Zeppelin LZ 104 (construction number), designated L.59 (tactical number) by the German Imperial Navy and nicknamed Das Afrika-Schiff ("The Africa Ship"), was a German
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...
dirigible during World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...
, famed for attempting a long-distance resupply mission of the beleaguered garrison of Germany's East Africa colony
German East Africa
German East Africa was a German colony in East Africa, which included what are now :Burundi, :Rwanda and Tanganyika . Its area was , nearly three times the size of Germany today....
Africa flightThe L.59 was a naval airship ordered to prepare for the resupply of Generalmajor Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck
Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck
Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck was a general in the Imperial German Army and the commander of the German East Africa campaign. For four years, with a force that never exceeded about 14,000 , he held in check a much larger force of 300,000 British, Belgian, and Portuguese troops...
On 4 November 1917, piloted by its civilian designer Hugo Eckener
Dr. Hugo Eckener was the manager of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin during the inter-war years, and was commander of the famous Graf Zeppelin for most of its record-setting flights, including the first airship flight around the world, making him the most successful airship commander in history...
, after a 29 hour flight from Friedrichshafen, the airship arrived at Jamboli/Yamboli in Bulgaria
Bulgaria , officially the Republic of Bulgaria , is a parliamentary democracy within a unitary constitutional republic in Southeast Europe. The country borders Romania to the north, Serbia and Macedonia to the west, Greece and Turkey to the south, as well as the Black Sea to the east...
, the last available airbase before flying over two thousand miles across the Mediterranean and Entente-held Africa. At Jamboli Kapitänleutnant [Lieutenant Commander] Ludwig Bockholt, a regular German naval officer, met the zeppelin. He would be commander and pilot for the mission, code named China-Sache, loosely translated as "China Show" or "China Matter."
Because it would be impossible to resupply the airship with hydrogen gas upon its arrival in Africa, it was planned that no return trip would be made. Instead, it was projected that every part of the ship be cannibalized for use by Lettow-Vorbeck's bush army. The outer envelope would be used for tents, muslin
Muslin |sewing patterns]], such as for clothing, curtains, or upholstery. Because air moves easily through muslin, muslin clothing is suitable for hot, dry climates.- Etymology and history :...
linings would be bandages, duralumin
Duralumin is the trade name of one of the earliest types of age-hardenable aluminium alloys. The main alloying constituents are copper, manganese, and magnesium. A commonly used modern equivalent of this alloy type is AA2024, which contains 4.4% copper, 1.5% magnesium, 0.6% manganese and 93.5%...
framework would be for wireless towers, and so on. In addition to its own structure, L.59 carried 50 tons of supplies. The cargo included machine gun
A machine gun is a fully automatic mounted or portable firearm, usually designed to fire rounds in quick succession from an ammunition belt or large-capacity magazine, typically at a rate of several hundred rounds per minute....
s plus spares and ammunition, food, medical supplies, a medical team and Iron Cross
The Iron Cross is a cross symbol typically in black with a white or silver outline that originated after 1219 when the Kingdom of Jerusalem granted the Teutonic Order the right to combine the Teutonic Black Cross placed above a silver Cross of Jerusalem....
L.59s two initial attempts at starting the journey were foiled by weather in the Mediterranean, but on 21 November 1917 her third departure was successful and the ship made good time over Adrianople, the Sea of Marmara and the coast of Asia Minor. However, due to electrical storms over Crete
Crete is the largest and most populous of the Greek islands, the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, and one of the thirteen administrative regions of Greece. It forms a significant part of the economy and cultural heritage of Greece while retaining its own local cultural traits...
, her wireless aerial was wound in and so the ship failed to receive messages from the admiralty. She crossed over the African coast at 0515 on 22 November near Mersa Matruh and via the Dakhla Oasis set a dog-leg course up the Nile. That afternoon, an engine malfunctioned when a reduction gear housing cracked; the loss of this powerplant eliminated the prospect of radio transmission, although wireless messages could be received. The next morning she nearly crashed when heat turbulence from the dunes below and subsequent cooling reduced the buoyancy of her gas. The crew also suffered from headaches, hallucinations and general fatigue in the mid-day heat and freezing cold at night.
Despite these difficulties, L.59 continued on over Sudan
Sudan , officially the Republic of the Sudan , is a country in North Africa, sometimes considered part of the Middle East politically. It is bordered by Egypt to the north, the Red Sea to the northeast, Eritrea and Ethiopia to the east, South Sudan to the south, the Central African Republic to the...
