On the night of January 29th 1918, the sleeping residents of Twickenham and St Margarets would have been disturbed by the sound of powerful engines approaching from the north-east and the heavy ‘crump’ of exploding bombs. Those who got up from their beds to find out what was going on would have seen from their windows a colossal plane filling the night sky.
The aircraft causing the havoc that freezing night was a Zeppelin-Staaken RV1 ‘Giant’ under the command of Hauptmann Richard von Bentivegni. At the time it was the largest plane in the world and remained so until the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber appeared on the scene in 1943. The ‘Giant’ was a huge biplane, 72 feet long with a wingspan of 138 feet. and capable of a service ceiling of 14, 000 feet. It carried 2000 kilos of bombs and had a 10 man crew - 1 Commander, 2 Pilots, 2 Co-pilots, 2 Radio operators, I fuel attendant and 2 mechanics looking after 4 engines in push/pull configuration.
The plane’s journey from Ghent in Belgium to London had not been an easy one. On its way into London following the Thames, the ‘Giant’ was intercepted by Captain Arthur Dennis, No. 37 Squadron, flying a BE12b fighter. Dennis opened fire as the ‘Giant’ took evasive action while returning fire. After a stoppage, Dennis got his gun working again but as he loaded another drum of ammunition the rough slipstream from the massive ‘Giant’ engines threw his own aircraft out of control. In the chaos, Bentivegni slipped away westwards towards Hertford where it turned south, back towards the Thames. At 11.30 pm it had reached the Old Deer Park where it dropped 12 incendiaries that fell harmlessly followed by 2 High Explosive bombs, one in the enclosure of the Kew Observatory breaking windows and one on the 14th Green of the Mid-Surrey Golf Club where it dug craters. The ‘Giant’ then moved away north back across the Thames dropping 7 incendiaries in and around Syon Park without effect. The plane continued to Brentford dropping HE bombs in Whitestile Road where it demolished a house killing three women and five children inside. Another bomb in Enfield Road badly damaged six other properties and inflicted lesser damage on 151 other houses. At the Metropolitan Water Board’s works at Kew Bridge six, HE bombs exploded, killing two men, injuring another and damaging a reservoir, pumping station and boiler house. Another bomb, on the pavement outside the works, caused injuries to five men, burst four water mains while damaging telegraph and telephone lines and 13 buildings. The final three bombs landed in Chiswick where they caused damage to 99 houses. Guided in part by radio signals the Zeppelin-Staaken RV1 ‘Giant’ then made its way home. Before it reached the coast at Hythe 3 other Royal Flying Corps fighters attacked the plane without causing much damage. By then the good residents of Twickenham and St Margarets had gone back to bed.
The enormous Zeppelin-Staaken RV1 ‘Giants’ and their variants raided Britain 11 times between September 1917 and the Armistice in November 1918 dropping 27 tons of bombs. It has been argued that for all their size and destructive potential the ‘Giants’, of which only 13 saw service, were ineffective but they did keep 16 squadrons of RFC fighters away from the Western Front along with countless anti-aircraft units. They also sparked the development of the aircraft early detection and radar systems that served the nation so well in 1940.
Vintage footage from the German Bundesarchiv showing a ‘Giant’ in action.
– from Martyn Day