Tag Archives: RNAS

Richard Bell Davies VC

Richard Bell Davies, a career naval officer, learnt to fly at his own expense in 1913 at the age of  27. He then transferred to the naval wing of the Royal Flying Corps, which was taken under the control of the Admiralty as the Royal Naval Air Service on 1 July 1914.

On 27 August he was one of the 10 pilots of the Eastchurch Squadron of the RNAS, commanded by Wing Commander Charles Samson, who flew their aircraft to Ostend. After three days they were ordered to return to England via Dunkirk. One of the aircraft crashed on landing at Dunkirk. This delayed the flight home and on 1 September they were ordered to remain at Dunkirk in order to operate against enemy airships and aircraft and to carry reconnaissance missions. As well as aircraft, they were equipped with armed motor cars that raided the enemy’s flanks.[1]

During the First Battle of Ypres, lasting from 19 October to 22 November 1914, the RNAS aircraft carried out reconnaissance missions for the army. Davies attacked German aircraft in the air on three separate occasions, but all managed to land behind their own lines.[2]

Davies and Flight Lieutenant Richard Peirse carried out a number of bombing raids on the German U-boat bases at Ostend and Zeebrugge. Both were awarded the Distinguished Service Order for an attack on Zeebrugge on 23 January 1915. Their citations, from naval-history.net, stated that:

Squadron Commander Richard Bell Davies

Flight Lieutenant Richard Edmund Charles Peirse

These Officers have repeatedly attacked the German submarine station at Ostend and Zeebrugge, being subjected on each occasion to heavy and accurate fire, their machines being frequently hit. In particular, on 23rd January, they each discharged eight bombs in an attack upon submarines alongside the mole at Zeebrugge, flying down to close range. At the outset of this flight Lieutenant Davies was severely wounded by a bullet in. the thigh, but nevertheless he accomplished his task, handling his machine for an hour with great skill in spite of pain and loss of blood.

Davies held the rank of Lieutenant in the RN and the appointment of Squadron Commander in the RNAS.

Davies was later sent to the Dardanelles. In October 1915 Bulgaria joined the Central Powers opening up a railway supply line from Germany to the Ottoman Empire. RNAS aircraft and seaplanes made several bombing raids on a rail bridge over the river Maritza south of Kulelli and a rail junction at Ferrijik. During an attack on the latter on 19 November Flight Sub-Lieutenant Gilbert Smylie’s Henri Farman was forced to land by rifle fire. Davies landed his aircraft and rescued Smylie in perhaps the first ever combat search and rescue mission. The citation for his Victoria Cross and Smylie’s Distinguished Service Cross, again from naval-history.net, stated that:

29423 – 31 DECEMBER 1915

Admiralty, 1st January, 1916.

The KING (is) pleased to approve of the grant of the Victoria Cross to Squadron-Commander Richard Bell Davies, D.S.O., R.N., and of the Distinguished Service Cross to Flight Sub-Lieutenant Gilbert Formby Smylie, R.N., in recognition of their behaviour in the following circumstances:

On the 19th November these two officers carried out an air attack on Ferrijik Junction. Flight Sub-Lieutenant Smylie’s machine was received by very heavy fire and brought down. The pilot planed down over the station, releasing all his bombs except one, which failed to drop, simultaneously at the station from a very low altitude. Thence he continued his descent into the marsh. On alighting he saw the one unexploded bomb, and set fire to his machine, knowing that the bomb would ensure its destruction. He then proceeded towards Turkish territory.

At this moment he perceived Squadron-Commander Davies descending, and fearing that he would come down near the burning machine and thus risk destruction from the bomb, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Smylie ran back and from a short distance exploded the bomb by means of a pistol bullet. Squadron-Commander Davies descended at a safe distance from the burning machine, took up Sub-Lieutenant Smylie, in spite of the near approach of a party of the enemy, and returned to the aerodrome, a feat of airmanship that can seldom have been equalled for skill and gallantry.

