Disaster has befallen the giant German airship, Hindenburg. She was blown to pieces in a mysterious explosion when about to moor at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on the first anniversary of her maiden flight to America. A third of her reported total of 97 aboard have died. Latest death toll of the disaster is 35.
So reported the Lincolnshire Echo on 7 May 1937, a day after the German airship LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire as it attempted to land in New Jersey. News of the accident, which was caught on camera, soon spread across the world, the devastating and very graphic nature of the tragedy marking the end of the airship age.
In this special blog, as part of aviation April on The Archive, we will look at how newspapers from the United Kingdom and Ireland reported on the Hindenburg disaster. We will look at how the tragedy was initially reported, from first accounts to eyewitness reports, as well as theories as to what caused the accident. Meanwhile, we will look at the British perspective to the disaster, which took place just two years before the outbreak of the Second World War, at a time when international tensions between Germany and the rest of the world were becoming more and more apparent.
‘The Grand Hotel of the Air’
But before the disaster, which claimed the lives of 13 passengers and 22 crew, as well as one bystander on the ground, the Hindenburg was the ‘largest vessel of its kind in the world.’ Moreover, it was known as the ‘grand hotel of the air,’ as relates the Leicester Evening Mail.
Whilst Britain had suspended the building of airships following the destruction of the R101 in 1930, Germany had persevered in building its fleet of zeppelins, with the Graf Zeppelin chief amongst its fleet. But even the Graf Zeppelin was overshadowed when the Hindenburg made is maiden voyage in 1936. Costing £500,000 to build, as estimated the Lincolnshire Echo, which is approximately £25 million today, the Hindenburg was 813 feet long, with a diameter of 135 feet.
The upper deck…the dining-room, saloon, writing and reading rooms, and staterooms for more than 50 passengers. On the lower deck was accommodation for the crew of about 40.
Indeed, the Hindenburg was the ‘first Zeppelin in which passengers were able to smoke,’ the airship’s designers having taken precautions against fire by practically excluding wood from its design. And so, in the lead up to the disaster, the Illustrated London News reported how the Hindenburg had ‘safely accomplished 10 Transatlantic flights.’ Alongside the Graf Zeppelin, it had played an ‘immense part in restoring shaken world confidence in the stability and dependency of such lighter-than-air craft,’ as remarked The Sphere.
And in 1937 such confidence in the Hindenburg was evident, when on 6 May 1937 it was fully booked for its return voyage from New Jersey back to Germany. The Gloucester Citizen reports on plans for both the airship and its passengers:
The Hindenburg was to have brought last-minute visitors to the Coronation across the Atlantic. She was expected to arrive in Frankfurt early on Monday, and then several aeroplanes kept in reserve would have flown the London-bound passengers from there. On her return journey to America she was to have taken the first pictures of the Coronation to America.
But these plans would never come to fruition. Indeed, pictures of the destruction of the airship would be flying across the Atlantic in the following days, rather than the Hindenburg itself.
‘Like A Flaming Torch’
The Hindenburg had departed from Frankfurt on 3 May 1937, passing over Boston three days later. Faced with stormy weather conditions at its intended arrival point of Lakehurst, New Jersey, the airship’s captain Max Pruss chartered a course over Manhattan before finally attempting a landing at Lakehurst. During the landing, at 7.25pm, the Hindenburg caught fire.
News of the fate of the Hindenburg on 6 May 1937 soon reached the United Kingdom, and British newspapers the following day filled their front pages with news of the tragedy. The Lincolnshire Echo reported how the ‘ship fell like a flaming torch,’ and it was initially thought that there were no survivors from the accident, until some figures ‘began to stumble into view.’
As the blast occurred a hoarse cry of ‘Run for your lives’ scattered the ground crew and spectators. The former returned to the spot, however, immediately after the twisted mass of red-hot metal had landed. They dived heroically ‘into the flames, like dogs after a rabbit,’ in an effort to drag out passengers.
It was a chaotic, hellish scene, the Western Mail detailing how:
Onlookers stood sobbing, many of them hysterical, as Army trucks with screaming sirens sped to the blazing wreckage. The police sent out a radio appeal for all ambulances and fire apparatus in the district to rush to the spot…The heat was so intense that many of the persons on the ground were scorched before they could get away, but it is not known yet that any have been seriously harmed.
A ‘graphic’ account from Berlin was also published in the Nottingham Evening Post, which related how:
Everything appeared to be in order on board the Hindenburg when she was about 200 yards from the landing place. People on the landing ground saw the passengers at the windows laughing and waving greetings with handkerchiefs. Captain Pruss gave the order to lower the ropes. While this was being done the airship lost its equilibrium and began to rock. At this moment the stern of the airship touched the ground. An explosion followed, and a gigantic sheet of flame shot out from the bow with such force that the airship swung into an almost perpendicular position.
The Lincolnshire Echo told of how within ’15 to 20 seconds the Hindenburg was wrapped in flames,’ the fire burning down to its steel girders. The airship dropped to the ground, where its debris ‘burned for forty minutes, during which there were five or six more explosions.’
