Raid on Naples!
from March 13, 1918:
dirigible bombs Naples"
mother-in-law told me many years ago that
she remembered Naples being bombed by a German
Zeppelin in the First World War, I was skeptical.
I knew that the Germans and English had traded
dirigible attacks during the Great War over
distances of a few hundred miles, but Naples was a
thousand kilometers from the enemy Zeppelin
airfield in Friedrichshafen, Germany. And a
round-trip? It was out of the question.
No, it wasn't. The old lady was right.
Zeppelin enthusiasts even today still speak of the
"legendary" German naval airship, the L59—the so-called "Africa
Ship". L59 was not meant to join the shorter-range
fleet of German bomber blimps in the north; she
was meant as a long-range ship to resupply troops
in what was then the German East Africa colony
(present-day Tanzania). In that part of the world,
the daring German colonel, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck
(from all accounts, a sort of Lawrence of Arabia
with a bit of Garibaldi and Jeb Stuart thrown in),
with a force of a few hundred men, was tying down
130,000 British troops who might better serve on
the crucial battlefields of the war in Europe.
Construction began on L59
(photo, right) in Friedrichshafen, Germany, in
August, 1917. This behemoth of the air (225
meters/740 feet long!) would have to fly from
the airfield in Yambol (in Bulgaria, a German
ally in WW1)—the southernmost
European airfield under German control—all the way to
the Makonde plateau in east Africa.
After a shakedown cruise from
Friedrichshafen to Yambol in early November,
L59 set out from Bulgaria on November 21 with
a crew of 22 under the command of Kapitänleutnant
Ludwig Bockholt. Over Khartoum (in the Sudan),
the flight was aborted, apparently due to a
message to the ship to turn back because, said
the message, the German forces in Africa had
just surrendered. (The message was a fake,
sent most probably by British intelliegence.
In reality, Lettow-Vorbeck didn't surrender
until late November of 1918, well after the
armistice in Europe.) Thus, what would have
provided a strategic and psychological boost
for Germany's war effort turned into simply
the first intercontinental airship flight, for
after returning to Yambol, L59 had covered
almost 7,000 km (4,350 miles) non-stop in 95
incredible, unique feat at the time, and one
that paved the way for the global airship
flights of the 1920s and 30s.
L59 was then converted into a bomber
Zeppelin to be used in the Mediterranean against
British targets, for example, in Malta and Port
Said, and against targets in Italy. The airship
went into battle service in February, 1918.
The city of Naples was totally unprepared
for an attack. The city was not even blacked out,
for no one had seriously considered the
possibility of aerial bombardment. Zeppelin raids
such as those in northern Europe were already less
effective than they had been in 1915, when the
first Zeppelins had bombed London. By 1918,
airships had become increasingly vulnerable to
improved anti-aircraft artillery and to being shot
down by fighter planes. Also, there were, by that
time, very functional bomber airplanes. These
planes, however, couldn't reach Naples from
Germany. And it was implausible that a German
airship could fly 1,000 kilometers over enemy
territory, Italy, to attack Naples.
Yet, L59, indeed, came in—but from the airfield
in Bulgaria (about 1,000 km away)—and on the night of
March 11/12 bombed Naples. According to a German
source, the airship successfully bombed the naval
port and the gas works in Naples, as well as the
steel mill and port in Bagnoli.
It was a high-altitude attack, with L59 staying
well above 10,000 feet.
The Naples daily paper, il Mattino,
devoted more than half the front page (photo,
above) the next morning to the raid. The paper
said that the raid had started at one o' clock in
the morning and lasted for about 40 minutes. In
all, about 20 bombs had fallen. None, according to
the paper, had hit a military target; all had
fallen to the north of the port in the center of
town, killing 16 civilians and injuring more than
40. The paper made no mention of a raid on the
steel mill in Bagnoli. Most of the rest of the
coverage is rhetoric about the barbarism of
Italy's WW1 enemies, Germany and Austria. Add
Naples, said the paper, to the list of heroic
cities such as London, Paris and Venice, all of
which had had to withstand such Teutonic savagery.
In the days following the attack, the paper
reported that the officer in charge of
anti-aircraft defence in Naples had been relieved
of his command.
The raid on Naples was a one-time affair.
Less than a month later, on April 7, 1918, L59
exploded mysteriously in mid-air over the straits
of Otranto in the Adriatic. There was speculation
that it had been hit by "friendly fire" from a
German U-boot that had mistaken L59 for a British
airship. Some German reports of the day said that
the airship had been shot down by enemy fire.
Neither scenario seems to have been the case. The
exact cause—probably a technical
mishap that ignited the highly flammable hydrogen
in the gas bags—remains unknown.
- - - - - - - - - - -
Click here for an item
about another intrepid airship adventure and the
story of Umberto Nobile.
For those who read
Italian, there is a website at http://www.biografiadiunabomba.it/
and particularly to the danger posed by unexploded
ordnance still hidden in the ground.
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