The story that begins with a nut

Kelly van Doorn

A large part of my job as Collections Officer is reconciling objects with object identification numbers. Early documentation was not up to modern standards and descriptions of objects are sometimes lacking, staff of the 1980s, I’m looking at you!

Reconciliation involves me going back through all of the accession registers, object entry forms and catalogue cards to see if any un-numbered items, usually in an “unknown object” box, match a description and number.  Here is the story of one such item…

In World War One, German U-Boats were wreaking havoc upon the British and Allied merchant ships. The U-Boats had such a severe impact that the decision was taken to implement air patrols along the Eastbourne coast and across The Channel. A large site near Polegate (close to where Willingdon Triangle is today) was flagged as a potential airship station in early 1915 due to its good transport links and shelter afforded by the Downs. The airships, known as “Submarine Scouts” (S.S for short) or blimps, were essentially giant balloons filled with gas, with fuselage, wings and a rudder to steer below the balloons. Polegate was one of eleven airship stations along the coastline of Britain, under the control of Dover and then Portsmouth. Due to its strategic position, the Polegate station clocked up more flying hours than the other stations and the patrol area was tripled in size by 1916. Interestingly, due to the large numbers of people hurt or killed in crashes, Polegate became the first station to test parachutes during the war years.

Although the Downs offered some protection, the sea brought in blustery gales and the hills kept snow and ice around for that little bit longer than elsewhere. On the 20th December 1917, airships SS Z6, SS Z7, SS Z9, SS Z10 and SS Z19 were sent out on patrol. The weather was fine and sunny until mid-afternoon when a thick fog rolled in from the Downs, severely impairing visibility. The airships were recalled but the fog obscured the station and so they were instructed to make an emergency landing in open country. SS Z6 landed near Uckfield, SS Z7 and SS Z19 landed near Beachy Head and SS Z9 and SS Z10 landed at Hill Farm, Willingdon with the aid of a bright signal lamp.

By the evening, the fog had cleared but strong winds had developed. Fearing further danger for the crews, the airships were once again recalled to Polegate station. SS Z7 and SS Z19 left Beachy Head for Polegate.  Finding a brightly lit area, and believing that they were seeing Polegate’s landing lights, the pilot of the SS Z7 began to land. As they descended, they realised too late their mistake. The SS Z7 struck the SS Z10, ripping open the gas filled balloon. The pilot of the SS Z7, Lieutenant Swallow, tried to accelerate but the flames from the engine set alight the escaping gas from the SS Z10 and both of the airships were engulfed by flames.  Lieutenant Swallow died instantly and two others on board were severely injured.

The pilot of the SS Z10, Lieutenant Watson, fearing that his crew were still inside, rushed to the airship. Finding it empty, he turned away from the fire just as both of the 65 lb bombs on board exploded, severing his arm. Thankfully he survived and was awarded the Albert Medal for Lifesaving. Lieutenant Swallow, originally from Gravesend, is buried at Ocklynge Cemetery, facing the hill where he died.

At some point, probably during the clean up, a nut was taken from the wreckage of airship SS Z10. The numbers 20, 12 and 17 were engraved on the front and back and it was turned into a brooch. This brooch now serves as a lasting reminder of the events of this day and to the bravery of those involved. I’m so glad that this unassuming object in a box of unknowns could be reunited with its exceptional story.

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