The Destruction and Salvage of Zeppelin L70

The Destruction and Salvage of Zeppelin L70

22 Dec 23
Posted by: Dr Douglas H Robinson
Message from the Editor

Originally published in 1963 [51/4, p. 430] as a reprint from Cross & Cockade magazine, the author provided a fascinating retelling of the final flight of Peter Strasser, the iconoclastic chief of Imperial Germany’s Naval Airships, who refused to recognize that by August 1918 British air defences had doomed the Zeppelins to military obsolescence. A 30 minute read.

Three months before the Armistice, on August 5th 1918, came the last air attack on England of World War I. Three months after the last airplane raid on the island kingdom there came the Zeppelins of the German Naval Airship Division, in a dramatic finale worthy of the apocalyptic last year of the war, which saw the Kaiserschlacht of March 21st, the crushing of the last drive on Paris at the Second Battle of the Marne, and the British riposte before Amiens on August 8th which a shaken Ludendorff labelled “the black day of the German Army.” The airships, too, had suffered heavy losses. Five never came home from the ‘Silent Raid’ of October 19th, 1917, and five more were lost in the mysterious explosion and fire that destroyed the four hangars of the Ahlhorn base on January 5th, 1918. Two more were burned in the carrier strike on the Tondern sheds on July 19th. Thus, in this summer of disaster for the Central Powers, only a remnant could be mustered of the fleet of black-hued sky giants which had terrorized England by night in the earlier years of the war.

Leading the squadron, however, was the last word in high-altitude bombers – L70, the first of a new class, superior in size, speed and carrying power to the standard five-engine ‘height-climber’ Zeppelins introduced in August 1917. The ‘Silent Raid’ of October 19th 1917, in which nearly half the participants had been lost in a high-altitude gale that had driven them helplessly over France, had shown the need for a larger airship with both high speed and high ceiling. On December 10th 1917, the German Admiralty had proposed the construction of a “lengthened experimental ship with seven propellers.” Only after the Leader of Airships, Fregattenkapitan Peter Strasser, had pressured his superiors with his customary forthrightness did the Admiralty order the construction of four lengthened Zeppelins of about 2,190,000 cubic foot capacity with a maximum speed estimated at 78 miles per hour, the first to be ready about June 1st 1918. Strasser wrote on April 22nd to the Naval Staff that “the four new ships to be delivered, in order to be capable of reaching the great altitudes over the North Sea and England which are now required to carry out their missions, will at my insistence be high-climbing seven-engined ships of great speed.”

Completed in less than three months, L70 made her first trial flight at Friedrichshafen on July 1st 1918. The long, slender hull, blunt-nosed and finely-tapered aft, was fundamentally that of the preceding ‘height-climber’ class with an added 15-meter gas cell amidships. Length over all was 693 feet 11 inches, diameter 78 feet, 5 inches, and when 100% inflated, her 16 gas cells, made of lightweight silk lined with gold beaters’ skin, contained 2,195,800 cubic feet of inflammable hydrogen. Her useful load under standard conditions totalled 97,130 pounds-about 50 tons-of ballast, gasoline, oil, crew and bombs, and of the latter it was intended she should carry from 6,600 pounds in raids on London, to over 10,500 pounds in lower-level attacks on the industrial Midlands.

The most striking improvement was the marked increase in engine power. Where earlier Zeppelins had carried only five engines, the high-speed L70 was fitted with seven of the 245 hp super-compressed and over-dimensioned Maybach MB IVa “altitude motors,” giving her a total of 1,715 hp. The installation of one engine abaft the control car, and two in a big centre-line rear gondola, was more or less conventional, but the four wing gondolas hung in pairs amidships were of a novel type, in which the Zeppelin Company attained an irreducible minimum in head resistance and weight. Containing a six-cylinder in-line motor which itself measured 6 feet 2 inches over all, the new gondola was only 12 feet 5 inches long, 5 feet 9 inches in height, and 4 feet in width. A machinist who manned one of these gondolas in a sister ship, L71, insisted that there was room to sit down under the small window, but admitted it was impossible to stand upright. Whereas the radiators were previously located in the gondola roofs, and raised and lowered by a winch, streamlining was now improved by placing them inside the bow of the car. Hemispherical shutters, which at the same time formed the nose of the gondola, opened or closed to vary the air flow. The installation nearly halved the resistance that the radiators opposed to the air, but the mechanic, according to British post-war investigators, “was not sufficiently protected from draught and after long flights complained of rheumatism.” To save the weight of the reduction gears previously fitted, these were omitted in the side gondolas and the engines drove high-speed propellers only 10 feet 8 inches in diameter. Again, to save weight, short exhaust stacks were installed in place of heavier units equipped with mufflers and baffles. Too late it was discovered that the new exhausts spewed sparks and flame “like a firespitting threshing machine,” making the ship visible for great distances at night.

