30 May 2023


Lost Capitol Hill: A Zeppelin Story

Along with Hill history, I have long been fascinated by airships and have managed to combine those two interests at times. And along the way, I have also been researching and writing about one particular airship flight–– one that has absolutely nothing to do with Capitol Hill, unfortunately. It was a record-breaking flight of 101 hours made by the German army airship LZ-120 in 1917. While sold to the powers that be that this flight was to show the value of Zeppelins in reconnaissance, the real reason it was done was to prove that lighter than air ships could make it all the way across the Atlantic.

The man behind this flight, who also captained the airship in its flight, was Ernst August Lehmann, who had been a Zeppelin captain before the war, and would later be in charge of the most famous Zeppelins, Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg. He would, in fact, die of injuries sustained in the last flight of the latter.

Also on board during the 101 hour flight was a young physics professor from Berlin named Robert Wichard Pohl. You may notice a certain similarity between his and my name: it is indeed my grandfather. He had gotten to know Lehmann while outfitting German army airships with radio direction finding equipment, but this time, he was along solely as a passenger.

While I never spoke to him about this famous flight, he fortunately left behind a huge number of letters written to his mother, including a lengthy one written while on board LZ-120’s flight. It is this letter, plus parts of other letters concerning his service during the First World War, that form the basis of the book. Since the letters were written in a system of handwriting not taught since the 1930s, they all had to be transcribed so I could read them, a labor of love done by Robert Otto Pohl, RWP’s son and my father.

Control car of German navy Zeppelin L-18. Robert Wichard Pohl can be seen standing in the door. He is on the left. (Pohl family archive)

Beyond the chapters based on the letters, there are sections devoted to the history of airship distance records, attempts to fly across the Atlantic, the technology behind radio direction finding and the difficulties faced by those who wanted to implement trans-Atlantic flight.

This book has been many years in coming ––I have been working on it for about 15 years–– and am pleased that Schiffer Military Publishing have chosen to publish it.

The official publish date is May 28, but the real release will occur on Friday at East City Books. Join me and local historian Tim Krepp for a conversation about the book and the people behind it. Make sure to click on link and then register with Eventbrite to secure your spot, and to give our friends at East City a better idea of how many folks to expect on Friday!

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