Aircraft in the German Colonies

 
     
 

After the Wright brothers historic flight in 1903 and later demonstrations in Europe, the military potential of manned aircraft was obvious to all the major powers. Yet it was only in early 1914 that Germany sent its first pilots and aeroplanes to the colonies. The First World War broke out a few short months after their arrival and they were pressed into action with little experience, no weapons and very few spare parts.


Bruno Büchner's Otto Pfalz Biplane over East Africa 1914
Photo by Walther Dobbertin from Bundesarchiv / WikiCommons

The Air War over the Colonies

German East Africa
A civilian pilot, Bruno Büchner, was the first pilot to fly in German Africa. He was sponsored by a confectionary company, Rudolf Hertzog, to take part in various air shows in Africa with an Otto/AGO pusher biplane made by Pfalz (a "pusher" biplane is one that is "pushed" by its propeller from behind as opposed to one being "pulled" by a propeller in front as later became standard). He first stopped off in German South West Africa in May 1914 to fly several displays, then travelled to German East Africa to fly shows there but the events were cancelled by the outbreak of the First World War. In August 1914 he, his mechanic and the biplane were incorporated into the Schutztruppe.

During one of the first reconnaissance missions over the Northern coastline of German East Africa Büchner was shot down by a British gunboat. He managed to land on the coast but was badly injured and the plane severely damaged. Both were out of action. The plane was repaired at Dar-Es-Salaam and Büchner's place was taken by Oberleutnant Erich Henneberger, a Schutztruppe officer who had previously passed his pilot's test in Germany. Before he saw action he crashed during a test flight and was killed. His observer, Leutnant der Reserve von Gusmann, was badly injured and the plane again was wrecked.


Büchner's Biplane after its conversation with to a Seaplane, East Africa 1914
Photo by Walther Dobbertin from Bundesarchiv / WikiCommons

This time the plane was rebuilt on floats as a seaplane to assist the SMS Königsberg in time for Büchner's recovery from his injuries. Soon however, petrol supplies ran low and the plane was dismantled. The engine was later used to power a flatbed railway carriage for a brief time.

German South West Africa
When Büchner sallied to German South West Africa, two other pilots were onboard the same ship sent to form a new Schutztruppe air force. One was Leutnant Alexander von Scheele, an army pilot who was appointed to command the new Schutztruppe air force, the other was Willy Trück, an Aviatik factory pilot. A third pilot, the Austro-Hungarian, Paul Fiedler, joined them shortly after.

They had two aeroplanes between them, an Aviatik and a Roland, both biplanes. Trück and Fiedler initially performed test flights on the aircraft under the supervision of Scheele and it was reported that neither aircraft was particularly fit for flight in the the climate of South West Africa. Before the aeroplanes could be replaced however, war broke out and they were pressed into service.

Von Scheele now took over the role of piloting the Aviatik from Trück, while Fiedler flew the Roland. Both pilots flew many sorties over South African lines during the campaign, gaining valuable information on enemy troop movements (Fiedler was also a keen and useful photographer) and dropping bombs on enemy positions. Both pilots were injured and both planes were damaged to various extents throughout the campaign by crashes and enemy gunfire often meaning their grounding for weeks at a time. The last mission was flown by von Scheele in May 1915. The Schutztruppe surrendered in July and both planes were destroyed before falling into enemy hands.


One of the Schutztruppe Biplanes in South West Africa 1914
Photo from Tsumeb Museum / WikiCommons

Tsingtao
The first German pilot in Tsingtao was Franz Oster with his privately purchased Rumpler Taube monoplane. Although he was not a military or naval pilot his aircraft impressed the visiting Prince Heinrich of Prussia and the naval command in Tsingtao. In July 1914 the imperial navy sent two aeroplanes to Tsingtao. Both aeroplanes were again Rumpler Taube monoplanes. The pilots were Gunter Plüschow and Friedrich Müllerskowski. Müllerskowski was badly injured and his aeroplane wrecked in a test flight in July 1914 leaving Plüschow as the only active pilot with an aeroplane in Tsingtao when war broke out.

During the Siege of Tsingtao he ran spotting missions over the Japanese lines and claimed to have shot down a Japanese aeroplane with his pistol. When the garrison surrendered and went into captivity he was ordered to escape by flying his aeroplane into neutral China, where he crash landed and started an epic journey back to Germany.

