Roll of Honour.
Here we commemorate British men who have lost their lives whilst serving on airships. During WW1 some 63 men were killed, some on the ground either in handler accidents, gas explosions or fires in sheds, or hit by propellers. Others were drowned following crashes at sea, and some were shot down by the enemy. After the war a further 85 men lost their lives in just three incidents with the loss of the NS11, R38 and R101 airships. (This figure does not include the 14 US men who also died in the R38 crash).
In 1915 Britain suffered a series of Zeppelin raids and the government responded by commissioning new airships. Prior to 1914 only a handful of airships had been built in this country and came under the umbrella of the British Army, responsibility later passed to the Royal Navy. Wartime airships were used to escort ships around the coast and to search for German submarines. They were small and initially had crews of only 2-4 men but rapidly developed to carry bigger crews and to fly for longer hours. Given the urgency to produce these airships with little previous expertise to build on, one can only admire individuals at all levels who signed up to what was a rather precarious programme, no doubt fuelled by a real passion for flight.
The list is by no means complete as there are most likely other pre-war and wartime casualties yet to be discovered. Here at least we can salute those we know about.
23.04.1915. Accident at R.N.A.S. Kingsnorth. Handler fell to his death when HMA4 attempted to land.
Leading Mechanic William James Standford was killed in an accident at Kingsnorth Airship Station. He was part of a handling team guiding the approaching HMA No 4 back to land. However a sudden gust of wind caused the airship to swing back upwards and handlers were ordered to let go of their ropes. Sadly William Standford was swept up with his rope and despite frantic efforts by the crew to land the ship he sadly fell to his death. He was 23 years old. (Source - South East History Boards.)
28.07.1915. Explosion in an airship shed at R.N.A.S Wormwood Scrubs. Two fatalities.
21.02.1916 R.N.A.S Kingsnorth. Accident during a test when an airplane was suspended from an airship. Two fatalities.
On 21st February 1916 Wing Commander Neville Florian Usborne and Squadron Commander de Courcy Wyndor Plunkett Ireland both lost their lives taking part in a trial involving an airplane and an airship.
Some preliminary testing had already taken place on the feasibility of suspending an airplane from an airship to take out on patrols. On spotting any zeppelin the plane could then be releasing midair to pursue the enemy. The two men set off in a B.E.2c No.989 suspended from airship A.P.1 from Kingsnorth but as the airship gained altitude a loss of pressure caused it to collapse onto the plane which overturned throwing out Commander Ireland who plummeted into the sea and drowned. The plane then crashed into a goods yard at Strood Railway Station, Medway, in Kent killing Wing Commander Usborne.
Shown left, an announcement in the Flight Magazine of the deaths of Wing Commander Usborne and Commander Ireland.
"Commander NEVILLE FLORIAN USBORNE, R.N. (Wing Commander, R.N.), who is officially reported to have been killed on February 21st, became a midshipman in September, 1898, and in qualifying for the rank of lieutenant won the Ryder Memorial Prize, which is awarded to the sub-lieutenant who passes the best examination in French at the Royal Naval College. He specialised as torpedo lieutenant, and in submarine duties, and in 1905 qualified as an interpreter in German. Commander Usborne was best known for his work in connection with airships. He was appointed to the "Hermione" for service with airships in September, 1910, where he remained until January, 1912. In April of that year he became squadron-commander, Naval Airship Section, Royal Flying Corps, and in October, 1913, was given the command of Naval Airship No. 3. He was promoted commander and wing-commander in June, 1914."
"Lieutenant Commander de COURCY WYNDOR PLUNKETT IRELAND, who is reported to have been killed on February 21st, entered the Navy as a cadet in September, 1901, and was promoted Sub Lieutenant in November, 1904, and Lieutenant in 1906. He became lieutenant-commander in February 1914, and squadron commander in May of last year."
09.06.1916 C8 airship lost at sea. Three fatalities.
The C.8 (Coastal Class) airship was built at Kingsnorth and was trialled in May 1916. On the 9th June 1916 she crashed in the Channel around Plymouth en route to Mullion airship base. Cause unknown. Her captain Flight Lieutenant Cecil William Dickinson, Chief Petty Officer Mechanics Ernest Bernard Ames and George Palmer all drowned. They are all commemorated at the Chatham Naval Memorial. (Source - IWM and CWGC.)
09.09.1916 R.N.A.S Kingsnorth. Handler hit by propeller.
LAC2 Charles Edward Goff was killed in an accident at Kingsnorth Airship Station on 9th September 1916. According to records he was struck on the head by an airship propeller. More details of his life can be found in the Merton Wartime Generation Archives webpages.
