Zeppelin LZ 54

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LZ 54
Naval Zeppelin L19.JPG
Role Reconnaissance and bombing
National origin German Empire
Type P-class Zeppelin
Manufacturer Luftschiffbau Zeppelin at Friedrichshafen
Construction number LZ 54
Serial L 19
First flight 27 November 1915
Owners and operators German Empire
In service 27 November 1915 – 1 February 1916
Flights 14
Fate Crashed, 1 February 1916

Zeppelin LZ 54, given the military tactical designation L 19, was a World War I Zeppelin of the Kaiserliche Marine (German Imperial Navy). While returning from her first bombing raid on the United Kingdom in early 1916, she came down in the North Sea. Her crew survived the crash, but drowned after the crew of a British fishing vessel refused to rescue them; at the time this was a widely reported and notorious incident.


LZ 54 was one of twenty–two P-class military Zeppelins built by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin for the German Army and Navy as improved versions of the pre-war, M-class airship, with larger gas volume and more power, having four instead of three engines. These were initially 180 horsepower (134 kW) Maybach C-X engines; later replaced with the 240 horsepower (179 kW), Maybach HSLu. LZ 54 had two gondolas, a control cabin forward with a single engine and rear gondola mounting the other three engines. The P-class Zeppelins were around 10 miles per hour (16 km/h) faster than the earlier craft, and had a higher service ceiling, double the payload and over double the range.

A bomb load of 1,600 kilograms (3,530 lb) could be carried and a number of MG 08 machine guns were mounted for aircraft defence. The number of guns varied – army Zeppelins carried more as they operated over land and enemy aircraft were a greater threat, navy Zeppelins carried fewer to save weight. The guns were mounted in the two gondolas under the airship, in a tail gun position, and on a dorsal gun platform on the top of the envelope. This upper platform could accommodate three guns and their gunners. The airship's normal complement was 18, but it could be flown with a smaller crew.[1]


LZ 54 first flew on 27 November 1915, completing 14 flights during her nine weeks of service.[2] Several of these flights were patrols over the North Sea, searching for Allied merchant and naval ships. Naval scouting was the main role of the navy's Zeppelin fleet, and a total of 220 such flights were carried out during the war.[3] The lack of aggressive activity by the German Navy meant the tactical need for such scouting was reduced.[3] During the winter of 1915–1916, LZ 54 became well-known to neutral merchant ships in the North Sea due to her frequent patrols.[4] On one occasion, she touched down close to a Swedish ship to inspect her. The ship was allowed to proceed when her neutral status was established.[5]

On another occasion, she and two other Zeppelins forestalled a British air raid by discovering, to the north of Terschelling, an approaching flotilla of three Royal Navy seaplane tenders, an apparent British attempt to repeat their successful Cuxhaven Raid. The British were surprised while lowering their seaplanes into the sea.[6]

31 January / 1 February air raid[edit]

A map of the North Sea
Burton on Trent
Burton on Trent
Location map
Kapitänleutnant Odo Löwe, circa 1915

Commanded by Kapitänleutnant Odo Löwe, the L 19 left her base at Tondern (now Tønder in Denmark) at noon on 31 January 1916, one of nine navy Zeppelins to raid England that night.[Note 1] This was part of a new, more aggressive strategy that had been brought to the German Navy with the recent appointment of Reinhard Scheer as its commander-in-chief.[7] The head of German naval airships, Fregattenkapitän Peter Strasser, was on board the L 11, leading the attack personally.[8] He had orders to bomb targets of opportunity in central and southern England, reaching Liverpool if possible.[8]

The Zeppelins encountered thick fog in the North Sea, followed by rain clouds and snow off the English coast, and the attacking force became dispersed;[8] the nine airships crossed the English coast between 5:50pm and 7:20pm. The L 19 was the very last, crossing the coast near Sheringham. At 10:45pm, she reached Burton on Trent, becoming the third raider to attack the town that night.[9] She then proceeded south, dropping the remainder of her bomb load on several towns on the outskirts of Birmingham. At 12:20am, a pub in Tipton was destroyed;[Note 2] buildings were also damaged in nearby Walsall and Birchills. She caused no casualties aside from some farm animals, although bombs dropped three hours earlier by her sister-ship, the L 21, killed 35 people in the area, including the wife of the Mayor of Walsall;[10] a total of 61 people were reported killed and 101 injured by the raid.[5] Due to the extreme difficulties of navigating with primitive equipment at night over a darkened countryside, the captain of the L 21 believed he had bombed Liverpool, in fact around 70 miles (110 km) away.[10]

