Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Big Three of Germany's Zeppelin Program

This photo shows the three most important contributors to Germany's military and commercial zeppelin efforts.

The story of the father of the German airship, Ferdinand Adolf August Heinrich Graf von Zeppelin (center), is well known.  Ferdinand von Zeppelin entered the Prussian army in 1858. Zeppelin went to the United States in 1863 to work as a military observer for the Union Army in the American Civil War and later explored the headwaters of the Mississippi River, making his first balloon flight while he was in Minnesota.

He served in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, and retired in 1891 with the rank of brigadier general. Afterward, the count spent nearly a decade developing the dirigible. The first of many rigid dirigibles, called zeppelins in his honor, was completed in 1900. He made the first directed flight on 2 July 1900. In 1910, a zeppelin provided the first commercial air service for passengers. The military potential for observation and bombing was clear, and both the German army and navy embraced it for wartime use.  Zeppelin died of pneumonia during the war on 8 March 1917 at the age of 78.

Captain Peter Strasser (right) was the dynamic leader of Germany's emergent Naval Airship Division. He said the airships were "a certain means of victoriously ending the war." His attacks on England continued virtually unchallenged into 1916, but eventually countermeasures made the zeppelin attacks unfeasible.

He subsequently died while aboard the height-climber L-70 when it was shot down over the English Channel on 5 August 1918. The event marked the end of the airship as a strategic bomber. Despite the zeppelins' mixed success as strategic bombing platforms, their attacks on cities left an indelible impression on their opponents. They were banned, and surviving airships were required to be surrendered under the Treaty of Versailles.

Hugo Eckener (left), an early supporter of Count Zeppelin and important technical contributor, would go on to lead Germany's postwar airship program. Though he had remained a civilian during World War I, Eckener was deeply involved in Germany’s use of zeppelins during the war.  Eckener was the senior advisor to the German navy’s airship chief, Peter Strasser, and as director of airship training for the German navy, Eckener trained more than 50 flight crews, comprising more than 1,000 men.  

Although the Zeppelin company was almost out of business after the war, Eckener spotted an opportunity due to the reparations laid on Germany. Eckener convinced the Allies to allow the Zeppelin Company to build a new ship, LZ-126, to be delivered to the Americans as USS Los Angeles in partial satisfaction of these reparation obligations. The transatlantic flight of LZ-126 from Germany to America was an aviation triumph, and Eckener, and his crew were given a ticker-tape parade up Broadway in New York City and greeted at the White House by U.S. President Calvin Coolidge.

The construction of LZ-126 kept the Zeppelin Company alive, maintaining not only its plant and equipment, but also its workforce of its highly skilled employees. The construction and operation of LZ-126 also provided Eckener and his colleagues with the knowledge and experience they would use to build Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg. The crash of the Hindenburg and the death of 36 people at Lakehurst, New Jersey, however, would end Eckner's dream of civilian air travel by airship.


  1. Interesting plot to preserve German powered flight program. The Hindenburg disaster ended a dream but planted seeds for trans Atlantic flight by aircraft.

  2. Kapt. Strasser inexplicably entered British airspace in L-70 at 16,000, not the maximum altitude of 20,000 ft. This gave time for Cadbury's DH-4 to make the climb and shoot it down.