In 1914, at the beginning of the First World War, German aircraft companies were already working on the creation and use of an ambitious new type of plane, the strategic bomber. From 1916, the Kampfgeschwadern were organised, equipped with twin-engined Gotha and Friedrichshafen G-types. K.G.3 was based at Ghent, and carried out its first raid on England in July 1917. The Germans had now accepted the limitations of Zeppelins for strategic warfare.
Ferdinand von Zeppelin had already understood those limitations, and in 1914 he visualised the creation of a ‘Riesenflugzeug’, much bigger than the G-types, using the designers and engineers behind a pre-war transatlantic project, from the Robert Bosch Werke. They created the Versuchsbau Gotha-Ost consortium which began work in a large rented hangar at the Gotha factory in September 1914. Alexander Baumann headed a remarkable team of engineers, which at various times during the War was to include Claudius Dornier, Hugo Junkers and Adolf Rohrbach.
The VGO I first flew in April 1915. It had three Maybach engines, adapted from airship use. There were many technical difficulties with the engines and development of the VGO series was slow. But they gained more power and established the soundness of the basic design, recognised as superior to all other manufacturers’ R-type designs. In the Summer of 1916 the company moved to the Berlin suburb of Staaken, to take advantage of the vast Zeppelin sheds there. The successor to the VGO III was the Staaken R.IV, fitted with six Mercedes and Benz engines.
At first, the military authorities were not impressed, but things changed when Wilhelm Siegert took over Idflieg (Inspectorate of Aviation Troops). He was determined to find an effective means of attacking England from the air, and knew that the very large R-types could achieve what airships and smaller aircraft could not. By the end of 1916, Staaken was building the R.V, R.VI and R.VII, different types but all with a useful 1,000 hp or more. Idflieg examined them in November and selected the R.VI for series production. With four engines in tandem push and pull arrangements, it had none of the complicated gearboxes of other R-types, and presented less technological risk.
This was a mammoth project for Staaken, even with their huge facilities, so the production orders for 15 planes were given to Schütte-Lanz, Aviatik and OAW (Albatros), as well as Staaken itself. Later, three more were ordered, from Aviatik. In January 1917, each plane cost 557,000 marks – a fantastic sum for the time. And these machines required support on an unprecedented scale. Each R-plane had a 50-man ground crew, including a great range of specialisations.
Two R-plane squadrons (Riesenflugzeug Abteilung) were formed, Rfa 500 and Rfa 501, operating first on the Eastern Front, then the Western. By the end of the War they were entirely equipped with Staaken types, mainly the R.VI. The first R.VI, R.25/16, transferred to Rfa 501 on June 28th, 1917, and was soon joined by R.26/16 and R.39/16. Rfa 501 moved to Ghent in August 1917, and was placed under the control of Bombengeschwader 3. R-planes accompanied the Gothas against England for the first time on September 28th, 1917. The increasing strength of the British air defenses had forced a switch to night bombing, of which Rfa 501 already had a long experience on the Eastern Front, and for which they had developed some sophisticated navigation equipment.
The R-plane raids against Britain lasted until August 1918. In that time, they dropped 27,190kg of bombs; which compares with 84,745kg dropped by well over ten times as many Gothas. A starker comparison is that in all those raids, 61 Gothas were lost, but only 2 R-planes, and those only in accidents. The R.VI was very difficult to shoot down, with its size, its defensive guns, and the security of its four engines. Night landings were far more of a threat to the R.VI than British fighters.
Most of the R.VIs had adventurous careers. The R.27/16 was built by Schütte-Lanz in their own airship shed, and was powered by Mercedes D.IVa engines. It joined Rfa 501 on 23rd January 1918, and flew raids against England under the command of Hptm. Schoeller. It was lost in March when, returning from England, its fuel lines froze. The R.VI’s remarkable capability is shown by the R.27’s long glide to a crash landing in Belgium. All the crew survived.
R.39/16 was built by Staaken, with four Maybach Mb.IVa engines. The Maybachs were preferred for their power at altitude. The R.39 probably carried more bombs than any other R-plane, dropping 26,000kg in the course of 20 raids on targets in England and France. This included, on three occasions, the biggest bomb to be dropped by anyone during the War, of 1,000kg. The first hit the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, causing destruction over a wide area and killing five people. The R.39 was lost in 1919 on a transport flight to Ukraine.
R.30/16, also Staaken built, was not flown in operations, but was interesting for being the world’s first supercharged aircraft. A fifth engine was installed in the fuselage to drive a Brown-Boveri supercharger. It enabled the R.30 to reach an altitude of 5,800m on April 24th, 1918, 2,000m higher than normal. The machine also tested controllable pitch propellers. Last but not least, the R.30 featured in a post war German silent film, ‘Die Herrin der Welt’ (Mistress of the World).
Without any doubt, the Zeppelin Staaken R.VI was state of the art in aviation technology in 1918. It was exceptional for its size; along with other Staaken R-types, it was by far the biggest aircraft flown in action in WWI. But more than that, its construction demanded a host of technological advances. Its structure employed wood and aluminium and steel. Its massive 18 wheel undercarriage had to bear unheard-of weights, and on frequently sandy terrain. There was continuous innovative work on communication in flight, crucial for such a large machine, leading to a very effective electrical telegraph.
Size was not the only difference between the G-types and the R-types. The R-type specifications laid special stress on the requirement for engine accessibility in flight. R-plane history is full of incidents of engines being shut down and repaired while on long flights, including in the R.VI, which carried a lonely mechanic in each of the engine gondolas.
At least six of the R.VIs survived the Great War. They were destroyed according to the conditions of the Armistice Agreement; all that is left now is a gondola from the R.35 in a museum in Krakow. Despite Graf Zeppelin’s high hopes, Germany’s Giants were not able to affect the course of the War. However, the R.VI remains an outstanding achievement, and many of the engineers who developed it like Claudius Dornier would go on to have celebrated careers in aviation.
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