Royal Navy Aviation in The Final Months of WWI

HMS Argus in November 1918, while preparing for the planned attack on the German High Sea Fleet in its harbours, with Sopwith T.1 torpedo-bombers on the flight deck. The ‘splinter’ paint scheme was designed to confuse enemy range-finders, but had the negative effect of making the ship more obvious.

HMS Argus’s hangar, looking aft from a point just aft of the forward lift. The aircraft are Sopwith T.1 torpedo-bombers, and the one to the left is on the after lift platform. By later standards the hangar looks high but narrow and cramped.

A Sopwith T.1 instructional airframe with a torpedo in place, showing why an axle fitted with hooks could not be inserted between the wheels. The T.1 was heavy enough not to need retaining gear when it came to rest on landing.

In the last few months of the war, aviation had become a weapon to be taken seriously, rather than the annoyance it had been at the beginning. We have already seen how both land planes and flying boats were extensively used in the antisubmarine campaign. The British had also steadily increased the number of aircraft with the Grand Fleet by fitting platforms to turrets from which aircraft could be flown off, but not recovered. By the close of the war, the Grand Fleet when it put to sea could actually put up an air umbrella—on a one time basis—of approximately 110 aircraft. These were used for scouting and defensive missions. But what of actually carrying war to the enemy? Beatty, influenced by air-minded officers in the Grand Fleet such as Captain Richmond, had this in mind in August 1917 when he proposed at a conference with the First Sea Lord in the Queen Elizabeth that a dawn attack by Sopwith T.1 Cuckoo torpedo planes be used to strike the High Sea Fleet in its German bases. There would be 121 torpedo planes, flown in flights of forty, which would be transported to within range by carriers. The torpedo planes might be accompanied by long-range H.12 (“Large America”) flying boats, operating independently from the carriers from their bases in England.117 In the absence of suitable carriers, Beatty suggested using eight merchant vessels fitted with flying-off platforms. Unfortunately the material to execute a plan like this was not available in 1917. The Admiralty also claimed the torpedo-carrying aircraft, the Sopwith Cuckoo, would not be available in quantity until the following summer—in fact only a little more than ninety had been delivered by the time of the armistice—the torpedo it could carry too small, and the tactics for torpedo attacks on warships still unpracticed to justify diverting badly needed merchant ships and dockyard facilities for conversion work. The dawn attack by torpedo aircraft would have to wait until the technical means were available.

There had been air raids with seaplanes launched by seaplane carriers earlier in the war in both the North Sea and the Black Sea. The results had been meager; the weight and drag of floats imposed performance penalties on seaplanes and the process of launching and recovering them in the open sea was difficult, particularly in North Sea conditions. The British worked doggedly at launching land aircraft from ships and the much more difficult task of recovering them. There is no space to describe this fascinating story here, but by the summer of 1918 they were close to introducing true aircraft carriers. The battle cruiser Furious had originally been designed as one of Fisher’s light battle cruisers for the Baltic project. She had been something of a freak with a primary armament of only two 18-inch guns. The design was altered and Furious joined the fleet as a fast seaplane carrier in the summer of 1917 with the forward 18-inch turret replaced by a flight platform. She originally embarked five Sopwith Pups and three Short 184 seaplanes. On 2 August 1917 a Sopwith Pup flown by Squadron Commander E. H. Dunning landed on board, the first time an aircraft had landed onto a moving ship. Dunning succeeded with a second attempt, but on the third trial on 7 August, his engine stalled, the aircraft was blown over the side, and he was killed. Between November and March, the Furious went through another conversion, and the after turret was also replaced by a flight deck and hangar with fore and aft elevators for aircraft. Unfortunately, the experiments at landing aircraft proved to be a failure because of eddies and air currents caused by the midships superstructure and funnels. After the war the Furious was reconstructed as a true aircraft carrier with a long flight deck, but in the summer of 1918 she could launch her complement of approximately sixteen aircraft but not recover them. Land aircraft still had to ditch when they rejoined the carrier after an operation.

The Vindictive was another carrier under construction. She was actually a converted light cruiser, originally named the Cavendish but renamed in honor of the cruiser expended in the Zeebrugge-Ostend raids. The Vindictive was fitted with a hangar, flying-off deck forward, and flying-on deck aft. She was designed to carry six reconnaissance aircraft and has been described as a miniature Furious, but did not join the fleet until the closing days of the war.

