MoboReader > Literature > To Kiel in the 'Hercules'

   Chapter 5 NORDHOLZ, THE DEN OF THE ZEPPELINS

To Kiel in the 'Hercules' By Lewis R. Freeman Characters: 41642

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


I have written in a previous chapter of the great contrast observed between the morale of the men at Norderney, and the other seaplane stations visited by parties from the Allied Naval Commission, and that of those in the remaining German warships, accounting for the difference by the fact that the former had been kept busier than the latter, and that they had not suffered the shame of the "Great Surrender" which has cast a black, unlifting shadow upon the dregs of the High Sea Fleet. Whether the airships were kept as busy as the seaplanes right up to the end it would be difficult to say, but, whatever may be the reason for it, we found the morale of the great Zeppelin stations suffered very little if at all in comparison with that of the working bases of the naval heavier-than-air machines.

For all the barbarity of many of their raids, there was splendid stuff in the officers and crews of the Zeppelins which engaged in the campaign of "frightfulness" against England, and it is idle to deny it. In a better cause, or even in worthier work for an indifferent cause, the skill and courage repeatedly displayed would have been epic. Considering what these airships faced on every one of their later raids-what their commanders and crews must have known were the odds against them after the night when the destruction of the first Zeppelin over Cuffley, in September, 1916, proved that the British had effectually solved the problem of igniting the hydrogen of the inner ballonettes-one cannot but conclude that the morale of the whole personnel must have been very high during even this trying period. If it had not been high, there would undoubtedly have been mutinies at the airship stations, such as are known to have occurred on so many occasions among the submarine crews. Even in the light of present knowledge, there is nothing to indicate that there had ever been serious trouble in getting Zeppelin crews for the most hazardous of raids. So far as could be gathered from our visits to the great airship stations of the North Sea littoral, this very excellent morale prevailed to the last; indeed, practically everything seen indicated that it still prevails.

Of the several German naval airship stations visited by parties from the Allied Commission, the most important were Althorn, Nordholz, and Tondern. The interest in the latter was largely sentimental, due to the fact that it was practically wiped out last summer as the result of a bombing raid by aeroplanes launched from the Furious. It was known that little had been done to rehabilitate it as a service station since that time, and the Commission's airship experts' desire to visit what was left of the sheds was actuated by a wish to see what damage had been done rather than by any feeling that the station really counted any longer as a base of Germany's naval air service. Our visit to the ruins of Tondern, and what we learned there of the way it was destroyed, is a story by itself, and I will tell it in a separate chapter.

Germany had very ambitious plans for the development of the Althorn station, and it is probable at one time that it was intended that it should supersede even the mighty Nordholz as the premier home of naval Zeppelins. If such were really the intention, however, there is no doubt that it was effectually put an end to by a great fire and explosion which occurred there about the middle of last year, the material destruction from which-in sheds and Zeppelins-was vastly greater even than that from the British raid on Tondern. The Germans speak of this disaster with a good deal of bitterness, usually alluding to the cause as "mysterious," but rather giving the impression that they believe it to have been the work of "Allied agents." If this is true, the job will stand as a fair offset against any single piece of work of the same character that German agents perpetrated in France, Britain, or America. Only the blowing up of the great Russian national arsenal in the second year of the war is comparable to it for the amount of material damage wrought. Althorn remained a station of some importance down to the end of the war, however, and that the Germans still expected to do important work from there was indicated by the fact that one of its new sheds housed the great "L-71," the largest airship in the world at the present time.

But it was in the great Nordholz station that the airship sub-commission was principally interested, not only for what it was at the moment-incomparably the greatest and most modern of German Zeppelin aerodromes-but also for what had been accomplished from there in the past, and even for what might conceivably be done from there in the future. Nordholz is a name that would have been burned deep into the memories of South and East Coast Britons had it been known three years ago, as it is now, that practically all of the Zeppelin raids over England were launched from there. The popular idea at the time-which even appears to have persisted with most Londoners down to the present-was that airship stations had been constructed in Belgium, and that these alternated with those of Germany in dispatching raiders across the North Sea to England. A single glimpse of such a station as Nordholz is enough to show that the huge amount of labour and expense involved in building even a comparatively temporary aerodrome fit for regular Zeppelin work would have been fatal to the idea of establishing such installations in Belgium, or anywhere else where Germany did not feel certain of remaining in fairly permanent control. The station at Jamboli, in Bulgaria, for instance, is known to have been able only to dispose of one or two Zeppelins, and considerable intervals between flights were imperative for keeping them in trim. It would never have been equal to the strain of steady raiding.

