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LZ104
Role Transport airship, later refittted for bombing
National origin German Empire Germany
Manufacturer Luftschiffbau Zeppelin at Friedrichshafen
First flight 30 October 1917
Status Crashed April 1918, reportedly shot down
Primary user Imperial German Navy

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 dirigible during World War I, famed for attempting a long-distance resupply mission of the beleaguered garrison of Germany's East Africa colony.[1]

Contents

History

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Africa flight

The L.59 was a naval airship ordered to prepare for the resupply of Generalmajor Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck’s troops.[2][3]

In mid-November 1917, piloted by its civilian designer Hugo Eckener, the airship set out from Friedrichshafen for Jamboli/Yamboli in Bulgaria, the last available airbase before flying over two thousand miles across the Mediterranean and Entente-held Africa.[4] At Jamboli Kapitänleutnant [Lieutenant Commander] Ludwig Bockholt, a regular German naval officer, met the zeppelin. He would be commander and pilot for the mission,[2] code named China-Sache, loosely translated as "China Show."[4]

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 linings would be bandages, duralumin framework would be for wireless towers, and so on. In addition to its own structure, L.59 carried 50 tons of supplies.[5] The cargo included machine guns plus spares and ammunition, food, medical supplies, a medical team, linguistic experts and Iron Cross medals.

L.59's two initial attempts at starting the journey were foiled by weather in the Mediterranean, but on 21 November 1917 her third departure was successful.[2] However, due to electrical storms over Crete, her radio was put temporarily out of action. She crossed over the Libyan coast at 0515 on 22 November and set a dog-leg course up the Nile. That afternoon, an engine malfunctioned, and very early the next morning she nearly crashed as cooling reduced the buoyancy of her gas. The crew also suffered from headaches, hallucinations and general fatigue.[2]

Despite these difficulties, L.59 continued on over Sudan, only to be turned back on 23 November, approximately 200 km west of Khartoum when her radio again became operational and she received an "abort" message.[2] L.59's 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 Turkey. She returned to base the morning of 25 November 1917, having traveled over 4,200 miles (6,800 km). Many years would pass before that record was broken.[6]

It was later claimed by Richard Meinertzhagen, the chief of British intelligence in the area based at Cairo, that this message was faked by reporting that Lettow-Vorbeck had surrendered.[7] The British, having broken the German naval wireless code, were aware of the flight and its 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.[8] 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, 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.[8] Despite its failure, "the adventure of L.59 was heroic both in scale and spirit."[9] Later a transcript of the radio message was reported to have been found in Germany's World War archives,[10] as well as a Turko-German wireless intercept (marked 'Secret') preserved in the files of the British Public Records office.[11]

Final fate

The airship was then refitted for bombing missions, of which only one was fully carried out. The target was Naples on 11-12 March 1918, and the mission was unsuccessful as the bombs missed their industrial targets and killed some 16 civilians. Further missions for Port Said and Suda Bay were scrapped due to contrary weather. Finally, on 7 April 1918, L.59 took off to bomb Malta. According to reports by an observing submarine, UB-53, the airship was shot down over her target. However, her destruction was not claimed by the Allies, and her loss was officially attributed to an accident. None of the 21 crew survived the crash.

In popular culture

The airship and its the long-distance resupply mission was featured in The Ghosts of Africa, a 1980 historical novel by British-born Canadian novelist William Stevenson set during the East African Campaign.

Specifications

General characteristics

  • Length: 226.50 m (743 ft 0 in)
  • Diameter: 23.90 m (78 ft 0 in)
  • Volume: 68,500 m³ (2,420,000 ft³)
  • Useful lift: 23,500 kg (51,900 lb)
  • Powerplant: 5 × Maybach piston engines, 180 kW (240 hp) each

Performance

  • Maximum speed: 103 km/h (64 mph)

Footnotes and references

  1. ^ Willmott, First World War, p. 192
  2. ^ a b c d e Die Fliegertruppe of the Imperial German Army - Military History Journal, Vol 12 No 2, South African Military History Society. (Accessed 2008-08-11.)
  3. ^ L.57 (LZ 102), her sister ship and the primary airship for the mission, was destroyed during a trial flight. L.59 subsequently underwent the same 30 meter expansion in length (for a total of 228) and in gas capacity (to 68,500 cubic meters) that the ill fated L.57 had
  4. ^ a b Miller, Battle for the Bundu, p. 288
  5. ^ Sources differ on what tonnage the ship carried. Authors Frank A. Contey, Brian Garfield and Charles Miller state 50 tons
  6. ^ Miller, p. 289
  7. ^ Meinertzhagen claims in his diary to have sent the signal to abort, he further claims to have sighted L.59 southbound and northbound, although the airship's course did not take her within sight of the British-held coast and cloud cover even prevented RFC patrols from finding her [Garfield, p. 127]
  8. ^ a b Garfield, The Meinertzhagen Mystery, p. 126
  9. ^ Garfield, p. 127
  10. ^ Contrary Winds - Zeppelins Over the Middle East - Saudi Aramco World, July/August 1994, p. 8-17
  11. ^ Garfield, p. 281
  • 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
  • Willmott, H.P. First World War. London: Dorling Kindersley. 2003

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