Davies was flying a Nieuport 10, a two seater reconnaissance aircraft that had been converted into a single seater fighter by covering the front cockpit. Smylie managed to squeeze past the controls into the front cockpit.

Davies was later awarded Air Force Cross and the French Croix de Guerre. He joined the Royal Air Force when it was formed by a merger of the RFC and the RNAS on 1 April 1918, but was one of the few former members of the RNAS to return to the RN after the war. He served in a mixture of staff appointments connected with aviation and sea going post between the wars. When the RN regained control of the Fleet Air Arm in 1939 Davies was appointed Rear Admiral, Naval Stations, commanding its shore bases.

He retired with the rank of Vice Admiral in May 1941, but then joined the Royal Naval Reserve with the rank of Commander, serving as a Convoy Commodore. They were senior Merchant Navy officers or retired admirals and commanded the merchant ships but not the escorts of a convoy. He later captained two escort carriers, HMS Dasher during her commissioning period and the trials carrier HMS Pretoria Castle. He died in 1966.

 

[1] W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vol. i, pp. 371-76.

[2] Ibid. vol. i, pp. 392-93

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The First Aerial Torpedo Attack on a Ship

The first ship to be torpedoed by an aircraft was an Ottoman steamer supplying troops during the Gallipoli Campaign. On 12 August 1915 a Short 184 seaplane flown by Flight Commander Charles Edmonds took off from the seaplane carrier HMS Ben-my-Chree in the Gulf of Xeros carrying a 14 inch torpedo.

He spotted a merchant ship and dropped his torpedo from an altitude of 15 feet and a range of 300 yards. It struck the ship abreast the mainmast, sending up a large amount of debris and water. Edmonds saw that the steamer was settling by the stern. It was subsequently discovered that the ship had been beach four days earlier after being torpedoed and shelled by the submarine HMS E14, captained by Lieutenant-Commander Edward Boyle VC.

Edmonds torpedoed another enemy ship 5 days later when he launched a torpedo from an altitude of 15-20 feet and a range of 800 yards that struck one of three Ottoman steamer bringing supplies and reinforcements to Gallipoli. The ship caught fire and had to be towed to Istanbul.

On the same day Flight Lieutenant G. B. Dacre was forced to land on the sea near an enemy hospital ship by engine trouble. He persuaded the ship that he was a friend with a wave. His engine was working well enough to taxi, so he headed off on the surface. He spotted and approached a large steam tug, fired his torpedo and scored a hit. He came under rifle fire, but was able to take off after a two mile run, returning to Ben-my-Chree. The tug sank.

During the Gallipoli Campaign, Royal Naval Air Service aircraft made 70 attacks on enemy ships with torpedoes and bombs. These helped the attempts by submarines to shut down Ottoman seaborne supplies to Gallipoli. The main problem was that the Short 184 seaplane could only take off with a torpedo if conditions were ideal: a calm sea with a slight breeze and an engine that was in perfect working order. Even then, they could carry enough fuel for only a 45 minute flight when armed with a torpedo.[1] The performance figures quoted in the Wikipedia page linked in the first paragraph are for a later model with a 260 horse power engine. Ben-my-Chree carried the first Short 184s built.[2]

R. D. Layman points out in his history of Naval Aviation in the First World War that it is impossible to indentify the Ottoman ships involved or to be sure of how badly damaged they were because no accurate list of all Ottoman merchant ships sunk during the war is available.[3] It appears from the British reports, however, that all three ships were attacked and at least damaged.

HMS Ben-my-Chree belonged to the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company before the war: her name means Woman of My Heart in Manx. She was requisitioned by the Admiralty and converted to a seaplane carrier in 1915. She carried 4 seaplanes and was capable of 24.5 knots, making her the fastest of the merchantmen converted to seaplane carriers by the RN. She was sunk by Ottoman onshore artillery on 11 January 1917.[4]

Edmonds served in the Royal Air Force after the war, rising to the rank of Air Vice Marshal during the Second World War. He had previously been awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his part in the Cuxhaven Raid on 25 December 1914.

