Naval Balloons and Airships

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The introduction of lighter-than-air craft for naval operations was in parallel with the development of scouting and fighter aircraftNaval Balloons and Airships. However, in contrast to the not-always-reliable early aircraft, non-rigid and rigid airships were useful for coastal patrols and scouting ahead of a battlefleet. They had long endurance and could remain motionless when searching for enemy ships and submarines. They also had inherent problems related to changing weather conditions (both in the air and during hangar manoeuvres), loss of weight due to fuel consumption and releasing bombs as well as release of gas in response to temperature and altitude changes, all requiring strict control of the variations in lift. With hydrogen as the lifting gas, there were numerous examples of airships coming down in a ball of flames.

Catalogue number 40203

Trials with captive balloon

Balloons had been in use for a long time by the land armies for reconnaissance before attempts were made to use them at sea. Here the situation was more complex than on land because of the masts, little open space on deck plus the varying state of the sea and wind whilst the manipulation of the hydrogen gas on a coal-burning warship was not without risk. Experiments were made with the French cruiser Tage (launched 1886, decommissioned 1910) using a tethered balloon from the quarter deck. Note the two-decker far right.

Recto: “Tage cruiser” in French and in light pencil

15.2cm x 11.8cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 14026

Naval balloon at sea

The French cruiser Foudre is shown here in its initial state as a torpedo boat carrier, note the boat on deck just aft of midships. A balloon is held down on the quarter deck.

Credit: Marius Bar

13cm x 8cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 24038

Non-rigid observation balloon

A follow-on from the simple spherical balloon was the sausage-shaped balloon with fins, being of larger volume, it could reach greater heights. Note all the ropes running from the balloon to the basket and the mother ship. Note also the uncomfortable proximity of the hydrogen-filled balloon and the ship’s funnel. This naval tug probably has a winch which could be used to raise and lower the observation balloon.

16.7cm x 11.5cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 24039

Trials ship Fauvette II

Fauvette II, a French Admiralty converted trawler has just launched its balloon during trials in the bay off Toulon naval base. On the stern is a gantry maybe for running the tethering lines out to the balloon.

15.7cm x 11.5cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 29026

French tug Homard with balloon

Here is an interesting photograph. An officer is being hauled up to the balloon basket, note the short Jacob’s ladder and the gas pipe held on the ship’s deck. With all the lines hanging about ready to get tangled up, it must have been a nightmare in anything but a very calm sea.

16.7cm x 11.5cm Matt gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 116082

The balloon is up

The balloon is up with its two crew. A telephone line down to the ship served for communications. However, should the balloon be hit and catch on fire, there wasn’t much to do to save the crew.

16.5cm x 11.5cm Matt gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 40133

Improvement on the simple "sausage-shaped" balloon

Numerous fins on the tail of this non-rigid observation balloon were a development to help stabilise the balloon which had a tendency to turn on its cable in windy conditions. The balloon is not a Caquot type.

Verso: “Caquot type captive balloon towed by a ship ”

23cm x 17cm Plastic silver print


Catalogue number 24008

Barrage balloons

American battleships standing by in the Royal Navy base on the Firth of Forth and barrage balloons are out to counter any air attack. The photograph is dated 1912 so this may be a joint naval exercise.

Recto: “Standing by. Firth of Forth Scotland”

Verso: “1912” then a list of the characteristics of a battleship then “Wyoming Arkansas” in black ink.

12.8cm x 8cm Matt gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 95051

H.M.S. Emperor of India

This observation balloon appears to be attached to the battleship which is steaming slow ahead. The photograph was taken after the rearmost 6-inch gun casemates had been sealed off - late 1914. H.M.S. Emperor of India conducted several gunnery exercises at the end of 1914/beginning 1915 and they may have involved the launching of an observation balloon.

12.7cm x 7.9cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 21011

Patrol duties with balloon

H.M.S. Pentsteman was one of the many Arabis class minesweeping sloops which also were engaged in patrol duties and this may be why the sloop has an observation balloon on the quarter deck.

Verso: “Pentsteman 1917

13.4cm x 8.4cm Modern plastic paper print


Catalogue number 95030

Complicated rigging

Patrie was an army semi-rigid airship and had no naval service but this photograph illustrates the complex rigging of an airship with lines suspending the gondola and a multitude of rudders and vanes.

10.9cm x 7.8cm Matt gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 33139

Airship Adjudant Vincenot

Adjudant Vincenot, a French Army airship active from the beginning of the First World War. Again, this is a French Army airship but is shown here to illustrate the evolution of the motive power. Note the huge traction propellers.

16.9cm x 11.9cm Matt gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 117044

French naval airship base, Rochefort, 1919

The Astra-Torres class were non-rigid airships used by the French Navy during the First World War. This AT-14 airship was sold to the Royal Naval Air Service, renamed H.M.A. N°3

Verso: “Rochefort 13th May 1919” then text to the parents with “I send you another photo of the AT4 entering the hangar, see how huge it is.” in French and in black ink

13.6cm x 9cm Matt gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 117042

AT-4 Rochefort, 1919

In this photograph of AT-4 there is a Hotchkiss machine gun in the stern of the gondola. The airship was used for long duration patrols over the English Channel.

