Here are my top ten most interesting German Giants. These were the German R-planes of the Great War 1914-18. So they're aeroplanes? Yes, but they really ought to be better known because though there weren't many of them, their story features some fascinating techological experimentation, wild at times; and remember, this was only ten years or so after the Wright Brothers. 'R' stood for Riesenflugzeugen ie. giant aeroplanes. You may have heard of the Gotha bombers, which had a 'G' classification. The R-planes were usually bigger, but size wasn't the reason for the 'R' specification. These planes were intended for strategic bombing, and amongst other things were required to have engines which could be repaired in flight. Hence many designs had engines inside the fuselage, while others had engines in nacelles big enough for a mechanic as well. I should tell you that it's not only an obscure subject but one which was comprehensively covered in a single classic reference book, The German Giants by G.W. Haddow and Peter M. Grosz. It's thorough and brings the history and the technology to fascinating life. Anyone who looks into this history will refer to this book, and though I've used one or two other sources, the following leans heavily on that book. The pictures are all Peter M.Grosz's except where credited. So, counting down:-
The R-planes came about mainly thanks to the ambitions and imagination of Graf von Zeppelin. Although his name is synonymous with large dirigible airships, he saw early on how vulnerable they would be as soon as planes could get up to them. He picked up on pre-war ideas for a transatlantic flying boat and started pushing for a programme of construction for large machines in 1914. The VGO.I (also known as the RML.1, as operated by the Navy) was his first offering; it must have been a startling sight when it first flew, in April 1915 (note that its wingspan was similar to WWII's B-29 Superfortress; see the single-seater on the right, for scale). It conducted some bombing raids against the Russians in 1916. I find it hard to imagine how it lifted itself into the air, and with bombs, with the three engines it was fitted with at first. It was rebuilt with five in 1917. The first three Zeppelin types were built at the Gotha works in the East, hence the 'G' in their name, but when airship production began to slow down, Zeppelin took advantage of the great space available in the sheds at Staaken, and they were known as Staaken R-types after that, from the R IV onwards. So effectively this plane was the Staaken R I.
9 Krupp-Germania Ks.Ib
I admit it's a bit of a cheek including this design. Haddow and Grosz described it (up to the 2nd edition) but with impressive understatement said that it was hard to take it seriously. It would have been several magnitudes larger than any plane we've put into the air even now (wingspan 978 ft); its powerplants (24 of them) were something called the MSK.Ib supposedly each capable of 1675 h.p. (most of the other planes here had engines of 240-260 h.p.) but one can't imagine that would have been remotely enough to get this into the air, not with its armoured belt and weaponry, and what look like serious issues of tail heaviness. It doesn't even begin to be a good idea does it? Just about the most extravagantly expensive crash possible. It seems Krupps claim no knowledge of this drawing. It's believed to be a hoax, but if so it would be interesting to know from what date. Someone must have been having massive Jules Verne 'Master of the World' fantasies!
8 Staaken 8301 and 8303 series
After their initial experiences with the RML.1 the Navy left the use of R-planes to the Army. They remained faithful to the airship for some time but showed increasing interest in seagoing R-types. These aircraft were the largest floatplanes ever built. Their design was based on the R VI but with a new fuselage positioned higher up to give better water clearance. They were intended for patrol over the North Sea but in the event were still under test when the war ended. In all, four were completed. They gave most of their service afterwards carrying passengers (right) between Berlin and Swinemünde, a coastal resort.
7 Adlershof 10 000 P.S.
Another paper project, but one with a connection with reality. This was the largest and most ambitious in specification of a stack of future projects found at Adlershof and apparently originating from Zeppelin. The ten propellers would have been driven by 20 500hp engines, and the wingspan would have been 140 metres. This is seriously big, but unlike most of the other fantasy projects, looks like the logical outcome of the work on large all metal monoplanes being done by Dornier and Junkers etc. It certainly caught the imagination of Hayao Miyazaki (Japanese director of the Oscar-winning animation Spirited Away), who drew it (right) at the end of a 'daydream' featuring a flight by a Staaken R IV. Crewed by pigs. No, I can't explain his thing about pigs - check out his film Porco Rosso (about to be reissued as The Crimson Pig) which also features a porcine pilot hero.
6 Siemens-Schuckert R VI
Werke built the only other series of operational R-planes apart from
Staaken. There were seven of them: the first, the R I,
flew at the same time as the VGO.I in 1915 and was just as brave a pioneering
effort. They were used against the Russians on the Eastern Front. Unlike
the Staaken machines they featured engines buried in the fuselage, in
the nose, driving propellers via gears and extension shafts. So it was
more vulnerable to mechanical problems, but it was easier to service
the engines in flight.
I've featured the R VI here because it's the subject of an eye opening story recounted in Grosz and Haddow's book which illuminates the remarkable sang froid of the aviators of the time, and also what made the R-planes such special machines. This was a record-breaking 6 hour factory flight in April 1916. During take-off a radiator hose broke, and that was stopped with a rag and wire compress. Later, an exhaust pipe burst, releasing choking fumes; a bit more work was needed to reduce the split to a minimum. Next, they found that the left engine was leaking oil. They plugged the leak and drew oil from the other engines, but near the end of the flight it seized and stopped entirely. They actually managed to take out the spark plugs, re-oil the cylinders and with careful use of the clutch, restart the engine. Unbelievable isn't it! And it wasn't at all unusual in the R-planes for an engine to be stopped in flight and repaired.