L70 embodied other improvements: gas cells were further lightened by being made of silk instead of cotton. The fins were of the thick section cantilever structure first tried in L65, which eliminated most of the external bracing wires. And port and starboard in the control car were mounted a pair of Becker 20 mm cannon – urgently sought by Strasser as they outranged the rifle-calibre machine guns of enemy planes, whose incendiary bullets so menaced the hydrogen-filled Zeppelins. With habitability, comfort, and even concealment sacrificed for high speed, high ceiling was the only defence for the hunted giants against their winged enemies – L70 on her trials reached 19,700 feet statically, and 23,000 feet dynamically with an unspecified load. At these heights fur-lined flight clothing and liquid oxygen were the rule. Maximum trial speed was 81 mph, making her the fastest airship built up to that time.

The command of this fabulous ship went, not to one of the veterans of the air war over England, but to a favourite of Strasser’s, Kapitanleutnant Johann von Lossnitzer. Bold but inexperienced, von Lossnitzer had made only eight ‘war flights’ in the quiet Baltic theatre as CO of the obsolete LZ120, and two reconnaissances in the North Sea early in 1918 in the school ship L41. Strasser’s decision was predictable: he had always tended to be impressed by titles of nobility more than by the man bearing them.

Leaving the North Sea for Friedrichshafen on May 21st, von Lossnitzer put L70 in commission on July 8th, 1918, and brought her to Nordholz. Cross winds prevented housing her in her assigned berth in the 853-foot ‘Nordstern’ hangar, and L70 spent the night in the 656-foot revolving shed with 40 feet of her tail sticking out in the open. Next morning she was walked to her proper berth. With July a month of bad weather, there were no flights until August 1st, when L70 surprised the Harwich Force by a bold attempt to bomb them near the Dogger Bank South Lightship. The next flight was to be her last.

British opponents, contemplating the tragic outcome of the final Zeppelin raid, saw Strasser, knowing that the war was lost, embarking on a hopeless, suicidal search for death rather than survive the downfall and ruin of the Imperial government. Yet there is ample evidence that the Leader of Airships, hypnotized by the colossal dimensions of his weapon, blindly exaggerated its capabilities. Always Strasser had scorned the English defences. With no experience over England since the last raid on April 12th 1918, he was now out of touch with reality. To Admiral Starke, the head of the Aviation Department at the Admiralty, Strasser spoke of L70 as “the final type.” “He tried to convince me that the danger of aircraft to this ship was not great,” Starke recalled later. “Here I could not agree with him. I told him I did not feel L70’s performance was sufficient protection against attacking aircraft.”

With the moon being new on August 6th, and the weather improving, there was no surprise when Strasser issued a raid order on the morning of August 5th: “Attack in south or middle (London only at order of Leader of Airships). Bombs: Four of 300, four of 100, 12 of 50 kg. For L70, eight of 300, eight of 100, eight of 50 kg. Takeoff for L56, 3 pm, the others at 2 pm. Approach along the 54th parallel as far as four degrees east. Participants: L53, L56, L63, L65, L70. Blankenberghe wind measurements at 2, 5 pm, 5 am. Wind measurements from German Bight as required. Afternoon weather map will be wirelessed, night map will not. Preserve careful wireless discipline. Airship special wavelength. Leader of Airships aboard L70. Direction from Nordholz on Leader of Airships’ instructions. Leader of Airships.”

