PETER FROST has been investigating an interesting part of Norfolk’s aviation history.
One of the most attractive things about driving through rural Norfolk, and increasingly through neighbouring Suffolk too, are the carved village signs. Many villages and small towns have them on he village green.
Many incorporate some little known aspect of a village’s story, perhaps a particular scrap of local history; but few tell such a tantalising tale as the sign on the crossroads at Pulham St Mary, not too far from Diss.
Here the village sign (below) shows a curious silver flying sausage. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a rocket?
Well no, actually it is a Pulham Pig – the curious nickname given to the vast lighter than air behemoths that made up the fleet of His Majesty’s Airships based at the Royal Navy Airship Station (RNAS) at Pulham.
The quiet agricultural back-water of Pulham St Mary was chosen as the site for an Airship Station just before the First World War – just over a century ago.
Farm land was secretly purchased by men in trench coats and soft hats down from the War Ministry in London. They told anyone who asked it was to train race horses.
There was no way they wanted the many suspected German spies to know what was really going on. German spies they knew were everywhere.
Scotland’s most famous architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, was painting watercolours of flowers, like the one below, in the Suffolk village of Walberswick, just 25 miles away on the coast. He was arrested and jailed as a spy, his rich guttural Glasgow dialect mistaken for traitorous Prussian! And as for his bristling mustache that was certainly a tribute to the Kaiser.
By 1916, back in Pulham, giant sheds were erected and the shadows of the huge airships frequently fell over the fields.
The first ships were covered in a pale yellow fabric, the colour of pigskin. Later the airship engineers would paint the ships with silver dope.
The locals gazed sky-ward in amazement at the great yellow sausage shaped objects. One local farm-worker, in his rich Norfolk twang pronounced “Thet luke loike a gret ol’ pig!”. The name stuck and to the locals the airships would be known as Pulham Pigs for evermore.
Three huge sheds were built on the Station to house the airships which flew from here for 14 years, active flying finishing in 1930.
Airships were always berthed, built or repaired in sheds, never in hangars.
When outside the sheds the ungainly airships were moored to masts. They would wind-cock around always pointing their nose to the wind.
Airship sheds were very large, indeed many were the largest buildings anyone had ever seen certainly in rural East Anglia.
The famous twin Cardington sheds, still to be seen near Bedford, were the biggest buildings in the world when they were completed in the 1920’s. Here they are housing the two biggest ever British airships the R100 and the R101.
One of these twin sheds was based on one of the Pulham sheds which was dismantled at Pulham and moved to Cardington in 1928.
The Cardington Sheds were so big they had their own weather, with clouds and rain inside. They still dominate the flat landscape today (below).
The sheds at Pulham were a little smaller but still long enough for three football pitches end to end inside.
The landing of an airship at Pulham would always attract crowds, usually of children, but adults too, for the RNAS paid locals to help with landings and take-offs. It was quite a tricky procedure.
As the ship hove into view warning sirens and bells would sound the alarm and announce landing crew helpers were needed..
People from the village would hurry to the Air Station to earn a few bob helping to man-handle the craft. They would rush forward to catch the tangle of ropes dropped from the airship, at the same time trying to avoid a soaking from the water ballast pouring from the control car beneath the ship.
Ground handlers needed to be careful. A sudden freak wind, or a change in balance and ballast could cause the ship to suddenly rise up in the air with ground crew still clutching on to the harness of lines.
Men had died making the wrong choice in that heart stopping moment. Should you hang on or let go it was often a life or death descision.
Without doubt the most famous airship from Pulham was the R34. In July 1919, just two weeks after Alcock and Brown made their crash landing in Ireland after the first perilous trans-Atlantic aeroplane flight this airship made a return trip to the USA with 30 men, a stowaway and a cat aboard.
A military airship, the R34 had never been intended as a passenger carrier and extra accommodation had to be arranged. Naval hammocks were slung along the walkways inside the huge cathedral like space inside the ship. Two shifts worked the ship. Twelve hours on twelve hours off.
Hot food for the longer than normal journey at freezing altitudes was cooked on a plate welded to an engine exhaust pipe.
R34 left Britain on 2 July 1919 reaching Mineola, Long Island, United States on 6 July after a flight of 108 hours. This was the first ever East-West crossing of the Atlantic by air.
As the Americans had no experience of handling large airships, Major E.M. Pritchard jumped from the R34 by parachute to supervise the local ground crew. He became the first person ever to reach America by air from Europe.
Three days later on the 10 July R34 set off on the return journey to Pulham. It would take 75 hours.
After the welcoming celebrations the R34 went back to normal duties. The ship returned to East Fortune in Scotland and went back to Howden RNAS in East Yorkshire, for a refit and crew training.
On 27 January 1921 R34 she set out on what should have been a routine exercise.
Over the North Sea the weather worsened. An emergency recall signal sent by radio was never received. The ship tried to find a safe way back to Howden.
Things went from bad to worse. A navigational error, along with poor nightime visibility, caused the craft to hit the ground on the North Yorkshire Moors.
Unlike aeroplanes airships bounce and the damaged craft rose again in the dark and stormy night but with two propellers out of action and the nose badly damaged.
R34 headed back out to sea using the two remaining engines and in daylight followed the Humber estuary to limp back to Howden.
Strong winds made it impossible to get her back into the shed and she was tied down outside for the night. By the morning the wind, squalls and storms had finished off the heroic but broken ship. All she was fit for was to be sent for scrap.
For a few years in the 1920’s and until the Hindenburg disaster of 1937 Airships were successful passenger carriers, far more successful in fact, than the early passenger aeroplanes.
Some of the bigger airships could carry up to 100 passengers. There were proper beds for sleeping, promenade decks and dining rooms. Even today the biggest Jumbo jets don’t offer that kind of luxury.
German Zeppelins carried thousands of passengers in safety and comfort all across the world. Particularly popular were the routes from Germany to South America.
British Imperial airships planned to carry people all across the Empire to Eygpt, India, Kenya, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
Sadly it was not to be. The British airship R101 was rushed into service and crashed in France in 1929 with a terrible loss of life. The British airship dream was over before it had really begun.
Today airships are back on the agenda. The great shed, first built at Pulham St Mary, now in Cardington, Bedfordshire still echoes with the low growl of a new generation of airship engines.
In Germany the Zeppelin Company has risen phoenix like from the ashes of a score of tragic airship disasters all over the world and is building successful passenger airships again.
I know because I flew in one recently. It was a marvellous experience, almost silent, steady and comfortable. For an hour or two over Lake Constance I understood what it must have been like to fly in one of those wonderful Pulham Pigs a century ago.
Peter Frost, 2014.