There were other German airship stations within cruising distance of England, but Nordholz was so much the best equipped, especially in the first years of the war when Zeppelin raiding was the most active, that the most of the work, and by long odds the most effective of it, was done from there. There were grim tales to be told by that band of hard-eyed, straight-mouthed, bull-necked pilots-all that survived some scores of raids over England and some hundreds of reconnaissance flights over the North Sea-who received and conducted round the Naval Commission party, though, unfortunately, we did not meet upon a footing that made it possible more than to listen to the account of an occasional incident suggested by something we were seeing at the moment.

The route which our party traversed from Wilhelmshaven to the Nordholz airship station-the latter lies six or eight miles south of the Elbe estuary in the vicinity of Cuxhaven-was a different one from any followed on our previous visits, all of which had taken us more to the south or east. It was through the same low-lying, dyked-in country, however, where the water difficulty, unlike most other parts of the world, was one of drainage rather than of irrigation. Great Dutch windmills turned ponderously under the impulse of the light sea-breeze, as they pumped the water off the flooded land. Cultivation, as in the region traversed to the south, was at a standstill, but overflowing barns-great capacious structures they were, with brick walls and lofty thatched roofs-proved that the harvest had been a generous one.

Instead of routing our two-car special over the all-rail route via Bremen, distance and time were saved by leaving it at a small terminus opposite Bremerhaven, crossing to the latter by tug, and proceeding north in more or less direct line to our destination. Little time was lost in getting from one train to the other. The tug, which had been held in readiness for our arrival, cast off as soon as the last of the party had clambered over its side, and the short run across the grey-green tide of the estuary was made in less than a quarter of an hour. Four powerful army cars-far better machines, these, than the dirigible junk heaps we had been compelled to use at Wilhelmshaven-were waiting beside the slip, and another ten minutes of what struck me as very fast and reckless driving, considering it was through the main streets of a good-sized city, brought us to the station and another two-car special. Both going and returning, it was the best "clicking" lot of connections any of the parties made in the course of the whole visit, showing illuminatingly what our "hosts" could do in that line when they were minded to.

Swift as was our passage through the streets of Bremerhaven, there was still opportunity to observe many evidences of the vigorous growth it had made the decade preceding the outbreak of the war, and of the plans that had been made in expectation of a continuation of that growth. Blocks and blocks of imposing new buildings-now but half-tenanted-and the nuclei of what had been budding suburbs were more suggestive of the appearance of a Western American mushroom metropolis after the collapse of a boom than a town of Europe. The railway station-a fine example of Germany's so-called "New Art" architecture-in its spacious waiting-rooms, broad subways, and commodious train sheds looked capable of serving the city of half a million or so which it had confidently been expected the empire's second port would become at the end of another few years. As things have turned out, Bremerhaven will at least have the consolation of knowing that it is not likely to be troubled with "station crushes" for some decades to come.

The astonishingly well-dressed and orderly crowd of a thousand or more waiting outside the portal of the station in expectation of the arrival of a train-load of returning soldiers made no unfriendly demonstration of any character. On the contrary, indeed, as at Wilhelmshaven, a number of children waved their hands as our cars drove up, and a goodly number of men solemnly bared their heads as we filed past. The special which awaited us at a platform reached after walking through a long vaulted subway running beneath the tracks consisted, like the one we had left on the other side of the river, of an engine and two cars. The rolling stock of this one was in better shape than that of the other, however, and with a better maintained road-bed to run over, the last leg of our journey was covered at an average speed of over thirty miles an hour, quite the fastest we travelled by train anywhere in Germany.

