Dr Eckener’s Dream Machine: The Historic Saga of the Round-the-World Zeppelin 
by Douglas Botting.
HarperCollins, 356 pp., £17.99, September 2001, 0 00 257191 9
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On a May night in 1936, I saw that mightiest of zeppelins, the Hindenburg, floating above the skyscrapers of New York – a leviathan nearly as long as the Titanic, and as ill-starred. If Dr Goebbels had had his way the Hindenburg would have been called the ‘Hitler’ and would have borne an enormous swastika on its side, but Hugo Eckener, the man who gave substance to the dream of Count Zeppelin, was tough enough to face down the Nazi spin doctor when honour demanded. His undisfigured dirigible, lording it over Gotham, had crossed the Atlantic in two and a half days, whereas the Queen Mary, on whose maiden voyage I had just travelled, had taken nearly twice as long, shore to shore. In both craft the passengers dressed for dinner. The Hindenburg apparently had a priest to conduct Mass; the Queen Mary had a daily newspaper, at least one ship’s gardener, and facilities for Rotarians and Oxford Groupers. Ah, the 1930s!

Earlier that year the Hindenburg, along with the globe-girdling Graf Zeppelin, had leafleted the Fatherland to prepare the populace for Hitler’s seizure of the Rhineland. It was the sort of propaganda stunt angrily, and bravely, denounced by Dr Eckener as a Scheissfahrt. To punish his rebelliousness, the German press had been ordered not to print Eckener’s name or photograph. Hitler himself was no friend of airships, refusing to go up in one and unwilling to have one named after him for fear it would blow up and diminish his reputation. According to Douglas Botting, he likened the airship to a new kind of floor covering which ‘looks marvellous, shines for ever and never wears out’, but cannot be walked on with nailed shoes or have hard things dropped on it, because unfortunately it is made of high explosive. He could also have said that boarding an airship was like entering a powder magazine while wearing spurs, a practice prudently banned in British (and no doubt German) Army Regulations.

The Hindenburg’s nemesis is widely assumed to have been static electricity, generated at the mooring mast at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937, where the ship burned spectacularly with the loss of 36 lives. In truth, these hydrogen-filled dirigibles were potential flying bombs, and why they were ever allowed to range over cities, or indeed over open countryside, is something of a mystery. Yet, while they lasted, they had grace, style, a sinister beauty and the power to inspire wonder. Botting cannot resist borrowing for an epigraph John Masefield’s tribute to the great sailing ships: ‘They mark our passage as a race of men,/Earth will not see such ships as these again.’

This lively book is a zeppelin history which concentrates on the round-the-world voyage of the Graf Zeppelin in 1929. Anyone who supposes that Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin was a visionary whose dream of a benign new form of transport was quickly adapted to terrorist uses by the military will be quickly disabused. A former cavalry officer, he had always seen his invention as a tool of war. The idea of using airships to carry passengers or freight was a tradesman’s concept; but if that was necessary to develop the breed, then the Count was willing to go along with it. In 1914 came the zeppelins’ big opportunity. When the Kaiser finally agreed to risk dropping bombs on his English cousins, the zeppelin commanders were free to make for London, and ideally for the Bank of England. Wartime annals reveal that Britain’s anti-aircraft defences were so poor that blind men, whose hearing was thought to be more acute than that of the sighted, were recruited to listen for the approach of raiders; they were even fitted with stethoscopes to increase their sensitivity. But if Britain’s defences were poor so was the ability of zeppelin commanders to find the Bank of England, and the higher they were driven by gunfire the worse their marksmanship became. On one famous occasion the bemused crew of a zeppelin who thought they were bombing Birmingham later discovered that they had been attacking Arras. They were participants in the great ‘silent raid’ of October 1917, so called, Botting says, because the flotilla which set out to lay waste the industrial Midlands flew too high for earshot; but was it not because the London guns remained silent on a murky night in order to confuse the enemy? The invading fleet had hardly reached the coast of a blacked-out England when the equivalent of the ‘Protestant wind’ which scattered the Spanish Armada bore down fiercely from the North and drove the confused crews over Northern Europe.

