By Nick Walmsley
“PULHAM AIRSHIP LOST” and “N.S.11 EXPLODES AND FALLS IN SEA” were the headlines in the Eastern Daily Press on the morning of Wednesday 16th July 1919. Only a few days before, the same newspaper had been full of the triumphant arrival of R34 at Pulham after her epic trans-Atlantic flight, and of her going on show to a wildly enthusiastic public. Now, in a kind of cruel foreshadowing of the triumph of R100 and the tragedy of R101, popular emotions were plunged the other way. Dirigible Editor Nick Walmsley re-examines the loss of NS11 with the aid of contemporary local newspaper accounts, themselves destroyed in the Norwich Library fire almost 75 years to the day that NS11 exploded off the Norfolk coast – they tell a different story to the usual “struck by lightning” footnote accorded to NS11 in so much airship literature.
North Sea Class NS11 was one of the finest British non-rigid airships of her day, and almost the last to enter service. She was built at Kingsnorth (Chatham), commissioned in September 1918, and first stationed at East Fortune; she set an early endurance record of 61 hours 30 minutes on a mine-hunting patrol, and then (in company with NS12) made the first airship flight to Norway just after the armistice. It took 24 hours, and the two ships cruised off the Norwegian coast for several hours. Her commander was Captain WK Warneford, cousin of “Warneford VC”; a thick-set, hearty, athletic young man of 24, and a favourite amongst his fellow airshipmen. He had originally joined the Kite Balloon Section of the RNAS but soon transferred to the Airship Section and rapidly rose to become an airship commander. With him, NS11 set a world endurance record on 9-13th February 1919, when she flew 4,000 miles in 100 hours, 15 minutes on a mine-hunting patrol from Longside (the record stood until R34 flew from East Fortune to Mineola in 108 hours – ironically, this very triumph may have sown the seeds for the NS11’s own tragedy). Encouraged by this, Warneford then took her on a circuit of the North Sea in March 1919, covering 1,285 miles in 40 hours and 30 minutes, and returned to the adulation of the airship service – like the meteoric rise of Jean de Plessis de Grenedan and Dixmunde in another time and place, Warneford and NS11 were fast becoming invincible. In May, NS11 took an educational break at the LTA Training Wing at Cranwell, and the following month she flew east to Pulham with the intention of patrolling the southern North Sea.
Thus it was that NS11 and her crew were present at Pulham when R34 arrived early on the morning of Sunday 13th July. They were undoubtedly delighted about the achievement of Major Scott and the complement of R34, but there must have been a degree of heart-burn in knowing that their own endurance record had been broken. On Monday, Warneford filed a flight plan for a circular flight plan of “48 hours” duration which would take NS11 northwards to Cley-next-the-Sea, and then south round the coast, down past the Thames, to Kingsnorth. The subsequent Court of Inquiry was told that NS11 was going on a routine “mine-hunting patrol”, but Warneford’s intentions may have been a little more ambitious, for when she left Pulham at 21.00 on Monday night she was carrying a reduced crew of nine men, and it was later suggested that there were “ample supplies of petrol” for an attempt to regain the endurance record. Perhaps he intended to fly NS11 over her birthplace – maybe even the capital itself – to reinforce the dramatic effect.
Also on board for his first flight with NS11 was Captain AS Elliott, “well-known in flying circles as an unlucky airman”. When stationed at Mullion he had ‘free-ballooned’ an airship with engine trouble and landed it safely in France. The other seven crewmen aboard NS11 when she left were Flt. Sgt. O’Connor, Sgts. Lewry and Waghorn, AC2s Jacques and Jarrett, AC1 Cameron and LAC Connelly; two of them were also making their first flight with her, replacing two of her usual crew who had been demobbed.
