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For Germany's Imperial Navy Airship Division, the year 1918 started with a bang, quite literally. On January 5, 1918 a series of progressively larger explosions rocked the airbase. It all started with a fire in shed number one, 'Aladin', a shed that had been host to a number of accidents, and was considered jinxed by the airship crews stationed at Ahlhorn.
The ships stationed at Ahlhorn had been kept in a ready to fly state, awaiting a break in the weather; they were fully fueled, and full of hydrogen. Shortly after 5 pm a fire broke out under the rear gondola of the L-51, housed in shed one. The fire heated the hydrogen in the gas bags, causing it to expand, and escape through the automatic valves into the shed. Soon the fire spread, valving gas from her shed-mate, the L-47, and within minutes the mixture of oxygen and hydrogen in the shed exploded. Moments later shed number two, 'Albert', caught fire and exploded more violently than shed one. Forty seconds later, half a mile across the landing field, sheds three and four, 'Alix' and 'Alrun' exploded in quick succession. The blast was so violent that the only thing left standing was the south door frame of shed three. The blast was heard in nearby Oldenburg, and Bremen, 40 km away...they even felt the pressure wave.
Much about the disaster remains speculation. The cause of the fire in shed one has never been explained, though the likely cause was guessed at. Why Alix and Alrun exploded so violently, and how the fire even reached them is not entirely known, but Peter Strasser (overseer of the Airship Division) theorized that the blast wave from the first two sheds (and perhaps broken window glass) buffeted the gas bags in the ships housed in sheds 3 and 4, causing them to tear and valve gas, embers from the first explosion ignited the mixture. If this theory is correct, it certainly explains why these two sheds detonated with such force. Hydrogen only burns in the presence of oxygen, the more hydrogen in the mix, the more violent the reaction. By the time these sheds were ignited, the mixture within was probably well saturated with hydrogen. Initially sabotage was suspected, though no evidence supported this, and the disaster was considered an unfortunate accident.
5 airships were lost in the disaster, L-51, L-47, L-58, L-46, and SL 20. Sheds 1 and 2 were repairable, 3 and 4 were demolished, and the unfinished sheds 5 and 6 were both damaged. Because the accident happened as operations were closing for the day, casualties were minimal. The human toll was 10 dead, 30 severely wounded, and 104 with minor injuries. The disaster left Ahlhorn crippled, and it has been said that Strasser never got over it.
Like my previous airship base, a site plan and lots of reference photos were used to paint this, although in this case I had more complete coverage of the base. Many of these buildings survived two world wars, and still stand today. I used modern color photographs of these buildings, photos taken of the aftermath of the disaster, some taken of the base before the disaster, and a modern satellite image of the area. The individual buildings of the village of Ahlhorn is merely speculation, I had no references for the buildings beyond the confines of the base, but nearly all the rest of the buildings were at least visible
in one or more shots, or appear in modern photos of them.
The Ahlhorn area is home to some other interesting tidbits of history as well, several prehistoric tombs are nearby, the Richtofen Squadron (Jagdgeschwader 71) was formed at the Ahlhorn airbase in 1959, the Wildeshauser Geest nature preserve is nearby as well, incorporating historical man-made lakes once used as fish farms.
Enjoy my artwork! I welcome comments and questions