Landshut Hijacking and GSG 9 Rescue in Mogadishu

October 13, 1977

By the late 1970s, cooperation between rejectionist Palestinians and leftist European terrorists had reached a high point. Joint training, weapons exchanges, operational insights, and trading of operational personnel freely flowed among the various wings of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), West German Baader-Meinhof Group and other German leftists, Italian Red Brigades, Irish Republican Army (IRA), Petra Kraus Group, Basque Nation and Liberty, and a host of other now-forgotten organizations. But government forces were similarly banding together against the terrorists, with quick reaction elite forces sharing training, tactics, and doctrine. The Israeli success at Entebbe led to numerous special operations teams armed with clipboards and light weapons to learn the lessons of the Israelis. They were put into practice in October 1977, when a West German team traveled thousands of miles to conduct a similarly daring rescue of its citizens from hijackers. The Entebbe and Landshut rescues led terrorists to all but abandon high-profile aerial hijacking sieges.

On October 13, 1977, Lufthansa flight 181, a B-737 (called a Landshut) scheduled to fly from the Spanish resort island of Mallorca to Frankfurt, was hijacked 55 minutes after takeoff. Two women hijackers reached into their boots, withdrew guns and hand grenades, and along with two male accomplices, diverted the plane to Rome. On board were 82 passengers and 5 crew. Hostages included a Spanish flight crew, Swedish passengers, an Austrian flight attendant, four West German crew, six West German beauty queens, and two Americans.

Two hijackers identified themselves as Harda Mamoud and Walter Mohammed, who appeared to be their leader. A statement in grammatical and concise Arabic delivered to Reuters in Beirut identified them as the Organization of Struggle against World Imperialism, which confirms the “objectives and demands” of the Red Army Faction kidnappers of industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer. The group demanded the release of 11 terrorists from the Socialist Patients’ Collective and Baader-Meinhof Group in West German jails, as well as the release of two PFLP terrorists held in Turkish jails since an attack on August 11, 1976. They demanded $15 million and 100,000 marks for each prisoner. The terrorists demanded to have the prisoners flown to Vietnam, Somalia, or South Yemen.

The hijackers took off for Cyprus, landing in Larnaca, although the Cypriot government at first barred their arrival. In what came to be known as Operation Oscar X-Ray, Hans-Juergen Wischnewski, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s troubleshooter, carrying satchels with millions of marks, set off in a German jet trailing the hijacked plane in the hopes of beginning negotiations. Simultaneously, a West German commando unit began practicing assaults on a similar B-737 in the Cologne, West Germany, airport hangar. Two squads of 32 men each boarded a third jet and headed for Cyprus that night. Soon afterward, the German jet carrying the commandos arrived in Akrotiri, Cyprus, 50 miles from Larnaca, Cyprus. Perhaps fearing an Entebbe-type raid, the hijackers took off for Bahrain.

On its way, the plane was refused permission on October 14, 1977, to land in Beirut, Damascus, Kuwait, and Iraq. Bahrain and Dubai, which were next on their itinerary, tried to prevent the plane’s landing. Vietnam, Somalia, and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, named by the hijackers as candidates to receive the released prisoners, indicated their unwillingness.

The hijackers hoped to increase the pressure by their treatment of the hostages and establish an image of being willing to kill. They consistently refused requests to release sick, young, or female passengers. The leader of the hijackers called out the names of those he believed were Jewish and said they would be killed in the morning. The female hijacker took delight in brushing grenades against the heads of the passengers while the terrorist leader ranted against imperialism and Zionism. Pressure mounted when the hijackers fired three shots at Dubai engineers approaching the aircraft to attach a mobile generator because the plane’s lighting system had failed.

The plane now headed for Oman, but the Sultan refused permission to land. They went on to Aden, but Yemen attempted to prevent the landing as well. Pilot Juergen Schumann left the aircraft to inspect damage to the landing gear and wandered into an area cordoned off by security forces. He attempted to convince the authorities not to allow the damaged plane to take off again. When he got back to the cabin, he was forced to kneel in the aisle while a one-question trial was held on whether he tried to escape. The leaders of the hijackers fired a bullet through his head in front of the passengers.

The terrorists forced the copilot to head the plane for Somalia. When the plane landed at Mogadishu, the pilot’s body was dumped onto the runway. The hijackers tied up the hostages, poured alcohol from passengers’ gift-shop liquor over them and in the cabin for eventual burning, and collected passports to throw out so that passengers could be identified after the planned explosion.

International recoil at this action grew to recognition of the need for immediate, forceful response. The team members of Grenzchutzgruppe Neun (GSG 9) set off before the Somali government gave permission for the rescue.

The GSG 9 team moved on the plane at 2:00 A.M. on October 18, 1977. Approaching from the rear, the commandos set up four stepladders. They ignited an oil drum and rolled it toward the nose of the plane and away from the craft. The hijackers were drawn to the cockpit for a better look, allowing the commandos to open the plane’s doors simultaneously. The raiders threw in specially designed British flash-bang grenades. Rushing in, the commandos yelled, “Get down!” Two terrorists were killed in the cockpit. A third in the first-class compartment opened fire. Although hit by two bullets, he hurled a grenade toward the rear of the plane. Hit by more bullets, he detonated another grenade while falling, injuring several hostages. The fourth terrorist, a woman, opened fire through the door of the lavatory in the rear of the plane. She was quickly subdued. Six minutes after the beginning of the operation, the passengers were safely out of the plane. One commando and four passengers were slightly injured.

The euphoria of the Germans was tempered by the embarrassment to the government over the prison suicides of Baader-Meinhof members Andreas Baader, Jan-Carl Raspe, and Gudrun Ensslin, and the attempted suicide of Irmgard Moeller.

On October 27, 1977, the PFLP-Special Operations claimed credit, saying that the hijack leader was Zuhair Akkasha, whose fingerprints matched those of the killer of North Yemen’s former prime minister, Al Jehri, on April 10, 1977. The two other dead hijackers were identified as Nadia Shehade Doebis and Nabi Ibrahim Harb. Many suggested that the hijackers were members of an Iraqi-based group PFLP wing headed by Wadi Haddad.

In the wake of Japan’s embarrassment over caving in to hijackers during a September 28, 1977, incident in India and Germany’s jubilation over its success, many other nations felt pressed to establish similar commando rescue squads.

On March 20, 1993, Monika Haas was arrested for involvement in the Landshut hijacking. A warrant was issued for hostage-taking, kidnapping for the purpose of blackmail, and disrupting air traffic. She had been under investigation since March 4, 1993. She had written a book entitled The Red Army Faction–Stasi Connection. Haas was tried in 1996 for providing the weapons. She was sentenced in 1998 to five years in prison. A federal court dismissed her 2000 appeal.

On October 31, 1994, Der Spiegel reported that Palestinian Soraya Ansari, 41, was arrested in Norway and provided investigators with details of the Landshut hijacking of which she was the sole survivor. She stated that she knew Haas, who lived in Frankfurt, Germany. She said that Haas was the former wife of a Palestinian leader. Germany’s request for Ansari’s extradition was rejected by a lower court judge on December 9, 1994, citing humanitarian considerations. The decision was reversed a week later by an intermediate level court. She was freed just before Christmas.

As of January 6, 1995, Ansari, alias Souhaila Sami Andrawes, was fighting extradition. She admitted her role in the hijacking. A Somali court convicted her of air piracy and terrorism and sentenced her to 20 years. She was placed on a cargo plane to Baghdad and freedom in 1978. Beirut-born Ansari had been on Interpol’s wanted list since the early 1980s. Norwegian authorities said they did not know of her past when she, her husband Ahmed Abu-Matar, and daughter received residency permits after arriving from Cyprus in 1991.

Ansari claimed that Germany could not try her because of double jeopardy; she had already served time in Somali jails for the same crime. German officials said that a new German trial would be lawful because Somalia is not a signatory to international judicial conventions and that a year in jail fell far short of justice.

On November 19, 1996, Hamburg’s State Supreme Court convicted Suhaila Sayeh, a Palestinian woman, of murder and other crimes and sentenced her to 12 years in prison for her role in the Landshut hijacking. She was one of the four hijackers, but claimed she had no role in killing the plane’s pilot. The court ruled that she had been complicit. Sayeh was the only hijacker to survive the German GSG 9 rescue operation in Somalia that freed 87 hostages. She was arrested in 1994 in Oslo, Norway, and extradited to Germany.



This map shows the German nightfighter defences in early 1942. The coastal chain of dark fighting Freya-AN Dunaja zones is backed by a line of Himmelbett boxes ranging from Denmark into France. Each Freya and Himmelbett station could control only one fighter at a time. By mid-1942 the searchlights had been withdrawn to the cities, creating large illuminated zones (here marked in a lighter green) where Konaja, and later Wilde Sau, fighting could take place.

Luftwaffe night fighter control methods.

On 14 May 1940 the Luftwaffe set out to break the dogged Dutch hold on the north bank of the Maas by a mass attack on Rotterdam. As the bombers neared their target, the Dutch opened negotiations for surrender. The Luftwaffe recalled its bombers, but one unit – the fifty-seven Heinkels of KG 54 – had already done its work and started fires which gutted the heart of the Old City. Far worse attacks had been made on Polish cities, and later on Belgrade, but for some reason this incident made the Allied leaders recoil in horror. On the following day Winston Churchill, just appointed British Prime Minister, announced that henceforth the RAF could bomb Germany. That night ninety-six heavies set out against specific oil and rail targets in the Ruhr. Only twenty-four even claimed to have located their objectives.

Later, a bomber pilot visiting TRE said, ‘They used to tell us to bomb Krupps, but we were lost as soon as we left the aerodrome.’ Clearly, Bomber Command had a long and difficult road ahead; but so did the Luftwaffe. Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, the famed head of the Luftwaffe, had promised in August 1939, ‘We will not expose the Ruhr to a single bomb dropped by enemy aircraft.’ He had just inspected some of the Luftwaffe’s heavy Flak emplacements near Essen, with 88, 105 and 128 mm guns radar-directed by the new Würzburgs. By a very wide margin indeed, it was the best AA artillery in the world. But radar-directed Flak took a long time to come into general use, and the Luftwaffe had no night-fighter aircraft at all. In its first four months of unrestricted bombing of Germany between May and mid-September 1940 the RAF lost only 163 aircraft, about two per cent of the 8,000-odd sorties. Goering was bothered, because the occasional bomb was falling on the Ruhr; one or two even hit their intended targets. In July 1940 he instructed Colonel Josef Kammhuber to form a special force of night fighters.