What happened then deserves a book all to itself, or a film by Spielberg (with computer-generated dirigibles). From four miles high, the crews, with black ice forming on their boots, could see the flickering gunfire from the Western Front and realised that they had every chance of becoming cannon fodder. One zeppelin was shot down by French guns with the loss of all hands. A second was destroyed by French fighter aircraft ‘and the crew taken prisoner by a bunch of sprightly old French boar-hunters armed with hunting guns’. A third crash-landed near the same place, took off again minus one gondola and vanished mysteriously over the Mediterranean. A fourth, lost and out of fuel, came down in the Provençal Alps, after a grand tour which had taken in Denmark. A fifth, having risen to an unprecedented 24,000 feet over the battlefields, landed at an angle of 45 degrees in Thuringia. The remaining six ships returned in disarray to their bases. For Captain Peter Strasser, the Bomber Harris of the German Naval Airship Division, this was Black October; serious raiding now fell to the huge Gotha biplanes.

The bomb-load an airship could carry had always been trivial in relation to the size of the carrier; a fair comparison would be a five-coach train carrying one old lady to the seaside. Though the people of England saw little or nothing of the October rout, they had already witnessed zeppelins blazing like bonfires in the night sky. Bertrand Russell, spending his first night with a new mistress, was roused by ‘a bestial shout of triumph in the street’, alerting him to a false sunset in which men were being burned alive. Bernard Shaw jumped on his motorcycle to gloat over the zeppelin which had been brought down at Potters Bar and bubbled with excitement as he told the Webbs about his joy day.

Botting devotes only two lines to an aspect of airship raiding which has always fascinated me. Hiding above cloud, the commander of a zeppelin would let down a tiny observation car on a long line into clear air, like a spider on a thread. The observer then telephoned to his superiors an account of what he could see, well aware that if the operation was detected his safety would not be the first priority. One spy basket found on English soil was reported to contain ‘a very nasty mess which shortly before had been a live German’, leaving a suspicion that the basket had been cut loose to speed the airship’s escape. Another spy basket was featured in a display of zeppelin trophies at Finsbury. It was empty and the Daily Mail was unable to discover what had happened to its occupant.

In late 1918, the zeppelin ground crews at Friedrichshafen joined in the wave of German mutinies. The future of airships looked hopeless. Credit for the early revival goes to Eckener, an economist and part-time journalist whose interest in gas-bag flying dated from 1900. His critical report of an early zeppelin flight in the Frankfurter Zeitung had attracted the notice of Count Zeppelin, who quickly resolved his doubts and converted him to the cause. Unlike the Count, Eckener had the tradesman’s view of airships, as carriers for people and freight, though he was far from blind to the national prestige which might accrue from such operations. Glory unbounded was his lot in 1929 when the Graf Zeppelin circumnavigated the world in 21 days, with a flying time of 12 days, earning him the title of ‘Magellan of the Air’. Botting, no mean explorer himself, gives a zestful account of this exploit, which caused traffic jams and crowd stampedes all over the world. The stunt was Hearst-sponsored and two of its most publicised passengers were Hearst writers, the spirited Lady Hay-Drummond-Hay, the one woman on board, and Karl von Wiegand, who were to turn up on all big zeppelin occasions. Over Germany, as the Graf set out, the passengers could hear the cries of ‘Deutschland über Alles!’ along with the tumult of church bells and motor horns. Over Siberia there was dead quiet for three days and nothing to see; the journalists, seated five typewriters to a table, had to fall back on fine writing. Occasionally, scared peasants could be seen rushing for shelter; in one luckless village a horse-drawn cart, out of control, demolished a pair of shabby huts. ‘We jokingly told each other: “Now we’re going to have to pay for wilful damage to a peaceful village!”’ the gruff Eckener recalled. He was not much of a joker but he was a nonpareil among navigators. The Graf emerged from those three days of featureless tundra at the exact point determined by dead reckoning, to cries of ‘Thalassa! Thalassa!’ from the more cultured passengers as they spied the Sea of Okhotsk. Now they were ready for the screams of ‘Banzai!’ which would swell up from a frenzied Tokyo.

