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Into Africa: LZ 104 & Operation ‘China Show’

Photo: LZ 104 leaves her hanger.


In 1917, a beleaguered German colonial force led by a prominent Prussian-born officers was in desperate need of ammunition and medical supplies. John Ash presents the story of the daring mission to try and prevent capitulation.

In late 1917 German commanders were posed with a particular problem. Thousands of miles away, in German East Africa (modern day Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi) a remarkable feat of strategic endurance was ongoing. A small force of Germans, supported by local troops and thousands of native levies, probably never more than 15,000 combat troops in total, was using guerrilla tactics to pin down a far larger Allied force.

The works undertaken on LZ 104 (L.59) to extend her and increase her carrying capacity.

Led by the remarkable German General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, the Schutztruppe – Imperial Germany’s East African colonial force – consisted of a small cadre of professional German soldiers, NCOs, and officers, but was formed mostly from tough native Askari troops. Lettow-Vorbeck started the war with as few as 200 European troops and 2,500 Africans on his roster, with a militia reserve of 2,700 white settlers which, despite arduous conditions, pests, and disease, provided occasional and limited supply of mounted troops as well as extra riflemen. The German force also used irregular native troops acting as scouts, often armed with antiquated weapons such as muskets and spears.

One of the airship sheds in Jambol, 1918.

The European troops themselves were well-trained, but not necessarily well equipped. Though Vorbeck did begin the war with machine guns and light artillery, such assets became an increasingly luxurious capability as the campaign dragged on. Sometimes, Vorbeck and his officers were able to exploit their resourcefulness and secure new capabilities, on one occasion the scuttled wreck of the light cruiser SMS Königsberg provided heavy weapons in the form of ten re-purposed 105mm naval guns and a complement of fresh riflemen formed from her crew.

The Schutztruppe grew at its peak to around 18,000 men – around 15,000 of them Askari. He initially battled a handful of British garrison and colonial battalions, a force which grew exponentially to between 250,000 and 300,000 British, Dominion, and Allied troops. Therefore continually forced defeat on his opponents, or neatly slipped away from their victorious traps.

However, after three years of sharp conflict, brutal conditions and terrain, and little eternal support, this desperate German force was running low on supplies. Unable to be resupplied or reinforced by sea on account of the firm British control of the East African coast and blockade of Germany, the isolated force faced destruction. It required immediate assistance, but there was seemingly little to be done. However, a pioneering and daring proposal could potentially have delivered the much-needed provisions the Schutztruppe were in need of.

SMS Königsberg in 1914, at Dar es Salaam. [The National Archive, CO1069/3/23]

The plan was to ship supplies to Vorbeck by Zeppelin, to airlift the gap of thousands of miles between Germany and her African possessions. The route would take the craft over British-controlled territory, but could prove decisive in sustaining the force. LZ 102 (L.57) was picked for the secret mission, and quickly modified and lengthened with extra compartments to allow her to stow 15 tonnes of machine guns, rifle ammunition, and medical supplies.

However, the craft was damaged beyond repair in October 1917 while attempting a practice flight with a full load. Another Zeppelin, LZ 104 (L.59) was assigned to the task, and rapidly modified in a similar matter. The largest Zeppelin to operate in the Great War, LZ 104 was nearly 750 feet long, carried a radio and was capable of 64mph. She was crewed by a complement of 22 men. Her modifications complete, Dr. Hugo Eckener, then an instructor forbidden to participate in operations but who would later, during the interwar, set several records in the Graf Zeppelin, piloted LZ 104 south in a 29 hour flight from Friedrichshafen to deploy at Yambol, a Bulgarian base and the southernmost facility available to the Germans.

The crew of Zeppelin LZ 104.

Here, her 15 tonne cargo was embarked, as was the commander for the flight, Kapitänleutnant Ludwig Bockholt. On board was ammunition and small arms, spare parts, medical supplies, foodstuffs and thousands of pounds of fuel. Upon arrival in German East Africa and having met Vorbeck’s troops, LZ 104 was to be disarmed and broken down. There would not be enough fuel, nor lifting gas in her tanks, to return home. Therefore her crew would join the ranks of the German forces, and her Duralumin alloy skeleton and fabric cover were to be used for shelters and in whatever other possible means to support the troops. After bad weather curtailed two attempts, LZ 104 set off on her record-breaking voyage on 21 November 1917, codenamed ‘China-Sache’, or China Show.

