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Royal Naval Air Service

When the Wright brothers offered to sell their invention to the British Admiralty, the offer was refused. It is natural enough that believers in the new art, who devoted years of disinterested thought and labour to getting it recognized, and who truly foresaw its enormous importance, should be impatient of so cautious an attitude. But the attitude itself was also natural and excusable. The British navy is a great trust, responsible not so much for the progress of the nation as for its very existence. Untried courses, new investments, brilliant chances, do not commend themselves to trustees. By adherence to a tried policy and to accustomed weapons the navy had ridden out many a storm that threatened national wreckage; what it had done so often it believed that it could do again; and it was slow to grasp at new weapons before their value was proved. So the progress of aerial science followed what, in this country, is the normal course.

Airships, because they seemed fitter for reconnaissance over the sea, were eventually assigned wholly to the Naval Wing. No very swift progress was made with these in the years before the war. The expenses of adequate experiment were enormous, and the long tale of mishaps to Zeppelins seemed to show that the risks were great. The experts who were consulted pointed out that the only way to test the value of the larger type of airship was to build such airships, that Germany had patiently persevered in her airship policy in the face of disaster and loss, and that if Britain were to succeed with airships it would be necessary to warn the public that heavy losses, in the initial stage, were unavoidable. Opinion in this island, it is right to remember, was strong against the airship, or gasbag, and Germany's enthusiastic championship of the Zeppelin made the aeroplane more popular in England.

Royal Naval Air Service Over Land

When the Royal Flying Corps was formed, in the spring of 1912, it was intended that either wing should be available to help the other. But before the war broke out the two had almost ceased to co-operate. The methods and subjects of instruction were distinct. The discipline and training of the one wing were wholly military, of the other wholly naval; and this severance had been officially recognized, just before the war, by the transformation of the Naval Wing into the Royal Naval Air Service. In truth, while reconnaissance continued to be, what it was at the beginning of the war, almost the sole duty of aircraft, effective co-operation between the two services was difficult or impossible. Most of the naval air pilots knew little of the business of military reconnaissance; nor could the military observer be expected to recognize and identify enemy shipping.

The first Naval Air Service aeroplane unit to proceed overseas tas formed at Eastchurch. and went to Ostcnd on Aug. 27 1914 to cooperate with the naval division at Antwerp. In order to protect the United Kingdom against German airship raids, an aircraft and seaplane base was established at Dunkirk. In the meantime the organization of the R.N.A.S. at home underwent rapid development, both in the matter of the training of pilots and the construction and design of machines. On Sept. 3 1914, the R.N.A.S. assumed responsibility for the defence of the United Kingdom against hostile aircraft attacks, and a special anti-aircraft section was formed in the Air Department, The coast patrols were continued both by seaplanes ana by airships, an, additional station for these patrols being opened at Dover.

In 1915 squadrons and wings were formed and sent overseas to Dunkirk and the Dardanelles. A detachment of three seaplanes proceeded to E. Africa and subsequently to Mesopotamia. Towards the end of Feb. 1915 the naval squadron at Dunkirk was relieved. In the early part of Sept. 1915 the R.N.A.S. units at Dunkirk and Dover were amalgamated into the 1st Wing under the command of the senior Air Service officer at Dover. During the year a small unit of seaplanes cooperated with the fleet in the operations against the "Konigsberg " on the E. coast of Africa.

At the end of Feb. 1916 a squadron of Sopwith machines was formed with the intention of bombing factories in the Essen and Dusseldorf districts, the raids being earned out from Engfend. Instead of this, however, the squadron was evcntualjy used for long-distance bombing from French territory and was designated the 3rd Wing R.N.A.S. A considerable number of raids were carried out by this wing, which was based near Bclfort. During 1916, too, the activities of the R.N.A.S. in the Mediterranean and in E. Africa were increasingly prominent; and at home additional stations were formed round the coast, mainly for anti-submarine and anti-Zeppelin patrol. In the course of the year valuable cooperation was fiven to the army by squadrons of the R.N.A.S. operating on the French front, in Palestine, at Salonika, and elsewhere. The year 1917 marked the definite realization of the bombing policy already adopted by the R.N.A.S. Handley Pages and DH4 machines began to be delivered in the spring of 1917, and special bombing squadrons were organized at Dunkirk.

