The Cruel Sea:
German Airships, Part Two

When I sketched out the alternative-history story line for our Second Great War story arc, I didn’t want the games within it to be just like our historical games from Second World War at Sea, except with different-colored pieces. Aircraft, I decided, would be less developed than those of our own 1940. That would give battleships a greater role at sea, which I knew players would like, and it would open the way for airships to dominate the skies.

And so they do, with Germany leading the way thanks to her substantial lead in airship technology. In our Second Great War story, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson negotiated an end to the First World War in late 1916, leaving Germany free to continue developing airship technology. Commercial airship service soon binds together the German Empire and its trading partners, but military development proceeds apace as well.

In our real actual history, an Imperial decree named Naval Airship Division commander Peter Strasser Führer der Luftschiffe at the end of November 1916. That separated the airships from control of the High Seas Fleet. The fleet commander, Reinhard Scheer, wanted to use them for reconnaissance, anti-submarine patrols, mine-hunting and other naval missions while Strasser pushed for a strategic role bombing English, French and Belgian targets.

A zeppelin crew on their way home from a mission.

Strategic bombing stepped up under Strasser’s command, and his service expanded with new deliveries of airships and the consolidation of the Army’s airship branch into that of the Navy in August 1917. Strasser continued his practice of leading from the front; he had personally tested the new zeppelin spy basket, a small device carrying a single man that was lowered from an airship inside a cloud bank into clear air. And he participated personally in at least one zeppelin bombing mission every month. The latter practice led to his death in August 1918 when a British fighter plane shot down the zeppelin L 70 on the last zeppelin bombing mission over England.

Strasser was 42 when he died. Had Wilson’s attempt to broker a peace settlement succeeded, he would have survived the war to become a vocal advocate for the German Naval Airship Division. When war returned in 1940 he would be 64 and still in charge of a much larger establishment than he had led in the first conflict.

In our alternative history, Strasser has proven a powerful, vocal advocate for the airship as a weapon of war and spearheaded continued development. In the years just after the First Great War ended, the Naval Airship Division sold off most of its airships to the DELAG civilian airline and cancelled orders for new craft, with these completing as civilian airliners. The Navy retained a dozen airships on its peacetime footing, with the legal right to requisition the civilian airships and re-convert them to military use.

Experiments with torpedoes dropped by zeppelins began as early as 1914 on Lake Constance (the Bodensee), but that tactic brought the airship within easy range of anti-aircraft guns. But an airship could greatly extend its capabilities by operating attached fixed-wing aircraft. Initial tests, with an airplane attached to the underside of the zeppelin, began in 1917. By the early 1920’s, aircraft had been successfully recovered as well.

Note: These experiments did occur, but were carried out by British and American rather than German airships.

While Strasser continued to see the airship as a decisive strategic weapon, the High Seas Fleet dominated the annual funding conflict and the German Naval Airship Division had to tend to its naval missions to maintain the flow of Marks. Strasser realized that his airships could be more than fleet auxiliaries, and serve as airborne command and control centers. Airships received powerful radio transmitters, and their receivers scanned the airwaves for enemy transmissions.

German East Africa became vital to the German airship program.

The discovery of plentiful helium supplies in German East Africa’s Rukwa Basin changed the outlook for Germany’s military airships as profoundly as it did that of the civilian craft. Helium provides slightly less lift than hydrogen (about 8 percent less), and it’s more difficult to obtain (the extraction process is complicated, while hydrogen – though usually obtained from coal or natural gas – can be obtained from water through electrolysis). But it won’t explode, even when it encounters explosive bullets and cannon shells.

With helium providing lift, the long-held fantasy of a flying aircraft carrier could become reality, without fear of the sparks, fire and small explosions endemic to the operation of combustion engines in an enclosed space. A large enough airship could contain a hangar, service aircraft there, and launch and recover them.

Karl Lanz, one of the founders of the airship construction firm Schütte-Lanz Luftschiffsbau, drafted plans for a flying aircraft carrier including an internal hangar. Schütte-Lanz had been squeezed out of the lucrative domestic German airship market by the Zeppelin firm and shifted to design work for foreign customers, chiefly in the United States. Strasser’s recommendation of the rival firm’s work stunned Zeppelin’s complacent leadership, which moved quickly to at least secure the construction contracts for the new class of airship.

Note: In the real world, Lanz continued to work on airship designs after the war and submitted one of them for the proposed American flying carriers that became the Akron and Macon, but his pitch was not chosen.

The ability to launch and recover aircraft only strengthened Strasser’s view of the airship’s strategic role. Even filled with non-explosive helium, airships were vulnerable to enemy air defenses and they were forced to strike at night from high altitude. While they could not carry many aircraft, or a great deal of ordnance, aircraft-carrying zeppelins could strike targets far beyond the range of conventional aircraft.

They could also vastly extend the scouting capabilities of an airship, and its effectiveness as an anti-submarine warfare platform. The High Seas Fleet command continued to insist that the airships’ first responsibility was to assist the fleet, not to engage in strategic warfare, and after bitter bureaucratic warfare Strasser finally hit on an effective counter to their arguments: he would agree to dedicate half of the Naval Airship Division’s ships to High Seas Fleet missions, if the admirals supported funding to double the size of his service.

By 1940, Strasser leads a politically powerful service branch only nominally under control of the Imperial Navy, including not only two dozen flying aircraft carriers but also transport ships requisitioned from the civilian sector. In a successful bureaucratic coup, Strasser brought the fixed-wing squadrons assigned to the flying carriers under his wartime control as well. A brigade of tough, highly trained Airship Marines also operates with the Airship Division, intended for deep penetration missions well behind enemy lines.

From left, Hugo Eckener, Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin, Peter Strasser.

Naval Airship bases have been constructed not only in Germany, but in Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Svalbard in the North Atlantic and Arctic, and in the German colonies of East, West and South-West Africa as well as New Guinea and Saipan. The airships not only give the fleet a wealth of information unavailable to their rivals, they assure that communications between Germany and the United States will not be interrupted even after Britain enters to 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.