1917 Martynside Elephant – Seweryn Fleischer
The last aeroplane designed by A. A. Fletcher before he left Martinsyde was probably the last aeroplane designed as a high-speed scout. It was designated as the G100, possibly because the engine first considered for it was the six-cylinder 100-hp Green. It was a large machine with a wing span of 38 feet and with its fuel tanks holding just over fifty gallons, the Martinsyde ‘Elephant’ enjoyed an endurance of 5½ hours so it could scout beyond the range of rival designs. Its wings were staggered, rigging in two bays with neatly raked tips, and all four were fitted with ailerons. A gap was left at the lower wing roots to provide a downward view and each was fitted with a neat plywood endplate. Construction of the attractively tapered fuselage was entirely conventional, but with the ply covering to the forward portion which, together with the perforated metal fittings, was a Fletcher trademark. The low-aspect-ratio fin and rudder were essentially similar to previous Martinsydes and gave the machine, despite its size, a neat, almost graceful appearance. Less graceful was the open-fronted engine cowling fitted to the prototype, 4735, enclosing its 120-hp Beardmore engine (No. 302/WD 1322), a water-cooled six-cylinder inline design modelled on the pre-war Austro-Daimler (the idea of fitting the Green having been abandoned at a very early stage). Each cylinder was fitted with a separate exhaust stub and the radiator was mounted behind the engine with air intakes in the fuselage sides. Unusually, it was fitted with a three-blade wooden propeller built by Lang. The vees of the undercarriage legs were unusually shallow, spanning two fuselage bays instead of the usual one, a feature that added to the machine’s rather graceful profile.
Completed in August 1915, 4735 was at the Central Flying School for evaluation by 8 September, moving to Farnborough for adoption by the RFC before the end of the month. On 29 October, it was flown to France where in the depot at St Omer, it was fitted with a replacement engine before being assigned to No. 6 Squadron on 6 November.
An order was placed for a batch of fifty machines (7258–7307) as soon as the prototype had passed its acceptance trials and was followed by an order for a second batch (7439–7508). Production machines differed from the prototype by having an improved engine cowling with a common exhaust manifold and were fitted with two-blade propellers. The cockpit opening was slightly modified and a camera mounted fitted as standard on the starboard side of the fuselage to facilitate operations in the reconnaissance role. However, by the time it entered service in the spring of 1916, the days of the unarmed scout was over and the G100 was fitted with a Lewis gun on the top wing, offset slightly to starboard of the centreline. The gun mounting comprised of two inverted metal vee shapes, one fixed to the rear spar and braced by a strut to the front spar, the other to which the gun was fitted and hinged at the bottom. With the gun in the firing position, the two vees connected to form a stable mount. Due to the upper wing being located rather high above the pilot, an extended tubular handle was fitted to the gun’s spade grip. In order to change ammunition drums, the pilot pressed the release button on the bottom of this handle, pulled the gun down, extended the elastic straps with his right hand, and while almost at full stretch, changed the drum with his left. The elastic straps would then help return the gun to its normal position when the handle was released.
The first production examples began to reach France in early 1916, by which time the German Fokkers were preying on Britain’s slower and largely unarmed reconnaissance machines. Therefore, the Martinsydes were issued as escorts, one or two per squadron. Nos 18, 20, 21 and 22 Squadrons each received a few examples, the machine regarded as a fighter where it universally acquired the nickname ‘Elephant’, perhaps due to its size and wingspan of 38 feet, which made it slightly larger than the B.E.2c two-seaters it was to protect. No. 27 Squadron, the only unit to be fully equipped with the Martinsyde and arrived in France on 1 March 1916, incorporated an elephant into its squadron badge as a result of its long association with the type.
Opinions from pilots flying the Martinsyde varied and Cecil Lewis, a scout pilot who flew one at the depot, recalled many years later:
The Martinsyde was one of those curiously woolly aeroplanes that a pilot can never get hold of. Owing to the way the weight was slung out along the fuselage, engine, tanks and pilot, it had a very poor turning circle. Only aeroplanes with the weight concentrated were really manoeuvrable.