 

[1] The above is based on W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vol. ii, pp. 64-65.

[2] R. D. Layman, Naval Aviation in the First World War : Its Impact and Influence (London: Chatham, 1996), p. 149.

[3] Ibid., pp. 62-63.

[4] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), p. 68.

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Warneford VC and the Destruction of Two Zeppelins on 7 June 1915

The first raid on the United Kingdom by German airships took place on 19 January 1915. In February Kaiser Wilhelm II relaxed his previous ban on raids on London: military targets east of the Tower of London could now be bombed. L8 had to abandon an attempt to bomb London on 26 February because of high winds. She tried again on 4 March, but was hit by gunfire and wrecked on landing in Belgium. A number of attacks were made on other targets on the East Coast of England and in France, including Paris, in March and April.[1]

In April the German army received LZ38, the first of the new P class Zeppelins. They had a maximum speed of 60 mph, a cruising speed of 40 mph, a crew of up to 19, a defensive armament of 7 or 8 machine guns and a bomb load of over two tons.[2]

The first raid on London was made by LZ38, captained by Hauptmann Erich Linnarz, on 31 May. She dropped over a ton of bombs, killing five people and injuring 35; damage worth £18,596 was done to property.[3]

Attempts by the Royal Naval Air Service to destroy airships, both by intercepting their raids and attacking their bases, had by then resulted in the destruction of only Z9. She was bombed in her shed by Flight Lieutenant Reginald Marix, flying a Sopwith Tabloid, on 8 October 1914. Squadron Commander Spenser Gray was unable to find the airship sheds, so bombed Cologne railway station.[4] Both were awarded the Distinguished Service Order. The Cuxhaven Raid on Christmas Day 1914 failed to find the German navy Zeppelin base.

On 3:15 am on 17 May the army Zeppelin LZ39 was spotted off Dunkirk. Seven RNAS aircraft took off from Dunkirk to join two other that were already on patrol. Grey and Flight Sub Lieutenant Reginald Warneford attacked the airship from below, but she climbed away from them and headed towards Ostend. Flight Commander Arthur Bigsworth, flying an Avro, managed to get 200 feet above her as she flew 10,000 feet above Ostend. He dropped four 20 pound bombs on the airship, which emitted some smoke from her tail, but continued on her way. She landed roughly but safely. One of her officers was killed and several men wounded, five gasbags damaged and one propeller lost.[5]

LZ37, LZ38, LZ39 and the navy Zeppelin L9 set out to bomb London on 6 June, but encountered strong winds and fog. Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Mathy’s L9 diverted to her alternative target, the Humber, using flares to find the docks.. She dropped 13 explosive and 39 incendiary bombs on Hull according to the British Official History: the German one says nine and 50 respectively. Around 40 shops and houses were damaged, a sawmill burnt down, 24 people killed and 40 hurt. Rioters sacked shops owned or allegedly owned by Germans. Hull had no anti-aircraft guns, so the only defensive fire came from HMS Adventure, under repair in the port. Mathy dropped seven more incendiaries on Grimsby, causing little damage, before heading home. Guns at Immingham and Waltham fired at L9 without hitting her.[6]

The fog also prevented British aircraft from taking off from Killingholme. The light cruisers HMS Aurora and Penelope, each carrying a seaplane, left Harwich in pursuit of L9, but she escaped.[7]

LZ39 suffered problems and had to turn back to her base at Evere. The other two army airships encountered fog, ad were unable to reach England, so also headed back home.[8]

