The Kaiser's Navy:
Airships of Wilhelm's World

By James Stear
September 2014

One of the fascinating questions the world of Second World War at Sea: The Kaiser’s Navy allows us to explore is the fate of the airship. In our timeline, they struggle through the 1920’s, punctuated by a series of spectacular disasters (Shenandoah, R.101, Akron, Macon and finally Hindenburg), and disappear by the end of the 1930’s. But in the Kaiser’s timeline, we can imagine further refinement of the zeppelin, with Peter Strasser surviving as a vocal advocate in a Germany not working under the crushing weight of Treaty of Versailles indemnities. More cordial relations with the United States eventually allow the use of helium as a lifting gas.

A good accounting of the Imperial Navy’s experience with large rigid airships can be found in the book Great War at Sea: Zeppelins. If we however assume the war ends by 1917, Peter Strasser, named Führer der Luftschiffe by Imperial decree at the end of November 1916, gains several decades of life and continues to advance the airship as a weapon of war. The initial path of development might take the airship as a hydrogen-lifted high-altitude craft, seeking to perfect operations in the thin atmosphere above 20,000 and later 30,000 feet, which initially prove challenging to “aeroplane” operations.

However with the further development of airships as a passenger-carrying craft, where they will continue to out-distance fixed-wing aircraft for many years in terms of range and load capacity, the issue of hydrogen safety may come to the forefront. Strasser well remembers the deaths of several of his best commanders at the hands of flimsy British aircraft, with incendiary bullets setting the lifting gas aflame and leading to a horrific fireball engulfing all aboard. Perhaps an accident or two finally pushes a shift, or perhaps military airship advocates begin to believe fixed-wing aircraft can also be coaxed to high altitudes, especially as engine technology improves.

Ultra-high altitude operations (40,000+ ft) will prove extremely difficult with zeppelins, not only from the need to vent lifting gas, but also as the winds aloft will often prevent any airship from making significant headway against them, and design of airships for ground speeds above 50 knots in the face of such winds means more weight for engines and tougher structure. Plus the question of what can be meaningfully accomplished at such altitudes.

So, for this supplement, we assume the use of airships has followed the path of the US Navy, switching to helium for a lifting gas (from a friendly United States, or at least one willing to trade in the rare commodity for suitable compensation) and keeping most airship operations to low altitude (to avoid the necessity of venting the precious gas, as the cells can only accommodate limited expansion without bursting as the airship flies higher). Another key concept is the realization that the airship itself is not the best scouting tool, but rather as a carrier of scout and attack aircraft along the lines of the USS Akron and Macon and the never-built Burgess ZRCV.

The Kaiser’s Navy contains two helium-lifted “flying carriers,” LZ140 Peter Strasser and LZ 142 Graf Zeppelin II. LZ140 is assumed to be a 9.5MM cu ft He luftschiff, capable of carrying some 55,000 lbs of aircraft, while LZ142 is a 12MM cu ft He monster, capable of lifting some 90,000 lbs of aircraft in addition to stores. For size comparison, the LZ129 Hindenburg from our timeline had a gas volume of 7MM cu ft. Outside of Hugo Eckener’s thriving civilian passenger airship service, the German Naval Airship Service is the primary operator of the craft, as the Imperial Army has proceeded with aircraft development.

The carrier zeppelins of the Imperial German Naval Airship Service are provided with “Z” versions of common German aircraft of the time, in this case, the Bf109 fighter and the Ju87 scout/bomber. When in airship service, these airplanes are assumed to be lightened as much as possible, and may have landing gear removed while on the airship, to save additional weight and provide capacity for extended fuel, in the same manner as the Sparrowhawk fighters of Akron and Macon. These airships may also be outfitted as bombers in a scenario, however doing so means they are not equipped with the trapeze and hanger facilities required for ZRCV operations.

As an additional option, players are given the choice of operating the airships with hydrogen as a lifting gas. This gives some additional payload capacity (in practice, a hydrogen-filled airship could generally carry approximately 10% more load than a helium airship, due to the additional lifting power of hydrogen plus the fact the gas cells could be filled to capacity and any excess freely vented, as hydrogen is cheap), and allows some altitude flexibility.

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