Ernst Lehmann was born on May 12, 1886 at Ludwigshafen am Rhein, a town on the Rhine river directly across from Mannheim, and close to Worms and Heidelberg.
By age 19 he had joined the Navy, serving on a cadet training ship, and he was commissioned a Reserve Lieutenant. Lehmann also continued his studies, and received an engineering degree from the Berlin-Charlottenburg Technical University in 1912.
During the remainder of 1913 and most of 1914, Lehmann commanded Sachsen on its numerous passenger flights, mostly local sightseeing flights from Oos (Baden-Baden), Leipzig, and Hamburg.
Lehmann was in the control car of Sachsen on July 31, 1914 when he was given a telegram from the War Ministry ordering him to remain within 50 kilometers; the outbreak of war was imminent.
In August, with the beginning of World War I, Sachsen was taken over by the Army, and although Lehmann was a Naval officer, he was left in command of the ship. Lehmann and Eckener used Sachsen as a training ship; their most important student was Peter Strasser, who would lead the German Navy’s airship program through the war, until his death in a zeppelin raid on England in August, 1918.
Although primarily used as a training ship, Sachsen was fitted with bomb racks and machine guns, and Lehmann took the ship on bombing attacks against targets in Belgium, England and France.
Lehmann spent the war commanding several Army airships, including Z-XII (builder # LZ-26), which Lehmann fitted with an observation basket (sometimes called a “cloud car”) which could be lowered from the ship; LZ-90 (builder # LZ-60); LZ-98 (builder # LZ-68); and LZ-120 (LZ-120).
After the war Lehmann worked at the Zeppelin Company in Friedrichshafen, with temporary assignments in Sweden and America developing plans for passenger transportation lines, and in 1923 he moved to Akron, Ohio as Vice President of Engineering for the newly-formed Goodyear-Zeppelin joint venture.
Lehmann served under Eckener as an officer on the transatlantic delivery flight of LZ-126, which became the U.S. Navy airship Los Angeles; Lehmann joined Eckener and the other crew members for the ticker-tape parade in New York celebrating the crossing, and at a White House reception where Lehmann met United States President Calvin Coolidge.
Lehmann later served under Eckener on most of the important flights of LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin, and was often in command of Graf Zeppelin himself.
Lehmann was known as an enthusiastic musician and often entertained airship passengers with his accordion or played the lightweight duralumin piano installed in the Hindenburg’s lounge during the 1936 season.
While Hugo Eckener was deeply troubled by the rise of National Socialism and became known as an opponent of the regime, Ernst Lehmann did not share Eckener’s hostility to the Nazis, and in return for his cooperation with the Nazi Party, Lehmann was given the leadership of the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei and airship operations.
Less than three weeks after Hindenburg’s first flight, and just days before the ship’s first ocean crossing, Lehmann cancelled important flight tests to accommodate a request by the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda for Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelin to make a joint three day propaganda flight in support of Adolf Hitler. Lehmann even insisted on making the flight despite unfavorable weather conditions on the day of the takeoff, and Hindenburg’s lower fin was damaged in the predictable accident that followed. Hugo Eckener harshly and openly criticised Lehmann for endangering the brand new ship, and the entire zeppelin program, to curry favor with the Nazis.
Despite his support of the Hitler regime, however, Lehmann never actually joined the Nazi Party. (Only two of the seven active zeppelin commanders were Party members, Max Pruss and Anton Wittemann; Captain Walter Ziegler was also a member of the NSDAP, but never actually commanded a zeppelin.)
Lehmann often served as commander of Hindenburg, but he was onboard as an observer during its final flight, which was commanded by Max Pruss. There is some reason to believe that Lehmann may have exercised de facto operational control during Hindenburg’s final landing maneuver (since there was an apparent re-ordering of roles as compared to typical DZR procedure), and that he may have therefore been somewhat responsible for the disaster, but the truth may never be known.
Lehmann sustained serious injuries in the during the Hindenburg’s crash; his back was badly burned from his neck to his spine, and he was taken to Paul Kimball Hospital where he died the next day. Before dying, Lehmann told American airship officer and Lakehurst commander Charles Rosendahl that he believed Hindenburg must have been destroyed by an “infernal machine” (Hollenmaschine), presumably referring to a bomb or other sabotage device, or possibly a shot fired from the ground.
Ernst Lehmann’s casket lay in state with those of other German victims of the disaster at Pier 86 in New York City before being returned to Germany for burial.