The RNAS Strikes!

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‘Christmas Surprise’ by David Pentland

On December 25th, 1914, the Royal Navy carried out the first ever co-ordinated sea and air attack on an enemy target. Three RN seaplane tenders with several warships as escorts, sailed into the North Sea and set up a temporary base at the small island of Helgoland. On Christmas Day, the tenders launched a total of nine Short seaplanes of various models in near-zero temperatures. The engines of two of the planes refused to start in the freezing conditions and both aircraft had to be winched back on board but the remaining seven aircraft managed to get airborne. Photos of the December 25th Cuxhaven raid published in the Illustrated War News five days after the operation
Their objective was the Zeppelin sheds at the Nordholz air-base near Cuxhaven.Poor visibility and heavy anti-aircraft fire hampered the bombing attack on the air-base and the damage inflicted was limited. However the British were pleased with the results of the raid as it proved the feasibility of such operations and none of the aircrew’s lives were lost. Of the seven aircraft who participated in the raid, three were recovered intact by the tenders, three more landed near the Island of Nordeney and their crews were rescued by a British submarine (the aircraft were deliberately scuttled) and the last aircraft was reported missing but the crew was rescued by a Dutch trawler. One of the aircrew who took part as an observer was Lieutenant Erskine Childers, famous for being the writer of the espionage novel The Riddle of the Sands which had been a bestseller before the war. A staunch Irish nationalist, Childers became radicalised after the war and was a leading figure in the Anglo-Irish troubles prior to his death by execution in 1922.

It was clear that the RFC had an important, possibly crucial, part to play in the land war. The same could not be said of the Royal Naval Air Service and the war at sea. In August 1914 the War Office had insisted on control of the country’s air defences, even though almost all of its aircraft were already earmarked for France. At the Admiralty, the First Lord, Winston Churchill, took advantage of the army’s predicament to move in. Soon the Royal Naval Air Service had taken over the responsibility and a rudimentary aerial defence system was put in place. The RNAS set up a string of seaplane bases in east coast ports, facing Germany. In early September the army grudgingly accepted the situation and – for the time being at least – ceded the air over Britain to the navy.

The admirals’ conviction that the special needs of the navy made close co-operation with the army impossible had led them to ignore the amalgamation the creation of the RFC was supposed to bring about, and had carried on their own course, training their own pilots and buying their own aircraft. Such was their power and political prestige that their disobedience went unpunished and was accepted as a fait accompli with the official recognition of the RNAS in July 1914. The navy’s headstrong attitude, however, was not easy to justify. Wresting control of the domestic air space from the army was an empty victory, as in the first months of the war the German air force stayed away. Effort concentrated instead on how to put the navy’s aeroplanes to use at sea. Flight brought huge potential advantages to the prosecution of naval warfare. In theory, aircraft could carry out reconnaissance from ships at sea, launch offensive and defensive operations against hostile aircraft and bases, attack enemy weak points on the ground and patrol the seas in search of enemy forces, in particular submarines. Huge logistical and mechanical problems had to be overcome, however, before the simplest tasks could be attempted.

Navy aviators were nonetheless innovative and daring. It was the RNAS that carried out the first offensive action by British fliers, a bold if ineffective attack launched on 22 September 1914 from its base at Ostend against the Zeppelin sheds at Dusseldorf. On 8 October, having fallen back to Dunkirk, the navy tried again. This time Flight Lieutenant Reggie Marix, aboard a Sopwith Tabloid, succeeded in dropping a couple of bombs on a hangar. They were tiny, weighing only twenty pounds each, but the results were sensational. Inside the shed was a just-completed Zeppelin and the explosions ignited the hydrogen, generating a fireball that leapt 500 feet.

Another big operation was in the planning. Four Avro 504s were dismantled, shipped to Le Havre, then driven to an airstrip at Belfort on the Swiss–French border. On the freezing morning of 20 November, three of them set off to bomb the Zeppelin factory, 120 miles away, at Friedrichshafen on Lake Constance in southern Germany. Once again the results were impressive. A hydrogen-generating plant erupted, workshops were blown up and an airship badly damaged, delighting Winston Churchill, who described it as ‘a fine feat of arms’.

This was another land-based effort and the RNAS could be said to be encroaching on operational space that logically belonged to the RFC – although at this time the army had no interest in long-range bombing. Then, on Christmas Eve 1914, the RNAS launched another imaginative operation that pushed the boundaries of the new technology and provided a glimpse of where the combination of warplanes and warships could lead. At the heart of the operation were three ships – Engadine, Riviera and Empress. They were large, fast, cross-channel ferries that had been converted into seaplane carriers. They set sail from Harwich at 5 p.m., escorted by two cruisers, ten destroyers and ten submarines. Their destination was a point forty miles off the Friesian island of Wangerooge. From there, the nine Short ‘Folders’ on board the carriers were to set off to bomb the Zeppelin sheds at Cuxhaven. The airships were not the primary target, however. The main intention was to lure at least some of the German High Seas Fleet lying at Wilhelmshaven, just down the coast to the south, out into the North Sea where battle could be joined.

The mission began in the icy dawn of Christmas Day. In the freezing conditions, two aeroplanes failed to start and the others sputtered along on misfiring engines towards the target. The clear conditions quickly gave way to dense cloud and the pilots failed to see the objective, let alone bomb it. On the way back they dropped a few bombs on ships moored in the Schillig Roads off Wilhelmshaven, then tried to rejoin the fleet at a pick-up position off the island of Borkum. It was a hugely perilous exercise. Fuel was running low and four of the aeroplanes that had been hit by anti-aircraft fire had to ditch. By a stroke of luck three landed near a submarine, but the rescue was interrupted by the arrival of a Zeppelin, which proceeded to bomb. One of the raiders was picked up by a destroyer and two more by the carriers. Another put down near a Dutch merchantman. Astonishingly, no one was killed in the operation. Although the mission had failed in its aims it had nonetheless been an important event. The episode had demonstrated that ships could work with aircraft to project force in a way that land-based aeroplanes at that time could not. This development was in keeping with the underlying principle of British sea power, that by possession of a large navy, a small island was able to amass wealth and power, while enhancing its own security by its ability to hit its enemies at long range.

The significance of what had happened was clear to the man who planned the raid, Squadron Commander Cecil L’Estrange Malone. ‘I look upon the events which took place on 25 December as a visible proof of the probable line of developments of the principles of naval strategy,’ he wrote in his official report. ‘One can imagine what might have been done had our seaplanes, or those sent to attack us, carried torpedoes instead of light bombs. Several of the ships in Schillig Roads would have been torpedoed and some of our force might have been sunk as well.’ L’Estrange-Malone, a remarkable figure who would go on to become Britain’s first Communist MP, had grasped that at some point, the success or failure, in fact the very survival of a naval force, would depend on the strength and efficiency of its air forces and air defences.

That time was still some way off. The Cuxhaven raid was not repeated. Instead the RNAS would soon be preoccupied with one of its consequences. The fright that the Germans had received produced a strengthening of the anti-aircraft batteries around ports and bases, but also persuaded them to press ahead with air attacks on England. Rather than wait for long-range aeroplanes capable of doing the job, it was decided to use Zeppelins, and when the raids began early in the New Year it was naval pilots who had the task of hunting them down.

The results of the attacks on the Zeppelin sheds did not justify the effort and expenditure of manpower and resources that went into them. It was accepted that there might be future benefits in developing what was essentially a doctrine of strategic air warfare, but for the time being they were theoretical. The army’s needs were obvious and pressing. It was inevitable that in the battle for resources the RNAS would lose out.

With the Western Front frozen it was clear that the war would not be over by Christmas. Many more soldiers would be needed. The British Expeditionary Force began to swell, and at the end of December divided into First Army, under Haig, and Second Army, under Sir Horace Lockwood Dorrien-Smith, while in Britain the War Minister, Lord Kitchener, issued a call for volunteers that brought tens of thousands flooding in. If the RFC was to do its job it would have to match the expansion. Plans were made for fifty new squadrons – more than ten times the number that had gone to France in August. Its structure was reorganized to harmonize with the new army arrangements. The squadrons were now divided into wings, which were teamed with the First and Second armies, with the expectation that there would be many more to follow.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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