In what is probably one of the most-detailed newspaper reports into the loss of N.S.11, The Norfolk Chronicle paints a vivid picture of the accident and the events leading up to it, with many eye-witness accounts from people living along the north Norfolk Coast.
Friday 18 July 1919
TERRIBLE DISASTER ON NORTH NORFOLK COAST
BURNING AIRSHIP FALLS INTO SEA.
A terrible tragedy occurred in the early hours of Tuesday morning a few miles from Cley-next-Sea, and in a few short minutes one of our airships was reduced to a mass of twisted metal and her gallant crew either roasted to death or drowned.
The airship was the N.S.11 with a crew of two officers and five men which left Pulham – the station where the R.34 landed on her return from America – just previous to midnight on Monday on mine-sweeping patrol duty. At one o’clock there was a thunderstorm, accompanied by lightning in North Norfolk. The cause of the fire will probably never be known. It may have been caused by an accident on board the ship, or she may have run into an electrical storm, such as the R.34 encountered on her outward voyage across the Atlantic. Referring to this storm in his log, General Maitland said, “such a buffeting a non-rigid airship could never have stood.”
There is only one other case of a British airship catching fire in the air, and this was one of an experimental type, which was undergoing trials. The N.S. type of airship is of the non-rigid class with a capacity of 360,000 cubic feet, and is 262ft. in length. She has two Fiat engines of 250 h.p. each.
At the time of her distruction, N.S.11 was commanded by Capt.Warneford, R.A.F. Captain Warneford, who is a young unmarried officer, had the distinction of holding until recently with Lieut. Brow three unbroken records for flights in the N.S.11.
An unofficial member of the crew was a black cat, the airship’s mascot.
AT HOLT AND LETHERINGSETT
About 1 a.m. on Tuesday morning many residents in Holt and the little village of Letheringsett were awakened by the sound of the engines of an airship or aeroplane, and on investigation the found it was the former. A large airship was plainly to be seen going seawards, and passing just to the west of Holt between that town and Letheringsett. Rev. W. H. Finlayson, Rector of Letheringsett, in the course of an interview with a representative of this journal, said he could distinguish the airship quite plainly, and it reminded him of a Zeppelin; as far as he could see it had three gondolas. When he last saw it it was proceeding in the direction of the sea between Blakeney and Cley, and appeared to be travelling easily and well, although the engines were making considerable noise.
Later on our representative interviewed Mr. Page of Blakeney, who said that he was awakened by his wife, and his attention drawn to a brilliant light in the sky. The window of his bedroom faced east, and the light was north-north-east over the sea, in the direction of Cley. He could see that it was an airship enveloped in a mass of flames, and as he and his wife watched it the burning mass turned on end and dropped like a stone.
Mrs. G. Hudson of St. Margaret’s, Blakeney, interviewed by the Cromer representative of the Eastern Daily Press, said :– “I heard an awful explosion, and I saw a terrific glare. I rushed to the window with my glasses, and saw the airship apparently in its original position. While I was watching she suddenly took a header, and went down to the sea in flames. Just before she reached the surface she exploded again, and flaming fragments were scattered about. With the aid of my glasses I saw a black object drop out of the flames. It looked like a parachute, but I could not say definitely what it was. The mass burnt on the surface of the sea for hours.
“The time of the first explosion was about a quarter to two, and immediately after it came down in flames. I then heard a peal of thunder and saw a flash of lightning, and the rain came down in torrents.”
Mr. C. Long, of the White Horse Hotel, said he heard the noise of the airship’s engines about a quarter to one. He and his wife went to the bedroom window, but as it faced a different way they saw nothing of the craft., but they saw a great flash and heard the explosion. Mr. Long is the bowman of the Blakeney lifeboat, and he went and called his father, the coxwain, but with the tide out and the lifeboat in a dry harbour, it was practically useless to attempt a launch, and they heard that the Sheringham boat had been called out.
Dr. and Mrs. Kaye heard and saw the airship when she first passed overhead. The noise awakened them, and she thought it was the R.34 proceeding from Pulham to East Fortune. Afterwards they saw the glare in the sky and heard the explosion.
Our representative was able to obtain some further information from an old seaman who lives at Cley, who said he had watched the airship proceeding to sea between Cley and Blakeney about 1.15. He did not think it was travelling at all easily, and appeared to be having trouble with the engines, so much so that, when a few miles out it appeared to turn round and head again for land. He watched its progress anxiously, as being an old Navy man he was sure that everything was by no means right. Whilst still some miles from land he saw a bright light, and heard an explosion, and within a few moments the whole airship was a glowing mass. It continued in a horizontal position for a short time, and then suddenly turned on end and pitched downwards at a terrific speed, and exploded either just at it reached the water of just before, he could not be certain which.
Mr. J. T. Elwin, who is home on leave, informed a representative of the Eastern Daily Press that he was awakened at 12.36 on Tuesday morning by the noise of an aircraft’s engine. “My relations and I watched it from the bedroom window. It appeared to be at a standstill over neighbouring houses, and was making a lot of noise. I came downstairs and saw it going over Cley Church towards the sea. As it disappeared from my view behind a plantation I noticed a flash come from it, but whether it was simply from the exhaust or anything else I could not say.”
