plans were proceeding for the second wave of the airship scheme
and orders were being placed for the "30" series ships. The R31
and R32 were of new design and were being completed by Shorts,
whilst the new ships registered R33 and R34 were on the drawing
In 1916 the new ship was in the process of being designed when
a stroke of luck, caused the latest German airship technology
to be handed to the British on a plate. On the night of 23rd/24th
September 1916, the German Zeppelin L-33 was brought down at Great
Wigborough, Essex. The L-33's commander had been participating
in an air raid on London when it was damaged by antiaircraft fire,
and then intercepted and brought down by a night fighter who's
fire failed to ignite the hydrogen. However so much damage was
done to the gasbags and fuel tanks that the ship was forced to
descend. The German crew attempted to destroy the ship instead
of it falling in to enemy hands but so little hydrogen was left
that only the doped fabric lit when they fired signal flares in
to the hull. The L-33 was virtually intact and her motors were
undamaged. In one stroke the British had been handed a near perfect
ship full of the latest German technology.
Immediately a crew of investigators recorded every feature of
the ship in detail. This top-secret record took five months to
complete. The designs for the R34 and R34 were put on hold whilst
this was being undertaken. It was with this information that the
British designers could adapt the plans to include what the Germans
had done so successfully, and this enabled the design teams to
produce near copy designs for the R 33 and R 34. The R33 was allocated
to Armstrong and Whitworth at their Barlow works just some 3 miles
south of Selby, Yorkshire.
The manufacture of the components for the R33 and her sister ship
R34 had begun in the summer of 1917, but the actual construction
of the ship in the shed did not commence until the summer of 1918.
The ship had a marked resemblance of the L33 although the similarity
in numbering was purely coincidental; the R33 has been designated
in early 1916 before the crash. The ship design was semi-streamlined
fore and aft, with a parallel mid-ships section. The main control
car was positioned well forward on the ship, and on closer inspection
was separated from the engine in the rear of the car by a small
gap. This was designed to stop vibrations from the engine car
being transmitted down to the forward control car, with its radio
detection finding and wireless instruments. Hence, the forward
control car and engine car looks as if it is one combined piece,
but serviced by two ladders into the hull above.
R33 : The inside of the gondola
33: On the mast at Pulham
- the band on the hull of the ship
the St Nicolas Magazine portrayed the breakaway.
33 in the shed showing damage
with the envelope removed showing the damage
33 Crew relaxing on the doors of the Pulham Shed
of the Glocester Grebe
from the ship on the Pulham Mast
R33 Gondola remains on display at RAF Hendon Musuem
Two more power cars were suspended in the wing positions further
aft along the hull and a single engine aft car was positioned
amidships at the rear of the craft. All five engines were 275
hp, Sunbeam Maori water-cooled petrol units. The power cars were
another technical advancement in airship technology, which included
two gearboxes for each engine, enabling the engines to be started
up and running without the propellers rotating. The ship carried
enough fuel for 48 hours engine running, but to increase range
it was possible to fly the ship on only 3 engines, giving the
ship a speed of some 40 knots with petrol consumption of one mile
a gallon. The petrol was held inside the hull and fuel flowed
from them by gravity to header tanks in the engine gondolas. The
reasoning behind this change of arrangement was to feed a smoother
and more precise fuel supply than the older arrangements in earlier
ships of direct gravity feed.
The radiators in the forward engine gondolas had the flow of air
regulated by the use of movable shutters, however the rear gondolas
had the old type of traditional "elevated" radiator. Twenty main
frames and thirteen longitudinals made the main structure of the
ship. There were 19 gasbags within the hull giving a capacity
of 1,950,000 cubic feet of hydrogen giving a disposable lift of
almost 26 tons. The total construction of the R33 came to £350,000
almost 9 months in construction, the R 33 was launched on 6th
March 1919, just eight days before her sister ship the R 33 was
put in to operation, almost immediately. As soon as her test flights
were over she was delivered to Pulham Airship Station. The ship
had been designated as a long-range rigid scout ship to have operations
over the North Sea. During the period from 18th June 1919, to
14th October 1920, the R33 carried out 23 flights totalling a
flying time of over 237 hours. One of her tasks during 1919 was
to fly over London and the main cities to publicise the sale of
Victory Bonds One flight from Pulham to south Wales and back was
recorded in having taken 25 hours.
the 2nd July 1919, when the R34 began her transatlantic flight,
the R33 also left the sheds that day with the SR1 to fly over
the peace procession in London, again the ship towing a very large
banner advertising Victory Bonds. On this flight the ship carried
a band on the top gun platform, however the band members would
have been out of sight from the crowds below the ship and it is
doubtful that the music would have reached the crowds as well.