23.10.1916 SS.18 R.N.A.S. Anglesey. Wrecked at sea. One fatality.
The S.S.18 (Submarine Scout) suffered severe damage when attempting to land at Anglesey airship station and drifted away coming down in the Irish Sea. Crew member Air Mechanic 1st Class James William Young was killed in the wreckage. (Source - R.A.F Museum Story Vault.)
31.01.1917 Coastal airship C22. Accident at Mullion R.N.A.S. One fatality.
Air Mechanic 1st Class W H Hart was killed in an accident at R.N.A.S. Mullion in Cornwall on 31st January 1917. A.M. Hart who served on the C22 airship was struck by a propeller and later died of his injuries. He is buried at Enfield (Lavender Hill) Cemetery. Middx.
(Ref CWGC and www. rcawsey.co.uk).
19.04.1917 Gas explosion at R.N.A.S Pulham. Two fatalities.
Two casualties were reported after an explosion at the gas plant at Pulhan Airship Station. Lt George Walker Wildman was killed instantly and Air Mechanic George Woolnough three days later. There is more information about Lt Walker on the Board of Trade Memorial website which commemorates former employees killed in service.
21.04.1917. Costal airship C17 shot down at sea. Five fatalities.
The C17 (Coastal) was based at Pulham. On 21st April 1917 captained by Flt- Sub-Lt Edward Jackson she set off on a routine coastal patrol with five crew on board. Contact was soon lost and it was later confirmed that the ship had been shot down over the North Sea at North Foreland Kent. No bodies were recovered. Flt-Sub-Lt Jackson, CPO Mech 3 Arthur Chivers, Ldg Mech David Farquar, and Air Mechanic John Monroe are all listed on the Commonwealth War Graves however the inscription refers to Airship C7 in error. (Source IWM Lives of the First World War).
23.04.1917 Coastal airship C11. RNAS Howden. Accident in fog. One fatality.
Coastal Airship C11 was based at Howden. On 23rd April 1917 the ship was returning from a patrol in heavy fog and ran into a hill near Scarborough. The ship was severely damaged and all the crew sustained injuries. Air Mechanic Percy Dear was critically injured and died five days later on 28th April 1917.
The inscription on the base of Percy Dears headstone shown right reads as follows: "THIS MONUMENT WAS ERECTED BY HIS OFFICERS AND COMRADES OF THE ROYAL NAVAL AIR STATION AT HOWDEN. YORKSHIRE."
26.05.1917 Kingsnorth Airship Station. Fire in gas plant. Two fatalities.
20.07.1917 S.S.39 Cranwell. Three handlers fell to their deaths when the airship was swept upwards.
A terrible accident at R.N.A.S Training Establishment Cranwell on 20.07.1917 resulted in the deaths of three servicemen. Following a routine training flight the S.S.39 (Submarine Scout) was being led into a shed by a handling party when it began to rise up. Whilst the majority of the handling team let go of their ropes as they were trained to do sadly three handlers were swept up with the ship and tragically fell to their deaths. Lt Col Clive Maitland Waterlow who was overseeing procedure was one of the men killed.. His death was a particular blow as he had long been associated with the airship programme originally under the umbrella of the army. (Source - Great War Lives Lost and the British Jews in the First World War website.)
21.07.1917 Coastal Airship C11a. R.N.A.S. Howden. Ship came down in River Humber. Four fatalities.
Shown left is a press report of the inquests of four men who lost their lives when airship C11a burst into flames and came down in the River Humber. East Yorks. Transcript below:
"VERDICT OF ACCIDENTAL DEATHS.
A verdict of accidental death was returned at inquests held on Tuesday on Louis Duncan Morrison (31), Flight- Commander R.N.A.S. William Baker Hervey, (33) Lieutenant R.N.A.S and Henry Richard Ward (19) Second Class Air Mechanic R.N.A.S who were drowned on the East Coast on Saturday. So far as a witness knew it was an accident.
The remains of the late Flight-Commander Morrison were accorded full naval honours at the funeral on Tuesday. The remains were conveyed on a gun carriage and the Air Service and Navy paid their final tribute. Buglers sounded the last post and a firing party fired volleys over the grave.
HUMBERSIDE DISCOVERY -
An inquest was held at New Holland on the body recovered on the previous day. The remains were identified as those of Harold Frank Moore, an air mechanic. He was 19 years of age. Arthur Booth, a carpenter gave evidence of recovering the body. A verdict of accidental drowning was returned.”
