Thursday, 15 November 2018

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Rather a foolhardy stunt, but the Armistice spirit was on us

There was only one occasion when an Airship was flown under a bridge, that happened a century ago in North Wales. This was, of course, a Zero based on Anglesey, the photograph (below) of which was the instigator of this project.

The RAF station at Anglesey at the end of WW1 was a base for SSZ  blimps - three-seat submarine scouts, tiny compared to a Zeppelin but still 143 feet long and 47 feet from the keel of the car to the top of the envelope.

At the armistice night party, the senior Naval Officer, Captain Gordon Campbell VC challenged the RAF CO, Major Tommy Elmhirst to fly a blimp under the Menai Bridge. Elmhirst said he would if Campbell came along as the observer. The next day he measured the height of the bridge above the water at low tide by letting down a rope from the parapet and found that an SSZ would have four feet of clearance. On the next day that the weather and tides permitted, November 14th Elmhirst, the pilot, set out in SSZ 31 carrying Campbell as a passenger and the South African Captain BJ Beeton as the engineer, and on approaching the bridge let down a rope exactly two feet under the car with a sandbag on the end. When the sandbag bounced along the surface he knew that he had two feet of clearance above the airship - of course, he couldn't see the bridge above as the envelope was in the way. In this way, they passed through successfully. Travelling slowly was not an option; he needed at least 40 mph to have enough airflow over the elevator to control the craft.

There are a few accounts of this remarkable flight published, all of them refer to the Zero flown as being SSZ 73 (1) and some offer other names as to those involved. (2). However, Campbell makes an account in his memoirs 'Life of a Q-ship Captain'(3)

During the War, I had been up with Major Elmhurst in one of his blimps. I had finished up by flying under the Menai Bridge. He was boasting about this feat after dinner and pulling Elmhurst's leg that he couldn't fly under the Menai Bridge in one of his rotten airships.

Elmhurst accepted the challenge, and the following day came to me for special permission to fly under the Menai Bridge. He showed me the plan, and how he would have four feet spare, two above the ship and two below. It struck me as rather a foolhardy stunt, but the Armistice spirit was on us, and I agreed, provisionally on my being one of the crew, as I thought it too risky a stunt to approve without going myself.

So three of us started off in the blimp. We had a lead line carefully measured, and as long as the lead was just touching the water, we knew we were clear above. Elmhurst made a dummy run approach to try out the lead line, and then we made the final attack; and much to the consternation of hundreds of witnesses, we flew clean under the Menai Bridge. I think I was as much surprised as anyone when we got through-but it was undoubtedly a very fine feat on the part of Elmhurst, though possibly a stupid one, for which I was responsible.

He was so excited at having got through, that he put his helm hard over and nearly hit the people who were standing on the bridge. An account of this incident appeared in the Press the following day, and I quite expected a rap over the knuckles, but at that time the Air Force and Navy were somewhat mixed up, and perhaps no one knew who was responsible.

Elmhirst (above) and Campell (centre), with Beeton's medals (4) as sold at a recent auction (below)

Which Zero?

As to which Zero was involved, reference to the Flight Logs(5), (which is information is taken from the Dailey Reports issued by RNAS airship stations at 6 pm and sent to the Admiralty) lists SSZ73 :

On 14th November, a flight of 6 hrs 10 min. (0940 – 1550)
2nd Lt W W Ruddock with:
AMs Hughes (Engineer) and Lescombe (W/T)
No flight details

searching the Logs of the 8 Zeros deployed to the Anglesey airship station lists SSZ31:

On 14th November, a flight of 55 minutes (1605 -1700)
Major T W Elmhirst with:
Capt B J Beeton (Engineer) Capt G Campbell RN, VC, DSO (Passenger)
Local flight.
Flown under Menai Bridge by Major T W Elmhirst, Commanding Officer of RNAS Station,
Anglesey. (6) 

 According to Mowethorpe (1), no photo of SSZ31 can be traced, unless of course, you consider the image of the blimp flying under the Menai Bridge. 

The idea may well have been inspired by the cover of the July 1918's edition of the station magazine 'The Blimp' which shows the Menai Bridge to the left of the illustration. (7)

Centenary Commemoration 14.11.18 

To commemorate the centenary of this event there will be a link available from November 14th at 16.05 hours to a 3d CGI of the Menai Bridge 'foolhardy stunt' live via our Crowdfunding page

The short video, using the latest  Unity game engine technology was gifted to the project by Vivid VR Ltd who used the original photograph, archive photos and drawings researched via the Colfein website, hosted by the RCAHMW  

The digital Zero model was built and textured by volunteer Peter Paterson. 

1.Mowethorpe,, Ces, (1995). Battlebags British Airships of the First World War. Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, Phoenix Mill, Far Trupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire
2.Wales and the Air War 1914-1918, Alan Phillips, Amberley Publishing Limited, 15 Sep 2015
3.The Life of a Q-ship Captain, Campbell Rear Admiral Gordon VC Dso, Periscope Publishing Ltd., 2002
4 Auction details of medal collection and service record BJ Beeton
5. Dailey Reports (initially Form 1519, established in March 1915, later
replaced by Form S1575 in June 1917) issued by RNAS airship stations at 6 pm and sent to the Admiralty
Airship Department.All research by Brian J Turpin MRAeS
7. 'The Blimp' Magazine Image reproduced with kind permission of B.Parker 

Monday, 5 November 2018

First World War memorials comissioned by Welsh communities which commemorate those who served at sea. And above it!

