Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Major Hans-Hugo Witt


Age: 36

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.

Hans-Hugo Witt in an ambulance shortly after the fire.

Major Witt being transferred to Lenox Hill Hospital, May 7th, 1937

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.


robert said...

Thanks very much for your wonderful, informative site. The comment I have is really minor, and doesn't in any way reflect that you've made a mistake; it's just for clarification. The word "Stuka", in connection with Witt's former Luftwaffe unit, is a contraction of the German word for "dive bomber". therefore, all German dive-bomber squadrons, such as Witt's were indeed Stuka squadrons. However, over time it has come to refer to one specific type of aircraft - the Junkers Ju 87, the craked-wing, fixed landing gear aircraft that was the main Luftwaffe dive bomber in WW2. The Ju 87 entered Luftwaffe service in mid-1937, after the time that Witt was with the squadron. The types of aircraft that St.G.162 used from 1935 to 1937 were the Heinkel He 50, and He 51, both biplanes. The unit did not receive the Ju 87B until November 1938. To those who don't know the history of the aircraft, seeing Witt listed as being with a Stuka squadron would probably bring up images of the Ju 87, when in fact he didn't operationally fly the aircraft. Here's a site confirming the info:

Patrick Russell said...

Hi Robert,

Thanks so much for the correction! I was unaware of the fact that the JU-87 entered service that much later, and I had indeed assumed that that's what ST.G.162 was flying while Witt was in command. Had I read the ST.G.162 info sites with a bit more eye for detail, I might have realized my error earlier, and I really appreciate you taking the time to set me straight on that. It may be a comparatively minor point, but it's important.

(Now if I could only find a decent "mug shot" of Major Witt to complete this article!)

Vamp Writer said...

Wonderful information on a survivor of the tragedy that basically killed off interest in ridged lighter than air ships! I especially appreciated knowing what happened during and after the war to Major Witt and would like to know the history of his two military companions on the flight...the Lieutenant was clearly a hero helping pull Maj. Whitt out of the wreckage to safety, but no mention of the Colonel's fate or wartime service if any.

Patrick Russell said...

Actually, I have biographies written up and posted for Lt. Hinkelbein and Col. Erdmann as well. There are links to both in the second paragraph of Major Witt's article.

Sadly, Col. Erdmann did not survive the Hindenburg disaster. He reportedly jumped from the starboard observation windows at about the same time as the others, but was trapped by wreckage and unable to escape.

Anonymous said...

was this man the one who was in the "I survived the Hindenburg disaster"?

Patrick Russell said...

I'm not sure, actually. Are you referring to an older documentary, or perhaps a book?