*N.B. Ces Mowthorpe states that five men were killed in this accident in his book "Battlebags" but to date I can only find evidence of four so will continue researching. - Jane.
12.09.1917 S.S.42a. R.N.A.S. Pembroke. Airship wrecked at sea. Two fatalities.
The SS42a (Submarine Scout) airship based at Pembroke crashed into a farm building whilst landing in the dark. The damaged airship then drifted out to sea. The two crew members were reported missing presumed drowned.
26.11.1917 S.S.P2 R.N.A.S Caldale. Airship lost at sea. Three fatalities.
The SSP2 (Sea Scout Pusher) operated from RNAS Caldale, Orkney. On a routine coastal patrol her pilot Ft Lt Edward Bourchier Devereux reported engine failure and requested assistance on returning to base. The ship was later spotted landing on the sea immediately followed by an explosion. All three of the crew on board were lost.
11.12.1917 Coastal airship C27 based at Pulham. Airship shot down at sea off the Norfolk Coast. Five fatalities.
Coastal airship C27 was based at Pulham, Norfolk. On the morning of Dec 11th 1917 the airship left Pulham to patrol the Norfolk coast. By mid-morning contact was lost. It was later confirmed that the ship had been shot down in flames and had crashed into the sea. All five crew on board were killed.
20.12.1917 S.S.Z7 based at R.N.A.S Polgate collided with S.S.Z10 in thick fog. One fatality.
On 20th December 1917 the S.S.Z.7 (Sea Scout Zero) with a three man crew set out from R.N.A.S Polgate on a routine patrol along the Sussex coast. Weather conditions soon deteriorated with a thick fog descending and the airship was ordered to return to base. The thickening fog made observations increasingly difficult and the airship moored down at Beachy Head along the coast. However, following fierce gales the ship was instructed to return to base, but the flight was further hampered by falling snow. Due to poor visibility the crew mistakenly believed the ship was approaching Polgate and collided with the moored S.S.Z10 at nearby Jevington. The collision caused both ships to catch fire. Two of the crew escaped but were badly injured, but the pilot Flt Sub-Lt. Richard Swallow was killed.
21.12.1917 S.S.P4 based at R.N.A.S. Caldale. Orkney. Airship lost at sea during a heavy snowstorm. Three fatalities.
On 21st December 1917 SSP 4 (Sea Scout Pusher) was on submarine patrol to the north of the Orkney Isles. The airship ran into a severe snowstorm and despite earlier communications, all contact was lost. Wreckage of the ship was found the next day and returned to Caldale but none of the bodies of the three man crew were ever found. Source: Website of the Aviation Research Group Orkney & Shetland where a full report is recorded.
13.04.1918 S.S.Z15 based at RAF Toller* in Dorset. Ship came down in sea. Three fatalities.
* Sometimes referred to as Bridport.
The S.S.Z 15 (Submarine Scout Zero Class) left Toller a sub-station of R.N.A.S Mullion in Cornwall on a routine channel patrol. It was spotted later that evening landing in the sea and boats were sent to assist. However none of the three man crew were on board and were missing presumed drowned.
10.05.1918 C23a Mullion, Cornwall. Airship wrecked at sea. One fatality.
The C23a (Coastal Airship) was based at Mullion station in Cornwall. The ship came down at sea and whilst four of the crew were rescued Wireless Operator Albert William Robinson drowned.
22.06.1918 N.S.3 based at RAF East Fortune. Ship came down in sea. Five fatalities.
The NS.3 was based at East Fortune, North Berwick, Scotland. On the evening of June 21st 1918 she set out on routine convoy duty only to run into very strong winds. The ship battled to return home to safety but eventually came down in the sea off Dunbar. Five crew were lost.
25.07.1918 Kingsnorth. Rigger overcome with gas in airship shed.
On 26.07.1918 Rigger George Pendleton was overcome with gas in an airship shed at Kingsnorth.
(Ref CWGC and www. rcawsey.co.uk).
31.07.1918 C25 based at East Fortune. Lost at sea believed shot down. Four fatalities.
The C25 (Coastal airship.)was based at East Fortune, Scotland. She disappeared on patrol on July 31st 1918 after leaving the base for Longside. It was presumed she had been shot down by a German U boat. Both ship and crew were never found. All crew are commemorated at the Hollybrook Memorial at Southampton.
