Hometown: Kressbronn, Germany
Occupation: Director of Flight Operations - Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei
Location at time of fire: Control car - bridge
Died in hospital
Ernst August Lehmann was born on March 12th, 1886 in Ludwigshafen am Rhein. His father was a chemist and supervisor for the Badischen Anilinfabrik, and his mother was the daughter of the former Mayor Schäfer of Diez an der Lahn.
Ernst Lehmann became a naval cadet in 1905, sailed aboard the training vessel Stosch, and later entered the Polytechnic Institute at Charlottenburg near Berlin where he earned an engineering degree in 1912. He specialized in ship construction from 1906 through 1912, serving in the imperial shipyards in Kiel, rising to the rank of naval reserve lieutenant.
However, Lehmann found a career in the peacetime German navy decidedly unexciting. He became associated with Dr. Hugo Eckener in early 1913, and shortly thereafter joined DELAG, the early Zeppelin transport company. He was given command of the passenger airship LZ-17 Sachsen in late 1913, and served as its captain for the next 14 months.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)
Then, on July 31st, 1914, on landing the Sachsen at Friedrichshafen, Lehmann received orders from the War Ministry not to fly the ship further than 50 miles from its home base. The political situation in Europe had radically deteriorated since the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand slightly more than a month before, and Germany was mobilizing for war. Within a week, with Germany now officially at war with Russia, France, Belgium, and Great Britain, Lehmann was further ordered to fly the Sachsen to Potsdam, where it was to be refitted as a military airship, with Lehmann and his crew continuing to fly it.
However, it was still unclear exactly how they were to be utilized, or what role airships would play in the coming hostilities. Lehmann would later write:
“Well, I dug my naval lieutenant’s uniform from the trunk in the attic and wondered what the war had in store for us. We had no idea what would be done with us, for there were no provisions for Zeppelins in the General Staff’s plans. Although Zeppelins had already been used in maneuvers, their military value was considered trivial.”
Lehmann was concerned that the existing Zeppelins, of which there were at that time only eleven in all of Germany, were ill-suited for war, and that German military leaders had no real idea of what to do with them in the first place:
“Not one of these ships was equipped for warfare. In July, when the situation became critical, the commander of the army airship Z VIII, which lay deflated in Metz, a few miles from the French border, sought permission to inflate her for service against the French cavalry, which was being mobilized on the other side of the frontier. For if war was declared, there was danger that the enemy would advance upon Metz and destroy the helpless ship. But the War Ministry summarily rejected the petition.”
“That was significant. It revealed how unprepared we were for war, and it indicated, furthermore, that the authorities in Berlin had no idea what to do with such a ship in the event of war. Yet, to tell the truth, we were no better off. We had some training and experience in aeronautics and we were enthusiastic young officers in the new merchant marine of the air. Even Count Zeppelin himself, old in years, but more enthusiastic than many a youngster, at that time occupied himself not with the military potentialities of his invention, but with its peacetime development.”
“The army and navy airships were built for purely experimental purposes, in order to collect various data, and the government endeavored to support the new science with contracts. But if anyone had prophesied then that, during the war, we would build eighty-eight Zeppelins, each one larger and more efficient than its predecessor, I should have considered him a visionary. And yet, more important than the military results, were the tremendous technical and practical advances made in this hard, prodigal school.”
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)
The Sachsen, now based in Cologne, was mainly used as a training ship, though it did make at least one bombing raid in September of 1914. The fortified city of Antwerp was under siege by German forces, and the only remaining avenue of retreat for the Belgians was a railroad line running along the Dutch border to the west of the city. Lehmann and his First Officer, Baron Max von Gemmingen, a nephew of Count von Zeppelin who himself had a great deal of experience with airships, suggested that they load up the Sachsen with as many explosives as they could carry, and use them to destroy a key junction in the railroad some distance outside of Antwerp. However, the general in charge of the siege preferred to rely on his cavalry to do the job. The German cavalry failed to do so, and the Belgians ended up holding the junction and withdrawing a number of their troops from Antwerp via the railroad.
The German General Staff then decided to send the Sachsen on a nighttime bombing run over Antwerp itself. While waiting for the final order to attack, Lehmann and his crew began taking the Sachsen up multiple times per day to practice their bombing techniques. The bombs at that time were mainly just artillery shells with strips of horse blanket tied to one end in an attempt to make the shell hit the ground head-on. In preparation for the Antwerp raid, however, Lehmann and his crew designed several kinds of bombs (including incendiaries) specifically to be used in air raids and had a Cologne-area factory produce them for them.
Then, on September 25th, they were ordered to attack Antwerp, and the Sachsen set out at approximately 11:00 in the evening. Lehmann cruised for an hour or so between Antwerp and the Dutch border, waiting for the moon to set just before daybreak, which would give him a short time during which he could bomb Antwerp under cover of relative darkness. When the moon had gone, Lehmann turned the Sachsen toward Antwerp. Evading searchlights and artillery fire, he flew over the city and his crew tossed hand-thrown bombs out of the gondolas and released large incendiary bombs on the various forts that encircled the city, as well as the central railway station and other strategic targets. The accuracy of the primitive aerial bombs left much to be desired, however, and a number of residential buildings and houses were also hit, killing approximately ten civilians.
Lehmann looked at his watch after the Sachsen had been over Antwerp for about twenty minutes, saw the sun beginning to rise in the east, and decided that it was time to return to base. They arrived back at Cologne at 11:00 in the morning, their mission having lasted almost exactly 12 hours.
Early the following year, 1915, Lehmann and von Gemmingen were transferred from the Sachsen to a newly-built ship (and the only Zeppelin ever built in Frankfurt) designated Z XII. While Lehmann did not feel that the Z XII was an ideal ship for warfare, he did call it “a noticeable improvement over the pre-war types”.
Z XII, Lehmann's second wartime Zeppelin command.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)
The two men also puzzled over a solution to the problem of the enemy’s ever-improving defenses. Their searchlights were becoming more powerful, their anti-aircraft guns were becoming more accurate, and their airplanes were climbing higher and flying faster. For hydrogen-filled Zeppelins, this obviously had the potential to be a deadly combination.
