It was the afternoon of November 14, 1910, and Eugene B. Ely was taking off with his Curtiss Pusher off the deck of the USS Birmingham in Hampton Roads, Virginia. USS Roe can be seen in the background. Photo: Eugene B. Ely’s personal album, via NHHC
Text: Jean Laffite
Our June release of Sopwith 2F.1 Camel kit represents the scale model of the very first operational, carrier-borne fighter. It was a modification of the proven standard land fighter design flown by many RNAS squadrons located on the land bases at the Western front during the Great War. Also, this type was the first fighter to attack the airship bases from the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Let’s go back in time to the origin of the naval deployment of flying machines. Initially the aviation role was reconnaissance, which by the way is very important up until today. In the beginning the impractical balloons or first airplanes caused doubts among the admirals. No one was able to imagine that the huge balls filled with flammable hydrogen, or the construction of the several wooden planks and some linen could possibly present a threat to the steel giants. On the other hand, the aviation was able to provide better reconnaissance results than any sailor with binoculars on the top of the tallest mast. To spot the enemy first, know his fleet, its formation and course has always been a tactical advantage. In the end of 19th century, the ever-improving naval artillery played its role as well as it was able to increase the effective range and hit the enemy at the long distances, at the limits of the visual recognition, without jeopardizing their own vessels. Therefore, the aviation was perfectly suited for the role of directing the artillery fire.
The American Civil War gave birth to many innovative solutions in the military equipment designs. Among others it was the first deployment of battle ships, in the case of USS Monitor even equipped with the rotating gun turret which gave name to the whole group of combat vessels designated to fight on the rivers and in the coastal waters. The first submarine deployment is well known as well. Rather amusing, the imagination of a man-driven Confederate submarine named after its creator H. L. Hunley sinking the Union propeller-driven shallop USS Housatonic, on February 17, 1864, in the mouth of Ashley and Cooper rivers as she was on duty to blockade Charleston. Little known fact is that the Union Army was the first to establish the Army Balloon Corps which used anchored balloons for reconnaissance and fire direction in the battles of Bull Run, Yorktown, Fair Oaks and Vicksburg. A sort of aircraft carrier was created. USS George Washington Parke Custis was rebuilt from the coal transporting boat with the deck devoid of all objects that could present an obstacle to the balloon ropes and nets and was used as river transport boat for the Corps. Its designer, an experienced aviator Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, had two gas generators and a balloon installed on the deck. “I have the pleasure of reporting the complete success of the first balloon expedition by water ever attempted. On Sunday early morning I left the Navy yards assisted by the capable fellow aviators and a new device to generate gas which, even though used for the first time, performed admirably,” commented Lowe on the first sailing.
A reconnaissance balloon launched from USS George Washington Parke Custis above Potomac River in November 1861 near Budd’s Ferry. Illustration: via NHHC
Not everything went according to the plans, as a Union General Fitz John Porter learned. He was aware of the balloons’ value, so he joined Lowe to try the new reconnaissance device. During the operations the balloons were always anchored to the ground to prevent them from drifting away. On this flight however, Porter decided to use the single anchoring rope to speed up the ascending balloon as opposed to three or four ropes suggested by Lowe. This single rope broke, and the balloon silently drifted over the Confederate territory. Consequently, it was fired upon, but the crew remained calm and indeed they managed to make several sketches of the enemy positions. Miraculously the balloon then descended back to the Union positions. The whole event must have looked like one of Baron Munchhausen stories. In the middle of 1862 Lowe got infected with malaria in the swampy terrain and had to rest to recover. After his return he learned that all the equipment and resources to operate the balloons were handed over to the Army. In May 1863, after disputing his salary followed by a fall off favor of the Union Army, Lowe left the Balloon Corps. Brothers Allen were given the management of the Corps, but they were not able to lead the unit as effectively as Lowe and before the year 1863 ended the Balloon Corps was disbanded.
In 1895 French were the first to build the ship designated specifically for the reconnaissance balloons. Her name was Foudre, had 6000 tons displacements and could carry two anchored and one free balloon. She was not very successful and after many modifications she served as a hydroplanes’ mother ship. Nevertheless, during WWI she served as a submarines’ dock. Before the end of the century several isolated military conflicts took place. One of those was a continuous push of the Ottoman Empire troops out of the Balkans. In 1876, thanks to the Russia’s contribution, the Turks were pushed out of Bulgaria. In 1878 Austria-Hungary was victorious over Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Ottoman Empire forces were withdrawing in other territories except of Europe. In 1881 Egypt fell under the Great Britain control. Italians did not want to fall behind. Long time ago they had set their sight on the north coast of Africa, Tripoli, and Cyrenaica areas, nowadays forming most of Libya. The war broke out on September 29, 1911, and according to the Italian account went smooth. The fact that in the beginning of 1912, Bulgaria, Monte Negro, Serbia and Greece joined Italy certainly contributed to the success.