For the most of the way the line continued running through mile after mile of water-logged, sea-level areas crossed by innumerable drainage canals and bricked roadways gridironing possible inundation areas with their raised embankments. At the end of an hour, however, the patches of standing water disappeared, and presently the bulk of the great sheds of Nordholz began to notch the northern skyline, where they stood crowning the crest of the first rising ground in the littoral between the Dutch frontier and the Elbe. With only a minute or two of delay in the Nordholz yards, the train was switched to the airship station's own spur, and at the end of another mile had pulled up on a siding directly opposite the main entrance.

The commander of the station, with two or three other officers, was waiting to receive us as we stepped out on the ground. Ranged up alongside this row of heel-clicking, frock-coated, be-medalled and be-sworded Zeppelin officers was an ancient individual of a type which seemed to recall the fatherly old Jehus of the piping days of Oberammergau. Every time the officers saluted, he raised his hat, bowed low from the waist, and exclaimed, "Good morning to you, gentlemen." When the last of us had been thus greeted, he called out a comprehensive, "This way to the carriages, gentlemen," and trotted off ahead, bell-wether fashion, through the gate.

Here we found waiting four small brakes and a diminutive automobile, the sum total of the station's resources in rapid transit, according to the commander. Getting into the motor to precede us as pilot, he asked the party to dispose itself as best it could in the horse-drawn vehicles. Then, with old "Jehu" holding the reins of the first vehicle and men in air-service uniform-utter strangers to horses they were, too-tooling the other three, we started off along a well-paved road.

A long row of very attractive red brick-and-tile houses of agreeably varied design were apparently the homes of married officers. Our way led past only the first five or six of them, but a stirring of lace curtains in every one of these told that we were running the gauntlet of hostile glances all the way. One glowering Frau-though in the semi-negligée of a "Made-in-Germany" kimono of pale mauve, her Brunhildian brow was crowned with a "permanently Marcelled" coiffure of the kind one sees in hairdressers' windows-disdained all cover, and so stepped out upon her veranda just in time to see the elder of her blonde-braided offspring in the act of waving a Teddy Bear-or it may have been a woolly lamb or a dachshund-at the tail of the procession of invading Engl?nders. She was swooping-a mauve-tailed comet with a Gorgon head-on the luckless "fraternisatress" as my brake turned a corner and the loom of a block of barracks shut "The Row" from sight, but a series of shrill squeals, piercing through the raucous grind of steel tyres on asphalt pavement, told that punishment swift and terrible was being meted out.

"More activity there than I saw in all of Bremerhaven," laconically observed the Yankee Ensign sitting next me. "Who said the German woman was lacking in temperament?"

Driving through the barracks area-where all the men in sight invariably saluted or stood at attention as we passed-and down an avenue between small but thickly set pines, the road debouched into the open, and for the first time we saw all the sheds of the great station at comparatively close range. Then we were in a position to understand with what care the site had been chosen and laid out. Occupying the only rising ground near the coast south of the Kiel Canal, it is quite free from the constant inundations which threaten the alluvial plain along the sea. The sheds are visible from a great distance, but it is only when one draws near them that their truly gigantic size becomes evident. Of modern buildings of utility, such as factories and exhibition structures, I do not recall one that is so impressive as these in sheer immensity. Yet the proportions of the sheds are so good that constant comparison with some familiar object of known size, such as a man, alone puts them in their proper perspective.

The sheds are built in pairs, standing side by side, and on a plan which has brought each pair on the circumference of a circle two kilometres in diameter. The chord of the arc drawn from one pair of sheds to the next in sequence is a kilometre in length, while the same distance separates each pair on the circumference from the huge revolving shed in the centre of the circle. The whole plan has something of the mystic symmetry of an ancient temple of the sun. Of the half-dozen pairs of sheds necessary to complete the circle, four had been constructed and were in use. Each shed was built to house two airships, or four for the pair. This gave a capacity of sixteen Zeppelins for the four pairs of sheds, while the two housed in the revolving shed in the centre brought the total capacity of the station up to eighteen-a larger number, I believe, than were ever over England at one time.

