CHAPTER X. BOMB-THROWING FROM AIR-CRAFT
During the piping times of peace the utility of aircraft as weapons of offence was discussed freely in an academic manner. It was urged that the usefulness of such vessels in this particular field would be restricted to bomb-throwing. So far these contentions have been substantiated during the present campaign. At the same time it was averred that even as a bomb-thrower the ship of the air would prove an uncertain quantity, and that the results achieved would be quite contrary to expectations. Here again theory has been supported by practice, inasmuch as the damage wrought by bombs has been comparatively insignificant.
The Zeppelin raids upon Antwerp and Britain were a fiasco in the military sense. The damage inflicted by the bombs was not at all in proportion to the quantity of explosive used. True, in the case of Antwerp, it demoralised the civilian population somewhat effectively, which perhaps was the desired end, but the military results were nil.
The Zeppelin, and indeed all dirigibles of large size, have one advantage over aeroplanes. They are able to throw bombs of larger size and charged with greater quantities of high explosive and shrapnel than those which can be hurled from heavier-than-air machines. Thus it has been stated that the largest Zeppelins can drop single charges exceeding one ton in weight, but such a statement is not to be credited.
The shell generally used by the Zeppelin measures about 47 inches in length by 8 1/2 inches in diameter, and varies in weight from 200 to 242 pounds. Where destruction pure and simple is desired, the shell is charged with a high explosive such as picric acid or T.N.T., the colloquial abbreviation for the devastating agent scientifically known as "Trinitrotoluene," the base of which, in common with all the high explosives used by the different powers and variously known as lyddite, melinite, cheddite, and so forth, is picric acid. Such a bomb, if it strikes the objective, a building, for instance, fairly and squarely, may inflict widespread material damage.
On the other hand, where it is desired to scatter death, as well as destruction, far and wide, an elaborate form of shrapnel shell is utilised. The shell in addition to a bursting charge, contains bullets, pieces of iron, and other metallic fragments. When the shell bursts, their contents, together with the pieces of the shell which is likewise broken up by the explosion, are hurled in all directions over a radius of some 50 yards or more, according to the bursting charge.
These shells are fired upon impact, a detonator exploding the main charge. The detonator, comprising fulminate of mercury, is placed in the head or tail of the missile. To secure perfect detonation and to distribute the death-dealing contents evenly in all directions, it is essential that the bomb should strike the ground almost at right angles: otherwise the contents are hurled irregularly and perhaps in one direction only. One great objection to the percussion system, as the method of impact detonation is called, is that the damage may be localised. A bomb launched from a height of say 1,000 feet attains terrific velocity, due to the force of gravity in conjunction with its own weight, in consonance with the law concerning a falling body, by the time it reaches the ground. It buries itself to a certain depth before bursting so that the forces of the explosion become somewhat muffled as it were. A huge deep hole - a miniature volcano crater - is formed, while all the glass in the immediate vicinity of the explosion may be shattered by the concussion, and the walls of adjacent buildings be bespattered with shrapnel.
Although it is stated that an airship is able to drop a single missile weighing one ton in weight, there has been no attempt to prove the contention by practice. In all probability the heaviest shell launched from a Zeppelin has not exceeded 300 pounds. There is one cogent reason for such a belief. A bomb weighing one ton is equivalent to a similar weight of ballast. If this were discarded suddenly the equilibrium of the dirigible would be seriously disturbed - it would exert a tendency to fly upwards at a rapid speed. It is doubtful whether the planes controlling movement in the vertical plane would ever be able to counteract this enormous vertical thrust. Something would have to submit to the strain. Even if the dirigible displaced say 20 tons, and a bomb weighing one ton were discharged, the weight of the balloon would be decreased suddenly by approximately five per cent, so that it would shoot upwards at an alarming speed, and some seconds would elapse before control was regained.
The method of launching bombs from airships varies considerably. Some are released from a cradle, being tilted into position ready for firing, while others are discharged from a tube somewhat reminiscent of that used for firing torpedoes, with the exception that little or no initial impetus is imparted to the missile; the velocity it attains is essentially gravitational.
The French favour the tube-launching method since thereby it is stated to be possible to take more accurate aim. The objective is sighted and the bomb launched at the critical moment. In some instances the French employ an automatic detonator which corresponds in a certain measure to the time-fuse of a shrapnel shell fired from a gun.