Ahead was a journey, thousands of miles long, over enemy-controlled territory. LZ 104 was a fast Zeppelin, fast enough to reach its destination before it lost buoyancy, but such speeds were not enough to outrun intercepting aircraft, and, if sighted, LZ 104 would be very vulnerable. Zeppelins in African skies were not a welcome prospect for the British. Not only may it have been a moral boost and propaganda coup for Germany, eager to end the war in retention of at least one of its overseas holdings, the military applications of the flight were damning. Although ill-suited for carrying troops, the craft had other uses in addition that of resupply. Considerations had to be made for their use as reconnaissance craft or as bombers, the British also had to account for their effect on the local population. Images of the craft and their effect on British cities had circulated to Africa, worrying the population there, or, another concern, potentially encouraging their support for Germany.

Having cracked German codes, the British were aware of the flight and the aim of the mission. They had instructed elements of the Royal Flying Corps based in East Africa of the incoming Zeppelin and squadrons were put on alert.

An Ox team hauls a field gun up a steep bank. A 1917 image showing the difficulties in moving heavy equipment such as artillery across the vast, and rough, expanses of East Africa.

LZ 104 made good progress and time across the Sea of Marmara and the Mediterranean, but over Crete encountered horrendous storms and high winds, necessitating the craft’s radio antenna be retracted to prevent loss or damage. LZ 104 crossed the coast of British-held North Africa early on 22 November, and from there, was in serious and constant danger of interception. While traversing the desert, one of the craft’s five engines failed – its gearbox housing cracked and unrepairable. This loss of power prevented the craft from transmitting any messages, though communications could be received once the antenna was redeployed. Therefore, she continued across the Sahara, unaware that a recall had been ordered by the Admiralty station at Nauen, Germany. The forced radio silence actually prevented the British from intercepting LZ 104, as there were no position reports originating from the craft to be intercepted.

Massive changes in temperature caused turbulence and reduced her buoyancy which almost led to a crash in the Sahara on 23 November, and LZ 104’s fatigued crew began fall ill, victim to hallucinations and headaches as the altitude constantly changed. Still, they progressed. Urgent messages that German troops in East Africa had surrendered were relayed multiple times to Bockholt, but it was not until the craft neared Khartoum, on 23 November, that LZ 104’s commandant finally received them.

British Engineers advance through Portuguese Nyasaland. Ahead of them lies a swamp, where local porters offer the only viable form of transport.

Lettow-Vorbeck, however, had not surrendered. There have been suggestions British intelligence may have falsified transmissions, in perfect code, to force LZ 104 to turn away. However, while the British may well have done so, as claimed by British intelligence officer Richard Meinertzhagen, they were not successful in this activity and such reports could equally be the result of misunderstanding or post-war fantasy. The abort signal actually originated from Vorbeck himself, who signalled the proposed landing zone was coming under fire and could not be held. This was relayed through friendly or neutral countries until, hours later, reaching German military channels. LZ 104’s war diary reports a signal from Admiral von Holtzendorff: “Break off operation, return. Enemy has seized greater part of Makonde Highlands, already holds Kitangari, Portuguese are attacking remainder of Schutztruppe from south.”

While still fighting, Lettow-Vorbeck was indeed in trouble. His force was being continuously pushed back by the talents of commanders, such as Jacob van Deventer, leading British and Dominion forces and such drastic Allied gains greatly reduced the area controlled by the Schutztruppe. With ground changing hands rapidly, there was no guarantee the German force could be found, let provide the provision of a safe landing zone for LZ 104.

The British had dislodged the Germans from the intended landing zone on the plains near Mahenge, forcing his retreat into the mountains. Landing there would not be possible. There was now no suitable ground which German troops could hold long enough to unload and organise the much needed arms and supplies transited by the Zeppelin, or to breakdown the craft and convert its parts into usable equipment. The surrendered troops were the vast numbers of the wounded, ill, and infirm, left behind in hope they be captured, as it was thought they would not survive the retreat without necessary medical supplies.

Contemporary artwork by Carl Arriens showing the Schutztruppe crossing into Portuguese administered territory.