The early part of the journey gave no cause for concern: NS11 was in contact with Pulham, testing her wireless equipment. At eight minutes after midnight on Tuesday 15th July, the operator at Pulham asked if there was any further communication to be made with her – there was none. There was no concern; it was assumed that something had gone wrong with the airship’s transmitter. At 00.15 she was seen between Holt and Letheringsett, heading straight up the Glaven Valley for Cley-next-the-Sea; fifteen minutes later she had only covered four miles against a light breeze, and was over the hamlet of Newgate, near Cley church, where JT Elwin was spending a holiday on furlough from the Army. He was used to the sound of aero engines from his service at the front, and believed there to be some engine trouble as she was making “a lot of noise”. He called his mother, brother and sisters to look at the ship which was by now stationary over their cottage. She remained there for some time, but as young Elwin ran out into the garden for a better look, she moved away over Cley church towards they sea and vanished behind a plantation. Before the ship disappeared he noticed “a light come from it; whether it was from the exhaust or not I do not know”. Above his shop in Cley High Street, Mr EA Stangroom was woken by her “tremendous noise”, and got out of bed to watch her pass overhead, travelling north. The experience reminded him of “Zepp days” when the incoming raiders used the windmill at Cley as a prominent landmark at which to change course landwards. A mile west along the coast at Blakeney, publican and lifeboatman Mr C Green heard the airship at 00.45 – he and his wife went to their window at the White Horse Hotel, but could see nothing as it faced the wrong way. Dr and Mrs Kaye heard her pass over and thought it was the R34 on her way back to East Fortune. At St. Margarets, Blakeney, Mrs Hudson, overtired and unable to sleep, fetched her field glasses and watched NS11 coming from the south east “going so splendidly and gracefully” until the airship was out of sight. She and her husband went back to bed, listening to the sound of the engines dying away. Then, suddenly, the sound seemed to return.
At approximately 01.45 a massive explosion was heard out to sea, carrying as far as Holt, and along the coast the Wells and Cromer. Mr Stangroom’s bedroom lit up “bright as day”, as did those of the Greens and the Kayes at Blakeney. The glare lasted for a few minutes, and then a maroon went off, calling out the Cley Lifesaving Rocket Brigade. As the streets of Blakeney filled with people, Mr Green roused his father, who was coxwain of the Blakeney lifeboat. They estimated the wreckage to be five or six miles offshore, and ran to the quay to summon fellow lifeboatmen; but it was low water, and they discovered the lifeboat was stranded high and dry.
Through her field glasses, Mrs Hudson could see everything. The awful explosion and vivid glare brought her back to the window at once, and she was just in time to see NS11 “take a header and come down in a mass of flames. When nearly down in the sea, she exploded again, and burning pieces spread about”. She had seen something black “almost like a parachute” drop out of the flames before the ship hit the sea. The remains burned on the sea “for hours afterwards”, in fact they were still on fire when day broke. Two miles further west, at Morston, a coastguard had seen the airship in flight; he had also heard the two explosions and saw her fall into the sea about four miles offshore “to the north-west of Salthouse” – which makes the following action taken by the Morston coastguards rather difficult to understand.
A message came from Morston for the lifeboat at Sheringham, some ten miles to the east, to attend “a vessel on fire and sending up flares” as the Blakeney boat could not launch. Maroons were fired at Sheringham at 02.00, but the JC Madge (a 1904 vintage pulling and sailing lifeboat with no engine) was not launched at once because the weather was “fairly fine, but threatening”. Shortly afterwards there was a flash of lightning, one loud clap of thunder, and the rain came down in torrents. Because of the emergency, a fast motorboat, White Heather, was sent out. JC Madge followed her at 03.00 when the weather eased. Morston then reported that the “distressed vessel” was drifting to shore, about a mile off Blakeney, which meant that the lifeboat was going too far to the north. Another motorboat, Maple Leaf, was sent out to recall her, but what the coastguard had actually seen were the lights of White Heather returning to shore. Then some rockets went up eight miles to the west at Wells-next-the-Sea; the crew of the Sheringham lifeboat, approaching from the east, took these to be a signal that the wreck had come ashore at Blakeney, and accordingly stood by at the Blakeney Bell Buoy. The motorboats continued to search the area until 04.00, when a violent gale blew up from the north and forced them to run to shelter, making “risky landings” at Sheringham. JC Madge remained on station at the Bell Buoy until daybreak when she too returned home, having found nothing. This in itself is curious, because a chart of the area published in 1913 gives the position of the Blakeney Bell Buoy as being some four miles north-west of Salthouse – exactly where the Morston coastguard estimated that the airship had fallen. Just to the west of the Bell Buoy are two sandbanks, the Knock and the Blakeney Overfalls, where the water is less than two fathoms deep. If the wreckage had fallen there at low tide (which it was), it is quite possible that it did burn on the surface for some time, just as the eyewitnesses had said.