Kammhuber was not impressed by the existing German defence system. The Würzburgs and heavy Flak formed a formidable combination, but there were still only 450 guns and a mere handful of radars. Night fighters were another story. Nobody in the Luftwaffe had even dreamed of putting radar into a fighter, and the only method of operation was Helle Nachtjagd (illuminated night fighting). A few day fighters, nearly all Bf 109s flown by bolder or more experienced pilots, would take off on radar early-warning of a British raid and orbit a radio beacon. Often they would keep their navigation lights on to avoid a mid-air collision, and sometimes they would have to fly to a second beacon and orbit again. Interceptions were achieved solely by watching the searchlights and trying to see the enemy bombers. Throughout the summer this method resulted in just one success: on 9 July 1940 Feldwebel Foerster of JG 2 managed to shoot down a Whitley. He would probably have admitted that this was mainly by luck.

Kammhuber could see the need for bigger twin-engined night fighters, with adequate endurance for the long night patrols. The Bf 110 was an obvious choice, but an even better one might be the Ju 88C. This sub-type had begun life as a long-range day and anti-shipping fighter, with the Ju 88V7 prototype flown on 27 September 1938, which had an unglazed nose mounting two cannon and two machine-guns. Some pre-production C-0 fighters were used for ground attack during the Polish campaign, but plans to build the fast C-1, with two BMW 801 radials, were shelved to enable all effort to be applied to building A-series bomber versions. In 1940 the BMW 801 went into production, but with priority for the Fw 190 single-seater, so the C-1 was abandoned and instead the Luftwaffe began to receive the Ju 88C-2, a rather hasty conversion of the A-1 bomber with Jumo 211 engines and a nose armament of one cannon and three machine-guns. Instead of being ordinary day Zerstörer (destroyer) fighters, these were now regarded as primarily for use by night. They were the forerunners of the aircraft that were to play the biggest part in the biggest night air battle in history.

While giving much thought to the last long-term system for the night defence of the German-controlled continent, Kammhuber acted quickly to create a night-fighter force. On the day of his appointment he picked the premier Bf 110 Staffel, I/ZG 1 commanded by Major Wolfgang Falck, and transferred it to Düsseldorf to serve as the nucleus of a night-fighter research and training school, with the unit designation of NVS 1 (Nacht und Versuchs Staffel). Three days later it was redesignated I/NJG 1 (Nacht jagdgeschwader = night fighter wing), on 20 July 1940. Falck was promoted Geschwaderkommodore of NJG 1, and a second squadron, II/NJG 1, was formed with twenty newly delivered Ju 88C-2s. Hauptmann Gunther Radusch took over I/NJG 1, and the force swiftly expanded by adding III/NJG 1 with Bf 110Cs from IV(N)/JG 2, and IV/NJG 1 from Zerst Sta/KG 30 with Bf 110Ds; a fifth staffel was also added, partly based on a special unit that had been formed to operate the first Dornier night-fighter conversions, the Do 17Z-6 Kauz 1 (Screech Owl I) and Do 215B-5. On 11 September II/NJG 1 was redesignated as the nucleus of the second wing, I/NJG 2, and a new II/NJG 1 was promptly formed from I/ZG 76, one of the most famous Bf 110 units (they shot down the twelve Wellingtons in December 1939) under Hauptman Graf von Stillfried. Another unit became the nucleus of a third wing, I/NJG 3, with Radusch taking over as Kommodore.

Kammhuber was eventually promoted Major-General and set up his HQ in the beautiful castle at Zeist in Holland. He reported to Colonel-General Hubert Weise, in overall command of the German air-defence organization. With constant changes and improvements, the main effect in the first few months, in the autumn of 1940, was the rapid build-up of a well-equipped force of large night fighters, each with a pilot and observer (and gunner, in the case of the Ju 88s and Dorniers), heavy nose armament and endurance of seven hours. In general, the Bf 110 units were deployed geographically to intercept bombers already over Germany, and were alerted by Freya early warning and guided to their targets by the Freyas and the searchlights. The bigger Ju 88 and Dornier aircraft operated around the periphery of Europe in the intruder role, unhesitatingly following bombers right back to their English bases if necessary, and using bombs as well as guns. At this time the Luftwaffe was indisputably the supreme air force in the world. It was easily the best equipped, and the unpalatable failure to subdue the RAF by day had not noticeably affected its morale. It had an abundance of skilled crews, and it was still conditioned to believe in a succession of swift victories (one of its few shortcomings was that no provision had been made for a long war). Not least, it had the backing of a large and competent equipment and radio industry, and by a rapidly increasing margin the world’s best aircraft guns.

What was less good was the makeshift night interception system. None of the fighters yet carried their own radar, so they were strongly dependent upon the searchlights. The latter were grouped around the target cities, so not much could be done to intercept the bombers on their flight to and from their targets except as they crossed the belt of searchlights along the coastline. Over the target the sky was full of Flak, and at that time there was no way for the German Flak to tell which were RAF bombers and which were NJG fighters. Accordingly, during September 1940 Kammhuber took the bold decision to move nearly all his searchlights from the cities to a single dense belt stretching from Liège (Belgium) to Schleswig-Holstein (near Denmark). Virtually all RAF bombers had to pass through this belt, within which no German aircraft were permitted after dark except NJG fighters on patrol. This immediately stopped the wastage of night fighters shot down by their own Flak, but it was by no means a complete solution. The Flak gunners now had hardly any searchlights, and were still waiting for their Würzburg radars. And it needed only a thin cloud layer to wreck the whole system.

It was obvious that what was required was a more sophisticated defence using Würzburgs not only to direct the Flak but also to direct individual night fighters. This radar sent out a fine pencil beam focused by a large circular dish reflector. Nothing like it had been seen before, and as the movable dishes gradually appeared all over northern Europe they excited much comment, most of it concerned with ‘giant mirrors’. The bearing and elevation of the aerial could be read off with great accuracy, and the discrimination was good enough to distinguish two aircraft less than 500 feet apart at over 20,000 feet. On the other hand Würzburg’s extreme limit of range of 25 miles meant that Freya would be needed to give early warning, and get the Würzburg and night fighter into the right positions beforehand. Perhaps the biggest problem was the inability of Freya to indicate the hostile target’s altitude. The night fighter would therefore have to scramble and climb up to a likely altitude by guesswork. In 1940 a good attacking height for a Wellington or Hampden was 15,000 feet, with a Whitley appreciably lower. Only in the final few minutes could the Würzburg suddenly pass an accurate height.

In September 1940 the first trials took place using night fighters directed by a ground controller. Luftwaffe fighter pilots argued heatedly about the supposed loss of initiative and freedom of action in accepting such control – a psychological problem that was much less evident in Britain at this time – and the record shows that the Germans were at first far from eager to accept any of the new radar methods. The first GCI radar tried by the Luftwaffe was a Freya, excellent for early warning but hopeless in the GCI role, because no controller could separate the fighter’s blip from that of the bomber once the range had closed within a mile. Despite this, it was a Freya that was rigged up near Zwolle, Holland, together with a naval height-finding radar, and trials began against ‘Auntie Ju’ (Ju 52/3m) transports. On the whole they were as unsuccessful as those in Britain at this time, but on 16 October 1940 Leutnant Ludwig Becker of IV/NJG 1 suddenly found himself in visual contact with an unidentified aircraft flying east over Holland. Flying a Do 215B from Gilze-Rijen, Becker closed slowly and identified the aircraft as a Wellington. With little difficulty he hit it hard in a five- or six-second burst and watched the bomber eventually spin into the ground. But this was the exception that proved the rule, and it was gained in bright moonlight.

By 1941 Kammhuber had masterminded a completely new defence system, and his organization had placed large orders for an improved GCI radar, Gigant (giant) Würzburg. The need for such a radar was obvious, because Freya had inadequate accuracy and discrimination, and Würzburg had inadequate range. It was not uncommon for RAF bombers to pass through the defence belt while the NJG fighters were still trying to reach the same approximate position and height. A further problem with Würzburg was that reflections from the ground began to mask the target blip at flight levels lower than 6,000 feet (though, of course, few RAF night attacks came down as low as this). Gigant Würzburg accordingly had a much larger aerial dish, roughly twenty-five feet in diameter compared with Würzburg’s ten feet, which concentrated the energy into a narrower beam capable of giving a clear blip at a range of more than forty miles with typical aircraft targets. Telefunken hurried the improved set into production at the end of 1941, by which time the Luftwaffe had placed large orders.

Kammhuber needed several hundred Gigant Würzburgs to equip his grand design to defend the Reich, which became popularly known to the RAF as the Kammhuber Line but was officially designated Himmelbett (heavenly bed, i.e., a four-poster). This code-name stemmed from the fact that Kammhuber divided up the airspace round the north and west sides of Germany into notional boxes, each having a rectilinear shape like an old four-poster. Each box was about twenty miles wide, and there were 750 of them strung in a vast curve from Denmark round the north of Germany, across the Low Countries and south through eastern France to Switzerland. Somewhere in each box was a GCI station equipped with a Freya early-warning radar, a Gigant Würzburg to track a chosen bomber, and a second Gigant Würzburg to track the NJG fighter assigned to that box. At least, that was the intention; the tracking radars were mainly earlier Würzburgs until well into 1942.

Himmelbett had many good features. First, each box was a definite functioning system, technically capable of putting a night fighter very accurately onto the tail of a hostile bomber. It had enough width, something like 150 miles of electronically guarded sky, for there to be plenty of time to set up the interception long before the raider had passed out of the box, let alone out of radar range. And as Kammhuber set up the line just outside his searchlights, the latter were ready to take care of any bombers that the night fighters missed under GCI. By this time the searchlights were arranged in groups of five, one of which was a radar-directed master. The latter, with a brilliant beam having a bluish tinge, was alight all the time, normally pointing straight upwards. Once the associated Würzburg had locked-on to the bomber, the master searchlight would suddenly swing right onto it, much too fast to be dodged. At once the other four beams would snap on and light up the unfortunate bomber; then the master would return to the vertical, waiting for the next customer. Whether this was done to aid fighters or Flak, it was heartily disliked by the Bomber Command crews. Only an exceptional pilot could shake off the cone of beams on a clear night, and it made night-fighter interception almost easy.

