Neville Florian Usborne

Born February 27th 1883 in Queenstown, Ireland.
Married February 23rd. 1914 at St Margarets, Westminster, London to Helen Monteith, daughter of Vereker Hamilton 
(artist; 1856-1931) of Chelsea, London.
Neville died in 1916. Helen died in 1958


Naval airman extraordinary (His airship was 155 metres long)
In 1897 Neville came fourth in the competitive exam held by the Civil Service Commission for entry as a cadet in the Royal Navy, entering the training ship HMS Britannia, moored in the Dart estuary. He served as Cadet, Midshipman (1898) and Sub-Lieutenant (1902) on the battleship HMS Prince George, battleship HMS Canopus, sail training ship HMS Cruiser and the troopship HMS Tyne. Most of his service during these years was in the Mediterranean and around the British Isles. He kept two beautifully illustrated logbooks, a compulsory part of a midshipman’s training.
In 1903 he was promoted to Lieutenant. He entered the nascent submarine service, joining HMS Thames moored in Fareham Creek, Portsmouth. Neville left the submarine service in 1904 to serve in HMS Doris, a 2nd class cruisers. His Commanding Officer reported that he was, “a capable, zealous and hard working officer”. 1905 found him at HMS Vernon, the RN torpedo school in Portsmouth.
In 1905 he added to his skill at French with the attainment of interpreter standard in German. From July 1905  he was Lieutenant in HMS Defiance, a 91-gun screw wooden ship. She was the Navy's torpedo school ship. From April 1907 he was on HMS Acteon for torpedo training and from June on the Cruiser HMS Berwick.
At about this time, he became interested in the development of aviation and wrote to the Admiralty requesting that he might be noted in connection with aerial work. As part of his duties he would have been in charge of much of the ship’s electrical fittings.
In 1908/9 he joined a team of naval men to work with Vickers, Son & Maxim at Barrow-in-Furness constructing Naval Airship No 1. A letter from the Admiralty in 1908 had invited Vickers to tender for a rigid airship comparable to, or better than, the current German airships. In the spring of 1907 a Zeppelin LZ5 had made a flight of 39½  hours, covering 712 miles. The new British ship (dubbed the Mayfly) was to be 512 feet long and 48 feet wide, capable of 40 knots, moorable on water with a ceiling of 1,500 feet, with wireless equipment and comfort for a crew of 20. The design was 66 feet longer than her current German rival, the LZ-6, and she had a 50% greater volume. The budget was £35,000. The framework was to be fabricated in it's floating hangar in Cavendish Dock from an entirely new alloy, duralumin. Captain Murray Sueter was appointed Inspecting Captain of Airships to oversee the design and production of the airship. "Lieutenant Usborne", he reported, “has conducted himself to my entire satisfaction. A very zealous and capable officer, he has worked hard in making himself an expert in aeronautical work. I strongly recommended him for promotion". He was selected as Captain of Naval Airship No 1.
Commander EAD Masterman went on to write, “It is no exaggeration to say that his was the outstanding personality in the project. Nothing was decided without his advice and few things undertaken of which he disapproved. His was the knowledge, slight though it now appears, for undertaking the construction of a rigid airship larger then any existing, his the brain and his drive which set matters going in the progress of this great experiment. He was the expert and reveled in so being”. 
Airship No1 was taken from its shed on May 22 1911, for handling and mooring trials. It was moored to a 38 feet mast, the first time a rigid airship has ever been made fast to a mast. The trials were successful in that the airship withstood winds of up to 45 mph. It soon became clear that she was overweight and incapable of static flight. To lighten the ship the external keel and many other items were removed – including the anchor.
On September 24, 1911 she was taken out of the giant shed again, tail first. Just as the nose was clearing the hangar doors, a strong gust of wind caught the massive airship and rolled Mayfly virtually on her beam-ends.  Her back was broken. She was a wreck and became the subject of much negative publicity about being a waste of taxpayers’ money. Fortunately there were no fatalities, most of the crew had managed to dive overboard as the airship reared and plunged. The great airship frame was broken up, the Admiralty lost interest in rigids and in January 1912 the Airships Section was disbanded. The story is not one of total failure as valuable knowledge had been gained. Indeed it would appear that Neville’s career did not suffer.
What was he like? According to Masterman he was “in appearance rather below normal size, with a slightly prominent nose, blue eyes, sandy coloured hair and a very forcible expression. He hardly ever spoke without emphasis. He had a dominating personality with a vital spark, most difficult to withstand in argument. Not sparing of others, he was prepared to do as much or more than he demanded of them. He was interested in spiritualism, socialism and new thought, music and motor bikes. He was abstemious in his pleasures, very self disciplined, lived for work, talked, thought and dreamt airships, kept himself very fit. He indulged in “height training” climbing to high parts of the shed or scaffolding and making perilous walks".
On April 1, 1912 Neville was sent to Farnborough as Squadron Commander, Naval Airship Section, Royal Flying Corps Airship Wing. He was given the command of HMA No 2,“a handy little ship with three seats, dual control and a 40 hp Renault engine”. The Naval Airships Branch was reformed. In 1910-11 the Spaniard, Torres Quevedo, had designed a small airship. With the Astra Airship Company they developed the non-rigid Astra-Torres airship. Several were ordered by the Admiralty. In 1913 Neville was appointed to command and on October 24th he took Winston Churchill for a flight of an hour and a half. “This was one of the happiest periods of his life" wrote Masterman "He was continually active and quite willing to start again at the beginning in the hope of gradually building up a Naval Airship Service.
Neville (centre) in the car of a Beta II 
(click to enlarge)
On August 19, 1913 Neville was in command of an Astra Torres when it experienced engine failure due to a broken crankshaft near Odiham in Hampshire. With his usual pragmatism he hitched a lift with the Army airship Eta back to Farnborough  The 8 mile trip was made at a groundspeed of 25 mph against a 5 mph headwind and at a height of 400 feet with 600 feet of tow-rope. The airship came to rest exactly on its alighting mark. 
"He was now a person of importance in the combined service and his capabilities and knowledge fully recognised". 
He was promoted to Commander RN on January 1st 1914.
Neville was not content with flying lighter-than-air craft only as Flight Magazine noted in April 1913 that Aviators' Certificate No 449 had been awarded to Lieutenant Neville Usborne, RFC, flying a Caudron Biplane,              >>>>>>>>>>>> 
at the Ewen School, Hendon.

