1 Squadron with their S.E.5a’s, 1918
By the time the final year of the First World War began, air power had penetrated the lives of everyone involved in the conflict – soldiers, seamen and civilians. On the Western Front the RFC had become an extra limb for the army, and one on which it leaned heavily. Airmen and aircraft played an essential part in almost all operations. Unlike their comrades on the ground, they had established a clear ascendancy over the enemy. Huge numbers of aircraft were pouring out of the factories. In 1917 there were 14,832 deliveries to the Front. The following year that number more than doubled. The RFC and the French air force ruled the skies and the arrival of the Americans in the early summer sealed Allied air superiority. Flying was still a bloody business. The outnumbered Luftstreitkräfte shifted Jastas up and down the line to try and win some temporary and limited dominance, and the Germans were able to inflict considerable damage. More than a third of the total aggregate of casualties suffered by the air force occurred in the last seven and a half months of the war.
Many were sustained in the spring of 1918, when the Germans launched their last great effort. After the October Revolution of 1917, the Russians were out of the war and Germany could switch its resources to a single front. This respite was the signal for the 1918 Spring Offensive, a huge outpouring of desperate energy that took the Allies by surprise, pushing them back – forty miles on some sectors of the Front. The air forces were thrown in to try and stem the flood. The squadrons found themselves caught up in massed, swirling air battles as spotters called down fire on the advancing formations – protected by fighters who buzzed above them, trying to keep the Germans at bay – while underneath, at dangerously low altitudes, others swooped on and raked the enemy on the roads, lanes and rail tracks. The effect they had could be devastating, as nineteen-year-old Ewan Stock of 54 Squadron observed when out on a strafing mission in his Sopwith Camel on the afternoon of 22 March. ‘I saw what seemed to be a long wall of sandbags,’ he wrote. ‘I could not understand why I had not seen it before, until diving at the enemy behind it, I noticed that it was a wall of dead bodies heaped one upon the other. The enemy were on the east side of it, so I was able to sweep this wall with machine-gun fire until there must have been a hundred or so German soldiers to add to this human wall.’ On 12 April the air force carried out more operations than on any other day of the war. It was the crescendo of the German effort. Exhaustion set in and the offensive faltered.
The air force had taken a mauling. Nearly a thousand aircraft and 400 men had been lost. As spring turned to summer, life in the air became less dangerous for the squadrons engaged in the routine activities of flying in support of the army corps, and on the ground things were rather pleasant. In his memoirs Hubert Griffith, the London literary gent who flew with 15 Squadron, describes some encounters with ‘Archie’ and near misses with friendly aircraft. But his memory was ‘equally insistent on the other side of life – the bathing, the fishing in the lake . . . of riding through green French fields when we could get hold of some horses, and of many, many hours of sheer idling, lying on the grass.’ It was, he confessed, ‘in many senses an idyllic situation. Almost for the first and last time in one’s life one had as much money as one needed. A flying officer’s pay was good; mess bills, drinks and minor luxuries (silk shirts and nice French soaps) were cheap. Merely by being in France one was saving more than enough money to see one through one’s home leaves.’
As the Allies pressed forward again they increasingly used air power to reach behind the lines and hit the German homeland. The possibility of using aeroplanes as airborne artillery had been seen early on and the Germans had almost from the beginning tried to carry the war deep into their enemies’ territory. Britain had made periodic attempts to retaliate. This process was formalized in October 1917 when a specialist wing, No. 41, was used to launch ‘strategic attacks’ against factories, railways and the like, using twin-engined Handley Page heavy bombers and lighter DH4s. In June the wing was expanded into what was called the Independent Force. It was made up of nine squadrons, including a detachment of Sopwith Camels to provide a fighter escort. By the end of the war they had dropped 550 tons of bombs, most of them by night.
The operations had little effect on the course of events. The Independent Force nonetheless gave a powerful indication of the direction in which military aviation was heading. From the start of the conflict politicians had struggled to make sense of air power, and organizational confusion and inter-service jealousies had further confused the picture. It was clear that aeroplanes were of immense value to land forces. Their usefulness to the navy had taken longer to establish. Part of the problem was physical and practical. On land soldiers and airmen could operate side by side with ease. At sea, huge logistical and mechanical problems had to be overcome before the simplest tasks could be attempted.
