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Dawn of aces
The The birth of naval aviationbirth of naval aviation
Part Part 11
Life aboard was rudimentary but
acceptable, while the craft withstood
gusts of up to 45mph. What she did
not do was fly.
Returned to her shed, she underwent
four months of modifications – she
was even stripped of her keel to
FRIDAY October 9 1914 dawned
reduce weight.
It was to prove a fatal flaw. When
The mechanics tinkered with
HM Airship No.1 emerged again on
the 100hp Gnome Monosoupape
September 24, she was caught by a
engines, fine tuning them.
gust of wind, twisted, rolled back.
All night long the Sopwith Tabloid
Her centre buckled and snapped. The
biplanes, Nos.167 and 168, sat in
crew in her gondolas “had a most
the field outside Antwerp. All night
exciting time” (those in the rear one
German shells had whistled and
jumped out into the water).
whined overhead before crashing
And that was the end of the Mayfly.
down somewhere in the Belgian
She quietly rotted away in her shed
before being broken up. She was,
For three weeks, the men of No.1
declared Admiral Doveton Sturdee,
Wing, Royal Naval Air Service, had
who headed the official inquiry into
endured a nomadic life – “always on
the flop, “the work of an idiot”.
the go,” one of its number recalled,
“without a home, without any idea
where we were going to next, without
food sometimes, and yet we had kept
But constantly keeping going was
gnawing at the nerves. Squadron FATHER OF NAVAL FLIGHT
Commander Spenser Grey was
becoming increasingly impatient.
Idiots. Mavericks. Pioneers.
The 25-year-old officer was a natural
Adventurers. Daredevils. The first
airman – he had earned his wings
decade of aviation embraced them
after barely half a dozen flights.
all. Whatever their Lordships might
Natural airman or not, he could do
think, they could not dampen the
nothing about the overcast sky.
‘passion for wings’ which seized
Today’s flight would push the
Britain in those early days of flight.
Tabloid’s 3½-hour endurance to
A handful of naval officers dipped
its limit. The days were drawing
into their own pockets to pay for
in. Shortly after 1pm, Grey took a
flying lessons – one even went further
fateful decision. He gambled on the
and bought an aeroplane outright.
But when free flying lessons with
Twenty minutes later, No.167
the Royal Aero Club at Eastchurch
rolled down the field and into the
were offered, even their Lordships
leaden sky. After a ten-minute
could not turn their noses up.
interval, No.168 followed.
More than 200 officers volunteered;
The single-seat scout was the finest
four were chosen. On the second day
British warplane of the day. Its rate
of March 1911 Lts Gregory, Samson,
of climb – 1,200ft per minute – and
Longmore and Lt Gerrard RM
a top speed of over 90mph marked
arrived in Eastchurch for a month’s
● ‘It would be diffi cult to fi nd, in the world’s history, any body of fi ghters who, for sheer gaiety and zest, could hold a candle to them’... The
it out from its contemporaries. What
glass plate has faded slightly over the years, but not the deeds of these aviators of the Royal Naval Air Service, posing beside their aircraft
ground instruction before taking to
counted today, however, was its
in the summer of 1914
the Sheppey skies.
ability to carry a payload, two 20lb None of the four stood out more
scouting raids on the Western Front.
Since the Wright brothers’ short crimson flames, from which there than Charles Rumney Samson.
Grey in No.167 set course for
The Zeppelin’s canvas bags which first flight on a December day in was no escape”. ‘Sammy’ Samson looked every inch
Cologne, 115 miles away, a little
gave the airship its lift were inflated.
1903, each year had brought fresh The Zeppelin terrified Wells. It the typical officer of the day in formal
over an hour’s flying time. His orders
Upwards of 800,000 cubic feet of achievements in the skies: inspired a German contemporary, portraits – handlebar moustache,
were precise – attack the Zeppelin
hydrogen exploded. Flames raced
sheds. His directions were not.