What Lehmann and von Gemmingen came up with as a partial solution was the “Spähkorb”, or spy basket. The prototype was an old butter cask fitted with a tail piece designed to keep it facing more or less forward. It was attached to the end of a thousand-foot length of 1/8 inch steel cable, which was in turn attached to a hand winch installed in the ship’s bombing compartment. The idea was that an observer could sit in the spy basket and be lowered down to navigate and give bombing commands via a telephone line to the control car while the airship itself remained above the clouds, out of sight and out of the range of enemy defenses.
Lehmann himself tested the prototype. With the Z XII’s helmsman blindfolded, Lehmann crawled into the barrel and was lowered about 500 feet below the ship. The wind tossed the tub around, and Lehmann wondered if the cable and the winch would hold. He quickly made his course calculations and relayed them to the control car. The helmsman responded quickly and accurately, and Lehmann had himself pulled back aboard.
With a few modifications, including a motorized winch, a ¼ inch cable with the telephone line enclosed within it, and a more substantial, aerodynamically designed observation car, the “Spähkorb” would become a common piece of equipment in wartime Zeppelins.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)
Meanwhile Germany, its people infuriated by the “hunger blockade” that Great Britain had laid across the North Sea, was beginning to strongly consider bombing London. Some of the more zealous supporters of this idea were calling for an attack fleet of twenty airships carrying 300 incendiary bombs each to firebomb the entire city of London. Lehmann saw it differently.
“When I was asked my technical opinion, I admitted that the plan, as such, was feasible. But the thought of subjecting a defenseless civilian population, outside the actual war zone, to all the horrors of aerial warfare, and destroying priceless cultural treasures, was reason enough for all of us to reject the plan.”
Nonetheless, Lehmann and his crew participated in bombing raids over London, beginning in mid-March of 1915. By order of the Kaiser, the bombing was not as indiscriminate as some had been calling for, and the intention, at least early on, was to confine the strikes to strategic targets, while studiously avoiding cultural sites, Buckingham Palace, and so forth. Lehmann’s early attempts to bomb London, however, were thwarted by weather and navigational problems. He and his crew would always find an alternate target such as Calais or Dunkirk to bomb on the flight home, but London continued to elude them.
In June of 1915, Lehmann and his crew were transferred, along with the Z XII, to the eastern front under the command of Field Marshal von Hindenburg. For the next several months they bombed enemy defenses and railroad lines along the Russian front. By October, however, the weather was beginning to deteriorate as winter approached, and Lehmann and his crew were once again transferred, this time to Darmstadt.
Once in Darmstadt, Lehmann was given a new airship, the LZ 90, with which he attacked strategic targets in France. It was here that he first encountered incendiary rockets among the enemy defenses. Bombing raids against London introduced Lehmann and his comrades to the additional new threat of phosphorous shells.
In late April of 1916, Lehmann was given command of yet another new Zeppelin, the LZ 98, and as soon as it was completed and had finished its trial flights, Lehmann flew it from Friedrichshafen to its new base in Hannover.
"Count Zeppelin was our guest on this 18-hour flight. In his honor, we detoured over the village of Zepelin, which is the ancestral seat of the family and lies on the Baltic near Bützow in Mecklenburg. Count Zeppelin had never been there before. "You see," he said to us, grinning, "all that land below once belonged to my ancestors. But they drank and gambled it away."
Once again, Lehmann and his crew, flying on behalf of the German army, participated in joint bombing operations against London with the German navy.
On at least one of these raids, the LZ 98 flew into a heavy thunderstorm:
"The heavens opened all their sluices at one time; the storm struck us from all directions. While we were moving the horizontal controls [elevators] in order to dive as steeply as possible, I remembered the man on the top of the ship. Just then, he called down through the speaking tube: 'A lightning bolt struck the nose of the ship, thirty feet from my post. It almost knocked me down just as I was going to report that there were electrical discharges around me. Tongues of fire are licking around the muzzles of my machine guns, and around my head too. And when I spread my hand, little flames spurt out of my fingertips.' "
Nearby, Captain Hans von Schiller's L 11 was caught nearby in the same storm, and he reported a similar phenomenon:
"Then a terrific bolt crashed by my ears, filling the inside of the ship with a blinding light.The man on the upper lookout post telephoned down that the muzzle of his machine gun was spitting sparks. I climbed through the gun shaft to see what it was all about. To my astonishment, I found the platform brightly illuminated. In the center of this luminous circle sat the lookout, wet through to the skin, but sporting a veritable halo around his head. \
This extraordinary phenomenon is not unknown to mountain climbers as well as sailors; it is called Saint Elmo's fire. The duralumin frame of the hull was charged with electricity and sent forth sparks at all connecting points and corners. When we looked up out of the control car, we could see the sparks coming from all protruding objects. Wires and cables glowed with a bluish-violet light; a wonderful sight, except that we were not exactly in a position to appreciate it. Our men were staggering like drunken tightrope walkers on the narrow walkway. And with lightning flashing by every two minutes at arm's length, so to speak, our lives depended upon no hydrogen escaping from the gas cells."
Both ships fought their way through the storm to their bases. Once back at Hannover, Lehmann inspected the spot on the bow of the LZ 98, where the lightning had struck. He found several small burn holes in the outer cover, the largest of which having "the dimensions of a small pea", and some slight melting of the metal framework beneath, but no other damage was apparent. Lehmann would later explain why, even during the storm, he had not been particularly concerned by the possibility of the lightning igniting his ship's hydrogen:
"Lightning, too, obeys the laws of nature. It is distributed only on the enormous surface of the metallic airship frame which protectively encloses the gas cells like a Faraday cage. This, as long as the airship pilot himself – and it lies entirely within his power – takes care that no inflammable gas forms between the cells and the outer envelope, lightning is no danger at all for a Zeppelin."
