Friday, January 24, 2014

NOVA: Zeppelin Terror Attack (PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched another video last night after Guilty Conscience (we were going to watch the latest episode of the American modern-dress Sherlock Holmes pastiche, Elementary — a first-rate show we both like better than the more intellectually regarded British Sherlock — but it turned out to be a rerun of an episode we’d already seen, centered around an Edward Snowden-like figure): an episode of the PBS series NOVA I’d recently recorded called “Zeppelin Terror Attack.” It had a bit of “first-itis” at the outset, suggesting that the people of London and the other British cities that were bombed by Zeppelin dirigibles during World War I were not only the first victims of bombing attacks by aircraft (which they were) but the first civilian targets of war, period — which they weren’t: the ancients had bombarded each other’s cities with giant catapults and in the 19th century both the Germans and French had developed ultra-long-range cannon with which they could attack urban centers and their civilian populations. Nonetheless, it was an interesting program, split as is the NOVA style between actual footage of the attacks (and, in one rather quirky scene, a clip from Howard Hughes’ 1930 film Hell’s Angels showing the gondola suspended under the Zeppelin which contained observers who scanned the ground looking for targets — they needed this because the Zeppelins flew above the clouds and they needed “eyes” below the clouds to tell them where to bomb) and their aftermath, and modern-day re-creations led by a researcher named Hugh Hunt.

Hunt’s brief was to figure out not only how the Zeppelin bombs had been able to inflict so much damage (they were incendiary devices ignited by thermite with benzene that started the conflagration, and a tar-soaked rope tied around the metal case so the fire would keep burning long enough to start the hoped-for firestorm) but also why the British found them so hard to shoot down even though (especially since when most people hear the word “Zeppelin” today they think of the Hindenburg and its fiery end over Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937) the Zeppelins were basically giant bags filled with highly flammable hydrogen. They also found out what the bags were made of — cow intestines (the same stuff used to wrap sausages — which meant that, since it took so many cows to make enough intestines for one Zeppelin, Germans had to do without sausages for the duration of the war), which were not only flexible but could easily be glued together and tightly sealed just by moistening them. The way the British finally realized they could counter-attack the Zeppelins was by developing two new sorts of bullets — an incendiary bullet and an explosive one — putting them in machine-gun rounds so they would alternate, and getting a plane to fire these bullets at one spot on the Zeppelin until they punctured the bags containing the hydrogen and set it on fire. (The show repeats the old idea that the Hindenburg was brought down by a leaking bag that released hydrogen, which was set afire by a spark of electricity in the air; an earlier PBS documentary said the Hindenburg accident was caused by a change in the Zeppelin company’s recipe for the outer covering of their aircraft, which inadvertently mixed together the two main ingredients of gunpowder — thus, when a small flash of lightning hit the outside of the Hindenburg, it exploded the shell and that’s what set the hydrogen on fire and led to the disaster.) One thing I hadn’t realized until I saw this show was that the Zeppelin company is still a going concern in Germany — Hugh Hunt was shown going for a ride in one of their modern-day craft, a white blimp (they don’t build rigid airships anymore, but then nobody else does either) — and he’s also seen in a simulator which duplicated the thin atmosphere experienced by Zeppelin crews flying at 21,000 feet in an era before aircraft manufacturers had invented the pressurized cabin. It’s a wonder they could even think up there, let alone aim a bomb!