Without doubt, some confusion surrounds the loss of NS11. Did Captain Warneford have orders to assist mine clearance operations or was he, without official approval, attempting to recapture NS11’s endurance record taken by R34 in its crossing from East Fortune, Scotland to Mineola, New York? R34 returned triumphant from New York to Pulham just two days before NS11 was lost.
These events were also played out against the backdrop of the amalgamation of the RNAS and RFC into the single organisation of the RAF. Throughout the war there had been acrimonious army and navy competition over roles and responsibilities which resulted in, among other things, gross inefficiencies, parochial friction, unprofessional practices and inter-service contempt. In the early years of the RAF, the legacy of this friction, and also confusion over lines of command, continued.
At the Public Records Office in Kew is a folder of documents relating to Pulham Airship Station between 20 October 1915 and 13 August 1919 (AIR 1/437/15/297/2). Of particular interest are a series of letters, and attachments of signals, that relate to NS11 and operational command of Pulham. While this documentation does not provide all the answers, it does confirm a certain amount of confusion about whom was under the command of whom and who was giving the orders. It also illustrates that R34 and NS11 were linked in more ways than one. The correspondence begins two days after the loss of NS11.
R.N. AIRSHIP STATION,
17th July, 1919
The Senior Naval Officer,
It is requested that steps may be taken to systemize the method of issuing orders to this Station. It is understood that all operational orders should come through you in accordance with letter from Commodore Ellison at Lowestoft dated 31st March 1919, except in special circumstances where Airships are lent to the Air Ministry or other departments for special services. Orders, however, are constantly received from the Director of Equipment, 4 Dean Stanley Street, and B.F.A. 10 Smith Square, relative to the movements of Airships, though it is believed that these departments have no executive status. Also on July 16th messages interfering with the discipline and routine of this Station were sent to junior officers under my command without reference to me, by the Director of Equipment’s department. Had these orders been executed the responsibility for the safety and flying condition of R.34 would have been shifted from her own officers to those of another ship which it is submitted is an impossible state of affairs.
As regards R.34, messages and orders regarding her movements have been received from Admiralty, Air Ministry, and Director of Equipment, many being contradictory.
As regards N.S.11 no operational orders or instructions have been received from you. The attached copies of signals were all that were officially received. The Commanding Officer of N.S.11 was only able to obtain information as to what would be expected of him when co-operating with minesweepers by writing to the Captain of the Airship who had previously carried out these duties.
F. L. M. Boothby [signed]
Lieut. Colonel R.A.F.
[Attached signal 1]
From O.H.M.S. Admiralty To. Airships,
Airship N.S.11 to be flown when ready and weather permits from Cranwell to Pulham, addressed Cranwell – repeated Pulham.
66. 45 2nd Battle Squad. E 2010.
[Attached signal 2]
M.C.O. 3, Airships, Pulham
Request N.S.11 may be in the vicinity of Line W.P.4 about 10.30. on Tuesday 15th. (stop) Low water that day is at 1230 (ends.)
23rd. July 1919
I am sending your letters up to H.Q., and sending you a copy of the letter I have sent in.
I have never been informed that N.S.11 was sent to assist minesweepers. I have no minesweepers here now, and have had none working since March, 31st.
As you will see, Ellison gave me no idea that Pulham was still under Lowestoft – in fact, I thought that is was washed out when the two Air Services were combined. For that reason I have been considerably surprised at one of two messages I have received from Pulham, such as a request for permission to use the Cologne Aerodrome etc., but thought they were just errors on the part of some junior which were not worth worrying about. But as you yourself imagined you were still under Lowestoft, it apparently foolish of me not to have made some definite enquiries. I am pretty sure that the answer to my letter will be that you are an Independent Command.
Being a Naval Reserve man, I am only here on sufferance because I know my present job thoroughly, and any of the 14000 Naval Officers who are screaming for jobs would be sent here at once if it were not that they would not have time to pick up the work before the place is closed down. I am sure that the Gods have no wish to give me any further powers.
Hope all is well with you.
From. The Senior Naval Officer, Naval Base, Lowestoft
To. The Secretary of the Admiralty, Whitehall. S.W.1.
Date. 23rd. July 1919 No. 232/110
The enclosed correspondence from C/O Pulham Air Station is forwarded for information and instructions. When I took command of the Naval Base, Lowestoft, from Commodore Ellison, I understood that Pulham Airship Station was, and had been for some time, an Independent Command. If this is not so, I submit that I may be definitely informed that Pulham is under my orders, and that all orders should be sent through me to them.
Senior Naval Officer
No.3 (Training) Group,
Royal Air Force
Senior Naval Officer
ACCIDENT TO H.M. AIRSHIP N.S.11
I am directed to inform you that acting under instructions received from the Air Ministry, a Committee of Investigations, as required by Air Force Regulations, will assemble at Pulham Airship Station on Monday next inst. at 1100.
Air Force Regulations require that the Naval Authorities shall be invited to send a representative to sit on the Committee and I am therefore to ask you to be good enough, if you wish to do so, to nominate an officer as a member.
E. L. Audley [signed]
For Lieutenant Colonel,
Commanding No.3 (Training) Group,
Royal Air Force.
H.M. Naval Base,
25th. July 1919
ACCIDENT TO H.M. AIRSHIP. N.S.11.
With reference to your letter No. 3G/Law/5/165. Of 24th. July 1919., as Lowestoft had no knowledge of the movements or orders given to N.S.11, I do not think it necessary to send a representative.
Senior Naval Officer
[2716 written in pencil, no signature visible]
The Commanding Officer,
No.3 (Training) Group,
Royal Air Force,
[In blue pencil and written at the top of the page is: “N.S.11 – enquiry into loss of. 29b”. Assumption that this letter was evidence at the official enquiry.]
13th August 1919
The Senior Naval Officer
With reference to your submission of 23rd July No. 232/110, I am to inform you that Pulham Airship Station is an independent command working directly under the Admiralty as an experimental Airship Station, but operational orders if and when required will be sent from Admiralty to the Commanding Officer Pulham, a copy being sent to you for your information.
2. – Instructions for experimental works will be sent direct by the Director of Production, Admiralty to the Commanding Officer Pulham.
3. – The other matters referred to in the enclosure to your submission above quoted and your submissions of 2nd July (No.208) and 3rd August (No.244) have been dealt with in correspondence direct with the Commanding Officer Pulham.
4. – I am to add for your information that it is not intended to sent [sp] R.33 to Gibraltar or Cologne.
By Command of Their Lordships
V. W. Baddeley [signed]
All material from AIR 1/437/15/297/2 at the Public Records Office