500ft into the air. The shed roof
MAYFLY – BUT DIDN’T 1904: first circuit, first flight of
Rudolf Martin. “The future of slicked-back hair. Yet there was also
Germany lies in the air,” he something of the renegade about the
Intelligence said the mighty airship
collapsed. A German mechanic was
more than five minutes;
Twenty years before such a
tubthumped. Airships could carry stubby figure: a goatee beard, a blunt
hangars were to the north-west of
killed. Only the aluminium frame of
1905: flight of just under 40
“plucky exploit” would have been
“40,000 men from Germany to manner, a fiery temper, a boxing title.
the city. Or perhaps they were to
LZ25 survived. The metal supports
unthinkable, more H G Wells or
England in a single night. At one What Sammy Samson possessed
the south.
holding her payload melted “in the
1906: first powered flight in
Jules Verne than the heirs apparent
stroke, England’s superiority which above all else was passion.
Like Antwerp, the great Rhine city
blowtorch heat of burning hydrogen”.
of Nelson. Ten years before such
she’s enjoyed from the year dot With the Lordships still under a
was shrouded by a blanket of cloud.
The bombs, unfused, dropped
1907: first flight in the UK;
a plucky exploit would have been
would be wiped out.” cloud following the Mayfly débâcle,
Grey brought his Sopwith down to
harmlessly on to the shed floor.
first flight of an Army
unthinkable; man could fly, but he
Samson was ushered into the office

600ft and began to scour Cologne
Only now did the guns open fire,
had never stayed aloft more than
Their Lordships did not read of First Sea Lord Sir Arthur ‘Tug’
for the sheds. He circled the city for
peppering Reggie Marix’s Tabloid –
five minutes. Even five years ago
The year 1908 witnessed a
Rudolf Martin. They probably never Wilson to plead the case for naval
ten, maybe 12 minutes. The German
but not fatally. He made for Antwerp,
such an exploit would have been
succession of firsts: the first
read H G Wells, but they did heed aviation.
guns – yet to earn their nicknames
only to run out of fuel 20 miles
unthinkable. No British sailor had
passenger, the first female pilot and, the message. On Friday May 7 1909, Wilson was a fearsome character
Archie or ‘flaming onions’ – barked
short of the port. The aviator put
taken to the skies. The Admiralty had
ominously, the first fatality. It also they accepted a tender from Vickers – and a brave one. He had fought the
his plane down in a field, borrowed
set aside £35,000 for the construction
saw the US Army place an order for to build Her Majesty’s Airship No.1 ‘fuzzy-wuzzies’ in single combat in
Spenser Grey could not find the
a bicycle from a Belgian peasant,
of an airship, but it possessed not a
its first heavier-than-air craft. for £35,000. the Sudan – and earned the Victoria
Zeppelin sheds. He could find the
then borrowed a Belgian car and
single heavier-than-air craft.
The Admiralty, however, remained Airship No.1 – dubbed the Cross for doing so. Bravery was one
Hauptbahnhof – Cologne’s central
returned to the airfield – where he
No decade in its long, proud
to be convinced, haughtily dismissing Mayfly, a name which stuck and thing. Technology was another.
station – its platforms and sidings
was “heartily congratulated”. He
history has so shaken the Royal Navy
an offer of machines from the Wright was remarkably prophetic – was “an Tug Wilson didn’t think much
crammed with trains. He dropped his
would return the next day with cans
to its core than the first ten years of
Brothers: “Their Lordships are of the immense dirigible”, the correspondent of the submarine – “underhand,
two bombs and turned west.
of petrol to collect his downed bird.
the 20th Century.
opinion that they would not be of any of the fledgling Flight magazine unfair and damned un-English”. He
Twenty miles to the north Lt
Events would overtake Reggie
There were revolutions within
practical use to the Naval Service.” enthused – 170 yards long, 16 in had called for an end to the Navy’s
Reginald Marix circled the city of
Marix. That night the airfield was
the Service – ‘Jacky’ Fisher woke
Their Lordships may have diameter, a crew of around 25, a top dabbling in airships after the Mayfly
Düsseldorf trying to get his bearings.