Amazingly, 62 of the airship’s crew and passengers survived the devastating fire. The Lincolnshire Echo detailed how:
Many of those on board saved their lives by jumping from the blazing ship. A number of survivors are lying in hospital in a critical condition, suffering excruciating pain from burns.
One woman ‘threw her sons to safety as the great blazing envelope fell,’ whilst the airship’s first captain, Ernst Lehmann, who was on board and acting in an ‘advisory capacity,’ ‘leapt from the control cabin after the first blast of the explosion.’ He was currently in hospital, the Lincolnshire Echo reported, but ‘in a condition…so grave that the last rites of the Church’ had been given to him. Meanwhile the airship’s current captain, Max Pruss, survived, although he too was ‘seriously hurt.’
The Nottingham Evening Post went on to illuminate the actions of the woman who had thrown her sons to safety. She was Mrs. Herman Doehner, and her husband, ‘the owner of the largest American wholesale chemists,’ was missing after the accident:
She was in the dining room of the Hindenburg, with her sons, Walter, aged 9 and Wernher, aged 6, when the first explosion occurred.
‘When we were only a few feet from the ground,’ she said ‘I threw my sons out.’
Other survivors told their stories to the press, Philip Mangone, from New York, relating how after the crash he had landed on his stomach. He had then had to crawl ’30 or 40 yards to escape from the flames.’ Herbert Olaughlin, from Chicago, was another survivor, being one of the ‘first to appear’ from the wreckage. With a ‘blackened face,’ he rang into the airship’s hangar to call his mother. Peter Belin, an ambassador’s son, escaped by jumping from a cabin window, as the Lincolnshire Echo reported. Falling 30 feet, he landed on a ‘pile of sand unhurt.’
The ground crew also gave their accounts of the accident, the Nottingham Evening Post containing the words of one man who ‘was knocked down beneath the falling Hindenburg:’
I thought everyone must have perished as the ship fell like a monster flaming torch…Then one survivor staggered from the wreckage. Then another. A man crawled from a gondola, and a woman leapt from a window…Then we knew there was hope, and we set to work getting out all the living and injured.
The ground crew were nothing but courageous in their rescue efforts, the same newspaper reporting how:
…the American landing squad rushed to the rescue, feverishly working to save as many people as possible. Disregarding the terrible heat and flames, they again and again forced their way into the debris until the last survivor and all the dead had been taken out.
Tragically, not everybody who survived the initial accident would live. On 8 May 1937 the Leicester Evening Mail reported that Captain Lehmann had ‘died in hospital last night.’
The British Perspective
As news of the disaster disseminated across the world, what was the British perspective on the tragedy? The Lincolnshire Echo carried news on the only British passenger who was on board the Hindenburg that fateful night, George Grant. The 62-year-old steamship agent, who lived in London, had survived with a broken leg.
The same newspaper was quick to question what the cost may be to ‘British insurance underwriters,’ for a ‘large part of the insurance was covered in this country.’ However, Captain A.G. Lamplugh of the British Aviation Insurance Company was on hand to dispel any such monetary fears, stating how:
…the Zeppelin Company themselves hold 25 per cent of the risk. The remainder of the risk is spread over many insurance companies, so that the loss to any one company will be quite small.
A British connection was further established via the airship’s intended passengers, some of whom were travelling, last minute, to witness the coronation of King George VI on 12 May 1937.
British newspapers also looked to the country’s own experience of the Hindenburg, the Gloucester Citizen noting how the airship had passed over England the previous summer. The newspaper described how:
The Hindenburg passed over Gloucester on the night of Wednesday, May 13, last year, in the last stages of a return flight from the United States. She flew over the city just after half-past ten, having to hold to a course which also took it over the Forest of Dean. The first people in Gloucester to see it were in the Tuffley district, and it proceeded in an easterly direction. The sight the airship presented was impressive.
Hundreds of people ‘rushed out of their homes’ to take in the spectacle, although the airship’s journey was not without some controversy, belying the fear of war that was brewing in Britain at the time:
The Hindenburg’s passing over England last summer in the course of her flights to and from America caused comment and protest in some quarters in this country, as it was argued that observations could be made from the airship of dockyards and prohibited areas.
The Hindenburg also was nearly hit during its flight over Britain. An R.A.F. instruction plane, flown by a pupil practicing blind flying, missed the airship by ‘a few feet’ over the Midlands.
And connections were further formed out of the tragedy itself. The Lincolnshire Echo, in reporting on the Hindenburg disaster, noted the fate of the British airship the R101 in October 1930, which crashed in France whilst en route to India, with the loss of 48 lives. This incident led ‘to the discontinuance of airship building’ in the United Kingdom.
The nation which still remembers painfully the fate of R101 will sympathise profoundly with the Government and people of Germany over the catastrophe which has befallen the airship Hindenburg. In the presence of such a calamity words are inadequate to express the feelings of horror and pity that possess the mind. As in the case of the R101, disaster, appalling and complete, sprang with terrifying unexpectedness on the German airship. If anything the doom of the Hindenburg descended more suddenly and out of clearer skies than of the British dirigible.