The R VI was in service until November 1917.
5 Staaken R VI
This was the one R-plane built in substantial numbers, 18 of them, not only by Staaken but also by Albatros, Schütte-Lanz and Aviatik. The R VI was the main R-type operated by the Germans against England along with the smaller and numerous Gotha bombers. They did, on three occasions, drop on London the largest bombs dropped during the war, 1,000kg monsters. None of them were shot down during these raids (only three R-planes were ever shot down; most were lost through accidents). Their contribution was not so much in weight of bombs dropped, so much as the fact that they were tying up so many resources in Britain for Home Defence. Aviatik built the last three machines, with some useful modifications, which they put to use in building the last finished type of the whole Staaken series, the R XVI, a bulkier and much more powerful aircraft. The R VI was unusual in not having an engine in the nose as featured by most other Staaken types. By the way, the R VI was the only R-plane to become a film star: it featured in a post war German silent called The Mistress of the World, emblazoned with the banner of 'Fletcher's World', a fictional newspaper.
4 Dornier Rs III
This was the one outstandingly successful R-type flying boat. It flew many patrols over the North Sea in 1918, and after the cessation of hostilities helped with the removal of the minefields. Despite its unusual appearance it was highly practical and evidence of the soundness of the ideas of Claudius Dornier for all metal aircraft. Dornier became one of the most significant names in aviation history, and many of his machines in the 1920s and 30s pushed technological boundaries. He built one further R-plane, the Rs IV, of similar design but with an enclosed cabin on top, too late for the war. This drawing is by Joseph A. Phelan from his Heroes & Aeroplanes of the Great War 1914-1918.
3 Siemens-Schuckert R VIII
This six-engined giant was intended to carry a wire-guided missile. It's a pity that it so narrowly missed its chance to get into the air. It had undertaken a series of taxiing trials, and was preparing for its first flight when a propeller came apart, causing great damage on the left hand side. This was now 1919 and despite thoughts of conversion into a civil transport, it wasn't repaired and the second machine was never finished. With a wingspan of 48m/157ft it was the largest aeroplane built by anyone during the war, and the biggest biplane ever built. What's more, I've seen a current Siemens booklet, Milestones, which asserts that the R VIII did indeed fly. Doubtful, but I'd love to believe it.
2 Staaken E.4/20
It was quite something, reading Haddow and Grosz's book, seeing the variety of incredible machines, and then turning the page and seeing this astonishing plane. Shiny and speedy and real, and looking twenty years ahead of its time. In fact it was simply the lone survivor of a number of all-metal R-planes on the drawing boards or even under construction by several manufacturers. As you can see most of the work happened after the war's end: it was built as an airliner, complete with toilet and washroom at the rear. It flew in 1920 and demonstrated a speed of 140 mph, and only one or two fighters were capable of that at the time. The Allies took one look at it and its obvious potential as a bomber, and demanded its scrapping.
1 Linke-Hoffmann R II
Believe it or not, this was a large 4 engined bomber. This giant was a 3 times normal scale version of a typical two seater; the engines were buried in the fuselage and geared together to drive the massive 23ft Garuda propeller. Which is what gained this aircraft its entry in the Guinness Book of Records as being the largest single propeller aircraft ever built. It was said to be an eerie, weird experience to fly in it - the propeller was geared down to 545 pm.
You could look at both of the Linke-Hoffmann R-planes as stealth machines, in that they were intended to deceive. The Linke-Hoffmann R I, looking vaguely like the early Siemens-Schuckert types, was half covered with transparent Cellon in an attempt at partial invisibility. It achieved the opposite effect, partly because the Cellon discoloured rapidly, but mainly because it reflected the sun so strongly! But how could the R II, much bigger than the R I, be 'stealthy'? The theory was that in looking like a two-seater, enemy fighters would find their gun sights set completely wrong and open fire too far away. I think this would have worked only as long as it took fighter pilots to realise their mistake, but it was a neat idea anyway. And why is it my number one? Mainly because the end result was to my mind a very elegant machine. Only the one was flown; a second was under construction at the war's end.
12 August 2004
This is an Austrian video archive site; and here is a 23 second film clip, of a Staaken R XIVa on the ground at Aspern. You see the mechanics in the nacelles; the control surfaces being tested; and the pilots looking out of the cockpit. And you get a sense of how big the thing was. I think this was one of the machines chartered to transport currency to the Ukrainian government in 1919.
The Ukrainian firm Roden have now (2006) produced a 1/72 scale model kit of the Zeppelin Staaken R VI and it looks to be pretty spectacular. You can see some artwork and read about it, if you click on this link. What's that you say? About the long-winded piece of historical blurb? Er well to be honest I might have been somewhat responsible for that, but there you go :)
...you said that Haddow & Grosz mention the Krupp-Germania Ks.Ib design. Do you have any more information, please? And where did the drawing come from? I'm curious because I have a late edition of Haddow & Grosz's 'German Giants' and can find no reference to this design.
Roger, 24 April 2008
I have the second edition of the book, and I must admit I hadn't realised that the 'Krupp-Germania' had been excluded from the later edition. I have mixed feelings - after all, it is/was an awful monstrosity; and if the drawing is an out-and-out hoax then it deserves its omission. However, if it turns out to have been contemporary, no matter how little it was to do with Krupps, then it's of some interest as an example of the mindset of the time. Some might say that if it is now out of The German Giants, then perversely I ought to keep it on record purely because it's become notorious on its own account. It'd be nice to know the truth of the case.