The Day the Hindenburg Flew Over Southampton & Portsmouth
Standing on the water’s edge of Southampton, most days you will see the common sights of ferries and modern cruise ships. However, if you’d been near Southampton water, or, in fact anywhere in the city on the 5th of July in 1936, you would have seen something you’d probably never seen before.
Coming down over the Solent at an estimated 300 feet was the Hindenburg. The pride of the Nazi Party.
Not only was the Hindenburg a triumph of German engineering, but it was also of an immense size. It was the largest aircraft ever built at the time so would have been an awe-inspiring sight for anybody lucky enough to see it… and most local people would have; it was impossible to ignore.
This is the story of day when the Hindenburg, complete with swastika emblems, flew over Southampton and Portsmouth. There are also allegations of Nazi spying and a journey that would ultimately end in tragedy a little over a year later.
The development of the Hindenburg
The Hindenburg story starts in Germany with the launch of the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin. At the time this was the largest airship ever built. Between 1928 and 1937, the Graf Zeppelin flew round the world, even up to the Arctic, becoming the first ever commercial transatlantic passenger service.
Within a year of the LZ 127’s successful launch, the manufacturers of the Zeppelin proposed a longer and larger airship. This was to be the LZ 129 Hindenburg which was planned to be the largest aircraft ever seen, with ambitions to be the future of air travel.
Construction of the Hindenburg started in 1931. However, it wasn’t long before Dr Hugo Eckener, the chairman of the Zeppelin company, put the brakes on development. As with many ambitious projects, money became an issue due to financial problems arising during the Depression. The development of the Hindenburg had to be paused.
Money wasn’t to be a problem for long though, as rich benefactors lay in wait who were prepared to rescue the German Zeppelin company. But these weren’t just any ordinary financial backers; it was the Nazi party who had come to power in March of 1933.
The whole idea of financing the completion of the Hindenburg had come about when the Nazi Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, saw the potential of huge airships as being symbolic of German strength and technology.
He decided it would be beneficial to the Nazi party to donate the money to Eckener’s Zeppelin company to help complete the project.
This generous offer was despite Dr Eckener being vocal about his distaste for the Nazi party… which just goes to show; money talks.
There was one caveat though (isn’t there always when someone kindly gives you money)?
The Nazi Party insisted Eckener displayed the swastika on the fins of the Hindenburg… which is exactly what the bemused locals of Southampton and Portsmouth would have seen over their heads in July of 1936.
Below is a a “never before seen” photo of the Hindenburg flying over Southampton, but more of these photos later on….
The Hindenburg takes flight
The Hindenburg’s first flight was on March the 4th 1936. Eckener had always intended the airship be purely a passenger liner. But before this dream could be become reality, the Nazi Party wanted to use it for propaganda purposes.
And this is exactly what happened.
For several weeks, the party would drop political leaflets, make pro-Hitler announcements, and play rousing music over Germany from the hulking Hindenburg.
After this propaganda period, commercial flights would finally start on March the 31st of 1936. The Hindenburg eventually made 7 round trips to Rio in Brazil and a further 10 to the United States.
It was on one of these return flights from the US that the Hindenburg would be seen over the Solent. After leaving Lakehurst in New Jersey on July the 4th, the huge airship crossed the Atlantic.
When the huge airship reached Europe on July the 5th 1936, she started to travel along the English coastline at a top speed of 84 miles per hour.
Residents of Swansea. Ilfracombe, Minehead and Cardiff were amongst the first to see the airship. In news reports it was reported how the Hindenburg flew so low, that the name was clearly observed. It was also noted that the swastika signs on the fins of the airship were also clearly visible.
As the Hindenburg continued her journey over the Bristol Channel, she was witnessed over both the north and south shores. From the Bristol Channel the airship then steered east-south-east, passing over Chilmark (which had recently been acquired by the Air Ministry).
She would soon be observed in the skies over Bournemouth.
We were walking along Ringwood Road towards Bear Cross on the top of the hill at the time. Just as it started to slope down, you had a clear view. I could hear these diesel engines and this huge, silver airship came into view from our left. She was less than a mile from us. It was an incredible sight – she was quite beautiful.Alex Wesson, Bournemouth
By 7:30 p.m. the Hindenburg was getting closer to the Solent. She was then reportedly seen passing over Fordingbridge in the New Forest at an estimated height of just 200 feet.
Shortly after, the Hindenburg passed over Southampton docks. The local press reported how work was brought to a standstill as the dock employees downed tools and all looked up to see the immense airship.
Here’s how the Southern Daily Echo reported the Hindenburg flying over Southampton in the next day’s edition.
The airship passed along the south coast last evening and was plainly seen over Southampton. Thousands of eyes were lifted skywards when the approach of the air liner was noised abroad. She seemed to come overland, having apparently turned somewhat as she was skirting the English Channel. The Hindenburg’s coming caused great excitement in dockland. The Canadian Pacific liner Montrose had arrived from Montreal at about seven o’clock, and when the airship appeared, work was temporarily brought to a standstill.Southern Daily Echo, 1936
The noise of her engines also caused many residents to come out of their houses.
I can remember seeing the Hindenburg so well as it came across Cook’s Lane, making a very distinctive droning noise. The sight made quite an impression on me as it looked so sinister. It was a silvery grey colour and about 200 to 300 feet above the ground. It was such an awesome sight.Denis Pentlow, Bassett, Southampton
After passing over the docks and the city airport she travelled down and over Southampton Water, swastikas and all, before passing close to the Royal Air Force flying-boat base at Calshot. At RAF Calshot the Hindenburg was seen turning east towards Portsmouth.
