TRYING to cross the coast at Brighton in a non-rigid airship.
After thirteen hours spent in flying from the Isle of
Wight. . . . This is just one memory of serving with the
Royal Naval Air Service in World War 1.
The home of airships in the Portsmouth Command was at
Polegate, nestling under the Sussex Downs, near Eastbourne.
Selected in 1914, the site was sufficiently advanced in 1915 to
house and commission one airship of the S.S. type.
The small airship in those days would either fly or it would
not fly; there were no half measures. Slung under its streamlined
gas bag, or envelope, of 60,000 cu ft capacity was an ordinary
B.E.2C biplane complete in all detail, but minus wings and tail
unit. The elevator and rudder surfaces were attached to the
The engine was a 75′ h.p. eight-cylinder air-cooled Renault.
These units were a constant source of trouble through overheating,
simply owing to an engine designed for aeroplane work being
fitted to an airship whose maximum speed was approximately
Breakdowns over the sea were frequent. On one occasion S.S.13
had to be towed back to Newhaven by a destroyer, in heavy
weather, after engine failure 30 miles south-west of Beachy Head.
But in the course of time pilots and their air mechanics and
wireless operators became expert at climbing out on to the undercarriage,
locating and rectifying the engine fault and then restarting
by swinging the propeller from behind whilst gripping a strut
of the landing carriage with their knees, often at a height of 3,000ft.
Some notable achievements, however, were logged by these
rather primitive craft. One record was a patrol from Dungeness
to Land’s End and back without landing. Another was an altitude
record of 10,000ft.
The actual duties performed by the Royal Naval Airship Service
were mostly defensive—escorting merchant shipping round our
coasts and flying anti-submarine patrols.
In July 1916, parachute experiments were started at Polegate.
S.S.13 was fitted to carry two parachutes of the Calthrop “Guardian
Angel” type, attached to the underside of the chassis, and these
were dropped from 200ft and 1,100ft respectively. Each carried a
weight equivalent to that of a twelve-stone man. When they were
released the airship was travelling at 40 m.pJi.; they opened after
a drop of 100ft, descended at approximately 15ft/sec, and were in
every way satisfactory. In August three more experiments were
carried out, the first two with dummies and the third a live drop
from 900ft by Sir Bryan Leighton. This was believed to be the
first time that a man had successfully dropped from an airship
by means of a parachute.
In 1917 the old type of S.S. airship became redundant and was
replaced by a new type, the S.S. Zero. This had a gondola-shaped
car slung underneath a hydrogen-filled envelope of the cigarshaped
non-rigid type, and carried a crew of three, pilot, engineer
and wireless operator. The water-cooled Rolls-Royce engine had
greater reliability and gave better speed (about 75 m.p.h. maximum).
Armament comprised one Lewis gun and two 651b bombs.
These ships were more comfortable in every way for the crews but
there was still little protection. Clad only in a leather flying coat,
thigh boots and leather flying cap, the crew were exposed to the
elements. There was no such thing as safety belts, and no parachutes
were supplied. Nor was any provision made for sustenance
of any kind, except that a few malted milk tablets were issued
for an eight-hour patrol. •
INITIATIVE AND GALLANTRY IN ANTI SUBMARINE
OPERATIONS OF THE 1914-18 WAR
By M. J. GOLIGHTLY
Crews met many hazards and adventures when patrolling in
these Zero-type airships. On one occasion we went to meet and
escort a convoy near the Isle of Wight. We had a following wind
and arrived at the meeting point in 45min from the time of leaving
Polegate. Shortly afterwards a gale blew up, and in trying to keep
head to wind the pilot discovered that one of the rudder controls
had broken. We left the convoy and began our struggle to
return to base. After thirteen hours in the air we succeeded in
crossing the coast at Brighton. We were evidently being watched
by local people who did not realize our danger, for one resident
telephoned our commanding officer to ask if his “blimps” or
“silver queens” had nothing better to do than stunt over Brighton
for the benefit of the public! Actually we were being so buffeted
by the gale that we quite expected to crash on the high ground
to the north of the town and be blown up by our own bombs.
Another incident occurred during a patrol on a clear summer
afternoon. We received a wireless message to proceed to a plotted
area off Newhaven where an enemy submarine, which had caused
the loss of troopships sailing for France, was thought to be lying
submerged. On arrival over the spot we could see her silhouette
and promptly dropped our bombs. Although we were at about
500ft the explosion as the bombs struck home lifted us to over
1,000ft in what I should think was the quickest climb recorded for
By midsummer of 1917 Polegate was able to hold its own with
any of the other eight airship stations dotted round Great Britain
by completing 3,000 flying hours with only six Zeros. In 1918,
8,140 flying hours were achieved with a total of eleven ships. In
fact during those two years the station did more hours of flying
than any other Allied airship base; and it also instituted flying
during the dark hours.
