It was as far back as
1912 that the land for the airship station in Pulham was
purchased. The Admiralty had decided that an airship station
was needed and so Thomas Gaze and Son, surveyors and land
agents, were given secret orders to acquire land for the
establishment of an Air Station.
The orders were that
the purchasers of the land were to be kept top secret. In
Pulham St. Mary and Rushall 500 acres were bought including
Upper Vaunces Farm, Brick Kiln and Home Farm. Civilian contractors
with the aid of the Air Construction Corps, cleared and
levelled the site for the 100 R.N. personnel to move in
By the end of the World War I, they numbered over 3000.
The site, after clearing was set and the sheds were erected
during 1915 and the site was commissioned during February
1916. However the first operational coastal airship was
not delivered until August of 1916.
These became known as
"Pulham Pigs" from their yellowish-buff envelope and this
nickname later included all later ships. Their patrol area
extended between a line from Margate to Dunkirk in the south
and from Mablethorpe to Holland in the North, with the smaller
SS types patrolling closer inshoreIn mid-1916, German floatplanes
operating from occupied Belgium shot down two of Pulham's
Coastals and this patrol area was handed over to aeroplanes.
The coastal original shed at Pulham was a wooden structure
which was suitable for the smaller non rigid class ships,
of Submarine Scout Class, and larger Coastal Class airships.
1917, although a naval base, Pulham was commanded by Colonel
Edward Maitland. Pulham was the H.Q. for a specialist unit
dealing with the construction of airfields. Parachute Experimental
Staff were also stationed there and Colonel Maitland, already
the first man to descend from an airship, made a successful
drop from the "C17" at 1000 ft. over Pulham.
Shed 1 under construction 1915
next became an experimental station and received two much
larger steel-framed sheds to house the new "rigid" ships.
It also functioned as a staging post for airships shuttling
between the construction at Kingsnorth in Kent and the more
In September 1917, the
No.23 and R26 arrived at the station. Pulham had only just
received its earliest rigid airships, No.9 and No.23 when
one of the latest German Zeppelins, the L33 was brought
down relatively intact in North Essex. Colonel Maitland
immediately camped out at the site, directing a team of
naval architects and engineers to record every detail of
her construction. From their drawings, Britain's first really
modern "rigid" airship was built at Selby bearing the number
R33. The first high mast was developed in Pulham where a
mast erected and an airship was able to dock, the crew could
alight the ship, and also be refuelled and ballasted at
the same time. The advantages of a high mast was that an
airship could be moored both day and night, along with the
fact that a craft could take up moorings in windspeeds of
up to 35 knots.
The first mast was a
lattice mast constructed by Vickers, with the intention
that it should be erected at Barrow-in-Furness, but in May
1918, the decision was made to errect it at Pulham. The
Vickers mast was a comparatively short tower, 120ft high,
was capped by a mooring attachment which allowed the moored
craft to swing through a full 360 degrees so that it would
face the wind at all times. A fundamental advantage of the
new system was that only a dozen or so men were needed to
secure the craft, instead of the large ground handling party
required earlier. This was of particular importance during
a period of austerity and financial restrictions.
the new mast was deemed a prototype, it had no lift to enable
the ship's crew or passengers to reach the top in comfort.
Insread they had to climb the many steps up the outside
of the tower to reach the rotating cap at the top. Entry
to the ship was gained by means of a circular platform encircling
the cap, from which one clambered up through a hatch in
the nose of the ship
2 under constuction, later removed and re-errected and enlarged
as shed 2 at Cardington
No.24, the second ship of the 23 Class, was flown from Howden
to Pulham on 31st May, 1918, with the intention that she would
be used for mast mooring trials, but is was not until March
1919, that the mast was setup at Pulham. No. 24 was fittted
with a modified nose cone, a bow coupling which and additional
ballast tanks, and her midship gondola was removed before
trials could begin.
The No.24 was moored at the mast for the first time on 11th
June, remaining on the mast until 30th June. The ship was
taken from the mast for inspection and minor modifications,
but was back on the mast from 1st September to 15th October,
and again from 7th November until mid December. In these experiments
the mooring cable was attached to the mast whist the ship
was on the gound, and no "yaw guys" were used to
steady the ships nose, as she approached the masthead. Two
men remained on duty in the control car and one below during
her sojourn on the mast, so that water ballast could be taken
aboard by hose if she became light, and began to ride up.
Gas could be fed in if she became to heavy for a discharge
of ballast to be beneficial. During the ships total of sixty-two
days on the mast, in all weathers the ship coped with wind
speeds of 45mph without trouble.
Whilst at Pulham, No.24
tested a system involving the use of ropes to guide the
ship down; this was not found to be satisfactory, though
it did lead to the development of a more functional system
some time later. H.M.A No.24 was deleted before the end
of the year, and it was left to the R.33 and R.36 to carry
on the mooring trials at Pulham.
