Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Captain Anton Wittemann

Crew Member

Age: 50

Hometown: Friedrichshafen

Occupation: Captain (observer)

Location at time of fire: Control car


Captain Anton Wittemann was born in Mittelheim on March 12, 1887, and had been working on airships since 1910. Starting with the LZ 7
Deutschland, Wittemann flew on all of the DELAG ships prior to World War I, and then during the war he took part in all test and certification flights for the Zeppelins that were built for wartime service by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin. As new ships were built, Wittemann would act as a service representative for the Luftschiffbau and assist the new airships' crews as they took over their new ship. To this end, Wittemann would often fly with the new crew to their assigned base to make sure that their Zeppelin was operating in a satisfactory manner, and would then travel by train back to the airship works at Friedrichshafen-Löwenthal to begin the process with the crew for the next Zeppelin.

After the war, DELAG attempted to re-establish passenger service throughout Europe. Certified as an airship pilot in 1919, Wittemann flew aboard the LZ-120 Bodensee, which made regular flights between Friedrichshafen and Berlin between August of 1919 and July of 1921 when it, along with its newly-built sister ship, the LZ-121 Nordstern, was seized by the Inter-Allied Commission as war reparations.

When Luftschiffbau Zeppelin completed the LZ-126 for the United States Navy in 1924, Wittemann served as a navigator on the delivery flight across the Atlantic. Along with a number of other members of the German delivery crew, he then stayed in the United States for approximately three months to help to train US airshipmen in the operation of their new ship, which was officially christened Los Angeles.

Senior members of the delivery crew for the LZ-126 and US military representatives in Friedrichshafen prior to the delivery flight. From left: Lieutenant Commander Sidney M. Kraus, US Navy; Max Pruss (elevatorman); unknown; Hans Ladewig (radio operator); Hans von Schiller (navigator); Anton Wittemann (navigator); Dr. Hugo Eckener (ship's commander); Captain Hans-Curt Flemming (watch officer); Willy Speck (radio operator); Walter Scherz (helmsman); Leo Freund (radio operator); Captain George W. Steele, Jr., US Navy.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Several years later, in 1928, the Luftshiffbau built the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin, and Wittemann once more served as a navigator. He was to make over 350 of the Graf Zeppelin's flights in all, and covered approximately a million miles in the process. On some occasions Wittemann was assigned to man the ship's elevator wheel during a particularly tricky maneuver. One such occasion arose during the Graf Zeppelin's round-the-world flight in late summer of 1929. Dr. Hugo Eckener, in command of the ship, decided to take advantage of the counterclockwise circulation of a typhoon over the Pacific Ocean to try and pick up a tail wind to help speed the ship on its way to the American coast. Wittemann, due to his experience and his considerable abilities in holding a level course, was stationed at the elevator wheel. Eckener had his helmsman approach the southern portion of the storm, chose what appeared to be the lightest spot in the massive wall of dark clouds, and ordered the ship forward into the storm.

As the intense wind currents of the typhoon suddenly and sharply pushed the ship's bow down, Wittemann compensated with the ship's elevators and brought the ship back to an even keel, holding it there as the Graf Zeppelin traversed the storm. A short while later, as the ship exited the storm, Wittemann was ready once more as an updraft pushed the ship's bow upward, and again he leveled the ship off and held it steady until they were sailing through smooth skies again. After approximately half an hour weathering the most intense storm the Graf Zeppelin had yet encountered, Dr. Eckener's instincts were proven right, and the ship had increased its speed from 50 knots to 85 knots, which lasted for another four or five hours.

Anton Wittemann takes a navigation sight aboard the Graf Zeppelin.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Anton Wittemann (left) leans out of the Graf Zeppelin's navigation room window as Captain Hans-Curt Flemming (right) passes orders to the ground crew.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

By the early 1930s Anton Wittemann had been promoted to watch officer, and was eventually given command of the Graf Zeppelin on a number of flights, especially after the LZ-129 Hindenburg was put into service in 1936. At that time, a number of the Graf Zeppelin's command crew were transferred to the new ship, but Wittemann remained with the Graf Zeppelin.

Captain Wittemann was, however, aboard the Hindenburg's first North American flight of 1937 as an observer. It was his first transoceanic flight on the Hindenburg. He had originally been slated to command the Graf Zeppelin on a round-trip flight to South America beginning on April 30th, while Captain Hans von Schiller would have flown on the Hindenburg. Von Schiller, however, wanted to be back in Germany by May 11th for a 25th reunion of his old comrades from the German Naval Airship Division, and so he and Wittemann swapped places: von Schiller commanded the Graf Zeppelin down to South America, while Wittemann took his place on the Hindenburg.