In the early hours of 7 June, the RNAS airfield at Dunkirk sent four aircraft to bomb the airship bases at Evere and Berchem St Agathe. Two Henri-Farman biplanes, flown by Flight Lieutenant John Wilson and Flight Sub-Lieutenant John Mills, headed for Evere. Wilson took off at 12:40 am and arrived at 2:05 am. He replied to a series of long flashes from a searchlight with a series of short flashes, which kept the anti-aircraft guns quiet whilst he circled until there was enough light to attack. At 2:20 am he could just see the airship shed, so dropped his three 65 pound bombs from 2,000 feet. One hit the centre of the shed, sending up dense smoke but no flames. Mills turned up at 2:30 am, but was forced by anti-aircraft fire to turn away and gain height. He came back at 5,000 feet, dropped his four 20 pound bombs, setting LZ38 alight and destroying her. Both pilots had problems with fog, but got home safely, although Mills had to land on the beach between Calais and Dunkirk and Wilson in a field near Montreuil.[9]

One of the aircraft sent to attack Berchem St Agathe suffered technical problems, got lost and had to land in a field near Cassel. Warneford, flying the other, a Morane, spotted an airship just after 1:00 am. At 1:50 am he caught the Zeppelin, which was LZ37, over Bruges. Its machine guns fired on his Morane, forcing him to retire and climb. The airship turned after him and continued to fire for a period. Once Warneford had reached 11,000 feet, he headed back towards LZ37, switched off his engine, dived and dropped his six 20 pound bombs as he flew along the airship 150 feet above her. The Zeppelin exploded, throwing Warneford’s Morane upside down. He managed to regain control as it dived. One of LZ37’s crew fell through the roof of a nunnery and somehow survived, although the wreckage that fell with him killed two nuns.[10]

The explosion had damaged a petrol pipe in Warneford’s aircraft, forcing him to land behind enemy lines. He initially intended to destroy his aircraft, but then realised that he had not been seen, so set about repairing it. After 35 minutes on the ground behind enemy lines he was able to take off and landed safely, although at Cape Gris-Nez rather than Dunkirk because of the fog.

Warneford, the first pilot to destroy an airship in the air, was awarded the VC. The citation, available on naval-history.net, said that:

 29189 – 11 JUNE 1915

Admiralty, 10th June, 1915.

The KING (is) pleased to approve of the grant of the Victoria Cross to Flight Sub-Lieutenant Reginald Alexander John Warneford, Royal Naval Air Service, for the conspicuous act of bravery specified below:

For most conspicuous bravery on the 7th June, 1915, when he attacked and, singlehanded, completely destroyed a Zeppelin in mid-air. This brilliant achievement was accomplished after chasing the Zeppelin from the coast of Flanders to Ghent, where he succeeded in dropping his bombs on to it from a height of only one or two hundred feet. One of these bombs caused a terrific explosion which set the Zeppelin on fire from end to end, but at the same time overturned his Aeroplane and stopped the engine. In spite of this he succeeded in landing safely in hostile country, and after 15 minutes started his engine and returned to his base without damage.

 

He was killed on 17 June when an aircraft that he was testing crashed.

Wilson and Mills received the DSC:

 29201 – 22 JUNE 19….. award of the Distinguished Service Cross to:

Flight Lieutenant John Philip Wilson, R.N., and Flight Sub-Lieutenant John Stanley Mills, R.N., for their services on the 7th June, 1915, when, after a long flight in the darkness over hostile territory they threw bombs on the Zeppelin shed at St. Evere, near Brussels, and destroyed a Zeppelin, which was inside. The two Officers were exposed to heavy fire from anti-aircraft guns during the attack.

The bulk of the German army’s airships were transferred to the Eastern Front soon afterwards, where they bombed railway lines in support of the German offensive in Poland. However, two of them bombed London in July.[11]

 

 

[1] W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vol. iii, pp. 93-97.

[2] J. H. Morrow, The Great War in the Air: Military Aviation from 1909 to 1921 (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), p. 108.

[3] Raleigh, Jones, War in the Air. vol. iii, pp. 97-98.

[4] Ibid. vol. i, pp. 389-90.