Yet Oliver Stewart, a former test pilot, had a more tolerant attitude and wrote of it:
As a flying machine, the Martinsyde Elephant had many pleasing qualities. It ambled through the air with a rather gentle burbling sound and seemed to get about the country fairly quickly. As for the controls of the Martinsyde Elephant, they were reasonably good although the ailerons failed to produce as quick or as big a response as many pilots would have liked and the elevator had none of the sensitivity of the elevator, for instance, of a Camel. The only serious fault was the poor outlook. The pilot sat just behind the trailing edge of the top plane, with the trailing edge of the lower plane almost immediately below him. Forwards and upwards, a big arc of view was blanked out by the top plane and downwards and forwards there was another big arc of view blanked out. The large chord of the wings added to the blanking effect. In addition, the forward part of the fuselage, and the cowling of the Beardmore engine, came rather high and still further restricted the forward outlook.
Despite its size and alleged lack of manoeuvrability, the Martinsyde ‘Elephant’ initially met with reasonable success in its adopted role as an escort fighter. On 28 April 1916, 2 Lt S. Dalrymple of No. 27 Squadron engaged and drove off two enemy aircraft while Capt. Cains from the same squadron fired half a drum at a German two-seater. Cains hit the observer and the enemy machine was finished off by Lt Tollemache. Cains and Tollemache scored again on 19 May by shooting down an Albatros two-seater.
However, despite these successes, it was realised that the ‘Elephant’ was better suited to a different role and on 9 July 1916, it was officially reclassified as a bomber. As such, it could carry a single 230-lb bomb slung beneath the fuselage or an equivalent weight of smaller bombs on racks fitted to the underside of the lower wings. Many were fitted with a second Lewis gun on the portside of the fuselage that allowed the pilot to fire to the rear, although without being able to take proper aim. Pilots, initially at least, continued to have confidence in the type’s abilities as a fighter and continued to engage in aerial combat once they had dropped their bombs. For example, on 12 August 1916, ‘Elephants’ of No. 27 Squadron carried out a bombing raid on the railway east of Valenciennes and on their return journey, shot down an enemy two-seater.
The introduction of the German Albatros single-seat fighter in September 1916 changed the fortunes of the Martinsydes and other British machines with loses in combat becoming more frequent. On 23 September, Herbert Bellerby, one of only two sergeant pilots to serve with No. 27 Squadron, became the second victim of a young Manfred von Richthofen when his ‘Elephant’, 7841, was shot down near Bapaume. 7841 had been one of six aircraft on a bombing mission that was attacked by five Albatros fighters of Jasta 2 and led by ace pilot Oswald Boelcke. A furthermore two Martinsydes flown by 2 Lts E. Roberts and O. Godfrey were also shot down. Lt L. Forbes, who had run out of ammunition, deliberately collided with his attacker, causing it to crash. However, he managed to limp back to the squadron’s base despite severe damage to his own machine—testimony to the Martinsyde’s construction and strength.
Introduced during 1916, the G102 was externally very similar to the G100, the only difference being the substitution of the uprated 160-hp Beardmore engine in place of the 120-hp version. This gave a small but useful improvement in performance, especially in its lifting capacity in the bombing role, but at the expense of increased fuel consumption that reduced its endurance to just less than 4½ hours. The uprated engine also proved less reliable than the earlier version, but was still very much in demand, especially for the large pusher F.E.2b. Thousands of units were manufactured and competition for deliveries was fierce. The 160-hp engine was usually fitted with three stub exhausts in place of the single manifold of the less powerful type.
Total production was 100 examples of the G100, covered by the two original orders for batches of fifty and 171 G102s, although some of these may have been completed with the less powerful engine when the newer version was not available. Of this total, 125 machines served at one time or another with No. 27 Squadron before it finally converted to the D.H.4 bomber at the beginning of 1918.
An experimental installation of the Sunbeam Arab engine, a water-cooled V8 rated at 150 hp, proved to offer no advantage and was not adopted for production. Experiments were also made with a German-style radiator mounted flush in the upper wing, but gave no obvious benefit and the internal radiator remained standard. In August 1917, A6299 was tested at the Aeroplane Experimental Unit based at Martlesham Heath with an installation of the Eeman gun mounting that comprised of three Lewis guns firing upwards through the centre section for anti-Zeppelin operations in the home defence role. The installation was also tested on a number of other types, including the S.E.5a, but meet with little success, performance being reduced when compared to the standard model and was not adopted for the Martinsyde.