On the other hand, there were plenty of shortcomings in the system. It could handle only one bomber at a time per box, and the most rapid interception rate a skilled set of Himmelbett and night-fighter crews could possibly hope for was six aircraft per hour for any single box. In 1941 this was not a serious problem, because the lumbering twin-engined heavies crossed enemy territory at about 165 mph in a thin stream, often many miles apart, generally unsure of their position, and often having to spend as long as an hour taking astro shots, working out revised winds and searching for their target. One crew in a Whitley actually spent over 2¾ hours in the general target area trying to find the place they had been sent to bomb (München-Gladbach). In its first eighteen months the Kammhuber Line was able to pay close attention to the majority of the RAF bombers that attempted to cross it, but the situation was to change dramatically.

A less apparent drawback was that, almost unbelievably, the Gigant Würzburg perpetuated a basic feature of the earlier radar which made it unsuitable for the GCI function. The original Würzburg had been designed for directing Flak, and accordingly gave its information in the form of numerical bearings and ranges. This could easily have been converted in Gigant Würzburg into the ideal form of presentation, the PPI, such as was being used in Britain. Such a display had been developed between 1936 and 1939 by Baron Manfred von Ardenne in his laboratory at Lichterfelde (Berlin) under the name Panorama Sicht Gerät (panorama display equipment). By 1940 he and the short-wave expert Dr Hollmann had prepared this for production with the Radio-Loewe company, and at Christmas in that year a deputation made a presentation to Goering. They explained it in such simple terms that even Goering – the epitome of the technology illiterate, whose opinion of radar was that, ‘It consists of boxes with coils . . . I do not like boxes with coils’ – could not fail to see the advantages. With PPI a controller has a perfect real-time picture, with the aid of which he can use his judgement to tell the night-fighter pilot exactly when to turn, onto what heading, and at what rate, to bring him up astern of the bomber. Goering gradually saw how it worked and what it did, and even he was forced to admit that it was better than a mere list of ranges and bearings. But it was Christmas 1940, and he told the electronics expert, ‘Such a comprehensive development is no longer worth while; the war is already as good as won!’ So Gigant Würzburg provided nothing but ranges and bearings. To provide a PPI picture for the controller, a clumsy device called a Seeburg table was necessary. An operator was told the ranges and bearings of the bomber by telephone, set them up on a rotary and sliding scale in front of him and, in doing so, moved a red spotlight on a large ground-glass table at an upper level. A second operator, connected by telephone to the radar tracking the fighter, moved a spot of blue light in the same way. At the upper level, a third operator with red and blue wax crayons marked the tracks of the two aircraft. The mind boggles at the number of places where errors and inaccuracies could be introduced.

Despite this, the Himmelbett system worked. By the end of March 1942 Kammhuber had about half his initial order for 185 Gigant Würzburgs, and Telefunken was delivering thirty a month. But by this time, in a single bold stroke, the British had made up for their amazingly inept radar intelligence, and learned all they needed to know about the original Würzburg. Though a slight digression from night fighters, it is a thrilling story. For years the British learned nothing about German radar, despite the valuable clues in the Oslo Report. In February 1941 a low-flying reconnaissance Spitfire brought back pictures of circular objects at Auderville, west of Cherbourg, and an interpreter noticed that a narrow object in one of the circles had changed its bearing between one exposure and the next. The British had at last discovered Freya. In November 1941, when a number of Freyas had been pinpointed, interpreters became interested in a small black blob on a path trodden between the cliffs and a large house, at another Freya station at Bruneval, north of Le Havre. Flight Lieutenant Tony Hill went and took pictures at low level with his Spitfire (twice, because the cameras failed the first time) and also had a good look himself. The upshot was one of the earliest and most successful Commando raids ever mounted. On 27 February 1942 twelve Whitleys dropped 119 paratroopers near Bruneval. Next day the 111 survivors, seven of them injured, landed back in Britain with all the vital parts of the Würzburg, plus three prisoners, one of whom was a skilled radar operator. In subsequent weeks the Luftwaffe showed the British the locations of all its other coast radars by surrounding them with masses of barbed wire, which showed up beautifully in reconnaissance photographs. (The Bruneval raid alerted the British to the exposed position of the vital TRE, and it was accordingly moved to Malvern.)

Of course, by this time Würzburg was an old set, fast being supplemented or replaced by the Gigant variety. For better early warning, Freya was being supplemented by a huge new radar called, appropriately, Mammut. This had an aerial like two bedsteads back-to-back measuring 45 feet high and 90 feet wide, with electronic switching through an arc of 100°. This rapid switching, which was much later to become a feature of night-fighter radars, allowed the beam to sweep across the sky while the aerial stayed fixed. The other early-warning set was Wassermann, with a rotating aerial about 130 feet high and 30 feet wide. Both the new sets had narrow beams enabling them to see aircraft 150 to 200 miles away. In most respects, they were superior to Britain’s prehistoric CH system, though neither was a patch on the monster MEW (Microwave Early Warning) radar developed in the USA. This was first installed at Start Point, Devon, where it could see every aircraft in southern England and northern France on D-Day.

The British in the Aegean September 1943


A Bristol Beaufighter releases its bombs toward the further of two German flak vessels attacked by aircraft of No. 201 Group, south of the island of Kalymnos in the Dodecanese. Inadequate air support helped doom the British campaign in the Dodecanese. Imperial War Museum photo.



In late June 1943, raiders from the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) landed on the south coast of Crete to strike at three airfields that could be used by the Luftwaffe during Husky. The mission was only a partial success. Explosive charges were placed against several aircraft and a fuel dump at Kastèli, but the Germans had abandoned Timbáki airfield while Heraklion was no longer in use as a major air base. A fuel dump was selected as an alternative target. In 1942 there had been similar operations on Crete and Rhodes.

Hit-and-run raids had an undeniable nuisance value, but little or no effect on the bigger picture. The North African campaign had ended with the surrender of the Afrikakorps in May. Operation Husky commenced two months later on 10 July. The Allies made rapid headway and with the Italians facing an invasion of the mainland, Mussolini was ousted on 25 July and replaced by Maresciallo Pietro Badoglio.

By August a British plan of action had been approved in anticipation of a suitably favourable development in the Aegean and the Balkans. Among the proposals were an emergency ‘walk-in’ in to Rhodes and other islands in the event of Italy’s collapse and the withdrawal of German forces, a quick Accolade against German opposition only, and a full-scale Accolade (though not before 1944). On 3 August the British Chiefs of Staff advised:

Should the Italians in Crete and the Aegean area resist Germans and deadlock ensue, our policy should be to help the Italians against the Germans wherever possible.

It was recommended that a force be made immediately available together with ships for use as troop transports. Mediterranean Air Command (formed in February under Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder) was approached for additional transport aircraft sufficient to lift a parachute battalion group. Four squadrons of American P-38 Lightnings were also requested. The latter were essential, for apart from Bristol Beaufighters, there were no fighters in the Middle East with the range to operate over the operational area. The paratroopers and their aircraft were to be in position by 14 August; the Lightnings were required to arrive in Cyprus by the 15th, and the seaborne element was to be ready to sail at any time after 18 August. Much depended on the destruction or containment of Luftwaffe units in the region, but this was achievable only if available bombers were released from all other commitments.

Faced with mounting pressure by the British to re-allocate resources to the eastern Mediterranean, an exasperated General Eisenhower finally relented. On 7 August, Allied Force Headquarters advised the Middle East that the required troops could be provided, though not before 14 August. Certain ships could also be released, but current requirements meant that no aircraft would be spared: no transports were available for parachute operations, and Lightning squadrons were fully employed in escorting the Strategic Bomber Force in attacks against Italian targets and were specifically required for Operation Avalanche – the Allied landing at Salerno, in Italy. In Eisenhower’s opinion, seemingly shared by both the Naval and Air commanders-in-chief in the Mediterranean, Accolade should have been abandoned. Eisenhower was assured that Accolade would take place only if conditions presented a reasonable prospect of success with the forces available and when the situation in Italy might allow the release of the all-important Lightnings. The target date of readiness was postponed to three days notice from 19 August, by which time Operation Husky had been concluded successfully and the Allied armies were about to push north into Italy.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Hitler and his Staff prepared for the inevitable as Badoglio’s government negotiated surrender terms with the Allies. At the same time in the Middle East, the British stood by to move into the Aegean. With Italy on the point of collapse, 8th Indian Division was embarked to undertake the capture of Rhodes and was to have sailed on 1 September. However, as a result of Quadrant on 26 August, the troop transports were released to India for the proposed operation against the Arakan (previously discussed during Trident), and 8th Indian Division was ordered to Italy. On 8 September, when the Italian armistice was announced, the force had been dispersed and with it went any opportunity for a rapid deployment. Furthermore, the Commander-in- Chief, Middle East was kept in ignorance of events and only learned about the armistice just before it was made public. Having anticipated Italy’s volte-face the Germans responded with countermeasures under the code name Achse (Axis), and moved swiftly to take over from the Italians in Crete, but were slower in reacting to the situation elsewhere. General Wilson decided therefore to act on recommendations of the Joint Planning Staff. The task of securing Rhodes was reallocated to 234 Infantry Brigade – 1st Battalion Durham Light Infantry, 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers (Faughs) and 2nd Battalion Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment having recently arrived in the Middle East from Malta. Italian cooperation was essential to British planning. A prerequisite to occupation was an unopposed entry into the port of Rhodes and the provision of an airfield either at Maritsa in Rhodes, or on the island of Kos. A military mission was to precede the expedition, while the SBS spearheaded the occupation of other islands including Kastellorizo, Kos and Samos. The British Prime Minister was a keen advocate of the plan, which was approved by him on 9 September: ‘Good. This is a time to play high. Improvise and dare.’

By then, events were already well underway. On 7 September the SBS commander, Major Lord Jellicoe, was dining with a fellow officer and his new bride at the St George’s Hotel in Beirut, when a military policeman arrived with orders for him to make his way to Raiding Force Headquarters near Haifa. There, Jellicoe was instructed to collect his battledress and field kit and present himself at Haifa airport, where an aeroplane was standing by for a dawn take-off for Cairo. On arrival, he was taken to Middle East Headquarters, shown to a room and seated with others around a large table. To his surprise, Jellicoe learned that the Italian armistice was taking effect that day and that it had been planned to try and occupy Rhodes with the assistance of the island’s Italian garrison. It was hoped that an agent of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) had forewarned the Italians, but no one had been able to contact him due to a breakdown in communications. It was proposed therefore to send a landing party by fast craft from Alexandria. Jellicoe recalled:

After about 20 minutes I really couldn’t contain myself any longer and I said, ‘I’m surprised at this. Would it not be much easier for a small party to drop in this evening, as clearly it should be done as quickly as possible.’ Why all of this was being done at the last moment; why the Italian armistice had not been anticipated; why our Raiding Forces had not been alerted, God alone knows.

