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First World War: Airships, Balloon and Seaplane Stations

Airpower brought an important new dimension to naval power; in particular it permitted naval forces to extend their observation beyond the horizon. The Royal Navy recognised the significance of this new technology and established the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). By 1918 it operated from 89 sites for airships, balloons and aircraft.

The sea channels were protected by aircraft, such as, the F2A Flying Boats that operated out of Felixstowe and Yarmouth on anti-U-Boat patrols. They frequently engaged German seaplanes in an attempt to maintain control of the air in the North Sea. The most important surviving group of seaplane hangars, at Calshot, Hampshire, range from a small wooden flying-boat hangar built in early 1914 to an immense steel-framed hangar, now in use as a sports centre. Two hangars with an associated slipway survive at Mount Batten in Plymouth.

Airship station, Pulham, Norfolk
Airship station, Pulham, Norfolk. This airship station was the base for coastal patrols over the North Sea. To the right of the image is the plant that produced the highly inflammable hydrogen gas that filled the airships. The wooden fences to either side of the hangars shielded the airships from cross-winds. One of the hangars was moved after the war to Cardington, Bedfordshire where it still survives. (EPW016642)

The patrol durations of these early aircraft was relatively short and for longer flights airships were preferred. By the end of the war there were seven airship stations in England and 10 sites where airships were moored.  Often these were places that offered shelter, such as disused quarries or woodland clearings.

During the war, 61 airship sheds were constructed to a variety of designs in steel and wood. Using aerial photographs, The remains of the RNAS stations at Kingsnorth and Grain, Medway, Kent have been recorded by a recent English Heritage project on the Hoo Peninsula. Read the report here.

Manhandling an airship from its shed, Farnborough, Hampshire
Manhandling an airship from its shed, Farnborough, Hampshire. Airships were kept inflated in huge sheds ready to be pulled out when required for action. They usually had a crew of four. Some airships allowed crew to climb up through the balloon's envelope to man a machine-gun position on the top. (Private Collection)

The airships based here provided aerial observation of German submarines threatening shipping and convoys in the Thames Estuary, North Sea, and the Channel.

A section of one of the airship hangars survives today as an agricultural building at Moat Farm at St Mary Hoo, and is listed.

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Airships, Balloon and Seaplane Stations

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • First World War airship. Airship being manoeuvred into its shed, probably at Farnborough, Hampshire. This picture illustrates the large number of personnel required to handle airships. Private Collection
  • North Sea 9 airship. The NS9 was built in 1917 at Kingsnorth Airship Station, Medway. It patrolled the North Sea protecting convoys and hunting for U-boats. Private Collection
  • Portable airship hangar, Farnborough, Hampshire. This image of a First World War airship hangar was taken in 1998 before it was dismantled because of site redevelopment. It was then reunited with its other half at Farnborough airfield.
  • Royal Naval Air Service airship station, Kingsnorth, Medway. The station was established just before the outbreak of war, this image shows two airship hangars to the left and traces of a camp to the centre which housed the station’s personnel. The site was later developed as an oil refinery whose storage tanks are in the foreground.
  • Cardington Royal Airship Works, Bedfordshire. The Royal Airship Works at Cardington manufactured airships in the First World War. To the right is the original structure where the work was carried out. Today the site is still in use for the construction of modern airships. The airship shed to the left was moved from Pulham, Norfolk to this site in 1928
  • Sea Scout airship over the English countryside. The type of airship would have patrolled the coast hunting for U-boats. Private Collection
  • . This image, taken in the 1920s, shows the long building that housed seaplanes that protected convoys or hunted U-boats in the channel.
  • , Tresco, Isles of Scilly. The RNAS station opened in 1917 as a base for seaplanes to hunt for German U-boats in the Bristol Channel and south-west approaches. This contemporary image shows the surviving slipway from where seaplanes were launched.
  • Seaplane station, Lee-on-Solent, Hampshire. HMS Daedalus in 1928. Today it is the best preserved seaplane base in Britain with five original hangars grouped around a concrete slipway. The four large buildings surrounding the open space, with the exception of the one with the planes outside, are G-type hangars that housed seaplanes that patrolled the channel. The three smaller J-Type hangars and their associated winch houses are listed.