Episode 399: The Eighth Flying Cloud Christmas Special
They'd spent a long and tiring afternoon reviewing everything they'd learned
during the previous weeks. Now they'd retired to the mess hall at Cairns
Royal Air Station for a belated supper. It might have been unusual for
Michaelson to dine with his subordinates, particularly ones against whom he
bore a grudge, but the existence of a mutual foe led to strange expedients.
As Everett had noted during his experience in Palestine, the enemy of my
enemy may not necessarily be my friend, but at least he's the enemy of my
The mood at the table was subdued. Murdock in particular seemed distressed
by the nationalist's capture of the Argentine liner. He might have been too
young to remember the Zeppelin raids, but he'd heard lurid tales of their
destructive power -- entire buildings destroyed with the loss of dozens of
lives. The prospect that the renegade Germans now possessed an even more
powerful vessel was disturbing.
"I imagine they're gloating over their new Christmas present," he mourned.
"Perhaps," Michaelson remarked sourly. "But we must not tar all Germans
with the same brush."
"Sir?" Murdock said in surprise.
Michaelson glanced at the lieutenant as if to offer a reprimand. Then his
expression seemed to soften. Perhaps he was remembering that he too had
once been young, thought Everett.
"The War taught us to think of the
Germans as devils," the senior reflected. "This is hardly surprising, since
it was an unimaginably terrible experience. Most of us were happy to see
it end, but there were some on both sides who resented the Peace, and
wanted to press the conflict to a conclusion.
"Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. Some felt that an exchange of
information would do much to allay suspicions on both sides. I was part of
a mission sent under Admiral Wentworth -- then a commodore in the North Sea
Squadron -- to evaluate German airship technology."
The senior captain reached out to pour himself a cup of tea. His expression
might have been a smile. "As you shall learn, this didn't develop quite the
way we anticipated."
Our expedition did not get off to an auspicious start. We were supposed to
leave in January of 1917, shortly after the Armistice, but the wheels of
diplomacy and politics both grind slowly, and it wasn't until December that
we finally set out aboard the old R-23. Even then, it wasn't smooth sailing.
Those old Shorts Class were not noted for their speed, and it took us most
of the day to make the crossing to Germany.
Our destination was the Nordholz Imperial Air Station near Cuxhaven. It's a
commercial station now, but it had been a major naval base during the War,
and a constant thorn in our sides. We were met by Korvettenkapitän
Victor Schütze, Commodore of Germany's North Sea airship division. He`d
been one of their zeppelin aces, veteran of the raids on Hull and Tydesdale
-- a notorious villain to our popular press.
I expected some character out of Wagner -- Fafnir, perhaps, in human form.
Instead, I found him to be a surprisingly modest figure. His face seemed
prematurely lined from his experiences in the War. He had the quiet but
penetrating voice of someone used to command.
As planned, he offered us a tour of his command. Work had already begun to
convert the station to civilian use. The perimeter fence was still
festooned with announcements about the terrible fate that awaited
trespassers, but these had faded with the passage of time. We passed
several of the gun emplacements they'd constructed after our ill-fated
attempt to bomb the place from seaplanes early in the War, but the weapons
were no longer manned and many had been removed.
A squall arrived, with the kind of freezing rain one learns to expect during
winters in the North Sea, driving us to take shelter in one of the airship
sheds. Inside, we found a decommissioned zeppelin waiting for the breakers.
Gas cells deflated, drained of fuel and ballast, she hung from the roof by a
network of cables. I recognized the L-48, our host's last command.
"I understand that was your vessel," Wentworth remarked to Schütze.
"Ja," admitted the captain." I had her during the fall of '16.
She's of no use now that the War is over, so we'll be breaking her up for
Wentworth studied the airship. She might have been be obsolete, but she
was still a triumph of aeronautical engineering. "You must have been proud
of your command," he said politely.
Schütze was silent for a moment, as if remembering the ghosts of airships
past. His expression was calm, but I imagined I could see a trace of pain
behind his eyes. At last he sighed. "Of course this is true, but I am
glad that time is over. The raids were exciting, and we were feted as
heroes upon our return, but we were under no illusions what we were doing.
We were also under no illusions about our chances. If the War had
continued into 1917, I might have been dead by June."