Not long after this, on September 2nd, 1916, Lehmann and the LZ 98 took part in a large-scale bombing raid on London, in which 13 Zeppelins took part. Despite the foggy conditions near the ground, Lehmann circled at the outskirts of the city waiting for some cloud cover he could use. He finally spotted some clouds at about 10,000 feet and ducked into them. When they reached the Thames, Lehmann's bomb officer dropped their explosives on the docks (or, at least, what they mistakenly took to be the docks), and the ship immediately climbed to 14,000 feet and prepared for the flight home.
As Lehmann was consulting his maps to set their course for the return trip, his first officer, von Gemmingen, suddenly shouted in horror.
"I looked back in the direction from which we had come and I saw, far behind us, a bright ball of fire. Despite the distance, which I estimated at thirty-eight miles, we knew that the blazing meteor on the further rim of the city could only be one of our airships. As we later learned, Fate had overtaken Commander Schramm's SL 11, a rigid ship of the Schütte-Lanz type. The flaming mass hung in the sky for more than a minute; then single parts detached themselves from it and preceded it to the earth. Poor fellows, they were lost the moment the ship took fire."
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)
The SL-11 had been shot down by a British airplane flown by Lt. William Leefe Robinson. Robinson's guns were loaded with incendiary bullets, and he this allowed him to set the airship on fire from within. In fact, a short while before encountering the SL 11, Robinson had been chasing Lehmann's LZ 98 as it ascended after its bombing run. He was unable to match the airship's rate of climb, however, and abandoned the pursuit looking for easier prey. Lehmann and his crew had narrowly escaped the fate of Commander Schramm and the men of the SL 11.
Lehmann his fellow army airship commanders met after their return from the September 2-3 bombing mission. They agreed among themselves that London, at least, was too heavily defended for continued raids to be worthwhile. The airships they had at the time would have either needed to fly about 5,000 feet higher (which meant halving their bomb loads to compensate) or else to operate with full bomb loads at altitudes that were well within range of London's defenses (which meant that more of them would inevitably be shot down.)
The army airshipmen did continue to attack English targets, however. But until they were given newer airships that could operate efficiently and with full bomb loads at sufficiently high altitudes, they would continue to avoid London. For the next couple of months, Lehmann and the LZ 98 flew out of Wildeshausen, near Bremen, mostly hitting Allied targets in France. This continued until November, 1916, when Lehmann and the LZ 98 were transferred back to the eastern front, at Kovno, with orders to push toward St. Petersburg. However, the harsh Baltic winter created weather problems for them, and they were not able to advance as anticipated.
In February of 1917, Lehmann was ordered to turn over command of the LZ 98 to his first officer's nephew, Baron Joachim von Gemmingen. Lehmann's new command would be the brand new LZ 120, and plans were made once more for an attack on St. Petersburg. However, as the crew was in the process of loading bombs into their new ship for the raid, the Russian Revolution broke out and the attack was canceled.
By this time, the army was in the process of ending its airship program and Lehmann and the LZ 120 were flying reconnaissance in the Baltic for the navy. The recon flights were uneventful, and Lehmann took advantage of this by experimenting with water landing techniques, practicing nautical astronomy, and improving the amenities aboard the ship. As the summer progressed, he and his officers also decided to test their new ship's ability to remain on patrol for long periods of time.
Lehmann, therefore, loaded the LZ 120 up with fuel, ballast, and provisions for a 100-hour endurance flight, which began late in the evening of July 26, 1917. One of the things that Lehmann wanted to experiment with was the crew's ability to hold up under the strains of a prolonged flight, and he made adjustments to the watch rotation to see which arrangements worked best. The mechanics he divided into four watches, and the rest of the crew he split into two watches. The first day he had the watches running eight hours at a stretch, the next day he tried four-hour watches, then six hour watches. As he later wrote, "All of these methods proved to be practical."
The flight was largely uneventful, and by Lehmann's own account seems to have been almost as much a pleasure cruise for the crew as it was a military maneuver.
"By removing the large partitions, we had transformed the control car into one large room and furnished it as a mess hall for eight men, complete with table, chairs, and sofas. There were no radio concerts in those days, but I had a guitar, and others had harmonicas or music boxes. We played and sang whenever we were off duty; and the good-natured giant continued to carry us gently onward."
After cruising over the Baltic for 101 hours, Lehmann brought the LZ-120 in to land at its base at Seerappen during the early morning hours of July 31.
In December of 1917, Lehmann was transferred to Friedrichshafen to act as liason officer between the German Navy and Luftschiffbau Zeppelin. He commanded the delivery flights of four new Zeppelins for the Naval Acceptance Board in early 1918.
Shortly after World War I came to an end, in December, 1918, Lehmann and his former First Officer, Baron von Gemmingen (who had left military service in early 1917 to take over as Chairman of the Board of the Zeppelin Company), began to make plans to follow through on a dream of the late Count von Zeppelin's: to fly an airship across the Atlantic Ocean. The last airship intended for delivery to the German Navy, the L 72, was still in the possession of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, and the Navy had cancelled the contract for it following the Armistice. This meant that, technically speaking, the L 72 was available to them to make the transatlantic flight, and it was of a large enough capacity to carry sufficient fuel and provisions for not only the flight across the Atlantic, but for the return trip as well. Expanding upon lessons learned during the LZ-120’s endurance flight over the Baltic, Lehmann and von Gemmingen planned to fly the L 72 to New York, then turn around and fly back to Germany again without landing or refueling.
The Zeppelin Company considered Lehmann’s request to use the L 72 for his planned transatlantic flight, and finally agreed in early March of 1919. Preparations for the flight began immediately, as Lehmann wished to fly as soon as weather permitted. He realized, however, that he was going to have to inform the German government of his intentions. The response was hardly what Lehmann had hoped for. He could find no government agency that would assume the responsibility for approving the flight, and the overall opinion was that such a flight would anger the Allies, and that there was too great a risk that they would respond by occupying Friedrichshafen and destroying the Zeppelin works.
