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The Long, Strange Journey of L.59
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
May 2006

By the late spring of 1917, the German East African Schutztruppe had been holding the colony of Tanganyika for three years. They had fended off several badly-planned British invasions before losing most of the colony to a South African-led offensive in 1916. By relying on African knowledge and local sources of supply, the German cadre had managed to remain relatively healthy despite the constant threat of malaria, but the Colonial Office in Berlin feared that this edge would disappear once the troops were forced into the bush and away from the colony’s towns.

To keep Col. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s troops well enough to fight, they suggested sending a zeppelin loaded with medical supplies to East Africa. The Navy’s prestige stood at a low ebb just a few weeks after taking the blame for American entry into the war, and the naval command approved the concept for its propaganda value. The Colonial Office for their part felt it important that the war conclude with German troops still in possession of at least part of one of the colonies.

On the opposite side, the British feared the appearance of airships in African skies. Rumor had swept through the region that the Germans would use their airships to reinforce Lettow and raise the continent’s native population against its British, French and Belgian masters. These ideas appear to have begun among Zulu millenarian preachers in the colony of Natal in the summer of 1915. Drawing on newspaper acocunts and pictures of the German airships then attacking British cities, these holy men declared them to be an example of God’s displeasure with the British. In Germany, they thundered to their flocks, fleets of airships were being prepared to bring modern weapons to the Africans and German troops to fight alongside them. Enthusiastic supporters watched the skies; three young men actually walked the 1,500 miles to Tanganyika and showed up at Lettow’s headquarters demanding the chance to fight the British.


Germany’s long-range L.59 on a test flight.

The British colonial authorities took these threats very seriously. When Capt. Max Looff of the cruiser Königsberg fell into their hands, he quickly confirmed their suspicions. Recovering from his surprise at the question, he told his gullible interrogators that new long-range airships had been promised to Lettow, large enough to carry whole companies of tough German marines as well as modern artillery and loads of ammunition.

Zeppelins did not have the carrying capacity to bring troops to Africa or anywhere else, as any British aviator could have told the geniuses assigned to question Looff. The Africa flight would require a ship of unprecedented size and range, and even then would only delivery sixteen tons of cargo: eleven tons of ammunition (including 30 machine guns and spare parts for them) and three tons of medical supplies, with the rest given over to the medical and linguistic experts Lettow had requested from the homeland. The zeppelin would not be returning (there being no way to generate fresh hydrogen gas on the spot); the Colonial Office suggested that she be disassembled and her skin used for tents.

L.57, then under construction, was ordered lengthened by 30 meters (from 198), increasing her gas volume from 1.9 to 2.4 million cubic meters. She was the largest airship built up until that time, and had her first test flight on 26 September 1917. Eight days later, Kaiser Wilhelm II approved the Africa flight, and the naval staff informed Lettow by radio.

After a second trial flight, L.57 loaded her special cargo at the Jüterbog airship base outside Berlin. On 7 October her commander, Ludwig Bockholt, decided that he needed a final trial under full load. But high winds picked up while she was being launched, and Bockholt decided he needed to ride out the storm rather than risk a return to the hanagr in heavy cross-winds. But he delayed launch to load foul-weather gear, and the winds got even heavier, slamming her into the ground and knocking loose most of the 400-man ground crew. The zeppelin skittered across the field, and when the wreckage of her after gondola hit the high security fence at the field’s edge it set off a series of sparks. The zeppelin exploded and became a total loss, though none of the crew was injured.

Two days later the Admiralty ordered her sister, L.59, modified in the same manner. The Africa flight would go forward as planned, with Bockholt in command. Work proceeded rapidly and L.59 made her first flight on 25 October. Nine days later, the airship set out for Jamboli, Bulgaria, the southernmost airship base available to the Germans.

L.59 had not been designed for its current size, and lacked ballast and engine power to balance its length and volume. She proved a clumsy sailer, and the first two attempts to set out for Africa failed in short order. Finally on 21 November she took off and, with a good tail wind, set out across the Mediterranean. Bockholt and his crew had the vague intention of somehow making radio contact with Lettow, and failing that to land in one of the areas thought to still be under German control.


L.59 is backed out of her construction shed at Staaken.

Over the island of Crete she encountered a thunderstorm and, following standard procedure, retracted her radio aerial. While L.59 weathered the storm, back in Berlin Colonial Office officials were informing the Navy that they believed Lettow’s forces had been overrun during the past week and advised that the mission be cancelled. Most of the German force had indeed surrendered, with only Lettow and a few hundred die-hards making their way through the bush. Recall orders went out, but during the storm the airship could receive none of them. She continued to head south.

At 0515 on the 22nd she crossed the Libyan coast and headed across the desert, experiencing violent updrafts from the hot sands but making excellent time and hitting all of her navigation points. That afternoon her forward engine seized up and could not be repaired — though the ship continued, she could no longer send radio messages but could with difficulty receive them.

At nightfall she reached the Nile and began following the river southward, but at about 0300, after hours of cooling had diminished her lift, she suddenly stalled and nearly crashed. Her main radio aerial ripped away and the crew madly dashed to throw several tons of ammunition overboard. Bockholt continued southward over the Sudan, but at 1245 the radio message from Berlin was finally received and the airship turned back.

After the war, British intelligence officer Richard Meinertzhagen claimed that she had actually turned around due to a “dirty trick,” but the mesage recorded in L.59’s war diary is that authorized by Adm. Henning Von Holtzendorff, the Admitralty chief of staff. Another near-disaster over western Turkey — again the result of rapid cooling at night coupled with insufficient ballast to compensate — almost wrecked the ship before she landed again at Jamboli at 0740 on the 25th. She had completed a record flight of over 4,200 miles, but had failed in her mission to succor Lettow’s forces. It would not have mattered anyway — at the very moment when L.59 touched down in Bulgaria, Lettow’s advance guard was wading the Rovuma River out of German East Africa and into Portuguese Mozambique, beginning an odyssey that would last another year.

The airship remained at Jamboli. Rebuilt to carry bombs, L.59 made only one raid in her new role, striking Naples on the night of 11-12 March 1918. Italian cities should be considered a prime zeppelin target due to “the excitability of the population,” Bockholt wrote in a memo to the head of the German Naval Airship Division, Peter Strasser. About two dozen bombs were dropped, missing their targets (the naval base, gas works and Bagnoli steel plant) and instead falling on the northern outskirts of the city, killing 16 civilians and injuring 40.

Bockholt attempted to bomb Port Sa’id and the British naval base at Suda Bay, Crete, but bad weather aborted both missions. Finally, on 7 April L.59 took off from Jamboli to bomb Malta. She passed over the German submarine UB.53, whose commander reported seeing searchlights and ground fire before the zeppelin exploded. There were no suvivors from Bockholt’s crew of 21. The Allies made no claim of shooting her down; the Germans ruled her loss an accident but unofficially the airship division strongly suspected that UB.53 had mistaken the zeppelin for an Italian dirigible and shot her down.

In Great War at Sea: Mediterranean we provided two generic German airships, which only appear in hypothetical scenarios. Jamboli (modern Yambol) is in sea zone L52. The airship in Mediterranean Scenario 12 should be based here rather than Constantinople. The stated endurance (60 turns) for airships is much too long. For L.59 it should probably be about 30 turns and 15 turns for others but their speed should be 4 rather than 3.

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