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French Naval Airship Service

The French Naval Airship Service was formed in 1916, the British airship station at Marquise, near Boulogne, being taken over on January 1 in that year. Its real progress did not begin, however, until 1917, and it would not have reached its full development until the campaign of 1919. In the early stages great assistance was derived from the collaboration of the Military Airship Service, which had been in existence for many years, and the union of the two services was rendered complete by the formation at the end of 1917 of the Under-Secretariat of State for Military and Naval Aviation.

On the inception of the Service in 1916, three airship stations were commissioned : at Bizerta, Havre and Marquise ; while two further stations were commenced at Rochefort and Aubagne, near Marseilles. In October of the same year a programme was lard down for the establishment of further stations at Montebourg (Cherbourg), Guipavas (Brest), Oran and Alger (both in Africa). The position was, then, at this time that nine stations were proposed, of which thiee only were in existence, there being one shed at each station. In July, 1917, a further program was approved involving the construction of stations at Paimbceuf, Arcachon, Ajaccio and Corfu. At the same time the number of sheds at most of the stations previously mentioned was doubled, the size of the new sheds being 79 ft. by 92 ft. by 492 ft. in place of the 65 £ ft. by 72 ft. by 492 ft. of the earlier type. In addition, doors were provided at both ends and windscreens were fitted.

In January, 1918, the program was again increased from 13 to 17 stations, by the laying down of a new station at Treport, the taking-over of a portion of the military stations at St. Cyr and Issy-les-Moulineaux, and the establishment of an American airship station at Brest. At the time of the Armistice, 14 but of this total of 17 stations were in commission, with 22 sheds in all ; the stations at Ajaccio, Treport, and Arcachon (American) not having been completed.

At the end of 1916 there were six airships in commission :- Four scouts ; three S.S. type, purchased from Great Britain, of 60,000 cub. ft. capacity, and one Zodiac of 70,000 cub. ft. which had been presented to the Service. One "Coastal" of 170,000 cub. ft. capacity, purchased from Great Britain. The " Tunisie " of 370,000 cub. ft. capacity, taken over from the military authorities. This was a somewhat heterogeneous collection, and it was, therefore, decided to evolve classes of ship suitable for the particular work required of them.

The general functions for which the airships were to be used were threefold : submarine patrols, escort of convoys, location of mines. The matter was further complicated by the fact that the airships would be required to operate in different localities : in narrow seas with moderate temperatures, such as the Channel ; over seas where high temperatures would be met with and of considerable width, such as the Mediterranean, and in the Atlantic for the protection of convoys of troops and munitions coming from America. The airships for use in the Channel must be handy, numerous and fast; while their range need only be small.

The following specification was evolved to fulfil these requirements :-

Engines Two 80 h.p. Renault.
Range Six hours at a full speed of 45 m.p.h., or
12 hours at cruising speed (35 m.p.h.).
Weight of bombs 220 lbs.
Ballast 800 lbs.
Total lift 2,500 lbs.
This involved a capacity of 90,000 cub. ft. This "Scout" type was designed to do the work carried out by the British "S.S." of 70,000 cub. ft. capacity, but it had the advantage of being provided with two engines instead of one, which gave greater security.

Five of these scouts were ordered in 1916, and commenced operations in 1917. Ten more of the same type, ordered at the end of 1917, were put into service during 1918, while an additional eight, of slightly larger size (110,000 cub. ft.), fitted with larger engines, totalling 300 h.p., were ordered at the beginning of 1918, and began to come forward in December of the same year. These airships were known as the " V.Z." (Vedette Zodiac) type, and were numbered 1 to 23.

Counting the two British *' S.S." already mentioned, and two more of the " S.S. Zero " type bought from England in 1917, France then put into commission about 20 non-rigid " Scouts " before the signing of the Armistice. These airships located and attacked, during the ten months of the 1918 campaign, about 15 submarines, in addition to their ordinary patrol and convoy work. These scouts were, however, of insufficient range for seas less narrow than the Channel, and also carried too few bombs, so a larger type was found to be necessary. For this work greater range was necessary, besides a general increase of weather worthiness, and improved comfort for the crew.

The Zodiac scouts had been based upon the British " S.S." type, but there was in existence no prototype for the special requirements of these larger airships : Italy, for example, using her airships almost solely for bombing purposes, while the British ships were (at that time) only used for patrols near the coast-line.

Owing to the urgency of the need it was decided to appeal again to the French military authorities, pending the time when a suitable type could be evolved. In addition to the " Tunisie," which had been based upon Bizerta, the military airship service accordingly handed over six further airships in#April, 1917. These were: The " Champagne" and " d'Arlandes " (500,000 cub. ft.) ; the " Lorraine " (370,000 cub. ft.) ; the " Caussin " (320,000 cub. ft.) ; and the " Fleurus " and " Montgolfier " (training ships of no military value).