Cameroon
Two aeroplanes, a Rumpler Taube monoplane and a Jeannin monoplane (probably also a Taube design) were sent to the Schutztruppe in Cameroon during 1914. They arrived just before the outbreak of war and were still unassembled in their packing crates when they were captured by British troops. The two pilots designated to fly these planes,
Jasper von Oertzen and Eugen Kirch had not yet left Germany. The airfield to which they had not yet been delivered was being built at Garua in the North of the colony by Hans Surén, a Schutztruppe officer who had previously passed his pilot's test in Germany. The captured aeroplanes were sent, still cased, to assist the newly formed South African air force but did not see action.

The Flyers
This is a list of all the known pilots and aircrew either in the colonies or intended for use in the colonies. Not all actually flew in action. All were qualified pilots with previous flying experience in Germany or Austria-Hungary (with the exception of von Gusmann who flew briefly as an observer in East Africa). Curiously not all these pilots appear on the official list of the 817 military and civilian pilots who qualified in Germany before the outbreak of the First World War (as seen on the Frontflieger.de and Autoveteranen.de websites), though some such as Henneberger and Plüschow are clearly seen in pre-war photographs wearing their army (or navy) pilot's badges on their left breast.

German East Africa

Bruno Büchner (1881-1948) was born in Ebersach, Saxony. He gained his pilot's licence (No. 53) in 1911. He was a civilian pilot who sailed with his wife to Africa to perform flying displays for the National Exhibitions in Windhoek and Dar-Es-Salaam. When the war broke out he offered his services to the Schutztruppe of German East Africa (as described above). Büchner and his wife were interned by the British in East Africa during the war where he suffered from malaria. After the war he returned to Germany and bought land on the Obersalzberg Mountain including Berchtesgaden, which he sold to Adolf Hitler in 1938.


Büchner with his Biplane and an Askari Guard, East Africa 1914
Photo by Walther Dobbertin from Bundesarchiv / WikiCommons

Oberleutnant Erich Henneberger (18__-1914) became an army officer in 1907, originally with the rank of Leutnant. After passing his pilot's test he was transferred to the East African Schutztruppe in June 1914. When Büchner was recovering from wounds received when shot down by a British gunboat, Henneberger took his place as German East Africa's only pilot. However, before he saw action, he crashed and was killed during a test flight in November 1914.

Leutnant der Reserve Wilhelm Gutzmer von Gusmann (18__-1917) was Henneberger's observer, he was injured in Henneberger's fatal crash in 1914 but later made a full recovery in hospital. He then fought with the Schutztruppe until he died of wounds received at the Battle of Mahenge in June 1917.

German South West Africa

Leutnant Alexander von Scheele (18__-1939) was an army officer who passed his pilot's test (No. 169) in 1912. In 1914 he was appointed to command the new Schutztruppe air force. He flew many combat and reconnaissance missions over South African lines during the war in an Aviatik biplane (see above). In May 1915 he was injured in a crash and did not recover to fly again before the end of the campaign. He was kept as a prisoner of war at Okahandja until the end of the war. He initially emigrated to Argentina before returning to Germany to join the Luftwaffe where he attained the rank of Oberst. He was killed while flying as a passenger in an air accident in Spain shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Leutnant Paul Fiedler (18__-1955) joined the Austro-Hungarian army in 1903. He was promoted to the rank of Leutnant der Reserve in 1909 and retired into civilian life. In 1910 he passed his pilot's licence (No. 19 in the Austro-Hungarian system). He sailed to German South West Africa to fly test flights for the early Schutztruppe air force. In August 1914 he was conscripted into the Schutztruppe with the rank of Leutnant. He flew many combat and reconnaissance missions over South African lines during the war In a Roland biplane (see above). After the surrender of German South West Africa, Fiedler along with other non-regular members of the Schutztruppe gave his word not to take up arms against the Entente and was released on parole. Following the war he briefly returned to Austria, then again to South West Africa where he managed a farm until 1926 when he again returned to Europe.


