Before I start with his biography I have to answer an inevitable question: is there any justification of calling Zeppelin pilots "Knights of the Air"? Weren't they just a bunch of ruthless villains, dropping bombs on innocent civilians?
First of all, they were no more ruthless than any bomber pilot of the next World War. They had exceptional guts and (pardon me) balls of steel. Their airships were slow, vulnerable not only to enemy fire but also to weather. These magnificent giants were unreliable, killing their crews in peacetime or far from the frontline.
And in case of direct hit and hydrogen explosion there was no chance to survive.
But it was tremendous in terms of its influence on the British morale. Every victim, every destroyed building, every wounded kid cried for revenge, urging creation of long-range bomber force. And it was created to become the backbone of future strategic aviation. But it's another story. Now, the biography.
Strasser was born in Hanover, Germany on April 1, 1876. At the age of 15, he joined the German Imperial Navy. After serving on board SMS Stein and SMS Moltke he entered the Naval academy in Kiel. He quickly rose through the ranks and was promoted to Lieutenant in 1895. He served on board of five warships from 1897 through 1902. Strasser was an excellent gunnery officer and was placed in charge of shipboard and coastal artillery in the Navy Command. Later he was transferred to the command of the Marine-Luftschiff-Abteilung (Naval Airship Detachment), a move which he initially viewed as a demotion. Airships were as yet an unproven technology and the first two naval airships were lost in accidents. His opinion changed after he completed theoretical studies on airships and gained practical experience piloting the civilian airship LZ17 Sachsen. (see below)
Another airship, LZ13 Hansa (see above) was chartered to train naval crews while new ships were being built, but at the start of the war only one, LZ24 (Navy designation L3) was operational. L3, under Strasser's personal command, was the only one to participate in the Imperial navy maneuvers just before the war.
Following the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Navy airships were confined to anti-submarine, anti-mine and scouting missions. They served in the Battle of Heligoland Bight. On January 19-20, 1915, L3 and L4 participated in the first bombing raids over England, attacking Great Yarmouth, Sheringham and King's Lynn.
Over the next 3 years, bombing campaigns would be launched primarily against Britain, but also on Paris, Antwerp and other cities and ports. Initially bombing was limited to military targets but soon, with the agreement of the Kaiser, civilian targets were attacked. Official British estimates list 498 civilians and 58 soldiers killed by air attack in Britain between 1915 and 1918. 1,913 injuries are recorded. The Imperial Navy dropped 360,000 kg of bombs, the majority on the British Isles. 307,315 kg were directed at enemy vessels, ports and towns; 58,000 kg were dropped over Italy, the Baltic and the Mediterranean.
Strasser was promoted by imperial decree to "Führer der Luftschiffe" (FdL, Airship Leader) on November 28, 1916. On August 20, he was awarded with the highest Prussian war decoration, Pour le Mérite.
He did not live to see the end of the war. On August 6, 1918, during a night raid against Boston, Norwich, and the Humber estuary in L70, Strasser's Zeppelin, with himself and 22 men on board, was spotted by English reconnaissance. Pilot Major Egbert Cadbury and Gunner Major Robert Leckie shot down the L70 (see below) just north of Wells-next-the-Sea on the Norfolk coast. No one aboard survived.
Strasser's impact on both the war and history was important for the future air warfare. He was instrumental in the development of long range bombing and the development of the rigid airship as an efficient, high altitude, all-weather aircraft. His doctrine of bombing attacks on military and economic infrastructure behind the front lines both as propaganda and as a means of diverting resources from the front line eventually led to the modern-day concept of total war.
However, questions remain over whether airships (and more importantly, their irreplaceable crews) would have been better used as a purely naval weapon.