The Cruel Sea:
German Airships, Part One

The world of our Second Great War alternative-history setting is very much like our own, yet different (that’s why it’s called an alternative history). In late 1916, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson successfully negotiated an end to the First World War (in our history, he tried but failed, and the war continued for two more years).

And so the great empires of Eastern Europe survived: Imperial Germany, Austria-Hungary, Tsarist Russia and Ottoman Turkey. Without the crushing indemnities of the peace treaties imposed at Versailles, Brest-Litovsk, Saint-Germain and Sevres, the world economy recovers far faster than in our own history, without a terrible Great Depression (only a mild one). Millions of soldiers and civilians survive who would otherwise have died. And so do the airships.

LZ10 Schwaben, the world’s first passenger-carrying aircraft.

Before the First World War, the Luftsciffbau Zeppelin firm’s subsidiary DELAG (Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-Aktiengesellschaft) became the world’s first commercial airline, initially operating airships on pleasure cruises from various German cities. DELAG began taking on paying customers in 1910, and a year later started taking passengers between German cities. When the coming of war in August 1914 brought an end to commercial flights, DELAG had carried more than 34,000 passengers on more than 1,500 flights. All three of DELAG’s airships were requisitioned by the German Army; none of them survived the conflict.

Hugo Eckener, one of the early airship pilots, took over direction of the Zeppelin firm after its founder, Ferdinand Graf Zeppelin, died in 1917. After the war he made re-establishment of commercial airship traffic his personal crusade. DELAG tried to re-establish service with two small, new airships named Bodensee and Nordstern. Both were seized by the victorious Allies, with Bodensee going to Italy and Nordstern to France. Before being taken, Bodensee had made regular commercial flights between her home base in Friedrichshaven in far south-western Germany and Berlin. When the German Navy’s airship crews wrecked their craft rather than hand them over to the enemy, the Allied Control Commission took the commercial airships in partial compensation.

LZ120 Bodensee in Italian service as Esperia.

The Treaty of Versailles forbade the development of German military airships, and did not allow civilian ownership, either – the Zeppelin firm built the two small airships, and DELAG operated them, during the years between the end of the war and final ratification of the peace treaty. Eckener began production of aluminum cookware to keep his firm afloat while seeking ways around the treaty’s prohibitions. In 1924 he secured an order from the U.S. Navy for a modern zeppelin, and in 1926 his ceaseless lobbying finally resulted in a relaxation of the airship ban in the Treaty of Locarno. That allowed construction of the new LZ127 Graf Zeppelin, which became a very successful commercial airship. But Eckener never managed to build the fleets of zeppelin airliners of which he dreamed, and the handful of airships operated by the company remained oddities, flying only a handful of routes to North and South America, though memorable oddities for those fortunate enough to experience flight aboard them, or even spot them in the distance.

In the world of the Second Great War, things are vastly different. Nothing in the peace settlement forbids airship operation or development, or even mentions them. And with the war having ended, DELAG would have the opportunity to purchase both surplus zeppelins from the Army and Navy and new airships still under construction at the Zeppelin works but incomplete. Eckener would also be able to draw on a large pool of experienced airshipmen now seeking new employment.

LZ130 Graf Zeppelin II.

With the aid of a hefty government grant to help defer the financial shock of lost military orders, DELAG and its parent company converted the military zeppelins into commercial airships, replacing their bomb bays with passenger cabins and other amenities. By late 1917 more than two dozen ships were in service, on routes connecting the major cities of the German and Austrian empires and steadily branching out to the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Poland and Constantinople.

The airships offered luxury service, the equivalent of an airliner of our world carrying only first-class seats. In the first years of post-war recovery DELAG continued to receive government subsidies, both from the Imperial government and from cities wishing the prestige of regular service. By the middle of the 1920’s DELAG began to see profits, and invest in huge new airships specifically built for passenger service. These had the range to cover routes to Brazil and the United States, as well as a popular pilgrimage route to Jerusalem in Ottoman-ruled Palestine and long-distance routes to German colonies in East Africa and, by 1930, the South Pacific.

The burgeoning commercial relationship between Germany and the United States also gave DELAG access to supplies of helium as an alternative, non-flammable lifting gas. The company began using American-supplied helium by the mid-1920’s, which slightly reduced the airship’s lifting capacity but removed the threat of a hydrogen explosion and potential passengers’ fear of a fiery death.

LZ127 Graf Zeppelin at Lakehurst, New Jersey.

The U.S. Navy maintained firm control of American helium production, extracting it from natural gas found in the Permian Basin of Texas. Even with cordial German-American relations DELAG and the German Navy stood at the mercy of a foreign power for their lifting gas. Hydrogen continued to be used for some flights despite the risk of fire, as some helium would be lost on every flight. Use of helium also limited the altitude to which an airship could fly, as the expensive and hard-to-replace gas could not be vented like cheap and plentiful hydrogen.

Note: In our reality, the United States Congress passed Helium Act of 1925 and Helium Control Act of 1927 to forbid export of the gas even to friendly nations. The German airship Hindenburg therefore used hydrogen as its lifting gas, and exploded spectacularly in 1937.

The future of German airship development, both civil and military, would be secured in 1929 when a team of German geologists discovered a massive reserve of helium-rich gas under the Rukwa Basin in the south-western corner of German East Africa. Where the Americans extracted helium from natural gas with a helium content of under one percent, the gas found in the Rukwa Basin came from a massive bubble of volcanic origin with a helium content of 10 percent. Not only was this a much richer source of helium, the lighter-than-air gas was much easier to extract and purity.

Note: This is a thing that really happened, though it took place much later in our own reality. In the 1950s, British geologists noted the high concentration of helium in the gas seeping out of the ground in the Rukwa Basin. That oddity was noted and filed away until 2013, when a pair of Australian geologists on holiday in Tanzania dusted off the old reports and discovered the geological oddity. The Rukwa fields may contain as much as 100 billion cubic feet of helium, compared to the 2019 world output of 6 billion cubic feet per year.

Heavily-polluted Lake Rukwa is already drying up, even before helium drilling begins.

A plentiful, secure supply of helium from the Rukwa fields completely changed the outlook for lighter-than-air flight. New, ever-larger ships appeared in both civil and military versions, and lightweight cargo became a profit center as well. Zeppelin and DELAG’s close connections to the Imperial government and the Navy assured it of monopoly-level access to helium supplies. The fleet grew, and service spread across the United States and even to Japan and Germany’s remote Pacific colonies. France, Italy and Russia banned DELAG from their skies, while Britain and the Dominions put up enough tax and other informal barriers to make routes there unprofitable.

On the eve of the Second Great War, the airship dominated trans-Atlantic commercial passenger travel. As the business expanded, ticket prices dropped, and even middle-class passengers could – on occasion – afford to fly what were truly the friendly skies. And then came war.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold fears ocean waves.