Martin-Baker and Warrant Officer Ron Guthrie


Warrant Officer Ron Guthrie.


Return of the Meteor jets, Kimpo, Korea. Oil on hardboard, 1953 by Ivor Hele. 77 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force flew Meteors in Korea in 1952 and 1953. [AWM ART40304]

With air combats developing at altitudes of over 30,000 feet, it was inevitable that the Korean War should see new records set for high-altitude parachute escapes. An air battle fought on 29 August, 1951, between Gloster Meteor Mk 8s of No 77 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, and Chinese MiG-15s saw the highest recorded baleout to date. On this day, eight Meteors were detailed to escort B-29s and another eight to carry out a diversionary sweep north of Sinanju. At 11.20 the latter flight, led by Squadron Leader Wilson, spotted six MiGs at 40,000 feet over Chongju, 5,000 feet higher than themselves. Keeping the enemy in sight Wilson manoeuvred his formation up-sun, but as he did so two more MiGs appeared a few thousand feet below. Wilson decided to attack and went into a dive followed by his number two, Flying Officer Woodroffe. As the two Meteors levelled out, however, Woodroffe’s aircraft suddenly flicked into a spin (an unpleasant tendency of the Meteor 8, caused by the effects of compressibility, if the aircraft exceeded 0.8M at altitude) and dropped away; the pilot managed to recover several thousand feet lower down, but now Wilson had no one to cover his tail. As he began his approach to attack, a MiG jumped him out of the sun, unnoticed in the 30-degree blind spot caused by the dural structure at the rear of the Meteor’s cockpit. The first warning Wilson had of the danger was when cannon shells passed over his wing; he immediately put his aircraft into a maximum-rate turn in a bid to shake off his pursuer. He was rescued by Flight Lieutenant Cedric Wilson and Flying Officer Ken Blight, who spotted his predicament and drove the MiG away – but not before cannon shells had shot away Sqn Ldr Wilson’s port aileron and punched a three-foot hole in his port wing, puncturing a fuel tank. Despite the damage Wilson reached base safely, touching down at 30 knots above normal landing speed.

Meanwhile, a fierce air battle had developed over Chongju as the other Meteors were hotly engaged by thirty MiGs. The weight of the attack fell on ‘Dog’ section, led by Flt Lt Geoff Thornton, who saw the MiGs coming down and ordered his section to break as soon as the enemy opened fire. Flying in the number four position was Warrant Officer Ron Guthrie, a veteran of fourteen previous Meteor sorties over Korea, and as he broke hard to port his aircraft was hit by cannon shells aft of the cockpit, destroying his radio equipment. Two of Guthrie’s attackers passed in front of him and he got one in his sights, loosing off a burst of 20mm cannon fire, but before he had time to observe any result he came under attack again, and this time the Meteor went out of control.

As the Meteor passed through 38,000 feet in a rolling dive, with the Machmeter showing 0.84, Guthrie ejected. The Martin-Baker seat worked perfectly and Guthrie sat upright in it as it descended through the stratosphere. It was like sitting in an armchair, with the world unfolding at his feet, and the situation might almost have been pleasant had it not been for the fact that he was falling into enemy territory and that his oxygen mask had been ripped away on ejection. Fortunately, it was still attached to the emergency supply and he managed to get it back on, finding to his relief that the oxygen was still flowing.

Guthrie now had a decision to make. The air temperature at that altitude was minus 50 degrees C and he was wearing only a lightweight summer flying suit. If he jettisoned his seat and opened his canopy at this stage, there was would be a very real danger of frostbite. On the other hand, altitude would give him an advantage: he might be able to steer his parachute clear of the North Korean coastline and make a touchdown in the sea, where he would have a good chance of being picked up by friendly forces. He decided to take the risk. Unfastening his harness, he kicked the seat away and pulled the ripcord.

His parachute opened at 35,000 feet. From that height he could see the curvature of the earth, and the whole panorama of the Korean peninsula spread out below him. The air grew warmer as he continued his descent, but now he realised with dismay that a westerly wind was blowing him inland, and that despite his best efforts to control the direction of his parachute he was not going to reach the coast. Twenty-eight minutes after ejecting, having survived the attentions of some enemy troops who fired at him in the latter stages of his descent, he landed in a paddy field and was quickly surrounded. It was the beginning of a two-year captivity. At that time, Guthrie’s was the highest ejection on record. He had also experienced the longest parachute descent, and it was the first time that a Martin-Baker seat had saved a pilot’s life in combat.

It was soon apparent that the Meteor was no match for the MiG-15, and it was soon reassigned to the ground attack role, which it performed well, leaving the F-86 Sabres to tangle with the MiGs in the stratosphere. Ground attack work in Korea was difficult and dangerous; quite apart from the nature of the terrain, targets were usually well defended. If an aircraft was hit, the pilot had two choices: either he could bale out into enemy hands, or he could try to gain sufficient height to nurse his crippled aircraft back to friendly territory,where he could either bale out or attempt a crash landing.


The Twins of USAAF Bombing





B-17 Flying Fortress

On 28 July 1935 the Model 299 flew for the first time: just over three weeks later it was flown non-stop to Wright Field, Ohio, to be handed over for official test and evaluation. The 2,100-mile (3 380-km) flight had been made at an average speed of 252 mph (406 km/h), a most impressive performance which augured well for the future. The elation of the Boeing company was understandable, especially with confirmation that initial trials were progressing well. On 30 October 1935 hopes were dashed with the news that the prototype had crashed on take-off. Subsequent investigation was to prove that the attempt to take-off had been made with the controls locked, and in view of the satisfactory testing prior to this accident, the USAAC decided on the procurement of 13 YB-17s (later Y1B-17s), plus one example for static testing.

The prototype (X13372) which had crashed at Wright Field was powered by four 750 hp (559 kW) Pratt & Whitney R-1690-E Hornet radial engines. The cantilever monoplane wings were in a low-wing configuration, the wing section at the root so thick that it was equal to half the diameter of the circular-section fuselage; and wide-span trailing-edge flaps were provided to help reduce take-off and landing speeds. Landing gear was of the electrically retractable tailwheel type. Armament comprised five machine-guns, and a maximum bomb load of 4,800 lbs (2177 kg) could be carried in the fuselage bomb bay.

The initial Y1B-17 (36-149) flew for the first time on 2 December 1936, and differed from the prototype by having 930-hp (694-kW) Wright GR-1820-39 Cyclone radials, accommodation for a crew of nine, and minor changes in detail. Twelve were delivered between January and August 1937, equipping the USAAC’s 2nd Bombardment Group at Langley Field, Virginia. The thirteenth aircraft went to Wright Field for further tests and after one of the Y1B-17s survived without damage the turbulence of a violent storm, it was decided that the static test example would, instead, be completed as an operational aircraft. Designated Y1B-17A, this aircraft (37-369) was provided with 1,000 hp (746 kW) GR-1820-51 engines each fitted with a Moss/ General Electric turbocharger (supercharger powered by a turbine driven by exhaust gases). It flew for the first time on 29 April 1938, and subsequent testing by the USAAC gave convincing proof of the superiority of the turbocharged engine over those which were normally aspirated, and such engines were to become standard on all future versions of the Fortress.

The utilisation of the Y1B-17s, designated B-17 in service with the 2nd Bombardment Group, did little to improve relations between the US Army and US Navy. When three of the force were used to stage an ‘interception’ of the Italian liner Rex some 750 miles (1207 km) out in the Atlantic, to demonstrate that the USAAC was more than capable of defending the nation’s coastline, it sparked a row which dispersed the air power disciples from General Headquarters Air Force (GHQAF) to other commands, where they were remote from each other and potential influential supporters. Orders for additional B-17s had to be reduced after it had been underlined by Major General Stanley D. Embrick that … “the military superiority of a B-17 over the two or three smaller aircraft which could be procured with the same funds has yet to be established.” This helps explain why, despite the growing war clouds in Europe, the USAAC had less than 30 B-17s when Hitler’s forces invaded Poland on 1 September 1939.

The order for Y1B-17s was followed by a contract for 39 B-17Bs, more or less identical to the Y1B-17A prototype with turbocharged engines. The first of these flew on 27 June 1939, and all had been delivered by March 1940. In 1939 the B-17C was ordered, the first of the 38 on contract making its first flight on 21 July 1940. They differed by having 1,200 hp (895 kW) R-1820-65 engines, and by an increase from five to seven machine guns.

The B-17C was the first version of this bomber to be supplied to the RAF in Great Britain, which designated the 20 examples received in early 1941 as Fortress I. Equipping No. 90 Squadron, they were used operationally for the first time on 8 July 1941 when aircraft launched a high-altitude (30,000 ft / 9145 m) attack on Wilhelmshaven. In the 26 attacks made on German targets during the next two months the Fortress Is proved unsatisfactory, although there was American criticism of the way in which they had been deployed. Nonetheless, their use in daylight over German territory had proved that their operating altitude was an inadequate defence in itself, and so they needed more formidable defensive armament, for Messerschmitt Bf 109E and 109F fighters had little difficulty in intercepting them at heights of up to 32,000 ft (9750 m). Until improvements in the Fortress were made, or means found of deploying them more effectively, they were withdrawn from operations over Europe.

With the end of 1941 drawing near, the USA was soon to become involved in World War 11, initially in the Pacific theatre, but following the containment of the initial explosion of Japanese expansion it was decided that the Allies would first concentrate their efforts on bringing about a speedy conclusion of the war in Europe. Thus, large numbers of B-17s which otherwise would have found employment in the Far East were instead to equip the USAAF’s 5th Air Force in Britain. Those allocated to serve with the Anglo-American Northwest African Air Forces were later to become part of the US 15th Air Force.

