Max Konrad Johannes DIETRICH


Max DIETRICH(92), according to a brief biography 1 on a German airship website, was born on 27 Nov 1870 in Angermünde as the second youngest supposedly of sixteen children. One of his siblings was Louis Erich Otto DIETRICH, the father of Maria Magdalena DIETRICH, who later adopted the name Marlene. I do not know who Max's parents were. That he was the second youngest of sixteen is confirmed by the recollections of his daughter as reported in private communication by one of her Külken cousins. However, a website with information on Louis Erich Otto DIETRICH names his parents as Christian DIETRICH (1820-1898) and Ottilie Auguste Wilhemine (1829-1918). A tree on Ancestry takes the family back further, without clarifying much on original sources.

The German airship website says he grew up with his brothers in Prenzlau (in the Uckermark some 30 km north of Angermünde), and went to the Gymnasium (Highschool) there. It seems that he may have lived with a married older brother, a member of the Prussian parliament, and his wife. A possibility here is Hermann Adolph Christian DIETRICH (1856-1930), an older brother, lawyer, and member of the Prussian Parliament from 1898 to 1918, and who lived in Prenzlau2. The reason for this is said to be that their mother was old and perhaps had enough on her hands.

At the age of 17 (so in about 1887 or 8) he ran away from home and went to sea for a year. He received his training on the five-master Potosi, which must have been some time after 1895 when the Potosi was built. There is no information on what he was doing before this or on which ship he originally went to sea.

The barque Potosi under full

The image of the Potosi above is from an old postcard of unknown origin, and appears in the Wikipedia article linked above.

Afterwards was the captain of the three masted barque Bertha, possibly from 1899 when she was sold to Captain M. Dietrich, Hamburg3, though I doubt that Max bought the vessel. More likely the then owner appointed him the captain.

The barque Bertha under full

The above image is from the Malcolm Brodie shipping collection at the State Library of Victoria, Australia, and is a photograph of an earlier painting by an unknown artist.

On 17 Apr 1901 he entered the service of North German Lloyd, and became their youngest captain ever. From 1902 for six years he was Captain of the famous four masted barque "Herzogin Cecilie".

From 1910 he was Captain of the North German Lloyd steamship Mainz4, which led to his first contact with Count Zeppelin. This came during an expedition in the summer of that year to Spitzbergen (the Zeppelin-Hergesell expedition). The purpose of this expedition was, amongst other things, to investigate the possibility of reaching the North Pole by airship. Originally it had been planned for the expedition to charter the steamer Poseidon, belonging to the German Ministry of the Interior and equipped for scientific work, but it proved too small for the number of people taking part. A way out was offered by Hr Heinicken, Director of North German Lloyd, who offered the Mainz, not at the time an a voyage, at a very reasonable rate, and also offered to equip the ship suitably for the expedition, which included the Crown Prince Heinrich and various of his hangers on. The offer was accepted, even though the Mainz was not suited to work in sea ice (a separate vessel from Norway was used for this).

The expedition started with the arrival of the Mainz at Kiel on 30 Jun 1910 to take on board the members of the expedition and their equipment5. They departed from Kiel on 2 Jul 1910, passing through the Kiel Canal to the mouth of the Elbe then north to the west coast of Norway, calling at Bergen, where they stayed for the best part of two days, Trondheim, Narvik and Tromsø, where they arrived on 11 Jul. Leaving on 13 Jul, they headed out to Bear Island, a dot between Norway and Spitzbergen where they indulged in a minor massacre of sea birds.

As they approached Spitzbergen they detoured out to the west to avoid the many ice floes and approached the Isfjord, the largest of the westerly facing fjords, which they entered on 16 Jul. They spent time there and in various of the tributary fjords, often it seems more sightseeing than scientific work. While this was going on, Max took one of the smaller craft north to the Kongsfjorden to take soundings and find a good anchorage. So in due course they moved the Mainz to Kongsfjorden, anchoring just off where the settlement of Ny-Ålesund now is.

In commemoration of this expedition, there is a small island off Ny-Ålesund on the south side of Kongsfjorden (Kings Bay) on the east side of Spitzbergen (Svalbard) called Dietrichholmen, and for that matter a nearby headland immediately east of Ny-Ålesund called Mainzodden. This information comes from a Norwegian website. Ny-Ålesund was founded after 1910, so was not there at the time of the expidition. It was originally a coal mining settlement, but is nowadays a centre for a range of international research stations.

