With the outbreak of the war
the threat to British shipping became apparent to the Admiralty.
It was realised that with airships, they had an instrument which
could protect the shipping by spotting the submarine threats.
An order for the construction
of a fleet of small blimps was put forward, and for
their completion to be made as soon as possible.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
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. Seven 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
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.
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
As soon as the SS airship
programme was rushed in to operating in ealy 1915 the work of
construction was transferred from the 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 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 versitile
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