16.08.1918 R27. Howden. Ship caught fire in shed. One fatality.
The R27 was destroyed by fire whilst lodged in a shed at Howden. In a well meaning gesture a US crew began assembling an unauthorised airship in the shed. A spark ignited petrol resulting in a fire that rapidly spread though the shed. Private Austin Willaim Hicks was killed in the fire.
Shown left airship R27. (Image ref IWM Q 48019).
30.08.1918 S.S.T. 6 based at Kingsnorth. Ship caught fire on trial flight. Five fatalities.
The S.S.T. 6 (Sea Scout Twin) was delivered to Kingsnorth Airship Station on 29th of August 1918. Sadly the ship burst into flames on its first trial flight the following day resulting in the deaths of all five crew members on board.
24.09.1918 Accident at Cranwell. Air Mechanic hit by propeller.
On September 24th 1918 Air Mechanic 3rd Class Frederick James Coombs was killed when hit by a rotating airship propeller at RAF Cranwell Airship Training centre.
(Ref CWGC and www. rcawsey.co.uk).
Post WW1 Fatalities.
15.07.1919 N.S. 11 based at Pulham Airship Station. Ship exploded over the sea. Nine fatalities.
The N.S. 11 (North Sea Scout) was one of a small group of airships retained after WW1 for mine sweeping duties. On July 15th 1919 the airship exploded over the sea north of Cromer, Norfolk, killing all 9 crew on board. The cause of the explosion was not established although there were suggestions that it was struck by lightning. Only one body of the crew was recovered – that of Sgt Charles Lewry. The remaining eight crew members are commemorated at the Hollybrook memorial at Southampton.
In depth information about this ship and crew can be found on www.ns11.org - a long standing website dedicated to the North Sea airships particularly the NS11.
24.08.1921 R38 crashed over the River Humber. 28 UK crew and officials killed along with 14 US crew and officers.
Shown left is the memorial at Hull Cemetery for the 28 British crew and 14 US crew who were lost when the R38 airship crashed in the River Humber. More details of these men can be found in the R38 pages of this website.
12.03.1927 LAC Ernest Dobbs lost his life in a Balloon Jumping accident.
Below is an extract taken from a BBC News article by Bethan Bell published 31st Oct 2016.
"Aircraftman "Brainy" Dobbs was a fan of "balloon hopping" - a largely-forgotten sport of the 1920s which involved the participant being harnessed to a gas balloon before bouncing across the landscape. Dobbs, a parachutist in the RAF, was a trailblazer for the pastime. This came to an abrupt halt in 1927, when he was at Stag Lane aerodrome in Hendon, north London. Dobbs was making gigantic leaps across the field, rising to over 100 ft. and then settling back to earth before propelling himself once more into the air. Unfortunately he sailed into electric power cables and died.”
LAC Ernest Arthur Dobbs was known as “Brainy Dobbs” for his many scientific inventions. He had worked alongside Air Commodore Edward Maitland* and assisted in many of Maitland's experiments with parachutes and the development of rubber boats. Both men showed little fear when dropped from balloons testing their very experimental parachutes. LAC Dobbs served at Howden airship station and was responsible for the parachute training of the crews. This brave young man was only 26 years old when he was killed in the balloon hopping accident and certainly deserves his place on this Roll of Honour. He was born in Limehouse, Tower Hamlets, in London in 1900 and is buried at Chingford Mount Cemetery. His epitaph reads “In science he leaped to fame and in the cause he met his death.”
(*Air Commodore Maitland was killed in the R38 airship accident on Aug 24th 1921.)
04.10.1930 The R101 built at Cardington, Bedford, crashed in Beauvais, Francc. 48 fatalities.
The much heralded R101 airship crashed in France on October 4th 1930 with the loss of 48 of the 54 men on board. The airship was to be the start of a worldwide commercial travel enterprise.
The crash caused the loss of some of the leading lights in airship innovation and sealed the end of British airship production.
More details of this ship and crew can be found in the R101 pages of this website.
The R101 crew.
Officials of the Royal Airship Works.
Officicers of the R101.
Passengers on board.
Tracking down some of these individuals has been quite difficult, I have been unable to find photographs for the majority of those named. On the plus side as well as commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission some men are also listed on their local community War Memorials which sometimes yield further information. Other snippets have been gleaned from the Find A Grave database run by volunteers up and down the country and this has proved invaluable. Sources also include the Hollybrook Memorial at Southampton created to honour individuals whose bodies were never found during the war, and the Imperial War Museum. - Jane Harvey 2020.