In 1940 Boeing received an order for 42 B-17Ds. These differed little from the B-17C, but as a result of early reports of combat conditions in Europe were provided with self-sealing tanks and additional armour for protection of the crew, and these were delivered during 1941. The B-17E which followed was the first version to benefit from the RAF’s operational experience with its Fortress Is. A major redesign provided a much larger tail unit to improve stability at high altitude, and to overcome the criticism of inadequate defence 13 machine-guns were mounted in one manual and two power-operated turrets, radio compartment, waist stations and in the nose. Of the 512 of this version built under two contracts, the first flew on 5 September 1941. B-17Es were the first to serve with the 8th Air Force in Europe, with deliveries beginning in July 1942. They were used operationally for the first time by the 97th Bombardment Group, 12 aircraft being detailed for a daylight attack on Rouen on 17 August, with fighter escort provided by RAF Supermarine Spitfires.

The B-17F, of which the first flew on 30 May 1942, was the first version to be built in large numbers. Boeing produced 2,300 at Seattle, and further construction of 1,105 came from Douglas (605) and Lockheed Vega (500). Major changes included a redesigned nose, and strengthened landing gear to cater for a higher gross weight. Other changes included increased fuel capacity, the introduction of additional armour, provision of external bomb racks beneath the inner wings and, on late production aircraft, the introduction of R-1820-97 engines.

The B-17Es and B-17Fs became used extensively by the 8th Air Force in Europe, but in two major operations against German strategic targets, on 17 August and 14 October 1943, a total of 120 aircraft were lost. Clearly the Fortresses could not mount an adequate defence, no matter how cleverly devised was the box formation in which they flew. The hard truth was that without adequate long-range fighter escort they were very vulnerable to attack during mass daylight operations. Many of the losses were attributed to head-on attack, and the final major production version was planned to offset this shortcoming.

B-24 Liberator

During late 1938, the U.S. Army Air Corps saw a need for additional heavy bombardment aircraft and approached Consolidated Aircraft to supplement B-17 Flying Fortress production by Boeing, Douglas, and Vega. When Consolidated president Reuben Fleet was approached, he stated that his company could build a better airplane. Consolidated began design of its Model 32 in January 1939.

By coincidence, Reuben Fleet had been approached by David R. Davis in 1937 to discuss wing-design theory. Not an aerodynamicist, Fleet insisted on having his chief engineer, Isaac Machlin “Mac” Laddon, and aerodynamicist George S. Schairer listen to the proposal. Extensive testing of the design in Cal Tech’s Guggenheim wind tunnel proved Davis’s concept to be far better than expected. The result was a high aspect- ratio wing that offered excellent long-range cruise characteristics. This wing that was applied to the design of the Model 32, which became the B-24 Liberator.

The B-24 was powered by four Pratt and Whitney R-1820 engines. It had an 8,800-pound bombload, a service ceiling of 28,000 feet, a cruising speed of 215 mph, and a range of 2,100 miles. Manned by a crew of 10, the B-24H thru B-24J models mounted 10 .50-caliber machine guns for defensive armament.

The B-24 was a stablemate of the B-17 in the European theater during World War II; however, its vulnerability to battle damage and dissimilar performance compared to the B-17 led Brigadier General Curtis E. LeMay, then commander of the 3d Air Division, to remove the Liberators completely in favor of B-17s. The result was that the 1st and 3d ADs were equipped with B-17s and the 2d AD with only B-24s.

The first raid on the Ploesti oil fields was flown by 13 B-24s from the Halverson Provisional Group on the night of 11/12 June 1942, marking the first Allied heavy bombardment mission against Fortress Europe. On 1 August 1943, the famed Ploesti raid was flown under Operation TIDAL WAVE with a force of 177 B-24s from five bomb groups (three of which were loaned from the Eighth Air Force in Europe).

In the Mediterranean theater of operations, B-24s far outnumbered B-17s. Of the 21 heavy bombardment groups in the Mediterranean late in the war, 15 were equipped with B-24s. The airplanes performed well on the long-range missions deep into Germany and Austria. B-24s did far better in the Pacific theater. The missions were long, over water, with no mountainous obstacles as were encountered in the European and Mediterranean theaters, and enemy resistance was not as intense.

B-24s were also modified for specialized roles as Ferrets, photoreconnaissance platforms, fuel tankers, clandestine operations, and radio/radar jamming.

The B-24 was built in greater numbers than any other U.S. combat aircraft. A total of 19,257 B-24s,RAF Liberators, C-87 transports, and Navy PB4Y-2 Privateers were built at two Consolidated plants as well as Douglas (Tulsa), North American (Fort Worth), and Ford (Detroit). Ford produced 6,792 complete aircraft and another 1,893 knockdown kits that were shipped by road to other plants for assembly and completion.

There is no question that the Boeing B-17 had better press-and a better name- than the Consolidated B-24. “Flying Fortress” evoked a vision of impregnability, while “Liberator” was much more abstract. The B-17 was indeed more of a fortress than was the B-24, but their respective crews defended their aircraft with passion-and in the case of the B-24, with a dash of derring-do attitude.

The B-17 was the older design, conceived by Boeing in 1934, with the first 13 planes delivered to what was then the Army Air Corps in 1938. Consolidated Aircraft Corporation-the 1923 successor to the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company-birthed the B-24 in 1939 as the next generation heavy bomber to supplant the Boeing XB-15, Douglas XB-19 and B-17.

The Lib was faster: 215 mph cruising speed for the B-24J, for example, versus 182 for the B- 17C. The Lib’s gracefully tapered 100-foot Davis airfoil wing (compared to the B-17’s 103-foot-span barn door of a wing) made the difference. The Lib had a larger bomb bay and a somewhat longer range. So it flew faster, farther and carried more bombs than the B-17. I trained on both the B-24 and the B-17 at the aerial gunnery school in Tyndall, Fla. Like my classmates, I fervently hoped to be assigned to B-17s. They were reputedly able to withstand punishment that would down a Lib. That reputation was substantiated by battle damage photos of B- 17s riddled by flak and fighter fire that had still managed to return to base. Not many photos of similarly damaged but surviving B-24s showed up. The Libs didn’t have that big low-aspect-ratio wing to sustain lift after serious aerodynamic damage. Also, enemy fighter pilots had discovered that a concentrated burst into the cross-feed fuel tines between the B-24’s shoulder high wing roots could be fatal.

On the liberator’s plus side, its tricycle landing gear made taxiing, takeoff and landing easier than the B-17’s conventional tailwheel configuration. The B-24 pilot’s seat was more comfortable too, with its six-way adjustments. A peculiar B-17 drawback was its parking brake control, accessible only to the co-pilot.

With some minor variants, the two bombers had comparable armament: nose turrets (beginning on the B-17 with the G model’s chin turret), top and ball turrets and waist window guns. The tail armament differed: a fully revolving power turret in the B-24, a less mobile turret in the B-17. The B-24’s ball turret retracted fully into the fuselage until it was lowered for action. The B-17’s ball turret rode about three-fourths permanently extended. For a belly landing, the gunner was helped out of his position, after which the ball was jettisoned.

In the event of ditching, there was no contest. That low B-17 wing could serve as a temporary pontoon while the crew scrambled into life rafts. The B-24’s high wing put the fuselage underwater- often badly damaged. Crew members, if they escaped at all, had to swim out.

The B-24, with its big slab-sided fuselage, said one contemporary pilot, “looked like a truck, hauled big loads like a truck and flew like a truck.” As a B-24 passed overhead in plain view, though, it was apparent that the fuselage was narrower, and that long, tapered wing lent the Liberator a deceptive gracefulness. Though more than 19,000 B- 24s were built-more than any other American wartime aircraft-the older, slower but tougher Fortress got the press glory.

In the final analysis, there is no real way to determine if either the B-24 or the B-17 was truly superior. But, the record of the two types indicates that, of the two, the Liberator design was more versatile and considerably more advanced than that of the Flying Fortress. The combat records of both types contradict the assertions that aircrews flying B-17s were “safer” than those in B-24s. The argument as to which was the best can never be settled. As long as there are still two surviving heavy- bomber veterans, one from each type, the B-17 veteran will believe his airplane was best, while the B-24 vet will know better.

U-Boot Demise…

Oberleutnant zur See Herbert Werner commanded U-415 from 17 April 1944 through 14 July 1944. Having joined the Kriegsmarine in 1939, he served as a watch officer in training aboard U-557 under Korvettenkapitän Ottokar Arnold Paulssen for three patrols and ninety-three days at sea. In that time the sub sank five Allied ships. Werner left the boat in November 1941 for another training assignment. On 16 December, U-557 was lost with all hands. From Werner’s book Iron Coffins: “It was past 1700 when I returned to the bunker. The radios had been silenced. Instead, the huge vault-like structure resounded to the songs of our 800 crewmen, who remained eager to sail against the enemy even if it meant sailing straight to their deaths. At 2100, as night descended upon the Normandy battlefields, 15 U-boats slipped out into the Bay. The night was clear. The stars glittered faintly in a still light sky. Soon a full moon would rise and light up our way into the Atlantic.

“The moon had risen fully above the horizon in the southeast. Standing like a giant lantern in the sky, it illuminated the long row of U-boats and was sharply reflected in the calm sea. Contrary to common procedure, all the men had put on their yellow life jackets. The bridge had been stacked with piles of ammunition, the conning tower turned into an arsenal. The gunners hung at their automatics in tense expectation of the first enemy plane. I stood in my nook trying to keep my boat directly in the wake of U-821, and to hold the distance to a prearranged 300 meters.

“2310: The first radar impulses were picked up by our Bug and the Fly as the coast receded. The report from below—‘Six radar impulses, all over forward sector, increasing in volume fast!’—alarmed every hand on the bridge. All ears turned into the wind, all eyes searched the quarters ahead. I kept my gaze circling above the armored superstructure, but the intense moonlight revealed no winged black monsters.