Italian Etrich Taube in Libya. Giulio Gavotti flew this type on his “bombing” raid. Photo: Touring Club Italiano/Marka
So, the Ottoman Empire, in order not to completely loose its influence in Europe, chose the lesser evil and gave up Tripoli, Cyrenaica and Cyprus. The short war, in which Italy lost 1500 soldiers, was the first to feature the deployment of the modern equipment such as airships, airplanes and balloon ships. The first air bombing raid took place as well when on November 1, 1911, the Italian Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti, bombed, if it can be called that way, Tagiura (Jagiura) oasis and the Osman military camp in Ain Zara. He flew Etrich Taube monoplane on the raid and used in total four Cipelli grenades held in the leather sack. Once he reached the target, he screwed the detonators in and threw grenades the size of a grapefruit on the target. Lt. Gavotti was credited with another first ever mission when on March 4, 1912, he flew the first night mission, again in Libya.
The Italian balloon ship Volta, a rebuilt personal steamer Europa, operated at the Libyan coast. The special feature of this ship was a substructure which could house the inflated balloon. The naval operations between Italian and Turkish Navy were fully under the Italian control. In then Albanian port of Preveza five Italian destroyers sank four Turkish ones and on the top of it the Italians captured an auxiliary vessel. On November 7, 1912, in Kufuda bay in the Red Sea, Italians destroyed seven Turkish gun boats and practically eliminated the Ottoman Navy in the Red Sea. On the top of it, in the port of Beirut, the Italians destroyed the old Turkish armored ship Avnillah, torpedo launcher Angora and six supply tugboats. The balloon ships did not prove their value and their role changed from reconnaissance to defense. They became the floating platforms for the barrier balloons protecting the ports, ship convoys or military ships. They formed a passive defense against the airships’ attacks, as we will speak about later.
Giulio Gavotti, Italian aviation pioneer. Photo: archive
Airplanes arrive on the scene
If we realize the fact that the first flight of a machine heavier than air is considered a 279 meters long jump performed by Wilbur Wright in the afternoon of March 17, 1903, and that the first attempts of take off and landing on the ships deck were made by British and Americans in 1910, we learn how rapid the progress of the aviation was in the beginning of the 20th century and we will become aware of the enormous courage demonstrated by those aviation pioneers. In the beginning of the development of the aircraft designated for the naval service two trends became apparent. The deployment of the ground-based aircraft was limited by the take off and landing on the platform installed somewhere on the ship. If it was a fast vessel, for example a light cruiser sailing at 30 knots, approximately 55 kph, and against the wind, the relative speed of the first aircraft and the ship herself did not differ much. The smaller airplane could easily take off from the ships’ platform and land back on it or fly to the ground base if it was in the airplane range. And it happened like that during the first attempt to take off from the 25 by 7 meters platform mounted on the USS Birmingham (CL-2) bow. On November 14, 1910, Eugene Burton Ely at the controls of his Curtiss biplane successfully took off from the cruiser which was at anchor in Hampton Roads port in Virginia. After a short flight Ely landed on the ground. The first landing on the ship’s deck is again credited to Ely when on January 18, 1911, he landed on the USS Pennsylvania stern (ACR/CA-4) in San Francisco Bay. Really courageous “amazing aviator” died the same year during the air show in Macon on October 19, 1911, when he failed to recover from the dive. He emerged from the wreck, however passed away after a while due to a broken neck spine. Just a note, that in 1933, the US Congress posthumously awarded Ely DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) for his “extraordinary success as a civil aviation pioneer and his important contribution to the aviation development in the US Navy.”
One of the Zeppelins is flying over the German light cruiser S.M.S. Frankfurt during WWI.
