LOOKING BACK: A magnificent flying machine

Gasbag: An airship and gondola

Gasbag: An airship and gondola

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To celebrate the centenary of Polegate Royal Naval Airship Station, historian Rosalind Hodge has written an article for Looking Back.

The second instalment will appear next week.

She writes, “If you were living in Willingdon 100 years ago you would have witnessed great activity as Royal Naval personnel arrived at the partially constructed Royal Naval Airship Station.

“It covered 142 acres of marshy meadowland stretching from the Triangle towards the windmill and had been part of the Ratton Estate belonging to Lord Willingdon until it was auctioned in September 1913.

“However, the land was soon requisitioned, as enemy U boat activity increased in the English Channel threatening our shipping.

“The site was perfect; flat, somewhat sheltered by the Downs and conveniently close to the coast.

“In February 1915 an SS (Submarine Scout) class airship was hastily designed and put into service in less than three weeks.

“The gondola was a BE 2c aircraft, minus wings and rudder and with a few modifications was suspended below the hydrogen filled gasbag.

“Two bombs were suspended in frames under the envelope above the gondola and a Lewis gun was mounted beside the pilot’s seat.

“So it was that the country’s second airship station was built at Willingdon with the entrance at the Triangle, the present day junction with Coppice Avenue.

“It was named Polegate after the nearest railway station although the whole area was within the parish of Willingdon.

“Building work commenced in early 1915 and on July 6 that year it was commissioned with one SS airship, which made its first flight that day and was soon joined by others.

“These ships patrolled our waters daily searching for U boats and mines from Dungeness to Portland Bill.

“They also accompanied military convoys and hospital ships to radio the vessels of any danger.

“During the early part of 1915 the station was a mass of slimy water logged clay, with no roads or paths.

“The few officers were accommodated in the thatched cottage at Wannock and other ranks were billeted mostly in houses at Wannock and Willingdon.

“This situation lasted almost 12 months but by the autumn of that year two colossal hangers, a large transport workshop, and buildings to accommodate and run the base had been constructed.

“A gas plant was built on what is now the entrance to Willingdon Community School, with explosives; bombs and ammunition, stored in an area that is now the top corner of Broad Road School playing fields.

“Concrete mooring blocks were constructed where St Wilfrid’s church was later built.

“These remained until the 1950s and were a great attraction for the local children to climb on.

“Others still remain to this day at the foot of the downs in Donkey Hollow with huge metal rings in the centre.

“By 1917 the main roads of the base were constructed, later to become Coppice Avenue and Broad Road.

“Parade grounds, quarterdecks, sports pitches were finished and Mr Gregg, owner of Wannock Fruit and Tea Gardens, helped lay out attractive flowerbeds.”

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