Scarcely less impressive than the immensity of the sheds and the broad conception of the general plan of the station was the solidity of construction. Everything, from the quarters of the men and the officers to the hangars themselves, seemed built for all time, and to play its part in the fulfilment of some far-reaching plan. Costly and scarce as asphalt must have been in Germany, the many miles of roads connecting the various sheds were laid deep with it, and, as I had a chance to see where repairs were going on, on a heavy base of concrete. The sheds were steel-framed, concrete-floored, and with pressed asbestos sheet figuring extensively in their sides. All the daylight admitted (as we saw presently) filtered through great panes of yellow glass in the roof, shutting out the ultra-violet rays of the sun, which had been found to cause airship fabric to deteriorate rapidly.

The barracks of the men were of brick and concrete, and were built with no less regard for appearance than utility. So, too, the officers' quarters and the Casino, and the large and comfortable-looking houses for married officers I have already mentioned. All had been built very recently, many in the by no means uneffective "New Art" style, to the simple solidity of which the Germans seemed to have turned in reaction from the Gothic. Beyond all doubt Germany was planning years ahead with Nordholz, both as to war and peace service. They were quite frank in speaking of the ambitions they still have in respect of the latter, and (from casual remarks dropped once or twice by officers) I should be very much surprised if their plans for developing the Zeppelin as a super-war machine have been entirely shelved.

The road along which we drove to reach the first pair of sheds to be visited ran through extensive plantations of scraggly screw-pine, which appear to have been set-before the site was chosen for an air station-for the purpose of binding together the loose soil and preventing its shifting in the heavy winds. Wherever the trees had encroached too closely upon the hangars, the plantations had been burned off. Over one considerable area the accumulations of ash in the depressions showed the destruction to have been comparatively recent, and this I learned had been burned over, in the panic which followed the blowing up of the Tondern sheds by British bombing machines last summer, in order to minimize the risk from the raid which Nordholz itself never ceased to expect right down to the day of the armistice.

The staggering size of the great sheds became more and more impressive as we drew nearer, and when the procession finally turned and went clattering down the roadway between one of the pairs, the towering walls to left and right blotted out the sky like the cliffs of a rocky ca?on. Halfway through this great defile the officers of the station were waiting to receive and conduct us round. A hard, fit, capable-looking lot of chaps they were. Every one of them had at least one decoration, most of them many, and among these were two or three Orders Pour de Mérite, the German V.C. One at least of them-the great long-distance pilot, Von Butlar-was famous internationally, and few among the senior of them (as I was assured shortly) but had been over England more than once. They were the best of Germany's surviving Zeppelin pilots, and one was interested to compare the type with that of the pick of her sea-pilots as we had seen them at Norderney.

Running my eye round their faces as the mingled parties began moving slowly toward the side door of the first shed to be inspected, I recognized at once in these Zeppelin officers the same hard, cold, steady eyes, the same aggressive jaw, and the same wide, thin-lipped mouth that had predominated right through the officers we had met at Norderney. These, I should say, are characteristic of the great majority of the outstanding men of both of Germany's air services. The steady eye and the firm jaw are, indeed, characteristic of most successful flying men, but it is the "hardness," not to say cruelty, of the mouth which differentiates the German from the high-spirited, devil-may-care air-warrior of England and America.

These Zeppelin pilots seemed to me to run nearer to the German naval officer type than did the seaplane officers. The latter were nearly always slender of body, wiry and light of foot, where (though there were several exceptions, including the great Von Butlar) the former were mainly of generous girth, with the typical German bull neck corrugating into rolls of fat above the backs of their collars. A Major of the R.A.F., who had been walking at my side and doing a bit of "sizing up" on his own account, put the difference rather well when he said, as we waited our turn to pass in through the small side door of the great grey wall of the shed: "If I was taking temporary refuge in a hospital, convent, or orphan asylum during a German air raid, I'd feel a lot better about it if I knew that it was some of those seaplane chaps flying overhead rather than some of this batch. That thick-set one there, with the cast in his eye and the corded neck, has a face that wouldn't need much make-up fo

r the Hun villain in a Lyceum melodrama. Yes, I'm sure these Zepp. drivers will average a jolly lot 'Hunnier' than the run of their seaplane men."