The L 19 made a slow, erratic return journey, doubling back several times; this was almost certainly due to engine trouble.[11] The Zeppelin force had been newly fitted with Maybach HSLu engines. While lighter and more powerful than those they replaced, the new engines were proving unreliable – five of the nine airships had suffered engine failures during the raid. The L 19 sent several signals, asking for a position fix by radio-triangulation and reporting the results of her bombing. The last signal was heard from her at 4pm on the day after the raid when she was 22 miles (40 km) north of the Dutch island of Ameland. She reported three out of four engines had failed and her Telefunken radio equipment was malfunctioning.[11]

Around an hour later, the Zeppelin drifted low over the island, and Dutch units on the ground opened fire on her. The Netherlands was a neutral country and Dutch forces had standing orders to fire on overflying, foreign aircraft.[12][Note 3] A south wind blew the L 19 offshore and, some time during the night of 1–2 February, the Zeppelin came down in the North Sea. Loewe dropped a bottle into the sea, with a report on his situation and with letters to his family; this was found a few weeks later by a yacht near Gothenburg, Sweden.[13] The German Navy put ships to sea that night to search for the L 19, but they only discovered one of her fuel-tanks, still containing fuel.[11] This was likely dropped as a desperate measure to save weight and remain aloft.

The King Stephen Incident[edit]

Artist's illustration of the wrecked L 19 and the King Stephen; published in Flight, 10 February 1916.
Commemorative medal by Karl Goetz

The next morning, the floating wreck of the airship was discovered by a British steam fishing trawler, King Stephen, of 162 tons,[14] commanded by William Martin (1869–1917). The vessel had sighted distress signals during the night and had spent several hours steaming towards them. Clinging to the wreck were the airship's 16 crew[Note 4] The normal complement of a P-class Zeppelin was 18 or 19,[Note 5] but Zeppelins flying on air-raids often flew short-handed, with two or three of the least needed crew members left behind in order to save weight.[15]

The fishing vessel approached and Kapitänleutnant Loewe, who spoke English well, asked for rescue.[16] Martin refused. In a later newspaper interview, he stated that the nine crew of King Stephen were unarmed and badly outnumbered and would have had little chance of resisting the German airmen if, after being rescued, they had hijacked his vessel to sail it to Germany.[16] An alternative explanation for his action, suggested by a 2005 BBC documentary on the incident, is that King Stephen was in a zone in which fishing was prohibited by the British authorities and that Martin feared that if he returned to a British port with a large number of German prisoners, attention might have been drawn to this and he would have been banned from fishing.[17] Ignoring the Germans' pleas for help, promises of good conduct and even offers of money, Martin sailed away. He later said he intended to search for a Royal Navy ship to report his discovery to. However, he met none and the encounter with the L 19 was only reported to the British authorities on his return to King Stephen's home port of Grimsby.

The weather was worsening as King Stephen departed and the Zeppelin remained afloat for only a few hours. During this time, the L 19's crew threw a bottle with messages into the sea. Discovered six months later by Swedish fishermen at Marstrand, the bottle contained personal last messages from the airmen to their families and a final report from Loewe.[18]

"Mit fünfzehn Mann auf der Plattform und dem First des in etwa 3°Ost schwimmenden Körpers des L19 versuche ich eine letzte Berichterstattung. Dreifache Motorhavarie, leichter Gegenwind auf der Rückfahrt verspäteten die Rückkehr und brachten mich in Nebel, dieser nach Holland, wo ich erhebliches Gewehrfeuer erhielt, es wurde schwer, gleichzeitig drei Motorpannen. Am 2. Februar 1916 nachmittags, etwa ein Uhr – ist wohl die letzte Stunde."

— Loewe[19]

"With fifteen men on the top platform and backbone girder of the L 19, floating without gondolas in approximately 3 degrees East longitude, I am attempting to send a last report. Engine trouble three times repeated, a light wind on the return journey delayed our return and, in the mist, carried us over Holland where I was received with heavy rifle fire; the ship became heavy and simultaneously three engines broke down. 2 February 1916, towards one o'clock, will apparently be our last hour.

— Loewe[20]

Royal Navy ships made a search of the area, but they found no trace of the Zeppelin or her crew.[4] The body of one of the Germans washed ashore four months later at Løkken in Denmark.[21] In 1964, a journalist researching the incident checked Admiralty archives and interviewed two surviving members of King Stephen's crew. This revealed that Martin had indeed been fishing in a forbidden zone and had initially given the naval authorities a false position for the Zeppelin in order to conceal this, making the Royal Navy search for the airship futile.[22]

The report of the L 19's loss in the French newspaper Le Petit Journal, 27 February 1916. The headline reads THE PUNISHMENT OF A PIRATE Returning from a raid on England, the Zeppelin "L-19" sinks in the North Sea. The artist has drawn a pre-war Zeppelin, the LZ-4.

