By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
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.
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
Dixmude over her French base.
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.
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
Dixmude in her hangar, where
she spent most of her short existence.
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
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.
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
Mediterranée arrives at
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.
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
here to pre-order U.S. Navy Plan Gold!