No airships of the larger types, suitable for distant reconnaissance with the fleet, were in the service of Great Britain during the Great War. The building and manoeuvring of airships is not a pastime within the reach of a private purse. The British Government had taken advantage of the enterprise and rivalry of private makers of aeroplanes, whom it wisely permitted to run the risks and show the way. No such policy was possible in the manufacture of airships, which was essentially a Government business. There was therefore, it is perhaps not fanciful to say, something agreeable to the German temper, and disagreeable to the English temper, in the airship as a weapon of war. The Germans put an absolute trust in their Government.
The German navy was a powerful and splendid growth, fostered by the Government. But it was a forced growth, and the failure of the German operations at sea, regarded broadly, must be credited not to the British navy, but to the whole body of British seamen, naval and civilian. The British navy was at its appointed stations ; the temper of a seafaring people, self-reliant, resourceful, and indomitable, was everywhere, and shone like a phosphorescence over thousands of unregarded acts of sacrifice.
In 1909, the Admiralty decided to experiment with rigid airships, the outcome of this decision being Naval Airship No. 1 which showed by its failure to rise that it was not a simple matter to construct these vessels, and when lightened by alteration of construction, it broke in two in 1911. It was given out the following year that the prospects of using this type of airship were not sufficient to justify the great cost.
The nation that was to be the main enemy in the greatest war of all time thought otherwise, and backed their opinion, continuing to construct and improve on the Zeppelin model, with the result that on many occasions, and notably in their dire need at the battle of Jutland Bank, they reaped the reward of their consistent policy of enterprise and at relatively infinitesimal cost.
Airships chiefly concerned the Royal Navy. The question was not whether the Admiralty were willing to take up experimental work with a newfangled invention, but whether they could afford to neglect a weapon of uncertain value, which might prove to be a determining factor in war. The Admiralty responded in September 1912, when the naval airship section, which had been disbanded earlier in the year, was reconstituted.
In July 1913 Mr. Winston Churchill, the then First Lord of the Admiralty, who regularly gave his strong support to naval aeronautics, approved of the construction of two rigid airships and six non-rigid airships. Treasury sanction was obtained for this program. The rigid airships were to be built by Messrs. Vickers at Barrow-in-Furness. Of the six non-rigids, three were to be of the Parseval type, and three of the Forlanini type. One of the Parsevals was to be built in Germany, and two by Messrs. Vickers, who had succeeded in obtaining a licence for the construction of this type of ship ; one of the Forlaninis was to be built in Italy, and two by Messrs. Armstrong Whitworth. When the war broke out, the Parseval airship completing in Germany was confiscated by the German Government; and the Forlanini airship, under process of construction in Italy, was retained by the Italian Government. The building of one of the rigid airships had just begun, and work on it was for a time abandoned.
The British also used nonrigid airships to patrol their coasts and rigid airships for convoy protection against German submarines. The British expression "blimp" came into use during World War I as a slang term for nonrigid airships. Its origin is unknown.
The British method of erecting an airship was different from the German in that they build the rings in a horizontal position and attach thereto a portion of the horizontal girders in a vertical position. The structure is then handled by means of block and falls, with a slip noose, so that it can be transferred from a vertical to a horizontal position.
Rigid airship design and construction was started in Great Britain about 1909, and the first ship underwent so many changes and "improvements" that after it was filled with gas and launched on 22 May 1911, the "May-fly," as it was popularly called, did not fly - it was too heavy. The first non-German rigid dirigible met with a disastrous accident upon leaving its shed 24 September 1911 a few months after its completion. It had been building for over two years at Barrow-in-Furness, by Vickers, Ltd., and was designed to embody the best features of Continental construction. It was the largest dirigible constructed to date, having a gas capacity of 700,000 cubic feet. It was over 500 feet in length, forty-eight feet in diameter, and had a lifting capacity of twenty-one tons. It was driven by two Wolseley engines each of 200-horsepower. The airship was designed for a capacity of twenty-two passengers and crew, and cost the British government over $200,000 at the time of its completion and launching. The rigid framework contains seventeen independent gas chambers, which together formed a cylinder with tapering ends. The accident which destroyed the Mayfly was caused by the failure of the central part of the frame, and deflation of a single compartment due to an accident caused by leaving the shed in a cross wind.
This, however, did not deter them from continuing the development with ultimate success. In 1917 a ship of Class 23 was launched - a cylindrical affair with pointed ends and external keel, following the lines of the early Zeppelin, the power units being suspended beneath the keel and the propellers direct-driven. The three propellers were in line and consequently in each other's slip stream. A fighting airplane was successfully carried and released from this ship, though no successful return to the airship was reported.
In December, 1916, the German airship L-33 was shot down at Colchester, England, which showed stream line construction and suspended nacelles of the Schuette-Lanz type. From this and later captures the airship known as R-33 and R-34 was evolved. Also the British have adopted the Zeppelin method of combining the forward power units with the commander's nacelle. The balonnets are at present made either of silk or cotton fabric, covered with gold-beater's skin.
It was in the R-34 type that the Trans-Atlantic trip of 1919 was made, reaching Mineola, Long Island, after 108 hours in the air. The return trip was made in 75 hours.
These craft were always known by the numbers which they bear. It must be admitted that the method was extremely confusing, but the original intention was to designate each airship owned by the Navy by a successive number. The original airship, the rigid Mayfly, was known as No. 1, the Willows airship No. 2, and so on. These numbers were allocated regardless of type and as each airship was ordered, consequently some of these ships, for example the Forlaninis, never existed. That did not matter, however, and these numbers were not utilized for ships which actually were commissioned. On thetransfer of the army airships, four of these, the Beta, Gamma, Delta and Eta, were given their numbers as they were taken over, together with two ships of the Epsilon class which were ordered from Messrs. Rolls Royce, but never completed. In this way it will be seen that numbers 1 to 22 are accounted for.
In 1915 it was decided to build a large number of small ships for anti-submarine patrol, which were called S.S.'s or Submarine Scouts. It was felt that it would only make confusion worse confounded if these ships bore the original system of successive numbering and were mixed up with those of later classes which it was known would be produced as soon as the designs were completed. Each of these ships was accordingly numbered in its own class, S.S., S.S.P., S.S. Zero, Coastal, C Star and North Sea, from 1 onwards as they were completed.
In the case of the rigids, however, for some occult reason the old system of numbering was persisted in. The letter R is prefixed before the number to show that the ship is a rigid. Hence we have No. 1 a rigid, the second rigid constructed is No. 9, or R 9, and the third becomes R 23. From this number onwards all were rigids and were numbered in sequence as they are ordered, with the exception of the last on the list, which was a ship in a class of itself. This ship the authorities, in their wisdom, have called R 80 - why, nobody knows.
Toward the end of World War I, the British began focusing on rigid airships and built the R34 and R38. The R34 made the first transatlantic roundtrip flight in July 1919, flying from East Fortune, Scotland, to Newfoundland, Canada, back to Mineola, New York, and returning to Pulham, England. It flew about 7,000 miles (11,200 kilometers) in 183 hours and 15 minutes. In January 1921, it was wrecked while landing at Howden, England.
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