Gas-Bags

E.S. Turner

  • Dr Eckener’s Dream Machine: The Historic Saga of the Round-the-World Zeppelin by Douglas Botting
    HarperCollins, 356 pp, £17.99, September 2001, ISBN 0 00 257191 9

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.