The French ship Fauvette II is just launching the reconnaissance balloon during the trials in the bay near Toulon. Photo: archive
In January 1912, the British launched the aeronautical experiments on board of the HMS Africa and HMS Hibernia battleships. The test flights were performed by Commander Charles Samson flying Short Improved S.27 biplane “S.38” (or “RNAS No.2”). The first successful take off was made in the beginning of May, either 2nd, 4th or 9th, as various sources state different dates. What we know for sure is that Samson took off from HMS Hibernia while the ship was sailing at 10.5 knots i. e., 19.4 kph in the bay of Weymouth in England. Coincidentally King George V was on the fleet’s inspection and witnessed the series of flights performed in Portland in four days. Further experiments were conducted on board the HMS London battleship where the take off platform from HMS Hibernia was installed. All these trials led the Royal Navy to the conclusion that the airplanes are useful on the board of the ships for reconnaissance and other duties but at the same time caused a series of problems. The landing deck, built above the bow complicated the gun fire and the hydroplanes’ recovery (Short S.27 was designed as a floatplane) presented a risk once performed in the rough waters. The Royal Navy continued to develop the concept of a hydroplane ship.
In the beginning of May 1912, Commander Charles Samson is taking off in his Short Improved S.27 biplane off the HMS Hibernia deck in the bay of Weymouth in England. Photo: archive
A problem’ name was Zeppelin
And then the war broke out and soon it was apparent how big problem the existence of the German airships represented. What looked like a clumsy Leviathan full of highly flammable gas, slowly moving through the sky, started to transform into Zeppelin-phobia once the bombs started to fall out of these giants. It cannot be said that the British did not address the Zeppelin threat. Right from the start the First Lord of Admiralty, Winston Churchill, played his role. Thanks to his initiative the air defense of the British Isles was transferred from the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), who anyway were busy in the expedition corps in France, to the Navy air component, Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). Soon it was clear that the performance of the available British aircraft is not sufficient to oppose Zeppelins and the solution had to be found how to attack them. In addition, the Germans switched to the night attacks. The Admiralty arrived at the conclusion that if the attacks from the air were not possible it was necessary to attack the airships while they were still in the hangars at their bases.
Sopwith Camel is being loaded on the take-off towing platform. Photo: archive
Another way to use the airplanes by the navy were the hydroplanes with the boat-like fuselage. The whole aircraft fuselage was in this case sealed to float on the water surface and replaced the huge floats installed on the standard aircraft. The concept of the “flying boats” came to existence in the United States in the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company workshops owned by Glenn Curtiss. In 1913, for its time very advanced Curtiss Model H was designed, a hydroplane with a boat-like fuselage intended for long-haul flights. The British Navy immediately showed the interest in both purchasing several airframes as well as the license to build them as Felixtowe F.1. On May 14, 1917, Flight Commander Robert Leckie flying Curtiss H12 shot down Zeppelin L22 (LZ 64 class Q). The future Air Marshall was born in Glasgow, Scotland, however in 1909 his family left for Canada where he joined the army. In 1915 he paid 600 Canadian dollars for the pilot training it the Curtiss Flying School, however he only logged three hours on Curtiss Model F flying boat at Hanlan’s Point until the school was forced to close for winter. Robert Leckie managed to take part in shooting down L70 (LZ 112 class X) with Fregattenkapitän Peter Strasser, a German aviation icon, on board. Leckie manned the gun while DH.4 aircraft was piloted by Major Egbert Cadbury.
On August 11, 1918, FSL Stuart D. Culley successfully took off from the H5 platform towed by the HMS Redoubt destroyer and shot down a Zeppelin L-53. Photo: archive
First attacks against airship bases
On September 22, 1914, the British attempted to attack the airship base for the first time. The raid on the base near Dusseldorf, where the airship Z.IX operated from, failed, however. On the second attempt Lt. Reginald Marix flying the Sopwith Tabloid serial number 168, destroyed the army Zeppelin Z.IX (LZ 25, army class) from the altitude of 200 meters. After landing in Antwerp, he had to flee the German Army which was just advancing through Belgium. Encouraged by the success the RNAS wanted to attack the Friedrichshafen base. The mission was flown by single-seat Avro 504C airplanes taking off from the French fort of Belfort. Their bombs did not cause any damage due to the fierce AA fire and the airship L7 (LZ 32 class M) escaped undamaged.