“2320: The head of our procession reached the open sea. With the escorts still in line, the eight boats sliced the silvery surface and drove ever deeper into the enemy’s defense. The scream of high volume radar impulses and the stream of emergency messages from below never ceased.

“2340: Sudden fireworks flared up in the forward port quarter, five miles ahead. We had been warned that several of our destroyers were en route from Lorient to Brest, and we should not mistake them for the British. I focused my glasses on the disturbance and sighted seven destroyers in an athwart formation, fighting off a British air attack. Thousands of tracers were exchanged, and brilliant flares parachuted down upon our vessels, adding their white light to the yellow moonglow. The sound of gunfire and howling aircraft engines increased as we drew closer to the battling forces. The Tommies, noting our approach, halted their wild attacks to avoid being trapped in the crossfire between U-boats and destroyers. The destroyers raced eastward past our long file, and our trawlers, seizing the chance for protected trip home, swerved out of formation and fastened onto the destroyers’ wake. Their sudden maneuver left eight U-boats at the mercy of the British. At that moment all eight U-boats acted in concert, and I ordered, ‘Both engines three times full ahead. Shoot on sight.’

“June 7 At 0015, our long chain of boats was racing at top speed towards the Atlantic. The diesels hacked, the exhausts fumed, impulses haunted us all the way. I found myself glancing repeatedly at my watch as if it could tell me when the fatal blow would fall.

“0030: Radar impulses chirped all around the horizon, their volumes shifting rapidly from feeble moans to high-pitched screams. The Tommies were obviously flying at various distances around our absurd procession. They must have thought we had lost our minds. Sometimes I could hear aircraft engines at fairly close range, but could not spot a plane. The hands of my watch crept slowly ahead while the British waited for reinforcement; our eyes sharpened and our hearts beat heavy under our breasts.

“0112: The battle began. Our leading boats were suddenly attacked. Tracers spurted in various directions, then the sound of gunfire hit our ears. Fountains reached into the sky.

“One of the enemy airplanes caught fire. It flashed comet-like toward the head of our file, crossed over one of the boats, dropped four bombs, then plunged into the ocean. The bombs knocked out Sachse’s U-413. With helm jammed hard aport, the boat swerved out of the column. She lost speed rapidly and sank below the surface.

“0125: The aircraft launched a new attack, again directed at the boats in the front. Three boats, brightly lighted by flares, concentrated their gunfire and held the planes at bay. A spectacular fireworks erupted, engulfing the U-boats and aircraft. Suddenly the Tommies retreated. Radar impulses indicated that they were circling our stubborn parade, regrouping for a fresh attack. I raised myself over the rim of the bridge, straining to see and sound out the roaming planes.

“0145: The boat at our stern, the last one in the column, became the target of a new British tactic. Trying to roll out the carpet of fire from the rear, a four-engined Liberator came roaring down on starboard, diving for the bow of U-256. Boddenberg’s men opened fire. But the aircraft veered off in front of the boat, where her guns became ineffective. That was our chance. ‘Open fire!’ I screamed. Five barrels, all that we had available, blazed away at the Liberator as it dropped four depth charges ahead of U-256 and roared past us. Four giant water columns leaped skyward behind the riddled aircraft as it tried to escape our fire. But some shells from our 37mm gun hit the plane broadside. It exploded in midair, then plunged into the sea. U-256, beaten and mutilated by the depth charges, lay stopped and helpless in our wake, slowly falling out of line. That was the last we saw of her. Realising that her demise left us the first target in any new attack from the rear, I called for more ammunition. Radar impulses increased rapidly. For a while, however, the British held back.

“0220: Impulses now from starboard. I presumed several planes were approaching. Suddenly, a Sunderland shot out of the night from starboard ahead. I yelled ‘Aircraft—starboard forty—fire!’ Short bursts from our two twin 20mm guns followed the sweep of the plane. It cleverly flew in from dead ahead, making our guns ineffective, and dropped four barrels in front of our bow. Simultaneously, a Liberator attacked from starboard bearing 90, firing from all its muzzles. An instant later, four detonations amidships. Four savage eruptions heaved U-415 out of the water and threw our men flat on the deck plates. Then she fell back, and the four collapsing geysers showered us with tons of water and sent cascades through the hatch. This was the end. Both diesels stopped, the rudder jammed hard-a-starboard. U-415 swerved in an arc, gradually losing speed. Above on starboard floated a flare, its treacherous glare enveloping our dying boat. U-415 lay crippled, bleeding oil from a ruptured tank, slowly coming to a full stop—now a target to be finished off with ease. Bewildered, I peered down through the tower hatch into the blackness of the hull. All life below seemed to have ceased. I feared the boat might sink at any moment and ordered, ‘All hands on deck! Make ready dinghies and lifebuoy.’

“Not a sound came from below. The men must have been knocked out by the blows. Interminable seconds passed. From the distance came the drone of planes regrouping for a new assault. It had to be fatal. Suddenly, some men came struggling up the ladder, shaken, mauled, groggy, reaching for air, tossing inflatable rubber floats to the bridge. As they jumped on deck and prepared the dinghies, the gunners raised their barrels toward the invisible airplanes circling their disabled prey. The speed of the attack and the resultant damages prevented us from sending a distress signal. This, I thought grimly, was the way many of my friends had died—the silent way, leaving no word.

“U-415, hopelessly damaged, lay waiting for the coup de grace. Since the boat did not seem to be sinking, I told my men to take cover behind the tower instead of lowering the dinghies into the water. I was determined to remain on board as long as the boat would float and to shoot as long as there was ammunition and men to handle the guns. It turned out, however, that we would not die unreported: the radio mate managed to patch up our emergency transmitter and sent Headquarters news of our destruction.

“0228: Increasing engine noise heralded a new attack, a fresh approach by Sunderland from starboard ahead, guns blazing. Zooming over our bridge, it dropped four canisters. Four deafening booms tossed the boat aloft. At that moment a Liberator attacked at low altitude from port ahead. Our men on two 20mm guns started firing at once and emptied their magazines into the plane’s cockpit. The black monster swept across our bridge, dropped four charges, then zoomed away, blowing hot exhaust fumes into our faces. As the boat made four violent jumps to port and as four white mushrooms soared high alongside our starboard saddle tanks, the gunner at the 37mm automatic sent a full charge of explosive shells into the bomber’s fuselage. The flaming aircraft plunged into the sea. Somewhere, the sound of the Sunderland’s engines faded into the distance.

“Then all was very quiet. The flare still flickered on the surface next to our boat.

U-415 was near death, but still afloat. The Fly and the Bug had been shot away; we were without a warning device. The bridge was punctured by many projectiles. A gunner lay scalped by a shell. Other men had been hit by steel fragments. The Exec moaned in pain, his back badly lacerated by countless splinters. In the aftermath of battle, I felt hot. Assuming I was sweating, I wiped my burning eyes. But my hand came away red, and I realised that blood was streaming down my face. My white cap was punctured like a sieve, and the tiny fragments had torn my scalp.

“Then I heard the Chief’s voice from below: ‘Boat is taking heavy water through galley and bow hatches. Strong leak in radio room. I’ll try to keep her afloat, if you keep the bees away.’

“‘Can you get her repaired for diving?’ I shouted back.

“‘Can’t promise. We have no power, no light. We’ll do our best.’

“I lowered myself to the slippery deck. It was split in several places by the impact of depth charges which had hit the planks before falling into the water where they had exploded. One barrel had bounced off the starboard saddle tank and had left a deep dent. Far more serious, the starboard aft ballast tanks were split wide open. Diesel oil escaped in a thick stream, spreading rapidly over the surface.

“With each minute of truce, the danger of a new assault increased rapidly. The boat swung softly in the breathing ocean, paralyzed, seemingly dead. The next 20 or 30 minutes had to bring the finale. With every heartbeat we expected another attack or the boat to slip away from under us.

“Suddenly the Chief’s creaking voice escaped the hull: ‘Boat is ready for restricted dive. Twenty meters—no more. Only one motor good for eighty revolutions.’

“‘Can you hold her at twenty meters or will she go to the bottom?’ “

‘I can’t tell, we ought to try.’

“I tried. Quickly the men climbed up the bridge and dropped one by one through the round opening into their iron coffin. I watched the deck gradually sink below the surface. As the water crept up to the bridge I slammed the lid shut. Seconds later the floods engulfed the boat.”



WWI RFC Vickers FB5 Gun Bus two seat pusher fighter. The classic WW1 counter to the ‘Fokker Scourge’

Christmas 1914 is famous as the one when enemy soldiers climbed out of their trenches for a game of football, but it should also be famous as the first time that an aircraft designed as a fighter went into action. It was on the home front, too.

After only a few months of war, everyone recognised the notion of fighter aircraft as a separate type, ideally single-seater, fast, nippy, that could outmanoeuvre slower, less nimble enemies and give them the deadly burst. Two years previously, the Admiralty commission to Vickers to come up with a fighting aircraft had not quite resulted in that ideal because, with no other choice that they could see, the designers had gone with a two-seater pusher format.

The FB5 is usually thought to have been the first British aeroplane purpose-made to carry a gun, but there are other candidates. Sopwith produced a Gun-Carrying Seaplane, also a pusher, which was delivered to the Naval Wing sometime in the summer of 1913 with a .303 machine gun in the front cockpit; but it was not highly regarded, and neither were the gunless versions. Avro designed a twin-engined seaplane gun-carrier that was not delivered. One example of the land-based derivative of the Sopwith, the 80mph Sopwith Type 806 Gunbus (first flight October 1914), was briefly in France with the RNAS in February 1915 but there is no record of any action.

