by Ian Nutley

edited by Richard Saundry

The German airmail service to South America by Deutsche Lufthansa established in 1934 was a very successful commercial undertaking and by 1937 was an integral part of a regular twice-weekly service to Brazil in co-operation with Air France. In general the Lufthansa service departed Frankfurt-am-Main each Thursday whilst an Air France machine left every Sunday.

Before embarking on the trans-South Atlantic stage, Lufthansa made use of the airport at Leshwang, in the Gambia. It was here that a setback occurred in March 1937, when disaster befell the German Heinkel He 111 “Rostock” (D-ALIX) as it was preparing to land at the end of its flight from Las Palmas. The facts, as far as are known, are detailed in a letter from H R Oke, the Acting Governor in Bathurst, to the Right Honourable W.G.A. Ormsby-Gore PC MP, the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London, dated 19 March 1937.

Fig. 1. Airmail cover Hamburg to Rio de Janeiro, recovered from the crash of the “Rostock”.  “ACCIDENT D’AVIATION” cachet applied on board the depot ship “Ostmark”.

Carrying a large mail cargo for addresses in West Africa and South America, the “Rostock” arrived over Bathurst at about 2:10 a.m. on Friday 12 March. The aircraft circled widely three times round Bathurst, “some 200 or 300 feet about the houses”. It woke many people who saw the navigation lights. Finally it was seen and heard flying SE over the harbour, after which it was lost to sight and sound. The Lufthansa catapult ship “Ostmark” was in radio communication with the aircraft, which was flown by Alfred Viereck, with Richard Rebbentrost, 2nd. pilot, and W/T operator Kurt Bichner. Also on board, returning to his duties after leave, was the “Ostmark’s” Second Officer, Hans Hemmann.

Fig. 2. Belgian airmail cover to Petropolis, Brazil. An example of Foreign Contract Mails recovered from the crash of the “Rostock”.

Some short while after the non-appearance of the Heinkel at Jeshwang, a Lufthansa ‘plane began searching the river estuary area, and a DLH launch was sent to explore the surface. At about 10.30 the first pieces of wreckage were found in the river some miles SE of Government Wharf. During the course of the day, some 24 mail bags, 30 loose packages of letters and various parts of the machine were picked up. The four occupants were never found. The mail recovered represented some 90% of the original mail cargo. Some dispute arose over the mail as it was recovered by the DLH launch, and apart from that with West African addresses, was taken aboard the catapult ship “Ostmark” to be dried off and despatched to South America with minimum delay. This occurred before the Receiver-General was notified and a complaint was lodged with the Lufthansa Resident Agent, who replied that the forwarding of the South American mail as soon as possible was his first priority. The Acting Governor was anxious to convene a Board of Enquiry, but this presented difficulties as no aeronautical expert was in the Gambia at the time and as far as I can gather no such Board was ever convened.

Fig. 3. Example of mail recovered from the crash of the “Rostock” addressed to an unusual destination. On arrival in Guayaquil, Ecuador was struck with st. line “ENCONTRADA COME SE VE” (= “Found in this State”). NB. The condition of this cover precluded production of a clearer illustration.

The recovered mail was forwarded to Brazil on the evening of March 12th on a Dornier “Wal” catapulted from the depot-ship “Ostmark”. Much of the mail was marked on board before despatch with a single-line unframed, upper-case cachet “ACCIDENT D’AVIATION”. (Fig. 1). Foreign contract mail was being carried and a cover from Belgium (Fig. 2) is shown. In addition, some mail was marked on arrival in Brazil with a two-line unframed cachet in upper case “ACCIDENT DE AVIAO”. Mail to Argentina had a label affixed upon arrival, upon which was typed “Recibida Completamente Mojada / Por Accidente del Avion / Certificados (B) / 15 / 3 / 37”. Not all the salvaged mail was so marked, but a cover to a very unusual destination is illustrated; to Ecuador, the poor state of the cover resulted in the Post Office in Guayaquil marking it: “ENCONTRADA COME SE VE”, best translated as “Found in this state”.

This sad episode did nothing to deter the Germans from continuing to operate a most successful service, which continued weekly until it had to be terminated in 1939 due to the outbreak of war.

reproduced from Air Mail News Vol 43 No 170 August 2000
published by 
The British Aerophilatelic Federation