First airship kills by a ground and carrier-born aircraft
The first destruction of the airship in the air is credited to RNAS pilot, FSL Reginald Warneford. On June 7, 1915, he dropped six 20 lb bombs (9 kilos) from his Morane-Saulnier L high wing airplane (serial number 3252) on LZ37 airship (class M) near Gent. The airship exploded in an enormous blast which also damaged Warneford aircraft and due to the engine failure, he had to perform an emergency landing on the enemy territory. While on the ground he managed to repair the engine and after half an hour could fly back to friendly lines. On August 21, 1917, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Bernard Arthur Smart flying a Sopwith Pup from the platform mounted on the gun turret of the cruiser HMS Yarmouth, managed to shoot down an airship L23 (LZ 66 class Q). After that he landed on the water and was recovered by a destroyer.
Landing on the sea surface was standard until sufficiently long landing decks were built on the first aircraft carriers. The front and detachable rear section of Camel 2F.1 were often recovered individually. Photo: archive
Kill scored from pontoon
If you ever saw a picture of an airplane taking off from the pontoon towed by a fast ship, be aware that a fighter taking off in such a bizarre manner achieved a success. The credit goes to the Canadian pilot FSL Stuart D. Culley. On August 11, 1918, destroyer HMS Redoubt was towing the H5 pontoon as a part of Harwich Force in Heligoland Bay when Zeppelin L53 (LZ 100 class V) was spotted. Culley took off in his Camel from the pontoon and after a long climb shot down the airship.
Hydroplanes against Zeppelin bases
During WWI quite many German airship bases were built. The largest ones were located on the North Sea coast in the North-Western Germany: Nordholz, Ahlhorn and Tondern. The Royal Navy learnt about them soon after they were built. Right at the outbreak of the war the British decided to destroy Nordholz base near Cuxhavevn. The attack was scheduled for Christmas 1914 after the attacks from October and November had not been successful due to the inclement weather. Nevertheless, the Royal Navy activity starting on December 21, 1914, by gradual sailing of the part of the fleet did not escape the German attention. On the Christmas Day the British assault group ships set sail and on the following day, at 6 am the hydroplane ships HMS Empress, HMS Riviera and HMS Engadin reached the planned hydroplanes’ launching point. Their assembly and launching on the water then commenced. There were nice Short Folder hydroplanes participating in the mission, each armed with three 20 lbs bombs.
In the end only seven of them took off at 06:54 am (RNAS No. 119, 120, 136, 811, 814 and 815). The weather was unfavorable. The low clouds obscured the whole mission area from the German observation but at the same time made the crews’ navigation difficult. Regardless, soon they were spotted by a German patrol ship which sounded an alarm and consequently the airships L5 (LZ 28 class M) and L6 (LZ 31 class M) took off from the Nordholz base. British aircraft lost the orientation and after a futile search for the base the crews decided to drop the bombs on any target they could come across. Once they started to run out of fuel, they turned to their return path. They themselves became the target of the airships they were supposed to attack. Only two aircraft reached their mother ships. Oly by a miracle none of the pilots perished even though two of them were shortly interned in the neutral Netherlands.
Squadron Commander Edwing H. Dunning flying Sopwith Pup is performing the first successful landing on the HMS Furious deck on August 2, 1917, during the trials in Scapa Flow. The ship was sailing at 26 knots with 21 knots headwind. That provided 87 kph headwind speed on the deck therefore the airplane flew at very low speed relative to the deck. Five days later, during the third attempt to land, Dunning crashed into the sea and perished. Photo: Van A. Swindelle Collection
Tondern and HMS Furious
The short platform mounted on the gun turrets were of course only suitable for take-off and if there was no ground base within reach the pilot’s only option was to land on water. Then he and his airplane were retrieved. The ship concept allowing to land and take off again dated back to 1912 experiments. The ship featured the take off platform on the bow and the landing one on the stern. In March 1918, the armored cruiser HMS Furious, properly modified, and prepared, was chosen for the trials.
There were three hangars at Tondern base which names started with the letters TO, i.e. Tobias, Tonia and Tosca. When HMS Furious entered the service, the Admiralty immediately came up with the idea of how to test her in combat. The plan for the attack on Tondern was code-named Operation F.6 and copies of the Tondern hangars were built at the Turnhouse airfield. Initially eight pilots were chosen for the raid, but one had to drop out and there was no time to train his replacement. Mission F.6 was launched in the morning of June 27, 1918, however, when two days later the formation rendezvoused with the support group, the mission had to be aborted due to the strong winds. The second attempt was code-named F.7 and was launched on June 17 when HMS Furious set sails again escorted by destroyers. In the morning of June 18, at 03:04 am, there were seven Sopwith 2F.1 Camels ready on the HMS Furious deck when the storm struck. Instead of aborting the mission again it was decided to postpone it for 24 hours and HMS Furious, with her escort, waited out the storm by cruising near the Danish coast till the morning of June 19. The weather conditions continued to be less than ideal, but the flight operations were possible, so it was decided to launch the mission. All seven Camels, each with two attached 49 lbs. (22.5 kilos) bombs took off from HMS Furious deck between 03:13 and 03:21 am.