Bombardment of South African troops by Paul Fielder's Roland Biplane, South West Africa 1914
Photo by Paul Fielder from Koloniales Bildarchiv / WikiCommons

Willy Trück (1889-1981) was an Aviatik factory pilot, having passed his pilot's licence in February 1914 (No. 658), he sailed to German South West Africa to fly test flights in the Aviatik aircraft for the early Schutztruppe air force. In August 1914 he was conscripted into the Schutztruppe, although von Scheele took over the piloting of the Aviatik in wartime. After the surrender of German South West Africa, Trück along with other non-regular members of the Schutztruppe gave his word not to take up arms against the Entente and was released on parole. Following the war Trück stayed on in South West Africa as a businessman, pilot and farmer. He died in Cape Town in 1981.

Hauptmann Konrad Pueschel (1879 -__) was first commissioned as a Leutnant in the 3rd Brandenburg Field Artillery Regt in 1898, transferred to the 39th Kurmark Field Artillery Regt in 1900 and then to the I. Artillerie Abteilung of the South West African Schutztruppe from 1904-08. For his service in the Herero Rebellion he was awarded the Prussian Crown Order 4th Class with Swords. He returned home to serve in the 24th Holstein Field Artillery Regt with the rank of Oberleutnant. He passed his pilots licence (No. 64) in 1911 and soon after returned to service in South West Africa as an inspection officer for the Landespolizei with the rank of Hauptmann (from 1912). Although he never flew there he was a strong supporter of the idea that the Schutztruppe needed aircraft. He returned to Germany on leave in April 1914 and was prevented from returning to Africa by the outbreak of the First World War.

Tsingtao

Franz Oster (1869-1933) was born in Bad Honnef, near Bonn but had lived in Tsingtao since 1899 as an engineer and factory owner. In 1911 he passed his pilots licence (No. 94) and privately purchased a Rumpler Taube monoplane, shipping it to Tsingtao the following year. His debut flight was not until July 1913 but as such he was the first pilot to fly in Tsingtao and in all of the German overseas territories. He did not fly combat missions during the siege of Tsingtao but he was made prisoner of war when the city fell and spent the rest of the war in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. In 1920 he returned from Japan to Tsingtao where he lived the rest of his life.

Leutnant Friedrich Müllerskowski (1886-19__) joined the German infantry in 1907 and transferred to the Seebatallion in 1912. He passed his pilot's test in Germany before being posted out to Tsingtao where he was badly injured in a test flight days before the outbreak of war. He thus did not see active service during the siege of Tsingtao, being released from hospital only shortly before the German surrender. For the remainder of the war he was held as a prisoner of war in Japan at the Kumamoto and Kurume camps and returned to Germany in 1919 where he rejoined the army. In 1920 he retired with the rank of Major.

Leutnant-zur-See Gunther Plüschow (1886-1931), nick-named the "Dragon Pilot" due to a tattoo of a dragon on his left arm, was a naval officer who passed his pilot's test after only three days of flying in February 1914. He was sent straight to Tsingtao with his aeroplane arriving in July. When war broke out he was the only German airman available for active duty in Tsingtao. During the siege he ran spotting missions in a Rumpler Taube over the Japanese  lines and claimed to have shot down a Japanese aeroplane with his pistol. When the garrison surrendered and went into captivity he was ordered to escape by flying his aeroplane into China, where he crash landed and started an epic journey back to Germany. When the garrison surrendered and went into captivity he escaped and made his way back to Germany via China, Japan, America and Gibraltar where he was briefly captured by the British and taken to England, only to escape once more and make his way back to Germany via Holland. He was the only German prisoner to escape from a British mainland POW camp during either World War. He also wrote several books including one on his experiences in China and his journey back to Germany called "Escape from England" (published by Ripping Yarns). After the war he explored uncharted areas of Chile and Patagonia where he died in a flying accident in 1931.

Linienschiffsleutnant Viktor Klobucar (1878-1965) of the Austro-Hungarian imperial and royal navy passed his pilot's test in 1913. In 1914 he was an officer on the SMS Kaiserin Elisabeth at Tsingtao and became good friends with Gunther Plüschow . Although he was not posted in this role as a pilot, nor did he have an aeroplane at Tsingtao, he is included on this list simply as another potential pilot in the German colonies. He fought at the siege of Tsingtao and was captured by the Japanese. He spent the rest of the war in the Japanese prisoner of war camps at Kumamoto, Kurume and Aonogahara before being released in 1919. He died in Zagreb in 1965.