It was decided that Jellicoe would parachute in to Rhodes, establish contact with the Italian governor, Ammiraglio Inigo Campioni, and ask for his support for a British take- over. Subject to the success of Jellicoe’s mission, Colonel D. J. T. Turnbull of General Headquarters was to follow up to discuss matters in detail. Major Count Julian A. Dobrski, a Polish SOE officer with the nom de guerre Dolbey, asked if Jellicoe spoke Italian. Jellicoe did not, and readily agreed to the multilingual Dolbey joining him as an interpreter. A wireless operator, Sergeant Kesterton, completed the ad hoc team. They took off in a Halifax that evening, but adverse weather conditions combined with an inadequate briefing prevented the crew from locating Rhodes.

The following night, Lieutenant Commander L. F. (Frank) Ramseyer, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR), and a landing party composed mainly of SBS under Major David G. C. Sutherland, arrived off Kastellorizo in two motor launches (349 and 357) to secure the island as a staging post for Aegean operations; a two-man team was parachuted into Kos to prepare the Italians there for the arrival of British troops, and a further effort was made to infiltrate Rhodes which had become a battleground between pro-Badoglio Italians and Generalleutnant Ulrich Kleeman’s Sturmdivision Rhodos. Major Jellicoe:

The next night [9th] we took off again. By that time they [the aircrew] had brushed up their geography … and we were dropped at Rhodes. Just before we dropped, Major Dolbey said to me, ‘I think I must make a confession to you. I said that I was parachute trained. I’m not. I’ve never actually dropped by parachute, so give me a push if necessary.’ … He dropped on to the main coast road near Lemnos, on the east of the island and broke his leg, his thigh, extremely badly. I was dropped, as was the wireless operator, Sgt Kesterton, on to the hills above [a few hundred yards away] and shot at quite fiercely. The shooting continued – we were behind rocks by then. We didn’t know who was shooting at us. I had a letter from General ‘Jumbo’ Wilson, C-in-C in Cairo, for the Italian commander, Admiral Campioni. I was told that in danger of capture by the Germans this should be got rid of. I had no idea whether they were Germans or Italians firing at us and there was nowhere to get rid of this letter – it was very rocky, hard ground. Of course, they were getting closer so I decided the only thing to do was to eat it which was not the most appetising meal I’ve ever had. And then I heard them approaching and I heard that they were shouting to each other in Italian. I shouted, ‘Amici! Amici!’, etc. Then, after a little bit of discussion and explanation I persuaded them to take me in their transport into Rhodes to Italian headquarters. All this had taken the best part of an hour or so and the major had already been found and taken in and there he was with Admiral Campioni. We had a long discussion with the Italian Admiral. We talked to him for a large part of the next hour or two. He was very enthusiastic to begin with and thought we were the precursor to substantial reinforcements. Although I said that we had further Raiding Forces standing by, I really couldn’t inflate their number. Accordingly I informed Campioni that in the next few days he could only expect some 200 reinforcements. Thereafter it would be some days before additional forces could reach Rhodes. As this sank in Campioni’s enthusiasm started to wane. All this time … Dolbey who had been speaking and interpreting so well and so nobly was in acute pain.

Dolbey, who had a compound fracture, was evacuated, first by fast craft to Symi, then by Italian seaplane to Kastellorizo and on to Cyprus. For the time being, Jellicoe and Kesterton remained in Rhodes and tried to stall Campioni, while in the Middle East frantic efforts were made to find enough landing craft to dispatch 234 Brigade. As this could not be achieved before 18 September, one battalion was stood by and ordered to embark in motor launches and RAF craft, while preparations continued for transporting the rest of the brigade. Jellicoe continues:

I stayed all the next day [10th], seeing, when I could, Admiral Campioni, getting messages through to Cairo, explaining the position and saying it was highly desirable that it was necessary to provide substantial reinforcements within a few days if Campioni was to be persuaded to hold out. The most, however, that I was able to promise him was a non- assault-loaded brigade within six or seven days. Of course, the sudden transfer from one side to the other was asking a great deal of the Italians. So, although I spent all the next day, whenever I could, talking to Admiral Campioni, and although he remained extremely friendly, at the end of it he was convinced it was not on as far as they were concerned. He sent me [and Sergeant Kesterton] off in an Italian fast craft with his chief of staff with all the maps of their minefields to Castelrosso [Kastellorizo], which, in fact, a squadron of mine had occupied that day.

In the haste to occupy the Aegean, Special Service troops, intelligence operatives and conventional forces were deployed by all available means. Poor communications, lack of coordination and the actions of a few who seem to have looked on the occasion as an adventurous outing sometimes resulted in an island being singled out by more than one interested party. On 8 September, Colonel L. F. R. Kenyon concluded his appointment on the General Staff of Force 292 and immediately joined the Aegean Mission as a representative of III Corps Commander, Lieutenant General Sir Desmond Anderson. The Mission had been instructed to visit Rhodes, and after arriving at Kastellorizo, Kenyon discussed the possibility with Group Captain Harry G. Wheeler, senior RAF Staff Officer in Force 292 (and soon to be appointed senior RAF officer on Kos). So it was that when Major Jellicoe arrived at Kastellorizo from Rhodes on 11 September, Wheeler and Kenyon were en route from Kastellorizo to Rhodes. Kenyon reported:

15. On arrival we heard some A. A. [anti-aircraft] fire, and saw a number of craft “swanning” about outside RHODES harbour (I found that on an air alarm craft were ordered out of the harbour). The ITALIANS replied to our signal by a refusal to allow us into the harbour. I suggested asking the ITALIANS to take off one officer in one of their own craft, and to this they agreed, and a M. A. S. [motoscafo armato silurante: Italian motor torpedo boat] shortly after came alongside. No question had arisen as to who should go, and I transhipped. WHEELER had some doubts as to the advisability of my visit, but these were solved by a large bomb which fell on RHODES. The commanders of both vessels had the same idea, and the R. A. F. launch drew off at speed to the East, while my M. A. S. went to the West.

16. I was met by an ITALIAN Naval Captain, who at once struck me as being a good fighter, and who gave immediate evidence of his intense dislike for the GERMANS. He spoke good English, and failed to conceal (or succeeded in conveying) his lack of confidence in the advice being tendered to CAMPIONI by the senior ITALIAN General in RHODES.

17. As I drove up to the [Governor’s] Palace, there was a fairly heavy air raid in progress. I was led through a number of kitchens, and was presented to CAMPIONI in a dark scullery. He seemed embarrassed, and led me to his state reception room upstairs.

He informed me that his military advice was that the troops, having been pushed off the anti-tank obstacle covering RHODES, could not survive another GERMAN attack. He understood that the BRITISH would reinforce in about 5 days time. He stated that the best he could do was to temporise with the GERMANS to gain time. This course was not possible if the enemy knew he had BRITISH officers with him, and as the place was full of spies, he wanted me to go.

At my request he then outlined the facts on which his military advice was given. The crux of the whole advice was the presence of the GERMAN tanks, which seems to have paralysed the entire ITALIAN command. But for this factor, he said, he could fight on, and so on.

I knew something of CAMPIONI’s record and personality, and formed the opinion, to which I still adhere, that in a difficult position, he was playing an in and out game, and halting between two policies. I was in some doubts as to whether the best course would be to compromise him thoroughly with the BRITISH, and so cut off his chances of making terms with the GERMANS, and increasing the fighting spirit.

He then intimated that I must really be off, as he was expecting some GERMAN officers at once, with whom he was going to “temporise”. He refused my suggestion that I should wait to hear the result of his Conference. He ordered an M. A. S. to take me to CASTELROSSO [Kastellorizo], and I was disguised in a long black cloak, and taken from the Palace to the port. By this time I was convinced that he was intending to capitulate, and that his main preoccupation was to get rid of me before the GERMANS learn of my presence, and insisted on his handing me over.

18. At the harbour I was entertained to a good and much needed English breakfast by my former contact, who now spoke much more frankly. He said the General had always wanted to surrender, but that there was considerable opposition from some of his officers. He said the troops were not good, and were shockingly led. For himself, he was going to set up in a small fort, and kill as many GERMANS as he could. My own view was that we could do nothing to influence the general situation, but that we might save something out of the wreck. I told him, therefore, that it was his duty to arrange the total evacuation or destruction of all craft in the harbour, and said that we should welcome him and the Naval craft particularly at CASTELROSSO or LEROS. He promised to do all he could; some craft appeared later at CASTELROSSO, and I believe more at LEROS.

19. A further message then came from the palace ordering me off at once, and I went in an M. A. S. which was later retained and did good service …

21. I wrote my report on the way back to CASTELROSSO, and an hour or two after its despatch, we got news of the ITALIAN capitulation.

That day, Sturmdivision Rhodos, numbering approximately 7,500 men, seized control of Rhodes and took prisoner 35,000–40,000 Italians, thus ending British hopes of an assisted take-over. Rhodes had been the first Accolade objective and involved considerable forces. Indeed, the very success of Aegean operations was dependant on acquiring the island, as explained by Colonel Kenyon:

It is significant that every plan, no matter how much the expected military opposition was written down, contemplated the capture of RHODES as a preliminary to any extension to the north; and that every plan was profoundly influenced by the necessity of capturing at the earliest stage a number of Advanced Landing Grounds, and by the great difficulties to be overcome if this was to be possible.

It therefore became necessary for the British to revise their planning and strategy. Future operations were to be on a reduced scale and, as it was essential to act quickly, they had to be improvised. German resources in the Aegean had been stretched by their deployments in Rhodes and Crete. It seemed possible that by a rapid move the Middle East forces might obtain control elsewhere in the region, and by doing so detract from recent enemy successes, enhance British prestige throughout the Middle East and act as a diversion for operations in Italy. In spite of the reluctance of Eisenhower to divert resources, there was hope in the British camp that, even with the limited means at their disposal, the occupation of other islands such as Kos, Leros and Samos could still succeed. The number of German aircraft in Greece and Crete did not yet represent a serious threat, and with British fighters operating from Kos the possibility of major German seaborne or airborne operations seemed slight. It was thought that with Italian co-operation British forces might maintain themselves in Kos and Leros until an attack could be launched on Rhodes from the Middle East. The task of reinforcement and supply was to fall largely on the Royal Navy.





