The British Empire Library

When the Navy took to the Air:
The Experimental Seaplane Stations of the Royal Naval Air Service

by Philip MacDougall

Anyone with an interest in early aviation history will find this an invaluable addition to their library. Philip MacDougall has written a book that concentrates on aviation history as it pertained to the Royal Navy. The book really only covers about a decade in history from the Short Brothers gaining permission to build and sell the Wright brothers' plane in Britain through to the end of the First World War, but the sheer magnitude of development in this brief period is truly astounding. One must remember that the Royal Navy was Britain's preeminent military arm in the lead up to the First World War and actually one of the most powerful institutions on the planet at the time, so its role in maritime aviation was fundamentally important. The opportunities and threats provided by aviation were every bit as important to the Royal Navy as it was to the British Army. It was perhaps more so given the vast distances of the seas and oceans they operated on and the importance of sighting an enemy when both sides had powerful guns capable of firing over the horizon if only a target could be found to fire at. The Royal Navy would also find that aviation would have an important role in countering other new maritime threats to its fleet in the form of submarines, enemy planes and dirigibles which would indeed start crossing the North Sea to attack Britain itself. The Royal Navy is often considered as a conservative institution hidebound by tradition, but this book reveals a very different organisation, one which was at the cutting edge of an exciting and brand new technology and which truly did change the nature of warfare for all.

One comes away from this book appreciating just how much innovation took place even before war broke out in August 1914. Received wisdom often considers that war was a massive catalyst for advances in aviation. However, this book makes it clear that many of the key breakthroughs took place in what were supposed to be the years of peace. Concepts such as seaplanes, flying boats, planes carrying bombs and torpedoes, planes carrying wireless sets, early flight decks to launch planes and airbags and retrieval systems to pick up planes and many more concepts were all being worked on before anybody even knew that war was definitely going to break out. There are so many important innovations explained each of which had so many far reaching consequences that you could not help but feel that many of the chapters of this book could be morphed into entire books in their own right.

The book focusses very much on the experimental stations that conducted much of that all important research. The first one opening in Eastchurch, Kent in March 1911 essentially at the birthplace of British aviation. The first British pilot flew here in 1909 shortly after which the Aero club established itself also. More importantly it was the site that the Short Brothers used to build a factory to manufacture their version of the Wright flyer. This airfield hosted many of the early aerial competitions that so spurred innovation such as the Gordon Bennett and the Barton de Forest trophies and a host of pioneer pilots many of whom would lend their name to aviation history; John Moore-Brabazon, Charles S. Rolls, Cecil Grace, Charles Weyman and T.O.M. Sopwith. Even the Wright Brothers turned up at the airfield to lend advice so Eastchurch was certainly the place to be for anyone interested in aviation. Early experiments were interested in distance and duration and given that many of the competitions and flights required flying over bodies of water, it seemed good business sense for a company like the Short Brothers to offer the Royal Navy the use of the airfield and to train some pilots for them. The Admiralty quickly appreciated the sense for the Royal Navy to be close to this nascent aviation industry and they duly agreed to send 4 volunteers (from over 200 applicants) to become naval pilots; naval aviation had been born.

Eastchurch certainly started the ball rolling, but it quickly became clear that its location was less than ideal for maritime aviation due to its distance from a body of water. They basically built and operated land planes and operated them for maritime rolls such as simulating attacks on submarines, experimenting with wireless, dropping grapnel on airships or just flying for longer and more reliably. The first serious maritime concession though was when planes were adapted to be launched directly from ships. The first experiment was in 1912 when a plane was precariously launched from a platform on top of a gun battery on HMS Africa. However the only form of landing was to splash down in the water and be winched back on board the ship or find some dry land to touch down on. Needless to say, the engines of those planes who chose the former method engines did not appreciate spells in salt water overly much and friendly land might not always be available for the Royal Navy to rely on. Moves to adapt these first planes to land on water would move surprisingly quickly. However, experiments on using seaplanes and flying boats would require bodies of water to take off and land from. The first move to a suitable seaplane base was to Calshot near Southampton. It was here that they appreciated that seaplanes might have an advantage over landplanes for carrying torpedoes as the wing floats gave a certain amount of clearance that might allow a torpedo to be slung beneath the main fuselage. Important experiments on how to take off from water, which is a very different skill from taking off from land, were undertaken. Hydroplaning, the shape of the floats, what waterproof materials to use and many other factors unique to seaplanes all had to be considered. The problem with Calshot though was that it had no land airfield of its own and so transporting planes and personnel between Eastchurch and Calshot was something of a challenge. This led to the creation of the most important naval aviation experimentation centre of all at the Isle of Grain in Kent.