Cameroon

Leutnant Hans Surén (1885-1972) earned his commission as a Leutnant in the imperial German army in 1905. He passed his pilot's test in 1912 (No. 260) and the following year was posted to the Cameroon Schutztruppe. In 1914 he was ordered to prepare an airfield at Garua in the North of the colony and was presumably intended to pilot one of the aeroplanes sent from Germany. Surén never flew in Cameroon as the aeroplanes never arrived at his airfield, both having been captured by the British while en route. After the war he wrote books extolling the values of a healthy sporting life, nude bathing and aryan supremacy. Although Hitler was an admirer of his books, Surén spent the last years of Nazi rule in prison having fallen foul of the regime.

Hauptmann Jasper von Oertzen (1880?-19__) had passed his pilots test in September 1912 (No. 290) and then served as a company leader in the German army's 1st Flying Battalion ("1. Flieger-Batallion"). At this time he had previous previous colonial experience and was thus considered ideal for leading the new Cameroon air force. The First World War broke out before he set sail for Cameroon. He then served as commander of the 1st Flying Detachment ("Flieger-Abteilung Nr 1") on the Western Front.

Hauptmann Eugen Kirch (18__-19__) earned his commission as a Leutnant in the German 28th Infantry Regiment (2nd Rhineland) in 1895. He served in the Cameroon Schutztruppe in 1912 and on his return to Germany in 1913 passed his pilot's test. He was one of the pilots designated to fly the aeroplanes sent to Cameroon in 1914 but war broke out before he set sail, thus leaving him stranded in Germany. During the First World War he served in the 3rd Flying Battalion ("3. Flieger-Batallion") and later commanded the 4th Flying Battalion on the Western Front.

The Aircraft

Büchner's Otto/AGO Pusher Biplane
Made by: Pfalz in Speyer
Crew: One/Two
Construction: Wooden frame with canvas covering
Engine: Rapp 100 hp engine
Top Speed: 100km/h (although some experts doubt it could actually have attained this speed)
Length: 10.8m
Wingspan: 14.9m
Armament: No armaments have been confirmed although photographs show what appears to a metal tube slanting down from the cockpit. This may have been an aid in dropping improvised bombs.
Markings: "Pfalz-Fugzeugwerke. GMBH" with "Speyer a.Rh." underneath in smaller print can be seen underneath the cockpit on both sides in early photos of the plane. Rieth (see sources below) states the company name was also displayed on the wings. These markings would have been eradicated when the aircraft was repaired and her canvas replaced.
Other Modifications: After Henneberger's crash the plane was re-built as a seaplane with floats instead of wheels. The fuselage was also re-constructed with a flatter less aero-dynamic front as is noticeable in period photographs.

Von Scheele's Aviatik P-14 Biplane in German South West Africa
Made by: Automobil und Aviatik AG in Mülhausen
Crew: One/Two
Construction: Wooden frame with canvas covering
Engine: Argus 100 hp engine
Top Speed: 105 km/h
Length: 8m
Wingspan: 14m
Armament: Initially equipped with a rifle for use if it crash landed in hostile territory but later equipped with bombs (improvised from 10cm shells dropped from tubes attached to sides of the aeroplane) and rifle grenades, both of which were dropped on South African positions
Markings: Period photographs show "A.ü.Aviatik A.G." with "Mülhausen" and two letters, possible "IE" under it on the right side of the tailplane.


Von Scheele and his Aviatik packed for Transport
Photo from Tsumeb Museum / WikiCommons

Fielder's LFG Roland Biplane in German South West Africa
Made by: LFG Roland (at the
Luft-Fahrzeug-Gesellschaft in Berlin according to Flugsport Magazine)
Crew: One/Two
Construction: Steel frame with canvas covering
Engine: Mercedes 100 hp engine
Top Speed: 115 km/ph
Length: ___
Wingspan: ___
Armament: Initially equipped with a rifle for use if it crash landed in hostile territory but later equipped with bombs (improvised from 10cm shells dropped from tubes attached to sides of the aeroplane) and rifle grenades, both of which were dropped on South African positions
Markings: At least one period photograph shows large block lettering on the right side of the fuselage, unfortunately the wing obscures the letters in the photograph.

