The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Seven

Episode 399: The Eighth Flying Cloud Christmas Special

Officers at air station

They'd spent a long and tiring afternoon reviewing everything they'd learned during the previous weeks. Now they'd retired to the mess hall at Cairns Royal Air Station for a belated supper. It might have been unusual for Michaelson to dine with his subordinates, particularly ones against whom he bore a grudge, but the existence of a mutual foe led to strange expedients. As Everett had noted during his experience in Palestine, the enemy of my enemy may not necessarily be my friend, but at least he's the enemy of my enemy.

The mood at the table was subdued. Murdock in particular seemed distressed by the nationalist's capture of the Argentine liner. He might have been too young to remember the Zeppelin raids, but he'd heard lurid tales of their destructive power -- entire buildings destroyed with the loss of dozens of lives. The prospect that the renegade Germans now possessed an even more powerful vessel was disturbing.

"I imagine they're gloating over their new Christmas present," he mourned.

"Perhaps," Michaelson remarked sourly. "But we must not tar all Germans with the same brush."

"Sir?" Murdock said in surprise.

Michaelson glanced at the lieutenant as if to offer a reprimand. Then his expression seemed to soften. Perhaps he was remembering that he too had once been young, thought Everett.

"The War taught us to think of the Germans as devils," the senior reflected. "This is hardly surprising, since it was an unimaginably terrible experience. Most of us were happy to see it end, but there were some on both sides who resented the Peace, and wanted to press the conflict to a conclusion.

"Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. Some felt that an exchange of information would do much to allay suspicions on both sides. I was part of a mission sent under Admiral Wentworth -- then a commodore in the North Sea Squadron -- to evaluate German airship technology."

The senior captain reached out to pour himself a cup of tea. His expression might have been a smile. "As you shall learn, this didn't develop quite the way we anticipated."

Our expedition did not get off to an auspicious start. We were supposed to leave in January of 1917, shortly after the Armistice, but the wheels of diplomacy and politics both grind slowly, and it wasn't until December that we finally set out aboard the old R-23. Even then, it wasn't smooth sailing. Those old Shorts Class were not noted for their speed, and it took us most of the day to make the crossing to Germany.

Our destination was the Nordholz Imperial Air Station near Cuxhaven. It's a commercial station now, but it had been a major naval base during the War, and a constant thorn in our sides. We were met by Korvettenkapitän Victor Schütze, Commodore of Germany's North Sea airship division. He`d been one of their zeppelin aces, veteran of the raids on Hull and Tydesdale -- a notorious villain to our popular press.

I expected some character out of Wagner -- Fafnir, perhaps, in human form. Instead, I found him to be a surprisingly modest figure. His face seemed prematurely lined from his experiences in the War. He had the quiet but penetrating voice of someone used to command.

As planned, he offered us a tour of his command. Work had already begun to convert the station to civilian use. The perimeter fence was still festooned with announcements about the terrible fate that awaited trespassers, but these had faded with the passage of time. We passed several of the gun emplacements they'd constructed after our ill-fated attempt to bomb the place from seaplanes early in the War, but the weapons were no longer manned and many had been removed.

A squall arrived, with the kind of freezing rain one learns to expect during winters in the North Sea, driving us to take shelter in one of the airship sheds. Inside, we found a decommissioned zeppelin waiting for the breakers. Gas cells deflated, drained of fuel and ballast, she hung from the roof by a network of cables. I recognized the L-48, our host's last command.

"I understand that was your vessel," Wentworth remarked to Schütze.

"Ja," admitted the captain." I had her during the fall of '16. She's of no use now that the War is over, so we'll be breaking her up for scrap."

Wentworth studied the airship. She might have been be obsolete, but she was still a triumph of aeronautical engineering. "You must have been proud of your command," he said politely.

Schütze was silent for a moment, as if remembering the ghosts of airships past. His expression was calm, but I imagined I could see a trace of pain behind his eyes. At last he sighed. "Of course this is true, but I am glad that time is over. The raids were exciting, and we were feted as heroes upon our return, but we were under no illusions what we were doing. We were also under no illusions about our chances. If the War had continued into 1917, I might have been dead by June."