Lehmann, however, remained optimistic that the opportunity to reestablish Germany’s international reputation, as well as the possibility of restoring to Germany some of its national pride, would win out over the bureaucratic reservations that the government had expressed. He therefore continued with preparations for the flight, and by April of 1919 the L 72 was ready to fly. It was fully fueled, a workshop had been installed for the mechanics, a mess room had been added for the entire crew, and the engine gondolas had even been altered so that the sides could be opened in flight should major repairs be necessary while the ship was out over the ocean. All that remained was to inflate the airship’s gas cells with hydrogen just as soon as official permission for the flight arrived from Berlin.
Unfortunately, what arrived from Berlin turned out to be a telegram forbidding the L 72 to take off. No official reason was given at the time, but Lehmann later discovered that the Interallied Commission had been informed of the plan to fly the L 72 to New York. As he would later write, “Why the Allies opposed an undertaking which was intended to blaze the path for peaceful international transportation I only learned eight weeks later, when the English rigid airship R 34 was the first to fly the Atlantic.”
Ernst Lehmann rejoined the Zeppelin Company and began to work with Dr. Eckener to move the company back toward a peacetime airship service. Two new passenger airships were ordered and the first of the two, christened the Bodensee, made 103 flights in 98 days during fall of 1919, including flights to Stockholm. Sweden subsequently became interested in the possibility of a joint Swedish/German airship service from Stockholm to the Mediterranean via Friedrichshafen, and Lehmann was sent to Stockholm to try to negotiate a deal. It was a role that he was to play often over the next couple decades.
Unfortunately, the Interallied Commission issued new regulations while Lehmann was in Stockholm, and in addition to having to give up its remaining airships, including the Bodensee and her sister ship the Nordstern, Germany was forced to dismantle most of its airship hangars. This effectively ended the possibility of a joint airship line with Sweden or any other country, and furthermore it put the Zeppelin Company out of the airship business.
In an attempt to try to keep the Zeppelin Company involved at least peripherally in the construction of airships until the political climate improved, efforts were made to involve American business interests in airship operations whereby the Zeppelin Company could participate in the construction and operation of airships within the United States. Therefore, in 1921, Ernst Lehmann (who spoke excellent English) was sent, along with fellow Zeppelin commander Hans-Curt Flemming, to Chicago where they spent four months negotiating the establishment of a New York-to-Chicago airship line.
While this idea did not come to fruition, other negotiations with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio, which took place over the next two years, resulted in the founding of a joint endeavor between Goodyear and the Zeppelin Company. The Goodyear Zeppelin Company was founded in 1923, and Ernst Lehmann was named as one of the new company's vice presidents.
In the meantime, separate negotiations with the United States Navy had resulted in a deal, struck in mid-1922, for Luftschiffbau Zeppelin to design and build a new airship. The LZ 126 would be turned over to the U.S. Navy as part of the war reparations that Germany had been ordered to pay to each of the allied powers under the Treaty of Versailles.
By the end of August of 1924, the LZ 126 was completed and beginning its test flights. The delivery flight to the United States began on the morning of October 12, 1924, with Dr. Eckener in command. Ernst Lehmann was one of Dr. Eckener's watch officers, and as such he assumed command when Dr. Eckener was off watch.
The ship reached its new base, the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, NJ, on the morning of October 15th. The crew were feted as heroes by the Americans, and Lehmann, Eckener, and their colleagues took this wave of good will as an opportunity to begin work on the establishment of a regular transatlantic airship service. The day after the LZ 126 landed at Lakehurst, Captain Lehmann, along with Dr. Eckener, Captain Flemming, and navigator Hans von Schiller, were received by President Coolidge at the White House.
Shortly after this, Lehmann went to Akron to set up his new office at Goodyear Zeppelin and to help with preparations for a group of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin engineers, let by Karl Arnstein, who would be arriving in late November. Lehmann's duties in Akron were punctuated by, as he would later put it, "an endless series of banquets and celebrations which were held in our honor and which we could not avoid." These functions were, however, a vital part of the effort to gain support and the necessary financial and political backing to make regular German-American transatlantic service a reality, however, and they also went a long way toward clearing the air of lingering international resentment toward Germany following the war. Lehmann sat at Dr. Eckener's side during these banquets and, along with fellow captains Hans von Schiller and Hans Flemming, would translate Eckener's remarks into English. Often, they would then go right back into meetings with the Goodyear executives until late into the night.
There were also meetings with Henry Ford, who was also interested in branching out into the airship business. Lehmann and Eckener were taken on a tour of the Ford Motor Company factory, and Ford asked Lehmann to advise him on the purchase of a Zeppelin mooring mast that he intended to build in Detroit.
The banquets and the negotiations lasted through the first half of November, at which time Dr. Eckener returned to Germany. Ernst Lehmann would remain in the United States working in Akron for Goodyear Zeppelin for the next two years, finally returning to Friedrichshafen in December of 1926. By then he had become discouraged by the U.S. government's lack of financial support for the Goodyear Zeppelin enterprise and Goodyear Zeppelin's lack of progress overall and meanwhile, back in Germany, plans for the construction of a new passenger Zeppelin were moving forward. The Allied prohibition against Germany building large airships had been lifted by the Treaties of Lorcano, and Dr. Eckener and several of his captains had been traveling throughout Germany raising funds for a new airship.
The new ship, the LZ 127, christened Graf Zeppelin, made its first flight on September 18, 1928. Ernst Lehmann served once again as one of Dr. Eckener's watch officers, and within a month of its first test flights, on October 11th, the Graf Zeppelin was taken on its first transatlantic flight, carrying 20 passengers and a crew of 40.
After a particularly rough crossing, which resulted in damage to the covering of the ship's lower fin, the Graf Zeppelin landed at Lakehurst on October 15th and was met by a massive, wildly ecstatic crowd of onlookers. The public response to the Graf Zeppelin's flight across the ocean was even bigger and more positive than that which had accompanied the arrival of the LZ 126 (now rechristened the ZR-3 Los Angeles) four years prior. Once again Lehmann and the others were taken on a whirlwind tour of public appearances and banquets, and this time were received at the White House by President Calvin Coolidge. Lehmann also participated in more talks with American financiers about the establishment of an international passenger airship service.
