How the all-seeing airship saved the Royal Navy in the First World War

Bloomsbury Publishing recently acquired Conway, the leading publisher of maritime and military history. Sitting beside Adlard Coles Nautical, Conway makes Bloomsbury the foremost publisher of books related to maritime subjects, from practical sailing handbooks to guides to warships past and present. To celebrate the arrival of our new sister imprint, we feature this blog from Conway author John Swinfield.

In the age of the unmanned drone, the role of its pioneer predecessor is easily overlooked. The early airship had a crucial, largely unheralded role in the First World War. Its task was that of Navy escort, reconnaissance craft and U-boat spotter – functions it performed with élan.

The growth in the Great War airship service was rapid. In 1914 the Admiralty had seven airships, with one in disrepair. It might have been marginally more; records are incomplete. By 1918 it had 225 airships. As the numbers of airships grew, so did the hours spent on patrol. In 1914–15 they sailed for 3,000 hours. In 1917, with German U-boats causing mayhem, the figure leaped to 22,000 hours. In 1918 it was 56,000 hours.

Unfettered U-boat warfare, which led to maritime carnage, threatened to starve Britain into submission, choking off its sea lanes and vital supplies. The Great War strategy had parallels with the U-boat menace in the Second World War, when, again, German submarines brought Britain perilously close to the edge of calamity.

Airship SSZ 37 guards a British warship (Photo: Imperial War Museum/Wikipedia)

In the First World War, as in the Second, it is acknowledged that the Admiralty’s eventual institution of the convoy system would become key to thwarting the U-boat danger. Less appreciated, however, is that in the First World War, it was the aerial guard provided by airships which discouraged U-boats from getting within striking distance of a target.

It was usual for U-boats to immediately dive on seeing an airship. As with the submarine, the airship induced a terror in excess of its capability; nobody knows how many U-boat attacks were deterred by the presence of an airship, but it’s likely to have been considerable.

There are examples of airships bombing U-boats, some with success; in the main, though, their bombing was woefully inaccurate. In acting as the eyes of the surface navy, however, they were highly effective. They could stay aloft for hours; their range exceeded aeroplanes of the time; they were swifter than surface ships, and far more so than submarines. Doughty crews, often blue with cold in their open gondolas, could see to the furthest horizon, far in excess of anything possible by a surface reconnaissance craft. Aviation was still in its infancy, with breakdowns being commonplace; but airships, when judged by the standards of the time, proved relatively reliable.

Early submarines sometimes lay just under the surface, their dive capacity being limited. This left a tell-tale impression on the surface, especially when viewed by an airship close to or directly overhead. They were further hampered by being slow to dive, which again made them vulnerable to sharp-eyed spotters in a dirigible.

Early submarines were frail and, as with aeroplanes, prone to breakdown. Repairs had sometimes to be conducted on the surface, making the craft highly vulnerable to both surface and aerial bombardment. A crippled submarine stationary on the surface was a sitting duck. It usually had very limited deck armoury and was ripe for attack from the air by an airship. In the main, rather than trying to bomb them, it was likely that the airship would direct a warship to the location, which would then administer the coup de grace.

Emphasis was given to airships by Jacky Fisher, the volatile reforming admiral who kicked Britain’s fossilised Victorian navy into an effective force. Fisher’s creation of the big-gun Dreadnought battleship, which spelled virtual obsolescence for most competitor types, was far from his sole contribution. He was an enthusiastic supporter of what I have termed the ‘new arsenal’, to the resentment of his more crusty peers, those not in Fisher’s famous ‘fish-pond’, a coterie of progressive (it is alleged) naval thinkers.

Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher

Fisher overcame his initial suspicions of the submarine, something widely felt in the Navy. His doubts were quelled by one of his favourite officers, the cerebral, cautious, sometimes controversial, Reginald Bacon. Bacon would become the first leader of Britain’s fledgling submarine service and, subsequently, the first captain of Fisher’s much-vaunted Dreadnought.

Fisher became an eager backer of mines, torpedoes, submarines and airships: the ‘new arsenal’. Once persuaded of their merit, he would throw himself into their promotion with a characteristic, messianic gusto. His endorsement was cardinal. Fisher was one of the few influential voices in support of the airship. As with the submarine, the military airship was subject to a sustained level of derision and disdain, much of it emanating from naval grandees.

Fisher initially saw the submarine as an addendum to the Fleet; an oddly eccentric bolt-on to be deployed primarily for home defence and harbour protection. Later, he recognised it as a weapon at its most deadly when it was unleashed, stealthily tracking its prey in distant waters, unfettered by Navy chaperones.

As the conflict dragged on, draining government coffers as wars do, the Navy needed new reconnaissance craft to help counter the worsening U-boat threat. But the money was running out. It couldn’t afford them.

Airships were a plausible alternative. Inexpensive and quick to build, they were cheap to fuel, run and crew. Sometimes, though, a small army of ground handlers were needed. This was especially so as ships grew bigger. In trying to tether airships which had become wayward through capricious winds, all types of hold-fasts were tried – from elephants (so it’s said, but I’ve never found much proof) to obsolete military tanks. Such was the phenomenal lifting capacity of an airship.