The ‘Elephant’ also saw action in the Middle East when a total of sixty-four examples were shipped out via the depot in Egypt. Although no squadron was fully equipped with the type, the ‘Elephant’ served with Nos 14, 67 (Aus) and 142 Squadrons in Palestine and with Nos 30 and 72 Squadrons in Mesopotamia. No. 14 Squadron had at least three ‘Elephants’ on strength on 5 March 1917, together with five B.E.2cs, a D.H.1, and two Bristol Scouts when they took part in a reconnaissance mission, one of the Martinsydes being piloted by W. E. L. Seward. On 24 March, Seward was again flying a Martinsyde as an escort to a B.E.2c that was to photograph enemy defences when his aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire while flying at 8,000 feet near Jaffa. With his engine out of action due to a damaged petrol pipe, Seward had no alternative than to land but chose to do so in the sea, thus avoiding capture by Turkish cavalry and came down about 100 yards offshore near to Ashdod. The aircraft immediately sank and Seward climbed out of his cockpit and began swimming away while under intense rifle fire from the Turks. He stopped to remove his clothing at which point the firing stopped, the Turks presumably believing that they had hit him. A strong and capable swimmer, Seward kept going and swam in a southerly direction for about four hours. Once it was dark, he came ashore naked and began walking following the coast and keeping the sea on his right. Seward had covered about 30 miles before being found the next morning by troops from the Wellington Mounted Rifles, a New Zealand unit based near Gaza. Seward was thus able to return to his squadron and resume flying.
No. 14 Squadron formed a small detached flight for special duties in September 1917 that was based near to Akaba on the north-western tip of the Red Sea that included G102, A3957, amongst its assortment of aircraft. Two more ‘Elephants’, A3958 and A3988, joined the flight in January 1918 and A3999 arrived in May. These machines operated both as fighters and bombers and, as was common for Martinsydes operating in the Middle East, had an additional cross strut bracing the forward legs of the undercarriage, a modification carried out by squadron mechanics and intended to increase its strength for operations on rough terrain. The special duties flight was disbanded at Suez on 23 October 1918, but the fate of its aircraft is unknown.
No. 67 Squadron (1 Squadron AFC) was issued with three G100s at the end of 1916 and as was common practice, assigned one to each of its three flights for escort duties. The Australians frequently referred to the aircraft as Tinsydes, their long range allowing them to bomb far behind the enemy lines. This performance surprised the Turks who believed that they were safe from aerial attack and its pilots confident that they could give good account of themselves if enemy aircraft were encountered. On 20 March 1917, a Martinsyde from the squadron was involved in a courageous rescue with other aircraft when it was engaged in bombing a Turkish supply train. A bomb dropped by the Martinsyde exploded prematurely while just 30 feet below and shrapnel injured its Australian pilot, Lt Francis McNamara, in the upper thigh. As he turned for home, McNamara spotted a B.E.2c on the ground near to the railway and landed beside it. The B.E.2c pilot, Capt. D. W. Rutherford, climbed onto the wing root of the Martinsyde and McNamara attempted to take off, but due to his wound, McNamara could not control the rudder and the machine hit a ditch, destroying its undercarriage. Undeterred and with the Turkish cavalry approaching, the pair made their way to the downed B.E.2c that had suffered some damage, including a burst tyre. McNamara climbed painfully into the pilot’s seat while Rutherford swung the propeller, started the engine and climbed into the observer’s seat. Although weakened by a loss of blood, McNamara managed to take off and returned to the squadron’s base, an act of valour for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
In October 1917, No. 67 (Aus) Squadron was issued its first G102 with the 160-hp engine, a total of five joining the squadron. When the squadron converted to the Bristol F2b fighter, its Martinsydes were passed on to No. 142 Squadron that continued to operate a mixture of aircraft types as was common practice in the Middle East. In August, two ‘Elephants’ from No. 72 Squadron saw service at Baku on the Caspian Sea in what is now Azerbaijan. Piloted by Lts M. C. Mackay and R. P. Pope, the two aircraft were set on fire when they became unserviceable, the pilots obliged to continue the war as members of the ground forces. The training unit at Abu Qir, near Alexandria in Egypt, also had the Martinsyde on strength with A3953 among them. No. 30 Squadron in Mesopotamia acquired six G100 ‘Elephants’ during September 1917 while No. 63 Squadron at Basrah, in the south of the region, had a few examples on strength from March 1918. At least two were in use as late as the summer of 1919 with A1584 recorded as flying with No. 63 Squadron on 11 August, the last recorded operational flight of a Martinsyde ‘Elephant’.