That Strasser, who often led raids in person, should have decided in advance to command the first attack in four months is not surprising. The attack order refutes the allegation in the fictional biography of Strasser that appeared in the Nazi period that he impulsively decided at the last moment to board L70 when she was already out on the field. However exaggerated his belief in von Lossnitzer’s capabilities. Strasser would hardly have permitted his favourite to make his first raid on England alone.

From Ahlhorn, where two giant sheds under construction had been rushed to completion after the January explosion, L63 ascended at 1:47 pm. L53 was the first to depart from the headquarters base at Nordholz at 1:55 pm, followed by L70 at 2:13 pm, and L65 at 2:37 pm. L56, taking off from Wittmundhaven to the west at 3:12 pm, joined up with the others over the sea. With von Lossnitzer, inexperienced, rash, in a hurry to make his reputation in the North Sea, was Strasser, the chief who did not believe L70 could be attacked by enemy aircraft. Neither would be a restraining influence on the other.

Weather conditions handicapped the raiders from the start. L65’s ballast sheet shows that the ground temperature at Nordholz was 75 degrees F., the humidity 85%, and the barometer read 29.77 inches. Never before had a raid been attempted with the barometer so low. Under standard atmospheric conditions L65 had a useful lift of 86,215 pounds. On this hot, humid afternoon the same ship could carry only 72,315 pounds. The combination of adverse factors would cost her hundreds of feet of precious altitude even when her commander had dropped most of his 47,187 pounds of water ballast.

Over the North Sea the airships, flying at 16,400 feet, found the familiar low cloud ceiling underneath. Fresh head winds had been expected at high altitudes, but in fact the westerly wind decreased as the Zeppelins climbed higher. Keeping close together, the Nordholz ships, by L65’s reckoning, placed themselves at 6:30 pm within 60 sea miles of the English coast, still in broad daylight. Because of the high air temperature – 11.3 degrees F. at 16,400 feet – Kapitanleutnant Walter Dose of L65 had not been able to reach a safe altitude despite release of 43,000 pounds of water ballast. After dropping 2,200 pounds of unfused bombs, his ship ascended to 17,700 feet. At 9 pm Strasser wirelessed final orders to his commanders which showed no doubts or misgivings about the outcome of the operation: “To all airships. Attack according to plan from Karl 727. Wind at 5,000 metres (16,400 feet) west-south-west 3 doms (13.5 miles per hour). Leader of Airships.” L70 had actually passed through Karl 727 some two hours before this signal was sent, and it is possible that Strasser and von Lossnitzer had been deceived by faulty radio bearings.

So it was not to be London after all. Strasser’s former comrades-in-arms believe that this message – the last word they ever received from their beloved chief – betrayed him to the enemy. In actual fact, L65 and L70, with the latter in the lead, has been seen as early as 8:10 pm east of the Leman Tail Lightship, 30 miles north-east of Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast. The lightship personnel considered that the Zeppelins were only 7,000 to 8,000 feet high – undoubtedly an under-estimate – and watched them pass slowly some ten miles to the north, climbing steadily. At 9:25 pm L53, behind the others and more to the south, passed about five miles north of the lightship. Dose and Prolss, in contrast to their visionary chief, were realists. Knowing the strength of the enemy defences they hesitated to follow the flagship – her short exhaust stacks spewing tell-tale showers of sparks – in her reckless progress into the still-lighted west.

Not without reason did these experienced commanders feel a thrill of nightmare horror at Strasser’s suicidal gamble with his own life and those of his 21 subordinates. As a British participant observed, he had “stirred up a veritable hornets’ nest.” The British had received no advance warning of the raid, as they often had done is previous years. Yet within 40 minutes of the lightship’s sighting of L65 and L70, the air station at Great Yarmouth on the Norfolk coast had gotten its first plane into the air. Half an hour later, 13 of its aircraft were aloft. Ten of them steered to look for the enemy inland, but three machines flew out to sea to intercept the Zeppelins before they should reach the coast. In the lead was the Airco-built De Haviland DH4 A 8032 powered by a 375 hp Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII engine, a magnificent combat aircraft credited with a speed at 16,500 feet of 122.5 miles per hour, and a service ceiling of 22,000 feet. The pilot was the squadron commander, Major Egbert Cadbury, whose incendiary bullets had set afire the Zeppelin L21 on November 28th, 1916. His observer, Captain Robert Leckie, had piloted the H12 flying boat that had shot down her sister, L22, on May 14th 1917. Britain was leading a pair of aces, back to back, against the German queen.