, only to be turned back on 23 November, with the ship 125 miles (201.2 km) due west of Khartoum
Khartoum is the capital and largest city of Sudan and of Khartoum State. It is located at the confluence of the White Nile flowing north from Lake Victoria, and the Blue Nile flowing west from Ethiopia. The location where the two Niles meet is known as "al-Mogran"...
when she received an "abort" message. L.59s volunteer crew implored the commander to continue, but he ordered the ship turned back and returned to Bulgaria after averting another potential loss of buoyancy disaster over Asia Minor. She returned to base the morning of 25 November 1917, having traveled over 4200 miles (6,759.2 km) in 95 hours, or nearly four days in the air. When she nosed into her shed at Jamboli, the zeppelin had enough fuel remaining which could have kept her in the air for another 64 hours. Many years would pass before that record was broken.
It was later claimed by Richard Meinertzhagen
Colonel Richard Henry Meinertzhagen CBE DSO was a British soldier, intelligence officer and ornithologist.- Background and youth :Meinertzhagen was born into a socially connected, wealthy British family...
, the chief of British intelligence in the area based at Cairo, that this message was faked by reporting that Lettow-Vorbeck had surrendered. The British, having broken the German naval wireless code, were aware of the flight and mission. East Africa’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC) squadrons were alerted to watch for the approach of the ship. However, what turned the airship back was a signal relayed from Lettow-Vorbeck. The frail signal was amplified and forwarded by stations in friendly or neutral territories, and after some hours it reached the German naval command. The signal informed headquarters not that Lettow had surrendered, but that the Schutztruppe had been unable to hold the flatlands around Mahenge
Mahenge is a limestone plateau area in the Ulanga District, Morogoro Region, Tanzania, Africa. There is a town there of the same name. It is about south east of Singida, in the miombo woodland bio-region....
, the planned destination of the airship, and had been forced by British artillery to retreat into jagged mountains where the airship would have no chance of touching down without risking explosion. With no hope of a place to safely land and with every likelihood of her being destroyed or falling into enemy hands, the German command had no choice but to order a return. The recall signal was sent from the admiralty station at Nauen. Despite its failure, "the adventure of L.59 was heroic both in scale and spirit." Later a transcript of the radio message was reported to have been found in Germany's World War archives, as well as a Turko-German wireless intercept (marked 'Secret') preserved in the files of the British Public Records office.
Final fateSince the airship was not expected to return from her Africa mission, "no one knew exactly what to do with her." Another African flight was out of the question, the ship was then offered for flights to supply the Ottoman army of Enver Pasha in Arabia, or to search for mines off Constantinople, but nothing came of that. After several reconnaissance flights and bomb dropping forays, L.59 took off from Jamboli to attack the British naval base at Malta
Malta , officially known as the Republic of Malta , is a Southern European country consisting of an archipelago situated in the centre of the Mediterranean, south of Sicily, east of Tunisia and north of Libya, with Gibraltar to the west and Alexandria to the east.Malta covers just over in...
, proceeding across the Balkans to the Strait of Otranto. On the evening of 7 April 1918 the surfaced German submarine UB-53 observed the airship approaching in its wake. Her commanding officer, Oberleutnant [Lieutenant] J.L.E. Sprenger, reported that he watched her fly past at about 700 feet, so "close in fact that the details of the gondola could be seen clearly. A few minutes later, Sprenger noted two bursts in the air, and shortly after a gigantic flame enveloped the airship and it nosed down into the water." The airship’s destruction was not claimed by either the British or the Italians; her loss was officially attributed to an accident. None of the 21 crew survived the crash.
In popular cultureThe airship and its the long-distance resupply mission was featured in The Ghosts of Africa, a 1980 historical novel
According to Encyclopædia Britannica, a historical novel is-Development:An early example of historical prose fiction is Luó Guànzhōng's 14th century Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which covers one of the most important periods of Chinese history and left a lasting impact on Chinese culture.The...
by British-born Canadian novelist William Stevenson
William Stevenson (Canadian writer)
William Stevenson is a British-born Canadian author and journalist.His 1976 book A Man Called Intrepid was about William Stephenson and was a best-seller...
set during the East African Campaign
East African Campaign (World War I)
The East African Campaign was a series of battles and guerrilla actions which started in German East Africa and ultimately affected portions of Mozambique, Northern Rhodesia, British East Africa, Uganda, and the Belgian Congo. The campaign was effectively ended in November 1917...
Footnotes and references
- Garfield, Brian. The Meinertzhagen Mystery. Washington, DC: Potomac Books. 2007 ISBN 1597970417
- Miller, Charles. Battle for the Bundu. The First World War in East Africa. New York: McMillian Publishing Co. 1974. ISBN 0025849301
- Whitehouse, Arch. The Zeppelin Fighters. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1966.
- Willmott, H.P. First World War. London: Dorling KindersleyDorling KindersleyDorling Kindersley is an international publishing company specializing in illustrated reference books for adults and children in 51 languages. It is currently part of the Penguin Group....