Again in July 1919, the R33 was tasked with carrying out an endurance
flight which took her over the main cities of the Midlands and
the North of England, flying over Sheffield, Bradford, Manchester,
Liverpool, North Wales, the Isle of Man, and the Irish coast.
Again on this trip a band was carried and played whilst over the
cities from the upper gun platform. The duration of this flight
was 31 hours.
In September 1919, along with the R32 that had just been completed
by Shorts Brothers at their new construction facility at Cardington,
the ships took off for a demonstration flight over the Netherlands.
As part of the "Britain's Power in the Air" campaign, the R32
and R33 were dispatched to Amsterdam, where the 1919 Aircraft
Exhibition was being held. They left on 11th September and crossed
the North Sea then dropped a message by parachute to the officer
in charge of the Exhibition, then circled Amsterdam for some time.
For this flight the ship had been "civilian-ised" as a number
of beds had been installed in the two craft and a chef carried
to provide a five course dinner, in order to demonstrate that
the airship had possibilities for civil aviation. From Amsterdam,
the ships then turned south along the coasts of Holland and Belgium,
then turned to over-fly Brussels and Antwerp, and then a detour
to take in the battlefields of Flanders. They both returned to
Pulham after a round trip of some 22 hours, in which a in-flight
newspaper was published and copies distributed to the on board
pressmen who had enjoyed the flight.
In 1920, following the change in responsibility at the Admiralty
to the newly formed Air Council, the RAF airships were registered
as "civilian aircraft" to carry out limited programmes in the
commercial field. The first to be civilianised was the R33, which
for this transitional period was fitted out with sleeping accommodation
within the hull and cooking facilities were also provided. The
R33 carried the civil identification registration G-FAAG on the
hull sides and the large international "G" for Great Britain was
emblazoned on her tail fins. In this new livery she arrived at
Pulham and began experimental work mainly on mooring techniques.
The National Physics Laboratory was still conducting mooring trials
on large rigid airships and R33 was asked to participate. A new
technique was being developed and that was to moor airships to
a mast. A mast had been erected at Pulham and had a revolving
docking cone at the top to enable the ship to weathervane around
in the wind.
Over several months the R33 made some 50 moorings by Captain Williams,
and involved some 171 flying hours. The results of these tests
were surprising as it was found that not only could a ship be
moored into winds of up to 35 mph, but that the craft could be
brought up to the mast in very bad weather conditions and moored.
One report stated that the ship could be moored in winds gusting
at 80mph. Many local residents in the area remembered the ship
on her mast and recall the impressive site of the ship riding
the mast at night with floodlights shinning on her silvery hull,
the lights on board gave her the impression of an ocean liner
lying in dock. On her mast the R33 proved that she could handle
all weather conditions, but dry snow caused a problem. Captain
Thomas devised a snow clearing gear which consisted of an endless
wire atop the ship between frames 7 and 34 which dragged lengths
of two and a half inch hemp rope fore and aft along the ship's
In May 1920, the R33 flew north from Pulham to Howden Air Station
to carry out an unusual experiment involving the release of a
fighter aircraft from beneath the airship. The fighter was a Sopwith
Camel and the pilotless plane was launched from the ship with
its engine running, over a deserted area of the North York Moors.
After making it's powered descent it crashed, but due to a new
type of fuel tank, which was being tested, did not catch fire.
On 20th September 1920, due to the worsening post war economy
the Air Ministry ordered all work on Airships to cease, but the
run down of airship operations took a further 12 months to be
implemented. It is noted that this order did not apply to the
construction for the R38, which was under construction at Cardington
at the time. At this time the R33 badly needed an overhaul, but
the two newly surrendered Zeppelins, the L-64 and L-71 were occupying
the berths at Pulham. It was then decided that the R33 should
be flown to Howden which had space for her, and there she stayed
until 2nd February 1921.
An incident occurred during the spring of 1921, which could have
ended in tragedy, but went part of the way to earn the R33 a reputation
for being a "lucky" ship. A rigger was engaged on a task high
up in the envelope of the ship, but managed to lose his footing
and slipped and fell. In his decent he ripped open one of the
gasbags in the stern, the bottom girders of the hull arresting
his fall. The rigger was not hurt and only slightly affected by
the escaping hydrogen. The sudden loss of gas meant that the stern
began to drop, and a ton of water was dropped to bring the ship
to an even keel, and the ship returned slowly to the Pulham base.