Ernst Lehmann, along with Eckener, had by now become something of a media sensation. "The Little Captain", as the compact Lehmann was sometimes called, was not only a charming man who knew how to work a press conference as well as anyone connected with the Zeppelin Company, but he was also fluent in English. Journalists loved him, because he was always good for a choice quote or two. The fact that he was seen as one of the world's most capable airship pilots didn't hurt matters either, in a time when the world was infected with what the newspapermen had dubbed "Zeppelin Fever." Hugh Allen, publicist for the Goodyear Corporation, once referred to Ernst Lehmann as "five feet two inches of brains and guts."
The flight to America proved to be the beginning of an illustrious career for the Graf Zeppelin, which would subsequently make flights to Egypt, to the Arctic, and, most famously, around the globe. There were also numerous flights throughout Europe, as well as an increasing number of transatlantic flights to South America, which by 1933 had turned into regular service. Ernst Lehmann gradually began replacing Dr. Eckener as ship's commander, and by 1936 he had commanded 272 of the Graf Zeppelin's flights.
By March of 1932, work had begun at Friedrichshafen on a new passenger airship, larger and more advanced than the Graf Zeppelin. The LZ 129 was to be the prototype for the airships that would eventually be used by the international passenger Zeppelin line that Eckener and Lehmann and their peers hoped would be forthcoming. However, funding was becoming a problem, and construction of the new ship was slowed.
After the Nazi Party took over the German government in 1933, it became obvious that if the LZ 129 were to be completed, some degree of government funding would be required. Dr. Eckener had made his disgust with the Nazis plain, and had previously refused to allow the Party to use one of the Friedrichshafen Zeppelin hangars for one of their rallies. However, Eckener was also a pragmatic businessman and he knew that one way or another he was going to have to come to some sort of a working agreement with the Nazi government.
Ernst Lehmann, on the other hand, does not seem to have held the reservations about the Nazis that Eckener did. The Nazi government did eventually agree to lend its financial support to the Zeppelin Company, with the tradeoff being that flight operations would be handled via a government-controlled corporation. In 1935, the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei (German Zeppelin Transport Company) was established, and while this was met with a great deal of reticence on Eckener's part, Lehmann, now a member of the new DZR's Board of Directors, simply viewed it as a means to an end. As a result, he was far more willing to accommodate the demands of the Nazis than was Eckener.
This led to friction between the two old comrades, and this was perhaps never more apparent than during a situation that arose shortly after the LZ 129 had begun its trial flights. Christened the Hindenburg, the new ship had been ordered by Dr. Josef Göbbels at the Propaganda Ministry to participate, along with the Graf Zeppelin, in a four-day propaganda flight over Germany, during which it would drop leaflets and broadcast party political messages in support of Hitler's remilitarization of the Rhineland, on which the German people would be casting a referendum vote. The flight was scheduled for March 26 through March 29, 1936.
The Hindenburg, however, still had important engine tests to be run in anticipation of its first flight to South America, scheduled to depart on March 31, and Dr. Eckener strongly opposed the propaganda flight on the grounds that it would leave no time for these much-needed test flights. Captain Lehmann, however, saw no need to argue with the government edict. Given his position on the DZR's Board of Directors, he was more or less bound to do the Nazi government's bidding, but moreover he seems to have been rather anxious to prove himself to the Berlin government. Though he never officially joined the Nazi Party, Lehmann was seen by a number of his old comrades, including Dr. Eckener, as being entirely too eager and willing to please the Nazi government.
And so, early on the morning of March 26, 1936, Lehmann ordered the Hindenburg walked out of its hangar at Löwenthal, just up the road from Friedrichshafen. Strong gusts were blowing across the airfield, and Lehmann had already been forced to delay departure by two hours, waiting for the wind to die down. There were government dignitaries present on the airfield to watch the Hindenburg's departure, however, and one of Lehmann's chief concerns was to put on a good showing for them. The Graf Zeppelin was already circling the airfield above, waiting for the Hindenburg to be sent aloft. With the wind gusting in roughly the same direction as the Hindenburg was facing as it was walked out of the hangar, Lehmann chose to order a risky downwind takeoff, rather than either waiting for more favorable wind conditions or taking the time to have the ship walked further out onto the airfield and turned around so it could make a more standard takeoff into the wind.
The basic idea of a downwind takeoff was that the ship's tail would be pointed into the wind, the aft mooring ropes would be cast off to allow the stern to rise to a higher level than the bow (by about 30-40 feet), and then the ground crew would release the bow. With the stern raised, the wind coming from behind could hit the lower surfaces of the horizontal tail fins, generating lift. It was a tricky maneuver, and not the ideal way to send an airship aloft, but there is no reason to believe that Captain Lehmann hadn't successfully done it on multiple occasions in the past.
The takeoff was complicated somewhat by the fact that one of the stern landing lines broke loose as the ship's tail was being turned directly into the wind, but the landing crew got the ship into position and Captain Lehmann called for them to let go of the aft landing lines. The Hindenburg's tail rose upward, and when it had reached the proper altitude Lehmann ordered the forward ground crew to push the control car into the air.
At this point, Lehmann inexplicably ordered that water ballast be dropped from the Hindenburg's bow. This had the effect of sending the bow up into the air, which not only negated the whole point of having raised the tail up so that the wind could catch underneath it, but which furthermore sent the stern down toward the ground. To make matters worse, the wind was also spilling down off of the roof of the hangar, and as the Hindenburg's tail seesawed downward the wind caught the top of the lateral fins and smashed the rear of the lower fin into the ground, damaging the rudder.
Lehmann managed to get the Hindenburg into the air in order to avoid more damage, and after cruising over Lake Constance for the next couple of hours while the damage to the fin was surveyed from within, he brought the ship back to its airfield and landed it safely.
Eckener was furious. He stormed up to Lehmann on the airfield and bellowed "How could you risk the ship for this shit flight?! You had the best excuse in the world to postpone this idiotic flight! Instead, you risk the ship merely to avoid annoying Herr Göbbels! Do you call this showing a sense of responsibility toward our enterprise?!"
Eckener looked at the damage to their brand-new airship. Turning again to Captain Lehmann, he asked, "What do you want to do with it?"
