The Graf Zeppelin Cup Final, Wembley 1930

The Graf Zeppelin Cup Final, Wembley 1930

This year’s FA Cup final will be very different from the many previous occasions we have all watched and enjoyed or perhaps endured. The stands will be sparsely filled, the atmosphere somewhat muted. Is cheering allowed? Will fans wear masks? The day-long build up on the BBC will be the same but other traditions (do the managers still wear flowers in the buttonholes of their suits? – do managers still wear suits on FA Cup final day?) have ebbed away. We wait to see if the game itself disappoints, as is often the case, or creates a legendary moment or two as we all long for. 

Whatever we see unfold it is unlikely to be as dramatic as what happened just after half time in the 1930 FA Cup – you know the one where Arsenal beat Huddersfield 2-0 – when a German passenger airship, the Graf Zeppelin – all 236 metres of its hydrogen-filled cotton cigar-shaped mass – drifted lazily over the 92,000 strong crowd. The drone of its five 12-cylinder engines slowly enveloped the ground, stunning the crowd into silence. Photographs captured how very low it came, seeming to almost skim the top of the stands. The Zeppelin dipped its nose to salute King George V, who was in the crowd, and then continued its journey down the Thames to Dover and back across the Channel. 

The crowd’s anxious reaction was understandable. Not only did the Zeppelin’s circuit of London demonstrate the rising power of a reinvigorated Germany, it also evoked memories of military airship raids on London and the south-east during 1915 and 1916. Those attacks started in January 1915 when Great Yarmouth and Kings Lynn were bombed before London became a target later in May.

The Zeppelins attacked with impunity, dropping up to two tonnes of explosives per raid. In September, St Paul’s Cathedral was attacked and 22 civilians lost their lives. The authorities started to up their game to counter the threat. Massive searchlights now guided re-vamped fighter planes equipped with both explosive and incendiary bullets designed to rip holes in the outer skin and to ignite the volatile cocktail of hydrogen and oxygen then created. The tide began to turn, Zeppelin raids became less frequent and seem to have stopped in 1917, but not before nearly 700 Londoners lost their lives and some 2,000 were injured.     

In the 1920s and 1930s many countries, including the UK, built airships for commercial purposes to travel long distances carrying cargo, air-mail and (wealthy) passengers. The Graf Zeppelin made its first test flight on 18 September 1928 and by the time of its last flight, nine years later, it had flown over a million miles on 590 flights, carrying thousands of passengers. The Zeppelin’s maximum speed was up to 80 miles per hour and it was famous the world over.

It spent much of its time criss-crossing the Atlantic, strengthening trade relations between Germany and Brazil and Argentina by reducing travel times from weeks to days. It also flew over Britain on several occasions, at times picking up passengers for a round-Britain tour. The cordial relations between air authorities came to an end in 1933 when, following the rise to power of the National Socialists, the Graf Zeppelin became a propaganda tool with swastika markings covering its fins. 

As historian Toby Ewin notes, in his forthcoming booklet Airship Over Motspur Park, despite their remarkable flight abilities the airships remained vulnerable to accidents and bad weather and the consequences could be catastrophic. A number of airships crashed or blew up in mid-air and many lives were lost.

The last British airship of that era, the R101, crashed in France on her maiden overseas voyage, killing 48 of the 54 aboard, including the Air Minister, senior officials, and almost all her designers, effectively ending British airship development. The fire that destroyed the Hindenburg in 1937 as it tried to land in New Jersey killing 36 people brought an end to the commercial flights of these giant beasts of the sky. The Graf Zeppelin never flew with passengers again and was broken up in 1940.

Photograph: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy Stock Photo. provides in-depth coverage of the UK capital’s politics, development and culture. It depends greatly on donations from readers. Give £5 a month or £50 a year and you will receive the On London Extra Thursday email, which rounds up London news, views and information from a wide range of sources, plus special offers and free entry to events. Click here to donate directly or contact for bank account details.


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