On 17th March 1921, a few days after the rigger accident, and
repairs had been made to the ship when a rudder jammed whilst
the ship was carrying out tests over Essex. The ship was forced
to circle for over an hour above the Thames Estuary, whilst riggers
struggled to free the rudder. At this time, the economy was falling
deeper into depression, and on the 28th June, the Government declared
that all airship operations were to be run down and ceased. The
R33, R36, R37, and R80 along with the remaining German Zeppelin,
L71 were to be given for sale to any operator who could fulfil
the Governments requirements. The offers were open until 1st August
1921 and if no offer was made then the craft were not to be scrapped
but to be placed in store. During this time, further tasks were
still being allocated to the ship, for example after dark flights
over South London and Surrey to view from the air the new airport
lighting system at Croydon Airport. The ship was also involved
in helping with traffic control by assisting with the police during
the Epsom and Ascot race weeks. To avoid the ship having to return
to Pulham, the ship was moored to a wooden mast at Croydon Airport
on the nights of 14th and 15th July 1921.
Having worked almost full time, on the 21st July, the R33 made
a dramatic entrance at the Hendon Air Show, Royal Air Force Pageant.
The ship lurked out of view behind a phosphorus cloud laid by
a Hadley Page Bomber, where upon at the appropriate time, the
ship burst through the cloud to the admiration of the crowds below.
On the 30th July some full speed trials were carried out, and
a speed attained of 52 knots. After this she flew to Cardington
on 18th August and was shedded there. The R33 was then deflated
and lowered on to her cradle and stored. This would be the resting
home of the R33 for the next three years.
wasn't until the economy turned, the Imperial Airship Scheme was
decided and it was agreed that the R33 would form part of that
programme. On 2nd April 1925 the Cardington shed doors opened
and the new reconditioned R33 emerged. For more than four years
she had laid in the berth which had been previously occupied by
the ill-fated R38. The changes to her livery were that the RAF
roundels, the red white and blue tail stripes had also been removed,
and only her civil registration G-FAAG was painted on her hull.
During her reconditioning, new modified gas cells had been incorporated
within her and her motors had been modified. She was put on the
newly erected Cardington Mast to have a shakedown of her new equipment.
The ship left Cardington under the command of Flight Lieutenant
Carmichael Irwin, with a crew of 34 and flew to Pulham. The journey
took 4 hours and 45 minutes, and was deemed a success for the
newly conditioned ship. The R33 was then put back on to her old
regime of testing for the National Physics Laboratory. Laminal
flow tests were carried out and results were sent to the technicians
who were in the process of designing the R100 and R101.
weeks after her arrival, on the night of 16th/17th April, the
wind had increased to gale force, and towards dawn the wind was
gusting up to some 50mph. The R33 was moored to the high mast,
and weathervaned in the wind. Only an "anchor watch" was onboard,
and in one particularly strong gust, the R33 was torn from the
mast. The ship drifted away from the mast and water streamed from
her bow from the ballast tanks that had been damaged. The ship,
flying backwards, narrowly missed the doors of airship shed.
The number 1 gasbag had of course been punctured and there was
a danger of the fractured light alloy girders deflating the no.2
bag. The force of the ship tearing away from the mast caused the
nose to buckle inwards, causing a hollow in which the wind and
rain battered, pushing the bow down still further. The ship began
to gain height as the crew slowly started up the Maori engines
on watch. In order to keep the forward damaged girders from puncturing
more of the gasbags, Flight Lieutenant Booth and Coxswain; G "Sky"
Hunt has to assess the damage. They crawled up the ladder to the
upper gun position, and then crawled forward as far as they could
along the top of the hull. It was found possible to prevent further
damage by rigging the deflated gas cell, and the flapping envelope,
as a shield.
As much equipment as possible was jettisoned from the forward
section to bring the ship on to an even keel. As soon as the plight
of the R33 was noticed, attempts were made to calculate the ship's
drift and urgent wireless messages were sent to the appropriate
authorities. HMS Godetia was ordered to make ready for sea in
great haste and was dispatched from Lowestoft to render assistance
in case the R33 floundered in the North Sea. The local lifeboat
was also called out, but nearly swamped in trying to keep in view
of the ship. The weather worsened and the lifeboat had to turn
back as the airship was last seen heading in to a rainsquall.
With her engines running, the R33 was able to keep her head in
the wind but not able to make headway against the gale. Radio
messages were transmitted every 15 minutes to report on the ship's
condition and her position.
After 5 hours since the ship broke away from her mast, the crew
were able to arrest the ships drift, but the wind was still forcing
her nearer the Continent. At 3.45pm she was 45 miles north east
of the Dutch port of Ymuiden. At one stage the ship came perilously
close to the sea and flight Lieutenant Booth gave orders that
everything possible including all surplus was to be thrown overboard,
which included the hammocks, fire extinguishers and parachutes.
Finally the rain stopped and the descent of the R33 was checked.
