Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Major Hans-Hugo Witt
Residence: Barth-in-Pommern, Germany
Occupation: Luftwaffe Major
Location at time of fire: Passenger decks, starboard observation lounge
Major Hans-Hugo Witt, born in Rostock in Mecklenburg, near the edge of the Baltic Sea, in about 1901. Witt was an officer in the Luftwaffe, and had been with the Luftwaffe since its inception in 1935, though he had been a pilot since 1925. In October of 1935, Witt had been named commander of Sturzkampfgeschwader 162, Group 1, a dive bomber squadron based out of Schwerin. However, in April of 1937, Witt's squadron was reassigned as Group IV of a training squadron, Lehrgeschwader Greifswald.
The following month, Witt was given an assignment, along with two other Luftwaffe officers, Colonel Fritz Erdmann and First Lieutenant Claus Hinkelbein, to make a transatlantic flight aboard the airship Hindenburg on its first North American flight of 1937. The three men were in fact military observers, traveling in civilian clothing, who were aboard the ship to learn about the cutting-edge long-range navigational and weather-forecasting techniques employed by the ship's command crew, as well as to observe the overall operation of the ship.
It has been alleged, primarily by author Michael M. Mooney in his 1972 book "The Hindenburg", that the three Luftwaffe officers were in fact aboard the last flight as security officers, charged with the task of identifying and stopping a potential saboteur. No credible evidence has ever surfaced to support this allegation, and all references to this claim seem to be based solely on the unsupported assertions that Mooney made in his book. As a point of fact, both German and American military observers had been aboard virtually every flight of the Hindenburg during its 1936 season, observing the operation and design of the ship. It was even common practice in 1936 for these military observers to travel in civilian clothes, as did Witt, Erdmann, and Hinkelbein on the first North American flight of the 1937 season.
Prior to the Hindenburg's flight, when Witt and the others were in Frankfurt waiting to board the ship, Witt noticed that the passenger baggage was being searched rather more thoroughly than he would have expected. Witt was talking with his brother and another man who was a Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei representative and he mentioned the baggage search. It didn't affect Witt himself because he had a military passport and was therefore exempt from having his baggage searched, but he was curious nonetheless. The DZR representative told him that an anonymous warning had been received about a possible sabotage threat, and that this was the reason for the increased diligence in searching the passengers' baggage.
This is probably the nugget of truth that Mooney used in order to concoct his tale about the three Luftwaffe men being aboard the ship to look for bombs. However, when Witt mentioned this exchange in his testimony to the US Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry following the disaster, he specifically said that he heard nothing more about the sabotage warning after that exchange with the DZR representative, and that he'd heard nothing about it before the day of departure. Witt's feeling seemed to be that had he not asked about the baggage search, the subject might not have come up at all. Coupled with the fact that there had reportedly been numerous sabotage threats to the Hindenburg throughout 1936, there is no reason to assume that Witt's having heard about a sabotage warning before the last flight was connected in any way with any secret in-flight security duty assigned to him, Hinkelbein or Erdmann.
During the flight, Witt and the other two Luftwaffe officers made frequent trips to the ship's control car to observe the navigators at their duties, and also were freely escorted throughout the rest of the ship, notably places such as the engine gondolas and the electrical center, as had been customary with military observers in 1936. It being the first time the three men had flown on a Zeppelin, it was all relatively new to them.
As the Hindenburg approached the landing field at Lakehurst at the end of the flight, Maj. Witt was in the starboard passenger lounge, standing with Col. Erdmann, Lt. Hinkelbein and fellow passenger George Hirschfeld watching the ground crew from one of the observation windows. The ship made a turn to starboard as it approached the mooring mast, obscuring Witt's view of the ground operations, and after watching the ship's bow lines drop, Witt decided to go across to the port side windows to get a better look.
Major Witt's location in the starboard lounge at the time of the fire.
Suddenly, Witt heard somebody cry out that the ship was on fire. At the same moment, he heard a dull detonation and felt the ship shake and begin to tilt aft. He lost his footing and slid along the floor, coming to rest along with a pile of chairs against the rear wall of the lounge, near the door to the hallway leading to the cabin area and the portside dining room. The door was closed and one of the American passengers tried unsuccessfully to pull the jammed door open.
By now Witt could see the glow of the fire through the ceiling above him, and he felt the floor leveling out again as the bow of the ship dropped. Witt climbed to his feet and ran to one of the observation windows, jumping from a height of approximately 20 feet. He remembered nothing from the moment he jumped until he realized that Lt. Hinkelbein and another man were untangling a length of burning cable from around Witt's neck and carrying him to safety. He had apparently been caught by collapsing wreckage once he landed, as were many of the passengers on the starboard side, and had Hinkelbein and the other man not found him when they did, Witt may well have not made it out alive.
Witt was taken to nearby Paul Kimball hospital with burns to his face, head, and hands. He was moved the next day to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York where he recovered for several weeks after the fire. He testified to the Board of Inquiry from his hospital bed on May 28th. Shortly after this, with his health improving, Witt was taken on a day trip, along with injured Hindenburg engine mechanic Theodor Ritter, to visit the US Army academy at West Point.
Witt returned to Germany after recovering from his injuries, and in September of 1937 he transferred to the Luftwaffe General Staff in Berlin. He was then given command of flight group Jagdgeschwader 26 on December 14th, 1939, but was relieved at the end of the Battle of France on June 23rd, 1940, and spent the rest of the war in staff positions. After the war, Witt took on a job as a lead caster in a German battery factory, eventually taking a position as a salesman with the firm.
Hans-Hugo Witt passed away in 1976 at the age of 75.
Special thanks to Luftwaffe historian Don Caldwell, who was kind enough to provide me with details about Hans-Hugo Witt's wartime service, as well as his post-war life.