The incident received worldwide publicity and divided British public opinion. Captain Martin was condemned by many for leaving the German airmen to die. [23] Others, including Arthur Winnington-Ingram, the Bishop of London, praised Martin for placing the safety of his crew first and not trusting the promises of the Germans.[24] Some elements of the Allied press viewed the Germans' deaths as just "retribution" for their bombing of civilian targets.[25] German airship crews, sometimes referred to as "baby killers"[26] or "pirates" because of their bombing of civilians, were the subject of intense Allied propaganda and public hatred.

Martin was vilified by the German press, as was the Bishop of London for supporting him.[20] The encounter between the L 19 and King Stephen also featured in German propaganda. The scene was recreated for a German propaganda film[27] and illustrated by an anti-British medal, designed by Karl X. Goetz who also designed the well-known Lusitania medal.[28] The incident was still remembered 25 years later, when it was used in Nazi-era, anti-British propaganda.[29]

King Stephen never again sailed as a fishing vessel. After her return, she was taken over by the Royal Navy for use as a Q-ship, under the command of Lieutenant Tom Phillips RNR.[30] She was sunk 12 weeks later on 25 April 1916.[31] An official German communiqué, reported by the New York Times, stated she had been sunk by one of the German vessels taking part in the bombardment of Yarmouth and Lowestoft.[32] King Stephen, now fitted with a 3 pounder Hotchkiss gun,[33] had fired on and pursued a surfaced U-boat, but then inadvertently steamed directly into the path of the returning German fleet.[33] She was sunk by the torpedo boat SMS G41 and her crew taken prisoner.[19]

King Stephen's name was notorious to the Germans, and Lt. Phillips was charged with war crimes upon reaching Germany.[30] However, the charges were dropped and he and his crew were treated as normal prisoners-of-war after a photograph of William Martin was published in a British newspaper and the Germans realized they held another man.[30][33] William Martin himself died of heart failure in Grimsby on 24 February 1917, slightly over a year after encountering the L 19.[34] He had received a large numbers of letters, including both letters of support[33] and, reportedly, hate mail[35] and death threats.[36]

In July 1939, an unexploded munition (described by a press report as an "Aerial Torpedo") was discovered near Kidderminster during renovation work on a bridge. At the time, it was believed to have been dropped by the L 19.[37]

Surviving relics[edit]

One of the L 19 crew's bottles, together with its messages, are surviving relics of the incident; they were displayed as part of an exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in London in 2001.[38] The Aeronauticum, the German naval aviation museum in Nordholz, displays one of the King Stephen's lifebelts, as well as her Red Ensign flag, taken from the vessel before she was sunk.[19]

Both the National Maritime Museum[39] and the National Air and Space Museum[40] in the United States own rare examples of Karl Goetz's medal.


Data from "Zeppelin L 19" (in Danish). Zeppelin and Garrison Museum Tønder. Retrieved 8 October 2010.

General characteristics

  • Crew: 18
  • Length: 163.5 m (536 ft 5 in)
  • Diameter: 18.7 m (61 ft 4 in)
  • Volume: 31,900 m3 (1,126,400 ft3)
  • Empty weight: 21,704 kg (47,900 lb)
  • Gross weight: 37,066 kg (81,600 lb)
  • Powerplant: 4 × Maybach C-X, later Maybach HSLu, 157 kW (240 hp) each


  • Maximum speed: 97.2 km/h (60.4 mph)
  • Range: 4300 km (2670 miles)
  • Service ceiling: 2800 m (9186 ft)Armament
  • 1,600 kilograms (3,530 lb) of bombs
  • MG 08 machine guns


  1. ^ The navy Zeppelins L 11, L 13, L 14, L 15, L 16, L 17, L 19, L 20 and L 21
  2. ^ The exact time was noted from a broken clock found in the debris.
  3. ^ There was little risk of solid bullets creating a catastrophic fire in a hydrogen-filled Zeppelin (Zeppelins destroyed by fire were generally shot down by aircraft, specially armed with a mixture of explosive, tracer and incendiary ammunition) – see Lehmann, Chapter 6 [1]. However, heavy rifle or machine-gun fire from the ground could cause many punctures in the gas bags that, given enough time, would compromise the airship's ability to remain airborne. Several German Zeppelins were lost this way.
  4. ^ In contemporary reports, the number of surviving Germans varies wildly, with some stating there were as many as 44. In an interview by the Daily Mail, William Martin himself claimed there were 30 Germans on the Zeppelin, see New York Times, 5 February 1916.
  5. ^ Executive officer, commander, navigator, sailmaker (responsible for the gasbags), chief engineer, two altitude coxswains, two steering coxswains, and eight engineers.