I must confess this was a face of Germany I hadn't expected to see. We'd been taught to regard the zeppelin commanders as monsters -- baby-killers and slayers of innocents. It had never occurred to me they might have regretted the War as much as we did.

We were supposed to lift ship from Cuxhaven the next day, but the weather was too bad, so our hosts provided a train for the next leg of our journey. Those German trains are quite remarkable. They're fast, efficient, and follow their schedules with a precision that puts the best-made clocks to shame. It's no wonder those fellows were able to supply all of their massive offensives on the Western Front. The only wonder is that the French were able to stop them.

Our destination was a row of industrial buildings in a nondescript suburb of Berlin named Schwerin. Our host this time was Fregattenkapitän Peter Strasser, Chief of German Naval Airship Division during the War. He was a fierce-looking officer with a beard like Mephistopheles -- every man's vision of a Prussian warrior. I imagine his subordinates feared that beard.

Like Schütze, the captain seemed happy to show us around. It was clear this site had once been important to the German war effort. Now I was struck by the air of abandonment. Like the gun emplacements at Cuxhaven, it seemed as if its people had been happy to leave the place and return to civilian life.

"I understand this was once an aeroplane factory," said Wentworth.

"Yes," said our host. "At the beginning of the War, it belonged to a Dutch manufacturer, but as hostilities progressed we found more substantial uses for the facility. It became a laboratory to develop weapons such as these."

He rolled aside a door to reveal what appeared to be an abandoned production line. On this lay a row of shark-like projectiles, somewhat larger than a man, fitted with stubby wings. In the dim light of the overhead lamps, they looked strangely threatening.

"We called these Gleitbombe, or `gliding-bombs'," Strasser told us. "They are steered by the movable tail assembly you see at the stern. Control impulses are transmitted along a cable that unreels behind them. They're significantly more accurate than conventional bombs. Our experimental models routinely struck within ten meters of their target. They also allow the attacking ship to... how would you say this... `stand off', out of range of any defensive batteries."

Wentworth studied the weapons with some interest. "These are very impressive," he observed. How close were they to completion?"

"Close enough," said Strasser. "Fortunately the conflict came to an end before they were ready for service. If you follow me, I will show you another of our projects."

The captain led us to what had obviously been a machine shop. Belts still led down from the lineshaft to an impressive collection of lathes and milling machines. In the middle of the room, a stand supported something that resembled a small version of the monoplane that caused our observers so much trouble in 1915. I noticed there was no provision for an operator.

"Where does the pilot sit?" asked Wentworth.

Strasser seemed amused by the question. "There is no pilot," he replied. "This was the prototype for an aerial torpedo. We were working on two versions -- a short-range model, controlled by wire, on a principle similar to the Gleitbombe, and a longer-range version directed by radio impulses."

"An aerial torpedo," marveled Wentworth. "That would have revolutionized warfare."

"So it would," said Strasser, "but there is a fundamental problem with the concept. When an aeroplane turns, climbs, or dives, the gyroscopic effect of the propeller will cause it to veer off course. A human pilot can correct for this. Automatic machinery cannot. We tried to address this problem by adding a second propeller, geared to rotate opposite to the first, but the engineering challenge proved insurmountable. Work was suspended after the Peace. We'll be forwarding an account of the project to your Admiralty in accordance with the Dover Agreement."

I assumed this marked the end of our tour, but our host had one final surprise in store. After we'd were done inspecting the incomplete torpedo, he led us down a hall and through a locked door into what was quite obviously a laboratory. This held an assortment of benches and racks of electronic devices arranged around a device that was quite difficult to describe. A metal framework held a rod of some crystalline material -- this might almost have been ruby, judging from its color -- surrounded by what appeared to be flash lamps of the sort photographers use. This apparatus was enclosed in a complicated system of mirrors.

"What the Dickens is that?" Wentworth asked in surprise.

"We call this instrument a `LIVSEN cannon'," said Strasser. "The acronym stands for Licht-Verstarkung Stimulierte Enmissionsstralung -- I do not know how you would translate this in English. It is based on a scientific paper by that young professor, Einstein. In theory, it should generate a powerful beam of light, intense enough to burn holes in steel. In practice..." he shrugged, "...we were unable to determine if the principle could ever be made to work. The project was terminated after the War, and the director has since retired to some island in the South Pacific."

