23/11/1917 Germany’s Zeppelin safari aborted #1917Live

Germany has sent the L-59 Zeppelin on a mission from Bulgaria to German East Africa, to bring desperately needed supplies to Lettow-Vorbeck‘s embattled army. After crossing the Mediterranean the airship has flown south through British occupied Egypt. To avoid interception by British aircraft, it flies at maximum speed and zig zags along the Nile to throw pursuers off course.

The L-59 manages to avoid the British but the Afrika-Schiff cannot evade the elements. The cold desert nights freeze the crewmen but they also cool the hydrogen gas that keeps the L-59 aloft. In turbulent air this morning the Zeppelin nearly crashes but the crew manage to keep her in flight. Then by day the terrible heat of the Sahara wreaks its toil on the crew, making it difficult for them to concentrate or work, in some cases even leading to hallucinations. But the airship flies on, crossing from Egypt proper to the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.

The L 59 is now more than half way on its journey but then it receives an unexpected message by wireless. The British have captured the intended landing site of the L-59 in German East Africa, forcing Lettow-Vorbeck’s men to retreat into the mountains. A Zeppelin landing there would be impossible. The L 59 is ordered to return to Bulgaria.

The Zeppelin’s volunteer crew beg their commander to continue the mission: they want the L 59 to fly on to crash land in the mountains, so that Lettow-Vorbeck will receive at least some of the supplies. Any of the crew who survive the crash-landing will also be able to join Lettow-Vorbeck’s army. But Captain Ludwig Bockholt is adamant that orders must be obeyed. The L 59 turns about and begins to retrace its steps.

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The L-59 in flight (Historic Wings: “Das Afrika-Schiff”)

21/11/1915 Germany’s Zeppelin safari #1917Live

German possessions in Africa have been overrun by the Allies. The one exception is in German East Africa, where German forces under Lettow-Vorbeck continue to resist.

Lettow-Vorbeck’s men are desperately short of medicine, ammunition and spare parts for their military equipment. British sea power makes it impossible for Germany to supply Lettow-Vorbeck by sea. But this is the 20th century and there are now other means of travel. Germany decides to send a Zeppelin on a mission to resupply their East African forces.

Today the L-59 departs from Bulgaria on the 5,500 kilometres journey to German East Africa. This will be a one way trip as the Germans in East Africa have no hydrogen to resupply the airship. The Zeppelin’s crew, all volunteers, will join Lettow-Vorbeck’s army and the L-59 itself is to be cannibalised for military equipment. As well as medical and military supplies, the L-59 carries Iron Cross decorations.

The mission is a dangerous one. The L-59, now nicknamed das Afrika-Schiff, will be travelling across British controlled territory. And no Zeppelin has ever made such a long trip without refuelling.

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Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (Historic Wings: Das Afrika-Schiff)

L-59 (Historic Wings: Das Afrika-Schiff)

27/10/1917 Fighter pilot Arthur Rhys-Davids fails to return #1917Live

Just over a month ago Arthur Rhys-Davids took part in the unequal struggle that saw German ace Werner Voss shot down after battling seven British fighter pilots. Since then Rhys-Davids has been sketched by William Orpen, who plans to paint a portrait of the flier.

Today Rhys-Davids is promoted to lieutenant. He heads off on a routine mission over enemy lines but he does not return. He appears to have fallen victim to German fighter pilot Karl Gallwitz. His body is not recovered.

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Portrait of Arthur Rhys-Davids, by William Orpen (Wikipedia)

24/10/1917 Caporetto: Austria and Germany strike back against Italy #1917Live

The previous 11 battles on the Isonzo have all seen the Italians attack the Austro-Hungarians, making minimal gains and suffering terrible casualties. The last battle however shook the Austro-Hungarians badly, with the Italians coming close to achieving a breakthrough. Fearing that the next battle will see their men collapse, the Austro-Hungarians have decided to strike back. They have reinforced their men on the upper Isonzo with soldiers taken from the Eastern Front and the Germans have supplied troops to spearhead the assault: seven of the 17 divisions committed being from Austro-Hungary’s ally. The offensive is also being commanded by a German general, Otto von Below.

While the Italians suspect that an enemy counter-offensive is possible, they think it unlikely before the spring. The Germans and Austro-Hungarians are careful to conceal their preparations as much as possible, deploying aircraft to prevent the Italian air force from observing their men moving forward. So when the artillery opens fire in the small hours of this morning the Italians are stunned by the scale of the bombardment, not realising the enemy has so many guns in the sector.

The Austro-Hungarians had retained a bridgehead over the Isonzo at Tolmein. It is from here that they and the Germans now strike. The attack uses novel infiltration tactics, avoiding frontal assaults on enemy positions and instead moving forward through weak points, bypassing resistance and leaving Italian hold-outs to be isolated and mopped up by follow-up troops.