The Argus was the most interesting and potentially the most useful of the carriers under construction in the summer of 1918. She was originally laid down in June 1914 as the Lloyd Sabaudo liner Conte Rosso, but construction halted after the beginning of the war. The ship was acquired by the Admiralty in 1916 for conversion into a seaplane carrier. The work went slowly, hampered by repeated design changes in what was still a very experimental field. The Argus was eventually completed with a flush deck unobstructed by superstructure or funnels as well as a pilothouse charthouse that could be lowered during flying operations. She did not commission until September 1918, but soon completed a series of successful takeoffs and landings with Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutters. She was capable of carrying 20–21 aircraft. In October she embarked a squadron of Sopwith T.1 Cuckoo torpedo planes that were to be used to attack the High Sea Fleet in Wilhelmshaven. The squadron pilots were still gaining experience in carrier operations when the war ended a few weeks later.

The carrier operations actually carried out in the summer of 1918 were far more modest than Beatty had wanted, although they are not without interest. The Furious played a prominent role. The carrier would proceed to the edge of the Helgoland Bight minefields and launch reconnaissance aircraft. The British hoped to trap a Zeppelin, and on one occasion, 17 June, she was bombed twice by German seaplanes. The Furious launched two Sopwith Camels, but they failed to catch the first attackers and had to ditch. The Furious launched another pair of Camels to counter a second German attack, and a German seaplane was forced down. The British decided to attack the Zeppelins in their base at Tondern, and at dawn on 19 July, after earlier attacks had been aborted because of weather, the Furious launched two flights of Sopwith Camels—seven aircraft—each carrying two 50-pound bombs. The Furious was screened by the First Light Cruiser Squadron, with a division of the First Battle Squadron and the Seventh Light Cruiser Squadron out in support. She was approximately 80 miles northwest of the German base. The British succeeded in destroying one of the sheds, along with Zeppelins L.54 and L.60. One Camel had been forced down by engine trouble before reaching the target, three had to land in Denmark, one pilot was drowned, and two made it back to their ships to be picked up by a destroyer after ditching. The raid was the first conducted by land planes flown off a carrier and was the most successful carrier launched operation of the war.

The Grand Fleet and Harwich Force carried aircraft for defensive purposes, particularly against Zeppelins, which shadowed British squadrons on their sweeps. Naturally the pilots would have to ditch after each operation. In the North Sea on 21 August 1917 the light cruiser Yarmouth launched a Sopwith Pup flown by Lieutenant B. A. Smart, who shot down Zeppelin L.23. This success led to a number of light cruisers being fitted with flying-off platforms on their turrets. There was another variation: destroyers towed lighters carrying flying boats and then experimented with land planes. On 11 August 1918, a Sopwith Camel took off from a lighter towed by the destroyer Redoubt of the Harwich Force, and the pilot, Lieutenant S. D. Culley, succeeded in shooting down Zeppelin L.53 off Terschelling.

Culley’s victory occurred shortly after a stunning success by German seaplanes during the same operation. Tyrwhitt with four light cruisers and thirteen destroyers of the Harwich Force was on a reconnaissance sweep of the southwestern exits of the Helgoland Bight minefields. Three of the destroyers towed lighters carrying flying boats, and two towed lighters with aircraft, one of them Culley’s. When the British reached a point approximately 25 miles northwest of the island of Vlieland, six shallow-draft coastal motorboats armed with torpedoes were detached to cross the minefields and proceed to the mouth of the Ems with orders to attack any German minesweepers or their supporting forces they encountered. The CMBs should have had air cover, but there was no wind that morning, and the flying boats were unable to take off.

The CMBs kept about a mile outside of Dutch territorial waters and had just passed Terschelling when they were attacked by six, later increased to eight (German sources say nine), German aircraft of the Kampstaffel V and Kampstaffel I from the Borkum naval air station. A running battle developed as the flotilla closed up to concentrate the fire of their Lewis guns and continued eastward at 30 knots for about half an hour, the airplanes dropping a few bombs but relying mostly on their machine guns. The Germans gained the advantage when the CMBs turned to the west to rejoin the Harwich Force when they were abeam of Ameland lighthouse. The German aircraft now had the sun behind them. Four (German sources say five) more German aircraft from Kampfstaffel Norderney joined the fight, and the CMBs were riddled as they ran out of ammunition or their guns jammed. The German aircraft were all seaplanes, either the older Friedrichshafen FF.49C or the more modern Brandenburg W.12 and W.29. The CMBs managed to shoot down one of the Brandenburg W.29s, but eventually all but CMB.41 were dead in the water. Three CMBs were sunk, CMB.41 managed to reach the Dutch shore, and two others, crippled, drifted into Dutch territorial waters and were towed to port by a Dutch torpedo boat.

An entire naval force had been eliminated by aircraft the same morning that a reconnaissance Zeppelin had been destroyed by a plane launched by a naval force. The actions on 11 August gave a striking demonstration of the new dimension in naval warfare. At the same time, the Argus was nearing completion and there were plans for an air attack on the German fleet. The carrier-launched attack never took place before the war ended, but the development of the Argus along with the events of 11 August pointed the way toward the future course of naval warfare to those who paid attention.