The Royal Navy’s Air Service In the Great War

The Royal Navy’s Air Service In the Great War. By David Hobbs. Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, 2017
Reviewed by Tim Coyle

The first of April 2018 marks the centenary of the Royal Naval Air Service’s absorption, together with the Royal Flying Corps, into the Royal Air Force. The creation of the combined air service led to an unsatisfactory melange of RAF administration, aircrew and engineering staff with Admiralty operational control which lasted until 1937 when the RN took back its Fleet Air Arm.

The RNAS pioneered the development and application of naval airpower in its seven year existence. It used flying boats, floatplanes, wheeled aircraft operating from ships converted from trade, adaptation of cruisers and capital ships for aircraft operation, airships and observation balloons; all culminating in the ultimate expression of naval air capability – fixed wing wheeled aircraft operations from a purpose-designed aircraft carrier. It even fielded armoured cars and an armoured train in support of the Royal Naval Division in the early months of World War One, encouraged by the overly proactive First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. The RNAS also operated long range bombers on non-naval operations which augured ill for its future.

RNAS history has been previously recorded, notably by some of the participants in the challenging and dramatic conditions of the service’s infancy, and in Admiralty records documenting its policies and administration. This new history, by former RN FAA pilot David Hobbs, brings these sources together in one comprehensive volume combining the technical challenges, their innovative solutions, the triumphs and frustrations together with the circumstances which led to the RNAS’ demise. Hobbs’ extensive experience as a naval pilot allows him to analyse the RNAS political, operational and tactical challenges and its achievements. Of particular interest are the descriptions of the take-off and landing experiments from ships which developed into the naval aviation techniques we know today.

As is well known, the early 20th century saw the RN passing through a technological revolution. All big-gun battleships (dreadnoughts), submarines and torpedoes presented unprecedented naval warfighting assets (and threats) in fleet actions. By 1911 heavier-than-air and lighter-than-air aircraft were recognised by enthusiastic and innovative naval officers as a new arm of naval power to be developed and deployed to sea.

One such officer was Captain Reginald Bacon RN, a brilliant innovator in a service emerging from a century of torpor, who was First Sea Lord, Admiral ‘Jacky’ Fisher’s protégé and advisor. Bacon’s 1900 appointment as Inspecting Captain of Submarines required him to develop them as effective weapons systems and to raise the fleet’s awareness of their capabilities. Aviation developments, both lighter and heavier-than-air, attracted Bacon’s interest and his letter of 21 July 1908 to Fisher proposing a new post of Naval Air Assistant also suggested the RN funding of a large rigid airship to evaluate the use of aircraft with the fleet. Bacon’s initiative was shared by the British Army; both services were aware of German progress in developing rigid airships for military use. The growing interest in airships and aeroplanes led to Prime Minister Asquith referring the issue to the Committee of Imperial Defence in which Bacon was the naval member. The CID recommended funding an experimental naval rigid airship but considered aeroplane development to be still in its infancy and therefore unsuitable for serious developmental consideration for military use. His Majesty’s Rigid Airship Number One (R1) was designed and built by Vickers under the supervision of the now Rear Admiral Bacon and Captain Murray Sueter RN who, as Inspecting Captain of Airships, was to go on to lead the RNAS into the First World War.

R1, though a pioneering aircraft and the first in naval service, was destroyed on its second extraction from the specially constructed hangar on 24 September 1911. This failure cooled the RN’s enthusiasm for airships and the Airship Division was disbanded. However, interest rekindled in the early months of World War One when the Admiralty realised that German submarines posed a threat to the Fleet. Contracts were let to industry however, as the need was urgent, RNAS officers designed semi-rigid ‘submarine scouts’ with control cars and engines adapted from aeroplanes. The effectiveness of these and later more capable airships, together with the use of observation balloons tethered to warships to correct fleet gunnery, is fully described in the book.

The CID’s reticence in supporting acquisition of aeroplanes in 1911 saw the Admiralty maintain a passive interest while encouraging RN officers to learn to fly. Enthusiasm was supported by a wealthy beneficiary making his two aircraft available for tuition of naval personnel. Until late 1915 naval and army officers had to acquire a Royal Aero Club pilot’s certificate and were classified as Royal Flying Corps officers, regardless of service affiliation. However, the RFC ‘naval wing’ soon moved towards an embryonic maritime application such that on 1 July 1914 the Admiralty formally designated the naval wing as the RNAS to form part of the military branch of the RN.