[5] Ibid. vol. ii, p. 350.

[6] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 103.

[7] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1925 vol. xiii, Home Waters part iv, February 1915 to July 1915. p. 237.

[8] Raleigh, Jones, War in the Air. vol. iii, pp. 104-5.

[9] Ibid. vol. ii, pp. 351-52.

[10] Ibid. vol. ii, pp. 352-53.

[11] Morrow, Air, p. 109.

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The Cuxhaven Raid 25 December 1914

Happy Christmas to all readers!

However, 25 December 1914 was just another day of the war at sea for many British and German sailors.

It is well known that a Truce took place on parts of the Western Front on 25 December 1914, although it was by no means universal: the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website lists 149 men who died that day, of whom 57 are commemorated in France and 22 in Belgium. Some would have died of illness or accident and others of wounds suffered earlier, but the day was not free of combat.

A major operation that did take place that day was the Cuxhaven Raid, when British seaplanes attempted to attack a German airship base in the first ever combined air and sea strike. Many sailors spent Christmas Day at sea.

The Royal Flying Corps was formed in 1912, consisting initially of a Military Wing, a Naval Wing and a Central Flying School. In July 1914 the Naval Wing became the Royal Naval Air Service. That month, 17 of its seaplanes and two flights of landplanes made a fly past during in the Spithead Fleet Review.[1]

The first British warship equipped to carry aircraft was the elderly cruiser HMS Hermes, which was converted to carry two seaplanes in 1913. She was torpedoed and sunk by U27 on 31 October 1914 in the Straits of Dover, whilst operating as an aircraft transport. In 1914, the Admiralty acquired an incomplete merchant ship in order to convert her into an aircraft carrier with five seaplanes and two landplanes. She was completed in December 1914 and was the first of four British carriers named HMS Ark Royal.

Ark Royal was incomplete at the start of the war and was also slow, so three cross channel passenger packets, the Engadine, Riviera and Empress, were acquired and quickly converted into seaplane carriers. Each initially were fitted with canvas screens that allowed them to carry one seaplane forward and two aft. Later, they were re-fitted with larger metal hangars that meant they could operate four seaplanes.[2] They were attached to the Harwich Force of light cruisers and destroyers.

The air defence of Britain was the responsibility of the RNAS. Almost the RFC’s aircraft and pilots were overseas and those left at in the UK were busy training new pilots. The main aerial threat was expected to come from German airships, usually called Zeppelins, although some were built by Zeppelin’s rival Schütte-Lanz.

The threat from German airships to Britain in 1914 was far less than was popularly feared. Germany was thought to have 30 airships armed with as many as six cannon and seven tons of bombs. In fact, the German army had seven airships armed with one or two machine guns and carrying bombs converted from artillery shells. The navy had bought three, but two had been lost accidentally in 1913. It also leased a civilian one for training and would have five more delivered before the end of 1914. The army airships carried out bombing raids on Belgium in the early months of the war. The main role of the navy ones was fleet reconnaissance.[3]

Three army Zeppelins were lost to ground fire in August 1914, ZVI and ZVII on the Western Front over Belgium and ZV on the Eastern Front. On 8 October 1914 Flight Lieutenant Reginald Marix, flying from a land base, was awarded a Distinguished Service Order after bombing and destroying ZIX in its hangar at Düsseldorf.

The Zeppelin company gave its airships a production number, prefixed LZ. The two armed forces numbered their Zeppelins on separate systems, prefixed Z for the army and L for the navy. Civilian ones were usually named. In 1915 the army switched first to using the LZ numbers and then to adding 30 to them in order to conceal its strength. This post uses the military numbers.

The British were not certain of the exact location of the main German navy airship base, but thought that it was Cuxhaven at the mouth of the River Elbe on the North Sea coast. It was actually at Nordholz, eight miles south west and inland of Cuxhaven. It had a double hangar, capable of holding two Zeppelins, which was mounted on a turntable so that it could be turned into the wind.