Plüschow's Rumpler Taube Monoplane in Tsingtao
Made by: Rumpler
Crew: One/Two
Construction: Wooden frame with canvas covering
Engine: Argus 100 hp engine
Top Speed: 95km/ph
Endurance: 4 hours
Length: 10.3m
Wingspan: 14m
Armament: Initially equipped with no weaponry aside from Plüschow's own Parabellum pistol but later armed with bombs (improvised 4lb bombs made from dynamite and scrap iron packed into "Sietas, Plambeck & Co" coffee tins detonated by a cartridge on impact)
Markings: None can be positively confirmed from photographs.


A Rumpler Taube in Training in Germany prior to the First World War
Photo from Bundesarchiv / WikiCommons

Additional Notes

Flying Conditions in the Tropics
These early flying machines were not the safest of aircraft at the best of times. The climatic conditions in the colonies only made things worse. Hot and cold patches of thermal air pockets caused the planes to be tossed up and down by hundreds of feet at a time, while flying in African humidity conditions made it very difficult to attain lift in midday heat. To help with lift the aircraft were kept as light as possible, although all these aeroplanes were two seaters they were usually flown with only the pilot on board, having also to work as observer and bomber. These climatic reasons combined with a lack of suitable runways and the aeroplanes' general state of repairs made crashes common. Most were not fatal but injuries were frequent and the aircraft often had to be rebuilt.

Maintenance of the Aeroplanes
It seems from brief mentions that most of the planes were accompanied by a trained mechanic (though these mechanics are not always noted as often as the pilots). Ground crews and workmen to fix the aeroplanes were recruited from the local Schutztruppe or civilians. All the aircraft suffered damage in wartime from crashes, enemy gunfire and general wear and tear, and had to be repaired often without the proper spare parts. Engine parts were fashioned at railway depots, new propellers and struts were carved by carpenters and linen to cover the wings was replaced by curtains at least once in South West Africa. 


Bruno Büchner's Biplane undergoing Repairs, East Africa 1914
Photo by Walther Dobbertin from Bundesarchiv / WikiCommons

The mechanics who worked on the German South West African aircraft were- Gefreiter Otto Meier (Fiedler's mechanic) plus additional Schutztruppe wartime mechanics, Gefrieter Klotz, Gefreiter Kirsch, Reiter der Reserve Dörgeich and Reiter der Reserve Siedler) and Unteroffizier Holzmacher, Gefreiter Nietzsche and Gefreiter Schulz (von Scheele and Trück's mechanics- Trück himself also worked as a mechanic on the aeroplanes in wartime while von Scheele piloted them).

Opposing Entente Aircraft in Africa
Germany only just managed to get the first few aeroplanes out to the colonies in the months before the First World War broke out but the Entente powers were even slower. There were no Entente aircraft to oppose the German planes in Africa at first. The South African Air Force put it's first aeroplanes into action in May 1915 in South West Africa, two months before the German surrender. They never clashed with the German planes directly. In East Africa no Entente aeroplanes clashed with Büchner's few reconnaissance missions. Later in the war Entente aircraft were used in successfully spotting the SMS Königsberg hidden in the Rufiji Delta and less successfully in spotting von Lettow-Vorbeck's troops hidden under the jungle canopy.

Japanese Aircraft at Tsingtao
It was only in Tsingtao that Plüschow met Japanese aeroplanes in direct air-to-air combat. He reports the Japanese air force at Tsingtao as consisting of eight aeroplanes, four of which were seaplanes. This would seem to roughly tally with other sources (such as "
Japanese Aircraft 1910-1941" by Robert C. Mikesh and Shorzoe Abe, "Warriors of the Rising Sun: A History of the Japanese Military" by Robert B. Edgerton, Wikipedia and the Axis History Forum).

The naval seaplanes were probably Japanese built Type Mo aircraft (with Renault 70hp engines, max speed 90kph), based on the French Maurice Farman pusher biplane design. They were stored above and below deck on Japan's first aircraft carrier, Wakamiya (a refitted captured Russian ship originally built in Scotland). The seaplanes were lowered into the water for take off by a crane. The same mechanism picked them up again after their missions. When the Wakamiya was damaged by a German mine on 30th September 1914, the aircraft were briefly based on land.