The Pacific crossing, with the ocean often invisible, was a hazard greater even than Siberia, but Eckener was adept at riding on the tail of a typhoon, like a cyclist in the slipstream of a lorry, and at steering his way between thunderstorms. Reaching California, the voyagers were surprised that the Hearst castle of San Simeon was in total darkness, but suddenly the old stunt merchant pulled a switch and it exploded into welcoming light. At Los Angeles serious trouble was waiting. For atmospheric reasons not unconnected with the famous smog (and ably explained by the author) the Graf refused to descend. Some 35,000 cubic feet of hydrogen had to be discharged. This posed problems for later take-off, when the airship as stubbornly refused to rise. Eckener decided to take off on full engine power, aeroplane-fashion, a hairy feat which involved clearing a high-tension cable by three feet after the sagging tail had gouged the ground. If any passengers longed for a cigarette to steady their nerves they were out of luck; this was a non-smoking voyage. At one period Eckener suffered from ptomaine poisoning, which can have done little for the general morale. But at the end the flight was seen as a grand success. The crew had not needed to use their emergency firearms against wolves, and they still had the unused parachute which was supposedly reserved for any stowaway. Occasionally, Eckener had felt obliged to remind passengers that it was a serious expedition. At the outset he had taken strongly against an American millionaire who had lost no time in producing a portable gramophone. Airships were not flying night-clubs, the message ran.

After the circumnavigatory flight the Graf Zeppelin undertook show-off tours to many countries, including Britain, where tens of thousands were ‘enthralled’. A photograph shows the vessel making a very low pass over Wembley Stadium during the 1930 Cup Final. The spectators, so far as can be judged, look less than enthralled, and the caption notes that ‘Most of the 92,000 crowd are watching the football match, not the giant zeppelin above their heads.’ Among those with their eye on the ball how many had bayed like demons when the wartime zeppelins became fireballs in the sky? The author has rather short-changed us in his very brief mention of the flight round Britain. What passionate cries replaced those of ‘Deutschland über Alles!’ and ‘Banzai!’? Did motor-cars collide excitedly on the Great North Road? Did minster bells ring out joyously? What did the local paper at Great Yarmouth – first target of the wartime zeppelins – say about this memorable return? Much more fully described are some of the Graf’s other adventures, as for example in the wastes of Franz Josef Land, where Eckener had arranged to exchange mail with the Soviet ice-breaker Malygin, a stunt backed again by Hearst, and an issue of special postage stamps. There were scientists aboard to lend importance to the expedition. The rendezvous lasted only for a few tense moments, as Eckener, alarmed by approaching ice, ordered an abrupt departure, leaving behind disappointment and ill-will. Perhaps he regarded this as another Scheissfahrt. But the great Graf kept flying on one exciting mission or another. At Recife, in Brazil, it had the narrowest of escapes when it descended on the smoking chimney of a peasant’s hut. Again off Recife it was forced to remain aloft while a nearby revolution was suppressed.

Fully conscious that his passengers’ lives were always at the mercy of flammable hydrogen, Eckener wanted the Hindenburg to be filled with helium. This was obtainable in quantity only in America, where the law strictly forbade its export. America needed helium for her own blimps, which had been going through a disastrous patch. Strong pressure was exerted on the White House to bend the law, but Hitler’s expansionist policies were now seen as an additional reason for refusal. Hearst for once seems to have been in no mood or position to help. Germany could presumably have produced helium had the will been there, but Eckener had alienated virtually all the Nazi leaders. Bitterly, reluctantly – and fatally – he decided that the Hindenburg must be filled with hydrogen after all. The lucky, staggeringly lucky, Graf Zeppelin survived until 1940, when Goering had it broken up for scrap. No one, we are assured, had ever been hurt on its 590 flights and 144 ocean crossings. A Graf Zeppelin II was also destroyed. In the month before World War Two was declared it had conducted a spy flight along the east coast of England, in an attempt to gain information about radar defences, and was seen off by RAF Spitfires. And what did they do at Friedrichshafen in the war? They helped to make V2 rockets, still hoping perhaps to hit the Bank of England.

