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
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
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
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.