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.




L59, now less than 125 miles west of Khartoum, had two-thirds of the perilous journey behind her. But presently, to the dismay of all aboard, Bockholt turned the great airship around and pointed her nose cone due north—a faint radio signal had just been received from the radio transmitter at Nauen: Break off operation, return. Enemy has seized greater part of Makonde Highlands, already holds Kitangari. Portuguese are attacking remainder of Protectorate Forces from south.

This is the message that Bockholt penciled into the ship’s war diary. But the actual recall message received by L59 has been variously reported, with both its exact wording and—more important—its source varying according to the account. Here L59 sails from the dark cataracts of the Nile on the early morning of November 23, 1917, into the darker realm of historical conjecture:

“One of the many legends of the Naval Airship Division is that the British robbed Bockholt of success by sending a false recall message in captured German code,” wrote Douglas H. Robinson in his exhaustive study of airship warfare, The Zeppelin in Combat. Robinson, one of the foremost scholars of Zeppelinia, pointedly does not delve into the whys and wherefores of this “legend,” refusing to come down firmly on one side or the other.

Mosley, in his Duel for Kilimanjaro, written with the cooperation of von Lettow himself, reports the message as Go back. Newale has been taken. The war is over and the Schutztruppe has been defeated—and states flatly that “the message came from British sources which had set up their own radio station and were in possession of the German code.” Meanwhile, Zeppelin expert Frank A. Contey calls the idea of the British being responsible “unlikely,” stating that they probably couldn’t have “known the code and wavelength of L59’s radio communication.” But the British had possessed the German Naval Code, taken off the wreck of SMS Magdeburg, since the beginning of the war. The cipher masters of Room 40 had long since cracked it and, familiar with its intricacies, could both decipher captured messages and send messages of their own. Given Room 40’s massed-egghead brainpower, that they knew L59’s particular radio wavelength on the night of November 23, 1917, is not implausible.

Meinertzhagen later claimed that he alone originated the false recall message sent to L59—and indeed its odor is redolent of the many subterfuges he and his DPM crew perpetrated upon the Germans during von Lettow’s guerrilla campaign against the Uganda Railway in 1915. But Brian Garfield, the great and vigorous Meinertzhagen debunker, deftly puts the lie to this assertion. Garfield points out that Meinertzhagen’s account of his involvement in the L59 caper occurs in the much-revised 1926 version of his infamous diaries and not in the contemporaneous 1917 diary, and that the great fabulist wasn’t even in Africa during the time of L59’s clandestine flight. In fact, Meinertzhagen, suffering from a case of pernicious anemia, had been ordered out of theater by Smuts on November 10, 1916, and after a period of R and R at the luxurious Rift Hotel in Nairobi and an extended spell of home leave, had reported for duty in Cairo on May 24, 1917. By the end of the year, when L59 made her journey, Meinertzhagen was serving in Palestine far from the campaign in East Africa, and could not have sighted the Zeppelin either entering or exiting African airspace at Solum, in Egypt, as he later stated in his diary.

Garfield further states that what actually turned L59 back to Germany was “a signal relayed from one of Lettow’s little transmitters. The frail signal was amplified and forwarded by neutral stations in a few towns friendly to Lettow, and after some hours it reached German Naval Command. The signal informed headquarters not that Lettow had surrendered . . . but that the Schutztruppe had been unable to hold the flatlands around Mahenge and had been forced by heavy blanket-fire from British artillery to retreat back into jagged mountains where the dirigible would have no chance of landing without risking explosion.”

This version of events, however, is open to question: According to Mosley, via von Lettow, this message could not have originated from the Schutztruppe or any other German source in East Africa, as they had, by this time, no means of sending such a message:

“Lettow-Vorbeck’s sole remaining radio transmitter in Africa was situated at Newale, three days’ march north of the Rovuma River. Through this station he had, late in October, received news of his promotion to general and a message of personal congratulations from the Kaiser. He had assembled his Schutztruppe at Newale on November 17, 1917. . . . He was then informed that the radio station was in such a state of disrepair that it could only receive but not send any messages; a fact which could not, of course, be communicated to Berlin and does not seem to have been appreciated there.”

Actually, von Lettow did not seem to have been aware of the Zeppelin mission at all: “It was just as well for [his] peace of mind,” Mosley wrote, “that he did not know until after the war of what was happening in the skies over Africa. . . . On November 20,” Mosley concludes, “he ordered the [Newale radio] station to be dismantled.”

This was a full day before the departure of L59 from Jamboli for Africa.

How, then, was Bockholt and L59 supposed to reach the embattled Schutztruppe? His instructions in this regard were vague. According to Robinson: “On approaching the East African protectorate, [Bockholt] would endeavor to make radio contact with the troop headquarters, supposed to be southeast of Mahenge, and otherwise was to land northeast of Liwale.” These, as Robinson says, “sketchy directions” were the best available—as there now existed no way to contact von Lettow.

On putting the accounts together, it now seems certain (a) that the recall message taken in by Bockholt aboard L59 near Khartoum did indeed originate with the German transmitters at Nauen, but (b) that the message first informing Berlin of the Schutztruppe’s defeat—or at the very least of von Lettow’s retreat from the Makonde Plateau—did not come from von Lettow at all, and (c) that this message was a magnificent piece of disinformation, originating with British intelligence and sent out in German naval code via radio from London or Cairo or elsewhere and picked up by radio operators in Germany.

Indeed, the British knew all about the Zeppelin mission far in advance of L59’s departure—perhaps from Woodhall’s mysterious Balkan agent or another source—and had a long time to plan their strategies against her. Van Deventer, now overall commander of British forces in East Africa, mentioned it in dispatches on November 10. (Hoskins, Smuts’s replacement, had been dismissed for “dawdling” in May 1917.) Lord Cranworth complained that he was “awakened during the night to decode immensely long cypher dispatches as to the necessary steps to be taken on L59’s approach.” The handful of creaky BE2cs that constituted van Deventer’s East African Royal Flying Corps Squadron remained, props turning, in a state of readiness for days preceding the Zeppelin mission and “two mountain guns were dug in for L59’s reception” near the Makonde Plateau.

Captain Loof, by late 1917 a prisoner of the British, was thoroughly interrogated regarding the impending Zeppelin flight. They wanted to know where, exactly, it was going to land. Not only had Loof never heard of L59’s improbable mission, but he thought the proposition so fantastical that it had to have been some kind of ruse emanating from British intelligence—and decided to play along: “I can tell you in the strictest confidence,” he said, with all the false seriousness he could muster, “that two Zeppelins are coming, one to bomb Lindi and the other Tabora.”

Back in Germany, following the recall, they clearly believed von Lettow had been defeated. According to Mosley, “the false news of Lettow-Vorbeck’s capitulation which Zeppelin L59 brought back from its abortive journey to Africa filled the High Command with dismay.” But three weeks later, German agents working out of Dar es Salaam were able to smuggle the truth to Berlin: von Lettow-Vorbeck and the East African Schutztruppe still fought on. The Kaiser, despondent since receiving the news of von Lettow’s defeat, perked up enough to write out another effusive message, which he passed to Dr. Solf of the Kolonialamt, in hopes that it might be delivered, somehow, to von Lettow in Africa:

The Schutztruppe command has reported to me the most recent feat of arms of the remnant of our East African Army under the command of General von Lettow-Vorbeck. According to the latest news, there seemed to be no way out of their desperate situation and the merciless hounding-down seemed to be drawing to its end. We receive instead the joyous news that the strength of the band of heroes is unbroken, that they still uphold the German flag on the Black Continent, firmly hoping for the victory of German arms in Europe. Only a corps inspired by unreserved trust in their leader and a commander of General von Lettow-Vorbeck’s energy are capable of such an accomplishment, which fills us with pride and admiration, and which is held in esteem even by the adversary. And should in the future the courageous band be overpowered by the enemy, the history of this war will pay tribute to General von Lettow and his troops. May God grant you His aid.

After the destruction of the radio equipment at Newale, von Lettow had no way to receive this appreciation. The British themselves sent it through the lines under white flag, in these last days of the Gentleman’s War.


But we have gotten ahead of our story. Whatever the source of the recall message received by Bockholt aboard L59 at twelve forty-five p.m. on November 22, 1917, it caused a near mutiny among his crew. To a man, they insisted vociferously the recall message must be false, that the mission must continue. That Bockholt only with difficulty persuaded them to follow orders is shown by the delay of nearly two hours between receiving the recall and carrying it out. At two thirty a.m., the lumbering airship finally swung a wide loop over the Nile and headed north again toward Europe. The journey out, difficult enough with its heat bumps, airsickness, and noxious self-heating canned food, seemed like a pleasure cruise compared to the return trip. The crew, no longer buoyed by hope, adrenaline, and a belief in their mission, fell prey to strange fevers. Sleep became impossible in the narrow confines of their hammocks slung in the keel too close to a noisily flapping panel. Temperatures fluctuated from 82ºF over the Libyan Desert to 14ºF above the Anatolian Highlands. Nearly twenty-four hours after turning around, L59 left Africa behind at the Gulf of Solum. Crossing the Mediterranean proved fraught with vicious storms, though this time no St. Elmo’s fire appeared to guide them on their way.

At dawn on November 24, the weather cleared and L59 soared to 10,000 feet over the Gulf of Adalia in northwest Turkey. By two p.m., she had crossed the Anatolian heartland, fishing vessels in the Gulf of Chalona riding the waves far below. Proceeding across Asia Minor after dark, she again lost headway and, as in the Sudan, nearly came to a disastrous end, sinking from 3,000 to 1,300 feet above the mountains north of Ushak. Her nose cone pointed six degrees up, the four remaining Maybach engines running at full power failed to stop the descent. A cold northern wind pushed her down and Bockholt ordered the dumping of 6,600 more pounds of ballast. Again, her antennae weights struck the slopes of the mountain; since they extended only a few hundred feet, here she came perilously close to crashing in the dark.

At last, at seven thirty a.m. on November 25, 1917, L59 made her docking station at Jamboli. Her mooring ropes dropped, the ground crew drew her down and walked her into the long shed. China Show had ended in failure.