King George VI, about to be crowned, sent ‘messages of condolence to Herr Hitler,’ as reported the Illustrated London News, not a sentence that one usually reads in the pages of history. But the disaster was appalling, and transcended international tensions.
And in one final chilling twist of fate, forging yet another British connection with the Hindenburg disaster, the Western Mail revealed how:
The R101’s twisted framework had actually been embodied in the construction of the Hindenburg. The scrap metal was purchased by the German Government and shipped from France.
‘Mystery Combines With Horror’
And immediately after the accident, questions were being asked about its cause. Doctor Hugo Eckener, the designer of the airship, was quick to point the finger to sabotage, the Lincolnshire Echo remarking how:
So confident were Germans of the safety of the Hindenburg that to many foul play seems the only possible explanation of the disaster.
Meanwhile, Eckener added fuel to his sabotage theory by explaining how:
It is very likely the disaster was due to an act of sabotage. I have repeatedly received anonymous threatening letters specially warning me not to land the Hindenburg at Lakehurst.
But the cause of the accident remained unknown, the editor of the Western Daily Press on 8 May 1937 stating how ‘Mystery combines with horror to make the disaster not only heartrending, but for the time being inexplicable.’ But such mystery did not prevent speculation, the Lincolnshire Echo only a day after the accident providing a range of explanations:
An eye-witness story, published in Berlin, suggests that the explosion may have been caused in the same way as the British R 101 was wrecked – by part of the airship hitting the ground. He says that while the mooring ropes were being lowered the Hindenburg began to rock. The stern touched the ground and an explosion followed.
Other theories are that a back-fire from one of the engines ignited leaking gas, or that, owing to the thundery weather, static electricity had been generated which sparked as the landing ropes were lowered.
Theories of ‘anti-Nazi sabotage’ continued to abound, but were dismissed by Colonel J. Monroe Johnson, the Assistant Secretary of Commerce, as irresponsible, although he stated, as relates the Leicester Evening News, that the cause of the disaster was ‘very, very puzzling.’
Some weeks later on 22 May 1937 The Sphere published a theory advanced by Lieutenant Benjamin May, who ‘saw the disaster from the top of the mooring-mast.’ He had the ‘definite impression that a major structural failure preceded the fire and explosion,’ the newspaper detailing how:
He was of the opinion that one of the airscrews splintered and tore the envelope, thus admitting air which produced spontaneous combustion when mixing with the hydrogen. It is agreed that if this theory is correct the damage must have been done by the port after-airscrew, all four blades of which were found to be shattered at their points. One fragment of the blade was found in the main wreckage 49ft from the air airscrew shaft.
Indeed, reports from Reuters agreed, as the Leicester Evening Mail reported, stating that ignition of escaped hydrogen caused the fire, but ‘whether this was set off by a spark of static electricity, lightning or backfire which might have occurred when the Diesel engines suddenly reversed may never be known,’ and is not known to this day.
The editor of the Western Daily Press, writing two days after the accident, was positive in his assessment of future travel via airship:
It would be premature to suggest that the loss of the Hindenburg will administer a fatal setback to airship development in Germany.
And although Germany suspended flights of the Graf Zeppelin, the country pushed forward with the building of additional airships, the Lincolnshire Echo reporting how:
Germany is in deep mourning to-day and black flags are everywhere. Official circles in Berlin, however, declare that the disaster will have no effect on the further building of Zeppelins by Germany.
Meanwhile in the United States, investigations as to the cause of the disaster had begun, the Leicester Evening Mail reporting how:
The twisted wreckage of the German airship Hindenburg has been impounded by the Department of Commerce for investigation and the results will be made known on Monday at public hearings of the Department’s board of enquiry.
In all, four separate investigations were held into the fate of the Hindenburg in the United States. The Illustrated London News reported how they would be organised ‘respectively by the Department of Commerce, the Navy Department, the Air Safety Committee of the Senate, and the Military Affairs Committee of the Senate.’ Meanwhile, Doctor Hugo Eckener travelled from Germany to perform his own investigation.
He told an inquiry later that May that ‘a spark from the sky and a broken brace wire were probable causes of the Hindenburg disaster,’ as related the Nottingham Evening Post on 24 May 1937. Eckener had concluded that there must have been ‘free gas in the rear section of the ship,’ the explanation for this being:
…that a brace wire had snapped a few minutes previously, puncturing the aft gas cell and causing a sudden leak. The spark of static electricity that probably ignited the free hydrogen came… from the air masses overhead.
The cause of the accident, however, would never be categorically discovered. And meanwhile the Hindenburg disaster became fodder for headlines, and for the films, Atlantic flyers Dick Merrill and Jack Lambie bringing back with them ‘films and photographs’ of the tragedy from New York, as reported the Dundee Evening Telegraph.
These films would end up in the cinema – for example you could seen ‘Pictures of the Crash of Hindenburg’ at the Strand Midland in Londonderry, as advertised by the Derry Journal on 24 May 1937. And because the photographs and the films of the accident were so very vivid, and so widely shown, across newspapers and in the cinema, public confidence in airships as a method of commercial travel was wrecked, the age of the airship coming to an abrupt and tragic end, just two years before further disaster would be unleashed in Europe and the rest of the world.