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Tactics in
Fading Legions




France’s Naval Airship
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
March 2006

Like their Italian rivals, the French army and navy each operated a small number of semi-rigid airships immediately before the First World War. During the course of the war the French Navy comiisioned a total of 37 small semi-rigids, using them mostly for anti-submarine duty and convoy escort in coastal zones.

The most famous French airship wasn’t of French origin at all, but a German zeppelin seized at the end of the First World War. Dixmude, as she was re-named, plays a role in our upcoming Great War at Sea: U.S. Navy Plan Gold.

Dixmude over her French base.

At the end of the Great War, the Treaty of Versailles demanded that Germany hand over her fleet of airships, to be divided between the victorious Allies. Inspired by the scuttling of the High Seas Fleet in June 1919, vindictive German airshipmen wrecked most of the machines, leaving only 11 intact airships for their enemies. France received three of these: the commercial zeppelin Nordstern (which had never been a military asset), the new naval airship L.72 and the German Army’s de-commissioned LZ.113.

Nordstern, re-named Mediterranée, undertook a number of propaganda flights and trained some French naval airship crews. The French Army took over LZ.113, but never flew the obsolete airship. She was subjected to ground testing with an eye toward improving Dixmude and gaining knowledge for a future series of French-built rigid airships.

Under German colors, L.72 never flew a mission. She was scheduled for delivery in October 1918, but an Admiralty conference in September had directed design revisions. The airship would be lengthened to accomodate one more gas cell and modified to operate on one fewer engine. These changes would give her a ceiling of over 26,000 feet.

Reconstruction began at the Zeppelin Works in Friedrichshafen, and L.72 was ready for trials on 9 November when the revolutionary Sailor’s Council ordered all airships deflated and hung up in their sheds (German airships were usually kept inflated at all times, so that positive gas pressure would maintain the purity oftheir hydrogen and avoid explosions). The Allied Armistice Commission found her in good condition during a December inspection. During the Versailles negotiations the German team argued that, as the Navy had not accepted her she remained the private property of the Zeppelin Company, but this gambit predicatably failed.

Unlike most other former German airships, L.72 was handed over in what the French described as “perfect condition” on 9 July 1920. On the 13th the French Navy christened her Dixmude, in honor of the heroic stand by the French Navy’s Fusiliers Marins brigade at the Belgian village of that name in October 1914.

Dixmude in her hangar, where she spent most of her short existence.

And then, after a slow, careful flight to Maubeuge and on to the French airship base at Cuers-Pierrefeu by way of Paris, Dixmude did . . . nothing. Her new commander, Lt. Cdr. Jean du Plessis de Grenédan, wrote operator’s manuals for all the ship’s stations. Slowly, workers made modifications and painted her in French colors. They rebuilt her frame to French standards and, probably fearing undetected sabotage, removed her gas bags but could not manufacture acceptable replacements. Embarrassed, the naval staff recommended scrapping the airship, but Du Plessis convinced the Navy to buy new gas bags from the Zeppelin Works. The German firm, having been ordered destroyed at French insistence, took their time delivering the gear.

Du Plessis, then 28 years old, was the French Navy’s most enthusiastic advocate of rigid airships. As an officer on the armored cruiser Bruix, he had witnessed the bombing of Salonika by a German zeppelin. As a gunnery spotter during the Dardanelles operation, he had proposed that naval rigid airships would greatly increase the effectiveness of shore bombardments. Able to operate independently of the fleet, they would be much less vulnerable than a moored balloon and able to attack targets themselves.

His eagerness led to an assignment to train as a dirigible pilot, learning aboard one of the French Navy’s three larger semi-rigid airships, the Astra-Torres. Afterwards, Du Plessis was made the first commandant of the new airship base at Cuers-Pierrefeu near the Mediterranean coast. When Germany asked for an armistice, Du Plessis urged his superiors to make sure France obtained both complete airships and technological data. His suggestion fell on receptive ears, and he was appointed as one of the French representatives to the Allied Disarmament Commission to make sure France obtained the pick of the zeppelin fleet. L.72 was his choice, and when he asked to command her he once again got his way.

Mediterranée arrives at Cuers-Pierrefeu.

In 1922 the French brought Mediterranée to Cuers-Pierrefeu so that Du Plessis could train his crewmen. But not until June 1923 did Dixmude receive her new gas bags, and installation was not complete for another month as the angry Germans, facing unemployment as soon as the order was complete, did their best to slow the work. Impatient to get his craft into full commission, Du Plessis began an aggressive series of training flights — flying along the southern coast of France in early August, and then to Corsica. In September Dixmude flew to Algeria, including a mission deep into the Sahara, and in October made a propaganda flight across eastern France. In November she flew through stormy weather to Tunisia.

For December, DuPlessis planned a very ambitious training schedule. Dixmude would transit the Mediterranean again, conduct nighttime training over the Tunisian desert (where rapid cooling presented problems for even highly experienced crews) and on her return exercise for the first time with the fleet. Dixmude completed her desert training successfully, handling temperature drops much better than unmodified German airships had done during the Great War, and the airship made her way back toward France. Du Plessis had led a charmed career, meeting remarkable bureaucratic success for a young officer with radical ideas. But just off the coast of Sicily, his luck ran out. A thurderstorm blew up and apparently Dixmude was struck by lightning. She exploded, killing all aboard.

Sample drawing from Du Plessis’ manuals for Dixmude’s crew.

DuPlessis’ grand visions died with him. The program of French-built dirigibles was cancelled. Mediterranée remained in service until 1926, when she was broken up. No replacements were ever seriously considered, and Dixmude became a tragic footnote to the history of French naval aviation.

Great War at Sea: U.S. Navy Plan Gold includes Dixmude, allowing the French player to attempt to carry out Du Plessis’ visions of long-range reconnaissance. Dixmude never crossed the Atlantic but was probably capable of doing so: her near-sister LZ.126, built by the Zeppelin Works for the U.S. Navy and christened Los Angeles, made much longer flights.

Click here to pre-order U.S. Navy Plan Gold!