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stiletto_33853

First Military Airlift Mission ?

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stiletto_33853

Could not find any reference to this on the Forum.

In September 1917 the First World War was in its fourth year. In Europe the opposing armies were firmly locked in the deadly stalemate of trench warfare. Far away in the German protectorate of East Africa (now Tanzania), German and German-African troops were fighting a hit and run war against overwhelming odds. Their commander General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, mounted occasional sharp attacks on Allied positions, then withdrew into the bush to avoid pursuit. Surrounded by hostile forces, his troops were desperately short of ammunition and every type of equipment. In Berlin, the Colonial Office drafted an imaginative proposal to use a Zeppelin to carry supplies to the beleaguered German Troops in Africa.

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stiletto_33853

Staff officers of the Imperial German Naval Airship Division investigated the idea and found the greatest obstacle to be the sheer distance involved. The nearest German airship base to East Africa was that at Jamboli (now Yambol) in Bulgaria, some 3600 miles away. Although a Zeppelin could fly that distance, there were no supplies of Hydrogen or petrol available to the German forces in Africa. That meant such an enterprise would necessarily be a one-way mission. On being briefed on the operation, the Kaiser gave his personal approval, and detailed planning began.

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stiletto_33853

Normally, an experienced commander would have been appointed for such a difficult operation. However, the Naval Airship Service was short of experienced commanders and could not afford to lose the services of one of them in such a venture. So, a relatively junior Zeppelin commander, Kapitanleutnant Ludwig Bockholt, was chosen for the command. On reaching German East Africa, he and the rest of the crew were to join the German ground force there and fight on as infantrymen.

At the Friedrichshafen airship factory the keel was about to be laid for the next Zeppelin, L.57. It was allocated to the supply mission, and the necessary re-design work work began.

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roel22

...to be continued?? :unsure:

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stiletto_33853

To provide extra lift to enable the vessel to carry a heavier payload, its hull was elongated by 99ft to accomodate two additional gas cells. It was the largest airship yet built. The intention was to dismantle it when it reached its destination. The walkways round the hull were made of leather that could be unstitched and made into boots for soldiers. The duralumin stiffening girders inside the hull could be removed to make frameworks to support large areas of cotton fabric from the outer covering, to form lightweight portable shelters to house men and equipment. The radio transmitter and receiver, one engine, a dynamo and tanks containing petrol and oil would be removed and reassembled on the ground to provide a radio station.

The L.57 made its maiden flight on September 26, 1917, but the following month, as it came into land at Juterborg near Berlin, a wind squall caught it and slammed it into the ground. The crew scrambled to safety, but the airship burned out and was a total loss.

The Naval Airship Service therefore reasigned the next airship to be laid down, the L.59,, to the Afrika-Flug Mission. Prepared in the same way as its sister ship, the new Zeppelin made its maiden flight at Staaken on October 25. On November 4 it took on 14 tonnes of supplies and left foe Jamboli.

On November 21, 1917, the L.59 embarked on its unusual mission. Eralier in the month there had been a flare up of fighting in Africa, and the military situation had become fluid. Compounding the problems facing those running the operation was the fact that von Lettow-Vorbeck's force had no wireless transmitter.

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stiletto_33853

The 22 man crew of the L.59. The airships Captain, Kapitanleutnant Ludwig Bockholt, stands in the centre of the back row in a dark leather coat and peaked cap.

post-1871-1158094929.jpg

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stiletto_33853

The fragmetary reports reaching Berlin gave no detailed information on the whereabouts of the main body of German forces in the East African Protectorate. Unless he heard otherwise by wireless from Berlin, Bockholt was to make for a point between Lake Nyasa and the Indian Ocean, where he was to conduct a search for his countrymen. If he found what looked like a large body of friendly troops, he was to keep out of machine gun range and drop a volunteer by parachute. The latter was to make contact with those on the ground and give an agreed signal if the troops were friendly. At that, the airship commander would valve of gas and take his craft down in a slow descent to make its final landing.

About L.59.

For those unfamiliar with the Zeppelins, a brief description of the L.59 might be appropriate. The airship grossed out at just over 78 tons (173,300lb). It was 743 feet long - more than three times the length of a Boeing 747 - and its 91ft diameter was more than four times that of a modern airliner. In addition to the 14 tonnes of supplies, the Zeppelin carried nearly 22 tonnes of petrol, one tonne of lubricating oil and more than nine tonnes of water ballast. It carried a crew of 22, living in somewhat spartan conditions inside the hull.

Below the airship hung four gondolas arranged in diamond fashion. The front gondola was the control car, housing the captain, his second-in-command, a rating to operate the elevators, another to operate the rudders and the radio operator. At the rear of the control car was a 240 h.p. six-cylinder Maybech petrol engine driving a two bladed pusher propellor.