I must confess this was a face of Germany I hadn't expected to see. We'd been
taught to regard the zeppelin commanders as monsters -- baby-killers and
slayers of innocents. It had never occurred to me they might have
regretted the War as much as we did.
We were supposed to lift ship from Cuxhaven the next day, but the weather
was too bad, so our hosts provided a train for the next leg of our journey.
Those German trains are quite remarkable. They're fast, efficient, and
follow their schedules with a precision that puts the best-made clocks to
shame. It's no wonder those fellows were able to supply all of their
massive offensives on the Western Front. The only wonder is that the
French were able to stop them.
Our destination was a row of industrial buildings in a nondescript suburb
of Berlin named Schwerin. Our host this time was Fregattenkapitän
Peter Strasser, Chief of German Naval Airship Division during the War. He
was a fierce-looking officer with a beard like Mephistopheles -- every man's
vision of a Prussian warrior. I imagine his subordinates feared that
Like Schütze, the captain seemed happy to show us around. It was clear
this site had once been important to the German war effort. Now I was
struck by the air of abandonment. Like the gun emplacements at Cuxhaven,
it seemed as if its people had been happy to leave the place and return to
"I understand this was once an aeroplane factory," said Wentworth.
"Yes," said our host. "At the beginning of the War, it belonged to a
Dutch manufacturer, but as hostilities progressed we found more
substantial uses for the facility. It became a laboratory to develop
weapons such as these."
He rolled aside a door to reveal what appeared to be an abandoned production
line. On this lay a row of shark-like projectiles, somewhat larger than a
man, fitted with stubby wings. In the dim light of the overhead lamps,
they looked strangely threatening.
"We called these Gleitbombe, or `gliding-bombs'," Strasser told
us. "They are steered by the movable tail assembly you see at the stern.
Control impulses are transmitted along a cable that unreels behind them.
They're significantly more accurate than conventional bombs. Our
experimental models routinely struck within ten meters of their target.
They also allow the attacking ship to... how would you say this... `stand
off', out of range of any defensive batteries."
Wentworth studied the weapons with some interest. "These are very
impressive," he observed. How close were they to completion?"
"Close enough," said Strasser. "Fortunately the conflict came to an end
before they were ready for service. If you follow me, I will show you
another of our projects."
The captain led us to what had obviously been a machine shop. Belts still
led down from the lineshaft to an impressive collection of lathes and
milling machines. In the middle of the room, a stand supported something
that resembled a small version of the monoplane that caused our observers
so much trouble in 1915. I noticed there was no provision for an operator.
"Where does the pilot sit?" asked Wentworth.
Strasser seemed amused by the question. "There is no pilot," he replied.
"This was the prototype for an aerial torpedo. We were working on two
versions -- a short-range model, controlled by wire, on a principle similar
to the Gleitbombe, and a longer-range version directed by radio
"An aerial torpedo," marveled Wentworth. "That would have revolutionized
"So it would," said Strasser, "but there is a fundamental problem with the
concept. When an aeroplane turns, climbs, or dives, the gyroscopic effect
of the propeller will cause it to veer off course. A human pilot can correct
for this. Automatic machinery cannot. We tried to address this problem by
adding a second propeller, geared to rotate opposite to the first, but the
engineering challenge proved insurmountable. Work was suspended after the
Peace. We'll be forwarding an account of the project to your Admiralty in
accordance with the Dover Agreement."
I assumed this marked the end of our tour, but our host had one final
surprise in store. After we'd were done inspecting the incomplete torpedo,
he led us down a hall and through a locked door into what was quite
obviously a laboratory. This held an assortment of benches and racks of
electronic devices arranged around a device that was quite difficult to
describe. A metal framework held a rod of some crystalline material -- this
might almost have been ruby, judging from its color -- surrounded by what
appeared to be flash lamps of the sort photographers use. This apparatus
was enclosed in a complicated system of mirrors.
"What the Dickens is that?" Wentworth asked in surprise.
"We call this instrument a `LIVSEN cannon'," said Strasser. "The
acronym stands for
Licht-Verstarkung Stimulierte Enmissionsstralung -- I do not know
how you would translate this in English. It is based on a
scientific paper by that young professor, Einstein. In theory, it should
generate a powerful beam of light, intense enough to burn holes in steel.
