Thursday, September 11, 2008


LZ 104 L.59, based in Yambol, Bulgaria, was sent to reinforce troops in German East Africa (today Tanzania) in November 1917. The ship did not arrive in time and had to return following reports of German defeat by British troops, but it had traveled 6,757 kilometres (4,199 mi) in 95 hours and thus had broken a long-distance flight record.

Another endeavour to 'vertically outflank' the forces blockading Germany and her allies involved the attempt to relieve the force engaged in the colony of German East Africa - now Tanzania. Under the inspired command of General von Lettow-Vorbeck, German forces had successfully resisted attempts to capture them since the outbreak of war. Relief in the proper sense of the word could not be realistically contemplated, but an airship could perhaps deliver some much-needed supplies, and success in the venture would be a morale-boosting propaganda coup.

A vessel capable of making the flight from Yambol in south-eastern Bulgaria, the southernmost airship base in territory held by the Central Powers and about 100km from the Black Sea coast, to East Africa was constructed by inserting two extra gas cells in LZ 102 (L 57), was under construction. This was done prior to seeking approval for the mission, which was granted by the Kaiser on 4 October. The Lettow-Vorbeck force was informed by radio that the airship would arrive some time after the middle of the month. Aside from the extra length, which made the Afrikaschiff as it came to be known, the largest airship ever constructed at the time, there were several other unique features. As it was to be a one-way journey, the entire airship was intended to be consumed by the East African forces; the hull covering was made of cotton, which would provide fabric for new uniforms, whilst the gas cells could also be re-worked. The metal structure would be used for building material and the engines for electricity generators. The cargo consisted of machine guns and ammunition, medical supplies, as well as sewing machines and radio spares.

The loading and fitting out had been completed by 7 October, but on that day disaster struck: the Afrikaschiff was destroyed by a storm while attempting a test flight. With remarkable speed another airship, LZ 104 (L 59) was converted for the role and fitted with replacement materiel. After two abortive attempts, the relief mission finally took off on 21 November, at more or less the same time as reports reached Germany that Lettow-Vorbeck had finally been beaten: the flight was too late! Attempts at recall failed, however, and so the Afrikaschiff continued on its long and unique voyage, reaching the latitude of Khartoum in the Sudan by the morning of 23 November before a radio message was finally received, whereupon the airship turned round and returned to Yambol. [1] Despite the ostensible failure, the mission had been an epic achievement, for when the airship arrived back at her start point on the morning of 25 November; she had completed a continuous flight of 95 hours, and traversed some 6,800h through greater extremes of climate than had ever been managed by an airship before.

The Afrikaschiff was retained at Yambol for use as a long-range bomber, raiding various points in the Mediterranean. In this role she was not a great success, and burned in flight on 7 April 1918, whilst attempting to attack the Grand Harbour at Malta. The cause of the fire is unknown, but the legacy of the Afrikaschiff was important. It proved that airships were capable of long-range intercontinental flights, and this legacy was explored further in the post-war period.

[1] Admiralstab and Reichskolonialamt based their decision on British press reports on the situation as of November 18, which reached Kommando der Schutztruppen on November 21, 1917. In these reports it was not mentioned, that Lettow-Vorbeck had surrendered. It was, correctly, stated, that the British had occupied a German camp - without any fight - and taken prisoner 20 officers, 242 white NCOs and men and 700 askaris and that the remains of the Schutztruppe had left. These men were the part of the Schutztruppe Lettow-Vorbeck left behind. It comprised the wounded, the ill and all those men, that the doctors didn't declare fit for the long and strenuous marches of the next months.

After the battle of Mahiwa Lettow-Vorbeck had decided, that he could not take with him the wounded and ill, as they needed a lot of pharmaceuticals he didn't have anymore. Furthermore he didn't want his march slowed by men not fully capable of marching. So he ordered, in agreement with Governor Schnee, his doctors to check each and every man for his fitness. The doctors had to report by name only the men fully capable for long marches. With these 278 Germans and 1600 askaris Lettow-Vorbeck marched south and left the rest behind in British custody.

But this detail was not the reason for calling back L59. From the reports Kommando der Schutztruppen gathered they could conclude that the area foreseen for the landing of L 59 was not controlled the Schutztruppe anymore. Just to find Lettow and the Schutztruppe was considered the most difficult task for L 59 by all involved in the project. As now the last region, south of Liwale, judged suitable for a landing was occupied by the Allies, it seemed irresponsible to carry on. After the war Lettow-Vorbeck was of the opinion that it would have been most improbable that L 59 had found the Schutztruppe, even when the Liwale area had still been controlled by the Schutztruppe, as nobody knew on the German side in DOA, that an airship was on her way. Had L 59 continued her flight the ship would have been in Mahenge on the same date Lettow-Vorbeck crossed far more south the Rovuma to Portuguese East Africa.

The best contemporary sources are:

Wolfgang Meighörner-Schardt
Wegbereiter des Weltluftverkehrs wider Willen
Die Geschichte des Zeppelin-Luftschifftyps "w"
Friedrichshafen 1992


Douglas H. Robinson
The Zeppelin in combat
A History of the German Naval Airship Division
Atglen, PA 1994



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