During the First World War, the Germans were banned from eating sausages because a component used to make them was needed for their airships. The Germans, at that time, were developing their rigid airship as bombers and scouts. Originally flown as a commercial airline in revenue service, their Zeppelin was given a different purpose when the war broke out. If you’re wondering how sausages were connected to this airship at all, then you’d be surprised to find out that these gigantic flyers were, in fact, using cow guts to fly.

Sausage in the Sky

This rigid airship could be traced back to 1874, when its notions were first formulated. It was named after its German inventor Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. Its details were developed in 1893, and by 1910, it took its first commercial flight, flown by Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-AG (DELAG), making it the world’s first revenue service airline.

The Zeppelin airship “Deutschland LZ 8” over the city of Düsseldorf in April 1911. (Peter Lölgen Architekturfotograf, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Zeppelin was made of a rigid metal framework covered in fabric and made up of transverse rings along longitudinal girders with numerous individual gasbags. Its framework was made of a combination of aluminum and copper and two or more other metals that were a secret, although it was collectively called duralumin. As for the gasbags, they were originally made from rubberized cotton until it was changed to goldbeater’s skin, basically cattle intestines. These very same intestines used in making bratwurst were filled with hydrogen gasbags to make it float. The demand was so high during WWI that the Central Powers ordered a cut back on sausage-making, not just in Germany but also in the territories under their control. Around 250,000 cow intestines were needed to make each Zeppelin fly, so even the butchers were required to hand over their cow guts possessions. For two years, the people of Germany were without their beloved sausages. A sacrifice that was worth it, as their Zeppelins were able to fly over and drop bombs over Britain in return.

The air ships were filled with flammable hydrogen which made them enormous flying bombs.  It would have been preferable to use helium but at the time the US was the largest producer of helium in the world and considered it a strategic commodity.  As a result it was very careful about who it sold helium to.

Flying Terror

It was January 7, 1915, when the Kaiser of Germany authorized the use of Zeppelins to bomb the United Kingdom. At first, he didn’t want to bomb London, as he was worried that his relatives in Buckingham Palace would be killed. So, they aimed for the industrial, military, and civilian targets in other parts of the country to disrupt the production of British armaments and terrify the public, which would, hopefully, make them demand their government withdraw from the war.

Crater of a Zeppelin bomb in Paris. (Willy John Abbot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The very first victim would be a meek shoemaker named Samuel Smith. He was on his way home when the hydrogen-filled ship above him dropped its very first bombs that unfateful night of January 19. In fact, there were two sent out that day, the L3 and L4, both from their base in Fuhlsbüttel in Hamburg. They were initially set to be sent to the ports of Hull and Grimsby, but the bad weather forced them to head to Norfolk coast instead. At 9 PM, it was the L3 that dropped its ten bombs on St. Peter’s Plain, causing Smith’s decapitation when fragmentation from the bomb hit him. It also killed a 73-year-old woman named Martha Taylor, whose house was where Smith was passing by when the payload was dropped.

Final Bow

Before 1916 ended, the British had already figured out how to intercept Zeppelins’ radio chatter and how to hunt and take them down. After losing so many of these flying sausages, the Germans thought they had to do better, so they shed some of Zeppelin’s weight to increase its altitude and make it harder to shoot down. The theory proved ineffective as the first raid in the higher altitude resulted in one of the Zeppelins being carried away by the wind over a battlefield in enemy territory, where French troops shot it down. The second one was a success in the sense that it dropped bombs on its target and killed one person in the small village of Suffolk. At these higher altitudes above 13,000 feet the Zeppelin crews suffered the effects of hypoxia and would experience crushing headaches, exhaustion vomiting and disorientation.  That could not have been much fun on a mission that could last 12 hours or more

The Zeppelin’s final flight was on August 25, 1918, when they were supposed to bomb targets in the north and the Midlands but got lost in the thick clouds of the North Sea. One of them was shot down by an aircraft from the Royal Flying Corps, while the three others dropped their bombs into the sea, not harming anyone. With that, the Zeppelin raids took their final bow.

The effectiveness of Zeppelins as weapons was a bust.  The Germans expended tremendous resources in building them while the damage they inflicted was one-fifth of their cost of production.  They were also pretty deadly to serve on, Of the 115 Zeppelins built by Germany during the war, 54 were shot down and 24 damaged beyond repair.  Among the 54 that were destroyed, their crews of 16-25 men were all killed which means 864-1350 lost in a service that only inflicted about 500 casualties on the British, who were mostly civilians.  Their greatest effect was psychological as they were very quiet at altitude and all but invisible at night and they terrorized the British public who could not when or where they would strike next.  The Zeppelins also required the British to devote significant air defenses to the British Isles to defend against them.