That the Vickers FB5 was the result of the first fighter-aircraft commission cannot be doubted, as the others surely came along after the Admiralty started the idea, and the ultimate distinction of the first incident of a designated fighter aircraft flying at the enemy also belongs with the Vickers FB5.

It came about because the Germans decided to bomb mainland Britain. They chose 24 December 1914 for the first unfriendly bomb ever to be dropped on British soil, and not by a Zeppelin, as everyone expected, but by hand from an aeroplane.

British soil’ were the right words on that Christmas Eve morning. At about 11am, one German craft dropped (or threw, as they usually termed it) one bomb into the vegetable garden of Mr T A Terson of Dover, making a hole ten feet wide and four feet deep, breaking windows in several nearby houses and scattering Brussels sprouts and winter cabbages everywhere. A man up a tree in the garden next door was blown from it but landed softly in some bushes. A young chap, a solicitor’s son called Mowll, said he was 25 yards away talking to a friend when the bomb exploded, covering him and friend in earth.

The identity of the raider is open to some question. One source firmly suggests a navy float-plane, a Friedrichshafen FF29; civilian eye-witness accounts state equally firmly it was a Taube, looking ‘like a big seagull’. In any case, it dropped its load and flew away.

Next day, Christmas Day, another raider invaded Britain, again identified in one report as a Friedrichshafen FF29 but described from the ground as an Albatros. It was spotted near Sheerness but disappeared into the clouds and fog, to emerge between Purfleet and Erith, well up the Thames, beyond where the Dartford crossing now is, triggering anti-aircraft fire from pom-pom guns on roofs and the scrambling of three RFC aircraft. This was it; the first use of a fighter.

An aerial battle of sorts ensued, as the German crew fled with only their rifle and pistols to protect them, pursued by the home team, at least one of which, according to the papers, had ‘a quick-firing gun’.

That was the Vickers Gunbus, which had taken off from Joyce Green aerodrome at Dartford.

Whichever German aircraft it was, the FF29 or the Albatros, top speed was about the same at around 60mph (95kph). The FB5 Gunbus was a little faster and it caught the German up, got near enough to fire, but fame and glory were denied. The gun jammed.

More British machines were reported as gaining on the German as it flew down the Thames, on the way dropping two bombs on Cliffe, a village on the Hoo peninsula overlooking the Thames marshes. This lightened the load but, if it was a last-minute attempt on a useful target such as the cement works there, it missed.

By the time the quarry and the hunters were past Southend, the mist and cloud had intervened and the excitement was over.

The first Vickers FB5 in France was delivered to No. 2 Squadron of the RFC in February 1915. The Gunbus was better than anything the Germans had but there were only a few, fifty or sixty arrived during the whole year, so you could not say that the Entente exactly had air supremacy, even in the short few months before the Germans’ secret weapon suddenly appeared. After that, for another short time, the Gunbus remained the best the Entente had, if not good enough.

Fighter ace Major Fred Powell of 5 Squadron, or, more accurately, his observer Air Mechanic Shaw, presumably co-opted for the ride, shot down and destroyed one German aircraft confirmed in the FB5 and one more driven down. He had six more victories unconfirmed before he moved on to the Royal Aircraft Factory FE8 (90mph single-seater) to finish with six definites and nine possibles. Big scores were not made in Farman-style pushers.

Meanwhile, the RFC had got around to forming the first squadron officially designated for fighting, but No. 11 Squadron didn’t arrive in France, at St Omer, until July 1915. It was not just the first fighter squadron; it was the first RFC squadron to be fully equipped from the start with aircraft all of one type, the FB5 Gunbus, which was still a fearsome opponent for those Germans flying the 60mph Albatros B1 and B2, the similarly slow Aviatik B1, Taube, LVG B1 and the later C models of Albatros and Aviatik.

It was an FB5 that carried Lieutenant Gilbert Insall to a Victoria Cross and a victory over an Aviatik biplane, probably a B2.

From The London Gazette, December 22 1915, this is Insall’s citation:

For most conspicuous bravery, skill and determination, on 7 November 1915, in France. He was patrolling in a Vickers Fighting Machine, with First Class Air Mechanic T. H. Donald as gunner, when a German machine was sighted, pursued, and attacked near Achiet.

The German pilot led the Vickers machine over a rocket battery, but with great skill Lieutenant Insall dived and got to close range, when Donald fired a drum of cartridges into the German machine, stopping its engine. The German pilot then dived through a cloud, followed by Lieutenant Insall. Fire was again opened, and the German machine was brought down heavily in a ploughed field 4 miles south-east of Arras.

On seeing the Germans scramble out of their machine and prepare to fire, Lieutenant Insall dived to 500 feet, thus enabling Donald to open heavy fire on them. The Germans then fled, one helping the other, who was apparently wounded. Other Germans then commenced heavy fire, but in spite of this, Lieutenant Insall turned again, and an incendiary bomb was dropped on the German machine, which was last seen wreathed in smoke. Lieutenant Insall then headed west in order to get back over the German trenches, but as he was at only 2,000 feet altitude he dived across them for greater speed, Donald firing into the trenches as he passed over.

The German fire, however, damaged the petrol tank, and, with great coolness, Lieutenant Insall landed under cover of a wood 500 yards inside our lines. The Germans fired some 150 shells at our machine on the ground, but without causing material damage. Much damage had, however, been caused by rifle fire, but during the night it was repaired behind screened lights, and at dawn Lieutenant Insall flew his machine home with First Class Air Mechanic T. H. Donald as a passenger.

Donald was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the other-ranks equivalent of the DSO, some recognition of his own coolness while repairing, at night, under shell fire, the machine his pilot had flown much too close to the trenches and, we must assume, during the decidedly hairy take-off next morning.

Before he could tot up enough victims to be classed as an ace, Insall was shot down again, wounded, taken prisoner, escaped at the third attempt, and served as a Group Captain in the Second World War.



Israeli Air Force F-16A Netz 243, flown by Colonel Ilan Ramon in Operation Opera.


Friday, June 7, 1981, was the eve of the Festival of Shavuoth (“Pentecost”), the celebration of God giving the Torah to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai. Thousands of Israelis assembled in the synagogues, but thousands of others preferred to celebrate on the country’s golden beaches. And so it was that at 4:00 P.M., the festive crowds sunning on Eilat’s southern beach saw eight F-16s roaring in the blue sky, passing at low altitude over the Gulf of Eilat and continuing into Saudi Arabia. The F-16 had taken off from the Etzion airbase in Sinai. Eight F-15 fighter jets followed close behind. By coincidence, King Hussein of Jordan was, at that moment, sailing in his royal yacht in the Gulf and saw the jets passing overhead. He immediately transmitted a warning to his military, requesting that the armies of the surrounding countries be notified but, for whatever reason, the alert wasn’t shared. This was a good thing, because Israel’s air force planes were en route to Operation Opera, the destruction of the nuclear reactor being built next to Baghdad by Saddam Hussein.

The planning of the operation had begun years earlier. On August 26, 1976, Iraq had signed a deal with the French government for the construction of a nuclear reactor that the French called Osirak and the Iraqis referred to as Tammuz. The French also committed to supplying Iraq with eighty kilograms of 93-percent-enriched uranium, enough to produce an atomic bomb. When Israel found out, by its intelligence sources, it launched a diplomatic effort to prevent the reactor’s delivery to Iraq. A nuclear weapon in the hands of Saddam Hussein could be a terrible danger for our very existence, the Israeli envoys explained to their counterparts in Paris. But all their efforts to convince the French that they were dealing with the devil failed miserably. According to foreign sources, the torch was then passed to the Mossad, which sabotaged several parts of the French reactor before they could be loaded onto ships for Iraq. But the damage was repaired and the construction of the reactor proceeded, to be completed within a short period. After his election as prime minister in 1977, Menachem Begin reached the conclusion that the only remaining option was military intervention. Defense Minister Ezer Weizman recommended a military operation, as did the IDF new chief of staff, Raful Eitan. Laying the groundwork for the mission was assigned to David Ivry, the commander of the air force. A brilliant colonel, Aviem Sella, would take on the meticulous planning of all aspects of the operation at IAF headquarters, along with several young officers. It soon became clear that the reactor would be fully operational by September 1981, and Begin decided to hit it in the spring. The program initially submitted by the air force was called Ammunition Hill.

An unexpected contribution to the planners’ efforts came, of all places, from Iran. The Islamic Revolution had taken place in 1979, transforming Iran from a close American ally into a sworn enemy of the United States. Israel had concluded a deal with the U.S. government for the supply of F-16s, but the scheduled delivery was still far away, as other “clients” had a priority. After the Islamic Revolution in Teheran, however, the planned delivery of F-16s to Iran by the United States was canceled, and the White House agreed that the planes be given to Israel instead, ahead of schedule.

The F-16s turned out to be much better suited to the Iraq mission than Israel’s other air force planes. According to the plan, eight F-16s would carry out the attack, with eight F-15 fighter jets escorting them while serving as a flying command station. The pilots and flight crews began training in secret, using a model of the reactor built in the Negev Desert. The IDF chief of staff himself participated in one of the simulated attacks, wanting to see from the navigator’s seat whether the preparations could meet expectations. At the end of the simulation, General Eitan said nothing, taking off for home in his own light plane. Next to him sat Sella, who badly wanted to hear the senior commander’s opinion. But Raful remained silent.