Mrs. Catling said she saw the airship through her field-glasses distinctly. “It looked like one of the ‘Pulham Pigs’ as the are called locally. She watched it go out over the sea, and suddenly heard a big explosion. The airship seemed to be one mass of flames.
The Cley correspondent of this journal states that early on Tuesday morning a large airship came over Cley and hovered for some time; her engines were making an unusual noise, and she was flying so low that some people declared that the could see the men in her. A lady living in the Beech-road examined the airship with glasses and could see her distinctly. Shortly afterwards she heard a loud explosion and the whole airship went down, the sea one mass of flame, which lighted up the whole village, and there was light enough to read a newspaper. The mortar was fired from the coastguard station, and the rocket cart was quickly on the beach, standing by for the remainder of the night.
Sheringham was awakened at 1.45 on Tuesday morning by the firing of the rocket, warning the lifeboat crew that their services were required. The crew quickly assembled, and proceeded across the golf links to the lifeboat, prepared the “J. C. Madge” for launching, and were away on their errand about a quarter to three. The message that what they thought to be a vessel on fire (this was the airship burning after it reached the sea) came from the coastguard at Morston, and the boat proceeded in the direction of the Blakeney Bell Buoy. Previous to the launching of the lifeboat, and to save time, the large motor fishing boat “White Heather” was rushed to the scene of the supposed disaster.
Soon afterwards a message came from Morston that the vessel believed to be on fire was still afloat, and was apparently drifting towards shore about a mile off Blakeney. The lifeboat had, in the meantime, proceeded further north and it was immediately decided to send out another motor boat, “The Maple Leaf”, which was got off at 3.30. It now appears that the first motor boat showed the lights which led Morston to believe that a distressed vessel was drifting ashore, and a further mistake appears to have occurred when the lifeboat saw rockets fired from the neighbourhood of Wells, and took it to be the signal that the vessel was ashore at Blakeney.
The motor boats and lifeboats continued to search, but at four o’clock the wind shifted to north, and began to blow hard with a choppy sea. This became so bad that the motor boats had to run for safety, and the reached Sheringham after a risky landing. The lifeboat remained in the vicinity of the buoy, but as there was no trace of anything she returned home.
Later on in the morning a portion of wreckage was washed up, at the old Hythe, some charred woodwork with aluminium attached, there was secured by Mr. H. R. Johnson, and handed over to the coastguard; it had the appearance of only having been in the water a short time.
WRECKAGE WASHED ASHORE
During Tuesday afternoon charred remnants of the airship were washed ashore at Weybourne and Sheringham, and two flying officers came over from Pulham to inspect them. Among the wreckage was part of a small cabin door, a portion of what appeared to be an airman’s cap smelling strongly of petrol, round white papier-mache articles of half-cylinder shape, four inches in diameter, resembling an inverted gas burner, and pieces of charred frame work and aluminium. The wreckage washed ashore also includes a broken propeller blade, a chair apparently belonging to the coxwain and marked N.S.11, a piece of a mica window, and portions of airship furniture.
AT MELTON CONSTABLE
Reports from Melton Constable state that the ill-fated aircraft passed over that place about 12.45. Mr. C. Dyer, a foreman in the Works, says it was so low down that he could plainly see the number N.S.11, and as he was watching it a light was shown. Mr. W. E. Newman, the Assistant Engineer, and Dr, Skrimshire also state that it was exceedingly low, the later stating that when he saw it it was apparently only a very short distance above the houses. Mr. Newman was of the opinion that the engines were running well at this time.
NAMES OF OFFICERS AND CREW
Following are the names and addresses of the officers and ratings of the lost airship :
Capt. W. K. Warneford (commander). Lansdowne House, Huyton, Liverpool.
Capt. A. S. Elliott, who had recently been staying with his wife at Harleston.
Flight-Sergt. O’Connor. 68 Macfarlane road, Wood-lane, Shepherd’s Bush.
Sergt. Lewry, Leesland-road, Gosport.
Sergt. Waghorn, of the Star Inn, Crayford, Kent.
A.C. 2 Jarrett. 33, Dillyn-road, Lower Syndenham.
A.C. 2 Jacques, Victoria-road, Long Eaton.
A.C 1 Cameron, 16 Beasley-street, Gorton, Manchester.
L.A.C Conelly, Midfield Cottage, Inveresk, Midlothian
THE KING’S MESSAGE
The following message was received at Pulham on Wednesday afternoon from His Majesty the King :–
“His Majesty the King desires to express his deepest sympathy with the relatives of the officers and men who lost their lives in the airship N.S.11 while employed in mine clearing operations.”
The following reply was sent :– “It is requested that the grateful appreciation of the officers and men at Pulham Airship Station should be conveyed to his Majesty the King for his kind message, which has been transmitted to the relatives of the officers and men of N.S.11. – From Commanding Officer, Airships, Pulham.
On Wednesday night a R.A.F. car from Pulham removed some portions of the destroyed airship which had been washed up at Sheringham, amongst them being a petrol tank, some of the wood work was very little damaged by fire.
NO BODIES FOUND
Up to the time of going to press no news of any bodies of the crew having been found is to hand, and it is thought that it may be some days before they are washed ashore.
The article was provided by the The Norfolk Heritage Centre at the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library. We would like to thank the Norfolk Heritage Centre and Peter Franzen, Editor of the Eastern Daily Press and Archant Norfolk for giving us permission to publish the article.