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stiletto_33853

The L.59, also known as the Afrika Luftsciff, was onne of the two largest airships built during the First World War. The other one was the L.57 was similarly modified.

post-1871-1158100497.jpg

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tim_oz

Great stuff stiletto I have always thought this is one of the great unremembered stories of the war.

Tim

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stiletto_33853

Tim,

Glad that you are enjoying it.

Andy

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stiletto_33853

Each of the two side gondolas accomodated a similar engine and pushed propellor. The rear gondola housed two such engines, clutched to a single shaft to drive a single pusher propellor. Each engine had a mechanic in constant attendance, and during cruising flight each engine in turn was shut down for two hours in every ten for lubrication and other routine maintainance. Communication between the control car and the engine mechanics was by means of a telegraph system similar to that used in ships. Most early airships were seriously underpowered, and in this respect the L.59 may be likened to an overloaded Boeing 737 towing a cluster of drag parachutes, being thrust forwards on the power available to a Battle of Britain Spitfire.

Helped by the moderate tailwind the initial part of the flight was uneventful. Once the mountains of Turkey had been passed, the airship cruised at about 2000 feet at an airspeed of 40 m.p.h. on its four running engines. Bockholt lacked information on the meteorological conditions lying in wait for him, and that would prove a serious handicap in the days to come. On the first evening, while flying over the Mediterranean, the L.59 ran into an electrical storm. Rain and hail lashed the hull, accompanied by flashes of sheet lightening. Then a shrill cry of panic from the upper lookout position caused everyone's blood to run cold: "The ship is on fire!" It was a false alarm. Charged with static electricity, the Zeppelins hull shimmered under the fluorescent blue glow of St. Elmo's Fire.

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stiletto_33853

The L.59 is walked out of the airship shed at Staaken, near Berlin.

post-1871-1158155256.jpg

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stiletto_33853

The inexperienced lookout had not seen the phenomenon before, but it was harmless.

On the morning of the 22nd the Zeppelin crossed the Egyptian coast near Sollum. The navigating officer fixed their position by taking sun shots from the upper platform, measuring the airship's grounspeed at regular intervals by timing the passage of its shadow past points on the ground.

Never before had a large airship ventured into the tropics, and soon the Zeppelin's crew ran into some problems new to them. During the day the hot sun, playing on the hull, heated the oxygen in the gas cells, causing it to expand and generate extra lift. The elevator operator struggled to hold the airship below 2,500ft. If it drifted higher under those conditions the pressure in the gas cells would exceed those outside the hull. Then the pressure relief valves would automatically release hydrogen to equalise the pressure. Bockholt needed to conserve as much as possible of the precious lifting gas, or it would lead to other difficulties later.

The hot air thermals rising from the desert caused another problem, making the Zeppelin rise and fall continually. The unfamiliar rocking motion rendered even veteran seamen susceptible to the indignity of airsickness. At the same time the lookouts complained of blinding headaches, caused by gazing at the dazzling sunlight off the desert sand.

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stiletto_33853

The control car of the L.59

post-1871-1158157673.jpg

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stiletto_33853

Over Egypt, the forward Maybech engine developed a serious vibration, forcing the mechanic to shut it down. On opening the casing he found that the reduction gears had developed cracks that could not be repaired in flight. The motor could not be used again. With one "good" engine always stopped for maintainance, the airship continued the flight, cruising on three engines. To compound the misfortune, the "lost" engine drove the dynamo that powered the airship's wireless transmitter, so the transmitter was rendered unusable too.

Midnight on the second night saw the L.59 approaching the lattitude of Khartoum, more than halfway to its destination. With the prospects of success increasing by the hour, the crew's morale was sky-high. Despite the baking heat of the day, followed by the sub-zero temperatures at night, the men made light of their physical discomfort. They knew that if they could bring succour to their beleaguered countrymen, the news would come as a marvellous propoganda tonic for the German nation and its Allies.

Yet, events far distant were to defeat the crew's best efforts. Intercepted British radio reports indicated that Allied troops had advanced into areas of German East Africa that had been thought secure.

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stiletto_33853

Coupled with a lack of information on von Lettow-Vorbeck's whereabouts, it meant that Bockholt was now unlikely to make a successful rendezvous. The Imperial Navy reluctantly ordered the L.59 to be recalled. The big wireless transmitting station at Nauen near Berlin tapped out the message.

"Break off the operation, return. The enemy has captured the greater part of the Makonde Highlands, also Kitangari. The Portugese are attacking the Protectorate from the south."