The First World War saw a frenetic period of development. A diversity of new airship types were built, each successively more capable. A total of 41 airship bases and smaller mooring-out sites were constructed across Britain. Airships sailed on near non-stop missions, covering two million miles in the First World War, sailing for almost 90,000 hours.

While the submarine grew into one of the world’s most potent weapons, the airship is scorched into the pages of maritime and aviation history. Those which came to grief were the leviathans which came later: Britain’s ill-fated R101, and the German Hindenburg, whose fiery pyre effectively finished world airship production. First World War airships, with a different role to the intercontinental behemoths which followed them, were undoubtedly far more primitive, but markedly effective.

A century on and the European and US airship industry is stirring once more. Myriad manned and unmanned craft are being developed. Today’s creations bristle with innovative electronics. Their designers are following in illustrious footsteps.

John Swinfield is the author of Airship: Design, Development & Disaster, first published by Conway in 2013. You can buy it through all good high street and online retailers, or direct from us here: http://bloomsbury.com/uk/airship-9781844861385

Discover how Emma Bamford went to sea and came back an author

A book about sailing, written at sea by Emma Bamford

All too often, when you are sailing, the wind and tide seem to be against you. At first, it seemed that way with my writing.

Shortly before I left my job at the Independent newspaper to go sailing, in the summer of 2010, a colleague suggested there might be a book idea in my upcoming trip and put me in touch with an agent.

I’d always loved books, and even tried writing a novel and a book about dating in London but was rejected by publishers and agents for both.

The agent, it emerged, wanted an update of Lucy Irvine’s raunchy Castaway. ‘Not likely,’ I thought, but I saved his email address anyway, in case I came up with a better idea.

After that, having adventures – sailing into the heart of the Borneo jungle, anchoring amid beautiful coral gardens, crossing oceans and visiting remote islands peopled only by hunter-gatherer tribesmen – absorbed me so completely that writing a book was furthest from my mind.

Fast-forward a couple of years and you’ll find me finally starting to write, stretched out in the cockpit of a sailing yacht anchored in Malaysia. Each morning, before it got too hot, I dug out my diaries and expanded on them, amazed at how easily the words flowed.

Perhaps they flowed too easily because the agent hated the 10,000 words I sent him, saying I’d ‘never get a publisher interested’.

Luckily, he was wrong. ‘Send me everything you’ve got,’ said Adlard Coles’s commissioning editor, Liz Multon. I did – and she turned me down, but kindly offered to read my manuscript again if I felt like re-writing it.

When I got her email I was living in a marina in St Petersburg, Florida, waiting for a new engine to be fitted to a 40ft Choate I was helping to deliver from Texas to St Lucia. I had time to kill, so I parked myself in the Captain’s Lounge, pencil in hand, and re-did the whole thing. Six months later I got an email from Liz saying Adlard Coles would be publishing Casting Off.

It’s been a whirlwind but now my beautiful paperback is here and I am officially an author – with my own website, Facebook page, Twitter account and appearances at literary events.

Proof that perseverance in whatever you do – whether it’s following a dream or simply tacking your way into a headwind – works. Keep at it, and you’ll get there.

 

Our guest blogger today is Emma Bamford, author of Casting Off. Read a few pages from her fantastic new book.

Casting Off

Order your copy today! 

 

 

Win £100 worth of Books in our Name Our Book Competition

For the first time ever here at Adlard Coles Nautical we are letting you the readers pick the title of a forthcoming book by author Justin Tyers. This is a sequel to his fantastic book Phoenix from the Ashes.

Title 1 Title 2 Title 3

To pick your favourite title, simply visit the Adlard Coles Nautical Facebook page and select the like button on the title of your choice. The title with the most likes will be the winner.

All entries will be placed in a free prize draw and a winner will be selected at random, for the chance to win £100 worth of Adlard Coles Nautical books.

Competition ends 28th February 2014

*Please note that these are not the final images for the book cover.

Bob Shepton: Yachtsman of the Year

Today the Yachting Journalists’ Association announce their Yachtsman of the Year in a ceremony at Trinity House. Past winners have included Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, Ellen MacArthur and Ben Ainslie (all three of them having won on more than one occasion), Ted Heath, our authors Les Powles and Dee Caffari, as well as Adlard Coles himself.

This year we are very pleased that one of our forthcoming authors, Bob Shepton, is nominated. Bob is nominated for being the first skipper to sail through the North West Passage in both directions in successive years at the age of 78, but that’s just one particularly notable adventure in a lifetime of sailing and mountaineering (and, most excitingly, combining the two – climbing Arctic mountains only accessible by boat).

He has led schoolchildren on voyages around the world, sailed through iceberg-strewn waters and was also once stranded in Greenland when his ice-bound yacht was destroyed by fire.

Oh, and Bob is also a vicar.

shepton

His new memoir, ADDICTED TO ADVENTURE: Between Rocks and Cold Places, tells of all his most hair-raising escapades, but also reveals more about his childhood. Bob grew up on a rubber plantation in Malaysia, and after his father was shot by the Japanese during the Second World War, he returned to boarding school in England, before going on to join the Royal Marines, and then the Church.

It is published on 8th May this year at an RRP of £12.99, but you can currently pre-order it at a 30% discount (£9.09) direct from our website: http://bloomsbury.com/uk/addicted-to-adventure-9781472905864