Pulham Airship Station was unaware of the disaster until someone from the Eastern Daily Press office in Norwich telephoned to see if there was any comment about the explosion. That telephone call created “utmost consternation”, and official messengers were at once dispatched to all coastal villages involved to interview the people whom the press had already seen. The story was soon pieced together, and the initial reaction that the disaster has been caused by a lightning strike was ruled out. A woman at Blakeney church, supposedly sheltering from the storm, had seen the airship pass under a “long black greasy cloud”, but everyone else agreed that the weather had been fine at the time of the explosion, and that the thunderstorm followed some 20 minutes later. No one knows why the woman was at Blakeney church in the early hours of the morning. She does not seem to have been interviewed by the Eastern Daily Press reporters, who were meticulous in tracking down eyewitnesses; and although this author has not manage to find the original source of the information, the description of the “greasy cloud” has traditionally figured so large in the story of the NS11 disaster that it must be considered here. The Norfolk Chronicle interviewed an old seaman from Cley who confirmed that the airship appeared to have engine trouble, and was turning back towards land when she suddenly burst into flame, turned on end, and was rocked by a second explosion as she dropped into the sea.
The first wreckage came ashore as the Sheringham lifeboat was being put back in her shed; a fisherman picked up a piece of charred wood framing, four or five feet long, with some strips of aluminium attached to it, and handed it to the lifeboat secretary, Mr Johnson. Throughout the afternoon more remains were washed up between Sheringham and Weybourne, four miles to the west: part of a small cabin door; a chair believed to be the coxwain’s and marked “NS11”; a broken propeller blade; part of a mica window; numerous pieces of charred framework, aluminium, and pieces of the “airship’s furniture”; a “round white papier-maché article of half-cylinder shape four inches in diameter, resembling an inverted gas burner”; and, saddest of all, a portion of what appeared to be an airman’s cap, smelling strongly of petrol. Two flying officers from Pulham came to collect them.
By Wednesday 16th July, the Eastern Daily Press had a special correspondent at Pulham. He noted that some of NS11’s charred envelope had been recovered. The King sent a message of sympathy to the air station that afternoon for transmission to the relatives of the missing crewmen. One “prominent” RAF officer believed that the disaster had been caused by engine failure or, more probably, by the airship’s wireless equipment sparking into the electrically-charged air of the impending thunderstorm and igniting the valved hydrogen. “Wireless apparatus is extremely sensitive to any electrical disturbance in the atmosphere”, he said but it is also interesting to note that the magnetos gave frequent trouble on North Sea ships. Traditionally, they were used to earth all metal components on airships to guard against static electricity and the risk of explosion. Was the tragedy caused by magneto failure? Officers at the station were puzzled by the fact that much of the wreckage picked up showed no signs of having been burnt, and it prompted one to declare a confident belief – unofficially of course – that some of NS11’s crew had not perished by fire, but had drowned. He bitterly, and rather unfairly, condemned the rescue efforts, “Unhappily no boat was put out to the scene of the disaster although it was only four miles from the coast at the most. I think that is there had been half a dozen men with boats, some of NS11’s crew might possibly have been saved. You could have got there in a rowing boat. There was not a big sea at the time and only a five miles an hour wind”. Such a statement would seem to raise doubts that even White Heather had succeeded in reaching the wreckage. Perhaps the officer did not realise that NS11 actually carried a little triangular inflatable dingy for use in such emergencies only the second recorded instance of a trend that became universal in the aviation world.
Nothing more had been found by the time that seven minesweepers dropped anchor off Cromer pier on the Friday night in readiness for dragging operations. Divers were present in case any large parts of the airship were recovered. The operation was directed by Captain Gibbs from Pulham, and he particularly wanted to recover NS11’s two Fiat engines. Nothing was forthcoming. But then the minesweepers could not search for the wreckage in the shallow water at the Blakeney Overfalls, so it was possible that they swept around the one place that may have yielded exactly what they wanted, and just under the surface too. One last pitiful discovery was made on Cley beach when the scorched and damaged body of a dog, probably an Airedale terrier, was washed up; but no one could confirm if it came from NS11.
The story came to an end in the Eastern Daily Press on Monday, 11th August 1919 with the report of a benefit concert given at RAF Pulham by the Station Band for the dependants of NS11’s crew. Over £200 was raised.
An official Court of Inquiry was held; its findings inconclusive. Perhaps because of the embarrassment caused when the press knew what had become of NS11 before the RAF did; perhaps because of the clumsy handling of the rescue operation, or perhaps because Captain Warneford may have been attempting to beat R34’s record without official approval in a “war-weary” airship, was it deemed politically expedient for NS11 to be seen to have “passed under a long black greasy cloud” and be “struck by lightning”? By the end of the year, only two British non-rigid airships remained out of ninety-nine in service at the Armistice, and the “old airshipmen” had been dispersed.
This article originally appeared in the Airship Heritage Trust journal Dirigible (Summer 1994) and is reproduced with the kind permission of Nick Walmsley.
© Nick Walmsley