The wireless operator aboard the Zeppelin received the message, but without a trasmitter he was unable to reply. In the days to follow the Nauen transmitter repeated the recall signal at regular intervals, as fears rose for the safety of the craft and its crew.Aboard the Zeppelin the recall signal was a severe blow to morale. The crew had risked everything and achieved so much, but for nothing. No longer buoyed by the adrenaline of impending glory, several men succumbed to the discomforts of the flight and developed symptons of nervous tension and feverishness.

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stiletto_33853

Worse followed as the airship headed back for Europe. After sunset the temperature of the hydrogen in the cells fell rapidly, causing the gas to become cooler than the outside air. The volume of the hydrogen contracted, until gradually the L.59 ceased to be a "lighter-than-air" craft. Brockholt needed to maintain 3,000ft to clear the high ground in that area, so he ordered the release of 4,400lb of water ballast. With all four usable engines running at full power. He told the elevator operator to maintain the craft in a four degree nose-up attitude, using dynamic lift to maintain altitude. The cooling process continued, however, until the hydrogen in some cells was 6 degrees C cooler than the surrounding air. The L.59 was on a knife-edge, flying as high as it possibly could and unable to put more distance between itself and the high ground. Matters came to a head a few hours later, when, without warning, the airship entered a layer of relatively warm air. This further decreased the static lift generated by the hydrogen, and the airship started to sink. When the elevator operator increased the nose-up attitude in an attempt to maintain altitude, the Zeppelin stalled and began to descend out of control.

Bockholt jettisoned more ballast, then part of the cargo. Only after the airship had been lightened by 6,600lb, having narrowly missed smashing into the side of a hill, was he able to halt the downward drift. Cautiously the commander edged the Zeppelin away from danger and climbed away, but it had been a chastening experience for all on board.

The Zeppelin left the coast of Egypt early on the afternoon of the 24th and crossed the Mediterranean without incident. After dark the L.59 began climbing to recross the mountains of the Anatolian plateau in eastern Turkey.

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stiletto_33853

As it clawed for altitude the crew had another close shave, recalling the near catastrophe over the Sudan. Flying "heavy" at night, and relying on dynamic lift to maintain altitude, the airship ran into a sudden downdraught which caused it to stall and sink out of control. Only after he had released a further 6,600lb of ballast and ammunition was Bockholt able to regain control of his unmiely craft.

The L.59 arrived over Jamboli at 0430hr on November 25 but, eith its radio transmitter out of action, nobody had been expecting it. The airship had to orbit for a couple of hours before the ground handling party had assembled and the base was ready to receive it. Not until 0740hr was the L.59 finally close hauled and in the hands of the groundcrew. The captain and crew, both mentally and physically exhausted, slowly climbed from the craft that had unexpectantly brought them back to their departure point.

Although their attempt to carry supplies to the German troops in East Africa had been unsuccessful, the Zeppelin crew could indeed be proud of their achievement. They had covered 4,200 miles (about as far as from London to Miami, U.S.A.) in a flight lasting just over 95 hours.

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stiletto_33853

The Flight

post-1871-1158167838.jpg

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stiletto_33853

In doing so they had exceeded by a huge margin the world record for distance flown, and they had done it carrying a payload far greater than any that hed previously been transported by air. Had it been peacetime, Ludwig Bockholt and his men would have been feted as national heroes. This was wartime, however, and the epic flight had to remain shrouded in secrecy. It was not made public until after the war's end.

In East Africa the German troops continued to fight on with dogged determination, although at a diminished pace, until the end of the war.There was no further attempt to supply them by Zeppelin. After its return, the L.59 reverted to bombing operations, but not for long. On April 7, 1918, Bockholt and his crew set out from Jamboli to attck the Rpyal Navy base at Valetta, Malta. As it neared the target the Zeppelin suddenly caught fire and broke up, the wreckage plunging into the sea. There were no survivors. No Allied force in the area reported having engaged an airship. The subsequent German investigation concluded that most probably the loss of the L.59 had been accidental, perhaps caused by a petrol leak starting a fire that had ignited the hydrogen. It was a tragic sequel to a most remarkable feat.

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stiletto_33853

The L.59 being led back into its mammoth hangar.

post-1871-1158172272.jpg

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michaeldr

Many thanks Andy

I have followed this all day as you have made your posts

Gripping!

"It was a tragic sequel to a most remarkable feat." - So true

thanks again

Michael

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stiletto_33853

Thanks Michael,

Glad that you enjoyed it. A most remarkable feat and one that gets very little coverage.

Andy

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nfh249

Andy,

Thanks for sharing that; what a great story. As you said, if it had been in peacetime... wasn't there also some long distance Arctic Zeppelin flights just prior to WW2 also not fully revealed at the time??

Regards,

Neil.

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