The twenty-two aeronauts, wobbly-legged, nearly deafened by the droning Maybachs at close quarters, stumbled down the ladders to the ground in the gray Balkan morning. They had been in the air for almost four days and had covered 4,200 air miles—the longest distance in the shortest time of any airship to date. And in truth, they might have gone farther: 19,900 pounds of fuel remained in L59’s tanks—enough to power the Zeppelin for sixty-four more hours of flight—though her hydrogen reserves, reduced by a third, and the lack of sufficient ballast wouldn’t have permitted L59 to reach her maxim range of—say—Chicago.


From here the elusive Professor Dr. Zupitza, medical doctor and professor of zoology, disappears from the pages of history. Kapitänleutnant Bockholt, awarded the Iron Cross, First Class, for his Africa exploit (had he succeeded, the Pour le Mérite would certainly have been his), remained in command of L59. His crew, now among the most experienced in terms of distance traveled, remained with him. But what to do with the moribund super Zeppelin? The hulking, unwieldy airship had not been expected to return from her suicide mission. Now she wallowed aimlessly in her shed in Jamboli, deflating slowly like a helium balloon after a birthday party.

For weeks her fate, debated between Strasser, Bockholt, naval chief of staff Admiral von Holtzendorff, and the Kaiser himself, floated between yea and nay. Bockholt wanted to try for Africa again, locate the still-undefeated Schutztruppe, and deliver his goods as intended. The Kaiser wanted to send her on a 2,300-mile journey to the coast of Yemen—there to deliver a load of gold and armaments to his Turkish ally, Enver Pasha, just then battling Lawrence of Arabia in the desert. The navy wanted to use her as a scout ship to search for mines in the Dardanelles. Strasser wanted to rebuild her as a bomb carrier, with which to attack England. The only purpose, he once more insisted, for which a Zeppelin was truly suited.

“England would be very pleased to have this airship kept away from her,” he wrote in a heated letter to von Holtzendorff. “Airship operations have never been worthwhile and never will be worthwhile except in the North Sea, scouting for the Fleet and in raids on England.”

Bockholt then drew up plans of his own that called for L59 to be converted into an offensive weapon and used against Allied military targets in the Mediterranean—Malta, Port Said, and various Italian cities, including Brindisi and Naples—all hitherto inaccessible to German aircraft. He sent a letter outlining this plan to von Holtzendorff over Strasser’s head, incurring the latter’s ire: To Strasser, such a proposal routed outside the chain of command smelled of rank careerism. But on January 5, 1918, the Kaiser with the naval chief’s recommendation decided in favor of Bockholt, and L59 was refitted as a bomb carrier at Jamboli.

Rebuilt to carry bombs, L.59 made only one raid in her new role, striking Naples on the night of 11-12 March 1918. Italian cities should be considered a prime Zeppelin target due to “the excitability of the population,” Bockholt wrote in a memo to the head of the German Naval Airship Division, Peter Strasser. About two dozen bombs were dropped, missing their targets (the naval base, gas works and Bagnoli steel plant) and instead falling on the northern outskirts of the city, killing 16 civilians and injuring 40 In the self-congratulatory telegram he later sent back to the Naval Airship Division HQ in Friedrichshafen, Bockholt complained about the bad food supplied to his crew (undoubtedly more foul, self-heating Kaloritkon) and made a lame joke: “If I ever get married, I won’t go to Naples on my honeymoon!”

On March 20, Bockholt aimed L59 for Port Said on the Egyptian coast, but was driven back by powerful headwinds and returned to Jamboli, bombs still nestled in the keel like so many poisonous eggs. This time, Bockholt ordered a complete overhaul of her engines—they should have been able to deal with the headwind, no matter how strong. Eighteen days later, on April 7, 1918, ready to fly again, the super Zeppelin kicked off her mooring ropes and sailed above the dour Bulgarian landscape, nose cone pointed to the southeast. Bockholt had decided to attack the important British naval base at Malta, via a route that took him across the Balkans and the Straits of Otranto into the Mediterranean.

Later that day, at sea, in the vermillion dusk, U53, a U-boat assigned to the German Mediterranean Flotilla, surfaced in the Adriatic off the Apulian coast. Oberleutnant zur See Sprenger, in command, came topside and observed a giant airship flying low over the water, following in his wake. At first unsure of her nationality—the Italians and other Allies now also used airships—he made ready to fire at her with his deck guns. Then he saw the Knight’s Cross emblazoned on her underbelly and the designation L59 on her hull and recognized her for a friend. Sprenger and his gun crew now watched as the Zeppelin overtook them, floating along quite low at only 700 feet, and kept watching as she disappeared, an ominous presence in the Adriatic gloom, bound for parts unknown—though Sprenger figured she might be heading for Otranto, which the German Mediterranean Flotilla had just been ordered to subject to a naval bombardment.

Then, after about an hour and a half, Sprenger saw “two points of fire” in the sky on the horizon, which he took for shrapnel bursts: “Shortly thereafter,” he saw, so he wrote in his ship’s log, “a gigantic flame which lit the entire horizon bright as day for a short time and then slowly fell to the water, where it continued to burn over the horizon for twenty minutes longer. When the fire started, several heavy explosions were heard. From all appearances, the airship was shot at and fell burning. Searchlights in the direction where she fell made it appear that a search was being made. On passing the approximate spot three hours later, nothing was visible. Position about 41 degrees, 2′ N, 18 degrees, 53′ E.”

Sprenger had witnessed the final end of the famous Afrika-Schiff L59, lost with all hands and all engines in the dark sea at the heel of Italy. Neither the British nor Italians claimed to have shot her down—though how to explain the searchlights? Later, an oil slick was found, a few enigmatic pieces of floating wood, a fuel drop tank; nothing more. The exact cause of her demise remains unknown, but members of her crew had complained of fuel-line leaks, so it is assumed an accident in which a fuel fire ignited the hydrogen and led to her destruction.

It would have been better for Bockholt and his ship had he ignored the recall message received five months earlier, despite all the odds against finding von Lettow, and continued his journey to East Africa. He turned back and perished. Though L59’s greatest mission was a failure, her record-making journey from Jamboli to Khartoum, the first truly intercontinental flight of any consequence, is still remembered by aviation historians as pointing the way to the future of modern air travel.

Erprobungsstelle Rechlin


Between 1935 and 1940, several He 70s were used for testing new equipment by the Kommando der Erprobungsstellen situated at the Erprobungsstelle Rechlin near Lake Müritz, east of Berlin, and at other evaluation sites too. Unarmed He 70s were used for personnel transport or liaison duties until the early forties.


The He 177 V29 (GO+IF, production number 15155), an aircraft belonging to the A-1 series, was mainly used for defensive armament trials at the E-Stelle Rechlin. Note a small remote-controlled weapons turret could be installed in the lower front section of the aircraft.

An aviator test- and training institute had been established at Rechlin on Lake Müritz in 1916. On 29 August 1918 the Flieger Versuchs- und Lehranstalt (Aircraft Trial and Test Station) Rechlin was established under the designation Kommandant der Flughäfen (Officer Commanding, Aifields) Müritzsee under the command of Hauptmann (Captain) August Joly. Up until 11 November 1918 (the end of the First World War), this new evaluation unit tested all new aircraft and equipment.

New but secret flight testing activities were recommenced in 1922. Early in 1928 the existing buildings at Rechlin were taken over by the Albatros Flugzeugwerke (aircraft factory) GmbH. Additionally a few more hangars were constructed and used by Albatros. From 1928 onward, all facilities at Rechlin were steadily and regularly enlarged to fulfil the many new tasks required of this secret evaluation site; several more hangars were built from 1929, for example. With the exception of the BFWM22, nearly all new German aircraft developments were sent to Rechlin for evaluation. Despite many evaluation flight crashes, it succeeded in selecting those aircraft, from the many designs which could have fulfilled the demands of the Truppenamt, used to arm what was to become the future Luftwaffe. On 1 June 1931, the Erprobungsstelle of the Reichsverband der Deutschen Luftfahrtindustrie (Reich Society of Aircraft Manufacturers), or RDL, situated at Staaken and Rechlin, was split into five separate departments, of which the major two were those used for the testing of new aircraft and new aircraft engines. The others evaluated new wireless systems, other ancillary equipment and were involved in problem solving in other aviation matters, such as aerial photography The RDL was ordered by the Truppenamt (Army Office) of the Reichswehr to continue with its secret development of German military aircraft as ordered in the autumn of 1929. In 1932, several transport aircraft were tested to examine if they would be capable of use as auxiliary bombardment aircraft. Besides the Ju G24 and Ju 52, the Dornier Merkur (Mercury) and Rohrbach Ro VIII were evaluated as part of this program. Additionally, the first batch of fighters including the He 51 and Arado Ar 65 was tested here.

On 30 January 1933, important proposals were put forward concerning an enlarged facility at Rechlin for the development and testing of new aircraft. On the back of this, a new military airfield at Lärz (near Rechlin) and subsequently the E-Hafen at Roggentin nearby were established by the new Luftwaffe command, both to accommodate the testing of aircraft and ancillary equipment.

By 1936, a huge Luftwaffe evaluation site had evolved, incorporating several engine testing sites. Buildings for officers and specialists were built around the main airfield near Ellerholz, east of Rechlin. In addition, a row of huge hangars was erected together with a widespread refuelling system and an ammunition dump, just east of the small village of Rechlin proper on the shore of Lake Müritz. Also engine test beds, a power station and the control tower were all built, followed by a second tower a short time later, again constructed near Lake Müritz. Subsequently, near the evaluation site itself, several smaller houses, called Siedlung Rechlin, were built to house officers and engineers working at the Rechlin evaluation centre in order that they should not live too far from their work!

On 9 November 1934, a secret exhibition was staged at Rechlin presenting the He 45, He 46, He 70, Ju W34, Ju 52 and Do 11. which were all shown with ancillary equipment fitted.

Then in 1935, a new German Luftwaffe was officially established. During the course of that year and the following year, many brand new combat- and training aircraft, especially the first Bf 109, Do 17, Hamburger Flugzeugbau Ha 137, Henschel Hs 123, Hs 126, He 111, Ju 86 and Ju 87, were sent to Rechlin to undergo their first Luftwaffe evaluation.

On 22 May 1936, an impressive exhibition was held at Rechlin showing not only the Ju 86, the He 111 and the Do 17 bombers, but also the He 112 and Fw 159 fighters together with many more improved types. Beside the Reichsminister der Luftfahrt (Reich Minister of Air Transport) and Oberbefehlshaber (Supreme Commander) of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goring, the Reichskriegsminister (Reich War Minister) von Blomberg together with several other high-ranking officers were present. A few weeks later, on 10 July 1935, the same aircraft were inspected by Adolf Hitler himself.