Verso: “Rochefort 24-3-19” then text addressed from the son to his parents and “I send you a photo of the AT4 dirigible” in French and in black ink

13.9cm x 9cm Matt gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 118100

The bridge of a French airship

This photograph shows the interior of the gondola in a French airship, March 1917 - altimeter,pressure gauges and speed are indicated on the bridge. Forward of the bridge is a machine gun, note the ammunition drum by the right shoulder of the gunner.

Credit: E.C.P. Armées

17.5cm x 12.6cm Photograph


Catalogue number 69091

Airship AT-9

Two stereo-photographs of the naval airship AT-9 landing

12.2cm x 5.1cm Gelatin silver stereo-photograph, recto


Catalogue number 69092

Airship AT-9

Two stereo-photographs of the naval airship AT-9 landing

12.2cm x 5.1cm Gelatin silver stereo-photograph, verso


Catalogue number 79031

Convoy protection, U.S.S. Matsonia

A typical role for an airship, here is an AT type airship is patrolling over an American troop convoy on the lookout for German submarines. The airships would go out from their base in Rochefort to meet convoys entering the Western Approaches, a favourite hunting ground for German submarines.

12.9cm x 7.5cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 54074

Coastal patrol airship

Small airship of the French Navy. This class of airships patrolled the coastal zone and the English Channel searching for German submarines during the First World War

Verso: “Rochefort sur Mar - Marine airship” in French

13.7cm x 8.7cm Matt gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 117045

Airship Eclaireur

Another Zodiac class airship at the Rochefort base of the air wing of the French Navy. Note the undercarriage gear of the cupola.

Verso: “Rochefort October 1919” then text from the son to his parents, in French

13.9cm x 9cm Matt gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 47298

Airship V-8

This airship resembles the S.S. non-rigid airships of the Royal Naval Air Service that patrolled the Dover Straits and the Western Approaches during the First World War.

10.3cm x 8.1cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 48120

V-12, Zodiac type

The Astra-Torres type V-12 is being manoeuvred at the French Navy air base of Rochefort in 1938.

Verso: "Zodiac V12 built in 1936 for the French Air Arm" in French and in pencil

22.3cm x 16cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 97044

V-12 at Rochefort

Another view of V-12 at Rochefort, note the enclosed cabin now attached to the envelope and the two puller engines either side of the cabin.

12.9cm x 7.5cm Matt gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 45117

Construction of a rigid airship, Zeppelin Bodensee

Here we can see the structure of a Zeppelin rigid airship

15.4cm x 9.9cm Photograph


Catalogue number 45120

LZ-127, Graf Zeppelin

Much use was made of light alloy girders and rivets in the construction of rigid airships such as Graf Zeppelin LZ-127.

13.7cm x 8.8cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 45116

German naval airship L-53

The German Navy made much use of rigid airships to patrol the North Sea during the First World War, directing the German fleet onto British warships and merchant shipping. The Allies had to develop better fighter aircraft in response to this threat. LZ-100 was destroyed off the Dutch coast on 11th August 1918 by a British Sopwith Camel (N6812, pilot Lt Culley) which took off from a lighter towed at speed by a destroyer.

Recto: “Naval airship L-53 (LZ-100) 1917” in German

15.4cm x 9.9cm Photograph


Catalogue number 81001

Zeppelin with a cruiser scouting fleet

The light cruiser S.M.S. Frankfurt of the German High Seas Fleet is seen here in company with a rigid airship during the First World War. Airships often preceded forays of the High Seas Fleet into the North Sea and the Royal Navy listened for wireless communications between the fleet and airships as a warning of ship movements.

10.6cm x 7.4cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 45122

German control cabin, 1917

From a simple suspended cupola, the control cabin of airships became more complex housing flight controls, navigation equipment and guns. The crew were protected from bad weather and the cold at altitude. The bow is to the left. The German naval airship L-12 had a similar cabin (see below).

15.4cm x 10cm Photograph


Catalogue number 64006

German airship sailor, 1915

This photograph of a sailor from the “Marine Luftschiff” (see cap tally) battalion of the German Navy was taken at the airship base of Fuhlsbuttel in 1915. The base was the airship headquarters (“Luftschiffhafen”) of the German imperial Navy.

Verso: Text in German written to “Fritz” in 1915

8.8cm x 13.9cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 121123

German airship L-12 brought down

L-12 came down in the sea when hit by British anti-aircraft fire.