Cadbury had been listening to his wife singing at a charity concert when the unexpected news of the Zeppelins’ approach burst on him. Incredulous at first, his doubts were silenced when, through a break in the clouds, he saw the three raiders a good 40 miles to the north, silhouetted against a bright, clear twilight sky. The planes were ascending on a first-come, first-served basis, and Lieutenant R E Keys and Private A T Harman had already gotten away first at 8:55 pm in one of the station’s two DH4s. By a hair’s breadth Cadbury beat a competitor into the pilot’s seat of the second ‘4’. Believing that the Zeppelins’ appearance might herald a major operation by the German High Seas Fleet, Cadbury ordered the two 100 pound bombs under the wings to be left in place. Following him in his 9:05 pm takeoff came Captain C S Iron and Sergeant Wills, and Captain B S Jardine and Lieutenant E R Munday in lower-powered DH9s. Climbing through the clouds at 10,000 feet, Cadbury once again had the three raiders clearly in sight against the fading twilight. Leckie could only marvel – “I am still astounded at the audacity of the German commanders in bringing their ships so close to the coast of England in broad daylight.”

Flying south, away from the enemy, Cadbury tried to gain height, and toggled his bombs to speed his climb. At 10:20 the De Haviland was at 16,400 feet, and approached the leading Zeppelin head on, slightly to port to clear any hanging obstruction. There were no sights on Leckie’s gun, and his first five rounds of tracer passed to port of the airship, keeping alight for several hundred feet above her. The Pomeroy explosive ammunition “was seen to blow a great hole in the fabric and a fire started which quickly ran along the entire length of the Zeppelin.” Seemingly within a few seconds L70 was plunging seaward a flaming mass, while a large fuel tank, detached from the framework, fell blazing into the solid cloud layer below. The Germans’ new 20 mm cannon, in action for the first time, were of no avail.

Leckie later wrote: “With reference to the attack upon L70, I might say that the shooting from the Zeppelin was, as usual, very bad. This may be accounted for from the fact that the DH4 was practically invisible against the dark cloud beneath us. I would also point out that though I trained my gun upon the bows of the airship, fire was seen to concentrate well aft. I doubt very much if the German gunners allowed anything like enough deflection for their guns.”

Immediately on seeing the fate of the flagship the other two Zeppelins dumped ballast and turned away. Cadbury was climbing after L65, however, and after a few rounds a light glowed briefly in a midships gondola. Only after the war was it learned that the mechanic had raised the blackout curtain without extinguishing the light. L65 would undoubtedly have shared the fate of the leader had not Leckie’s single Lewis gun jammed, and in the darkness, and without gloves and a coat, he was unable to clear the double feed. “Never in my life have I been so cold as I was that night, and the rear cockpit of the DH4 sure was draughty.” In vain Cadbury raised the nose of his plane to bring his fixed twin Vickers to bear on the airship above: the DH4 was at its ceiling, and simply stalled and fell back.

Both fliers agree today that it was better that L65 should have escaped: “Had we continued the chase to the end and destroyed the L65 and L53 we should have sacrificed the lives of another 150 to 160 very gallant men and not brought peace any nearer, because the loss of L70 was a sufficiently severe shock to demonstrate the folly of sending Zeppelins near our coast.” In addition, Cadbury doubts they would have made it back to the coast had they continued the pursuit. As it was, thoroughly lost above solid cloud, he was lucky to find an airdrome at Sedgeford, 53 miles to the west of Yarmouth, and to touch down safely – in a machine he had been told was sure to crash if landed at night. Only then did he discover, to his shock and horror, that his two bombs had hung up!