 The project was recently represented at a conference commemorating Wales and the Sea during the First World War. Jointly organised by Morol, the Institute of Welsh Maritime Historical Studies, and the U-Boat Project of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales the theme was the forgotten war and the Welsh experience of the war at sea.

One of the papers, presented by Dr Gethin Matthews looked at the memorials across Wales which commemorate those killed at sea. His study also included, alongside the civic memorials, those created by specific communities which are diverse in their message and design.

These include a number of naval images and whilst listening to his talk I couldn't help notice the few slides that included airships alongside the more numerous images of steaming battleships.

Although Dr Matthews made no reference to the airships in his talk, it seemed another case of seeing them if you were looking for them! 

Gethin kindly reviewed his slides and shared the following images that show airships. 

There is an airship on the Rhiwderin image, Tabernacle, St Paul’s stained glass window and the Morriston memorial also has an outline of an airship.

 Also featured is a wireless operator, to commemorate the son whos Mother advised him to enlist as a such, being a less dangerous service than the Western Front and was drowned when his ship was torpedoed.


The talk showed a variety of WW1 memorials from across Wales and illustrated the variety of responses to the need for communities to commemorate the war, and which gave an idea of how the 'Great War' was understood in the intermediate post-war period. 

Notes: Dr Gethin Matthews is a lecturer in History at Swansea University in a post funded by Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol. His new book 'having a Go at the Kaiser' is to be published in November.  

SSZ 100

SSZ100- please pledge your support for this unique centenary project – have you helped build an airship?
The Crowd funder to support the building of a replica Zero control car is live on:
Please pledge your support early to encourage others to do so and secure the limited edition rewards!
We are planning our main media campaign around the 11th to the 14th of November, to coincide with the Armistice centenary and the flight by Major Elmhirst under the Menai bridge. Flown in SSZ31 we shall be commemorating this with a 3d CGI video of the flight kindly gifted to the project by Vivid VR, and exclusive preview link to backers will be available via the Crowdfunding page.
A preview image of the Menai bridge 3d CGI model, completed today is below. Thanks again to Peter Paterson for creating the Zero model for SSZ31.

Copyright History Matters and Vivid VR Ltd 2018

Friday, 30 March 2018

March 1918- the final month of the RNAS and the birth of the RAF.

The  month of March 1918 was a significant time in the story of the Royal Naval Air Service and the increasing deployment of the Zero airships to the 2 stations in Wales. By the first of April 1918 the Royal Naval Air Service was combined with the Royal Flying Corpse into the newly formed Royal Air Force and the Zeros became RAF airships.

At RNAS/RAF Llangefni on Anglesey SSZ 50 and SSZ 51 where deployed on the 13th March ,their first patrols taking place on the 14th,  followed by SSZ34 arriving on March 23rd .

In the South at RNAS/RAF Milton in Pembrokeshire SSZ16 and SSZ 17 had been in operation over the Welsh coasts since August 1917. They where followed by SSZ37, SSZ52 and SSZ 53 in March 1918, with SSZ52 beginning her first patrol on March 19th 1918.

This period of change and important moment in the history of British military aviation is best described by Bill Williams in his book 'Airship Pilot No 28' ,Chapter 8. 'The Royal Air Force is Born'

Notably Bill Williams states:

 'At first it made little difference to us. We still wore our old naval monkey jackets and comfortable peaked caps, usually much battered.'

and goes on to recollect that:

 'There was a tendency for ex-naval officers to refer to the adjutants deprecatingly as "those bloody soldiers" but this soon passed when they found that the soldiers , who took some pains to establish themselves and took care not to interfere with flying operation's, were quite likeable men...although navy blue and khaki uniforms were mixed, ultimately merging into the pale Royal Air Force blue, which later became darker.''

The above photo from RAF Llangefni shows the mix of the old Naval and new Air Force uniforms still being worn in August 1918. (image credit and copyright Mr G.Owen) 

Some early teething problems existed with this new organisation ,again Bill Williams had a few issues with :

'the appointment of a khaki-clad executive officer to look after office work and maintenance...the inevitable clash came when I had to accuse him of taking men to wash windows when I needed them for a landing party.'

The commander of the airship station on Anglesey, Thomas Elmhirst , recollecting his service in 1977 for the Imperial War Museum gives a personal account of this time and the change in uniform.


Airships Over Anglesey Part Three : Thomas Elmhirst April 1918

Friday, 26 January 2018

ET Willows Welsh airship pioneer

ET Willows is a little known early aviation pioneer who carried out much of his early work and research in Cardiff.
You can learn more about him and his first 'Welsh' airships in the story map below :

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Airship Sheds

There are no surviving 'portable' airship hangers in existence although they featured at many of the RNAS airship stations.With the centenary of the fire and explosion on January 22nd, 1918 at the Pembroke airship station, we have turned our attention to these little-known structures.

There are a number of good images of the hanger that was built at RNAS Pembroke, (those below supplied by Brian Turpin) but it is hard to imagine or appreciate the sheer scale of these buildings and the windbreaks that protected the airships as they were walked in and out of the sheds.

The timber framework as built at Pembroke is a modified version of the plan presented above and has a straight truss rather than the curve section...maybe it was beyond the skills of the carpenters to create these curves?

You can explore this shed with the 3d model below, I hope it gives a good impression of the size and materials that went into these buildings.

Click on the image below to activate the 3d model, which is best viewed as a full-screen image.