lot if you’re one of them I suppose but hardly significant given the carnage on the Somme and elsewhere. Once the British began using a mix of incendiary and explosive ammunition the Zeppelins were increasingly vulnerable; Mathy himself died when his new ship, L31, was shot down on the night of October 1-2, 1916.
Yet somehow people could not shake off the notion that technology would one day let them rain death from the skies, crush civilian morale, and win wars on the cheap.
In fact a significant contribution to the pacifism of the 1930s was the belief that aerial bombardment would make future wars unbelievably bloody on the home front. As future Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin put it to the British House of Commons on November 10, 1932 (and oddly, this was calling for rearmament, “I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through. The only defence is in offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves...”
In 1939, the justly famous British military theorist Basil Liddell Hart said a quarter of a million Britons could be killed or wounded from the air in the first week of a European war. In fact the entire “Blitz” from September 1940 through May 1941 claimed fewer casualties; Hermann Goering was revealed as a pompous as well as murderous ass as his invincible air armada was beaten and driven off. But Liddell Hart was far from alone in the 1930s; even Churchill had warned Parliament in 1934 that sustained bombing of London would force three to four million people to flee the city.
Despite the failure of “strategic” bombing to live up to its billing, it remained popular. Surely the next time it would work. Thus following the Nazi Blitz the Allies unleashed endless attacks on Germany, designed to destroy war industry and crush morale. They did neither. So while I have no problem with them on moral grounds, they seem to me to have been of limited strategic use. The most that can be said for them, and it is not trivial by any means, is that the RAF’s night raids and the U.S. 8th Air Force’s daytime bombing diverted considerable resources, including both planes and the dreaded all-purpose German “88s”, away from the Eastern and later also the Normandy fronts.
Of course on August 6 and 9, 1945, strategic bombing finally did was it was meant to, finishing off Japan. And while Japan was on the ropes by that point anyway, I think it is fair to say that the atomic bombs did shorten the war and save lives and that even if Japan had retained far more conventional strength such an attack if sustained would rapidly have forced surrender. (The U.S. did not have more bombs ready but could have made them, and 10 such attacks with the prospect of more to follow, would surely have broken any adversary.)
So the world went from lone Zeppelins dropping scattered incendiary bombs to fleets of bombers pounding rubble to atomic warfare in just 3 decades. They call that progress. And now we’re trying to win wars from Iraq to Afghanistan primarily on air power, without terror bombing, and it’s not working. They call that further progress.
In retrospect, if Mathy’s Zeppelin seems both pathetic and ominous, it rather set the tone for bombing in the future.