Two more Zeppelins were located at a former civilian base at Fuhlsbüttel near Hamburg. Only four of the six Zeppelins operated by the navy in December 1914 were therefore based near the North Sea.

The first attempt to attack the base by seaplanes flying from the Harwich Force’s carriers came on 25 October. Heavy rain prevented the seaplanes taking off and a Zeppelin from spotting the attacking force.

A second attempt on 24 November was planned as part of an operation to draw out the High Seas Fleet and attack it with the Grand Fleet. The air part was abandoned after the interception of a German wireless signal indicating that a force of cruisers and destroyers was close to the take off position of the seaplanes. The main fleets did not come into contact.[4]

The third attempt was to take place on 25 December 1914. Nine seaplanes, three flying from each of HMS Engadine (Squadron Commander Cecil L’Estrange Malone), Empress (Lieutenant E. Robertson) and Riviera (Lieutenant Frederick Bowhill), would carrying out the attack. All three seaplane carriers were captained by aviators. This was the normal practice in the RNAS, although it ‘seems to have evolved informally.’[5]

It was abandoned by the British when the Royal Air Force was formed in 1918, leading to almost all RNAS officers leaving the RN, but was adopted by the United States Navy in 1926, in this case as a formal policy.

The seaplanes were all single engined, two seater biplanes manufactured by Short, of three different types: the oldest were three Type 74s on Empress and one on Riviera; Engadine carried three Type 81s, often called Folders because they were the first aircraft to have folding wings in order to make storage on a ship easier; and the newest were two Type 135s on Riviera, a more powerful version of the Folder. They had no machine guns, although one carried a rifle.

Each of the nine seaplanes carried three 20 pound bombs. The weight of explosive in the 27 bombs totalled 81.5 pounds, 3.5 pounds less than in a single 13.5 inch shell, the largest then carried by a British dreadnought.[6]

Although each seaplane could carry two men, only three of the nine actually did so on the raid. According to R. D. Layman’s history of the raid, eight of the pilots were given the choice of taking a mechanic along; only the three from Empress did so. Layman notes that the mechanics could add little to justify their extra weight, since the pilot aimed and dropped the bombs, adding that it is not known why some pilots took a mechanic. The ninth aircraft, piloted by Flight Commander Cecil Kilner, carried Lieutenant Erskine Childers as an observer.[7]

Childers was 44 years old had served as an artilleryman in the Boer War and then turned to Irish Nationalist politics despite being a Protestant from a privileged background. He had been smuggling German guns into Ireland earlier in 1914, but had volunteered to join the RN at the outbreak of the war. The author of The Riddle of the Sands, his importance to the Admiralty and to this mission was ‘his almost unique knowledge of German coastal waters.’[8]

The seaplane carriers were escorted by three light cruisers and eight destroyers of the Harwich Force, commanded by Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt. It would be reinforced by another light cruiser and eight more destroyers when it came to pick up the seaplanes after the raid. A line of 11 submarines was placed between the surface ships and the German coast. The Grand Fleet would move into the southern North Sea in case the raid brought out heavy enemy ships.

The Germans were expecting a British attack, but thought it would be an attempt to block German rivers. They appears to have learnt that the British were preparing blockships to defend Scapa Flow and disguising merchantmen to look like warships. An over estimate of the number of blockships led them to assume wrongly that the purpose was offensive rather than defensive.[9]

The seaplanes were to take off just after dawn on Christmas Day. They were hoisted from the carriers into the sea, the mechanics started the engines and those of them who were not flying returned to their ships. However, one aircraft developed engine problems and two men, Chief Petty Officer Ernest Wright and Air Mechanic George Kent, swam back to her in order to correct them. Both were commended for their bravery.

