LOOKING BACK: Polegate airships played major role in war

Triangle entrance, Lower Willingdon
Triangle entrance, Lower Willingdon

We continue our trip down Memory Lane this week with the second part of Rosalind Hodge’s article celebrating the centenary of Polegate Royal Naval Airship Station.

The Royal Naval Airshop Station covered 142 acres of marshy meadowland stretching from The Triangle towards the windmill.

Large hangars

Large hangars

Rosalind writes, “My grandmother said all the activity in rural Willingdon, population of approximately 850, caused great interest.

“Although classed ‘small’, these airships were huge vessels and must have been an amazing sight low in the sky leaving and returning on daily patrols.

“The engines of the SS class constantly cut out and crew became expert at climbing out onto the undercarriage, repairing and re-starting the engines while clinging onto wire struts with their knees some 3,000 feet above the Channel.

“In 1917 the SS class were superceded by the improved SSZ design, six being sent to Willingdon. In Jan 1916 151 men were stationed here; 226 in Jan 1917 and by 1918, 302 personnel.

SSZ6 gondola

SSZ6 gondola

“They formed an orchestra, brass band, concert party, football, cricket, rugby, tennis and tug-of-war teams. The first sports day was held on what is now the land of Willingdon Primary School in July 1917, a military band visiting from Eastbourne and more than 2,000 guests including most of the inhabitants of Willingdon.

“A cinema theatre in their own YMCA hut gave twice-weekly shows with programmes changing each time. By the end of 1917 the base was producing its own monthly magazine, ‘The Ripping Panel’ selling for 3d.

“In early 1918, 54 young women of the WRNS arrived as clerks, cooks, drivers and fabric workers and were billeted in ‘Shortlands’ Church Street, now called ‘Hastoun House’, a 15 minute walk away from the men’s quarters at the base.

“A number of records were set at the Polegate Airship Station; the highest altitude, 10,000 feet, and the longest flight of 620 miles taking 17 hours in July 1916.

“The first parachute descent from an airship was over Willingdon on August 5 1916 when Sir Bryan Leighton dropped from 900 feet witnessed by many locals. Also in 1916 the War Office attended a demonstration here of the stealth vessel, ‘Black Ship’ SS40, which carried out special covert service in France.

“Its envelope and gondola was painted matt black and the engine silenced and specially modified.

“It was based at Polegate and used for night time reconnaissance during the Battle of the Somme.

“All this activity had quite an effect on the small village of Willingdon.

“Several local girls married men from the base at Willingdon Church with often an airship floating overhead and comrades of the groom dropping a lucky boot and cheering the happy couple.

“The station was disbanded on February 6 1920 and handed to the Disposal Board in June. Buildings, stores and equipment was auctioned between August 3-5 1920.

“The Polegate ships played a major part in the war being one of the most effective counter measures against enemy submarines, flying 8,140 hours in the last year of the war.”

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