Douglas Botting, who has crossed Africa by balloon, brings a buoyant style to his chronicle of buoyant flight. In an epilogue he lists some of the more exuberant fancies which, against all the odds, have been dreamed up in this field since the war. In 1947, Eckener was helping the Goodyear Company to plan an airship 950 feet long to carry 250 passengers. There were no takers; nor was there any rush to build a nuclear-powered American airship capable of carrying 500 people round the world non-stop. Shell Petroleum proposed a colossus to haul natural gas from the Sahara – a pretty notion of gas lifting gas. In various places less ambitious airship projects are currently under way, notably at Cardington in Bedfordshire, home of the R101, which was lost at Beauvais on a proving flight to India. All such projects look like being eclipsed by the new high-tech super-zeppelin, longer than the Hindenburg, which is being designed near Berlin for heroic feats of cargo-lifting (‘the maiden flight approaches apace’). ‘Earth will not see such ships as these again’? Don’t believe it.

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Vol. 24 No. 3 · 7 February 2002

J.F. Darycott (Letters, 3 January) claims that ‘hydrogen, while readily flammable, is not … as explosive as petrol.’ Many people, fed on Hollywood imagery, believe that petrol is a highly explosive liquid. But that is not the case, as anybody who has seen a match thrown into a bucket of petrol will testify. All that happens is a rather smoky, though energetic, burn. For petrol (liquid at standard temperature and pressure, or STP) to explode, in the sense of a supersonic-type ignition, it needs to be well mixed with an adequate supply of oxygen, which is not easy without some external intervention, for example the mixing of petrol vapour with air in the combustion chamber of an engine. The main problem with hydrogen is that it is a gas at STP and readily migrates, mixing with air as it goes, to places where there are potential ignition sources.

Ian Southern
Soto de la Marina, Spain

Jerome Shipman isn't quite right. Helium is, as he says, present in the gaseous emissions from natural springs in the US, but it is also present in natural gas at levels of 1 per cent. Helium, however, can be obtained from the liquefaction of natural gas. This isn't easy (it doesn't undergo adiabatic cooling on expansion until very low temperatures are reached), but it isn't impossible: the Germans would doubtless have pursued this technique if they had had the will, as E.S. Turner suggests. They could also have obtained helium from monazite sands by heating to 1000°C – the sand was at that time available from Australia.

T. Chertsey

Vol. 24 No. 4 · 21 February 2002

What planet is T. Chertsey living on when he says that monazite sands could be a source of helium (Letters, 7 February)? Monazite is extremely radioactive, having principle radionuclides from the thorium-232 series. Thankfully, where monazite does occur in beach sand (in places such as Australia, Brazil, India and China), it does so in such small quantities as not to affect the local populations adversely. Harvesting the sand in sufficient quantities to produce enough helium to fill a flotilla of air balloons would require more radiation suits than any army now could muster, let alone the Army in prewar Germany.

Rupert Holroyd

Airship engineering and the availability of helium were rather more advanced in the 1930s than some of your correspondents may have realised. Extraction of small amounts of helium from monazite sand was underway in Australia before the end of the First World War, but the compressors were not powerful enough to produce the quantities required by rigid dirigibles (the capacity of the modified R101 was 5,508,500 cubic feet). In 1929 RMS Hororata left Fremantle with 23,000 tons of sifted monazite – enough for three R101 round trips to Karachi – bound ultimately for the airship works at Cardington. There a refinery was under construction, intended to become fully operational by 1937. The Hororata docked in Southampton three weeks after the destruction of the (hydrogen-filled) R101 in France. Rather than send the load back to Australia or begin the costly extraction of the gas, the sand was used as landfill in Thanet, among other locations. In the late 1930s another role presented itself: as a filling for sandbags. Those with memories of the war or National Service may recall a slight bronze tint to the sand in some bags which left a reddish stain on the fingers. My father, a chemist with the Ministry of Supply, recalled a rumour that this was because the sand had been brought from military execution grounds. The area of the Tanami Desert in Western Australia where monazite sand occurs is now under the administration of the Karlantijpa North Aboriginal Land Authority.

