CHAPTER VI. THE MILITARY VALUE OF GERMANY'S AERIAL FLEET

This ship is of quite a distinctive type. It is an aerial cruiser, and the inventor claims that it combines all the essential qualifications of the Zeppelin and of the competitors of the latter, in addition to the advantage of being capable of dissection, transportation in parts, and rapid re-erection at any desired spot. The length of the vessel is about 270 feet; maximum diameter approximately 42 feet, and capacity about 300,000 cubic feet. The outstanding feature is a rigid keel-frame forming a covered passage way below the envelope or gas-bag, combined with easy access to all parts of the craft while under way, together with an artificial stiffening which dispenses with the necessity of attaching any additional cars. The frame is so designed that the load, as well as the ballast and fuel tanks, may be distributed as desired, and at the same time it ensures an advantageous disposition of the steering mechanism, far removed from the centre of rotation at the stern, without any overloading of the latter.

The lifting part of the airship comprises a single gas bag fitted with two ballonets provided to ensure the requisite gas-tension in the main envelope, while at the same time permitting, in times of emergency, a rapid change of altitude. Self-contained blowers contribute to the preservation of the shape of the envelope, the blowers and the ballonets being under the control of the pilot. Planes resembling Venetian blinds facilitate vertical steering, while the suspension of the keel is carried out in such a manner as to secure uniformity of weight upon the gas bag. The propelling power comprises two sets of internal combustion engines, each developing 130 horse-power, the transmission being through rubber belting. The propellers, built of wood, make 350 revolutions per minute, and are set as closely as possible to the centre of resistance.

But the most salient characteristic of this machine is its portability. It can be dismantled and transported by wagons to any desired spot, the suspension frame being constructed in units, each of which is sufficiently small to be accommodated in an ordinary vehicle. Upon arrival the parts may be put together speedily and easily. The authorities submitted the airship to exacting trials and were so impressed by its characteristics and the claims of the inventor that undoubtedly it will be brought into service during the present crisis.

At the same time the whole faith of the German military staff so far as airship operations are concerned, is pinned to the Zeppelin. Notwithstanding its many drawbacks it is the vessel which will be used for the invasion of Great Britain. Even the harbour question, which is admitted to be somewhat acute, has been solved to a certain degree. At strategical points permanent harbours or airship sheds have been established. Seeing that the airships demand considerable skill in docking and undocking, and that it is impossible to achieve these operations against the wind, swinging sheds have been adopted.

On water the practice is to anchor a floating harbour at one end, leaving the structure to swing round with the wind. But on dry land such a dock is impossible. Accordingly turntable sheds have been adopted. The shed is mounted upon a double turn-table, there being two circular tracks the one near the centre of the shed and the other towards its extremities. The shed is mounted upon a centre pivot and wheels engaged with these inner and outer tracks. In this manner the shed may be swung round to the most favourable point of the compass according to the wind.

In the field, however, such practices are impossible, and the issue in this connection has been overcome by recourse to what may be termed portable harbours. They resemble the tents of peripatetic circuses and travelling exhibitions. There is a network of vertical steel members which may be set with facility and speed and which are stayed by means of wire guys. At the top of the outer vertical posts pulleys are provided whereby the outer skin or canvas forming the walls may be hauled into position, while at the apex of the roof further pulleys ensure the proper placing of the roofing. The airship is able to enter or leave from either end according to conditions. The material is fireproofed as a precautionary measure, but at the same time the modern aerial bomb is able to penetrate the roofing without any difficulty and to explode against the airship anchored within.

The one great objection to the Zeppelin harbour is the huge target it offers to hostile attack, which, in the event of a vessel being moored within, is inevitably serious. Thus, for instance, upon the occasion of the air raids conducted by Lieutenant Collet and of Squadron Commander Briggs and his colleagues at Dusseldorf and Friedrichshafen respectively, little difficulty was experienced in destroying the airships riding at anchor. The target offered by the shed is so extensive that it would be scarcely possible for a flying enemy to miss it. A bomb dropped from a reasonable height, say 500 feet, would be almost certain to strike some part of the building, and a Zeppelin is an easy vessel to destroy. The firing of one balloon is sufficient to detonate the whole, for the simple reason that hydrogen gas is continuously oozing through the bags in which it is contained. According to a recent statement the Germans are said to be utilising an inert or non-inflammable gas, equal in lifting power to hydrogen, for the inflation of military craft, but scientific thought does not entertain this statement with any degree of seriousness. No gas as light as hydrogen and non-explosive is known to commerce.