Up to that moment my experience of German airships had been limited to the view of them as slender silver pencils of light gliding swiftly across the searchlight-slashed skies of London, and three or four inspections of the tangled masses of aluminium and charred wood which remained when ill-starred raiders had paid the supreme penalty. I was indebted to the Zeppelins for a number of thrills, but only two or three of them (and one was in the form of a bomb which gave me a shower bath of plate glass in Kingsway) were comparable to the sheer wave of amazement which swept over me when, having passed from the cold grey light of the winter morning into the warm golden glow of the interior of the big shed to which we had come, I looked up and beheld the towering loom of the starboard side of "L-68," with the sweeping lines of her, fining to points at both ends, exaggerating monstrously a length which was sufficiently startling even when expressed in figures. The secret of the hold which the Zeppelin had for so long on the imagination of the German people was not hard for me to understand after that. It was easy to see how they could have been led to believe that it could lay Paris and London in ruins, and that the very sight of it would in time cause the enemies of their country to sue for peace. One saw, too, how hard it must have been for them finally to believe that the Zeppelin had been mastered by the aeroplane, and that the high hopes they had built upon it had really crashed with the fallen raiders.

There were two Zeppelins in the shed we had entered-"L-68" and another monster of practically the same size. The former, with great irregularly shaped strips of fabric dangling all along its under side, suggested a gigantic shark in process of being ripped up the belly for skinning. Being deflated, the weight of its frame was supported by a number of heavy wooden props evenly distributed along either side from end to end. Its mate, on the other hand, being full of hydrogen and practically ready for flight, had to be prevented from rising and bumping against the yellow skylights by a series of light cables, the upper ends of which were attached at regular intervals along both sides of the framework, while below they were made fast to heavy steel shoes which ran in grooves set in the concrete floor. The latter contrivance-especially an arrangement for the instant slipping of the cable-was very cleverly devised and greatly interested the Allied experts.

There were two or three things the popular mind had credited the modern Zeppelin with embodying which we did not find in these latest examples of German airship development. One of these was an "anti-bomb protector" on the top, something after the style of the steel nets erected over London banks and theatres for the purpose of detonating dropped explosives before they penetrated the roof. The fact that attempts to destroy Zeppelins by bomb had invariably-with the exception of the one brought down by Warneford in Belgium in 1915-resulted in failure, was doubtless largely responsible for this belief in the existence of a protecting net, whereas the reason for those failures is probably to be found in the fact that only about one bomb in a hundred will find enough resistance in striking an airship to detonate. At any rate, there were no indications that either the earlier or later Zeppelins we saw had ever been protected in this way. Indeed, we did not even see a single one of the machine-guns, which every one had taken for granted were mounted on top of all Zeppelins to resist aeroplane attack, though these, of course, with their platforms, may well have been removed in the course of the disarmament imposed by the armistice terms.

Nor had these late airships the bright golden colour of those that one saw over London in the earlier raids. That the refulgent tawniness of them was not due entirely to the reflected beams of the searchlights was proved by the uncharred fragments of fabric one had picked up at Cuffley and Potters' Bar. But the German designers had been giving a good deal of study to invisibility, since that time, with the result that these new airships were coloured over all their exposed surfaces a dull slaty black that would hardly reflect a beam of bright sunshine.

The cars, which were both smaller and lighter than those from the airships brought down in England, were all underslung, and none of them was enclosed in the framework, as had often been stated. Even these were not built entirely of metal, heavy fabric being used to close up all spaces where strength was not required. The bomb-dropping devices had been removed, but the numbered "switchboard" in the rearmost car, from which they could be released, still remained. The cars, free from every kind of protuberance that could meet the resistance of the air, were effectively and gracefully "stream-lined." The framework and bodies of the cars were made of the light but strong "duraluminum" alloy, which the Germans have spent many years in perfecting for this purpose. A small fragment of strut which I picked up under "L-68" has proved, on comparison, considerably lighter in specific gravity than similar pieces from three of the Zeppelins brought down early in the war. Indeed, in spite of its admixture of heavier metals for "stiffening," the latest alloy seems scarcely heavier than aluminum itself.