Italian morale has been sapped by the scale of losses in previous battles and the brutal discipline of their officers. Now the Italian troops collapse in the face of the enemy onslaught with men abandoning their positions and streaming to the rear or surrendering en masse. Many soldiers throw away their rifles to avoid being pressed into some kind of pointless last stand. By the afternoon the Italians have lost Caporetto, known to German-speakers as Karfeit and to Slavs as Kobarid, with 2,000 Italians surrendering here alone.

By the evening the Italian forces on the upper Isonzo are in a state of rout. The enemy has taken some 20,000 prisoners. Meanwhile at his headquarters at Udine Cadorna only gradually becomes aware of the scale of the disaster. He orders a withdrawal from the Bainsizza plateau, captured in the last battle, and starts considering a retreat from the Isonzo to the Tagliamento river.

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German assault troops (Battlefield: Caporetto, rhe battle that changed Italy)

Otto von Below (La Grande Guerra 1914-1918: Novant’anni fa la Battaglia di Caporetto, Ottobre 1917;
Un’occasione per riflettere)

map (La Grande Guerra 1914-1918: Novant’anni fa la Battaglia di Caporetto, Ottobre 1917;
Un’occasione per riflettere)

9/10/1917 Poelcapelle: an Allied attack at Ypres fails #1917Live

The latest attack at Ypres takes place today, an attempt to further extend the Allied position with Poelcapelle at the centre of their crosshairs. The last few attacks have been relatively successful, with ground gained and significant casualties inflicted on the Germans (albeit also at considerable cost to the Allies).

Good weather played a significant role in previous successes. Now however the weather has broken. British airmen find it harder to observe and guide down artillery on German positions. The infantry find if extremely difficult to move forward across an increasingly muddy battlefield. Mud also makes it difficult to keep the guns firing. And the tanks find themselves unable to manoeuvre in the morass into which they are to advance.

The result is that the British and their Commonwealth allies suffer terrible casualties and make almost no gains. The only real success today happens on the British flank, where French troops trudge through the mud behind a slowly creeping barrage, achieving their limited objectives with relatively few casualties. Overall this is a day of failure, though British commanders may at least take some satisfaction from the knowledge that the Germans too have suffered great losses in containing the attack.

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Mud (Copwick: images of Poelcapelle and the Passchendaele battle site)

23/9/1917 German fighter ace Werner Voss shot down over Ypres #1917Live

Against doctor’s orders, Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, came back to active service in late July after being wounded earlier that month. Since then he has managed to shoot down several enemy aeroplanes but is still suffering the after effects of his head injury. He is currently once more on sick leave but hopes to be back in action soon.

Richthofen is not Germany’s only star pilot. Another flier who has made a name for himself is Werner Voss, a subordinate commander of the Red Baron’s Flying Circus. Voss is now flying the new Fokker Triplane, a highly manoeuvrable and fast climbing aircraft. He has shot down some 47 enemy aircraft since his first kill in November 1916.

Voss’s squadron has been deployed to Flanders, where it is contesting Allied control of the skies above Ypres. Voss returned from leave yesterday and this morning he returns to the skies and shoots down a British bomber. On returning to his base he celebrates by looping the loop. Nevertheless his colleagues note that he appears unusually tense, with one reporting “He had the nervous instability of a cat”.

In the evening Voss and his comrades set off again. This time they find themselves caught in a battle royale with a large number of enemy aircraft. In the confused dogfight that develops, Voss finds himself being targeted by six British aircraft, all flown by ace fighter pilots. Accounts vary but he appears not to try to evade his pursuers, instead taking every opportunity to turn the tables on his opponents. He scores hits on most of the British aeroplanes but does not bring any down.

The uneven battle can have only one end. British bullets strike Voss and his aeroplane smashes into the ground on the British side of the line. That evening the British pilots drink a toast to the brave flier they have killed. Voss was 20 years of age.

See also: “Lives of the Aces in Pictures – Part 14: Lieutenant Werner Voss” by Eugene Frandzen

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Werner Voss (Wikipedia)

Werner Voss’s Fokker Triplane (Aerodrome: Roden 1:72 model kit cover) The model kit is for sale, priced €7.99

11/9/1917 French ace Georges Guynemer disappears #1917Live

Germany has Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, but the Allies have their own star pilots. For the French, Georges Guynemer has become a national hero after has shot down over 50 enemy aeroplanes. Today he sets off on patrol near Poelkapelle in Flanders. His wingman sees him attack a German aircraft but is then distracted by some German fighters. When the wingman shakes off his pursuers there is no sign of Guynemer.

Unlike his wingman, Guynemer does not return from his mission. Reports emerge of his aircraft having been shot down behind enemy lines but with Allied shelling scaring away the Germans before his body can be retrieved. These reports are inconclusive; Guynemer’s final fate and resting place remain unknown.

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Georges Guynemer, by “Lucien” (Wikipedia)