“The mission would be a risky one – no airship had ever flown such a distance.”
TO DESCRIBE Germany’s Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck as a thorn in the side of the British Empire would be something of an understatement.
Beginning in 1914, the dashing 34-year-old Prussian lieutenant-colonel led a rag-tag band of 3,000 regulars and 10,000 colonial troops in an audacious four-year guerrilla campaign against the Allies in East Africa – modern day Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania.
A master of ambush, sabotage and hit-and-run tactics, von Lettow-Vorbeck, also known as Der Löwe von Afrika or the “Lion of Africa”, never lost a battle and consistently outfoxed the 300,000-British, Belgian and Portuguese troops tasked with destroying him.
Operating deep in the African bush, von Lettow-Vorbeck’s brigade, known as the Schutztruppe, spent much of the war living off the land. By 1917 however, they were in desperate need of resupply. For Berlin, figuring out how to sustain this force, which was keeping hundreds of thousands of enemy troops pinned down in a remote backwater, was vital to the German war effort. But getting fresh equipment and ammunition to them was going to be a challenge. British control of the Atlantic and Indian oceans ruled out shipping materiel by sea. And no plane yet had the range to reach the region, which was more than 4,000 miles from friendly territory. Some in the high command wondered if a Zeppelin might be up to the task.
A Zeppelin to the Rescue
German airships had been mounting bombing raids on French cities since the war’s opening days and beginning in 1915, they were flying long-range strikes against England itself. Might a specially equipped navy dirigible operating from southern Europe be able to deliver supplies to von Lettow-Vorbeck a hemisphere away? No one had ever flown such a vast distance, but in theory it could be done (and so it had to be tried).
The 743-foot-long dirigible had a top speed of 64 mph and could carry a crew of 21. An onboard wireless radio, which drew power from the airship’s five 240-hp engines, ensured the vessel would be in constant contact with Germany during the marathon transit.
Regardless, the mission would be a risky one – no flying machine had ever travelled such a distance. Worse, after completing the estimated four-day journey to the pre-arranged landing zone on a limestone flat at Mahenge in present day Tanzania, the Zeppelin and its crew would be stranded in Africa – no facilities existed in the remote wilderness to re-inflate a hydrogen blimp for the voyage home.
As such, in addition to the 15 tons of cargo slated for delivery, the L 59 itself would have to benefit the Schutztruppe. It was decided that every conceivable component from the Zeppelin would be stripped off and used by von Lettow-Vorbeck’s men. The blimp’s canvas canopy could be converted into tents, its internal fabric lining would be cut into bandages, and even the Zeppelin’s aluminum frame was to be reassembled into radio towers.
On Nov 4, 1917, the L 59, dubbed Afrika-Schiff or “Africa Ship”, departed an aerodrome west of Berlin for the staging field in Yambol in southeastern Bulgaria – a distance of nearly 1,200 miles. The journey took 29 hours.
Once there, the L 59 was loaded with crates of machine guns and rifles, ammunition, food, medical supplies and enough Iron Cross medals to decorate the veterans of the East Africa campaign. It was also at Yambol that the mission commander, navy Kapitänleutnant Ludwig Bockholt, came aboard.
After waiting several days for favourable flying weather, the L 59 was off. It was Nov. 21.
The vessel initially made its way south to the Sea of Marmara, and then cut across the western edge of Turkey before heading out over the Mediterranean for the island of Crete. By dawn on Nov. 22, L 59 had reached the coast of western Egypt. Twenty-four hours had elapsed since lift off; the airship was still 2,800 miles from its destination.
Unfortunately for the crew, the ride was about to get rather bumpy.
Berlin, We Have a Problem
Unbeknownst to headquarters, British intelligence had cracked the German naval code and were well aware of the L 59’s daring mission. Squadrons of Royal Flying Corps patrol planes stationed in Africa were ordered to seek out and destroy the German airship.
But enemy fighters were the least of the crew’s problems. Somewhere over central Egypt, one of the vessel’s five engines seized up. The loss of power rendered the airship’s radio incapable of transmitting, although signals could still be received.
The voyage over the desert was a white-knucle ride. The blazing heat of the North African sun mixed with the freezing nights creating violent turbulence. During the first evening over the continent, cold air compressed the hydrogen and caused the L 59 to lose altitude. By dawn, the vessel was brushing the desert floor.
As the day wore on, temperatures soared and the L 59 drifted skywards. Soon, physical exhaustion, stress and the thin high-altitude air took their toll on the crew; many were racked with headaches, others reported hallucinations. Despite the hazards Bockholt ordered the ship to press on.
As the vessel passed the voyage’s half-way point just west of Khartoum, the wireless operator received a message from base: The L 59 was to abort the mission and return to Bulgaria immediately. Despite the insistence of the crew that they finish the job, Bockholt dutifully ordered the craft to turn back.
Unbeknownst to the men of the L 59, von Lettow-Vorbeck’s had signalled Berlin that the landing zone in Mahenge was under heavy fire from British artillery and the Schutztruppe were unable to secure it in time for the airship’s arrival. No supplies could reach the soldiers by the air.
Within 48 hours, the L 59 had touched down safely at Yambol, Bulgaria. All told, the airship had travelled 4,200 miles non-stop in less than 95 hours. It still had fuel for another two-and-a-half days. Even the though the mission was ultimately a bust, the flight itself had broken records for both distance and endurance.
With his hopes for resupply dashed, von Lettow-Vorbeck marched his army south into Portuguese Mozambique where it easily captured the town of Ngomano. There the group netted enough goods to keep the Schutztruppe provisioned for the foreseeable future.
For the next year, von Lettow-Vorbeck’s small army struck towns throughout Rhodesia and Mozambique, evading Allied armies along the way. The Schutztruppe continued fighting until finally surrendering in Zambia in the week following the 1918 Armistice.
As for the L 59, it continued to fly bombing and reconnaissance missions in southern Europe and the Mediterranean for the next several months. She was last seen on April 7, 1918 by a surfaced German U-boat. Some minutes after passing 700 feet above the UB-53, on a westerly course, the sub’s skipper watched as the enormous airship inexplicably exploded. All 21 crew members were lost including Ludwig Bockholt. The L 59 was en route to the British naval base at Malta with a full load of bombs when she was destroyed.
(Originally published on January 20, 2016)