These six airships permitted of the immediate equipment of Corfu and Paimbceuf, the completion of Bizerta, and the establishment of a training centre at St. Cyr. The work which was done by these six airships is evidenced by the fact that in one month (October, 1917) the " d'Arlandes " alone discovered 18 mines at Corfu in the course of her duties in escorting convoys of troops for the East.

The military establishment at Chalais-Meudon further produced, commencing from the end of 1916, four airships of 200,000 cub. ft. capacity, which were commissioned at the beginning of 1916. These were to a similar specification to the Astra airships, of which mention will be made shortly. The Military Airship authorities thus in a period of two years provided 11 airships for the use of the Naval branch. At the same time the Naval Service turned their attention to the evolution of airships specially designed for their purpose. In the first place, four experimental airships (" A.T." 1-4) of the Astra-Torres type were ordered from the Astra Co. of Billancourt to the following specification :-.

Capacity 230,000 cub. ft.
Engines Two Renault of 150 h.p. each carried on gantries.
Range Ten hours at full speed (50 m.p.h.) or
20 hours at cruising speed (30-35 m.p.h.).
Weight of Armament 260 lbs.
Ballast 1,500 lbs.
It was found that the weight of bombs was insufficient, and consequently in the 10 further ships (" A.T." 5-9, of 260,000 cub. ft., and " Z.D." 1-5) ordered from the Astra and Zodiac companies respectively, in October, 1916, this was increased from 260 lbs. to 550 lbs. These 10 airships were commissioned at the end of 1917 and beginning ot 1918.

It was then found that submarines were frequently able to submerge and escape before the airships could arrive in position for bombing, and it was decided to fit a 47 mm. gun with a muzzle velocity of 1,000 ft. per second. This was tried experimentally in the "Caussin," "A.T. 9" and " Z.D.5," with such success that eight airships of 300,000 cub. ft. capacity fitted with these guns were ordered under the 1917 program. These airships, which came into service at the beginning of 1918, carried 800 lbs. of bombs in addition to the gun and ammunition. It was still found, however, that the German submarines of the cruiser class which had 6-inch guns could drive off attacks from these airships, and accordingly still larger airships with bigger guns and increased range were ordered. A total of 13 were commenced in 1918, due for delivery at the end of 1918 and beginning of 1919. Of these six were built by the Astra Co., three by the Zodiac Co., and four at Chalais-Meudon. Eight of them were sold to the American Navy.

All these airships, of which the capacity varied according to the constructor from 360,000 to 420,000 cub. ft., were built to the following specification

Engines Two of 250 h.p., each fitted on gantries.
Range 14 hours at full speed (50 m.p.h.), or
about 30 at cruising speed.
Crew Ten.
Armament 75 mm. airship gun
with a muzzle velocity of 880 ft. per second,
and 880 lbs. of bombs.
Ballast 1,500 to 1,800 lbs.
They were provided with an enclosed pilot's cabin fitted with windows and sleeping quarters. The first ships of this class were ready for inflation at the date of the signing of the Armistice, and they were, therefore, never actually used on service.

During the War, in addition to the 20 scouts, 39 airships (23 Astra, 8 Zodiac, and 8 Chalais-Meudon) were specially built for the French Navy, of which about 25 were actually commissioned, in addition to six bought from England and 11 taken over from the Army. At the cessation of hostilities there were 14 airship stations in existence. More than 60 submarines were located and attacked, while upwards of 100 mines were destroyed. Five airships were delivered \>y air from Paris to Algeria, the normal duration of patrols being 12 to 15 hours. In October, 1918, " A.T. n " carried out a flight lasting for 36 hours.

During 1917 a rigid airship of 2,000,000 cub. ft. capacity was ordered, fitted with a 75 mm. gun and to have an endurance of 20 hours at full speed (55-60 m.p.h.), while being capable of remaining in the air for three days at cruising speed. In 1918 plans were prepared for 11 more rigids of similar design, and for the building of three rigid airship stations (one on the Atlantic, and two in the Mediterranean). None of these had appeared by 1919, though it is reported that the French Government propose to use at any rate three of them for running an experimental mail service.

The Capitaine Caussin was one of several different types of French airships operated by U.S. Naval Aviation forces in France during WW I and in the postwar period. Cmdr. Louis H. Maxfield, U.S.N., was in charge of the U.S. Rigid Air Detachment in training at Howden, and was to be the Commanding Officer of the ill-fated R.38 airship on the flight to America, was born in 1883 at St. Paul, Minnesota. He entered the Naval Aviation service in 1914, and was promoted to Temporary Commander in 1918. During the War he was in command of the U.S. Naval Station at Painbaeuf, France, and served with distinction. During a flight in the French airship "Capitaine Caussin" he dived overboard from a great height and rescued an enlisted man who had fallen overboard.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2012 19:26:37 ZULU