As the Hindenburg approached Southsea, reports put her at an estimated height of 800 to 900 feet. Witnesses said how the sky was clear and the sun glistened and reflected off her silver fabric.
The Zeppelin airship then passed between Southsea Castle and Ryde on the Isle of Wight. With thousands of people watching from the Esplanade and beach at Eastney, she was seen to veer to the north. Those on Hayling Island reported seeing her at close quarters.
Such was the low altitude of the Hindenburg, that witnesses in Ryde reported seeing faces of passengers looking out of the gondolas.
But it was at this part of the journey that the Hindenburg’s route could have become problematic and caused political issues. This was due to a prohibited fly zone covering part of the naval dockyard in Portsmouth.
However, witnesses said that the Hindenburg deliberately changed course just enough as to not fly over the naval dockyard area.
This could suggest that the pilots of the Hindenburg were aware of the importance of their flight path and what was below them.
So, could the Hindenburg airship have been on a spying mission of military sites?
Well, we do know that during this unusual incursion into English airspace, the Hindenburg had passed over or near to three airports as well as the Southampton docks plus near to the Portsmouth naval dockyard… but more on the fallout from that shortly.
She was then later seen cruising at a low altitude westward in the direction of Brighton before climbing off into the clouds and resuming the expected flight path back to Germany.
Accusations of spying
It wasn’t long before the inquest started into the Hindenburg’s unexpected flight over Southampton and Portsmouth… some people suggested this could have been a spying mission.
The seriousness of the matter was evident, as within 48 hours, questions were asked in the House of Commons about why this had happened, and what steps would be taken to stop the Hindenburg flying over England again.
This wasn’t the first-time something like this had happened. The Hindenburg’s predecessor, the Graf Zeppelin, had famously flown over Wembley Stadium at the start of the second half of the 1930 FA Cup Final.
But it was the 5th of July flight over England’s south coast that had caused headlines, and not just in the UK. It had also become a topic of conversation on the other side of the Atlantic.
When the Hindenburg returned to the United States from Germany a week after her flight over Southampton and Portsmouth, the American press asked the Hindenburg commander, Captain Lehmann whether he had been spying.
He responded by saying:
Someone who wanted to hurt us invented that story. We avoid all prohibited military areas.”
So, whilst no direct allegations of spying were made by the British Government, the inferences can be drawn from the statements and questions being made in Parliament.
For example, one comment suggested how easy it would be for the officers of the Hindenburg to “easily observe the lie of the land”.
It’s very easy to see why spying could have been levelled at the Hindenburg given the political climate at the time.
And if you look at a straight-line path (shown below), flying over Southampton and Portsmouth is not a direct route to Frankfurt.
Yes, perhaps the excuse could be made that it was for sightseeing reasons for the wealthy passengers, but it was considerably off a direct course back to the German airfield.
Plus, we should also consider how in July of 1936, the Portsmouth Naval Dockyard would have been very busy with military activity.
Then of course, there’s the Woolston Supermarine factory in Southampton which could have started Spitfire production.
I will let you decide.
What is certain though, is that just three years later in 1939, a month before war was declared, the Graf Zeppelin II, an identical airship to the Hindenburg, flew up the East Coast of Britain on a mission to observe Britain’s new Chain Home Radar system at the Scapa Flow naval base.
Whilst the mission was not an outstanding success, it demonstrated how the Germans could, and probably had, used the Zeppelin airships for spying.
If anything, this was confirmed as once war broke out, the Germans had some fantastic aerial photography of local military establishments.
My own conclusion
I personally believe that by flying over the Southampton and Portsmouth docks, the Hindenburg did benefit the future German war effort.
But was the Hindenburg deliberately spying?
Well, that’s hard to say conclusively, but I am sure that the passengers, whether they were tourists or Nazi officials, were taking photographs. Those would have come in very handy come the outbreak of war in late 1939.
There are also some stories passed down from Southampton dock workers who claim that the Hindenburg flew so low, they could see passengers taking photographs. It’s impossible to verify that aspect though.
Either way, we all know how it ended for this magnificent airship.
In May 1937, the Hindenburg caught fire in the United States whilst attempting to dock at a New Jersey airfield. There were 35 fatalities and the accident resulted in many conspiracy theories about who was responsible for the disaster.
If you enjoyed this video about Hampshire’s rich aviation history, you might also enjoy my video documentary I made about the Drache. This was a helicopter captured by the Allies and brought over the English Channel – some say it’s still buried on the New Forest heathland.
I also wrote about it on my RAF Beaulieu blog.
I have also recently published research on the RAF Titchfield barrage balloon site from the Second World War.
Many thanks to the following:
- Fiona Theodoratos, Gill Child, and Rich Anderson for letting me use their photos.
- Image in header via Flickr.
- Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail – Tuesday 07 July 1936
- Portsmouth Evening News – Monday 06 July 1936
- The Scotsman – Thursday 09 July 1936
- Belfast Telegraph – Tuesday 14 July 1936
- Daily Herald – Monday 06 July 1936
- Western Morning News – Tuesday 14 July 1936
- Halifax Evening Courier – Thursday 09 July 1936