Both the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service were eager to serve their country. Their rivalry was creditable to them. When they were called on to co-operate, their relations were friendly and helpful. But the pressing need for more and more aeroplanes on the western front dominated the situation. The Admiralty were many times asked by the military authorities to hand over to the Royal Flying Corps large numbers of machines and engines which were on order for the Royal Naval Air Service. To the best of their ability they fulfilled these requests, but the zealous members of a patriotic service would be more or less than human if they felt no regret on being deprived of the control of their own material.

Royal Naval Air Service at Sea

As the first business of the Royal Flying Corps was to help the army, so the first business of the Royal Naval Air Service was to help the navy. But this business of helping the navy was a much more difficult and complicated business than the other. To help the army from fixed aerodromes behind the line of battle was a dangerous and gallant affair, but it was not difficult. In the ease of its solution the military problem was child's play compared with the naval problem. How was the navy to be helped?

As early as 1912 a policy for the employment of the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps was laid before the Board of Admiralty by Captain Murray Sueter. In this statement the duties of naval aircraft were laid down ; the two first to be mentioned were: ' (1) ' Distance reconnaissance work with the fleet at ' sea. (2) Reconnaissance work off the enemy coast, ' working from detached cruisers or special aero' plane ships.' The policy is clear and sound ; but a world of ingenuity and toil was involved in those two short phrases-' with the fleet at sea', and 'working from detached cruisers'. Aircraft must work from a base ; when they had to work with the army on land all that was needed was to set up some huts in certain meadows in France. For aerial work with the fleet at sea the necessary preparations were much more expensive and elaborate. Seagoing vessels had to be constructed or adapted to carry seaplanes or aeroplanes and to serve as a floating and travelling aerodrome.

The seaplane itself, in the early days of the war, was very far from perfect efficiency. It could not rise from a troubled sea, nor alight on it, without disaster. Accidents to seaplanes were so numerous, in these early days, that senior naval officers were prejudiced against the seaplane, and, for the most part, had no great faith in the value of the help that was offered by the Royal Naval Air Service.

The Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet well knew the value to the fleet of aerial observation, but the means were not to hand. The airship experiment had broken down. Such airships as were available in the early part of the war had not the necessary power and range. To build a vessel which should be able to carry seaplanes or aeroplanes for work with the fleet was not a simple matter. Such a vessel would be an encumbrance unless it could keep station with the Grand Fleet or with the Battle Cruiser Squadron, that is, unless it could steam up to thirty knots for a period of many hours together. Further, a stationary ship at sea is exposed ^:o attack by submarines, so that it was desirable, if not necessary, that the flying machines should be able to take the air and return to their base without stopping the ship.

This consideration led, at a later period of the war, to the use by the navy of aeroplanes flown from specially constructed decks. But this was a matter of time and experiment. As early as December 1911 Commander Samson had succeeded in flying off the deck of H.M.S. Africa, and when the war broke out the Hermes, which had formerly served as headquarters for the Royal Naval Air Service, was fitted with a launching-deck for aeroplanes.

The Hermes was sunk in the third month of the war; thereafter the Ark Royal, the Campania, the Vindex, the Manxman, the Furious, the Pegasus, and the Nairana were each of them successively fitted with a launching-deck. But launching proved easier than alighting. It may seem to be a simple thing for an aeroplane to overtake a ship that is being driven into the wind, and to alight quietly on its afterdeck. But immediately behind such a ship there is always a strong up-current of air. This upcurrent - the bump that the albatross sits on - is what makes the difficulty and danger of the attempt. An aeroplane which resists it by diving through it will almost certainly crash on the deck beyond.

The business of landing an aeroplane on the ship from which it had been launched was not accomplished until the 2nd of August 1917, when Flight Commander E. H. Dunning succeeded, at Scapa Flow, in landing a Sopwith Pup on the forecastle deck of the Furious, while she was under way. Five days later, when he was repeating this performance, his machine rolled over into the sea, and he was drowned. His work was not lost ; the Furious was fitted thereafter with a special landingdeck aft, and it was by naval aeroplanes flown from the deck of the Furious that one of the large Zeppelin sheds at Tondcrn^was destroyed on the 19th of July 1918.