The inspection of an airship to see that it had been disarmed according to the provisions of the armistice was, as may be imagined, rather more of a job than a similar inspection of even a "giant" seaplane. In a Zeppelin that is more or less the same size as the Mauretania the distances are magnificent, and while most of the inspection was confined to the cars, that of the wireless, with a search for possible concealed machine-gun mountings, involved not a little climbing and clambering. One's first sight of the interior of a deflated Zeppelin-in an inflated one the bulging ballonettes obstruct the view considerably-is quite as impressive in its way as the premier survey of it from the outside. No 'tween decks prospect in the largest ship afloat, cut down as it is by bulkheads, offers a fifth of the unbroken sweep of vision that one finds opened before him as he climbs up inside the tail of a modern airship. Although airy ladders and soaring lengths of framework intervene, they are no more than lace-work fretting the vast space, and the eye roams free to where the side-braces of the narrow "walk" seem to run together in the nose. Only, so consummate the illusion wrought on the eye and brain by the strange perspective, that "meeting point" seems more like six hundred miles away than six hundred feet. The effect is more like looking to the end of the universe than to the end of a Zeppelin. No illusion ever devised on the stage to give "distance" to a scene could be half so convincing. All that was "cosmic" in you vibrated in sympathy, and it took but a shake of the reins of the imagination to fancy yourself tripping off down that unending "Road to Anywhere" to the music of the Spheres. You-

"Gee, but ain't that a peach of a little 'Gyro'?" filtering up through the fabric beneath my feet awakened me to the fact that the inspection of "L-68" having reached the rearmost car, was near its finish. Clambering back to earth, I found the party just reassembling to go to the carriages for the drive to the great revolving shed, which was the next to be visited.

Its central revolving shed is perhaps the most arresting feature of the Nordholz station. It is built on the lines of a "twin" engine turntable, with each track housed over, and with every dimension multiplied twenty-five or thirty-fold. The turning track is laid in a bowl-shaped depression about ten feet deep and seven hundred feet in diameter. The floors of both sheds (which stand side by side, with only a few feet between) are flush with the level of the ground, so that the airships they house may be run out and in without a jolt. The turning mechanism, which is in the rear of the sheds and revolves with them, is entirely driven by electricity. The shifting of a lever sets the whole great mass in motion, and stops it to a millimetre of the point desired, the latter being indicated on a dial by a needle showing the direction of the wind.

The Germans assured us-and on this point the British and American airship experts were in full agreement with them-that the revolving shed is absolutely the ideal installation, as it makes it possible to launch or house a ship directly into the wind, and so allows them to be used on days when it would be out of the question to launch them from, or return them to, an ordinary hangar. The one point against it seems to be its almost prohibitive cost. This central shed at Nordholz was designed some time before the war, and was completed a year or so after its outbreak. The Germans did not tell what it had cost, but they did say that the latter was so great-both in money and in steel deflected from other uses-that they had not contemplated the building of another during the continuance of the war.

Another interesting admission of a Zeppelin officer at Nordholz was to the effect that one of their greatest difficulties had arisen through the fact that it had been found practicable and desirable to increase the size of airships far more rapidly than had been contemplated when most of the existing sheds were designed. Thus many hangars-even at Nordholz, where practice was most advanced-had become almost useless for housing the latest Zeppelins. The proof of this was seen at one of the older sheds which we visited, where both of the airships it contained had been cut off fore and aft to reduce their lengths sufficiently to allow them inside. Thirty or forty feet of the framework of the bows and sterns of each, stripped of their covering fabric, were standing in the corners. They assured us that while an airship thus "bobbed" at both ends was not necessarily considered out of commission, it would take several days of rush work to get it ready for flight, and that during most of this time sixty to eighty feet of it-the combined length of the nose and tail which had to be cut off to bring it inside-would have to remain sticking out, exposed to the weather.