Raful Eitan had a place apart in the Israeli military elite. The tough, close-mouthed soldier was the descendant of a family of Subotniks, a sect of Russian peasants who had converted to Judaism and immigrated to Palestine at the end of the nineteenth century. The Subotniks settled in Galilee and became the best farmers in Israel. Raful, too, was born and raised on a farm at moshav Tel Adashim and remained an olive grower and a carpenter all his life, while emerging as a fearless fighter in the Palmach and the IDF. One of the first officers to join Arik Sharon’s paratroopers, he had received the much coveted red (“battle”) lining to his silver wings, after jumping with his battalion at Mitla and opening the Sinai campaign. He fought in all of Israel’s wars, was severely wounded in the Six Day War, carried out several commando missions with his paratroopers and was among the staunchest defenders of the Golan Heights in the Yom Kippur War. In 1978, the tight-lipped, scarred warrior replaced Motta Gur as IDF chief of staff.

In the flight back north, he didn’t speak for a long time, even though he knew what Aviem Sella wanted to hear from him. Finally, after half an hour in the air, he murmured, “The government will authorize this.”

Aviem Sella let out a sigh of relief.

Yet, many major figures in the security establishment opposed the mission, including the head of military intelligence, Yehoshua Sagi; the head of the Mossad, Yitzhak Hofi; Ezer Weizman, who by then had left the defense ministry and changed his mind; and Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin, who went so far as to threaten to resign. Patiently and methodically, Begin began convincing his cabinet of the operation’s importance, persisting until he had won the ministers’ support. Operation Ammunition Hill was set for May 8, 1981. That day, everything was in place. The pilots were sitting in their planes, already prepared for takeoff, when Begin received a letter from opposition leader Shimon Peres, a former minister of defense, pleading that he call off the attack, fearing that the international community would respond harshly and that Israel would be as isolated as, borrowing words from the Book of Jeremiah, “a juniper in the desert.” Begin feared that if Peres, the opposition leader, knew about the top-secret mission, others might know as well and the secret would leak, jeopardizing Ammunition Hill. He therefore decided to delay the mission but was far from giving up. The operation was given the new code name Opera, and a new date—June 7.

Placed at the head of the octet of planes that would attack the reactor was Ze’ev Raz, a commander of one of the F-16 squadrons and a native of kibbutz Geva, in northern Israel. Leading the second group was the squadron commander Amir Nachumi. Among the pilots were Amos Yadlin, later the head of military intelligence, and Captain Ilan Ramon, the group’s youngest member. Ramon was inexperienced but had served as the squadron’s navigation officer, and had particularly impressed Raz when he calculated and then proved that it would be possible to carry out the attack without refueling in midair, despite the trip’s 960-kilometer distance.

David Ivry decided that the planes would be gassed up when the engines were already running, an unusual and risky process. He also ordered the pilots to dump the detachable fuel tanks en route, despite the danger that they might hit the two bombs, each weighing a ton, that would be hanging under each plane’s wings. The mission carried considerable danger: at that time, Iraq was deeply enmeshed in its brutal war with Iran, and it was reasonable to assume that the reactor would be defended by missile batteries and fighter planes. The pilots had no doubt that their F-15s would be forced to face off against numerous MiGs.

They knew they were taking enormous risks. If they were attacked by the enemy, their chances of survival were almost nil. Even if a pilot, whose plane had been hit, managed to parachute into Iraqi territory, hundreds of miles away from home, he would most probably be captured, cruelly tortured and put to death. Yet every pilot who heard about the mission volunteered to be among the chosen few.

On June 7, they set out, crossing the Gulf of Akaba, flying above the northern Saudi Arabian desert, bypassing Jordan from the south, penetrating Iraq and cutting across the Euphrates River as they neared their target. One of the prominent landmarks on the flight path was supposed to be an island at the center of a lake. Raz saw the lake and looked for the island, but it had disappeared. Doubts arose in his mind—perhaps they were flying over the wrong lake? Only later did the squadrons learn that the flat island had been submerged after heavy rains in the region caused the water level to rise.

The nuclear reactor eventually appeared to them, surrounded by high, thick defensive walls that were the pride of Saddam Hussein. Raz initiated contact with his comrades, urging them to increase altitude lest they run into electrical wires or tall power poles in the area. But one fact astonished everyone: no air defense was in place! Not a single MiG was visible in the sky nor was a single missile fired at them. A few negligible antiaircraft cannons fired some shells, but they missed.

The planes plunged toward the reactor, dropping their bombs at a thirty-five-degree angle. A portion of the explosives obliterated the dome covering the reactor; others carrying timed fuses penetrated deeper and blew up the center of the internal installations, the true core of the core. Most hit their target, and the reactor was completely destroyed. One pilot erred and dropped his bombs on an adjoining structure.

In total, the run over the reactor lasted eighty seconds, with the planes then immediately turning back toward Israel. As procedure required, the commanders called on each of the pilots to identify themselves, one after another, as “Charlie.” All did so, except for Ramon. He didn’t respond to the repeated calls of his commanders; only during his debriefing did it come out that he had feared a tardy MiG attack and had believed, being the last in the formation, that it was he who would be hit. He was so focused on the “imaginary battle” that he had ignored the calls on the radio. But he eventually opened his mouth, and the mission’s lost boy was found. (Ramon was to become the first Israeli astronaut, but died tragically in 2003 in the crash of space shuttle Columbia.)

Nevertheless, the pilots felt certain that on their way home, they would encounter Iraqi MiGs scrambled to intercept them: planes that would take off from the H3 airbase, located in western Iraq and close to the Jordanian border, could easily attack them as they returned to Israel. But nothing happened. Not a single Iraqi plane raced to meet them, and all sixteen jets arrived home safely. A foreign attaché who had been staying in Baghdad at the time later said that the reactor’s air-defense commander had been sitting in a Baghdad café, and his underlings hadn’t managed to reach him. He was hanged in a public square in Baghdad the next day, under Saddam Hussein’s orders.

In the course of the attack, ten Iraqi soldiers and a French engineer staying in the structure next to the reactor were killed.

Back home, news of the incredible operation was received with immense excitement. Those who had opposed the mission—everyone except Shimon Peres—acknowledged their error and heaped praise on the mission and the pilots. Not so with the foreign nations. Israel was harshly denounced at numerous international forums. U.S. President Ronald Reagan, a friend of Israel, joined the chorus of condemnation, even imposing sanctions on Israel: a temporary freeze on weapons deliveries.

The dark prophecies of the mission’s opponents—that Saddam Hussein would build a nuclear weapon within two or three years—would prove completely false. Only in 1991, during the first Gulf War, did Israel’s allies come to understand how important its mission had been. Dick Cheney, the Bush administration’s defense secretary (and later, the U.S. vice president), thanked Israel during the war for its “daring, dramatic action.”

The IDF chief of staff awarded a citation to Ze’ev Raz for the flawless mission. Raz insisted that all the participants deserved a medal, though one air force commander would claim, “What do they deserve medals for? They showed up at the game and the other team never set foot on the field.” But the comment ignored the psychological effort, daring and determination of the pilots who had carried out the assignment.

After the mission was over, Israel published the Begin Doctrine, which stated that Israel would prevent any hostile Middle Eastern country from developing nuclear technology, because of the danger that an atomic weapon would be used against Israel.


“Ironically, I’m proudest of something else. During the Yom Kippur War, I was sent from Ramat David to the Sinai to intercept enemy planes. I was flying a Phantom. Suddenly, a MiG appeared in front of us, and my navigator locked in on it; the missile’s infrared radar also started buzzing, because it sensed the plane’s heat. But I didn’t fire the missile. My navigator shouts, ‘Ze’evik, why aren’t you taking down the plane? Bring it down already!’

“And I don’t fire. Something seems unclear. Why is this MiG flying alone? Why is it here? I came within a distance of four hundred meters, cannon range, and suddenly he breaks off and flies to the side. And then I saw: it’s not a MiG. It’s our Mirage!

“Several years go by, a short time after we established the Hawk Squadron, and David Ivry, the commander of the IAF, called me. It certainly couldn’t have been easy for him because, during my pilot training, I had struggled a bit, and he barely gave me my wings. He asked me, ‘Think about the reactor in Baghdad. Long range, low altitude: can we do this?’ I went to my navigation officer, Ilan Ramon, and he told me it’s possible.

“We did it without refueling in the air, and the Americans truly couldn’t believe it. Only afterward, when we returned, did I find out that one of the pilots, Elik Shafir, had discovered a glitch in his fueling system before takeoff. Instead of getting off the runway and handing off his place to someone else, he took off with less fuel and flew, carrying out the bombing and landing on his last drops of fuel. I told him, ‘Elik, that was crazy, but in your place, I would have done the same thing.’”

Operation Tarnegol 1956


On a pitch-black night in October 1956, the Israeli Air Force pilot Yoash (“Chatto”) Tzidon took off on the commands of his Meteor 13 night fighter, a sleek British-made jet, its black nose cone carrying a rounded radar device.

Chatto knew that his dangerous mission was crucial for the outcome of Israel’s next war. Accompanying him in his Meteor was the navigator Elyashiv (“Shibi”) Brosh. The pair knew that their assignment, if it succeeded, would stay top-secret for decades to come. Chatto also already knew that, the next day, October 29, Israel would launch its attack on Egypt. Ironically, his squadron, nicknamed “the Bat,” hadn’t been assigned a significant role; yet somehow, now, at the last minute, it had been tasked with Operation Rooster.

Chatto was accustomed to dangerous assignments. A fighter in the Palmach from the age of seventeen, he had served in a naval unit, departing for Europe in mid-1945 as a founder of the Gideons, an underground group of wireless operators that ran the communications network among the Aliya Bet (illegal immigration to pre-state Israel) command in Europe, illegal-immigrant camps, ships at sea and the Aliya Bet headquarters. He had escorted illegal immigrant ships, established a secret wireless station at a detention camp in Cyprus and participated in a sabotage mission against the British vessel Ocean Vigour, which was involved in expelling illegal Jewish immigrants. In Cyprus he met a nurse from Israel, Raisa Sharira, whom he made his wife. During the War of Independence, Chatto would command a military convoy to Jerusalem and, at the fighting’s conclusion, would enroll in the first pilot-training program in Israel.