Lehmann replied that he intended to have the damage patched up, and that he could have the Hindenburg back in the air in two or three hours and proceed with the flight.
At this, an incredulous Eckener exploded again, "So this is your only concern?! To take off quickly on this mad flight and drop pamphlets for Dr. Göbbels?! The fact that we have to take off for Rio in four days and have made no flights to test the engines apparently means nothing to you!"
Lehmann did as he'd told Dr. Eckener that he would, and had temporary repairs made to the Hindenburg's lower fin and had the ship back on the field and ready to take off again by shortly after three in the afternoon. In fact, he tried the exact same downwind takeoff that he had attempted that morning. As Eckener watched, the Hindenburg's tail went up, and then Lehmann dropped ballast from the bow again and the tail began dropping. One of the men in the aft landing crew was heard to yell, "The tail's coming down again, just like this morning!" before he and another man leapt out of the way.
Fortunately, the wind was far less than what it had been in the morning, and Lehmann also ordered ballast dropped from the stern of the ship in time to check its descent. The Hindenburg rose into the air, although it was now badly out of trim. Once the engines were started, the elevatorman was able to hold the ship level while the crew redistributed water and fuel along the keel to bring the ship back into balance. The Hindenburg then joined the Graf Zeppelin, still circling overhead, and the two proceeded with the flight.
While Lehmann piloted the Hindenburg over Germany the next day, Dr. Eckener drafted a letter that was subsequently given to each one of his captains, recounting the events of the previous day – both the accident that occurred in the morning, and the near miss that occurred in the afternoon – and outlining the precise takeoff procedures that were to be followed from that point on.
However, Eckener's outburst about Lehmann's obsequiousness to Göbbels and the Nazi government – which took place within full earshot of Propaganda Ministry officials onhand to watch the Hindenburg cast off – was to have some rather far-reaching effects. Not only did it result in a Propaganda Ministry ban on any further mention of Eckener's name in the German press (a ban which was subsequently lifted), but it also led to Eckener being "kicked upstairs" and removed from any real control of the operational side of the airships, while Ernst Lehmann was made the DZR's Director of Flight Operations. Relations between the two men would be strained from that point on.
Eckener and Lehmann were in joint command of the Hindenburg for its first trip to South America in late March/early April of 1936, and for its first trip to Lakehurst at the beginning of May of that year. Thereafter, Dr. Eckener commanded the Hindenburg on only a few more flights, including the season's tenth flight to Lakehurst, during which the so-called "Millionaire's Flight" (a 16-hour cruise over New York and New England for a select group of influential American financiers) took place. Captain Lehmann effectively took over command of the Hindenburg, at least through mid summer.
He would command the Hindenburg twice on round-trip flights to Rio de Janeiro, and on all ten round-trip flights to Lakehurst in 1936 (excluding the return leg of the ninth trip, which was commanded by Max Pruss.) In addition to his command duties, he would also spend time mingling with the passengers, often entertaining them by playing songs either on his accordion or else on the aluminum baby grand piano in the Hindenburg's lounge.
This may have occasionally been done for more practical reasons than mere entertainment, however. On one particular eastbound flight over the North Atlantic in July of 1936, the Hindenburg was flying through gale force winds. It was a tail wind, so the ship was being driven much faster than usual (approximately 155 knots, which the command crew reportedly believed to be the fastest they'd ever flown an airship) and U.S. Navy observer Walter Zimmerman would later write that the sea below was the roughest he'd ever seen, although the Hindenburg was flying completely smoothly.
During the period when the winds were highest, from 10:00 AM until 11:30 AM, Captain Lehmann gave an impromptu piano concert in the ship's lounge. Though further commentary on the reasons behind this has not come to light, it would seem likely that Lehmann may have been creating a pleasant distraction for the passengers so that they didn't pay close attention to the visibly rough weather outside.
As his duties as the DZR Director of Flight Operations began to take up more of his time, Ernst Lehmann turned command of the Hindenburg over to Captain Max Pruss for flights to South America beginning in late July. By mid-October of 1936, Lehmann had relinquished command of the Hindenburg entirely.
One of Lehmann's duties for the DZR in the latter half of 1936 was to take a leading role in negotiations between the DZR and the American Zeppelin Transport Company, which was expected to begin handling North American arrangements for the Hindenburg's flights to Lakehurst beginning in 1937. Willy von Meister, one of the AZT's principles, would later relate this story about a meeting he had with Lehmann during that time:
Late in the fall of 1936, I met with some officials and Capt. Ernst Lehmann at the Air Ministry in Berlin. At that time I was special representative of the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei in New York and vice president of the newly established American Zeppelin Transport, Inc. I was trying to arrange for training of American airshipmen in 1937 by placing two or three of them on each flight of the Hindenburg and her anticipated sister ship.
"What can you offer in compensation?" Lehmann asked me.
I replied that we would pay the regular passenger fare and in addition that we would make every effort (with the backing of the U.S. Navy, the National City Bank of New York, Goodyear in Akron, and others) to secure helium for the DZR ships.
Lehmann replied with a touch of arrogance: "That is really no inducement; we have been operating our commercial service with hydrogen very successfully for years."
I responded, "My dear Lehmann, I sincerely hope you will not have cause to regret your opinion."
As the Hindenburg's 1937 flight season began, Ernst Lehmann was a deeply troubled man. For one thing, he had been informed of an increasing number of bomb threats against the Hindenburg, and at the beginning of May had been forwarded a letter from a woman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin specifying that the Hindenburg would be destroyed by a time bomb "during its flight to another country." Though he did not take it seriously enough to follow the author's advice to cancel the Hindenburg's upcoming flights, he had this letter in the pocket of his flight jacket as he arrived at the Rhein-Main Airport in Frankfurt for the Hindenburg's first North American flight of the year, which was scheduled to begin on the evening of Monday, May 3rd.
However, what weighed on Lehmann far more heavily, it must be assumed, was the fact that he and his wife Marie had just lost their baby son, Luv, a mere five weeks before. The boy had developed complications from an ear infection, and died over Easter Weekend.