Ian Adveron

Let's get this straight. Helium can indeed be obtained from the liquefaction of natural gas, but, despite what T. Chertsey thinks, this doesn't mean that helium itself is liquefied. It is, rather, a product of the liquefaction process – if you boil salt water to get the salt, the salt itself doesn't boil away. So the liquefaction of helium doesn't come into the argument at all: they haven't yet started to fill air balloons with liquid helium.

Lavinia Cramer

Vol. 24 No. 5 · 7 March 2002

The radioactivity of thorium, cited by Rupert Holroyd (Letters, 21 February) as making monazite dangerous to process, is largely irrelevant. Monazite is heated to 1000°C to produce helium, but the melting point of thorium is 2000°C, so unless some idiot in the factory suddenly whacks up the central heating, helium production will continue to be as safe as it has been for the last 60 years. In fact, drinking coffee is far more dangerous: the radioactivity produced naturally by coffee beans is measurable without heating the beans at all.

Humphrey Fullerton

Rupert Holroyd takes the line that monazite occurs in such small quantities that it does not harm local populations. This is a grave error to make, and one consistently made by Governments in countries such as Brazil, China and Mexico where it is difficult for local populations to gather the facts themselves. Thorium-232 has a longer lifespan than any uranium isotope: it has a half-life of 14 billion years. Thorium is especially toxic to the liver and spleen, and is known to cause leukaemias and other blood diseases. It decays to produce radium-228, then radium-224, which in turn produces radon gas (radon-220) in greater quantities than the helium found in monazite. Given that it takes just 20 milligrammes of thorium dust to kill an average-sized person within a month (inhalation would do the trick), there is no question that monazite sands present a risk. The danger comes not only from the existence of the monazite in local sands (leukaemia rates are higher in black sand areas where monazite is found), but from its processing, which must be performed in close proximity to the mining site due to the risks of environmental contamination, something that is rarely taken into account when monazite waste is dumped in landfill sites where indigenous populations are housed.

Stanton Cavendish
Richmond, Surrey

Contrary to what Rupert Holroyd might think, there is evidence to suggest that leukaemia rates are higher in monazite areas – which is indicative, but not necessarily proof of dangerous levels of radiation. Perhaps the respective Governments of Australia, Brazil, China and India would like to contribute to the discussion by revealing their own reports on blood disease levels in areas where monazite is mined. I am aware of no such report currently circulating from any of these countries.

Luc Schokkaert

Vol. 23 No. 23 · 29 November 2001

Bernard Shaw was not the only one to be excited by the spectacle of a Zeppelin being brought down over Potters Bar, as E.S. Turner writes (LRB, 15 November). My grandmother, who was living in Potters Bar with her family at the time, wrote to her brothers and sisters in September 1916:

It was a still night, clear to the north but misty towards London. We had not been in bed more than an hour, when the sound of gunfire through the rattling of a noisy goods train made me hop up and don a dressing-gown. Poking my head out of the window I beheld to the left a golden Zep being peppered with shells. We congregated in the dining-room and watched from behind the thick curtains. The Zep was turning about, trying to escape. It looked like a great shining fish in the air. At one time it seemed perpendicular. Then it began to come our way and dropped a bomb that shook the house and made the air hit our faces. So we adjourned to the back passage, where the walls are thick and no glass could hurt us. No sooner had we done so when a glare shone through the back door glass panels. ‘It’s burning!’ we cried, and hurried back to the window to see it falling in flames. It looked as if it might fall onto the house but really fell in a field behind the church. Next morning we saw its crumpled remains hanging on a tree … What a horrible fate the Germans send the Zep crews to!