As a combat pilot, he had made the transition to jet aircraft, and in 1955 was assigned to train a squadron of “night-fighter all-weather” jets. He called the squadron Zero Visibility.

In the last week of October 1956, Chatto was urgently recalled from England, where he was completing his training for nighttime dog fights. In Israel, his superiors informed him, in total secrecy, of the upcoming Sinai campaign, or Operation Kadesh. “In a couple of days,” they said, “we’ll be at war.”

On October 28, Chatto was transferred to the Tel Nof airbase, closer to the future theater of war. It was there, at 2:00 P.M., that he was urgently summoned to the IAF headquarters in Ramleh. The air force command dispatched a Piper plane to Tel Nof to bring him immediately, even though the trip from Tel Nof to Ramleh lasted barely twenty minutes by car. The head of the Air Department, Colonel Shlomo Lahat, locked the door of his office and explained the assignment to Chatto.

Lahat spoke succinctly, after swearing Chatto to secrecy. “You know,” he said, “that a joint command treaty was recently signed by Egypt, Jordan and Syria. We have learned that the Egyptian and Syrian military chiefs of staff are now conducting talks in Damascus. All the senior staff of the Egyptian Army, Navy and Air Force is participating in the discussions, which are run by Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, chief of staff of the Egyptian Army.

”Trusted intelligence sources,” Lahat added, “report that the Egyptian delegation will return to Cairo tonight on a Soviet-made plane, Ilyushin ll-14.

“Your mission,” Lahat told Chatto, “is to bring down the plane.”

Chatto understood the tremendous significance of the assignment. If he shot down the plane, the Egyptian armed forces would be left without a military staff and a supreme commander on the eve of a war. The outcome of the entire conflict might hinge on his success.

Lahat expected that the Egyptian plane would choose a flight path far from Israel, outside the range of its fighter planes. He proposed that Chatto take off in his own aircraft and circle above Damascus while he waited for the Egyptian Ilyushin to take flight.

Chatto disagreed. “If they discover my presence, I could get in trouble with their interceptors. Or my fuel tanks could run out before they’ve even taken off.”

Lahat asked what he proposed instead.

Chatto knew that the up-to-the-minute information would be reported by the IDF special units listening to the Egyptian-Syrian communication channel. “Call me half an hour after takeoff,” Tzidon said, “when the plane is over the Mediterranean, in range of our radar.”

Lahat looked at him in surprise. “Do whatever you think is best,” he eventually said.

The Piper jet brought Chatto promptly to Ramat David airbase, where he had parked his Meteor. Shibi Brosh, the navigator, was already there. The pair prepped the plane, even conducting a nighttime test flight. Chatto knew that his principal problem was that the Ilyushin ll-14 was a relatively slow piston aircraft, and that his own Meteor was fast. To hit the Ilyushin, he would need to slow his plane down as much as possible—to landing speed or even less; but at such a speed, his aircraft might stall with its nose upward, and then dive and crash. An idea came to him about how to overcome the problem—by partially lowering the landing flaps, which he practiced midair.

Night fell. The call came several hours after dinner. Chatto, with nerves of steel, had even managed to sleep for about thirty minutes, when, at ten-thirty, he was awakened. The Egyptian plane had taken off from Damascus, he was told, and it had turned toward the sea in a wide arc. It was somewhere at the edge of the Meteor’s range of action, advancing toward Egypt at a height of ten thousand feet, or thirty-two hundred meters.

At 10:45, Chatto and Shibi took off into the night. All of Israel was dark; there wasn’t a trace of moon in the sky. Chatto had never seen such darkness.

The Meteor advanced through the total blackness, with the cockpit faintly illuminated by infrared light so that the pilot’s and navigator’s night vision wouldn’t be diminished. On the two-way radio, Chatto listened to the flight controllers on the ground, identifying among them the serene, restrained voice of Dan Tolkovsky, the IAF commander.

Then the first glitch occurred: Chatto discovered that the fuel in the detachable tanks wasn’t transferring into the main tanks. The plane had taken off with two reserve wing tanks, each containing 350 liters of fuel, and Chatto realized, just like that, that he had lost seven hundred liters. With no other choice, he detached the reserve tanks from the wings and dumped them into the sea. A short time later, he heard Shibi’s excited voice on the internal two-way radio: “Contact! Contact! Contact!”

“Contact!” Chatto radioed to the ground controller.

Shibi sent him precise instructions: “Boogie [unidentified plane] at two o’clock! Same altitude, three miles away, straight forward, moving to three o’clock, now moving to four o’clock, taking a hard right. Lower your speed! Pay attention, you’re closing in fast!”

Chatto couldn’t see a thing, but he followed Shibi’s instructions to the letter, not cluing him in to the problem that would arise when he needed to bring his own speed into line with that of the slow transport plane.

“Eleven o’clock,” Shibi continued. “Descend five hundred. Lower your speed. Distance: seven hundred feet.”

Chatto strained to see. At first, it appeared that he could make out the Egyptian plane’s silhouette; then he discerned a “faint, hesitant” flame emitting from the pipes of the piston engines.

“Eye contact,” he reported to ground control.

Tolkovsky’s voice echoed in his earphones. “I want a confirmed ID of the vessel whose outline you’ve observed. Confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt. Understood?” The air force commander wanted to avoid any mistake that might unnecessarily cost human lives.

Chatto was now behind the Egyptian plane. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted its exhaust pipe and maneuvered left, until he could discern the stronger light of the passenger windows. He approached the Egyptian plane, coming to it “nothing less than wing to wing.”

Gradually, the silhouette of the entire plane became perceptible. The shape of the windows in the passenger section resembled those of windows on a Dakota aircraft, but the cockpit windows were bigger, a feature unique to the Ilyushin ll-14. Chatto could also identify the shape of the Ilyushin’s tail.

As he approached the windows, he could make out people in military uniforms walking in the aisle between the seats. Those in the seats also appeared to be wearing uniforms. Flying in close to the Ilyushin had cost him at least ten minutes of fuel, but it had been necessary to confirm the initial identification.

“I confirm ID,” he radioed to ground control.

“You are authorized to open fire only if you have no doubt whatsoever,” Tolkovsky instructed.

The moment had arrived to test the maneuver Chatto had attempted earlier. He lowered the landing flaps by a third, thereby preventing a stall.

“Firing,” he announced into the two-way radio, and pressed the trigger.

Two malfunctions immediately occurred. Someone had loaded the cannons with munitions that included tracing bullets, which, for a moment, blinded him. The second glitch was a blockage in the cannon on the right, which brought about the same effect as an engine breakdown. The Meteor went into a spin, but Chatto regained control and steadied it. Although the Ilyushin had been darkened, he hadn’t lost it, and he could see a flame that flickered from the left-side engine. He reported the hit.

“Finish it off, at any cost,” Tolkovsky’s voice commanded. “I repeat: at any cost!” Chatto knew that if the plane wasn’t brought down right now, Israel would lose the surprise factor during its attack on Egypt the following day.

The Ilyushin was now flying with one engine, much slower than the Meteor’s landing speed. Firing again—with unequal kickback from the cannons, now that one was blocked—would surely throw the Meteor into a spin. Chatto again lowered the landing flaps, increased the power of the engines, and lurched at the Ilyushin. Suddenly another danger materialized: a collision with the Egyptian plane.

Chatto put this fear out of his mind and sped toward the Ilyushin. When he came within fifty meters of it, he heard Shibi shout, “Change course! Change course! We’re going to hit it. I see it on both sides of the cockpit.”

Shibi’s command probably saved them both. At the last second, Chatto squeezed the trigger and suddenly found himself “in the midst of hellfire.”

His shells exploded into the Ilyushin, barely a few feet from the muzzle of the Meteor’s cannon. Fire engulfed the Egyptian plane, shooting across it at the same instant that an explosion transformed it into a fireball. Flaming parts flew past the Meteor. The burning Egyptian plane spun and dived—and, because of uneven kickback from its own blocked cannon, so did the Meteor. Both planes plunged. “A fireball and a darkened plane spun one beside the other, and one above the other,” Chatto later wrote, “both out of control, as if performing a sickening, surreal dance.”

At the last moment, Chatto was able to exit the spin, at an altitude estimated at between 150 and three hundred meters. Simultaneously, he saw the Ilyushin smash and explode into the waves of the Mediterranean.

Chatto climbed to fifteen thousand feet and reported, “Accomplished!”

Tolkovsky wanted to be sure. “You saw it crash?”

“Affirmative. It crashed.” Chatto then looked at the fuel gauge and was horrified. “I’m low on fuel—very low. Give me directions to the closest base.”

He had no idea where he was. The sole radar that located the Meteor was an aircraft battery device on the Hatzor airbase. The battery’s commander took it upon himself to direct “the Bat” to the landing strip.

“I’ll fly in this direction as long as I have fuel,” Chatto radioed.

“You think you can make it?” The controller’s voice sounded dubious.

Chatto attempted to keep things light. “I poured the fluid from Shibi’s cigarette lighter into the fuel tank.”

Tolkovsky cut him off: “No names!”

The fuel gauge dropped to zero. One minute, two minutes, three . . . Suddenly, Chatto could make out the lights of the Hatzor runway, which had been illuminated for him despite the blackout. The plane glided toward the landing strip, and Chatto touched down.

As the plane barreled down the runway, the engines shut off, one after the other. The final drops of fuel had run out, but the Meteor was on the ground.

The base’s whiz technician reached the plane first. “You did it?” he asked.


“So the war has started.”

Ezer Weizman, the base commander and a nephew of Israel’s first president, arrived immediately.