To any one who, like myself, was not an airship expert, but had been "among those present" at a number of the earlier raids on London, the last shed visited was the most interesting of all, for it contained what is in many respects Germany's most historic Zeppelin, the famous "L-14." Twenty-four bombing flights over England were claimed for this remarkable veteran, besides many scores of reconnaissance voyages. All of the surviving pilots appeared to have an abiding belief in her invulnerability-a not unnatural attitude of the fatalist toward an instrument which has succeeded in defying fate. This is the way one of them expressed it, who came and stood by my side during the quarter-hour in which the inspecting officers were climbing about inside the glistening yellow shell of the historic raider in an endeavour to satisfy themselves, that she was, temporarily at least, incapable of further activities:-

"It will sound strange to you to hear me say it," he said, "but it is a fact that all of the officers and men at Nordholz firmly believed that L-14 could not be destroyed. Always we gave her the place of honour in starting first away for England, and most times she was the last to come back-of those that did come back. After a while, no matter how long she was late, we always said, 'Oh, but it is old L-14; no use to worry about her; she will come home at her own time.' And come home she always did. All of our greatest pilots flew in her at one time or another and came back safe. Then they were given newer and faster ships, and sometimes they came home, and sometimes they did not. --, who was experimenting with one of the smaller swift types of half-rigids when it was brought down north of London-the first to be destroyed over England-had flown L-14 many times, and come home safe, and so had, --, our greatest pilot, who was also lost north of London, very near where the other was brought down, and where we think you had some kind of trap. L-14 saw these and many other Zeppelins fall in flames and the more times she came home the more was our belief in her strength. The pilot who flew her was supposed to take more chances (because she really ran no risks, you see), and if you have ever read of how one Zeppelin in each raid always swooped low to drop her bombs, you now know that she was that one. Because we had this superstitious feeling about her we were very careful that, in rebuilding and repairing her, much of her original material should be left, so that whatever gave her her charmed life should not be removed. Although our duraluminum of the present is much lighter and stronger than the first we made, L-14 still has most of her original framework; and, although improved technical instruments have been installed, all her cars are much as when she was built. You will see how much clumsier and heavier they are than those of the newer types. And now, for some months, we have used L-14 as a 'school' ship, in which to train our young pilots. You see, her great traditions must prove a wonderful inspiration to them."

A few minutes later I had a hint of one type of this "inspiration," when a pilot (who had fallen into step with me as we took a turn across the fields on foot to see the hangars of the "protecting flight" of aeroplanes) mentioned that he had taken part in a number of the 1916 raids over the Midland industrial centres. Knowing the Stygian blackness in which this region was wrapped during all of the Zeppelin raiding time, I asked him if he had not found it difficult to locate his objectives in a country which was plunged in complete darkness.

"Not so difficult as you might think," was the reply. "There were always the rivers and canals, which we knew perfectly from careful study. Besides, a town is a very large mark, and you seem to 'sense' the nearness of great masses of people, anyhow. Perhaps the great anxiety they are in establishes a sort of mental contact with you, whose brain is very tense and receptive. Effective bombing is very largely a matter of psychology, you see."

I saw. Indeed, I think I saw rather more than he intended to convey.

The inspection over and everything having been found as stipulated in the armistice, we were conducted to the Officers' Casino for lunch. Each member of the party, as had been the practice from the outset, having brought a package of sandwiches from the ship in his pocket, it was intimated to the Commander of the station that we would not need to trouble him to have the luncheon served, which he said had been prepared for us. The same situation had arisen at Norderney and several other of the stations previously visited, and in each of these instances our "hosts" of the day had acquiesced in the plainly expressed desire of the senior officer of the party that we should confine our menu to what we carried in our own "nose-bags." Nordholz, however-quite possibly with no more than an enlarged idea of what were its duties under the circumstances-was not to be denied. A couple of plates of very appetizing German red-cabbage sauerkraut, with slices of ham and blood sausage, were waiting upon a large sidetable as we entered the reception-room, and to these, as fast as a very nervous waiter could bring them in, were added the following: a large loaf of pumpernickel, a pitcher of chicken consommé, a huge beefsteak, with a fried egg sitting in the middle of it, for each member of the party, two dishes of apple sauce, and eight bottles of wine-four of white and four of red. The steaks-an inch thick, six inches in diameter, and grilled to a turn-were quite the largest pieces of meat I had seen served outside of Ireland since the war. The hock bore the label "Dürkheimer," and the other bottles, which were of non-German origin, "Ungarischer Rotwein."