Malone gave the signal for the first wave to prepare to take off in five minutes at 6:54 am. The seaplanes had difficulties in taking off and only seven were in the air by 7:22 am, when Malone decided that enough time had been taken, ordering the other two to be hoisted back onto their carriers. The sea was light and calm, requiring the aircraft to take longer take off runs, thus using more fuel. The plan was that they should carry enough for a three hour flight, which should have been enough to complete the mission. However, Riviera’s captain, Robertson, decided that his aircraft should carry four hour’s fuel.[10]

The seaplanes took about an hour to reach the coast. All saw at least one Zeppelin, with some spotting two, although two mis-identified one of them as a Schütte-Lanz. The airships were L5 and L6. This meant that no airships were at Nordholz. The British did not know its exact location, but should have had no difficulty in spotting it in good weather. However, there was a thick fog over the land.

The fate of the aircraft was as follows:

HMS Engadine:

Folder no. 119, Flight Commander Robert Ross.

Dropped a bomb on what he thought, probably wrongly, was a submarine diving before landing on the water to investigate problems with fuel pressure. Took off when a trawler appeared. Returned to the carriers and aircraft recovered.

Folder no. 120, Flt Lt Arnold Miley.

Failed to find the airship base and came under fire from warships whilst reconnoitring Wilhelmshaven naval base. Unable to find the carriers but landed in the sea near the submarine HMS E11. Taken on board the submarine and seaplane sunk.

Folder no. 122, Flt Cmdr A. B. Gaskell.

Failed to take off due to engine failure.

HMS Riviera:

Type 135 no. 135, Flt Cmdr Francis Hewlett.

Came under fire from warships, failed to find the base and did not drop any bombs. Suffered engine failure, ditched in the sea, picked up by a Dutch trawler, landed in the Netherlands and made his way back to Britain.

Type 135 no. 136, Flt Cmdr Cecil Kilner/Lt Erskine Childers.

Unable to find the airship base. Damaged by fire from warships. Childers carried out a successful reconnaissance of the naval base. Kilner decided to save his bombs for the submarine base, but was then unable to find it. Returned to the carriers and aircraft recovered.

Type 74 no. 811, Flt Lt Charles Edmonds.

Was not fired on at first. Tried to find the airship base by following the railway line, but could not. Tried to bomb the light cruisers SMS Stralsund and Graudenz, but missed and was damaged by return fire. The German Official History reports only two rather than three bombs. Returned to the carriers and aircraft recovered.

HMS Empress:

Type 74 no. 812, Flt Lt Reginald Bone/Air Mechanic Waters.

Failed to take off due to engine failure.

Type 74 no. 814. Flt Sub-Lt Vivian Gaskell Blackburn, Chief Petty Officer James Bell.

Came under fire from warships and was then damaged by shore batteries. Dropped two bombs on the latter and one on the city of Wilhelmshaven, but the German Official History makes no mention of any explosions in the area. Unable to find the carriers but landed in the sea near E11. Taken on board the submarine and seaplane sunk.

Type 74 no. 815, Flt Cdr Douglas Oliver, CPO Gilbert Budds.

Damaged by fire from shore based guns. Failed to find the airship base and dropped three bombs on what Oliver thought was a seaplane base, but was probably fishermen’s sheds or warehouses. Unable to find the carriers but landed in the sea near E11. Taken on board the submarine and seaplane sunk.

The German Official History reports that two bomb was dropped at the airship base, apparently aimed at but missing its gasometer. This does not fit in with any of the British accounts; Layman suggests that it must have been either Ross or Miley dropping bombs to lighten their load ahead of the flight home, not realising that they were over their target. [11]

Two of the three aircraft from Riviera made it back to the carriers, justifying Robertson’s decision to give his aircraft extra fuel; the other had engine problems. Of the four seaplanes carrying two men, two had to ditch beside E11, one did not take off and the fourth was one of those from Riviera with extra fuel, showing that the weight of the extra man created problems. One of the two with one man and a lower fuel load made it back and the other ditched beside E11.

The carriers and their escorts had moved away from the launch point once the seaplanes were in the air. Their turn away came just in time to foil a torpedo attack by the U boat SMS U6. HMS Empress, capable of only 18 knots, 3 knots less than the other two carriers, lagged behind the other ships, but they could not wait if they were to make the rendezvous in time.

Empress was attacked by two seaplanes and L6, which dropped 13 bombs on her. All missed, with the closest landing 20 feet away. The Zeppelin also machine gunned her. The escorts fired on the enemy aircraft and airship. They withdrew, but because they had dropped all their bombs. L6‘s damage was confined to three bullet holes.

The ships reached the rendezvous point at 9:30 am. They came under attack from L5 and more seaplanes, but escaped damage. This ‘convinced [Tyrwhitt] that, given ordinary sea room, our ships had nothing to fear from either seaplanes or Zeppelins.’[12]

The Cuxhaven Raid was a failure in materiel terms. The first edition of Naval Operations claimed that the battlecruiser SMS Von der Tann missed the Battle of Dogger Bank the next month because of damage suffered when she collided with another German ship during the raid. This was not true (she missed Dogger Bank due to a routine refit) and was removed from the second edition, revised after the publication of the German Official History.[13]

The only loss suffered by the Germans was one seaplane, with a Zeppelin, a trawler and perhaps one or two seaplanes suffering minor damage. The British lost four seaplanes and had three destroyers and a submarine temporarily disabled.[14] Most seriously, the Orion class dreadnoughts HMS Conqueror and Monarch collided, leaving both requiring dockyard repair.[15]

However, another British attack on Helgoland Bight, following the surface one in August 1914 boosted the morale of the British and damaged that of the Germans.

Two of the British pilots, Edmonds and Kilner, were awarded the DSO and the two CPOs who flew in the raid, Bell and Budds, were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

The RN led the world in air-sea operations in 1914. However, it later fell behind the USN and the Imperial Japanese Navy To a large extent, this was due to the loss of expertise that it suffered when most of its aviators transferred to the RAF when it was formed by a merger of the RFC and RNAS in 1918. The RN regained control of carrier aircraft, but not shore based ones operating over the sea, just before the start of the Second World War.

Bowhill became an Air Chief Marshal, equivalent to an Admiral, in the RAF and commanded Coastal Command, operating its shore based maritime aircraft, in the early days of the Second World War. Edmonds became an Air Vice Marshal, equivalent to a Rear Admiral.

Childers remained in the RN and then the RAF for the duration of the war. He was part of the Irish delegation that negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty, but was amongst those Irishmen who opposed the terms, leading to the Irish Civil War. He was captured and executed by his opponents in 1922.

As well as those sailors involved in the Cuxhaven Raid, many others were at sea on Christmas Day 1914, including the crews of the ships enforcing the British blockade, minesweepers and German U-boats. The British minesweeping trawler HMT Night Hawk struck a mine that day, resulting in the deaths of the six men listed here.

[1] W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922), pp. 273-74.

[2] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 64-65; R. D. Layman, The Cuxhaven Raid: The World’s First Carrier Air Strike (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 32-33.

[3] Layman, Cuxhaven, pp. 19-22.

[4] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. xii, Home Waters part iii, November 1914 to the end of January 1915. pp. 51-59.

[5] Layman, Cuxhaven, p. 50.

[6] Ibid., p. 61.

[7] Ibid., pp. 67-68.

[8] Ibid., p. 51.

[9] Naval Staff vol. Xii. pp. 133-35.

[10] Layman, Cuxhaven, pp. 62, 68-70.

[11] The description of the raid is based on Ibid., pp. 85-96.

[12] Naval Staff vol. Xii. p. 136.

[13] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii pp. 52-53, 84; Layman, Cuxhaven, pp. 118-20. and endnote 10.

[14] Layman, Cuxhaven, p. 115.

[15] Naval Staff vol. Xii. p. 143.

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