From this point, coinciding with the outbreak of war, the RNAS began its short but brilliant career. David Hobbs leads the reader through the fascinating scenarios of experimentation with aircraft roles, the adaptation of ships as seaplane carriers, the perilous operations therefrom by seaplanes – requiring hoisting out for take-off and hoisting in on return – operations in Belgium in the first weeks of the war (including the afore-mentioned RNAS-operated armoured cars), RNAS operations in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Dardanelles campaign and the RNAS’ assumption of the air defence of Britain and tactics to counter the Zeppelin offensive against British cities and their threat to the fleet as reconnaissance and reporting assets. Several Zeppelins were destroyed by innovative tactics and the specialised Brock and Pommeroy explosive rounds and Le Prier rockets.

The RNAS operational narrative is one of heroic achievements and agonising frustration; possibly none more so than Flight Lieutenant F. Rutland RNAS and his observer, Assistant Paymaster G. Trewin RN, launched from the seaplane carrier HMS ENGADINE at 1500 on 31 May 1916 – the day of the Battle of Jutland – to reconnoitre for the Grand Fleet. Shortly after becoming airborne and while the opposing battlecruiser fleets were racing towards each other and yet to make contact, Rutland and Trewin sighted three German cruisers and five destroyers. Trewin encoded and sent the enemy sighting report to ENGADINE which relayed the messages to the battlecruiser fleet flagship HMS LION. LION failed to take in the signal and the potentially vital intelligence was lost. To add insult to injury the aircraft’s fuel pipe ruptured at 1545 necessitating alighting on the water. RNAS aircrew had to be practical mechanics for such emergencies and Rutland repaired the rupture by patching it with the tube from his life-jacket. Airborne again and ready to continue the mission they were ordered to return to ENGADINE. As is well known, the Battle of Jutland was frustratingly inconclusive so who knows what effect Trewin’s report might had had if LION had received the report and informed Admiral Beatty.

Flying boats, such as the US-designed Curtis ‘Large Americas’ served on long range patrol and anti-submarine missions; specially-designed lighters, towed by destroyers, were developed to carry the flying boats and Sopwith Camel fighters closer to the area of operations to extend their time on task. Many cruisers and battleships were fitted with flying off platforms over gun turrets – including HMA Ships AUSTRALIA, SYDNEY and MELBOURNE. However, the major constraint in operating wheeled aircraft was the inability to land on; the fighters having to ditch on return from the sortie with the pilot hopefully rescued by ships in company. Squadron Commander Dunning’s famous first landing on HMS FURIOUS in February 1917 was inherently dangerous given the then configuration of the ship and his death two days later attempting a similar landing led to the conclusion that only a flush flight deck the length of a ship was the answer. David Hobbs provides the full narrative, including the exceptionally skilful flying exhibited by Dunning, as examples of the outstanding airmanship of the majority of RNAS aircrew in the most challenging operational conditions.

Hobbs states that ‘The crowning achievement of the RNAS was the design, commissioning and the preparation for operation of HMS ARGUS, the world’s first true flush-deck aircraft carrier capable of launching and recovering aircraft and the progenitor of every subsequent carrier’.

Hobbs analyses the dismal political decisions that resulted in the RNAS’ absorption into the RAF, where the apostles of long range bombing preached this doctrine as a war winning panacea. The Admiralty was unable to stifle this mantra; Beatty, then Commander-in-Chief Grand Fleet, acquiesced to the RNAS absorption and consequent loss of naval control – a decision he later regretted.

We learn of the interesting status of RNAS personnel vis-à-vis the regular RN; RNAS officers wore straight officers’ lacing on their uniforms but cap badges had the fouled anchor replaced by an eagle; an eagle was also worn on the left sleeve above the lacing. Enlisted mechanics wore ‘fore-and-aft’ rig as worn by artificers and supply and secretariat personnel. The book lists all RN ships converted to operate aircraft and has maps showing RNAS bases. There are extensive illustrations, largely from David Hobbs’ collection but also from the Australian Goble family. Stanley Goble was a RNAS pilot who later became a senior RAAF officer. The Australian connection with the RNAS is also illustrated by mention of Alec Little’s career. An indifferent pilot, he was an excellent marksman in the air and scored 47 victories before dying in combat. His medals – two DSOs and two DSCs and his first grave marker – are exhibited at the Australian War Memorial and some of his personal flying kit is at the FAA Museum at HMAS ALBATROSS.

This is a fine book, a ripping yarn and essential reading for anyone interested in air and sea power. As the RNAS and its gallant members have passed from living memory, this book is a worthy tribute to their memory.

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