"Although I'd hate to hurt their feelings," said the senior officer of the party, surveying the Gargantuan repast with a perplexed smile, "I should like to confine myself to my sandwiches and leave a note asking them to forward this to some of our starving prisoners. Since we've been feeding their pilots and commissioners in the Hercules, however, I suppose there's no valid reason why we should hesitate to partake of this banquet. I'll leave you free to decide for yourselves what you want to do on that score." We did. It was the American Ensign who, smacking his lips over the last of his steak, pronounced it the best "hunk of cow" he had had since he was at a Mexican barbecue at Coronado; but it was the General who had a second helping of apple sauce, and wondered how they made it so "smooth and free from lumps," and what it was they put in it to give that "very delicate flavour."

Hung around all four walls of the room were perhaps a dozen oil paintings of flying officers in uniform, and although they bore no names, we knew (from what had been told us of a similar display in the reception-room at Norderney) that they were portraits of pilots who had lost their lives in active service. One-a three-quarters length of a small wiry man, with gimlet eyes and a jaw that would have made that of a wolf-trap look soft and flexible in comparison-I recognized at once as having been reproduced in the German papers as the portrait of the great Schramm, who had been killed when his Zeppelin was brought down at Potters' Bar. Another-the bust of a man of rather a bulkier figure than the first, but with a face a shade less brutal-was also strangely familiar. I felt sure I had seen before that terribly determined jaw, that broad nose with its wide nostrils, that receding brow, with the bony lumps above the eyes, and the tentacles of my memory went groping for when and where, while I went on sipping my glass of Rotwein and listening to Major P--1 and Ensign E-- comparing sensations on dropping from airplanes with parachutes.

1 Major Pritchard, who subsequently distinguished himself by landing from R-34, after its transatlantic flight, with a parachute.

"If the Huns," the former was saying, "had had proper parachutes most of the crews of the Zepps brought down in England could have landed safely instead of being burned in the air. Of the remains of the crew of the one brought down at Cuffley, hardly a fragment was recognizable as that of a man. But if-"

Like a flash it came to me. The warm, comfortable room, with its solid "New Art" furniture and the table stacked with plates of food and wine bottles, faded away, and I saw a tangled heap of metal and burning debris, sprawling across a stubble field and hedgerow, and steaming in the cold early morning drizzle that was quenching its still smouldering fires. Five hours previously that wreckage had been a raiding Zeppelin, charging blindly across London, pursued by searchlights and gun-fire. I had watched the ghostly shape disappear in the darkness as it shook off the beams of the searchlights, and when it appeared again it was as a descending comet of streaming flame streaking earthward across the north-western heavens. After walking all the rest of the night-with a lift from an early morning milk cart-I had arrived on the scene at daybreak, and before the cordon of soldiers which later kept the crowds back had been drawn. They had just cut a way through the wreckage to one of the cars, and were cooling down the glowing metal with a stream pumped by a little village fire-engine. Then they began taking out what remained of the bodies of the crew. Some had been almost entirely consumed by the fierce flames, and it is literally true that many of the blackened fragments were hardly recognizable as human. But there was one notable exception. By a miracle, the chest and head of the body of what had undoubtedly been the commanding officer had been spared the direct play of the flames. The fingers gripping the steering wheel were charred to the bone, but the upper part of the tunic was so little scorched that it still held the Iron Cross pinned into it. The blonde eyebrows, beneath the bony cranial protuberances, were scarcely singed, and even the scowl and the tightly compressed lips seemed to express intense determination rather than death agony. That portrait-and doubtless most of the others that looked down upon our strange luncheon party that day at Nordholz-must have been painted from life.

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares