Voices in Flight: The Royal Naval Air Service During the Great War. By Malcolm Smith. Pen and Sword, Barnsley, 2014.
Reviewed by Dr Gregory P Gilbert
FOR many Australians the exploits of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) during World War I remain a mystery. As the Royal Australian Navy had no aviation branch at the time those Australians wishing to fly navy had to go to the United Kingdom and volunteer for the RNAS.
More than 20 Australians served with the RNAS, seven of them becoming aces. The little known RNAS pilots Robert Little and Rod Dallas were our nation’s highest scoring air aces of WWI with 47 and 39 victories respectively.
Unfortunately the demise of the RNAS on 1 April 1918, when it was absorbed into the newly created Royal Air Force, and the subsequent formation of the Royal Australian Air Force in 1921, has had a major impact upon our nation’s limited understanding of naval aviation ever since.
Voices in Flight: The Royal Naval Air Service During the Great War helps to inform us today of what was and what was not accomplished by those who served in the navy’s air service during the first truly joint war – on land, at sea and in the air. Malcolm Smith gained unprecedented access to the extensive archive of the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton in the UK.
Using diaries, handwritten notes, transcripts, log books and records of various kinds, Smith has been able to assemble individual stories of what it was like to be a British naval aviator during WWI. In doing so we gain knowledge of the great variety of tasks undertaken – fighting in aerial operations over land and sea as well as in mechanised vehicles used in land operations in Northern France and Belgium, Gallipoli and Russia.
The words of those who experienced the early days of naval aviation reveal the experiences of the few who managed with extremely limited resources to learn, develop and sell their message to those that mattered despite considerable odds. The various experiences of operating airships, seaplanes and land-based aircraft in Home Waters are described. The early attempts at conducting air operations at sea are also described as are the early experiences of operating aircraft carriers.
An example of the immediacy of the personal narratives can be seen in the description of the dangers involved when launching aircraft off a battlecruiser’s main turret when operating with the Grand Fleet in the North Sea.
One of the battle-cruiser pilots, flying off the platform fixed on top of the big guns, crashed on the deck and killed a marine. Still another fell into the ‘ditch’ right in front of the ship. They had not time to stop the ship’s propellers as the ship drove right over him. To the surprise of everyone they picked him up intact although his machine had been cut to pieces by the ship’s propellers.
The flexibility and professionalism available in RNAS squadrons meant that they were not only used for long distance air raids against high value targets, they were increasingly seen as valuable reinforcements for the fighting on the Western Front. In support of land operations the RNAS squadrons quickly demonstrated their superior flying skills and experience. Also, these squadrons initially operated better aircraft, purchased by the navy, which were just not available to the Royal Flying Corps squadrons whom they were operating alongside. RNAS experiences in the Middle East, Gallipoli and elsewhere in the Mediterranean are also included, as are the experiences of RNAS armoured cars in Gallipoli and Russia and several experiences of those who spent time as a Prisoner of War.
My only criticism of the book is that I would have preferred a strictly chronological structure – at least within each part. However I am aware that many younger readers are used to more thematically or randomly organised schemes. Even with this perceived limitation the greatest strength of The Royal Naval Air Service During the Great War is in the personal material presented and the quality of this selection far outweighs any preference for the manner it is presented.
The Royal Naval Air Service During the Great War is a remarkable collection that thrusts the personal perspective into the often bland official narratives of the Great War. By highlighting the importance of naval aviation in the past this book will help to inform the future. The resourcefulness and flexibility demonstrated by those who served in the RNAS between 1914 and 1918 offers a valuable example for those who serve in today’s Australian Defence Force.