The next ships in the succession were the Vindictive, the Argus (which was the first ship to be fitted with a flush deck), the Eagle, and the new Hermes, which last two ships were unfinished at the time of the armistice. In this matter of aerial work for the navy the whole period of the war was a period of experiment rather than achievement. The conditions of experiment were hard enough, when all the shipyards and factories of the country were working at full pressure in the effort to make good our heavy losses in merchant shipping. Yet experiment continued, and progress was made.


Three new forms of aircraft - the kite balloon, the small improvised airship called the submarine scout, and last, though not least, the flying boat - were all invented or brought into use by the Naval Air Service during the course of the war.

At the beginning of the war England had three small non-rigids, also one Parseval and one Astra [by another account, at the outbreak of hostilities Great Britain had seven airships, all of the non-rigid type]. Four had been taken over by the Admiralty on 13 December 1913, and of the remaining three, No.2 was the model on which all the S.S. (submarine scout) class of vessel have since been based; No. 3 was an Astra-Torres of trefoil section with internal rigging, and No. 4 was a Parseval bought from Germany. It was the irony of fate that this particular vessel should have been used to patrol the Channel on the night of August 5 and 6, 1914, following up the declaration of war with that country.

On Aug. 4, 1914, the British Navy nominally possessed several airships, most of which were, however, of an obsolete or semi-obsolete type. Pride of place should perhaps be given to the old Beta, which, with Gamma, Delta, and Eta, had been handed over from the army on Jan. 1, 1914. This little airship had been in existence in one form or another since early in 1910, and was in reality even older than that, as her original envelope had formed part of the Baby, the second British Army airship, built in 1909. Beta had, of course, undergone many changes since those days, although she still clung to the old tradition of an envelope made of gold-beater's skin, which was at the outbreak of war in process of being rigged to a brand-new car with a 50 horse power engine. Gamma was also an old ship, being built late in 1910, but had never quite taken the same place in the affections of the Airship Service as Beta, in whom most of them had cut their aerial wisdom teeth. Gamma was by this date practically worn out, and was only used for experimental work of a varied nature. It was from her envelope that the first known experiments in firing a gun from the top surface of a non-rigid airship were carried out. Delta was not used during the war, while Eta was wrecked near Redhill in November, 1914, after making a forced landing on her way to a temporary base established at Firminy, near Dunkirk.

The remaining airships in the possession of the Admiralty were No. 2, a small training airship; No. 3, a French-built Astra-Torres, and No. 4, a Parseval bought from Germany. In addition to these, a contract had been signed with Messrs. Vickers (Limited) in March for the building of a rigid airship (No. 9) of about twenty-seven tons gross lift, while the same firm had orders for three Parsevals, which were subsequently delivered and used for training work. A Forlanini type semi-rigid was also on order from Italy, but this was taken over by the Italian Government when completed.

The airship personnel totaled 198 of all ranks, of whom a certain number, both officers and men, were military. These, under the leadership of Lieut. Col. (now Brig. Gen., R. A. F.) E. M. Maitland, elected to be seconded to the navy rather than give up their connection with airships when a transfer took place. There was only one an-ship station, comprising two sheds in close juxtaposition to the Royal Aircraft factory at Farnborough, actually completed.

It appears that the airship branch of what was later to be known as the Royal Naval Air Service was the first portion of the air forces of the country to carry out any war operation, although no active results were achieved. At 7 o'clock in the evening of Aug. 5, exactly nineteen hours after the declaration of war, Parseval No. 4 set out from Kingsnorth on a night reconnoissance of the Thames estuary on the lookout for any hostile destroyers or submarines which might be attempting a raid. The airship returned safely to her base at 5:30 the following morning, after a flight of ten and a half hours, without sighting anything other than patrol craft.

The various classes of British airships were gradually developed from the beginning of 1915, when the interest in airships was revived by Lord Fisher's decision that they might be made to form an important defence against the submarine. It became necessary at the beginning of 1915 to develop the very small non-rigid airship as rapidly as possible as an antisubmarine protection. Extreme simplicity was essential in order to allow of rapid production by firms having no previous experience.

The S.S., Coastal and N.S. classes were all designed and built at the R.N. Airship Station, Kingsnorth. They constituted a very interesting development from the small supply of ships and experience available at the beginning of the war. A considerable number of British non-rigid airships were built and supplied to the French, Italian, Russian and American services, and one Italian semi-rigid was supplied to England for experiment.

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Page last modified: 29-09-2012 18:37:14 ZULU