Channel 4 look back at the Attack of the Zeppelins

Channel 4 later this month is to air a documentary looking at the German Attack on the UK using Zeppelins in the first world war.

London bombed to ruins. Homes in flames. The dead lying in heaps. The story of the Blitz is engrained on the British consciousness, but these vicious attacks on the capital have nothing to do with World War II.

On the 31st May 1915, nine months into World War 1, the Germans bombed the East End, leaving a trail of death and destruction. The raid was part of a new kind of terror campaign that rewrote the rules of war. For the first time in history innocent civilians were bombed in their homes in a ruthless attempt to break a nation’s morale.

The carnage was delivered by a terrifying machine straight from the pages of science fiction – an enormous airship called a Zeppelin. For 18 months these gas filled monsters poured down death on London and other British towns with impunity, killing hundreds of men, women and children, while military engineers struggled to find a way to stop them.

With records lost in the fog of war, this little known arms race has left behind a series of mysteries, which Cambridge University engineer Hugh Hunt – together with a team of historians and weapons experts – attempts to unravel. Hugh discovers the enormous bags inside a Zeppelin that held the hydrogen gas were made from an unlikely material – cow intestines.

He visits a factory in Middlesbrough that uses the same stuff today to make sausage skins, to investigate how narrow tubes of cow gut were turned into gigantic balloons. Incredibly, it took the intestines of more than 250,000 cows to make a single airship, and animal gut was so precious to the German war effort that for a time sausage making was forbidden.

To test the effectiveness of the lethal German incendiary bombs that set London ablaze, Hugh asks army explosive experts to reverse-engineer an actual bomb that survived a Zeppelin raid, and to set it off in a mocked-up room. Then, to experience first hand the debilitating symptoms of hypoxia endured by Zeppelin crews, he virtually ascends to 21,000 feet in a low-pressure chamber.

But the question that really intrigues Hugh is why it took the British so long to find a way to shoot Zeppelins down. Why was an enormous balloon filled with highly flammable hydrogen gas so hard to set on fire? He finds out for himself by experimenting with a large bag of hydrogen and a shotgun. He discovers that it took two special bullets working in unison to finally bring down a Zeppelin. Along the way he learns he has a remarkable personal connection to the story.

The man who invented the ingenious flaming bullet that helped end the reign of the Zeppelin was his great uncle Jim.

Attack of the Zeppelins is an explosive mix of investigative engineering, filmed as it happens, and vivid action from the past brought to life using spectacular CGI and dramatic re-enactment, underpinned by archive film and photographs from the period. – Channel 4

Attack of the Zeppelins airs on Channel 4 on Monday 26th of August at 8pm

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