All four of the remaining Zeppelins observed the flaming fall of the flagship. In the gathering darkness, none saw the attacking DH4, though L65 was less than two miles away, but all realised that L70 must have been destroyed by a plane. They dropped their bombs through the overcast, but none fell on land. L65 claimed an attack on Kings Lynn, L53 on Boston, but they had been misled by radio bearings, and were both 65 miles east of their estimated positions. L63 and L56 had approached the coast well to the south of the Nordholz ships. Before the attack on L70, L63 had turned sharply north across her course, and later claimed to have dropped her bombs through the clouds on batteries along the Humber. Again her commander was some 40 miles out in the North Sea. L56 was briefly over land near Lowestoft, saw lights which her commander took for those of the city of Norwich, and dropped all her bombs at 11:30 pm. Again the entire lot fell in the sea 20 miles east of the target.

Strasser’s conduct of the raid was deservedly criticised. “Whether in view of the cloudy weather, or trading on the immunity enjoyed in previous raids, Korv. Kap. Strasser showed remarkable recklessness in allowing his fleet to approach the English coast at a slow speed, a comparatively early hour and a comparatively low altitude.” So wrote at the time the anonymous author of the secret Intelligence survey, ‘Enemy Aircraft North Sea and Baltic’, and the judgment must stand today. Air Marshal Leckie thinks that Strasser deserved better luck with the weather: “Following an almost perfect day with sky unusually clear of clouds, a heavy bank of nimbus spread from the West, and before the attack, had covered the East coast and sea to the east to 10/10ths. I feel it is more probable that Strasser was assured by his Met. organization that he could count on clear weather in the Bight of Heligoland and vicinity of the Dutch islands (making for easy and accurate navigation) and a thick cloud cover during the last 100-150 miles to his objective. We know the cloud cover did arrive but probably about two hours late. Unquestionably, however, Strasser exercised poor judgment in persisting with his operation without waiting for the cover of clouds.”

Martin Dietrich, the former commander of the German naval airships L9, L22, L38, L42 and L71, after commenting on von Lossnitzer’s rashness and lack of experience, compared the handling of L70 with his own last raid on England on April 13th 1918: “I would not have risked approaching so close to the English coast in daylight, at Hartlepool I steered seaward to await darkness, and my L42, the English reported, was first noticed as she dropped her bombs. I would not have attached myself to the other ships, for three airships are more easily discovered than one. I would not have loaded so many bombs as did L70. And I certainly would have gone earlier to maximum altitude. Cadbury was still carrying two bombs, which would have put him at a disadvantage if L70 had been at 20,700 feet.”

The wreckage of L70 landed quite close to the Hull trawler Amethyst, near which some of her bombs had already exploded. From below, the falling Zeppelin “Looked like a huge golden cigar lighted from end to end.” She left a great pool of gasoline on the water that burned for almost an hour. The mate looked through his glasses but could see no sign of survivors. He heard the roar of airplanes circling his craft, and from one, swooping low with engine throttled, the pilot shouted something unintelligible. Two aircraft from Great Yarmouth failed to return from the night’s operation – the DH9 carrying Captain Jardine and Lieutenant Munday, and a Camel piloted by Lieutenant G F Hodson. There seemed good reason to believe that one or both, mistaking the flames on the sea for the gasoline flares customarily set out to mark night landing grounds, had alighted on the water and been lost.

On receipt of the news of the Zeppelin’s destruction, the naval commander on the East Coast of England, Admiral Sir Edward Charlton, with headquarters at Immingham, determined to salvage the wreck. It could be expected that L70 might yield classified documents – signal books, cipher keys, and codes – which would greatly assist British Naval Intelligence. Throughout the war this organization, headed by Rear Admiral Reginald Hall, provided the most extraordinarily detailed information on German naval operations and intentions. Undoubtedly much of this came from carefully-concealed agents within Germany (some of whom were actually inside the German naval airship bases), but the most publicised source was radio intercepts of German Fleet signals. These were read through the use of German code books found in the wrecks of shot-down Zeppelins and sunken U-boats, and Hall maintained a flying squad of officers, ready at all times to search them for documents. In addition, technical information to be derived from the Zeppelin remains would be of great value to British Admiralty designers striving to overtake the German lead in airships.

Two days after L70 was destroyed, HM Trawler Scomber, out of Immingham, located and buoyed the graves of Strasser and his men. The wreck was down among the sand banks and shallows off the Lincolnshire coast, five miles north-west of the Blakeney Overfalls bell buoy, and submerged in eight fathoms – 48 feet – of water.