Captain Ernst Lehmann, Director of Operations for the Zeppelin Company, was also aboard as an observer. During the flight, Lehmann confided to Captain Max Pruss, the ship's commander, and to Captain Wittemann that at least one warning had been received that the Hindenburg would be destroyed on this flight.

However, nothing unusual occurred during the flight other than the strong, persistent headwinds that delayed the Hindenburg's progress across the North Atlantic and put her about 12 hours behind schedule. Captain Wittemann, as an observer, had no specific duties throughout the flight, did not stand a regular watch, and instead spent much of his time familiarizing himself with the new ship and its various new systems and instruments, many of which were somewhat more advanced than those on the nine year old Graf Zeppelin.

On the final afternoon of the flight, May 6th, Wittemann climbed down into the control car when the Hindenburg was over New York. He remained there throughout the rest of the afternoon, as the ship flew over the landing field at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station at about 4:00 PM, and then continued on down the New Jersey coast to wait out some particularly bad thunderstorms that had moved into the Lakehurst area.

Finally, at 6:12 PM, word was received from Lakehurst that the weather was clearing and that the ship should come in to land. The Hindenburg began to make its way to Lakehurst about half an hour later, at 6:45, and by 7:10 the ship was making its final approach to the landing field, hovering just outside the mooring circle and dropping its bow landing lines at 7:21. Wittemann noticed, a couple minutes after the landing ropes had been dropped, that the ship was drifting off to starboard, thereby tightening the portside rope. He stood in the center of the control car watching with some concern that the landing crew might not be able to keep hold of the ship on the port side, but more importantly that the rope itself might break.

Captain Anton Wittemann's location in the control car at the time of the fire.

Suddenly Captain Wittemann heard a dull thud and felt a jolt run through the ship. He thought that the landing line had indeed broken and remarked on this. Captain Pruss replied that both ropes were fine.

Then the stern of the ship dropped as Wittemann heard somebody else in the control car shout "Fire!" Wittemann looked up and saw a bright fire above the ship, and everyone hung on as the ship tilted aft at a 45-degree angle before the bow gradually dropped back toward the ground again. As the ship descended, Wittemann noted that there was "complete quiet" in the control car.

When the control car neared the ground, Wittemann heard one of the others in the control car say "Everybody out!" As he later testified, "To my opinion, it was high time to get out too." He saw Captain Lehmann climb out through a small window toward the front of the control car's starboard side, and went to follow him. However, the top of the window frame had already begun to collapse, which slowed Wittemann's escape.

As Wittemann finished climbing through the window, he saw Captains Pruss, Lehmann, and Sammt running off to starboard. He went to follow them, but saw the burning hull crashing to the ground behind them. "There was no use for me to run into the fire, because it was clear to me that I would burn there, and that I had to look for another avenue of escape."

One of the Hindenburg's watch officers, either Anton Wittemann or Walter Ziegler, (arrow) pauses and begins to backpedal as the ship's hull collapses atop several other members of the command crew in front of him.

Wittemann therefore turned around and made his way back to the control car. He was now surrounded by burning framework and a large portion of the outer covering that had collapsed over the gondola and, along with radio officer Egon Schweikard, dropped to the ground and waited. Amazingly, he later noted that, "I was hardly bothered by the fire in that position. I did not feel any excessive heat."

Before long, Wittemann noticed that the wind was blowing the fire and smoke off to starboard, and he soon noticed a clear path out of the wreckage on the port side. He quickly got to his feet and ran to safety through "a short streak of fire that had come through." Once outside the wreckage, Wittemann waited briefly while the fire near the control car subsided, and then made his way back into the wreckage to see if anyone was still in the gondola. Satisfied that the control car was empty, Wittemann walked back out of the wreckage.

"Beyond a slight strain," Wittemann later said, "I had no injuries." He was remarkably none the worse for the wear for having been trapped under the Hindenburg's burning hull.