Recto: “After the "L12" had covered 5642 km, it crashed into the English Channel at 3 o'clock in the morning and was towed into the port of Ostend by German torpedo boats on August 10, 1915. Meanwhile, one of the German beach batteries was set on fire by the continuously attacking English airmen and brought down (sic).” in German

15cm x 9.8cm Printed image


Catalogue number 43176

L-12 towed to Ostend

L-12 was brought down in the English channel, hit by anti-aircraft fire it is said. Although the aft gas bags were holed, the airship did not catch fire but buoyancy was lost. Note the control cabin similar to the photograph above.

14cm x 8.9cm Matt gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 35143

Attempts to repair L-12

The damaged airship was brought alongside the quayside and preparations were made to deflate the gas bags and dismantle the airship. The photograph is erroneously identified as being taken at Zeebrugge.

11.6cm x 6cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number ****

L-12, the burnt-out wreck

Whilst alongside, L-12 caught fire and was completely destroyed. Until the introduction of helium, the highly inflammable hydrogen gas was the cause of many airship disasters.



Catalogue number 111107

The disaster of L-2, 1913

This German Navy airship is identified as L-II and is shown here as a burnt-out wreck on 17th October 1913. Better identified as L-2, it caught fire and was destroyed at Johnnisthal in the suburbs of Berlin during its acceptance trials. L-2 was the second rigid airship built for the Imperial German Navy and its loss was a major set-back. Engine problems had delayed the trials and the hydrogen in the gas bags expanded as the sun heated it up. Buoyancy was increased and when released the airship shot up to 610 meters causing a further increase in gas volume due to the lower atmospheric pressure. In an attempt to control the ascension, the crew vented hydrogen from the safety valves. A design error had placed these valves at the bottom of the hull too close to the engines which ignited the released hydrogen and a series of fires and exploding gas destroyed the airship, killing all 28 people on board. Seven officers of the Admiralty trials board were among those killed.

13.3cm x 8.2cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 71030

Airship tender

Dédalo was a Spanish Navy ship with a dual function of floatplane carrier and observation balloon tender. Two balloons were held in the forward hold, seen here with its spade-shaped cover in place. Note the mooring post right forward with a windsock at its peak. Dédalo is seen here supporting the amphibious landing of Spanish troops at Al Hoceima, 1925.

15cm x 11cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 124064

U.S.S. Shenandoah, ZR-1

ZR-1 is shown at its mooring tower in Lakehurst and made it first flight in 1923. She was designed to be inflated with hydrogen but considering the fire risk, the then rare and costly helium was used instead. To counteract the loss in buoyancy and reduce weight, several manoeuvring valves and automatic gas release valves were removed, hence conserving the helium charge. Possibly as a result of these modifications, U.S.S. Shenandoah crashed on 3rd September 1925 after being caught in a violent updraught and ascended before correction of gas pressure could be made with the remaining valves. At too high an altitude, the gas bags were torn apart when their pressure limits were exceeded.

Credit: Clements

23.4cm x 13cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 119043

Control cabin, French Navy "Dixmude"

L72 “Dixmude” of the French Navy, pilot’s cabin with one motor and pusher propeller at the back. There were five other engines all housed in three pods along the hull. The cabin and engine pods were accessible via a walkway within the airframe and the crew climbed down using ladders - see ladder just aft of the glazed cabin.

Recto: “ Landing of L.72. The control cabin.” in French

13.8cm x 9cm Printed image


Catalogue number 29020

Airship tender U.S.S. Patoka

ZR-1, U.S.S. Shenandoah with the airship tender U.S.S. Patoka. The airship was intended to act as a scout for the navy but it was mainly used for trials including working from the airship tender U.S.S. Patoka. Note the engine pods beneath the hull and the control car forward.

Recto: “Navy dirigible moored to USS Patoka” printed then “At Guantanmo (sic) Bay” in blue ink

13.8cm x 8cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 116003

Airship U.S.S. Los Angeles, ZR-3

ZR-3, U.S.S. Los Angeles was built by the Zeppelin company in 1924 as a war reparation to the U.S.A. It had flown 5,368 flight hours before being scrapped in 1939. Note the control cabin incorporated into the hull.

Verso: “U.S.S. Los Angeles moored to U.S.S. Patoka July 16th 1930”

11.7 cm x 7.1cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 41322

Airship U.S.S. Los Angeles, ZR-3

ZR-3, U.S.S. Los Angeles was a successful airship but time was running out for rigid airships. Slow and cumbersome craft, they never really got a chance to show their worth in naval operations after the war. Large numbers of specialized ground crew had to be retained for handling but they were required for only a few hours a month.

Credit: U.S. Naval Historical Center

14.2cm x 9cm Printed image

Catalogue number 126021

A scouting airship with a carrier

ZP5K/ZS2G scouting class airship, a distinctive feature of this class was the inverted Y tail surfaces, designed to prevent accumulation of snow on the tail surfaces. This class of airship was introduced from 1954 and one is shown here in company with a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier (Essex class?). The protrusions under the nose may be search radar.

Verso: “Norfolk (USA)” in black ink

Credit: Service photo P.A. “Bois Belleau”

16.7cm x 12cm Gelatin silver print