A window in the weather allowed the R33 to begin to make a slow
The ship was very close to the Dutch coast, and orders were being
given that the ship should land at Cologne where a German crew
was ready to assist. However later in the evening the ship came
to a hover over the Dutch coast, and she stayed there until 5.00am
the next morning. After thanking the various authorities for their
help, the ship began the slow journey west, back home. Eight hours
later the damaged ship made her way over the Suffolk Coast, to
crowds of well-wishers who had lined the shore awaiting her return.
At 1.50pm, the R33 appeared over Pulham and, as expected, there
was no shortage of volunteers to man the trail ropes. The ship
was eased down to the ground and then slowly walked into the shed
where she was berthed next to the R36. King George V later presented
the crew with watches and the coxswain, Sergeant "Sky" Hunt, was
awarded the Air Force Medal, which he insisted be awarded on behalf
of the crew as a whole.
A new nose section was designed by the drawing office staff at
the Royal Airship Works at Cardington and was constructed at Pulham
and spliced into the hull in place of the original during October
1925. The new nose was specially strengthened for mooring experimental
R33 came out of her shed following the repairs on 5th October
1925 where she had been since April. She was to carry out pressure
experiments in connection with the design of the new R101. These
experiments involved taking readings of the pressures exerted
on the girders and envelope during flight. Ten days later the
ship took part in a series of experiments involving the launching
of an aeroplane from the ship. The reasoning had been to provide
protection of the ship from fighter aircraft.
Original experiments had taken place on the R29. The R33 was fitted
out with a large trapeze in the middle of the hull, to which a
small two? winged monoplane was hooked. The tiny D H 53 Hummingbird
had been modified with a gantry above the forward part of the
plane. The first trial was carried out on the 15th October 1925.
The R 33 rose to 3,000 ft. At that altitude, a signal was given
and the pilot pulled the release lever. The mechanism worked perfectly
and the Humming Bird dropped away from under the ship and started
it's motor whilst in a gentle dive. The pilot then flew around
the R33 and then brought the plane back up to the trapeze matching
the speed of the airship. At the critical moment while linking
back with the ship, there was a small hitch and later there was
some doubt as to whether the signal to "re-engage" had been given.
As the plane came in to engage it knocked into one of the trapeze
stay wires and the propeller was smashed. The pilot then disengaged
the suspension gear and dropped down to glide to the airfield
below. This experiment had noted that the approach of the pilot
was incorrect and that the trapeze should have only been lowered
when the plane was approaching from the stern. Then there would
have been a perfect approach whereby the nose gear would have
easily slotted in to place.A
second attempt was made on 28th October 1925, and again the monoplane
snagged on the trapeze, however the pilot was able to land on
the airfield below. On 4th December the attempt was made again,
and this time the plane disengaged and re-engaged successfully
to the ship. This was the last flight of the R33 for some months
as she returned to the shed for deflation and an overhaul. In
the spring of 1926 the Government announced that the experimental
programme using the R33 had come to an end and the ship was to
be shedded at Pulham.
the ship and the station were set to a care and maintenance programme.
However it was not long before the station was open for business
again and the R33 was re-launched to take part in further experiments
involving the launching of fighter aircraft and for trials at
the newly erected mast at Cardington. Instead of the little "Humming
Bird", the R33 was equipped with two of the RAF's most powerful
fighters, Gloucester Grebes. The idea being that the craft would
not only be used for defence but also to provide ship- to- shore
communications in the same way that a warship uses its boats.
Gloucester Grebe had a loaded weight of just over one ton. One
of the craft was placed amidships and the other one aft of it,
both on retractable trapezes. The ship took off from Pulham on
21st October 1926 under the overall command of Major Scott, and
Squadron Leader Booth acting as Captain. When the ship reached
2,000 ft the rear mounted Grebe released and cleared the ship,
the second Grebe followed suit and both planes flew around the
"mother ship" and returned to base.
R33 terminated her flight at Cardington. Two more Grebes were
flown from the ship when the R33 flew from Cardington to Pulham
on the 23rd November.
showing the launch of the Glocester Grebe
of the last tasks for the R33 was to try out several design structures
in connection with the layout of the new ships.
The R33 was put in to the Pulham shed in November 1926 for long
term storage. She languished there and after metal fatigue was
detected in the framework; she was forced to be dismantled during
her 10 years life the R33 survived being struck by lightning,
as well as being set adrift over the North Sea but provided essential
data for the larger ships, the R100 and R101, and also proved
that the aeroplane and airship could work together. This of course,
was later both used by the German and American rigid airships.
forward part of the control car of the R33 can be seen at the
RAF Museum in Hendon in the upper gallery.