"It's like something out of radio drama," mused Wentworth. "What would it be like to fight a war with weapons such as these?"

Strasser gazed into space, as if haunted by the ghosts of airships of the future. At last he shook his head. "People invent these new weapons in the belief that they will make war unthinkable. This belief has always proved false. We must hope it will never again be put to the test."

By next morning the weather had cleared. The R-23 was still at Cuxhaven, but our hosts had provided an airship of their own to take us to Freidrichshafen. This was the L-59, which became the prototype for the first generation of post-War German packets. Her pilot was Kapitänleutnant Ludwig Bockholt, another veteran of the War.

"This is quite a vessel," Wentworth remarked after we were underway. "I understand she was built for a flight to Africa."

Bockholt smiled. "The intention was to carry supplies to Generalmajor Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck's troops in East Africa. Fortunately hostilities ended before construction began. She has performed well in trials, so there is talk of putting these vessels into production for commercial service."

"I suppose they could prove handy to serve your possessions in places like the South Pacific," said Wentworth.

The captain smiled. "Perhaps," he replied cryptically, "but as you shall see, we have more ambitious plans." He wouldn't tell us more.

It was day before Christmas when we arrived at Friedrichshafen, home of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin company. I've often felt his was an unlikely place for the birthplace of aviation -- a small resort on the northern shore of the Bodensee, between Lindau and Konstanz. It was backwater of history until the Count established his factory there.

We were met at the mooring mast by Dr. Hugo Eckener, who'd taken over direction of the company after the Count passed away that March. He was a middle-aged gentleman of moderate height and build, with that serious expression so many Germans of his generation wore, but a twinkle of humor in his eye.

"Guten Tag, meine Herren," he told us. "Welcome to Freidrichshafen."

"Thank you," said Wentworth. "We appreciate your giving up part of your holiday to greet us."

The doctor made a dismissive gesture. "It was worth the sacrifice," he told us. "I believe you will appreciate what we have to show you."

He bundled us into his car for the drive to the factory. We expected to find only minimal staff when we arrived, but instead the place was bustling with activity. Most of this seemed to be concentrated around the Number One shed. Eckener parked next to a side entrance, nodded to the guard, and led us into the building.

Inside, workers were putting the finishing touches on an enormous airship that seemed to fill every foot of the available space. She was like nothing we'd ever seen before, with six powerful engines and a streamlined control car faired directly into the hull envelope. It was clear this vessel represented a significant advance in airship design.

"What is this?" marveled Wentworth.

"She is our gift to modern civilization," said Eckener, "the world's first long-range commercial airship, intended to compete with ocean liners on the Atlantic crossing. In your units, she has 3.7 million cubic feet enclosed volume, a top speed of 65 knots, and disposable load of 20 tons. We expect her to carry 30 passengers along with their luggage and cargo on a flight between Europe to America."

"This is quite an accomplishment," Wentworth observed. "Have you chosen a name for the vessel?"

Eckener made no attempt to conceal his pride. "We have decided to name this the Graf class in honor of the late Count."

We stood there for some time studying the vessel. She was quite obviously not a warship. Her lines were clean, efficient, and unmarred by any provision for armament.

"Doctor Eckener," I asked, "this seems entirely unlike any previous designs from your company. What led to such a departure from your earlier practice?"

The Doctor smiled. "In some sense, it may be a return to our roots," he told us. "Luftschiffbau Zeppelin began as a commercial airship company and that is what we do best. But there's more to the story. Airships took many lives during the war. We felt it was time to restore the balance. We want to make the Count's invention something that has saved more lives than it has taken."

Michaelson finished his tea, then gazed into his cup as if it held some message. At last he set it aside. "I've thought about his words often since then," he told his audience. "We may be less than angels, but we are also more than beasts. As long as we remember this, there is hope for the future."

Gift-wrapped zeppelin

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you from Cairns Royal Air Station and the crew of the Flying Cloud! We hope you have a wonderful holiday season and look forward to the coming year with anticipation. Our heroes (and heroines) on His Majesty's Airship R-505 will be on vacation as well. Season Nine will begin on 9-Jan-2017. We look forward to seeing you upon their return...

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