  1. ^ Chant, page 109
  2. ^ "Zeppelin L 19". Zeppelin and Garrison Museum Tønder. Retrieved 8 October 2010.
  3. ^ a b Stephenson, page 13
  4. ^ a b "No title". New York Times. 5 February 1916.
  5. ^ a b "Damage in the Raid". The Times. 5 Feb 1916. p. 7.
  6. ^ Lehmann, Chapter 1
  7. ^ Robinson, page 120
  8. ^ a b c Robinson, page 121
  9. ^ Robinson, page 126
  10. ^ a b Mick Powis. "Walsall Mayor dies in night of Zeppelin terror". Our Century. Express & Star. Retrieved 11 March 2010.
  11. ^ a b c Robinson, page 127
  12. ^ "No title". New York Times. 13 May 1916.
  13. ^ "Notes Tell Airship's Fate. Bottle Picked Up Contains Last Messages from the Zeppelin L-19" (PDF). New York Times. 25 February 1916.
  14. ^ "King Stephen". Fleetwood Online Archive of Trawlers. Lancashire County Council. Retrieved 30 June 2010.
  15. ^ Robinson, page 358
  16. ^ a b "Tells of Leaving L-19 Crew to Die". New York Times. 5 February 1916.
  17. ^ "Inside Out investigates why air raid on Midlands led to British fisherman being accused of war crimes" (Press release). BBC. 15 Feb 2005.
  18. ^ "Last Message from L-19". Flight: 707. 17 August 1916.
  19. ^ a b c "Das Tragödie von L19" (in German). Zeppelin and Garrison Museum, Tondern. March 2002. Retrieved 1 July 2010.
  20. ^ a b Robinson, page 128
  21. ^ "German Airman's Fate". The Times. 24 June 1917. p. 8.
  22. ^ Chamberlain, page 48
  23. ^ "Feb 2, 1916:Zeppelin crashes into North Sea". This Day in History. History.com. Retrieved 1 October 2010.
  24. ^ "Bishop of London and the Skipper". The Times. 7 Feb 1916. p. 10.
  26. ^ "The end of the Baby-killer" (Postcard). Wikimedia. Retrieved 2010-09-25.
  27. ^ "L 19 und "King Stephen"" (in German). www.luftschiffharry.de. Retrieved 4 November 2010.
  28. ^ "K-174 Loss of Zeppelin L-19". World War I Satirical Series. The Art Work of Karl X Goetz. Retrieved 18 February 2010.
  29. ^ "Robber State England". German Propaganda Archive. Calvin College. Retrieved 18 February 2010.
  30. ^ a b c Edwards, Bernard (2010). War Under the Red Ensign 1914–1918. Pen & Sword Maritime. p. 110. ISBN 1-84884-229-5.
  31. ^ British Vessels Lost at Sea, pg 14
  32. ^ "German Version of the Raid". New York Times. 27 April 1916.
  33. ^ a b c d "HMT King Stephen". Royal Navy Association Camarthan Branch. 1 June 2003. Retrieved 18 February 2010.
  34. ^ "News in Brief". The Times. 26 Feb 1917.
  35. ^ "An Echo of the "L. 19" Incident". Flight: 206. 1 March 1917.
  36. ^ "Trawler and Zeppelin". Ashburton Guardian. 3 March 1919. p. 8.
  37. ^ "Aerial Torpedo Found in Worcestershire". The Times. 1 August 1939. p. 14.
  38. ^ Maev Kennedy (4 April 2001). "Message in a bottle sealed atrocity in a time capsule". The Guardian.
  39. ^ "Medal commemorating the loss of the airship 'L19', 1916". Royal Museums Greenwich. Retrieved 27 August 2013.
  40. ^ "Medal, Zeppelin L-19 Airship Disaster". Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Retrieved 27 August 2013.


  • Chant, Cristopher (2000). The Zeppelin: A History of German Airships from 1900 to 1937 London: Amber Books. ISBN 0-7153-1101-8
  • Chamberlain, Geoffrey (1984).Airships: Cardington. A History of Cardington Airship Station and its Role in World Airship Development, Lavenham, Suffolk: Terence Dalton. ISBN 0-86138-025-8
  • Hanson, Neil (2008). First Blitz, Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-61170-6
  • Her Majesty's Stationery Office (1977). British Vessels Lost at Sea 1914–18, Cambridge: Patrick Stephens Ltd. ISBN 0-85059-291-7
  • Lehmann, Ernst A.; Mingos, Howard. The Zeppelins. The Development of the Airship, with the Story of the Zepplins Air Raids in the World War Online Text
  • Robinson, Douglas H (1966). The Zeppelin in Combat. A History of the German Naval Airship Division, 1912–1918 London: G.T. Foulis.
  • Scheer, Reinhard (1920). Germany's High Seas Fleet in the World War Online Text
  • Stephenson, Charles (2004). Zeppelins: German Airships 1900–40, Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1-84176-692-5

External links[edit]