“Congrats!” Never one to miss a chance to show off, he went on, “Notice, it was only Hatzor that could bring you in.” He added, “They’re waiting for you at headquarters. There’s a problem.”

At headquarters, Lahat, Tolkovsky, and Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan were waiting for Chatto and Shibi. They shook hands.

“What’s the problem?” Chatto inquired.

“At the last minute, Amer decided not to fly on the Ilyushin. He’s going to take off later, on a Dakota.”

The spirit of battle overcame Chatto. “If there’s time, we’ll refuel and go out on a second run,” he offered, and Shibi nodded in agreement.

“It would be too obvious and would expose intelligence sources,” Dayan said. “Let’s leave him be. The moment you wiped out the general staff, you won half the war. Let’s drink to the other half.”

Dayan pulled out a bottle of wine, and everyone toasted.

The 1956 War had thus begun, yet only a handful Israelis knew.

Operation Rooster would remain top-secret for thirty-three years, with details reaching the public only in 1989. The Egyptians never reported the downing of the aircraft, probably because they weren’t aware that it had been targeted; in Cairo, rumors spread that the plane had crashed close to a desert island, and that the army senior staff was still there, awaiting rescue.

Marshal Amer, the Egyptian chief of staff at the time, would commit suicide after the Six Day War.


In March 1993, four years after details of Operation Rooster were released, a young Egyptian unexpectedly reached out to Chatto Tzidon. He was Ahmed Jaffar Nassim, the son of an adviser to President Nasser, who had died during Chatto’s operation. The dramatic meeting between the son and the man who had killed his father took place at the Tel Aviv Hilton. The meeting, Chatto later said, was “emotional but without bitterness.” Jaffar, a disabled man in a wheelchair, wanted to know if it was true that his father had fallen into Israeli captivity and been tortured to death after his plane made a forced landing. Chatto clarified that there had been no forced landing, that the operation had been one of “door-to-door service.”

Two years later, Chatto helped Jaffar Nassim gain admission for surgery at Rambam Hospital, in Haifa. “The desire to aid him came out of a feeling of sharing in his sorrow over his father’s death . . . as well as the thought that my own son could have found himself in a similar situation.”

This was just one way in which Chatto showed an unusual streak of sensitivity toward others. His spouse, Raisa, recalls how on the eve of the 1956 War, at a dinner at the home of friends in London, Chatto met the sister of the hostess, an Auschwitz survivor. She was on her way to Israel and remarked “how much she would have liked to see Paris.”

“Why don’t you stop on your way?” Chatto asked. The woman replied, “I have a one-year-old baby. I can’t.”

Chatto had a solution: “I’ll take the baby to Israel.”

And, just like that, he took responsibility for the little girl, caring for and feeding her on the plane. When they stopped in Rome for a layover, he selected an excellent hotel, entrusting the baby to the hotel matron. The next day, he flew on with the infant to Israel. His wife was waiting for him at the airfield. and when she saw a man in a tweed suit with a baby in his arms, didn’t recognize him.

“How did you end up responsible for a baby?” Raisa asked.

He looked at her in surprise. “Her mother had never seen Paris,” he said.

In October 1956, while the Soviet Union is involved in revolts in Warsaw and Budapest against its dictatorship, and the U.S. is in the final stage of its presidential campaign—Dwight Eisenhower is running for a second term—Israel attacks Egypt and achieves a dramatic victory that makes Moshe Dayan a legendary hero. The British and the French, however, fail in their campaign to occupy the Suez Canal.





Ludwig Bockholt

Though streng geheim, the secret purpose of the super Zeppelins being built in the cavernous sheds at Friedrichshafen, the Luftschiff mother base, in September 1917, had long been known to every urchin on the streets of the town. And to Central Power allies as far away as Constantinople. And of course to the Room 40 code breakers, and to the intelligence staff of the British War Office—perhaps alerted, as Woodhall claimed in his Spies of the Great War, by his mysterious Bulgarian/American agent.

An officer of the Kaiserlich Marine’s Airship Service on a train from Friedrichshafen to Berlin was approached by a random passenger with questions about the new Zeppelins: Were they really going to Africa? And would the officer have the honor of going with them? Having been sworn to silence, having even signed very serious papers to this effect, the officer feigned ignorance. But perhaps silence lacked pertinence to a morale-boosting mission everyone in Germany—and elsewhere—already seemed to know about.

By May 1917, von Lettow had become a national hero. Valiantly fighting to preserve German honor in a lost colony, completely isolated by the enemies of the Fatherland, he now lacked nearly everything, even the most basic supplies. His Schutztruppe lived off the land at the edges of the Makonde Plateau in the Mahenge country; most of his askaris fought with rifles and ammunition captured from the British. To the Kaiser and to others in the High Command, von Lettow’s long struggle in an African backwater had become a matter of great strategic importance: Both the Allies and the Central Powers expected the war to end in a negotiated settlement; at the peace talks it would help the German cause if Germany could claim her forces still held the field in Africa, fighting for possession of at least one of her overseas colonies. Unfortunately, von Lettow’s situation now seemed more desperate than ever. How long could he continue the struggle without material aid from the Fatherland?

Professor Dr. Max Zupitza, zoologist and medical doctor, came up with a singular answer to this question. Zupitza, an old Africa hand from the Karl Peters era, had survived both the Maji-Maji Rebellion and the Herero-Hottentot War, and at the outbreak of the Universal Conflict in 1914 was the chief medical officer of German South West Africa. Captured by the British after the fall of Windhoek, he spent a year cooling his heels in a POW camp in Togo, where he heard tales of von Lettow-Vorbeck’s impressive victories in GEA. Exchanged in 1916, he returned to Germany, determined to help the Oberstleutnant in his unequal struggle—but how? Then, in July 1917, Zupitza read in the Wilnaer Zeitung about the endurance flight of LZ 120, which had recently spent more than 100 hours circling the Baltic. Fired with enthusiasm that “an airship could remain aloft to accomplish a voyage to Africa,” he petitioned the Kolonialamt with a wild scheme to outfit a Zeppelin to resupply the beleaguered Schutztruppe.

In desperate times, government officials are often willing to listen to wild schemes; the wilder the better. Zupitza’s proposal, forwarded by the Colonial Office to the navy, found favor with naval chief of staff Admiral von Holtzendorff, who passed it on to the Kaiser. The German emperor, nearly as obsessed with von Lettow as Smuts had been, readily gave his imperial blessings. Construction of the first of the super Zeppelins, the ill-fated L57, began in October 1917. Zupitza immediately proposed himself as medical officer for the expedition and was accepted. It seemed fitting that the originator of the Zeppelin-Schutztruppe resupply mission, now code-named “China Show,” should share its fate.


They chose Bockholt for his boldness and also because he was expendable. But following the disastrous incineration of L57 at the forward Luftschiff base in Jamboli, Bulgaria, on October 7, 1917, Korvettenkapitan Peter Strasser, the steel-souled mastermind of the Zeppelin blitz on London and commander of the Naval Airship Division, had wanted Bockholt removed from command of China Show. The floundering, storm-racked airship, Strasser believed, had been mishandled by her commander. An inquiry had revealed that, at the height of the gale, with the ground crew still clinging desperately to L57’s mooring ropes, Bockholt had ordered riflemen to shoot holes in the Zeppelin’s hydrogen cells, hoping to release enough gas to bring her down. Not only did this gesture show a poor understanding of basic Zeppelin mechanics (a few bullet-sized puncture wounds wouldn’t make much difference), the bullets probably ignited the volatile hydrogen/oxygen mixture, causing the blaze that destroyed her.

But forces higher up the command structure of the German Navy intervened. Some saw the Kaiser’s hand in it, as Bockholt was not popular with his immediate superiors or his fellow officers—many of whom thought him a selfish careerist who put personal advancement above the good of the service—though all agreed he did not lack courage. Had he not captured the schooner Royal by Zeppelin at sea, an event unique in the war? Still, “Every commander wanted to make the African flight,” so said Emil Hoff, elevator man aboard Zeppelin L42, “and matches were drawn,” selecting another. To no avail; Bockholt kept his job.

“A fine airship commander and a skillful flyer,” Strasser allowed at last, bowing to the Imperial Will. Though he added, “He has not enough experience of the capabilities of airships.”

The same lack of experience characterized L59’s crew—not the best men available, but adequate—and also, like Bockholt, because of their inexperience, expendable. Most, fairly new to the airship service, had been chosen because the mission didn’t come with a return ticket. Once its payload of armaments, ammunition, and supplies had been delivered to von Lettow, L59 would be disassembled on the ground in East Africa and all her parts cannibalized to aid the war effort there, captain and crew included: Like the men of the Königsberg before them, they would join the Schutztruppe and fight alongside von Lettow’s askaris in the jungle until the end.

Strasser privately saw the African mission as little more than a morale-boosting stunt in a military backwater and, though popular with command staff, of secondary importance. All his fearsome energies were directed toward the destruction of England, all his best captains and crews reserved for this imperative. He still believed—as he had written in a memo to Vizeadmiral Reinhard Scheer, commander of Germany’s High Seas Fleet—that “England can be overcome by means of airships, inasmuch as the country will be deprived of the means of existence through the increasingly extensive destruction of cities, factory complexes, dockyards, harbor works with war and merchant ships lying therein, railroads, etc. . . . The airships offer certain means of victoriously ending the war.”

Ironically, in the end, Strasser came to agree with the Kaiser’s choice of Bockholt for China Show. It saved better men for the real Zeppelin war, which to him belonged to the darkened skies over London, to the bombs falling on the Theater District and perhaps on Buckingham Palace itself.


