Tropic of Capricorn:
Brazilian Airships

In our Second Great War alternative-history setting, Wilson’s Peace is sundered by renewed war in 1940. The new conflict spreads around the globe including South America, as seen in our Second Great War at Sea: Tropic of Capricorn.

Economic ties between Argentina and Italy, and also between Brazil and Germany, help to drag them into the world-wide conflict. Each of the South American powers had such ties in our reality; in the alternative history these are much stronger, particularly the tie between Brazil and Imperial Germany. Thanks to that relationship, Brazil operates new, modern zeppelins built in Germany and crewed in part by Germans on loan to the Brazilian Navy.

In our reality, the Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-Aktiengesellschaft (DELAG) operated passenger and freight service between Frankfurt, Germany and Recife in Brazil after a proposal for service between Seville, Spain and Buenos Aires, Argentina, fell apart. Regular flights to Recife began in 1932. In 1936 DELAG extended the route to Rio de Janeiro. The Brazilian government and DELAG built Zeppelin hangars and handling facilities in both Brazilian cities as a joint venture, and in 1932 DELAG assigned the famous airship Graf Zeppelin to the route.

Graf Zeppelin over Rio de Janeiro.

The South American route became DELAG’s primary passenger service; service to the United States, using the new Hindenburg, began in 1936 with seventeen scheduled flights. Graf Zeppelin made 64 round trips between Brazil and Germany between 1932 and 1937; the larger Hindenburg made eight in 1936 and one in 1937. Hindenburg saw more service on the trans-Atlantic run, making 19 trips to the United States in all; Graf Zeppelin was considered too slow for this route.

One-way airfare to Brazil cost 1,500 Reichsmarks in 1937, equivalent to just over US $11,000 at the end of 2017. That limited passengers to the super-rich, the very famous and the criminal elite, but DELAG had no problem filling Graf Zeppelin’s two dozen slots. Despite that revenue, the airship would have operated at a loss without its lucrative airmail contracts. The transit took four days, but was still enormously faster than the fleetest steamship.

Airship flight stood at the peak of 1930’s conspicuous consumption; the enormous price tag was a feature to DELAG’s customers, not a drawback. Flying on an airship proved one’s place at the very peak of the global elite, and not coincidentally emphasized the power and modernity of the new German Reich. Likewise, that Brazil received the airships, even more often than the United States, helped cement its place as the country of the future, a place worthy of investment.

Built for comfort, the airships transported their passengers in maximum luxury – even, with a massive load of hydrogen floating above the passenger cabin, a pressurized smoking room connected to the rest of the ship by a double airlock. Once the airship reached the Brazilian coast, it dropped to 1,000 feet to allow the passengers to gaze on the coastline, jungle and cities.

Hindenburg enters her hangar at Santa Cruz, north of Rio. The hangar still exists.

On 6 May 1937, Hindenburg exploded while landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey. A day later, the German Air Ministry ordered Graf Zeppelin taken out of service, and all commercial flights were cancelled. The short history of commercial airship flight had ended.

While some popular histories claim that the Hindenburg explosion ended the age of the airship, that’s not exactly true. The German Air Ministry forbade further commercial flights unless a supply of inert helium could be obtained, but allowed flights for other purposes. Alarmed by the Hindenburg explosion, President Franklin Roosevelt approved the export of helium to Germany in late 1937, but Interior Secretary Harold Ickes scuttled the project, using his authority to insist that helium counted as an “implement of war.”

Hindenburg’s sister ship, Graf Zeppelin 2 (with an Arabic number rather than a Latin II), took to the skies in September 1938 and undertook 30 flights for testing, propaganda and electronic warfare purposes before her decommissioning in late August 1939, just before the German invasion of Poland. The Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei (the public-private successor to DELAG) sought to mothball her for post-war re-commissioning, but the Air Ministry ordered her scrapped in February 1940 along with the original, retired Graf Zeppelin and the incomplete, unnamed LZ131, an enlarged version of the Hindenburg class.

That was reality. In the Second Great War setting, the airship is much more important both economically and militarily, and fixed-wing flight much less well-developed than in the world we know. With more, bigger and more advanced airships in service, costs would have dropped to where the merely rich could afford a ticket.

The big airships also have military applications, in a world where high-performance fighter planes are not yet common. In Tropic of Capricorn, Brazil operates two large, new German-built airships, sisters to the Imperial Naval Airship Service’s Graf Zeppelin II (with a Roman numeral). They’re even larger than the Graf Zeppelin 2 of our reality, about 12 million cubic feet with the most sophisticated engines and technology available to the world’s leader in airship construction.

Ordered before the war, the two airships arrive shortly after it commences. Neither Brazil nor Argentina has an aircraft carrier, so for the first several months of their activities they are essentially invulnerable to enemy air defenses as long as they stay clear of the handful of short-range Argentine short-based biplane fighters.

Like their German sisters (seen in the upcoming massive expansion set, The Cruel Sea), they have an internal hangar and trapeze recovery system, allowing them to operate about a dozen aircraft (in game terms, two steps). While the Americans perfected this system in our reality with their flying aircraft carriers Akron and Macon, Hindenburg also conducted trapeze experiments with a thought toward mounting a small plane to deliver airmail even faster.

The Brazilian airships’ small air groups can be Arado Ar.65 biplane fighters or Heinkel He.50 biplane dive-bombers (the original “Stuka”); the player gets to choose which planes to put aboard. The proto-Stukas don’t have the punch of their big, ugly namesakes known to our branch of reality, but they do have a much greater range than the fighters which makes them more useful for air search missions.

They also give the Brazilians a (very) limited long-range strike capability that Argentina’s puny airships can’t match. The Brazilians can dominate the skies from their flying aircraft carriers, until the British arrive with their real aircraft carriers.

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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.