In 1937, still more new prototypes went to Rechlin; beside the Messerschmitt Bf 110 destroyer, engineers at Rechlin commenced their evaluation of one of the new Ju 88. Furthermore, the Fw 57 and a few Henschel aircraft, notably the Hs 122, Hs 124 and Hs 127, were intensively tested there. During the course of 1937, six new aircraft crashed at or near the site, killing 18 members of the Rechlin evaluation team. However, despite all the dangers associated with the evaluation of new aircraft types, it was viewed as simply too important a task to stop the program at this stage.

In 1938, increasing numbers of improved variants of the combat aircraft expected to enter Luftwaffe service arrived at Rechlin. Most of them were prototypes of the Bf 109 and He 111, but there were also some new designs such as the Ha 141, later designated the Blohm & Voss BV 131, the Ar 198 and even a few more experimental types found their way to Rechlin at about this time. Additionally, the first Do 217, more than just an improved Do 17, became ready for testing as the third two-engined bomber earmarked for service with the Luftwaffe. Simultaneously, the Ju88 was tested as a heavy dive-bomber armed with special weapon loads.

In 1939, all aircraft evaluation was placed under the command of the Generalluftzeugmeister (Officer In Charge, Aircraft Procurement) who was responsible for the Technisches Amt (Technical Office) of the RLM, and who was also responsible for all other evaluation sites. Despite new responsi-bilites given to the various departments within Rechlin, flight tests were still carried out in the usual way. Another important aircraft reached Rechlin that year: the first Focke-Wulf Fw 190. In addition, the Fl 265, the Hs 128 V1 and the Me 210 V1 were all tested by pilots at Rechlin.

During 1940, beside the Fw 190 and Me 210, a new four-engined bomber, the He 177 V1, arrived at Rechlin, to be tested intensively by the evaluation team. Many technical problems were found during the evaluation of these types, though not all of the issues could be resolved by the Rechlin staff due to shortened development time constraints of the Me 210 and the He 177 in particular. At about the same time Rechlin succeeded in testing Fw 190s fitted with the first of the BMW 801 radial engines which would be used to replace the less powerful BMW 139s in the then not-too-distant future. To improve existing fighter power, variants with larger aircraft engines were sent to Rechlin; several new Bf 110s were evaluated in 1940, together with the first prototypes of the new Bf 109F and the first pre-series Do 217.

As of 1941, evaluation tasks were expanded once more; the development of the large He 177 bomber involved much work in order to obtain a reliable aircraft finally capable of front line service.

After the outbreak of hostilities, theatres of war became increasingly large, close air support becoming increasingly important for the Wehrmacht ground units fighting on long fronts, often without powerful enough weapons and enough supplies. Therefore it became an important task for the Erprobungsstellen to test the first Hs 129s, as well as special ground attack variants of the Fw 189 and the early Fw 190 fighter/bomber.

At this stage of the war it became obvious that German air transport capacity was too limited to fulfil all its necessary tasks over the European war theatre and the north African desert. Therefore, new huge gliders were constructed which underwent test and evaluation activities in 1940. Beside the Gotha Go 242, far larger types such as the Ju 322 and the Me 321 Gigant (Giant) were evaluated, although only the Go 242 and a motorised variant of the Me 321, the Me 323, actually passed evaluation at the time.

Month by month, new variants of all the more common combat aircraft were transferred to Rechlin for evaluation. In 1941 and 1942, Rechlin pilots not only flew the newest Bf 109s of the early G-series, but also the improved Bf 110 aircraft of both the F- and G-series and yet more Fw 190 variants. Simultaneously, more powerful bombers were brought to Rechlin. Most of these were prototypes of the Do 217-K and –M, being powered by BMW 80IDs and DB 603As respectively At the time there were insufficient resources for the Reich to produce four-engined strategic bombers, such as the Allies’ Fortress or Lancaster. Therefore those types already in service, such as the He 111 and Ju 88, were continuously improved to allow missions under more difficult conditions during the defence of the Reich, for example under heavier AA fire and against the increasingly potent fighters of the Allies. By the middle of the war, the Luftwaffe was demanding the introduction of heavier destroyer aircraft types to defend Reich territory both by day and by night. Prototypes of these well armed aircraft, such as the Do 217N and Ju 88C, were sent to Rechlin for testing and evaluation. Later in 1942, the first Ar 240 and He 219 Uhu (Owl) prototypes were available and, as usual, were first tested by their manufacturers before being handed over to the various E-Stellen. Also, various new transport aircraft became available for testing at this time. Besides the Go 244, a motorised glider, the Ju 252 and Fi 256, both German liaison and transport types, were to start their evaluation phase. However, only a limited number of each were produced due to the lack of sufficiently high quality raw materials.

Rechlin’s role was however not limited to German aircraft, several captured aircraft being sent to the site for evaluation. All over German-held territory, teams of specialist engineers were responsible for the recovery of any allied aircraft shot down or forced to land. Those allied machines suffering only limited damage were of tremendous interest to these men, who were also responsible for the recovery of undamaged spare parts from similar aircraft, thus allowing the Rechlin specialists to repair damaged enemy aircraft for comparative flights with German types.

From 1942 onwards, numerous photoreconnaissance aircraft of the RAF attempted to probe the secrets of the Rechlin test centre. All unrecognised aircraft or those unknown to the reconnaissance specialists back in the UK were labelled “Rechlin #”. For example, “Rechlin 104” photographed on 28 June 1943, was possibly the first Ar 232 to land at the airfield. Photos of various heavy night fighter prototypes and new Do 217 variants then being tested at Rechlin were also brought back to England at around this time.

The war visited the E-Stelle Rechlin itself early in 1944, when Allied P38s hit hard at Rechlin-Lärz and destroyed a few of the prototypes dispersed around the second evaluation airstrip at the base. On 24 May 1944, a total of 13 four-engined bombers of the 388th Bomber Group appeared over Rechlin-Lärz and dropped 31 tons of bombs although they failed to hit even one of the prototypes located there.

Despite these attacks, the pilots, engineers and men continued with their work to create new weapons for the Luftwaffe. Between May and August 1944, reconnaissance aircraft of the RAF located the first Ar 234 and Ju 287 types, together with a few Me 262s based there. Overwhelming allied air power had not been significantly hindered from reaching their targets all over Europe by the then available German piston-engined fighters or destroyers. Therefore German aircraft manufacturers were ordered, within the shortest period of time, to construct well armed jet fighters and bombers to prosecute a new kind of defensive and offensive air war against the Allies. Not only was the Me 163, a small rocket-powered point-defence fighter, constructed and tested at this time, but also several prototypes of the Me 262 and a few He 280s were evaluated, both in Bavaria and at other sites all over the Reich.

On 12 and 13 June 1944, the E-Stelle Rechlin presented a complete review of all the various prototypes then being tested. Beside the huge He 177 (the B-5-prototype), the fast Ju 88S-3, the He 219 and the new Focke-Wulf Ta 154 Moskito were shown. Furthermore, all the new major fighter variants and conversions were flown or shown at the event. Beside the Ar 234, Me 163, the new Do 335 and the Me 262, there were also examples of the latest captured Fortress, Liberator, Lightning, Mosquito and other Allied types shown.

On 25 August 1944, Rechlin was again hit, this time by 179 bombers of the US 8th Air Force. There was damage to the base this time but it still managed to function, although unlike the previous raid a few prototypes were lost or damaged. Late in 1944, the evaluation of German jet aircraft projects was continued with great vigour. Specialist teams worked on the He 111H which was needed for airborne release trials of the V1. Additionally, desperate attempts were undertaken to use manned Vis, code-named Reichenberg, to destroy more important targets through the use of suicide attacks, but on 15 March 1945 all work on this particular weapon was ceased.

Meanwhile, in January 1945, the Red Army had advanced faster than estimated after the Heeresgruppe Mitte (Army Group Centre) had been severely mauled and had practically broken down. To stem the Russian ground forces’ advance, all available aircraft were required, including those at Rechlin. The inventory of E-Stelle Rechlin at the time consisted of both series aircraft and prototypes which was immediately organised into two night bomber Staffeln flying the He 111, Ju 88 and Ju 188. Also a fast Bomberstaffel (bomber squadron) consisting of nine Ar 234s, two ground attack formations flying the available Fw 190s and two fighter units with a total of 13 Bf 109s and Me 262s were all established. The complete Gefechtsverband (Fighting Unit) KdE was dissolved, however, on 19 February 1945, due to serious problems in using prototypes for offensive missions. Also, with Russian ground forces still advancing rapidly, the evacuation of E-Stelle Rechlin to Lechfeld in Bavaria began on 24 March 1945.

Once re-established there, the evaluation of the Ar 234, Me 262 and the new He 162 Volksjäger (Peoples’ Fighter) could start again. Only very few prototypes had been flown from Rechlin to Lechfeld, but that included the first pre-series Ar 234C-3 and some of the He 162s. Meanwhile Rechlin and Lärz were severely hit by American Liberators on 10 April 1945. The last prototypes left Rechlin on 20 April 1945, destined for Bavaria and Northern Germany, the last members of staff of the E-Stelle leaving by train on 29 April 1945 before the facilities were blown up by German forces the following day.

Besides the E-Stelle Rechlin, several similar units were established across Germany, though they were used for other purposes.


SS-Verfügungs Division 1940


An SS-VT 37mm (1.47in) anti-tank gun pulled by what appears to be a Kettenrad half-track motorcycle during Case Yellow. However, the calibre of the gun was too small to threaten Allied tanks like the British Matilda.


Officers from the Germania Regiment of the SS-VT discuss their plan of action during the campaign in the West in May 1940. Note the camouflaged smock which had just been introduced.


A favourable geographical situation also encouraged the garrison at Walcheren Island to hold its ground. Not only was the Beveland Peninsula a thin strip of land that prohibited any large-size attack force from assailing the island in a two- or three-pronged offensive, but also much of the terrain was flooded. This forced Hausser to send his battalions down a narrow, bottle-neck passage, where they were vulnerable to artillery- and machine-gun fire. At the end of the peninsula, the Germans had only one possible land-based route to the island. This passage was a strong, concrete dam running between the island and the peninsula, which was wide enough to allow an asphalt road and a single-track railway across the top.