click to enlarge

On February 23rd 1914 he married Betty Hamilton, the 21 years old daughter of the artist and tea-planter Vereker Hamilton. Lieutenant Malone was best man and the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps provided a guard of honour. “I just love marriage" wrote Neville in a letter dated January 9, 1915. "I think Betty will have a baby in six months time"

On July 1, 1914 Neville was promoted to Wing-Commander. The Naval Wing was renamed the Royal Naval Air Service. The first Director of the Air Department of the Admiralty was Captain Murray Sueter CB. There were six Wing Commanders, of whom Neville was one.  Neville flew the Astra-Torres over the Royal Fleet Review at Spithead on July 20th 1914. After the declaration of war patrols were carried out over the Straits of Dover, escorting the troopships taking the British Expeditionary Force to France between August 9 and 22.
On August 28 the Astra-Torres carrying as offensive weapons four Hales grenades, left Kingsnorth at 06.30 under Nevilles's command and landed at Ostend 09.45. 

click to enlarge

It was used for scouting along the Belgian coast and returned to Ostend each evening before nightfall.  It carried out a daring reconnaissance flight over the town of Dunkirk in broad daylight and returned to England after a week. Night flights over London were made to evaluate possible Zeppelin attacks and give the searchlight crews some practice.

On February 4, 1915 a communiqué had been issued by the Imperial German Admiralty which declared, "All the waters surrounding Great Britain and Ireland, are hereby declared to be a war zone. From February 18 onwards every enemy merchant vessel found within this war zone will be destroyed". Britain relied heavily on sea-borne trade. If Germany could break or even seriously disrupt the flow of merchant vessels then Britain's ability to wage war or indeed feed its population would be rendered either difficult or impossible. Winston Churchill, at the Admiralty, was not too concerned at that stage. The Germans had moved too soon. There were simply not enough U-boats available in 1915 to make unrestricted submarine warfare any more than a nuisance.

On May 7, 1915 off the Irish coast, the British liner RMS Lusitania was sunk by a single torpedo. The great ship was destroyed in a sudden violent detonation  which resulted in the death of nearly 1200  souls. Over 100 of the dead were American citizens and such was the outcry that the Germans prudently scaled down the unrestricted nature of the submarine campaign in order to avoid incurring greater wrath from the USA.
First Sea Lord, Admiral Lord Fisher, summoned a conference on February 28, 1915 to consider the proposal of Mr Holt Thomas to build a large number of small airships for anti-submarine patrols. Until then the Admiralty Airship Officers could get practically no support. But with Lord Fisher’s powerful interest airship work was given a new lease of life.