Flight brought huge potential advantages to the prosecution of naval warfare. 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. As yet, with the big-gun ship the supreme symbol of naval potency, few were prepared to endorse Glenn Curtiss’s view that in time aircraft would mean the death of battleships, although there were notable far-sighted exceptions.
The innovatory path taken by the Admiralty in the early days soon petered out. Much of naval aviation in the middle years of the war was carried out using airships to exercise traditional military functions. Attempts were made to use observer-carrying balloons tethered to ships to improve reconnaissance, but they found it hard to keep up with the fleet. The danger posed to British shipping by German submarines created a new use for airships, one that fell naturally into the domain of the navy’s activities. Under the encouragement of the First Sea Lord, Jacky Fisher, large-scale production began of ‘Submarine Scouts’ that could pin-point marauding U-boats when they surfaced to recharge their batteries, and then direct destroyers and corvettes to them. The craft were crude – a flabby sausage-shaped envelope, with the wingless fuselage of an old BE2 C slung underneath – but surprisingly effective. They were manned by young volunteers, lured by the promise of a ten-shilling-a-day bonus and undeterred by Fisher’s prediction that those who answered the call were liable to have been killed or awarded a Victoria Cross within a year.
The airships attracted the nickname ‘blimps’, apparently on account of the noise that resulted if the inflated envelope was flicked with a finger. Soon it was attached to all lighter-weight airships. They would stay in service patrolling coastal waters for the rest of the war, but their uses were limited. Having spotted an enemy vessel they lacked the means to attack it effectively. They carried a small quantity of bombs, which, in the absence of racks, hung on strings over the side, ready to be cut with a sheath knife if needed.
Seaplanes and the flying boats that were now beginning to appear seemed to offer more possibilities for aggressive action. Adapting aeroplanes to water was a slow process and seaplanes took longer than land-based aircraft to prove their practical and enduring worth. A great chance to demonstrate their value arose at the Battle of Jutland, the full-scale naval showdown for which Britain and Germany had been preparing since the 1890s. It began in the North Sea on 31 May 1916. As the Grand Fleet under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, with the Battlecruiser Fleet under Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty in advance, moved towards the German High Seas Fleet, early knowledge of the enemy dispositions could decide the battle. Engadine, one of the seaplane carriers which had taken part in the Cuxhaven operation, was with Beatty’s force and had two Short and two Sopwith seaplanes on board. Early in the afternoon smoke was spotted to the north north-east and an air reconnaissance was ordered. However, only one aircraft was sent off. It managed to locate German cruisers, but on the way back was forced down with engine trouble. The pilot, Lieutenant F. J. Rutland, radioed back his sighting, but it was never received. Having repaired his engine and returned to the fleet his information was out of date.
The Germans fared better. The commander, Vizeadmiral Reinhard von Scheer, had the use of a Zeppelin whose reports helped him to plot a course for home, which enabled him to avoid the route that Jellicoe had guessed he would take and evade the waiting trap.
As aircraft and complementary technologies improved, so did the performance and standing of the RNAS. Seaplanes and flying boats operating out of east-coast ports and Dunkirk played a large part in countering the submarine menace, just as aircraft would in the Battle of the Atlantic twenty-five years later. They were used not only to locate U-boats but to destroy them. The first successful sinking took place on 25 May 1917, when UC-36 was hit by two bombs while she lay on the surface.
The patrols were limited by the aircraft’s endurance and the fact that they had to return to dry land to put down. Work resumed on the original notion of launching aircraft from ships – and landing back on them again. The perilous trial-and-error work that was an inescapable part of all early aviation experimentation was even more acute when it came to the business of manoeuvring a light machine onto the heaving deck of a warship, butting through the waves of a northern sea.
The impetus for change came when Beatty, who had learned a hard lesson at Jutland about the value of naval aviation, replaced Jellicoe as commander-in-chief of the Home Fleet in November 1916, and two months later ordered a reorganization of the RNAS. A Fifth Sea Lord was added to the Board of Admiralty with responsibility for naval aviation, and a Grand Fleet Aeronautical Committee was set up to devise a strategic direction for the navy’s ships. Its findings prescribed a new approach which concentrated on the navy’s needs. Naval aircraft and pilots operating from land bases would no longer act as a reserve for the operations of the RFC. Henceforth the emphasis would be on using ships and aircraft in a more coherent way. Beatty envisioned swarms of aircraft carrying torpedoes, launching cheap and devastating attacks on German warships. For this to be realized, vessels would have to be developed that fulfilled efficiently the function of a floating airbase.
In March 1917 further work was carried out on HMS Furious to try and improve her ability to handle aircraft. The forward eighteen-inch gun was removed and a 228 foot take-off deck fitted in its place. At this point the ship carried three Short ‘Folder’ seaplanes and five Sopwith Pups – light, fast fighters. The seaplanes were launched and retrieved. The Pups were launched and then ditched, being deemed cheap enough to be dispensable. Their pilots naturally disliked the idea of risking their lives every time they returned from a sortie and struggled to solve the problem of landing back on board.
They were led by twenty-five-year-old Squadron Commander Edwin Harris Dunning, who had won a Distinguished Flying Cross after being wounded in a fight with German seaplanes. In his efforts to find a solution, Dunning showed a staggering disregard for his own safety. Light though it was, the Pup still had insufficient deck room to put down safely. Dunning and his colleagues discussed the possibility of landing into wind while Furious was steaming straight ahead, thus cutting down drastically the aircraft’s approach speed. On 2 August 1917 Dunning put the theory to the test.
The experiment took place off Scapa Flow in front of an audience of admirals and generals. Furious worked up to a speed of twenty-six knots (30 mph) and headed into an oncoming twenty-one knot wind. That meant that Dunning’s pup was approaching at only three knots when it side-slipped in over the deck. Waiting below, seven or eight airmen reached up to grab rope toggles attached to the wings and wrestled the aircraft down, taking care to avoid being minced in the still-whirring propeller.
Dunning thus became the first pilot to land an aircraft on a moving ship and his feat produced a flurry of congratulations. He was not satisfied. He had failed to touch down unaided and five days later he tried again. This time he succeeded, but his machine was blown backwards and damaged. He climbed out, commandeered another Pup and set off yet again. When he came in to land the engine stalled and the aeroplane careered off the deck and over the side. It was twenty minutes before a rescue boat got to him and by then Dunning was dead, drowned after apparently being knocked unconscious. His sacrifice was acknowledged by the Admiralty, who wrote to his father that the data obtained from the experiments that cost him his life was ‘of the utmost value. It will make aircraft indispensable to the Fleet and possibly revolutionize naval warfare.’
Further attempts at alighting on the take-off deck were abandoned after this tragedy, but other approaches were examined. Furious was fitted with a landing-on deck at the stern, equipped with an arrester system based on the same principle as the one that Eugene Ely had used when he first alighted on the Pennsylvania. Crucially, the ship had been at anchor at the time. When the new deck on Furious was tested at Scapa in March 1918 the results were disastrous. Out of thirteen landings, only three aircraft got down undamaged and the rest, in the words of an onlooking pilot, Lieutenant W. G. Moore, ‘just dropped on the deck like shot partridges’. All efforts had to deal with two fundamental problems: the turbulence created by the ship’s upperworks, and the hot gases blasting from her funnels, which rocked the light and fragile biplanes. These difficulties would only be overcome with the development of purpose-built aircraft carriers. They required a long and broad landing deck with the superstructure arranged on the starboard side.
Despite these difficulties, in the closing months of the war aircraft operating off Furious launched an attack that realized the potential revealed in the Christmas Day raid on Cuxhaven at the start of the conflict. Once again the targets were Zeppelin sheds, this time at the German naval base at Tondern on the border with Denmark. The aeroplanes that took part were Sopwith Camels, which, over the Western Front, were establishing themselves as the outstanding British fighters of the war. They had been modified for marine service with a fuselage that detached behind the cockpit, enabling them to be stowed more easily. They had also been fitted with racks under the wings carrying two fifty-pound bombs. Seven Camels, arranged in two flights, took part in the operation.
Furious sailed from Rosyth on the night of 16–17 July 1918, escorted by a squadron of cruisers and eight destroyers, and arrived at the flying-off position, ninety miles east of the target, early on the eighteenth. The aircraft started to take off at 3.14 a.m., formed up into two flights and set off for Tondern. On the way one developed engine trouble, crash-landed and was picked up by an escort. Even though German fighters were based nearby, surprise was complete and the Allies arrived unhindered in clear skies. The three Camels in the first flight swooped down on the biggest of the three sheds, scoring direct hits and setting ablaze the two Zeppelins inside. Despite heavy ground fire from the now thoroughly alert defenders, the second flight managed to drop their bombs on a second shed, destroying a captive balloon.
Pursued by exploding flak, the attackers set off to rejoin the fleet. It had been decided that ditching in the sea would be less dangerous than attempting a landing on the afterdeck. Most of them had been hit, and two crash-landed in Denmark after running out of petrol. Another failed to find the ships and returned to put down on land. Two flopped into the sea near the destroyers and were hauled on board. A sixth plane crashed into the sea and its pilot, Lieutenant Walter (‘Toby’) Yeullet, was killed. He had just turned nineteen. He was one of the tens of thousands of young men whose boyhood love of flying had led him into the ranks of the wartime aviators and set him on the path to death. Yeullet was born in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, in June 1899 and by the age of twelve he was designing and flying his own model aircraft. After leaving school he worked for a while as a trainee engineer for an aero-engine manufacturer in Weybridge, before joining the RNAS in July 1917. The action at Tondern seems to have been his first operation.
The novelty of launching bombing missions from vessels appealed to the press. When King George V went aboard Furious during a visit to the Grand Fleet a week after the raid, it was described by the New York Times’s London correspondent as a ‘mystery ship’, which was ‘a great puzzle to the foe’.
As the war drew to a close something resembling a modern aircraft carrier had emerged, from which aeroplanes could take off and land in relative safety. A requisitioned Italian liner, the 15,750-ton Conte Rosso, was refitted to carry a continuous flight deck, 567 feet long, which stretched from bow to stern. Unlike later fleet carriers there was no island from which the captain conned his ship. Instead there was a small structure that was raised and lowered hydraulically, and two bridge wings extending on either side of the flight deck. She was renamed HMS Argus, and in October 1918 Commander Richard Bell Davies flew his Sopwith 1½ Strutter off the long deck and landed it again without mishap.
By the time the war finished another purpose-built carrier, HMS Hermes, was on the stocks. Furious underwent yet another conversion to combine her fore and aft landing decks into a flush entity and another battleship (purchased from Chile) was converted for air use as HMS Eagle. The Royal Navy thus led the world in its possession of the ships that it was now clear would play a vital part in any future war at sea. Their effectiveness, however, was dependent on the aircraft that flew from them – although by now an organizational revolution had occurred which meant that the choice no longer lay in the hands of sailors.
Since the start of the war a bureaucratic conflict had been raging that paralleled the one being fought in the air. Bureaucrats, industrialists and politicians struggled with soldiers and sailors to rationalize the supply of equipment to the respective air forces and put aircraft and men to their most efficient use. It was hard work. A major obstacle in the search for harmony was the attitude of the War Office and the Admiralty, which both maintained they were the best judges of how their air services should be equipped and used. Their political chiefs – Lord Curzon and Harold Balfour – fought their corners in the War Committee with as much ferocity as if they had been in uniform.
Several bodies had been set up to solve the problems. The first, under the War Minister Lord Derby, was triggered by the ‘Fokker Menace’ and convened in February 1916. It had no real powers and Derby soon resigned. He believed that the solution lay in the amalgamation of the two air services, but reckoned this too difficult a bureaucratic feat in wartime. In reality, it was the atmosphere of accelerated – not to say hasty – decision-making that the war engendered that made the union possible. Derby was succeeded by Lord Curzon, who shared his predecessor’s views. Any attempt to implement a merger was scuppered by the vehement opposition of the navy, however.