The other four aircraft were from the Lungkou Army Air Corps under the command of .Lieutenant Colonel Yoichi Arikawa and was based at Tsimo on the Shangtung peninsular. These were French Maurice Farman MF6 longhorn pusher biplanes (with Renault 70hp engines, max speed 90kmph). They were joined later in the campaign by a Nieuport NG2 monoplane (with a Gnome 100hp rotary engine, max speed 110kmph).

These Japanese aircraft performed observation and bombing  missions over German lines (performing the World's first carrier based air strikes and the first night bombardments), and on at least one occasion became involved in a dogfight with Plüschow's Taube armed only with pistols (possibly being the World's first air to air combat).


Two Japanese Naval Biplanes at while based on land during the Siege of Tsingtao 1914
Photo from "Sabre et Pinceau" by Christian Polak / WikiCommons

German Pilots Uniforms
There was no authorised uniform designed for Schutztruppe pilots. Period photographs show them wearing standard Schutztruppe uniforms (or Navy and Marine Infantry uniforms in China) with the addition of a white metal army (or navy) pilot's badge on the left breast in some cases. From the few photographs that show them in flying gear it seems they often wore double breasted leather jackets, either privately purchased or army and navy regulation issue (based on those worn by army automobile drivers). The same seems to be true for leather flying helmets. Plüschow is seen in period photographs with a tight helmet of private purchase. Trück and Büchner are both seen in period photographs wearing regulation army leather helmets with a prominent padded hatband and crest.

 

 

South West African Schutztruppe Pilots Flying Uniform
Linke Kolonial Museum Collection

  This is a pilots jacket, helmet and goggles used in South West Africa. All items may have been privately purchased. Note the Prussian Pilots badge. This would imply that the original owner was Leutnant Alexander von Scheele, as I believe he was the only pilot to fly in South West Africa who had passed his army pilot's test (Büchner and Trück both having civilian licences and Fiedler being Austro-Hungarian).  
     
 

Zeppelin Mission to East Africa
A mention should also be given here to the story of the L-59 Zeppelin commanded by Kapitanleutnant Ludwig Bockholt. In November 1917 an audacious mission was launched from Jamboli in Bulgaria to re-supply von Lettow-Vorbeck's beleaguered Schutztruppe in German East Africa by Zeppelin. The attempt was aborted mid-mission over the Sudan after news that von Lettow-Vorbeck had been forced to retreat from the intended landing zone. The Zeppelin then slowly returned to its base in Jamboli. By the end of the mission it had flown the 6756km journey non-stop in 95 hours: the longest flight ever at the time also the first ever inter-continental airship flight and the first airship flight South of the Tropic of Cancer.

Air Forces in Palestine
During the First World War the German army provided aircraft and airmen to serve on the Gallipoli front and later several squadrons of fighters to fight on the Palestine front. FA300 was sent in 1916, FA301-304 were sent in 1917 and FA305 followed in 1918 (see Pilots on Ottoman Fronts Page). Other German aircraft and training personnel also served with the Ottoman army and navy.


German and Ottoman Crew with a German Aircraft, Dardanelles 1915
Photo from Bundesarchiv / WikiCommons

Sources

Published Sources
"German Military Aviation in East Africa and Cameroon"- Wolfgang Reith, translated by Peter Chapman from "The '14-'18 Journal"
"Dust on the Horizon- The Air War in German South West Africa 1914-15" Pts 1 & 2 by Peter Chapman from "The '14-'18 Journal"
"Deutsche Flieger über den Kolonien" by Karl-Dieter Siefert (Published by
VDM)
"Flugsport" Magazine - No.13, Vol.VI (24 June 1914)
"Escape from England" by Gunther Plüschow (Published by Ripping Yarns)
"Fighters 1914-19" by Kenneth Munson (Published by Blandford Press)
Konrad Pueschel biography from "Unter dem Kreuz des Südens" by S Schepp

Online Sources
Information generously provided by members of the Axis History Forum
Information generously provided by members of the Aerodrome Forum
"Aircraft Operations in the German Colonies 1911-16" by J Mahncke at the South African Military History Journal
Aircraft photographs and information at the Virtual Aircraft Museum
Lists of early German pilots at Frontflieger.de and Autoveteranen.de
Oster, Müllerskowsky and Klobucar biographies at Tsingau Info
Klobucar biography at Austro-Hungarian Army 
Hans Surén biography on Wikipedia.de

 
     

 


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