At first Britain was behind Germany in regards to airships. The original sub-committee of the Imperial Defence Committee came to the conclusion there was no need to further experiment with airships with regards to the Navy but recommended maintaining two small airships for the Expeditionary Force. The success of Zeppelin’s resulted in a change of opinion and in 1913 it was decided to adopt a policy of active development of airships. Rather than hastily develop a new ship, the decision was taken to purchase a number of small airships, with the aim of educating the RFC in this class of work so that an airship could be devolved to match the Zeppelins. At first both the Military Wing and Naval Wings had their own airships but in October 1913 the decision was taken to transfer all the Military Wing’s airships to the Naval Wing. At the date of this decision, the airships in service or on order were were:
“Beta” – capacity of 33,000 cu ft (Military Wing)
“Gamma” – capacity of 80,000 cu ft (Military Wing)
“Delta” – capacity of 150,000 cu ft (Military Wing)
“Eta” – capacity of 80,000 cu ft (Military Wing)
“Epsilon” – capacity of 180,000 cu ft (Military Wing – not yet constructed)
“Willows” – capacity of 20,000 cu ft (Naval Wing)
“Astra-Torres” – capacity of 220,000 cu ft(Naval Wing – undergoing trails at Farnborough)
“Parseval” – capacity of 280,000 cu ft (Naval Wing – being transported to Farnborough)
Each of these was way below the capacity of the new Zeppelins which were between 600,000 to 800,000 cu ft.
During January 1914, the R.N.A.S. took officially over the small number of Army non-rigid airships. On the outbreak of War, the Admiralty only had seven non-rigid airships with only two fit for operations. The submarine threat resulted in the Admiralty issuing a specification for a new airship, a small airship possible of 50 m.p.h., a duration of eight hours and carrying a crew of two a 160 lb bomb load and a wireless set. Airships were ideal for work over the sea as they had a greater endurance than aircraft, could fly low or high, fast or slow and also remain stationary if required. Engine failure did not necessary result in the loss of the airship – repairs could be attempted in the air. The new small airships were known as “SS” class (Sea Scouts). They were at fist based at War Stations around the Channel and Irish Sea as they needed to be close to the sea due to their relative poor performance. It was realised a larger airship capable of operating for a longer period was required. These new larger airships were known as “Coastal” airships. They could carry a bomb load of nearly half-a-ton, had a maximum speed of 47 mph and an endurance of over 20 hours. With the greater endurance of “Coastal” airships the need to be based near the coast was of less importance. A number of large stations, suitable for these large rigids were established at Pulham (Norfolk – the only airship station in East Anglia), Howden, East Fortune and Longside.
Above: "Sea Scout" airship. Right "Coastal" airship
By 1916, the Admiralty was looking for a replacement for the “SS” airships but with a greater performance. Two designs were produced, the “SSP” and “SSZ” but the “SSZ” was by far the better and only six “SSP” airships were constructed. The “SSZ” airships were known as “Zeros”. The “Zeros” were based at mooring out sites, to cut down the flight time to the coast, with tented accommodation for the crews. Servicing had to be carried out at the nearest War Station.
The Royal Navy also now wanted rigid airships to rival the Zeppelins, after initially favouring non-rigids. Work began on building these, but as a stop-gap, the “North Sea” Class of non-rigids was introduced in 1917. At first they suffered problems but by 1918 these had been solved and the “North Seas” were perhaps the best ever non-rigids produced. They were armed with up to five machine guns and could carry up to six 230lb bombs. Powered by two Rolls-Royce 250 hp Eagle engines the airships had an endurance of 20 hrs and maximum speed of 55 miles per hour.
Airships were ideal for escorting ships and looking for U-Boats and floating mines. They acted more of a deterrent rather than having any real chance of sinking U-Boats. A U-Boat on the surface would spot the airship long before the airship could spot the U-Boat. This would force it to submerge which limited its speed, allowing the shipping to outpace the U-Boat. Should a U-Boat surface or fire a torpedo in the vicinity of an airship, the airship could report this by wireless. The Royal Naval Airship Service claimed that no ship was lost if airships were overhead (not quite correct, two ships were torpedoed off Falmouth while forming up a convoy under the escort of two “Coastals”).
Left: "North Sea" type airship. Right - "Nort Sea" airship on patrol with maintenance being
carried out; note the lack of any type of safety harness!