Though Captain Pruss was still in command of the Hindenburg, Lehmann was aboard this flight as an observer. It has been suggested by at least one author over the years that this was a last-minute decision on his part after having received the bomb threat letter, however a number of things cast doubt on this.
First and foremost, it was the DZR flagship's first flight to the United States that year, and Lehmann was the company's Director of Flight Operations. It would make perfect sense for him to have been aboard the Hindenburg even in light of that single fact. In addition, however, there were actual flight-operations concerns that would be addressed at the conclusion of this flight. For example, the DZR's request for a more suitable mooring mast than the one used the previous year had been fulfilled by the U.S. Navy. The Hindenburg would therefore be mooring to the new mast for the first time.
It was also intended that, for the 1937 season, the Hindenburg would land using the U.S. Navy's "flying moor" (or "high landing") technique, whereby the ship would approach the mast "light" and be winched down out of the sky directly to the mast. This was in contrast to the common German landing style where the ship would remain "heavy" and settle to the ground to be walked up to the mast by the ground crew. The flying moor would, it was hoped, allow for the ground crew to be reduced for future landings, thereby saving the DZR and the AZT a significant amount of money. As Director of Flight Operations and one of the DZR's most experienced airship pilots, it would have been natural for Lehmann to have been present to observe and assess the new landing arrangements.
There was also a great deal of work for Lehmann to do with the AZT as they settled into the business of handling arrangements for the Hindenburg's landings and refuelings/reprovisionings in the United States. He would certainly have wanted to observe the operation first hand early on in the season so that any improvements or changes that had to be made could be taken care of quickly and smoothly.
Finally, Lehmann's biographer, Leonhard Adelt, and his wife Gertrud were flying, at Lehmann's invitation, as guests of the DZR on this trip. The English translation of Lehmann's new autobiography, written in collaboration with Adelt, was due to be published by Longman's, Green and Co. in New York that summer, and it's very likely that there was at least one meeting scheduled with the publisher that Lehmann and Adelt would have attended. With this in mind, it certainly seems unlikely that Lehmann would have arranged for his biographer and his wife to fly on the Hindenburg for free without considering going along himself.
It has also been suggested that Lehmann was on his way to Washington to try to convince Congress to sell helium to the Zeppelin Company for use in their airships. Not only has no evidence of this ever come to light, but in view of Lehmann's statement to Willy von Meister at their meeting in Berlin some six months previously, it is highly unlikely that he was even idly thinking about asking Washington for helium, let alone actually intending to do so.
However, as previously noted, Ernst Lehmann was not aboard in any official capacity other than as "the face of the corporation," so to speak. According to a book written some months later on the Hindenburg's new cabin boy, Werner Franz, Lehmann even bunked in one of the passenger cabins rather than in the crew's quarters.
Lehmann, noticeably subdued compared to his usual gregarious self, divided his time between the control car and the passenger decks, eating meals with the passengers, and chatting with his friends the Adelts and others. The ship's piano had been removed over the winter, and Lehmann had not brought his accordion with him this trip either, so for once he did not entertain the passengers with songs from his extensive repertoire.
He also discussed the recent bomb threats with Captain Pruss and also with Captain Anton Wittemann. Wittemann was another old colleague who normally flew on the Graf Zeppelin, but who was aboard this flight to observe operations on the new ship. Neither Lehmann nor the other two captains appear to have seen the warnings as anything about which to be particularly concerned, however, and the flight proceeded normally.
As the Hindenburg approached Lakehurst at the end of the flight, on the evening of May 6th, Ernst Lehmann was on the ship's bridge in the control car. The flight had been delayed a full 12 hours behind its original schedule, first by persistent headwinds over the North Atlantic that had slowed the ship's progress, and then by strong thunderstorms over New Jersey that forced the Hindenburg to cruise up and down the Jersey shore waiting for the weather over Lakehurst to clear.
It was hardly an auspicious beginning to the Hindenburg's new flight season, especially with a full compliment of 72 passengers waiting at the Biltmore Hotel in New York for the return flight, which was scheduled to begin that evening. Many of the passengers for the return flight, Lehmann knew, were on their way to England for the Coronation of King George VI on May 12th, and that most of them were already cutting it close enough that the loss of half a day's travel time was likely to create some dissatisfied DZR customers.
This was undoubtedly on Lehmann's mind as the Hindenburg approached the landing field at Lakehurst shortly after 7:00 PM. The weather had cleared over the air station while the ship had been cruising to the south, but now as the wind began shifting again, and the landing crew changed position to keep themselves lined up with the wind, a smaller, secondary thunderstorm was moving into the area.
Evidently unaware of this, Lehmann stood by at the very front of the bridge beside Captain Pruss as Pruss issued commands to Kurt Schönherr at the rudder wheel and navigator Franz Herzog at the engine telegraphs. Pruss' first officer, Captain Albert Sammt, stood behind and slightly to port of them, giving orders to Eduard Boetius at the elevator wheel, Captain Heinrich Bauer at the ballast board, and Captain Walter Ziegler at the gas board. Captain Wittemann stood by next to Captain Sammt.
The Hindenburg approached the mooring mast and swung around to starboard to line up with the ground crew, and then dropped its bow landing ropes. Lehmann and the others now had little to do besides watch the ground crew as they began to haul the ship down to the mast.
Suddenly, Lehmann and the others felt a sharp push from behind. As Captain Wittemann asked Pruss if a rope had broken, the ship's chief radio operator Willy Speck, standing in the observation room at the aft end of the control car, called out that the ship was on fire. Everyone held on while the Hindenburg tilted aft at almost a 45 degree angle as it fell stern-first to the ground. After almost half a minute, the bow began dropping and the control car neared the ground. "Everybody to a window!" yelled Lehmann.
He waited for the control car's landing wheel to touch the ground, and then began to climb through a small window on the front, starboard side of the car. He held back for a moment as the ship rebounded a short distance into the air on its landing wheel. Then, as the ship began to descend again, Lehmann leapt from the gondola and ran away to starboard just as the Hindenburg's white hot frame crashed to the ground all around him. He managed to get free, but not before sustaining severe injuries, including third degree burns across his back from the nape of his neck almost to the base of his spine.
