Long, Strange Journey of L.59
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
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 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.
Germany’s long-range L.59 on a
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
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.
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.
L.59 is backed out of her construction
shed at Staaken.
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
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.
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.
here to buy this game (all 70 scenarios worth!)