Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Ludwig Knorr

Crew Member

Age: 45

Hometown: Kohren-Sahlis, Germany

Crew designation: Chief Rigger

Location at time of fire: Either in bow or on axial gangway

Died in wreck

Ludwig Knorr was born Alexander Heinrich Ludwig Knorr on October 9, 1891 in Kohren-Sahlis, a small town in Germany's Saxony region. He was married in 1914 and was the father of two daughters. As an adolescent, Knorr studied ballooning under an aeronaut named Spiegel in nearby Leipzig, making his first solo balloon flight in 1906 at age 15, for which he skipped two days of school. He sought out Count von Zeppelin in Friedrichshafen in 1908, and by 1912 he was a rigger onboard the DELAG passenger airship, Sachsen.

In World War I, Knorr served aboard Army Zeppelins Z-12, LZ-90, LZ-98 and LZ-120, flying on raids over England, as well as a flight over Africa. After the war, Knorr once again joined the DELAG passenger service for its brief postwar existence, and later served as Chief Rigger aboard the "reparations ship" the LZ-126, and was among the delivery crew when Dr. Hugo Eckener flew the ship to the United States to turn it over to the US Navy at Lakehurst in 1924.

In 1928 the Zeppelin Company built a new airship, the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin on which Ludwig Knorr once again served as Chief Rigger. On the Graf Zeppelin's first flight to the United States in October of 1928, Knorr was instrumental in saving the ship when a mid-Atlantic storm tore the fabric covering the lower portion of the portside fin. The loose fabric was flapping in the wind, and threatened to foul the elevator along the aft edge of the fin. Dr Eckener, in command of the ship, asked for volunteers to climb out onto the fin to repair the damage. Knorr stepped forward along with Eckener's son Knut, who was one of the ship's helmsmen, navigator Hans Ladewig, and elevatorman Albert Sammt.

Together, the four of them climbed out across rain-slicked girders to the outboard side of the damaged fin. They were lashed together with rope like mountain climbers, with an angry sea 1500 feet directly below them. Using knives and shears, they cut away the loose fabric before it could jam the elevator, and secured the remaining covering to the surrounding framework using rope and blankets.

A rare snapshot of the in-flight repair to the Graf Zeppelin's fin over the North Atlantic. The view is from the hull of the ship looking out into the interior of the fin. Ludwig Knorr is either one of the two men to left or else the man in the center (as the taller man to the right is almost certainly Knut Eckener.)
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Meanwhile, Dr. Eckener had ordered the ship's engines to be throttled down to prevent the slipstream from dragging the men off of the fin. As the ship picked up rain in the storm, with no forward motion to dynamically lift it, it began to slowly sink toward the ocean. Eckener waited for word from the stern, but when none was forthcoming, he was forced to make the difficult decision to bring the engines back up to speed before the ship crashed.

Minutes later, a message was passed forward: "Work detail safe. Withdrew inside hull when speed increased. Will resume repairs when motors throttled back again." For several hours, this continued, with Knorr and the others climbing out to work on the fin when the ship gained enough altitude for the engines to be idled, and clambering back inside again when the engines were brought back up to speed so the ship could regain altitude once more. Four and a half hours later, the men finished repairs and climbed back inside at last. The Graf Zeppelin flew on to Lakehurst minus about 80% of the lower covering on its port fin, but still airworthy.

Subsequent to this, Knorr flew on every flight of the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin, including the round-the-world flight in 1929. He stayed with the Graf Zeppelin until March of 1936, when he transferred to the new ship, the LZ-129 Hindenburg. As on the Graf Zeppelin, Knorr was in charge of the riggers on board the Hindenburg. Overall, he reported to Captain Albert Sammt (with whom he had helped to repair the Graf Zeppelin's fin eight years before), and on the Hindenburg's first North American flight of the 1937 season, which began in Frankfurt on May 3rd, Knorr's sailmaking crew consisted of Hans Freund and Erich Spehl. According to Freund, there were no major problems or repairs that Knorr and his riggers had to deal with during the flight, the gas cells and outer cover were all in order, and everything was as routine as could be expected.

