(Edit note: I have made some edits based on further discussion with Ian Castle. These will be noted with an asterisk)
Last week, I received a comment on my last post about the Schütte-Lanz SL 11, the airship shot down over Cuffley in September 1916. This comment was from Ian Castle, an author who has studied the dirigibles over Britain in World War One far more than I have, and published several books about them. His website on this topic is at http://www.iancastlezeppelin.co.uk/. He was commenting to correct an attribution on an image of an airship in the collection of The Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa as not being the SL-11 (eleven*), but rather the SL-II (two*). As we conversed further, he suggested that the images taken by Orr might in fact be a mock-up, rather than the actual airship being shot down.
I should be clear — these images have been presented for a century as being ‘real,’ actual photographs of the SL-11. Orr has been noted by scholars for having been one of the first photographers to document aerial warfare.
Castle’s reasons for thinking these were not actual images of the SL-11* were fairly straight-forward, and based on these images from the series:
His technical questions were similar to some I have had such as how could these photos have been taken with the technology of the time? He also had more practical questions about how could the photographer have gotten there in time to take the pictures since the SL-11 was shot down at 2 in the morning, many miles away from the photographer’s home.
So as we’ve been talking about this, I’ve been doing the photographic forensics thing, and he’s been walking through the history of the airship. We have an answer now, and since one of the things I do in this blog is the forensics of photography, I can walk folks through the process.
However, the tl;dr (too long, didn’t read; i.e. executive summary) answer is these six images are in fact mock-ups absolutely.
This image shows the relative positions of Orr’s shop and Cuffley. According to Mr. Castle, “The first AA guns at Finsbury Park* opened fire at about 2.00am, about 4 miles from the very centre of London. By 2.25am SL 11 was a flaming mass over Cuffley, about 13 miles from Finsbury Park. This would have given Orr very little time to wake up, get dressed, set up his camera and take a series of photos of the rapidly falling airship.”
I’m not certain where Orr resided, but if we assume that he lived near his shop in the High Road of Woodford, he was about 9-10 miles away from Cuffley* in a straight line.
Can a camera from the period take an image at night quickly enough to catch something like a dirigible in the flickering light of searchlights? I’m going to say maybe.
This image was taken by William Rider-Rider in 1917 at the Front. Clearly the muzzle flash is very bright, but still barely illuminates the gun crew.
With the speed a falling dirigible was descending, even from an altitude of 2 miles (the height of SL-11) Mr. Castle feels that this would be nothing but a blurred streak.
In fairness, if we look at the destruction of the Hindenburg the length of time from beginning to end is about 30 seconds, mostly due to the fact that the burning airship is only slowly losing buoyancy. Now if the SL-11 was at the height of 2 miles as given, that’s a straight drop time (with no buoyancy) of about 26 seconds. If we accept that there would be some buoyancy initially, we can safely assume a time of 30 seconds to a minute for the wreckage to hit the ground. (Mr. Castle says he’s seen comments that it took 2-3 minutes to come down.*)
But the camera would need to follow that falling body and keep the image still in focus. With modern technology this would be dead easy, in 1916, at night, not so much.
If we assume that is a real series (instead of a mock up), variables such as size based on distance will change. Remember, there are no zoom lenses. These may be photographic enlargements to match size, but in 1916 this technology was very rare. Most images are the actual size of the print.
So, using the actual prints:
Image 1, Broadside. Ship’s length as measured on the photograph is 42 mm, maximum width is 5 mm.
Image 2, Angled away. Length is 26 mm, maximum width is 4 mm. You will notice that as it moves away, it becomes increasingly out of focus. This is totally plausible for either a real photograph or a mock-up.
Image 3, Ignition. Severe angle. Length is 17 mm, maximum width is 4 mm.
The flames are at the center of the airship. According to William Leefe Robinson, the pilot who shot the airship down, he concentrated his fire at the rear of the ship, so the fire started at the back and moved forward as it fell.*
Image 4, Falling – Length approximately 30 mm, maximum width is 3 mm. These last three have been handed tinted.
Image 5 – Length is 30+ mm, maximum width is 4 mm.
Image 6 — Length is 30+ mm, maximum width is 4 mm.
What this means is that for the entire series, the images did not change distance dramatically from the camera.
Put plainly if A is the camera. B is the airship, for it to maintain the same approxiate scale, it would be falling in an arc.
There were some other issues that appeared, such the fact that there is a certain flaring that occurs in images of nitrocellulose or aluminum doped fabric, but I won’t bother with that since the issues is clearly one of the vessel’s configuration. However, the ‘incandescent mantle of white heat’ was mentioned by a reporter at the time.*
Let’s take another look at the broadside image. There are no rear fins, no engine nacelles and the fore and aft are fairly conical. There is also a keel structure that extends through the fore and aft crew compartments.
This is an actual image of the SL 11, as supplied by Mr. Castle. Note the shape of the nose.
This is the SL II, as noted in the early blog post. Notice the shape.
Compare that with this third image, supplied by Mr. Castle of another SL.
As I mentioned earlier though, he was working from the two images. Once he saw the first image above he realized we were looking at an impression of an “early war M-class Zeppelin. This type was in operation over England in 1915 but none of this type ever reached London. It was the only type known in Britain pre-war and remained the only type known to the military authorites until the shooting down of a ‘p-class’ Zeppelin on 31st March 1916. … This type had an external keel between gondolas, seen on this drawing and Orr’s image. The ‘p-class’ and all later types had an internal keel.”
Even so, the nose was far more conical in Orr’s images than in the actual aircraft.
So clearly the airship in the image was a model, based on the M-Class.
Interestingly, as I was researching for this blog entry , I found an auction announcement for a set of the above photos, as well as a glass plate negative being sold by the descendants of the photographer.
The advertisement describes the image as “The rare large glass plate negative offered here would seem to document the ‘Theatreland Raid’ of 13 October 1915, when five airships dropped bombs on central London damaging the Lyceum Theatre and surrounding streets.”
This was a five Zeppelin raid (actual Zeppelins, not LS), L-11, L-13, L-14, L-15, and L-16 (LZ-41, LZ-45, LZ-46, LZ-48 and LZ-50); all of which are P-Class Zeppelins.
The buildings in the foreground may be adapted from real buildings, or may just be cut-outs.
The distance issue listed above is worse in the case of this image.
A close up of the airship shows the same general configuration of the model above, including the conical nose. I’m going with model for this one as well.