On the night of January 19, 1915, two German Zeppelin airships ponderously dropped their small bomb-loads on Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn on the eastern coast of England, beginning what was, in effect, the first sustained strategic bombing campaign in history. The British military immediately started looking for ways to bring down the new threat. Focusing on the dirigibles’ highly flammable hydrogen gas filling, Engineer Lieutenant Commander Francis Ranken of the Royal Navy invented the Ranken dart—essentially a hand-deployed anti-Zeppelin incendiary device. The dart consisted of a 13-inch-long tinplate tube capped with a penetrating tip and filled with a combustible mixture. The intention was to drop the darts, loaded in 24-round boxes, from an airplane flying above the Zeppelin. As each dart pierced the airship’s skin, its three spring-loaded metal arms would open, pulling up an igniter rod inside the dart and detonating the explosives inside (in much the same way as dragging a match head across a rough surface causes it to ignite). The engineering was ingenious, but the devices were not popular with pilots in the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps (nor with the civilians on whom they might inadvertently fall). The Ranken darts were also inaccurate—so much so, in fact, that they may never have been solely responsible for downing an airship. MHQ
CHRIS McNab is a military historian based in the United Kingdom. His most recent book is The FN Minimi Light Machine Gun: M249, L108A1, L110A2, and Other Variants (Osprey, 2017).
This article appears in the Summer 2017 issue (Vol. 29, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Torpedoed!
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