For his attack upon Walcheren, Hausser selected two battalions from the Deutschland Regiment to use against the island garrison. SS-Sturmbannführer Fritz Witt led the 1st Battalion, while SS-Sturmbannführer Matthias Kleinheisterkamp commanded the 3rd Battalion. Although they had planned to approach the island in a two-pronged formation, the flooded terrain on the Beveland Peninsula forced the 1st Battalion to close ranks behind Kleinheisterkamp’s troops.

On the afternoon of the 16th May, as the SS battalions approached the island, they began to encounter stiff resistance from the garrison. At an area around Westerdijk, the men of the 3rd Battalion had to negotiate their way through a minefield that was covered with barbed-wire, while a group of enemy soldiers who were well-entrenched in permanent defensive positions along an embanked road fired into them. Meanwhile, artillery batteries based in Antwerp shelled the SS battalions, as did the British warships patrolling near the island. During this advance, the Germans lost 16 men.


As a participant in the assault on Walcheren Dam, Paul Schürmann of No. 9 Company, 3rd Battalion, Deutschland Regiment, described the intensity of the fighting. ‘I see one man fall,’ he recalled, ‘then two on the right and then another comrade who lies face down. Some men are using their teeth to tear open field dressings to bandage their shattered arms or chests.’ Meanwhile, ‘more and more of our machine-guns cease firing, with their crews silent, bloody and pale behind the weapons’.

During a pause in the advance, Schürmann noticed more carnage. At one point he observed a comrade wandering about with his shirt torn from him. On this wounded soldier, ‘there is a gaping wound in his back and I can see the pumping movement of his lungs’. Schürmann recalled, ‘To the left of me another comrade goes back almost marching, erect, ignoring the bullets flying through the air … paying no attention to death. His throat and chest, covered in field dressings, are blood soaked. His unfocused eyes are wide open, his face is grey and he looks straight past me.’ To the right, Schürmann noticed another fallen soldier ‘lying on his back. His twitching fingers claw at the air.’

Despite this punishing counter-attack, the SS battalions pushed forwards and fought their way across the flooded, muddy ground to reach the Walcheren Dam. Here the German attack stalled in the face of more punishing resistance from the garrison. Finding protection in hastily excavated foxholes and behind railway cars, the SS troops held their ground as Allied machine-gun and artillery crews shot at them from the other side of the dam. During this engagement, the Germans lost another 17 men killed and 30 wounded. Satisfied with the amount of damage that they had inflicted upon the Deutschland Regiment, the Walcheren garrison finally evacuated the island.

While the SS-Verfügungs Division secured German control over the western end of Holland, the rest of Army Group B had captured Brussels, swept through Belgium and northern France, and had then pushed its way to the English Channel. When the Dutch Army capitulated, the main body of the 18th Army was able to join this offensive and help create a salient that separated Allied forces in northern France from those along the River Somme. During this action, the 18th Army was preoccupied with protecting the flanks of the salient, ensuring that Allied troops trapped in the area around Dunkirk would remain where they were, with their backs to the English Channel.

On the evening of the 22nd May, XIL Corps ordered the SS-Verfügungs Division to proceed with the 6th and 8th Panzer Divisions toward the port of Calais in order to help strengthen German positions west and south of the Dunkirk perimeter, as well as tighten the noose around this pocket of resistance. Specifically, the SS soldiers were supposed to cross the La Bassée Canal and intercept enemy forces attempting to break out of the pocket at a point on the waterway south of the town of Cassel. In addition, the SS-Verfügungs Division was to establish bridgeheads across the canal and push British troops out of the Nieppe Forest.

Although Hausser’s men were now exhausted from several days of marching and fighting, they were still in high spirits and relished the prospect of playing a decisive role in the battle for Western Europe. During the march to the La Bassée Canal, the SS units covered the right flank of XIL Corps and headed for the town of Aire. Later in the night, Hausser received a message from 18th Army headquarters ordering him to remain at his current position. The SS units bivouacked for the night at an area further south, near the town of Saint Hilaire.

Unfortunately for the soldiers in the SS-Verfügungs Division, enemy troops did not allow them to enjoy any relaxation. During the course of the night, scattered groups of French armoured and infantry units charged into Hausser’s troops in an attempt to break out of the Dunkirk pocket. By the early morning hours of the 23rd May, an armoured battalion had overrun No. 9 Company, Der Führer Regiment, while other tank formations surrounded the regiment’s No. 10 and No. 11 companies.

Later in the morning, the French attacked No. 5 and No. 7 companies and charged into an area near Blessy. Soldiers from 2nd Battalion, Der Führer Regiment and the 2nd Battalion of the SS Artillery Regiment had settled at this location for the evening, only to end up engaged in a confusing battle against desperate adversaries. They were fighting like cornered animals. During the battle, Karl Kreutz, a rising star in the SS-VT Division, witnessed the death of a careless battalion commander: ‘I saw Erpsenmüller was standing beside me smoking a cigarette. He asked, “Kreutz, aren’t you firing on prisoners of war?”’ Kreutz recalled, ‘The next second, while I was reloading, I saw him fall, shot through the head. He lay face downward with the cigarette still burning in his left hand.’

Reeling from the shock of the French surprise attack, the Germans rallied and began an orderly defensive action. Although surrounded by enemy battle tanks, a platoon of anti-tank gunners from Der Führer’s No. 7 Company destroyed at least 15 enemy vehicles. As the morning progressed, the French attack at Saint Hilaire gradually lost its momentum and the Germans seized the initiative, launching well-coordinated counter-assaults that involved infantry- and anti-tank units working in close cooperation. By the time the battle was over, Der Führer’s 3rd Battalion alone had destroyed 13 armoured vehicles and the division as a whole had taken about 500 prisoners. This battle was the first occasion in which the regiment had fought against battle tanks.

Other SS units distinguished themselves during the fighting that had broken out across the front of the division at the La Bassée Canal. While commanding a 30-man motorcycle patrol, SS-Untersturmführer Fritz Vogt spotted a French armoured column heading east to the town of Mazinghem. As an officer in the 2nd Company, Reconnaissance Detachment, Vogt had already won distinction for his leadership in the attack on the Dutch garrison at the Meuse-Waal Canal. In France, his actions against this armoured column would earn him the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.

With his anti-tank crews prepared to fire upon the French column, Vogt directed his men to shoot at the soft-skinned vehicles moving at the tail of the convoy. After knocking out these targets, the anti-tank crews struck the battle tanks at the front of the formation. Panicked and demoralized by this assault, the soldiers in the battalion-size armoured unit surrendered to the 30-man reconnaissance team.


Eventually, the battle near Saint Hilaire ended when the surviving members of the French assault detachment retreated to the other side of the La Bassée Canal and fell back to the Dunkirk perimeter. Although the men of the SS-VT Division had successfully repelled the attack, they were frustrated by the difficulty they had encountered against the French-built Renault 35 and other, larger, battle tanks. The German anti-tank weapons were not powerful enough to penetrate the tanks’ armour, except at close range. In some instances, enemy battle tanks had come within 5m (5.5yd) of anti-tank crewmen before being knocked out. This deficiency in firepower had contributed to the initial success of the French armoured formations in penetrating the division’s lines.

On 24 May, the SS-Verfügungs Division crossed the La Bassée Canal, established bridgeheads across the waterway, and advanced 8 km (5 miles) behind enemy lines before being intercepted by British soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division. Despite the tenacity of the British counter-attack, the Germans held their ground and maintained their bridgeheads. Even before this battle was over, the division received a message on 26 May ordering it to move north-west and begin an attack against British forces occupying the Nieppe Forest.

The following morning, the SS-Verfügungs Division started its assault on the forest. The Germania Regiment took the right wing of the advance, while the Der Führer Regiment marched on the left. Meanwhile, the Reconnaissance Detachment pressed forward at a position situated between Der Führer’s 1st and 3rd Battalions. Not surprisingly, the densely wooded terrain within the forest enabled the British defenders to fight effectively against this attack. They also enjoyed the protection of well-constructed field fortifications.

When the SS battalions launched their assault on the Nieppe Forest, they suffered high casualties from enemy marksmen. On the right wing of the attack, sharpshooters from the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment wreaked havoc upon the Germania Regiment. Despite this difficulty, the SS units made substantial progress in their effort to push the British garrison out of the forest, exploiting their numerical superiority and fighting in a very aggressive manner.

By the end of the day, the men of the Germania Regiment had advanced as far as the town of Haverskerque, while the Der Führer Regiment had pushed through the Bois d’Amont and reached the Canal de Nieppe. At these areas, the SS soldiers found anti-tank rifles which had been abandoned by retreating enemy forces. When the Germans tested these weapons on a makeshift firing range, they found that the barrels had been bent and thus rendered inaccurate, as other weapons would later be after Dunkirk.

On 28 May, the offensive against the Dunkirk pocket became easier for the armies of the Third Reich when King Leopold III and his Belgian Army surrendered, thereby enabling the German 6th and 18th Armies to close in on the eastern end of the Allied perimeter. This capitulation – combined with successful assaults launched by the Kleist and Hoth Panzer Groups to the south and the west of Dunkirk – pushed the remaining Allied forces back to a small and narrow area extending from Ypres in the east to the Franco–Belgian border. Because the Nieppe Forest was now situated on a salient that was vulnerable to isolation and encirclement, the British Expeditionary Force evacuated the Queen’s Own and other regiments from the area, and took up positions closer to the English Channel.

While the Germania Regiment, the Der Führer Regiment, and the Reconnaissance Detachment saw action in the Nieppe Forest, Steiner and his Deutschland Regiment marched on Merville with the 3rd Panzer Division. On 27 May, the SS unit confronted a fresh line of British defences arrayed along the Lys Canal. After softening enemy positions with an artillery barrage, Steiner hurled his 3rd Battalion at the British defenders, driving them out of the area. Later in the day, two of his battalions were on the other side of the waterway forming bridgeheads for other German forces.

The Totenkopf Division was supposed to be in the area to help solidify German control over this part of the canal, but it was still several miles away when British armoured units launched a punishing counter-attack against the Deutschland Regiment. Although the SS soldiers fought valiantly, their rifles and grenades were not powerful enough to knock out the enemy battle tanks. After suffering heavy casualties, they were saved from the brink of annihilation when an anti-tank company from the Totenkopf Division arrived in the nick of time and repulsed the British armoured assault. Covered by protective artillery fire from nearby batteries, the surviving British tank crews withdrew from the area.