On the afternoon of May 6th, the final day of the flight, Captain Sammt was making a final inspection of the ship shortly before going on watch at 4:00 PM. He encountered Knorr at Ring 47 just ahead of the lower tail fin. Knorr, who was at this time on standby watch, was filling the aft water ballast hoses on either side of the keel, and Sammt was puzzled that so much water was being pumped that far aft. Sammt asked about this, and Knorr replied that the command to shift water aft had come from the control car. Sammt immediately countermanded that order, and told Knorr to pump several tons of water forward to the ballast hoses at Ring 62, and furthermore to pump enough water forward to fill the ballast hoses at Ring 281 near the bow of the ship. Sammt later said in his autobiography, "The Chief Rigger was a very reliable man, and I am confident that he carried out my order."

Approximately two hours later, Knorr relieved Erich Spehl and took his final two-hour watch of the flight from 6:00 PM onward.

Over the years there has been some anecdotal suggestion that there might have been a last-minute problem with one of the gas cells, and that Knorr was aware of this problem. The story goes that Chief Steward Heinrich Kubis encountered Knorr at about 7:00 PM on May 6, about half an hour before the fire, and Knorr mentioned something to him about a problem with gas cell #4 in the stern of the ship. Knorr was unclear as to exactly what the problem was, but apparently he made a remark to Kubis that they'd have to make some sort of repair before sailing for Germany later that night.

Kubis allegedly told this story to author A.A. Hoehling in 1961 when Hoehling was conducting research and interviews for his book "Who Destroyed The Hindenburg?" In the absence of additional corroborating evidence, however, it is impossible to tell how much of this may have been embellished to support Hoehling's sabotage theory. The implication made in Hoehling's book is that a saboteur somehow damaged the fabric of gas cell #4 while placing an incendiary device.

While it is conceivable that Knorr might have noticed something amiss with cell 4 during his watch inspection of the gas cells, it is highly unlikely that he would have noticed a problem serious enough for him to have bothered to mention it to the Chief Steward (even in passing) and then not reported that problem to the control car. And he certainly would have stayed near the damaged gas cell until the ship was safely on the ground to make sure that the damage didn't worsen. However, he did not do this.

Just after 7:00 PM, the signal for landing stations sounded, and Knorr took his position which, according to Captain Walter Ziegler, was up along the axial catwalk that tunneled through the center of the gas cells, walking along and monitoring the gas valves during the landing maneuver. The official crew locations diagram later assembled for the Board of Inquiry indicates that when the ship caught fire a short while later, Knorr was on the lower keel at Ring 233, near the bow of the ship. It is unknown, however, whether this is where he was standing or whether it was simply where his body was found in the wreckage.

Ludwig Knorr's reported location at the time of the fire.
(Hindenburg structural diagram courtesy of David Fowler)

Ludwig Knorr didn't make it out of the ship after the crash, and his body was recovered the next day.

Special thanks to Kay Saupe, whose outstanding web page on Ludwig Knorr was instrumental to me in filling in some of the details of Knorr's early life. Kay's Knorr page (which is in German) is well worth seeking out and can be found HERE.

(Kay is also an excellent amateur astronomer, and some of his photos can be found HERE.)


The Miskhal said...

Interesting stuff Patrick, and well written. I'm glad this project of yours is still going strong--and I do agree with you--this format will definitely help you write a stronger book and help generate even more interest along the way. Good work!!!

Patrick Russell said...

Thanks! Yeah, so far it's worked out really well that way.

I'm currently working on another bio profile on one of the stewards that I'm doing in cooperation with his daughter, who was kind enough to contact me via the site here. The fellow lived a very interesting life, most of which I'd have never known about had his daughter not found me.

I ought to have his bio ready to post here in a week or so.