bombarded by the German guns, the
the Navy from the slumber of pax
dismissed ‘aerial navigation’ – but speed of a little over 40mph. It took fiasco. He didn’t think much of the
For the past hour or so he had hugged
Hun swarmed into the woods which
Victoriana, axing scores of aged
their Prime Minister had not. Henry 11 freight cars carrying hydrogen aeroplane either. “I don’t see much
the tree tops of first Belgium, then
surrounded the British outpost.
ships and forcing through plans for a Herbert Asquith was perturbed by the bottles to fill the 700,000 cubic feet
use of it for the Navy for some years
Germany. Now he sighted the great
Shortly before midnight, the aviators
revolutionary all-big-gun battleship, progress made in France, Germany of space in the sacs to give her the lift
to come,” he told Charles Samson.
Luftschiffhalle – airship shed – and
withdrew in two cars and headed for
Dreadnought. and America, and by the substantial she needed.
But Samson could be persuasive.
manoeuvred his Tabloid for the kill.
And there were revolutions sums they were pumping into the It wasn’t enough. Mayfly was too
“Let us go on flying,” he urged the
A fortnight before naval aviators
“We celebrate this victory because
without – the submarine had been development of ‘dirigible balloons’ – heavy – a problem, perhaps, not
admiral, outlining plans to build a
had tried to strike at the wooden shed
it takes us one giant step closer to our
perfected by Irish-American inventor airships – and aeroplanes. helped by some rather odd features
seaplane. All he needed was a dozen
– one, Lt Charles Collet, had even
victory,” sneered the correspondent
John Philip Holland and the navies of The aeroplane was still a weapon demanded by the Admiralty, who
men and a bit of money. “I will prove
hit them, but the bombs had failed
of the Frankfurter Zeitung. The fall
the world were taking note, Britain’s for the future, but the dirigible required anchors and a capstan
it possible to fly off a ship in six
to explode.
of Antwerp was a blow to British
among them. In the dying days of the balloon was a far more immediate installed.
The Germans had learned the
morale, but Fleet Street found hope
old century, the Admiralty committed threat. No nation was more skilled in Long before sunrise on May 22
Wilson was won over – and
lessons of September 22. Machine-
in the “thrilling story of a plucky
£175,000 to five submersibles. In the the use of the airship than Germany; 1911, 300 sailors and tugs hauled the
Charles Samson was as good as his
guns were mounted on the roof of
exploit” – the raids on Düsseldorf
burgeoning days of the new century, the military quickly snapped up leviathan out of the floating shed at
word. On January 10 1912 the flier
the shed and Fliegerabwehrkanone
and Cologne.
HM Submarine No.1 – Holland 1 in two Zeppelins – named for their Cavendish Dock in Barrow and thus
lifted off from a 100ft ‘runway’ built
– flak – hurriedly moved in to place
Two pilots. Two heavier-than-
popular parlance – was laid down at aristocratic inventor. was launched the Mayfly. over the 12in guns of HMS Africa at
around the site.
air craft. A mere 80lbs of bombs
the Vickers yard in Barrow. In a few years, H G Wells predicted, For four days, the airship was Sheerness – just, missing a buoy by
Marix dived to 600ft, hurled his
dropped. But two naval aviators had
Holland 1 and the Dreadnought
fleets of German airships would moored to a mast, while a handful
about three inches.
two 20lb bombs at the huge structure.
demonstrated the potential of air
were technological marvels – and
lay waste to cities, raining bombs of crew experienced life aboard
Having cheated death, Samson
One, or perhaps both, explosives
power – and given birth to strategic
hailed as such. But nothing fired
from the skies, leaving “ruins and and experts observed the Mayfly’s
circled the battleship several times as
smashed through the roof and struck
the Edwardian public’s imagination
blazing conflagrations and heaped behaviour.
its sailors cheered, before putting his
LZ25, a veteran of bombing and
● ●
more than powered flight.◆
and scattered dead – a furnace of And she behaved quite well. marina Continued on page ii
Birth of Naval Aviation.indd 1 19/6/09 15:15:16
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