When America suddenly found itself at war following the attack on Pearl Harbor, military planners in Washington realized they had neither the warships nor aircraft to defend more than 12,000 miles of U.S. coastline against enemy submarines lurking off shore. Short on options, the U.S. Navy turned to some decidedly outdated technology to bolster the nation’s maritime defences – blimps.
Beginning in 1942 and continuing through to the end of the war, armed naval airships carried out non-stop patrols high above American waters in search of Japanese subs and German U-boats. Military blimps also shepherded vulnerable convoys far out into the Atlantic, while entire squadrons of lighter-than-air flying machines swept foreign sea-lanes of both mines and raiders.
However, despite their contributions to the Allied war effort, blimp crews fought in relative obscurity – instead, warplanes and fighting ships captured headlines as well as the public’s imagination. Yet, more than 10,000 airship pilots, gunners and mechanics took part in an estimated 37,000 combat patrols, chalking up nearly 400,000 flying hours while successfully protecting tens of thousands of friendly vessels from harm. Amazingly, only one U.S. Navy airship was lost in battle. Sadly however, history has largely forgotten the contributions of the wartime airships — other “silent service”.
Blimps at War
At the beginning of the 20th Century, the world’s militaries had high hopes for dirigibles. Before the advent airplanes, hydrogen-filled blimps and airships afforded armies and navies invaluable eyes in the sky, not to mention the unprecedented ability to deliver bombs deep inside enemy territory. While Britain, France and Russia all eagerly experimented with airships in the years leading up to World War One, it was Italy that conducted the first bombing raids using blimps in its war with Turkey in 1912. Germany soon made even greater use of the technology. As early as 1915, the Kaiser’s Zeppelins were striking France and southern England in force. It was a terror campaign that would continue for two years until Gotha bombers took over the job. Increasingly outclassed by newer, faster and higher-flying airplanes, blimps were soon rendered obsolete and largely abandoned by military planners worldwide. Even the public’s brief love affair with trans-Atlantic luxury airship travel went up in flames with the 1937 Hindenburg disaster. By the start of World War Two, airships were considered outmoded at best and at worst, unreliable and even dangerous.
Airships Rise Again
All that changed in December 1941 when the U.S. Navy, short on surface ships and patrol aircraft, quickly ordered its small fleet of just eight helium-filled blimps into action. It positioned four of its K-Class ships at Lakefield, N.J. and four TC and L-Class craft near San Francisco. Both squadrons immediately commenced anti-submarine patrols along the U.S. coasts and conducted inshore convoy escorts. Meanwhile, navy fast tracked an order for even more blimps from Akron, Ohio-based tire manufacturer Goodyear. In anticipation of its expanded fleet of airships, the navy next established a crew training center in California. In the interim, its two squadrons held the line for months. In addition to sub hunting, mission profiles included: search and rescue, reconnaissance, mine laying and sweeping and even cargo transport. But the blimps were at their best when serving as convoy escorts. Here is a rundown of their war record:
• While the U.S Navy began the war with only blimp squadrons ZP-32 and ZP-12, by 1945 it had ships stationed in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Jamaica, Trinidad, Suriname, Brazil and Guantanamo Bay, as well as Gibraltar and even French Morocco.
• Goodyear produced more than 150 airships for the U.S. Navy between 1942 and 1945. Eventually, 1,400 pilots were trained, along with thousands more crew.
• The mere presence of airships over a convoy was often enough to keep enemy submarines at bay. In addition to using spotters to visually identify U-boats on or just beneath the surface of the water, airships were also equipped with radar and magnetic anomaly detectors (MADs). Airships could easily direct escort corvettes and destroyers onto submerged contacts from the skies. When blimps did attack, they typically used depth charges.
• During the course of the war, U.S. Navy blimps provided cover to an estimated 89,000 convoy vessels. Only one ship under the protection of navy dirigibles was ever sunk by a U-boat — an oil tanker named the Persephone.
• Similarly, only one U.S. Navy blimp was ever lost in combat. The engagement occurred on the night of July 18, 1943 off the coast of Florida when the blimp K-74 attacked the German U-boat U-134 while surfaced. A malfunction prevented the airship from dropping its depth charges on the sub, which afforded the enemy gunners the chance to fire on the slow-moving target. The damaged craft was forced to crash land on the water. Its crew was picked up at daybreak by a patrol plane, but not before one of them was attacked and killed by a shark. The U-134 was destroyed on its homeward voyage by British bombers off Spain.
• With the U-boat threat diminishing in 1944, U.S. Navy airships were deployed to the Mediterranean where they swept the Gibraltar Straits of mines, cleared the shallow waters around the vital British outpost of submarines and even helped escort the convoy that carried Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference in the Black Sea.
• U.S. Navy blimps took part in the last sinking of an Axis U-boat in World War Two. On May 6, 1945, two days before Germany surrendered, American airships helped locate U-881, which was subsequently attacked and destroyed off Newfoundland by U.S surface vessels.