From August 9th to September 22nd 1918, the little ships wearing the White Ensign spent a total of 22 days over the wreck. Scomber was flagship of the operation, and the other trawlers participating were Driver, Bullfrog, Peking, Topaz, and Star of Britain. Lt Cdr J H Pitts, RNR, is remembered by participants as being the officer in charge, though Admiralty records list him as executive officer of Peking. He received the thanks of the Lords of the Admiralty for his part in the salvage operation.

Pairs of trawlers, dragging wires between them underneath the wreckage, succeeded in bringing most of the structure of the airship to the surface, and large amounts were carried ashore to be landed on the quay at Immingham. Here were piled heaps of duralumin girders, most if not all of the gondolas complete with engines, radiators and propellers, gas valves, and even fragments of gas cells and the fabric outer cover. At least one tail fin was complete enough to give Admiralty naval architects an understanding of the novel cantilever section that eliminated drag-producing external bracing. Major Cadbury, invited by Admiral Charlton to make a selection of souvenirs, flew to Immingham and chose numerous pieces of girder, a propeller, some of the gas valves, etc., which were forwarded to Yarmouth by destroyer and later decorated his home. Other souvenirs were unofficially appropriated by residents of Immingham and nearby Grimsby, and correspondents in these towns later wrote to the author of napkin rings made from L70 exhaust pipes, and other souvenirs still in their possession. What was left of the wreckage was then taken out to sea and dumped overside.

Cadbury had reported that “the Zeppelin destroyed conformed in detail to airships of the L44 and L45-type with which Captain Leckie has frequently been in contact off the Dutch coast, with this difference, that the forward gondola was extremely large and of a streamline shape, this gondola also seemed to be suspended lower than the others.” In the gathering darkness he had not made out the four tiny wing gondolas slung close to the hull, and had not realised that his victim represented a new type of airship. Nor had British Intelligence. Usually well informed, this organisation up to the August 5th attack was advising the operating commands that the front-line Zeppelins in the North Sea were of two types – the “height-climbing super-Zeppelins L39-56” and “long-range super Zeppelins L57-65 and later.” Concerning the former class, the 2,000,000 cubic foot ships with five engines and a length of about 640 feet, their information was generally accurate; but their knowledge of the ‘long-range type’ of 2,300,000 cubic feet with a length of 750 feet, derived from the two special ships, L57 and L59. Both had been built to carry cargo to German troops in East Africa – L57 having been lost accidentally before the flight, and L59 having flown from Jamboli, Bulgaria, to Khartoum and returned on November 21st-25th 1917. Neither had ever been stationed in the North Sea, and in fact, Strasser considered these huge ships, with only five engines, to be too slow for North Sea operations.

Intensive examination of the L70 wreckage, and more particularly of operating records found in her control car, soon gave the British a complete picture of the design features and capabilities of the new type. A personal notebook found on von Lossnitzer’s body gave valuable information on the Maybach ‘altitude motor’, its actual power output at different altitudes, and its fuel and oil consumption. Probably from this source, they obtained correct figures for length, diameter and gas volume. The formidable speed capabilities of the new ship – with a maximum of 77.5 mph at 7,550 feet – probably came from the notebook, though a bomb sight found in the control car was graduated for a speed of only 62.5 mph. Probably also from this notebook the British obtained such details as the rate of climb dynamically at various nose-up inclinations, and the bomb loadings for the class of 2,200 pounds on North Sea patrols, 6,600 pounds for attacks on London, and a maximum of 10,580 pounds against other targets. The figure of 8,800 pounds of bombs carried on this raid evidently came from the ballast sheet and deck log which probably was the authority for the statement that “for a normal raid on England with 4,000 kg of bombs, the airship was intended to rise statically to 18,400 feet, with an additional climb dynamically to 19,700 feet. After the discharge of the bombs at this height she would rise to 21,000 feet and would have enough fuel left for the return journey.”