L59, pushed by a tailwind from the direction of the German Reich, rumbled south from Jamboli in the freezing dawn of November 21, 1917, at speeds in excess of fifty miles per hour. The great lumbering airship cast her shadow over Adrianople in Turkey at nine forty-five a.m., and over the Sea of Marmara’s chop a short time later. At Pandena, on the southern shore, she picked up the railroad tracks to Smyrna, a steel ribbon barely visible after sunset. At seven forty p.m., L59 pulled free of the Turkish coast at the Lipsas Straits. Now the Greek Dodecanese Islands—Kos, Patmos, Rhodes—passed below, nestled like dark jewels in the black Mediterranean waters, notoriously stormy this time of year. But tonight, the Zeppelin surged forward beneath a clear sky and brilliant stars. Bockholt, who had made his life in the navy, had long ago learned to steer by them when necessary.

L59’s crew of twenty—excluding Bockholt and Zupitza—included twelve mechanics to service the five Maybach 240-horsepower engines (one in the forward control car, two opposed on the belly one-third of the way back, and two aft, each driving a single, massive twenty-foot propeller); two “elevator operators” (the elevators, movable flaps at the tail, controlled the upward or downward incline of the nose cone); a radio operator; and a sailmaker, whose job it was to sew up tears in the muslin envelopes affixed within the belly filled with the flammable hydrogen/oxygen mixture that kept the massive airship afloat.

As in the seaborne navy, watches divided the day into four-hour increments. As L59 approached the island of Crete at eight thirty p.m., a quarter of the crew just gone off watch opened their dinnertime cans of Kaloritkon, a bizarre sort of self-heating MRE. These undigestible, oversalted tubes of potted meat literally cooked themselves via a chemical reaction when exposed to air—heating food over open flame and smoking being strictly verboten aboard the flammable airship. The Kaloritkons, which everyone hated, took much water to wash down, and water was scarce, with barely 14 liters allotted per man for the duration of the voyage.

At ten fifteen p.m., L59 passed above Cape Sidero at Crete’s eastern extremity at 3,000 feet. Then the stars by which Bockholt had been guiding the Zeppelin to Africa suddenly disappeared, blotted out by a solid mass of black, churning clouds, shot through with bright veins of lightning. The Zeppelin headed into this cloud bank and, buffeted by thunderclaps and driving rain, was also suddenly consumed by a strange, vivid flame, cool to the touch, that seemed to dance across every surface of the doped canvas envelope.

“The ship’s burning!” called the top lookout—alarming, but no cause for alarm: This was St. Elmo’s fire, named after Erasmus of Formia, the patron saint of sailors. Technically a luminous plasma generated by coronal discharge in an atmospheric electrical field, it burned a vivid violet-blue and, in nontechnical terms, was entirely beautiful. For uncounted centuries the phenomenon had been interpreted as a sign—of what, exactly, no one could say—of God’s blessing, or God’s curse: It had been seen dancing above the obelisks of the Hippodrome just before the Fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453; it would be seen later, curling along the cockpit and around the spinning props of the B-29 Bockscar as she dropped Fat Boy on Nagasaki in 1945.

Not a quiet phenomenon, St. Elmo’s fire now hissed and sizzled and popped as L59 passed through the storm, fading at last as the super Zeppelin broke into clear air and dazzling moonlight. Now Africa glowed faintly dead ahead, the pirate seaports of the northern coast. For the duration of the storm, L59’s radio antennae, three long delicate wires trailing below her vast belly, had been wound in. Muffled in radio silence, the Zeppelin had been unreachable by any communication from Germany.

As it happened, three and a half hours into the flight, officials at the Kolonialamt having been informed somehow—how, exactly, will become a critical question—of British advances into the Makonde Highlands, last known gathering place of the Schutztruppe, decided to recall the mission. The Kolonialamt relayed this decision to Admiral von Holtzendorff, who broke the news to a crestfallen Kaiser. The Zeppelin handlers at Jamboli, soon informed of the recall, attempted to contact L59 but could not; she had passed beyond the limits of their frail transmitter. Jamboli called this failure back to Berlin: “L59 can no longer be reached from here, request recall through Nauen.” The radio transmitter at Nauen, near Berlin, the most powerful in Germany, then took up the recall message and continued to broadcast it all night long. But with her antenna wound in, deaf to these entreaties, L59 kept on her course for East Africa.

At five fifteen a.m., the sun cracked the rim of earth and the huge airship passed over the African continent at Ras Bulair on the Libyan coast. Miles of desert lay ahead; no Zeppelin had flown across such a landscape before. Now the level wastes of sand and rock stretched monotonously below L59’s keel, from horizon to horizon. Soon, the sun, blazing down, began to dry her canvas skin, still drenched and heavy from the storm. The airship grew lighter as the watery sheen evaporated; lighter still as fuel consumption continued apace. Then the gas in her envelopes, expanding with the heat, blew out the automatic valves into the atmosphere and soon, L59 became dangerously light and increasingly difficult to handle. To compensate, Bockholt flew her “nose down” throughout the day, shifting 1,650 pounds of ballast aft as a counterbalance.

In the late morning, hot desert air rose in bubbles of buoyancy, alternating with heavy downdrafts of cooler air. This caused a roller-coaster effect that made most of the crew violently airsick. Even the hardened navy veterans among them, used to storms at sea, were not immune to the stomach-churning sensation of weightlessness as L59 plunged into the downdrafts and precipitously rose again. Despite all this, L59 plowed ahead and made the Farafra Oasis around noon. This incandescent patch of green slid by below, its date palms rustling in the hot wind. The Bedouin tribesmen gathered there looked up in wild surmise, shading their eyes as the massive Zeppelin slid by overhead, still watching as she disappeared toward the west, the grumbling of her five Maybach engines audible long after she had vanished into the clouds.

Three hours later, the airship reached another oasis, at Dakhla. In this remote place, at the very heart of the desert, many of the tribesmen gathered with their camels around the murky spring had not heard of the war, or been aware that men could take to the air in flying machines. The sight of L59 looming above them like a visitation from a strange new god filled them with fear. (Years later, in 1933, a German aviator passing through the Dakhla Oasis saw crude images of a Zeppelin scrawled on the walls and doors of native huts. Questioning a Bedouin sheikh as to the meaning of these renderings, he was told the scrawl represented the shape of a “powerful sign from the heavens,” which had appeared twenty years before, and that it was worshipped as “a herald of Holy Grace.” Even now, he said, his people watched the skies for its return.)

From Dakhla, where apparently L59 had just inspired its own cargo cult, Bockholt aimed for the Nile. Flying across the endless desert, some of the men in this last era before the ubiquity of sunglasses had gone half-blind from the dazzling glare of sun on sand. Others had been visited with splitting headaches. A few, mesmerized by the persistent drone and the featureless monotony passing below, had become prey to hallucinations: Mirages rose out of the desert, ancient cities, half as old as time, full of jinn out of the Arabian Nights.

Meanwhile, the prosaic Bockholt in the forward gondola used the ship’s shadow crawling along the desert floor as a navigational tool. L59’s exact length, known to the millimeter and factored into a preset equation, measured both ground speed and drift. The Zeppelin sailed through the hot afternoon toward the Nile at sixty miles per hour, functioning perfectly until four twenty p.m. when a juddering sensation preceded the failure of her forward engine. Presently, the big propeller spun to a stop. Mechanics soon determined the reduction gear housing had cracked; they repaired it as best they could but took the engine out of service for the remainder of the journey. Now L59’s radio could not send messages, as this engine drove the radio generator—though radio signals could still be received.

Just before dusk, a flock of flamingos, vividly pink in the setting sun, flapped below L59’s nose cone; a moment later the marshes of the Nile came into view and the airship flew over mile after mile of verdant wetlands. Bockholt made for the great river, crossing over it at Wadi Halfa. Here he turned south, skirting the Nile’s broad flow and droning onward toward Khartoum and the Sudan beyond the last cataract.

Flying a Zeppelin is a difficult undertaking under the best conditions: Gas expands and contracts according to changing temperatures; lift and buoyancy fluctuate; all must be counterbalanced ceaselessly by the release of ballast water, the measured shifting of cargo, the canting of nose or tail via clumsy elevator flaps—and all this becomes doubly difficult over the desert. Bockholt had lightened his airship by 4,400 pounds of ballast in the last full heat of day and had even tossed some boxes of supplies overboard. He knew the rapidly cooling temperatures of the desert at night would contract the gas, causing the Zeppelin to sink. To counterbalance this sinking effect, he had planned to fly the ship at four degrees “nose up” on her four remaining engines.

But he had not counted on the humid, dense air of the Nile Valley. Even at 3,000 feet, ambient temperatures had reached sixty-eight degrees by ten p.m.; they rose steadily after midnight and still L59’s lift capacity gradually diminished. Finally, at three a.m., L59 began to lose altitude precipitously. The engines stalled. Forward thrust gone, the Zeppelin sank through the atmosphere from 3,100 feet to just under 1,300, not high enough to clear a looming desert escarpment; a minute later, her main radio antennae sheared off upon contact with an outcropping of red rock.

Now Bockholt ordered his crew to lighten the ship even further. With all engines stopped, 6,200 pounds of ballast and ammunition went overboard. The crew watched cases of ammunition, much needed by the Schutztruppe, shatter and explode on the ragged slopes below. But this sacrifice had its desired effect: Gradually, the sinking super Zeppelin stabilized; slowly, she rose into safer atmospheres:

“To fly steadily at 4 degrees heavy at night can easily be catastrophic, especially with sudden temperature changes in the Sudan, as at Jebel Ain,” Bockholt later confided to L59’s war diary, “particularly if the engines fail from overheating with warm outside temperatures. . . . Ship should have 3000 kg of 4 percent of her lift for each night to take care of cooling effect.”

Clearly, it was a complicated business.