The Isle of Grain was flat, next to the sea and already had a rail connection to bring in heavy equipment and machiner and causeways for seaplanes and tenders to be operated from. Established in 1912, this base would become the prime engine of naval aviation research. This despite the fact that the Royal Flying Corps was established in that same year and subsumed naval aviation under its wing. The Admiralty resented this usurpation of its aerial experiments and feared that its requirements would come second to those of the British Army. They fought to separate the navy wing from the army one and succeeded just in time for World War One in July 1914. The formation of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was a watershed in maritime aviation and came none to soon. This book makes it very clear that this was a wise choice. The Navy's requirements for navigation over large bodies of water, the importance of observation and the strategic role it would play in defending the Island of Britain from long distance bombers and Zeppelin attack in particular meant that its designers, developers and pilots had very different requirements from those dogfighting over the trenches in Western Europe. The fact that the creation of the RAF in 1918 and the consequent return of the RNAS to this unified command structure would indeed inhibit maritime aviation once more. Although the effect of this negative amalgamation would not really be appreciated until the Second World War where the skills, priorities and lack of specially adapted planes and equipment were indeed to be sorely missed. However, that is perhaps the subject of a different book but certainly the issue is raised appropriately by the author and I for one have to agree with his conclusions.

Another recurring theme of this book is the bravery of these pioneer test pilots; both in peacetime and in wartime. The planes and dirigibles operated by these pilots could be incredibly fragile and they were often operating at extremes of design capabilities; for example landing seaplanes on anything but the calmest of seas could be a challenge for the best of pilots. Navigating with such crude instruments as were available was brave in itself. Instrumentation was incredibly basic and trying to calculate your direction of travel with strong headwinds or crosswinds in featureless terrain whilst flying a plane solo took a special kind of skill especially when realising that getting your bearings wrong might mean the difference between life and death as you headed further out to sea or to the safety of land or a rendezvous with friendly ships.

One interesting word that the author introduced to me was 'navalising'. Basically it referred to the fact that seaplanes and the larger flying boats (whose development is also explained in full) had problems with performance due to the buoyancy aids and design limitations imposed on the aerodynamics of these planes. The Royal Navy therefore experimented with ways to utilise the higher performance land planes in maritime roles - either by ditching in the sea and recovering quickly before the engines were ruined or on landing on ships themselves. It certainly was interesting to read about the experiments on landing planes on a moving ship. Of course, these pioneers were starting from absolute beginnings and so attempted to adapt existing ships to fulfil the role. HMS Furious was crudely adapted at first by putting a deck on the front of the ship. Taking off was not such a big problem as these light biplanes required little runway to achieve the necessary lift as long as they were headed into the wind on a swiftly moving ship. The problem was landing them again. Ships had bridges, funnels and enormous superstructure which massively complicated the process. Originally they attempted to land on the same platform as they took off from on the front of the ship, but flying alongside a moving ship and slipping in front of its bridge to hit the flight deck and be hauled in by the ship's crew was something of a dangerous manoeuvre. Although this was successfully carried out by Squadron Commander Dunning in 1917 who made the first aerial landing in history onto a moving ship, tragedy would strike just five days later when this very same pilot's plane was blown over the side of the ship when attempting to repeat the experiment and he sadly died. Attempts to build a flight deck at the back of the ship were a supposed remedy, but the eddies and swirls of the wind created by the funnels and superstructure kept it a dangerous manoeuvre. This would at least inspire the thought behind having a completely flat decked aircraft carrier, although this would arrive too late for service in the First World War, it would certainly point the future direction for maritime aviation.