The revolving masthead was later fitted with an attachment
designed at Cardington. Named the Bedford-Pulham mooring
attachment, it comprised an elaborate arrangement of cables
intended to facilitate the linking of an airship to the
tower. One ran from a winch at the base of the tower, through
an attachment at the top and then out at a downward angle
to another attachment set in a large concrete square on
the airfield some distance from the tower. At this end was
a quick-coupling device.
Airships equipped to user this morring arrangement carried
a similar cable and coupling attachment in their bow section.
To moor, the airship slowly approached the concrete square
at a low altitude and in line with the cable running up
to the top of the tower. The airships's cable and coupling
attachment was lowered and a member of the gound crew, positioned
adjacent to the concrete square and lower attachment, prepared
to receive the cable. Great caution had to be exercised
at this juncture as the airships passage through the air
had generated considerable static electricity, which would
earth itself as soon as the cable was close to the ground.
To save himself from a almost fatal shock, the ground crew
member had to ensure that hte cable had touched the ground
before he attempted to retrieve it.
When all was safe, the airships cable was attached to the
ground cable and the cable would be gradually wound up towards
the top of the tower. Eventually the nose of the airship
reached the mooring attachement on the tower to and fastened
securely to the tower. As the top of the tower revolved,
it allowed the airship to ride into the wind, or weathercock,
in airship terminology. Advanages of this system was that
a craft could thake up moorings in wind speeds up to 35
The new mast was used a great deal and over serveral months
some fifty successful moorings were made by the R.33 under
the supervision of Captain Williams, this involved some
171 hours of flying. On surprising fact which emerged from
these trials was that the craft could be brought up to the
mast and attached in very bad weather conditions. One report
stated that the R.33 was successfully moored when the wind
was gusting at 80mph. The R.33's stint on the Pulham mast
proved that the design was sound and efficient, and that
a great step forward had been taken in ground handling of
airships. Many local residents recall the impressive sight
of the R.33 siding the mast at night, with floodlights shining
on her silver-coated hull; the lights on board gave the
impression of an ociean linder lying in dock.
During her many days
on the mast, the R.33 proved neither rain nor dry snow posed
a problem, but following the destruction of R.26, it was
recognised that wet snow certainly did. Captain F.M Thomas
at Pulham devised a snow clearing gear which consisted of
an endless wire atop the ship between frames 7 and 34, which
dragged lenghts of 2.5 inch hemp rope fore and aft along
the ships cover, to clear the snow which had accumilated
on the top of the hull.
On 3rd June, 1921, a heavy rain squall forced the tail of
the ship to the ground, despite a release of ballast. It
was thought to be the dynamic pressure of the raindrops
rather than the their actual weight that did this. Fortunately,
the tail fin was submerged in a pond, and on that occassion,
the airship escaped damage.
The Pulham mast was
used for a number of years by many of the ships stationed
there. All British rigid airships were fitted with bow mooring
gear and crew/ passenger access. Later development of the
mast lead to a higher mast of some 200ft, which also contained
a lift for easier access for crews, passengers and goods.
1 complete and shed 2 under way. Notice the small Coastal
shed in the top right hand corner.
2 and windbreak in 1917
close up of the huge doors on both sheds.
interior of shed 1
Her sister ship was
the R34 which arrived at Pulham after the armistice of 1918.
By then, Col. Maitland had been succeeded by Maj. A. D.
Cunningham and Major G. H. Scott functioned as chief experimental
An army of maintenance
staff included large numbers of women employed on the station,
many living locally, but others cycling long distances to
get to their duties. They acted as messengers, cleaners,
cooks, gardeners and clerks.
Of the two giant sheds,
Shed 2 was dismantled and re-erected at Cardington where
it was enlarged and can still be seen in use today. The
wooden shed's timbers were reused for the Firs Stadium in
The airship station
continued to play a role in the Imperial Airship scheme
with the housing and reconditioning of the R36 and also
the R33 which were both to be used for experimental purposes,
the results to be passed on to the new ships.
However with the R101 disaster, the station was moved on
to a care and maintenance basis only.
The RAF again took it
over for Maintenance Unit work and also aircraft storeage
and salvage. The area suffered a number of strafing and
bombing attacks in World War II, without serious casualties.
close up view of shed 2 and the upper roof walkway
It was not until 1948
that the last huge shed was dismantled, the landmark on
the Norfolk skyline since 1917. The work was carried out
by the Norwich firm of Harry Pointer (Norwich) Limited.
However the second shed can still be seen today as Number
2 shed at Cardington. The RAF used Pulham for storage and
Maintenance Unit work until closure in 1958
Now cultivated and brought
back into farming, there is little evidence above ground
of the intense activity of the self-contained airship station
Foundations of all
three sheds are intact and the sites of the mooring mast,
the silicol plant building, the steam-raising plant and
the foundations of the gasholders have been located.