Max Dietrich and Graf
  Zeppelin on board the Mainz

Later they moved into the Krossfjord, on the northern side of Kongsfjord, and into the long western branch, the Lillieshookfjord. From there they steamed north to find the limit of the pack ice, which they recorded at 80° 14.5' north. They headed back to Spitzbergen and anchored in the Magdalenafjord. They tried sailing eastward along the north coast of Spitzbergen, but soon encountered the pack ice and turned back. Proceeding then generally southward, revisiting Kongsfjorden, and once again having to detour westwards to avoid sea ice, they recrossed the arctic circle on 19 Aug and reached the Kiel Canal early on 24 Aug 1910.

On 04 Oct 1910 Max DIETRICH is said to have taken over the SS Großer Kurfürst, (not to be confused with the German warships of the same name). You can see a postcard picture of her on the Simplon Postcards website. A potted history of the ship can be found by scrolling down on a Furtune City website. There is no clear confirmation that he was the captain of the SS Großer Kurfürst, and when the ship was involved in rescuing the passengers of the emingrant ship Volturno on 9 Oct 1913, the Captain was named as Spangenberg. There is, however, a reference to a surviving passenger list for a voyage from Bremen to New York which departed Bremen on 8 Nov 1913 with the captain names as M. Dietrich6.

At the outbreak of WWI in Aug 1914 he was with the Grosser Kurfurst in New York and the ship was impounded. According to Rimell (1984), as captain of the SS Brandenburg, Dietrich sailed from America and reached Germany despite the British blockade. He was awarded the Iron Cross (2nd class) to celebrate this escapade (below it appears that the award may in fact have been the Order of the Red Eagle, or perhaps both). A partial list of the voyages of the SS Brandenburg is given on a German History, Heraldry and Genealogy website, but there is no mention of command or crew.

  Max Dietrich thumbnail  
Max Dietrich(92)

According to a list extracted from the Rank Lists (Ranglisten) of the KDM (Kaiserliche Deutschen Marine) sent me through the kind offices of the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge e.V., already on 01 Oct 1893 he joined the German Navy as a reservist, though I do not know what this may have entailed. On 18 Aug 1897 he was gazetted as a Acting Sub-Lieutenant (Unter-Leutnant zur See), and the same day as Sub- Lieutenant (Leutnant zur See) of the Reserve. On 18 Jun 1900 he was gazetted as Oberleutnant zur See der Reserve (still more or less equivalent to a Sub-lieutenant), and on 10 Nov 1906 as Kapitänleutnant der Reserve (equivalent to a full Lieutenant), the rank he retained until his death in action in 1916. At precisely what point in his life, following his encounter with Graf Zeppelin he became involved with airships and part of the German Naval Airship Division is not at present clear.

Rimell (1984) says that Dietrich commanded in succession the L7, L18, L21 and L34. In the L7, from its base at Tondern, Dietrich was part of a patrol sent out in August 1915 but which was unable to provide any effective assitance to the German auxiliary cruiser Meteor, trapped by a British naval force on its way back from minelaying at Cromarty (the Meteor, finding itself trapped,was scuttled). Dietrich's command of the L18 was brief. The airship was commissioned on 06 Nov 1915, and was destroyed in its shed at Tondern on 17 Nov when an explosion occurred when a gas cell was being topped up (Whitehouse, p125). Rimell (1985) describes four raids in which zeppelins commanded by Max Dietrich took part, on Jan 31/Feb 1 and May 2/3 1916 in the L21, and Oct 1 and 27/28 Nov 1916 in the L34 which he took over on 27 Sep 1916. Often the Zeppelin commanders had no idea where they were. During the raid on Jan 31/Feb 1 Dietrich reported that he had bombed Liverpool, when in fact he had been over Birmingham. There is also a description of the zeppelin raid of 31 Jan 1916, on the library website of Brigham Young University, and another By Tom Morgan.

