Early exploration and use
of airships have been sporatic in the early years of the 20th
Century, experimantal craft were used by the Army and often continental
ships were purchased for evaluation and review. However funding
for the fledgling craft was often not forthcoming and also the
useage of the ships had not been proven to either the Admiralty
or Army. When the Great War broke out on 4th August 1914, Britains
airship fleet consisted of the four former Army airships (now
known as Naval Airships number 17,18,19, and 20 when transferred
to the Admiralty) and two continental ships, and a small Willows
training craft. Senve ships in total. Of airfields possesing hangers
capable of housing airships, there were only 4, at Farnborough,
at the Vickers porduction facility in Barrow, at Wormwood Scrubs
in London and at Kingsnorth near Hoo on the Medway.
The pre titled Naval Wing
of the Royal Flying Corps was formed in to the Royal Naval Air
Service on 1st July 1914 where by only 198 men of all ranks were
transferred under the command of Commander E A D Masterman. This
was later known as the Airship Section.
It was decided as hostitities grew worse in the latter part of
1914 that airships would be useful for Fleet observations following
the loss of many ships to submarines in the months of October
and November. The First Sea Lord, Lord Fisher, realised that the
situation had become critical and rapid short term measures were
required. In a meeting on 28th February 1915 he called Cmdr Masterman
and representatives from Vickers and Airships Limited attended.
A new smaller ship was required with the basic requirements that
it should have a speed of between 40-50 mph, carry a crew of two,
160lb of bonbs, wireless equipments and fuel for 8 hours flying.
They should be able to reach an altitude of 5,000ft and their
design be simple in order to both ease production adn to facilitate
training of the crews.
The main requirement was that
the new airship, designated the Submarine Scout class had to be
in the air within weeks rather than months.
Evaluation tests on the first
SS craft, the SS2 were made in March of 1915 some 5 weeks after
that first meeting. The ship was 70,000 cft and 140ft in length.
The ship was effectivly an aeroplane fuselage without wings slung
below an envelope. The There were eventually 3 types of SS
or submarine scout class ships after the initial prototype was
built. Each was quickly and cheaply assembled by attaching the
wingless fuselage of a B.E.2c aeroplane beneath a simple envelope.
Minor modifications were made to the original design, namely the
palcement of the blower to fillw the ballonet in the envelope,
and on the 18th March, less than 3 weeks after work began the
new airship was entered in to service. Admiral Fisher commented
his approval with the famous comment "Now I must have forty!"
The production SS ships differed from the prototype in that they
carried two ballonnets insead of the original one, and a larger
envelope. The main production problems which the contracted manufactureres
had was the supply of envelopes as they were tied up with areoplane
orders. 26 SS type ships were based on the original production
ship SS1. As soon as the SS airship programme was rushed in to
operating in ealy 1915 the work of construction was transferred
from teh Farnborough facility to Kingsnorth, which was soon joined
by a manufacturing centre in Barrow and Wormwood Scrubbs. At the
same time new air stations were set up at Capel near Folkstone,
Polegate near Eastbourne, Marquise near Boulogne on the French
coast, Luce Bay near Stranraer in Scotland, and in Angleset. A
new training station was set up at Cranwell.
At this time the rigid airship programme also started production.
More air stations were also planned, with Longside near Aberdeen,
East Fortune on the Firth of Forth, Howden on the Humber, Pulham
in Norfolk, Mullion in Cornwall, and Penbroke in South Wales.
Together with those already commissioned they were soon to provide
a chain of bases strung around the coars from which airship patrols
flew out reguarly to comat submarines. Wireless and ground bases
were also key to this chain with the co-operation between air
and see being vital. Patroling airships were required to transmit
their callsign every hour enabling thier positions to be tracked
and plotted. It meant that an airship commander can call his exact
position when the call forhelp to the precise spot; a vital element
in the anti submarine strategy.
The co-operation was essential between air and sea forces in that
no airship could cary more than a tiny fraction of the armament
available to a destroyer of even an armed merchantman ship, yet
no surfaceship could approach the speed of an airship or command
the same wide vision. The airship was to primarily call for find
the submarine then call for help. The advantage was that in the
clear waters of the mediterrenean a submereged enemy could often
be seen as deep as 120ft (20 fathoms) but in northern waters the
direct detection was more difficult. The advantage though was
that periscope moving through the water made a destinctive feather
wake and there were often signs which gave the presenece of a
submarine. Small amounts of oil frequently leaked and could be
spotted as a trail on the surface of the water. Also a damaged
submarine would leak more and be easily spotted.
The submarine scouts
with the prefix of SS, were to be so successful on
coastal patrols that the Admiralty wanted bigger and better ships
and fast. Three further classes Coastal, the C*
and North Sea class ships were developed. Each having
larger engines, envelopes and crews than the previous class ships,
the patrol duration increased.
Equipt with small bombs, these
ships proved to be not only observers but also active
participants to the fleets battles. It was common that a U-Boat
on patrol, once spotted by airship, had a choice of either moving
away or engaging the airship in a race. The battle was between
the U-Boat surfacing and being able to mount his gun and try to
bring down the airship, whilst at the same time the airship would
be signalling the location of the U-Boat to the fleet, and preparing
to drop its bomb, before the U-Boat could take a shot at
The demand was so great for
these Scout ships that various versions were constructed. The
following designations were given: SS / SSP/ SSZ (Zeros)/
SSE/ SST(Twin). The SS Zeros were fitted with machine guns.
77 of this class were built and were very popular with the crews.
The last class to be designed were the SS Twins which could
carry a crew of 5, with a top speed of 57mph and stay airborne
for up to 2 days.
In total 158 SS
Class ships were built
Despite occassional tragedies the first SS ships proved invaluable.
They only cost £2,500 each and the proof of their usefulness
is that production only ceased when something better became available.
A famous event when an SS
ship moored on the stern of HMS Furious, showing how versitilel
with Naval activities these small ships were. This has been stunningly
re-created by James Baumann in his model. To visit more of the
models, they can be seen at www.modelwarships.com