2F.1 Camels ready for take-off from the HMS Furious deck. Photo: archive
The first group was formed by three aircraft flown by Capt. W. D. Jakson, Capt. W. F. Dickson, and Lt. N. E. Williams. The second wave consisted of four airplanes piloted by Capt. B. A. Smart (his Zeppelin kill is described above), Lt. S. Dawson, LT. W. A. Yeulett and Capt. T. K. Thyne. The last-named pilot was forced to return due to engine trouble before reaching the target. At 4:35 am the first group arrived in Tondern and caught everyone by surprise. In the past, there was a fighter flight deployed to Tondern consisting of four Fokkers and four Albatrosses but in 1917 it was disbanded due to the frequent accidents caused by the wet ground. Its duties were taken over by a Navy hydroplane base near the island of Sylt but in the morning of June 19, 1918, they evaluated the weather as not suitable for flying and cancelled the patrol flights. According to the plan the airplanes from the first wave focused on the hangar Tosca which was the largest of all and at that time housed L54 (LZ 99 class U) and L-60 (LZ 10878 class V) airships. The hangar was hit by three bombs and caused a large fire which destroyed both airships. The fourth bomb of the first group hit the hangar Tobias which was consequently attacked by the second group. It also caused the fire by until today it is not clear what burnt in fact. No German was killed during the attack, only four men were wounded.
One of the aircraft that landed in Denmark after a successful raid on the Tondern base. Photo: archive
The sailors on the HMS Furious deck, looking for their Camels returning back were disappointed. Not even one returned. Only two of them made emergency landings on water near the British vessels. At 05:55 am, Dickson landed near destroyer HMS Violet, half an hour later, Smart landed at 6:30. Yeulett was not lucky. He got lost over the sea and crashed. On June 24 the wreck of his Camel was washed ashore near Havrig and the body of his unfortunate pilot was found four days later near Holmsland. Three aviators from the first wave calculated that due to the insufficient fuel they will not make it back, so they headed to the neutral Denmark. The naval Camels (N6771, N6605 and N6823) landed one after another and the pilots were interned. They managed to escape later. One story for all: FL Samuel Dawson successfully landed his Camel N6605 despite the pierced tire on the sand beach Holmsland Klit (Klegold) near the village. He intended to source the gas, refuel, and fly back to his ship. Before he could do any of it, he was detained by police and escorted to the hotel where he met his 2 colleagues. The New Zealander did not want to accept the fate of an interned soldiers. He sneaked out of the hotel in a civil coat and hat and fled. He switched a bicycle for a train until he made it on board of the ship headed for Sweden. From there he continued to Norway where he boarded the ship headed for Scotland.
Fourteen days after the raid he reported back to his base. For his actions he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and remained on active duty. In 1919 he sailed on board of the modified cruiser HMS Vindictive with Franco-British fleet to support the troops fighting Bolsheviks at Petersburg. Sadly, on September 17, 1919, the unbeatable “Kiwi” ran out of luck. He did not return from the patrol flight. The brave aviator was buried in Koivisto, the former Finnish town which is now part of Russia (Primorsk). He was 25 years old. The Tondern base was seriously damaged, and the attack the Germans used it only for backup. Most importantly, the British raid clearly proved that the future is in the aircraft carriers which aircraft present bigger combat potential than impressive, but technically outdated Zeppelins.
The burning hangar Tosca at the Tondern base. The airships L-54 and L-60 stored inside were destroyed. Photo: archive
J. M. Bruce: “The Sopwith Pup”, Flight International, reissue
V. Hynek, P. Klucina, E. Sknouril: Military ships (3), Nase vojsko, 1988
Guttman, Jon & Illustrated by Simon Smith, Harry Dempsey, Richard Chasemore, Peter Bull : Sopwith Cames, Air Vanguard, 2012
The author’s clip archive
BBC: Attack of the Zeppelin (movie)