With no hope of resupply, Lettow-Vorbeck turned to the south, and marched into Portuguese Mozambique. By the time LZ 104 about turned, his advanced columns had crossed the Rovuma River and left German East Africa. Soon after, he took Ngomano, and the force was able to sustain itself for a while from replacement firearms, mortars, and other materials captured there, including a vital supply of quinine. On LZ 104, the mission scrapped, Bockholt turned his ship around and set a course for home. He retraced his steps back across Egypt, again somehow avoiding the British search for him. Over Turkey and the Black Sea, rapid cooling almost caused the craft to crash for a second time, but LZ 104 was able to return to Bulgaria at 07:40 on the 25 November. She had flown for 95 hours continuously and covered 4,225 miles. Her crew remained and their posts throughout, and at least 36 hours fuel remained on board. China Show was every bit the most impressive feat of endurance flying seen yet, and such a record would not be surpassed for some time.

General Lettow-Vorbeck would continue his campaign until he received news of the Armistice on 23 November 1918, days after it was enforced on the Western Front. He was still planning operations, had command of around 3,000 troops, and had more ammunition than he could move. The Schutztruppe was surrendered on 25 November at Abercorn, Rhodesia, after four years tying down a force which grew to many times its size, for the entirety of the war. While British and Allied blunders had generated successes for Lettow-Vorbeck, as did his obvious his skill and ability, the General had also greatly benefited from luck and circumstance as increasingly competent and experienced British and Dominion commanders slowly began to pen his forces in. His force was constantly moving, battling disease as much as British and Allied forces, living off the land, raiding Portuguese and British-held territories for supplies and munitions.

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck surrendering his forces to the British at Abercon (present-day Mbalain) in Northern Rhodesia, November 1918. [National Museum of Tanzania]

Lettow-Vorbeck and 120 of his surviving 155 German troops returned to Germany as heroes, essentially undefeated and the only German commander to succeed in invading British territory throughout the Great War. He was no doubt a commander who served with distinction throughout the Great War, though his refusal to give in has to also be responsible many deaths. He was well respected by his German troops, his Askari, and even by his foes, and became friends with Richard Meinertzhagen and Jan Smuts, two of his most steadfast adversaries.

With a well-known dislike of Adolf Hitler, Lettow-Vorbeck largely refused under the Nazi-administered Third Reich and is attributed as telling Hitler to ‘go **** himself’, to which, when challenged, his nephew stated in 1960: “That’s right, except that I don’t think he put it that politely.” Lettow-Vorbeck’s reputation suffered with the party after such a remark, and he was never called for active service in the Second World War. Still, he lost both his sons in the war, and his house in Bremen, ending the war relying on food packages sent by his former adversaries. General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck died in 1964, age 93, heralded as ‘the Lion of Africa’.

Waged for much of the duration of the Great War the East African campaign, the ‘backwater’ theatre, saw an incredible effort from a German force effective in tying down a much larger force. Sources vary, but casualties were extraordinary heavy, some 40,000 British, Belgian, and Portuguese became casualties, around half this number killed – claimed mostly by disease, a sad fact especially considering the Great War turned out to be the first major conflict where battle losses outstripped those who succumbed to illness. On the German side, some 6,000 troops are thought to have died, with perhaps as many as 5,000 reported as missing. More than 7,000 troops deserted or were captured.

General Paul von Lettow Vorbeck surrendering to General Edwards, the British military representative at Abercorn, 25 November 1918. [The National Archives C01069/1/33]

While battle losses were, compared to the vast engagements on the Western Front, comparatively bloodless, conditions and disease took their toll on both the white troops and the Askari fighting for both sides. Additionally, perhaps as many as 300,000 native porters perished conducting their vital, often conscripted or coerced, work for both Allied and German forces. Of the 262 crew of the SMS Konigsberg to survive her action and subsequent scuttling in the Rufiji Delta to be amalgamated into the Schutztruppe force, just 16 returned to Germany.

The impact on the land was also devastating, while the British could rely on some form of logistics chain, and could resupply their force by sea and by rail, the route was lengthy and unreliable. For Lettow-Vorbeck, the situation was worse, he had no such luxury and could only rely on what he could find or what he could take. As such, the impact on the water supply and local agriculture, of these two armies; one desperate, one large, was destructive. The local population were left vulnerable to disease, and later, Spanish Flu and famine for years to come.

Following the daring and extraordinary flight to Africa, LZ 104, heralded as “Das Afrika-Schiff”, was converted to carry bombs with the intention of using her to strike British and Italian targets in the Mediterranean, in particular, Italian cities. On 7 April the Zeppelin set off to bomb targets on Malta, on this flight she exploded while flying low over the Strait of Otranto with the total loss of her 21 crew, as witnessed by the U-boat UB-53. As no claim was made by any Allied combatant, LZ 104’s loss was recorded as an accident.

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