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

35 knots.

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. •




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

an airship.

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.


  1. Very interesting article. My late father Capt Denis Knowles DSC flew airships with the RNAS out of Polegate from 1916 to 1918 when he was made station commander at Upton. His memories were published in “Cross and Cockade” some years ago. I am displaying all his airship records and photos at Zepfest, on 24/25th September which celebrates the downing of Zeppelin L33 at Little Wigborough, Essex, of 24/9/1916.

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