In practice..." he shrugged, "...we were unable to determine if the
principle could ever be made to work. The project was terminated after the
War, and the director has since retired to some island in the South
"It's like something out of radio drama," mused Wentworth. "What would it
be like to fight a war with weapons such as these?"
Strasser gazed into space, as if haunted by the ghosts of airships of the
future. At last he shook his head. "People invent these new weapons in the
belief that they will make war unthinkable. This belief has always proved
false. We must hope it will never again be put to the test."
By next morning the weather had cleared. The R-23 was still at Cuxhaven,
but our hosts had provided an airship of their own to take us to
Freidrichshafen. This was the L-59, which became the prototype for the
first generation of post-War German packets. Her pilot was
Kapitänleutnant Ludwig Bockholt, another veteran of the War.
"This is quite a vessel," Wentworth remarked after we were underway. "I
understand she was built for a flight to Africa."
Bockholt smiled. "The intention was to carry supplies to Generalmajor Paul
von Lettow-Vorbeck's troops in East Africa. Fortunately hostilities ended
before construction began. She has performed well in trials, so there is
talk of putting these vessels into production for commercial service."
"I suppose they could prove handy to serve your possessions in places like
the South Pacific," said Wentworth.
The captain smiled. "Perhaps," he replied cryptically, "but as you shall
see, we have more ambitious plans." He wouldn't tell us more.
It was day before Christmas when we arrived at Friedrichshafen, home of the
Luftschiffbau Zeppelin company. I've often felt his was an unlikely
place for the birthplace of aviation -- a small resort on the northern shore
of the Bodensee, between Lindau and Konstanz. It was backwater of history
until the Count established his factory there.
We were met at the mooring mast by Dr. Hugo Eckener, who'd taken over direction
of the company after the Count passed away that March. He was a middle-aged
gentleman of moderate height and build, with that serious expression so many
Germans of his generation wore, but a twinkle of humor in his eye.
"Guten Tag, meine Herren," he told us. "Welcome to Freidrichshafen."
"Thank you," said Wentworth. "We appreciate your giving up part of your
holiday to greet us."
The doctor made a dismissive gesture. "It was worth the sacrifice," he told
us. "I believe you will appreciate what we have to show you."
He bundled us into his car for the drive to the factory. We expected to
find only minimal staff when we arrived, but instead the place was bustling
with activity. Most of this seemed to be concentrated around the Number One
shed. Eckener parked next to a side entrance, nodded to the guard, and led us
into the building.
Inside, workers were putting the finishing touches on an enormous airship
that seemed to fill every foot of the available space. She was like nothing
we'd ever seen before, with six powerful engines and a streamlined control
car faired directly into the hull envelope. It was clear this vessel
represented a significant advance in airship design.
"What is this?" marveled Wentworth.
"She is our gift to modern civilization," said Eckener, "the world's first
long-range commercial airship, intended to compete with ocean liners on the
Atlantic crossing. In your units, she has 3.7 million cubic feet enclosed
volume, a top speed of 65 knots, and disposable load of 20 tons. We expect
her to carry 30 passengers along with their luggage and cargo on a
flight between Europe to America."
"This is quite an accomplishment," Wentworth observed. "Have you chosen a
name for the vessel?"
Eckener made no attempt to conceal his pride. "We have decided to name this
the Graf class in honor of the late Count."
We stood there for some time studying the vessel. She was quite obviously
not a warship. Her lines were clean, efficient, and unmarred by any
provision for armament.
"Doctor Eckener," I asked, "this seems entirely unlike any previous designs
from your company. What led to such a departure from your earlier
The Doctor smiled. "In some sense, it may be a return to our roots," he
told us. "Luftschiffbau Zeppelin began as a commercial airship
company and that is what we do best. But there's more to the story.
Airships took many lives during the war. We felt it was time to restore the
balance. We want to make the Count's invention something that has saved
more lives than it has taken."
Michaelson finished his tea, then gazed into his cup as if it held some
message. At last he set it aside. "I've thought about his words often
since then," he told his audience. "We may be less than angels, but we are
also more than beasts. As long as we remember this, there is hope for the
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you from Cairns Royal Air
Station and the crew of the Flying Cloud! We hope you
have a wonderful holiday season and look forward to the coming
year with anticipation. Our heroes (and heroines) on His Majesty's
Airship R-505 will be on vacation as well.
Season Nine will begin on 9-Jan-2017. We look forward to
seeing you upon their return...