The book does not just deal with fixed wing aircraft. It also dedicates a sizeable section to the airships which the Germans seemed to be using to devastating effect as the war went on. It was interesting to read how the admiralty actually bought a German airship in 1913 before war broke out, but also the extent of espionage and cunning reverse engineering involved in learning from their opponent in what sometimes reads like an Erskine Childers novel. The Germans certainly had a head start in rigid airship technology but the author demonstrates how war could certainly be the mother of invention or at least the midwife of mimicry as British rigid airships took on an uncanny resemblance to the German Zeppelins. However it was probably the smaller non-rigid airships which were of more practical and immediate importance to the Royal Navy during World War One. Initially, small, 2 man dirigibles would escort ships with the clear task of trying to locate enemy submarines and report it to the ships below. So much so, that they were initially named the 'submarine scout' and given the 'SS' designation. Their usefulness was demonstrated by the fact that not a single ship was ever lost when its formation was escorted by one of these airships. I confess that I had not realised just how many of this one kind of airship alone were constructed; 158. This vast number shows just how useful they were perceived to be. However, it must have been a lonely job spending hours airborne looking for the tiniest clue of a submarine preparing itself to strike. Even more dangerous though were the experiments to try and launch planes from larger airship platforms. One problem the Royal Navy faced was in dealing with German Zeppelins as they increased in performance and daring and started strategic bombing across the North Sea. Planes initially struggled to deal with these Zeppelins as they could ascend faster than the heavy planes could. One idea promulgated was to have a plane strapped below an airship so that it could ascend rapidly enough with the aid of the dirigible before deploying and so be able to shoot down the enemy Zeppelins before they could react to the threat. The dangers of putting machinery so close to a hydrogen filled balloon were some of the most harrowing parts of the book to read. Once again, the bravery of the personnel involved cannot be questioned, and too many of those brave souls paid for such experimentation with particularly horrid deaths.

Anti-Zeppelin measures also experimented with the idea of dropping darts and bombs onto the Zeppelins from above. These had some success in forcing at least one Zeppelin to turn back but the manoeuvre was seen as too dangerous and too difficult to pull off consistently. The real breakthrough in dealing with Zeppelins was in developing incendiary bullets. Once again the experimental stations played their part in understanding how this was to be best achieved by mixing alternate explosive bullets with phosphorous bullets. Just shooting into Zeppelins did little other than put punctures into the hydrogen compartment bags. The key was to create a small explosion on impact to allow the hydrogen to mix with oxygen and then to ignite that deadly combination with the phosphorous bullet. This vital weapons development almost overnight removed the Zeppelin as an effective offensive force. Strangely though, it did not stop the British from continuing their own research into rigid airship technology which continued even after the war, perhaps because this was one part of aviation technology not subsumed into the RAF when it was formed and was left with the Admiralty. It would only be the R101 disaster in 1930 which brought British airship development to an end.

I said earlier in the review that the amount of innovation was quite staggering. So perhaps I should not have been surprised to have kept on reading the name of a certain Winston Churchill throughout the pages. His name crops up time and again. Of course he was the Lord of the Admiralty from 1911 until 1915 meaning that his political importance mirrored the timeline of the crucial first years of maritime aviation. He himself had begun to take flying lessons and only stopped in 1913 at the request of his wife after his flying instructor had been killed in an accident. It is worth considering if the Royal Navy would have been quite so innovative in the field of maritime aviation if Churchill had not been at the helm in these vital years? He certainly helped get the ball rolling and even in the Second World War was renowned for being a keen backer of innovative military technology. The Royal Naval Air Service perhaps owe him a greater debt than most of us realise.

The book itself is very clearly laid out and reads very easily. The author does not drown you in technical vocabulary and his explanations are very clear and concise. He does a good job at humanising the experiments and never forgets the role of the man behind the machine. The book has a glossary which is particularly useful for the lay reader struggling to tell the difference between a seaplane and a flying boat for instance. There is also a clear bibliography and an index. Although I do have to say that the Index is a fairly spartan one, although it is definitely better than none at all. If I were to make constructive criticism it could only be for the addition of a map to show the relative locations of all the experimental bases and of more pictures relating to the planes and dirigibles discussed. Do not get me wrong, there are indeed very clear and interesting photographs, but I did keep finding myself wondering what a particular plane or airship being described might have looked like. I suppose these days it is fairly easy to go on to the Internet to find examples, but perhaps a few more images of the planes under discussion would have been appreciated. But these are nitpicking criticisms. I for one learnt a great deal from this book and took away from it a vastly updated respect for the role of maritime aviation in the formative years of flying as a whole. I also learned just how innovative the Royal Navy could be when it spotted a new opportunity. But most of all I learned to respect the bravery, intelligence, inventiveness and practicality of these early pioneers of aviation history. From those first delicate flights at Eastchurch in 1909 to the robust multi-role aircraft with sophisticated instrumentation and lethal weapons by the end of the war in November 1918 this technological transformation must truly rank as one of the most remarkable engineering feats in human history. This book helps carve out the role played by the experimental stations of the Royal Naval Air Service in that rapid development and so helps guide us to where at least some of our appreciation for these transformative advances should be directed.

British Empire Book
Philip MacDougall