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The Zeppelin Spy Basket

One of the most perilous positions in the crew of a German Zeppelin during the First World War was that of the aerial lookout, whose job was to observe the ground for enemy position and bombing targets while dangling at the end of a long tether suspended from the belly of the aircraft.

The lookout sat in an observation car called the spy gondola or spy basket that was lowered from the zeppelin through the cloud, while the zeppelin itself stayed shrouded within the cloud layer and out of enemy view. The aerial lookout then became the eyes for the zeppelin’s pilot instructing the pilot on an appropriate course via a telephone. Although the job was alarming, it was said that many crew members enjoyed lookout duty because it was the only place where they were allowed to smoke.

Zeppelin Spy Basket

Zeppelin airship observation car at the Imperial War Museum, London.

Captain Ernst August Lehmann, a German Zeppelin captain, describes in his book The Zeppelins how he and Baron Gemmingen, Count Zeppelin's nephew, had developed the device.

Our idea was to produce a small observation car which might be lowered a half mile or more below the Zeppelin. In that an observer could ride and direct the course and the firing, while the big ship floated serenely above him in a cloud bank or mist. As an engineer the task of designing the car fell to me. It was not my invention. Several persons had submitted similar ideas. It came to me from a business man by the name of Hagen, who was also a civil engineer, in Cologne at that time. He had a small machine shop near-by and together we made the first tests with a very crude experimental apparatus.

To test the prototype Lehmann blindfolded the helmsman of the airship and allowed himself to be lowered by a winch from the bombroom in a modified cask, equipped with a telephone. Hanging some 150 meters below the airship and using a compass Lehman was able to tell the blindfolded helmsman which bearing to take and effectively drove the airship.

Zeppelin Spy Basket

The experiment being a success, Lehman proceeded to design a more robust observation car and a wince driven by the ship’s main engine. The gondola was made of wicker work and resembled in form the body of a tiny airplane with the regulation tail, rudder and lateral fins. A steering bar permitted the occupant to control unsteady lateral motion if the airship happened to encounter disturbances like air turbulence, but this soon proved to be unnecessary. Inside the car were a comfortable chair, a chart table, electric light, a lightning protector, a compass and the telephone.

The spy gondola was used successfully during a bombing raid on Calais, in northern France, in March 1916. Baron Gemmingen and Lehman both wanted to be the first to ride in the observation car, but it was Gemmingen who eventually won the argument. Gemmingen was lowered about a half mile below the ship and the zeppelin ascended into the clouds. Gemmingen later said that he had felt lonely down there by himself when he saw the big Zeppelin disappear from sight within the clouds.

Zeppelin Spy Basket

Lehman wrote:

Peering out of the control car we could not see anything, not even Gemmingen. The darkness and mist surrounded us like an impenetrable wall; but Gemmingen by this time was sending up his orders through the telephone, giving directions by compass. We circled over the fortress for 45 minutes, Gemmingen taking his time so that he could plant his bombs with precision. He had little difficulty directing the operations and at intervals be would quietly order a few small bombs dropped, then larger ones and so on. Five separate attacks were made, taking in the railway station, the storehouses on the docks, the arsenal and other points. Occasionally, emerging from the upper surface of the clouds, we saw light ovals made by the searchlights as the rays struck the clouds and were blocked as if they were playing on a great layer of cotton thousands of acres in extent.

Spy baskets were later adopted by the US Navy and used on the helium-filled rigid airship USS Akron. But the first deployment was so violently unstable that it put the whole ship in danger. A vertical stabilizing fin was added to stop the wild swinging, but the Navy decided that the basket was too dangerous to use.

At the Imperial War Museum in London, you can see an actual Zeppelin observation car that was found near Colchester after the Zeppelin air raid on September 1916. It is believed that the winch which deployed the suspending cable accidentally ran out of control and the observation car crashed into the ground along with 1,500 meters of cable. Fortunately, the observation car was unmanned at that time.

Zeppelin Spy Basket

Zeppelin airship observation car at the Imperial War Museum, London.

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