A record patrol of 50hr 55min was carried out over the English
Channel by S.S. Z39 on August 11 to 13, 1918. On a previous
patrol the air mechanic of this ship had carried out a remarkable
repair to the steering controls at a height of 4,000ft. The engine
was stopped, he climbed out of the car and, seating himself
astride two very thin suspension wires, repaired the controls. The
engine was then restarted, and the ship returned safely to base.
The wonderful flying year of 1917 was drawing to a close when
it was marred by a fatality and chapter of accidents on the night of
December 22. Five ships had left during the forenoon for patrol
of the English Channel. The weather was sunny but hazy.
Suddenly, at about 3 p.m. the perfect winter afternoon was
obscured by a dense black fog which came down from the northeast
with less than five minutes’ warning. All ships were recalled
to base, but although they could be heard above the dark pall
which enveloped the station, not one of them could be seen. The
pilots therefore decided, in accordance with previous orders, to
head for the open country. S.S. Z6 landed safely in a field north
of Hailsham; Z10 and Z9 put down near Jevington; Z7 and Z19
landed near the coast guard station at Beachy Head. By this time the ground was thick with snow. About 8 p.m. a fresh wind sprang
up from the east, the fog lifted from the air station, and it was
decided that in view of the possibility of the wind reaching gale
force, and of the impossibility of holding the ships out in the open,
they should fly back to base.
Z7 and Z19 were the first to leave. It was thought that the
pilots must have mistaken for the Polegate base the Aldis lamps
used to illuminate the ships on the ground at Jevington. The
lifting mist, coupled with the snow and silvery moonlight,
evidently deceived the pilot of S.S. Z7 (Lt R. Swallow, RN) for he
attempted to land and struck Z10, ripping her envelope. It is
thought that seeing his mistake he then opened his throttle and
tried to climb quickly, but the flames from his exhaust ignited the
escaping hydrogen from Z10, causing both ships to burst into
flame. Z7 rose to about 400ft and then came down alight from
end to end. The pilot was killed instantly, and the other two of
the crew-members were found severely injured. With the utmost
gallantry, the crew of Z10, finding it impossible to move the
injured men, detached the now almost red-hot high-explosive
bombs from the burning ship and carried them away to safety,
knowing full well that they might explode at any moment. On
the recommendation of the C-in-C Portsmouth, both were
awarded the Albert Medal in Gold.
Meanwhile the senior flying officer, thinking that the crew of
S.S. Z10 were still in the burning wreckage, dashed to the spot to
rescue them. On reaching the car he found the crew had escaped,
but before he could get clear of the ship both bombs exploded,
blowing off his right arm. For his gallant action he was awarded
the Albert Medal in Bronze.
The whole of the personnel of the station were shocked and
stunned by these losses, but a magnificent example was set by the
commanding officer, Wg Cdr Ivor Fraser, who decided to take
one of the remaining ships left intact on the station for a fly
round. This act appeared to break the spell of depression.
The year 1918 brought about many changes. The value of
airships as a defensive weapon against enemy submarines was
appreciated by higher authority and it was decided to intensify
and extend the field of operations to the westward.
Two suitable sites where airships could be moored in the open,
but protected from high winds by bays cut in the woods, were
selected. One was at Slindon, near Arundel, the other at Upton at
the head of Poole harbour. Each of these satellite stations proved
their worth. They held the patrolling record for the mooring-out
airship stations of the United Kingdom.
It was during the early part of this year that experiments were
carried out in listening for submarines. Members of the wireless
staff had a short course at Newhaven to acquaint themselves
(from gramophone records) with the noises created under water
by submarines and different types of ships’ propellers. During
night patrols at about 100ft up, cable was lowered into the water
at the end of which was a hydrophone, a torpedo-shaped case
containing a microphone, while at the receiving end the wireless
operator listened on a pair of headphones. Although this brought
no results in finding submarines, knowledge of the device
evidently scared them off to safer areas; they could no doubt hear
our engine overhead and this prevented them coming to the
surface to charge their batteries. The hydrophone did, however,
enable us to pick up convoys in the dark.
On April 1, 1918, drastic changes in the organization and personnel
came about. The Royal Air Force was formed, and although
airships and everything connected with them still came under
Admiralty, officers and men became members of the new Service.
The month of May 1918 was a record one. With the co-operation
of the sub-stations at Slindon and Upton over 1,000 hours of day
and night continuous patrolling were achieved, and from May to
November over 1,000 hours of night patrolling alone were carried
out. Submarine activity had been acute up to this time, but it was
a recognized fact that our increased activity played no mean part
in keeping the English Channel clear of the underwater enemy.
ives some background history to WW1 Airships.