After the loss of the Airship SSP2 on 26 November 1917, the Airship station at Caldale on the Orkney’s suffered another disaster today as the SSP4 failed to return from an anti-submarine patrol and was assumed lost.
The SSP4 left the base at 1700 for the night patrol with a crew of tree Flight Commander William Frith Horner, Engineer Ernest Frank Anthony and Wireless Operator Rowland Charles Behn.
At around 1750 the SSP4 sent a message that they would be returning to base due to heavy snow. The base lights were put on facilitate the return of the ship. At 1810 another message was received from SSP4 requesting information on wind strength and direction. 10 minutes later another message from SSP 4 arrived asking for a destroyer to be sent to 72K and use searchlight.
At 18.50 Caldale received another request from SSP4 for weather conditions at the base. SSP 4 was told that a destroyer had been sent to the position 72K grid square on chart and was asked if they were having difficulties. SSP4 then started having communication problems as it could not receive messages from Caldale although Caldale could hear SSP4. SSP 4 started communicating through Peterhead.
At 1925 a new message arrived:
”Making no headway, ask Destroyers to search east of Orkney”
SSP 4 was lost and needing to get a position fix. To assist both Copinsay and Auskerry lighthouses on islands to the east of the main island were lit and destroyers and patrol boats sent out.
The lights and flares at Caldale were then put out as it was thought the airship would not arrive back for some hours.
At 2110 a message was intercepted from SSP4 to HMS the Campania:
”Despatch destroyer at full speed with searchlight to bearing 355 from Peterhead”
At 2200 the Admiral Commanding Orkney and Shetland (ACOS) sent the following message,
“Can you see any searchlights or shorelights”
By this time Caldale had restored communications with SSP4. The wireless operator estimated that the airship could be no more than 20 miles away from the base. 10 minutes later SSP sent the following:
“Send destroyer to Sanday, may not be able to get back”
At 2233, a message was received at Caldale from ACOS to be passed to SSP 4.
”Priority, you passed over Mull Head Papa Westray at 22.00. The lights at Caldale were lit again.
At 2315 a similar message was sent to SSP4
”Priority, you were over Skea Skerries at 22.45, ships in [Scapa] Flow are burning searchlights”
HNothing more was heard from the airship and at 0100 the lights at Caldale were turned off as the airship was known only to have enough fuel to last until midnight.
The next morning the wreck of SSP 4 was found at Tafts on the south shore of Westray but there was no sign of the crew. Various items including papers, charts, a boot, leather jacket and a glove were found still on board. The airship was salvaged and returned to Caldale. A subsequent court of enquiry determined that the SSP4 hit the water while the engine was still running. The crew likely abandoned the ship thinking it would sink. None of the crew were ever found.
This second accident led to the RNAS abandoning the base at Caldale as too dangerous and the remaining airships were moved to
Further detail of this accident and the base at Caldale, including photographs available at http://crashsiteorkney.com/caldale-station-and-airships.