About two hours after the crash, Captain Wittemann sought out Commander Charles Rosendahl, commander of the Lakehurst Naval Air Station and the man in overall charge of the ground operations during the landing. He found Rosendahl talking with two FBI agents, W.S. Devereaux and E.J. Connelly, and told him that he needed to speak with him on a rather urgent matter. With the two FBI agents standing within earshot, Wittemann told Rosendahl of the warnings received before the flight. Rosendahl cautioned Wittemann to keep that particular bit of information to himself for the time being.

Wittemann spent the next two weeks in the States, and as one of the Hindenburg's ranking officers who was not confined to hospital, he worked closely with investigators, and also helped to identify bodies in the makeshift morgue that had been set up in one of the side rooms in Lakehurst's giant airship hangar. He was also, along with several other Hindenburg crew survivors, a guest on a US Navy blimp flight on May 19th.

Captain Wittemann testified before the U.S. Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry on May 20th, 1937 and, with a number of other crew survivors, sailed back to Germany a day or two later aboard the steamship Bremen. In his official testimony, he described for the Board the Hindenburg's course from the time the Hindenburg first passed over the Lakehurst air station at about 4:00 PM until the time of the crash. Also covered were the decisions made by the command crew in response to the threatening weather that passed over Lakehurst in the late afternoon, and the ensuing delay in landing.

Since Wittemann had been an observer in the control car during the landing, rather than having to focus on one specific set of tasks like the watch officers did, he was able to provide the Board a fairly comprehensive overview of the various elements of the landing maneuver: the trim of the ship on its approach to the landing field, the valving of gas and the dropping of ballast as the ship flew up to the mooring area, the various commands sent via telegraph to the engine gondolas, etc. He even answered questions from the Board about other fires aboard earlier German airships and about the precautions that had been taken against fire on the Hindenburg. He did not, however, mention the warnings about which he'd spoken with Commander Rosendahl on the night of the crash, evidently preferring to follow Rosendahl's advice and keep the matter to himself.

Captain Anton Wittemann (left) and Dr. Hugo Eckener (right) confer during the Board of Inquiry investigation.

Privately, Wittemann, like many others among the crew survivors, remained convinced that the Hindenburg had been sabotaged. Interviewed a little more than 20 years after the Hindenburg disaster, Wittemann insisted that he knew of "maybe a hundred" instances in which Zeppelins (some of which he was aboard at the time) had been struck by lightning and not once had a fire resulted. He maintained the belief that the Hindenburg had become so symbolic of the Third Reich that it invited sabotage.

Captain Wittemann stands in front of scrapped engine gondolas from both the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin and the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin at Frankfurt in the Spring of 1940.

Anton Wittemann retired in the Frankfurt-area town of Neu-Isenburg, where he lived until the age of 84. He passed away on December 23rd, 1971.


Frank said...

That last caption should be the spring of 1940.

Anyway this is an amazing site, I've never seen so much detail information of those aboard.

Keep up the good work Patrick!

Patrick Russell said...

Whoops! You're absolutely right. Thanks for catching that.

Glad you're enjoying the site. More to come...

Unknown said...

Thank you, Patrick, for that thorough research!
I am the grandson of Hans-Curt Flemming (who is mentioned in your article) and bear the same name. Now, I am a retired professor for Water Science. And the reason for that choice of field was that I grew up at the Lake Constance due to the Zeppelin industry which developed there. My committment for water originated from this lake.
And as kids, we found many Zeppelin memorabilia on our attic. They are now exposed in the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen.
All the best from Hans-Curt Flemming

Ken_Gibson said...

I just read "The Hindenburg" by Mooney. In it the reference of Wittemann stuck a chord, as a friend of mine just acquired zeppelin mail material, including a letter, between Robert Wittemann and his brother in Germany, written in 1931, posted on the Graf.
The US branch of that family founded Teteboro aeroport in NJ, and made planes for the
US Army Air Force.
Naturally, I texted him with the info, and recommended the book, written by the son of one of the men on the last flight of the Hindenburg. Mooney was the surname.
The writing is particularly good, save one flaw: it asserts, without definite proof, that Eric Spehl (young zep crew member) planted a bomb in gas bag 4, because his girlfriend was anti-nazi.
While plausible, it is a posthumous defamation of a person. Maybe the publisher told him to do this. The family, in today's world, would have sued, but in 1971, that might not have been an option.
Since, there has been no evidence to back this assertion.
But getting back to Anton, who is only mentioned peripherally in the book (another flaw, no index, so I will supply page #s for ref. to AW - pp. 9 & 122), what was his relation to the US branch? The letter was written to Buchen-Baden.