North Sea Airships NS3, NS9 and NS12

North Sea Airships NS3, NS9 and NS12

P. E. Maitland

The ‘North Sea’ Airships were designed by the Admiralty for long range service in the Northern areas of the North Sea and were built at R.N. Airship Station Kingsnorth, Rochester, in 1917. The engine installation and car were unsatisfactory and several of the first of these airships has very serious trouble in their trial flights.

In September 1917 N.S.1 and N.S.3 were sent to the R.N. Airship Station Longside to take part in a long-range exercise with a portion of the Fleet from Scapa Flow in conjunction with the Coastal Airships from that Station. This involves a flight of some 60 miles out to sea to meet the ships and a patrol making a total of some 10 hours flying. Luckily the wind was not from the West and was moderate. I took part in C.14 and see from my log that our flight was 9 1/2 hours, quite a long time to sit in the open cockpit of this type of airship.

Both N.S. Airships has serious defects and could not return to their station at East Fortune, near N. Berwick, until 3 months later.The Admiralty then grounded the three or four N.S. Airships that were flying until a modified new design could be produced, and the existing ships modified at Kingsnorth.

The submarine menace had become very serious and the area up to 100 miles from North to East of peterhead was of particular importance as it was through here that the german submarines passed on their way to the Atlantic, and also the area in which Allied convoys converged from the Atlantic and from Scandinavia on their way to or from the British East Coast ports.

Longside was then the furthest north base for airships or airplanes, so that the air support for the anti-submarine work fell largely on the airships from Lenabo. The range of operation was proving far too great for the existing “Coastal” airships and larger airships were urgently needed.

In these circumstances the Captain of N.S.3 Lieutenant Commander Wheelwright RNAS and the Station Engineer Officer Lieutenant G. Abell RNVR obtained permission to modify N.S.3 to their own design. The work was done at East Fortune and in 3 months the airship was deflated, the engine mounting and the car altered and many modifications made, and on March 12 flew a trial flight and a 9 hour flight with Admiralty officials on board ending with a full speed trial of 53 knots. The Admiralty were tardy with their permission to allow the N.S.3 to be used on patrol and it was not until April 3 when the airship was flown to Kingsnorth and back at 3/4 power, a 22 hours flight at an average speed of 46 knots, that permission to patrol was at last granted. The airship proved a great improvement on its predecessors in many ways. The longest flight was for 55 hours after which the airship was recalled due to bad weather.

Unfortunately on June 21 we were caught out by a South Westerly gale while escorting a convoy over night, while off Stonehouse. In very rough and turbulent weather on our way home, in the mouth of the Firth of Forth some portion of the envelope tore and the ship lost height rapidly until a few miles North East of the Born Light she hit the sea at full speed and the engine car with the two engineers was torn out; the airship slowly rose to a few hundred feet in a vertical position and crashed into the sea. The car submerged at once and the crew were under water with the envelope spread over them. Five of the crew were lucky enough to surface and which they were able to reach and get on to, whilst the bows of the airship remained partially inflated. After an hour or two they were rescued by a destroyer and the airship was sunk by gun fire.

by this time the improved N.S. of the Admiralty design were being produced at Kingsnorth. I had been 2nd Officer in N.S.3 and together with the 1st W/T operator went down to rochester to take over the new N.S.9 and after doing acceptance trials flew back to Longside in 11 1/2 hours on july 31st. A strong force of N.S., C & C ships, and S.S Zero airships were operating from Lenabo. The S.S. Zero was based at Lenabo but they also operated from clearings in woodlands near the coast and near the coastal convoy route, from Aberdeen southwards.

During August and September the air station at Lenabo was very busy on convoy work and also on special operations in which anti-submarine surface craft had laid nets armed with mines across routes on what was thought to be the path of submarines going into the Atlantic and also of submarines known to have been damaged which we’re returning to Germany. The strength of the airships at Lenabo was then I think four North Sea, and four Coastal airships and S.S.Z. airships. The S.S.Z did not usually patrol as far out as the “net” operation but at least one did and ran out of petrol there and had to be towed back to the coast.

On September 21st N.S.9 and 10 and two coastal airships were caught out by a sudden South Westerly gale. N.S.9 had been out on a long patrol to the Eastward and after 11 hours was recalled due to rising winds. Two Coastal airships has in turn landed, but the squalls and turbulence in the lee of the airship sheds made them very difficult to get to the doors and they were “ripped”  to make way for the two larger N.S. ships. All airships had a panel at the top which could be pulled out by a cord in an emergency and the gas would then escape quickly and the airship collapse.

N.S.10 landed and was taken in hand by the landing party of some 400 men who got her into the entrance of the shed, but the turbulence and squalls were so strong that to avoid a total loss their ship was “ripped” and made way for N.S.9 and she repeated the process. Both ships could have been repaired and reinflated in a month or so.

The crew of N.S.9 were sent down to Kingsnorth to take over the next airship, N.S.12, and a month later were back at Longside and had just time to escort a large North bound convoy from Montrose to Rattray Head, a 12 hour flight in company with N.S.4 and C x 7, before the Armistice came.

In November N.S.11 and N.S.12 patrolled over to the Norwegian coast and returned, a flight or 24 hours, and later N.S.12 made a flight of 43 1/2 hours with a south bound convoy from Orkneys to Stonehaven.

N.S.12 was then deflated by orders of the Air Ministry. I took her Union Jack which she and N.S.9 had flown and went south to become a Navigation Instructor and later a pilot in the R.A.F.

Original account held by RAF Museum reference DC76/92.