The raid during which Max Dietrich and his crew lost their lives was that of the night of 27/28 Nov 1916. According to the story as told by Rimell (1984), around midday on the 27th, Max Dietrich was celebrating his 46th birthday at lunch with two fellow officers of the German Naval Airship Division at the Kasino in Nordholz. The previous days there had been no possibility of operations due to bad weather, but the lunch was interrupted by the news that orders had been recieved for an attack on the English Midlands and that the first airship must be in the air by one o'clock at the latest. During that afternoon ten Zeppelins left their bases, including the L34 commanded by Dietrich. Over the North Sea they flew through cloud, but towards evening the sky cleared and they flew under the bright stars with the Aurora Borealis lighting up the northern horizon. Slow progress was made due to stiff headwinds and it was 22.30 hrs before L34 was over Blackhall Rocks, just north of Hartlepool. Dietrich headed inland over Castle Eden and was then caught by the searchlight at Hutton Henry. Dietrich dropped 13 bombs without any effect, but managed to elude the light. He then decided to turn back, passing over West Hartlepool where he dropped a further 16 bombs. However, he had made the mistake of flying at only 9500ft, and consequently was unable to evade a BE2c up from nearby Seaton Carew airfield. The BE2c was a biplane, not particularly well regarded by aircrew but nevertheless built in large numbers. It had a ceiling of around 11,000ft, and although it must have been spotted by the crew of the L34, which started to climb, and pull away. The BE2c was armed with a Lewis gun, and was able to press home its attack until the Zeppelin caught fire and within minutes was completely ablaze. The burning wreckage fell into the sea about 1800yds east of the Heugh lighthouse.

A description of this raid is also given on a Hartlepool Website. In 1987 a photograph was published in the Hartlepool Mail said to show the last minutes of Zeppelin L34 as it plunged in flames into Tees Bay off Hartlepool on 27 Nov 1916.

According to information provided by the Rank Lists of the Imperial German Navy, in 1914 Dietrich was awarded the Roter-Adler Orden, 4. Klasse (Order of the Red Eagle, 4th class, a Prussian decoration), and this was probably on account of his breaking the British blockade. Later, in 1916 he was awarded the Iron Cross, 1st class and Das Ritterkreuz 1. Klasse mit Schwerten des herzoglich Sachsen - Ernestinischen Hausordens. These decorations may have been posthumous.

On 17 Jun 1903 he married Alwine Lucie KÜULKEN(93), the wedding being celebrated at the Hannover Hotel in Geestemünde. Max and Alwine had two children:

Children of Max Dietrich(92) and Alwine Külken(93)

Name Notes
Luise Ottilie Dietrich(91) Born at Bremerhaven on 01 Jun 1907. I hope that eventually a thorough description of her life will be written, perhaps by an immediate family member. She died on 18 Mar 2001, and her ashes were interred on 06 Apr 2001 in the ground of the Scherer family chapel in the graveyard at Maria- Schöndorf in Vöcklabruck, Upper Austria. She had seven children, of whom four died before her.
Christian Dietrich(1208) Born on 28 Apr 1909, presumably at Bremerhaven. He married Barbara Bühlmeyer (1914-1999) and they had issue. He worked for Daimler-Benz and during WW2 was involved in the development of aero engines, probably at Berlin-Marienfelde. After the war, with the strict controls on what might be manufactured under the Morgenthau Plan, interest was revived in the idea of a vehicle which could be used in agriculture. In June 1946 Christian was made head of a then small experimental and production development section for what later became called the UNIMOG. From 1951, when Daimler-Benz were allowed to take over manufacture, the UNIMOG was produced at their Gaggenau plant in Baden-Württemberg, until production was finally shifted to Wörth in mid-2002. Christian died on 12 Jan 1983, and was buried at the Waldfriedhof in Gaggenau.


2) see the German Wikipedia on him. Neither this article, nor any of the links, contain any information on his parents, though they do mention that he was related to Max and to Marlene.
3) This statement comes from a website illustrating the supposed figurehead of the Bertha, which is located near Otterswick in Shetland. The Bertha was wrecked off Shetland in 1916. The Bertha was a steel barque built in 1892 at Grangemouth for Joh. H. Soost of Hamburg. In 1899 she sailed from Rio de Janiearo fo Tocopilla in northern Chile. The voyage took 43 days. In 1899/1900 the Bertha returned from Tocopilla, presumably having loaded saltpetre, and reached Lizard Point in 91 days. Both voyages I would guess under Max Dietrich.
4) The S/S Mainz was built in 1897 at Geestemünde by J. C. Tecklenborg, and was owned by Norddeutscher Lloyd, Bremen. She was 3204 gross tons, and measured 93m by 13m. She normally was used on routes to South America.
5) Mit Zeppelin nach Spitzbergen: Bilder von der Studienreise der deutschen arktischen Zeppelin-Expedition, by Adolf Miethe and Hugo Hergesell, Berlin, 1911. Facsimile edition by Adamant Media Corporation, 2005.
6) This is from a website which lists surviving passenger lists from generally immigrant voyages in the Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives, folio NGL-PL01. This particular list has not been transcribed.

© John Stowell 2014             This file last edited on 5 February 2016.