As he staggered from the wreck, he was spotted by Harry Bruno, press representative for the American Zeppelin Transport Company. The two men had known one another for years, and Lehmann, clearly in shock, greeted Bruno with a friendly "Hello, again." He asked Bruno how many of the passengers and crew had been saved, and then as he was being led to a car to be taken for medical help, a stunned Lehmann repeated over and over simply, "Das verstehe ich nicht… Das verstehe ich nicht…" ("I don't understand it.")
A rare shot of a visibly stunned Captain Lehmann leaving the scene of the Hindenburg wreck following his escape.
From the front, he appears almost completely uninjured, despite the critical burns that he has suffered across his
back. This image is cropped from a larger newswire photo of engine mechanic Walter Banholzer being led to safety.
(Special thanks to Kevin Pace of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society for spotting Lehmann in the background of this photo.)
Lehmann was taken, along with others, to the air station's infirmary. It was too small to handle the large number of badly injured people who were arriving, and Lehmann sat on a table with his shirt off, holding a wad of gauze in one hand and a bottle of picric acid in the other, blotting away at his extensive burns. One of the passengers, a middle-aged lady named Margaret Mather, sat nearby. She would later record her impressions in an article for Harpers Magazine.
During his infrequent appearances among the passengers he had worn a leather coat with fur lining, upturned collar, which partly hid his face. He always looked alert but genial, with keen blue eyes. Now his face was grave and calm, and not a groan escaped him as he sat there, wetting his burns. His mental anguish must have been as intense as his physical pains, but he gave no sign of either, and when my burns became intolerable and I would reach for the bottle he would hand it to me with grave courtesy, wait patiently while I wet my hands and receive it back with a murmured “Danke schön.” It was a strange, quiet interlude, almost as though we were having tea together. I was impressed by his stoic calm, but only when I learned of his death the next day did I realize his heroism.
Lehmann's friend Leonhard Adelt and his wife were also among the survivors, and when they arrived at the infirmary they spotted Lehmann and walked over to where he was sitting. Adelt asked his friend Lehmann what had happened. Lehmann, still in shock, merely shrugged and said, "Blitzschlag," (lightning) in an almost questioning manner. The two exchanged a wordless glance, and the Adelts went to get treatment for their own injuries.
After receiving first aid at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station's dispensary, Lehmann was taken to Paul Kimball Hospital in nearby Lakewood, where he was attended to by a local physician named Dr. Adolph Towbin.
Meanwhile back home, Lehmann's wife Marie, on learning of what had happened, immediately packed and departed for Cherbourg to catch the steamship Europa over to the United States so that she could be with her husband.
Ernst Lehmann was badly burned, but his wounds did not seem as grave as those sustained by Pruss and a few others. Nonetheless, he began to fade the next day. Several people were able to visit him in his hospital room, including his old friend, Commander Charles E. Rosendahl, who was at that time in command of the Lakehurst Naval Air Station.
As I visited him in the hospital only a few hours before his death, I found in Ernst Lehmann a great example of stoic fortitude; though painfully and fatally injured, his own condition caused him little concern, and he made no complaint. His mind remained crystal clear; indeed, it was Lehmann himself who suggested that he be given oxygen as he felt his strength ebbing. Our conversation was concerned for a time with personal matters; then his mind turned to airships, and I can now see that he probably realized that his life's work was nearing its end.
Just as one may experience the longest dream in but a few seconds, so, as he lay there for hours trying to puzzle out the almost unbelievable loss of the Hindenburg, there must have paraded through his mind the great panorama of airship history in which he himself had been such an outstanding figure. Together, we discussed the probable causes – but each one led only into a blind alley. Still determined upon the success of airships, he said to me in his usual manner, "But of course, regardless of the cause, the next ship must have helium." Surely, had he been able to throw light on anything that might have cleared up the perplexing cause of the catastrophe that was slowly sapping his very life, Ernst Lehmann would have passed it on for the benefit of the project that had been so near and dear to him these many years. But with an air of finality, as if to summarize his judgment of the case, not with rancor but as if sick at heart that humanity could be so cruel, he said to me soberly, "It must have been an infernal machine."
Ernst Lehmann was scheduled to be moved that afternoon, May 7th, along with Captains Pruss and Sammt, to the burn center at the Harkness Pavilion at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York. Unfortunately he passed away before he could be prepped for the transfer.
Marie Lehmann, upon arriving in Cherbourg, learned of her husband's death. She continued with her voyage, however, so that she could accompany her husband's body home. Also aboard the Europa with her were Dr. Eckener and a group of experts being sent to investigate the cause of the disaster.
On Tuesday, May 11th, Lehmann's coffin, along with those of the other German fatalities, lay in state at Pier 86, at the foot of West 46th St. in New York City, where a memorial ceremony (with heavy Nazi overtones)was held for the public. Afterward, the coffins were loaded aboard the steamship Hamburg, aboard which Marie Lehmann accompanied her husband's body home to Germany.
Ernst Lehmann was laid to rest, along with six Frankfurt-area crew members, at Frankfurter Hauptfriedhof cemetery in Frankfurt. His name, along with those of the others, is inscribed on a monument over the grave site.
However, a few years after his death, Lehmann's wife Marie had his body moved from the common grave in Frankfurt to a private plot in the cemetery in Grassau, Germany, where she had recently moved. Ernst Lehmann is buried there next to their son, Luv.
The English translation of Lehmann's autobiography "Zeppelin", written in collaboration with Leonhard Adelt, was published in the United States that summer. Commander Rosendahl was given the unhappy task of writing the forward for the book as well as a final chapter in which he described the Hindenburg disaster. Rosendahl concluded his forward, dated June 7, 1937 (one month to the day following Lehmann's death) with the following epitaph:
The name and memory of Lehmann are now inseparably linked with those of Zeppelin and his fellow pioneers who have given and are giving their lives unselfishly to the furtherance of the airship ideal. To all of us his book is a fitting monument to what he gave and did for civilization. The world is indebted to Ernst Lehmann; it owes and concedes him a place of honor.