LZ-134 Manfred von Richthofen
After the Hindenburg disaster in 1937 the German zeppelin programme was halted. It was soon realized however that the zeppelin was too useful to discard. The anger towards the USA who refused to sell Helium gas to Germany was great and the German government was determined to show that it didn't need the USA. A programme to produce Helium in Germany was started and in 1938 the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin was flown on Helium for the first time.
The German Luftwaffe was very interested in zeppelins because of the long range they offered. In 1938 a new class of zeppelin was conceived that would be able to carry conventional aircraft. The LZ-131 was a Hindenburg class airship with an internal hangar from which aircraft could be launched. The construction was not unlike the US aircraft carrying zeppelins Akron and Macon. Recovery of the aircraft as via a trapeze under the zeppelin. This proved very difficult however and many aircraft were lost.
The next generation of German airships was the "aces" class consisting of the LZ-133 "Werner Voss", LZ-134 "Manfred von Richthofen" and LZ-135 "Erich L÷wenhardt". The LZ-132 was a design for a large passenger carrying zeppelin that was never built.
The LZ-133 first flew in January 1939 followed soon after by the LZ-134 and LZ-135. These zeppelins featured an aircraft carrier style landing deck on the top of the fuselage where aircraft could take off and land. Because of the extra weight on top, the zeppelins were much wider than the round cross section of the Hindenburg class. The aircraft carried by the zeppelins were Messerschmitt Me-109Ds at first and Junkers Ju-87Bs.
The airships were used in reconnaissance in 1940 and patrols over the North Sea and Atlantic ocean. When the war started LZ-135 was shot down by RAF Hurricane fighters. Although the zeppelins were difficult to shoot down, the slow speed gave the Hurricanes ample opportunity to shoot it from the air. After this the two remaining airships were pulled from the UK front and used for patrols over the Atlantic. The LZ-133 flew from Norway and LZ-134 was based in France.
The two air carriers proved invaluable against the Atlantic convoys during 1940 and 1941. The Stukas from the airships sank many allied ships. When in 1942 the escort carriers started accompanying the convoys life for the airships became much more dangerous however and they were used less and less.
During a violent storm in March 1942 contact was lost with the LZ-133 on patrol near Iceland. It was never heard from again and its exact fate remains unknown until now. LZ-134 was shot down over the Gulf of Biscay in September 1942.
Plans for two even larger zeppelin air carriers remained on the drawing board, making LZ-134 the last German zeppelin airship.