The airship’s rough War Diary was almost certainly recovered, to reveal that “it was apparently the intention of the commander of L70 to use all seven motors on the outward journey and only five on the return.” Direct examination of salvaged wreckage revealed such new details as the girder structure being “lighter even than in the Height-Climbing class, where drastic reductions of weight were made throughout the structure. The ballonets in the ship destroyed are made of very light mixed silk and cotton.” From black-painted portions of salvaged fabric it was concluded that L70 was painted identically to earlier ships – black beneath, and clear-doped above.

The ballast sheet apparently indicated that 154 pounds of ammunition was on board, and an examination of the salvaged control car revealed “a mounting of considerable size and strength… apparently intended for some kind of small quick-firing gun, possibly a one-pounder.” Neither of the Becker cannon were recovered, but Sir Egbert Cadbury is absolutely positive that he and Leckie were fired on from L70’s control car and undoubtedly the cannon were carried on the raid. They could easily have dropped out during the ship’s fall, or during salvage operations.

The secret ‘Enemy Aircraft North Sea and Baltic’ is silent on the salvage of codes and ciphers, but this is hardly surprising as such material would be placed under a higher classification. Nor is it remarkable that the British Admiralty had no information on this point, while adding that reports might exist that could not yet be revealed under the ‘50 year rule’. From a letter which Strasser’s successor wrote on August 7th 1918, to the Chief of the Naval Staff, it is known that L70 had on board “various weather codes and Name List 1090 Vol 2, with Exchange Table (a cipher key) for 31st July to 15th August 1373.” He added “one can assume complete destruction and that they are not in enemy hands.” Sir Egbert Cadbury recalls very distinctly, however, that he was told by Admiral Charlton, during his visit to Immingham, that Strasser’s body was recovered and a search revealed “all the German codes and also a complete history of all the other German airship raids.” He adds that “all the bodies were recovered intact, and that of Captain Strasser was completely untouched and his death was due either to drowning or to the shock of the impact with the water – I am not sure which – but he showed no disfigurement or burns or injuries of any kind.” Martin Dietrich, asked for his comments, expressed “astonishment” that Strasser should have carried such documents on his person, but did not doubt the truth of the statement. He forwarded a copy of an official document, classified ‘Secret’ and titled ‘Summary of Operations of the North Sea Airships’, with the suggestion that this might have been what the British found on the body of the Leader of Airships. The cryptic serial list of raids – “33: 13/14. 10. 1915. L 11, 13, 14, 15, 16” would have been of much interest to British Intelligence.

As for codes and ciphers, Mr G Edward Bray of Grimsby, at that time mate of the trawler Topaz, recalls the scene as L70’s control car was recovered: “As soon as the gondola came out of the water, the officer jumped down and salvaged a dispatch case of papers which were rushed ashore by a naval pinnace.” What of the bodies of Strasser and the 21 members of the crew? As invariably happened, some had jumped, even though they wore no parachutes, while others who had ridden the wreckage down were trapped in the structure or gondolas. Mr Bray assured the author that the body of Captain Strasser was recovered and buried at sea. Five bodies were found in the wreckage brought aboard HMT Topaz, and after being searched for documents and papers, they were weighted with furnace bars from the fire room and returned to the sea. Along with a quantity of flotsam (one correspondent remembers as a small boy that a neighbour owned a six-foot-high duralumin fuel tank from L70, marked “Luftschiffbau Zeppelin Friedrichshafen”), six or seven dead Germans drifted up together on the Lincolnshire coast. The local people refused to permit their burial in the churchyard, and Mr Henry Drinkall of Grimsby recalls that his drifter, the Venus, was dispatched under sealed orders to carry the bodies out to sea for burial.

Of that gallant, doomed company, only one lies today in English soil. In Weybourne Cemetery, near the village of Holt on the northern coast of Norfolk, is a stone marked in Gothic letters, “Airmann Unknown, +6.10.18.” This body, which evidently came ashore on October 6th 1918, is said to be that of LtzS Kurt Kruger, executive officer of L70.

Drowned in the North Sea in a sombre Wagnerian finale was Peter Strasser’s cherished dream of “a quick and effective conquest of England.” The German Naval Airship Division was the creation of its chief, and a symbol of his conviction that the airship offered “a certain means of victoriously ending the war.” An inspired leader, Strasser was indeed the life and soul of the whole. With his death ended the history of the Zeppelin as a combat weapon.