Neville’s next important contribution was assisting with the design of the Submarine-Scout (SS) class airshipHe was given instructions to develop a small envelope of 60,000 cubic feet capacity. It should have a speed of between 40-50 mph, capable of reaching an altitude of 5,000 feet, carry a crew of two, 160lb of bombs, wireless equipments and fuel for 8 hours flying.  On the 18th March, less than 3 weeks after work began the new airship was entered in to service. Admiral Fisher commented his approval with the famous comment "Now I must have forty!"  
(Click to enlarge)

Neville came into his own. Kingsnorth became a factory for "blimps" under his direction. Here his driving force had full sway. In all 147 SS type airships were constructed, some going  to France, Italy and the United States. Their deterrent value was immense. They cost £2,500 each. During the entire war there was only one instance of a ship being escorted by an airship being sunk. During the final 15 months of the war SS type airships  carried out over 10,000 patrols, flying nearly one and a half million miles in more than 50,000 hours. 49 U-boats were sighted and 27 of these were attacked from the air or by ships. “Admiral Sueter desires to place on record his high appreciation of the hard work and devotion to the airship cause displayed by Commander Usborne. Far into the night and the early hours of the morning this scientific officer worked to make these airships a success and due to him in large part their wonderful success was due.”

On August 13, 1915 Neville was appointed Inspector Commander of Airships at the Admiralty. His restless mind was continually occupied by the aeronautical requirements of the war, focusing on the problem of how to increase the range of our aeroplanes and how they would be best used after the end of the war.

However his most pressing task was to draw up schemes to combat the Zeppelin menace.  The War Office in London was slow to appreciate the potential of aerial warfare, noting in 1910 that it was “not convinced that either aeroplanes or airships will be of any utility in war.” The Imperial German Navy’s Airship Division was formed in 1912 with the plan to take the war to the enemy by means of a bombing campaign.  In 1914 the Zeppelin represented a considerable threat with a payload of 500lbs of bombs, at a time when fixed-wing aircraft were deemed suitable for unarmed reconnaissance only. There was a distinct lack of suitable 
Zeppelin. Click to enlarge

aircraft to attack zeppelins. In the autumn of 1914, the citizens of London were subject to air raid precautions for the first time, with street lamps being extinguished and a blackout imposed.  The few available aircraft had neither the speed, climb rate nor weapons to be a credible counter to any marauders. The initial Zeppelin raids across the North Sea were made in January 1915  A total of over 200 civilians were killed  during 1915.

There was no effective solution and it was this problem that Neville attempted to resolve. His fertile brain devised a solution, suspending a complete BE2c aeroplane from an envelope similar to that used by the SS type airship. The idea of the "Airshiplane" was that it could patrol as an airship and then the aircraft section could be slipped once it had established itself above the Zeppelin. On February 21, 1916 Neville and Squadron Commander W.P de C Ireland  ascended from Kingsnorth to about 4000 feet. Then, due to a sudden loss of equilibrium,  the forward suspension cables became detached, the nose of the aircraft plunged downwards, over-stressing the remaining two wires, which failed. 
Click to enlarge

The controls of the BE were thereby damaged making a safe descent impossible. The BE section was seen to sideslip and turn over, throwing out Ireland who fell into the River Medway and was drowned. Neville remained with the BE which crashed in Strood station goods yard. He was 33. Air Commodore Masterman wrote in 1934, “Thus fell two gallant men. As far as Usborne is concerned, no one can talk of early British airship days without mention of his name and work. A personality was lost on that February day which was irreplaceable.”

Betty Usborne had a dream three nights beforehand – a black car from the Admiralty had drawn up at the door of their house in South Kensington to tell her of Neville’s death. On waking she asked him to postpone the test. He wouldn’t. When the day came she determined to stop the dream coming true by leaving with him first thing and not returning till after midnight. But at midnight the black car was waiting.
Betty re-married Hugh Godley, the 2nd. Lord Kilbracken.

John Godley (3rd. Lord Kilbracken) in his memoir, Bring Back my Stringbag (1997) recalls his mother Betty: "As her second marriage disintegrated she increasingly idealised her first husband, Neville. Their four years together (at least in recollection) had been so perfect, the gentle lover, the wise father, the brilliant man of invention.  He was more than an outstanding naval officer, a visionary with an eager mind as well as great charm and magnetism"

A claim submitted in 1925 to the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors on behalf of Neville Usborne set out the circumstances under which he had invented the so-called SS (Sub-marine Scout) Airship.            

The Usborne Memorial Fund was set up by the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1921 to award a prize for an historical paper or lecture on any aspect of aeronautics. It was first awarded in 1927. 

Guy Warner is preparing an article for Aeroplane Magazine about Neville which he hopes to expand into a book. His meticulous research is the basis of the piece above. Sue Kilbracken has some of Neville's papers and pics.