Charmian Cannon
London NW3

Vol. 24 No. 1 · 3 January 2002

It would seem, from E.S. Turner’s review of Douglas Botting’s book on the Graf Zeppelin (LRB, 15 November 2001), that he is unaware of recent research that shows the cause of the Hindenburg disaster to have been the ignition of the highly flammable coating on the outside of the ship’s fabric, a coating not applied, if I remember rightly, to the Graf Zeppelin. This coating rapidly propagated flames the length of the vessel, burning into the gas-bags and setting fire to the hydrogen within; but the destruction of the gas-bags would have led just as surely to the loss of their contents, and hence of the ship, if they had been filled with helium.

Hydrogen, while readily flammable, is not, I believe, particularly explosive: certainly not as explosive as petrol, and there is no more (and no less) reason to write of ‘hydrogen-filled dirigibles being potential flying-bombs’ than there is to write similarly of kerosene-filled airliners or petrol-filled road tankers.

But all this is by the by. What we really want to know is what was Mr Turner doing on the Queen Mary’s maiden voyage? Had he paid for a passage? Or was he a journalist on a freebie? What class did he travel? May we have an account of the trip? Indeed, in the absence of Mr Bennett’s diaries this year (‘nothing much has happened’), perhaps the LRB could fill its blank pages with Mr Turner’s reminiscences of the 1930s generally.

J.F. Darycott
Staines, Middlesex

E.S. Turner wrote that Hugo Eckener wanted the Hindenburg to be filled with helium instead of hydrogen, but American law strictly forbade its export. ‘Germany could presumably have produced helium,’ Turner continues, ‘had the will been there.’ The only place helium was produced economically in the quantities the German zeppelins required was America, from wells in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Helium can be extracted from the atmosphere, but it only occurs in the amount of one part in 200,000. In Dr Eckener’s time you couldn’t get blood from a turnip, and you couldn’t get helium from any place but the United States of America.

Jerome Shipman
Potomac, Maryland

Vol. 24 No. 2 · 14 January 2002

Responding to my review of Dr Eckener’s Dream Machine, J.F. Darycott (Letters, 3 January) refers to recent research suggesting that the cause of the Hindenburg disaster was the highly flammable coating on the ship’s fabric which resulted in a rapid spread of flames along its length. Douglas Botting, the book’s author, mentions this theory, and gives ‘discharges of an electrostatic nature’ as the initiating agent. I may well have over-simplified in saying that the Hindenburg’s nemesis was static electricity. Whether a hydrogen-filled airship was any more of a flying bomb than a kerosene-filled airliner I leave your readers to ponder. Happy air miles!

All this is by the by, J.F. Darycott continues, and then asks, reasonably enough: ‘What was Mr Turner doing on the Queen Mary’s maiden voyage? Had he paid for a passage? What class did he travel?’ In 1936, the year of that voyage, I was on the editorial staff of the Glasgow Evening Times, which contributed towards my tourist-class fare, in return for coverage of what was an important occasion for the Clyde. I had visited New York the year before on my annual holiday (four days amid the skyscrapers, 14 days getting there and back) and had romantic reasons for returning. On the Queen Mary there were scores of more favoured reporters, all as far as I know travelling first class. The passenger list contained entries like ‘Miss Frances Day, and chauffeur’ and ‘The Rt Hon. Lord Inverclyde, and manservant’. In Tourist we dressed for dinner, though this was not our usual custom. Occasionally I slipped along into First, until the entry points were blocked. The voyage was quite uneventful; no stowaways, no icebergs. I made other crossings, notably on German and Italian liners, often returning near-broke and compelled to freelance furiously, not to mention sub-editing football reports on Saturday nights. Those well-fed journeys could be dismayingly dull; possibly the people in Third had more fun. Even Alan Bennett might have been hard put to knock a diary out of life on an ocean greyhound, though I like to picture him as the sole first-class passenger – as occasionally happened on the less popular lines – with a restaurant, a film show and a lifeboat all to himself.

E.S. Turner
Richmond, Surrey

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