5 February 1917 – Grand Fleet

On the 21st of January 1917, Commander of the Grand Fleet Admiral David Richard Beatty, dissatisfied with the naval air situation, wrote to the Admiralty asking what policy they intended to pursue in regard to the Royal Naval Air Service. Five days later, before he received a reply, he set up a special committee of the Grand Fleet under Rear-Admiral Sir Hugh Evan-Thomas to report on the Fleet’s air requirements.

Today, the Committee presented a comprehensive report. The members of the Committee considered the air requirements of the Grand Fleet as follows:

(i) Reconnaissance over the North Sea
(ii) Screening of the Fleet by aircraft while on passage,
(iii) Heavier-than-aircraft for duty with the Fleet,
(iv) Seaplane Carriers
(v) Use of seaplanes and balloons as aids to gunnery.

They recommended that systematic reconnaissance of the North Sea should be the duty of large flying-boats supplemented by non-rigid airships. Airships, also, of the ‘Coastal’ or ‘North Sea’ type, should provide a screen when the Fleet left its bases by daylight.

The duties of the heavier-than-air craft were defined as close reconnaissance, and attacks on German airships. For the latter duty it was recommended that Sopwith Pup aeroplanes should replace the Sopwith ‘Baby’ seaplanes in the Campania, as it had already been decided they should do in the Manxman.

The Manxman, a former passenger steamer on the Isle of Man service, had been commissioned in December 1916 to carry seaplanes aft for reconnaissance and Sopwith ‘Baby’ seaplanes forward to fight Zeppelins. However, Flight Commander Frederick Joseph Rutland had been appointed to the new carrier before she was commissioned, and he was soon advocating that aeroplanes should be carried instead of the ‘Baby’ seaplanes.

He argued that the Pup aeroplane was the only craft capable of getting to the ‘ceiling’ of a Zeppelin, that, fitted with airbags, the Pups were safer on the water than the ‘Baby’ seaplanes, that they were a better match for other aeroplanes which might be encountered at sea and, finally, that the adoption of a fighter which was being manufactured for the Western Front would ensure supplies being available and would also enable the Naval Air Service to take advantage of improvements embodied in the type from time to time as a result of fighting experience in France.

Rutland had made the first of two flights off the deck of the Manxman in January 1917 in one of the ‘Baby’ seaplanes and he had found that the run given by the deck of the ship necessitated a good wind before the seaplane could get away. The adoption of aeroplanes, which could be flown off the deck under less exacting conditions, would also increase the number of occasions when aircraft could be used. Largely as a result of his advocacy and of the trials with the ‘Baby’ seaplanes, Sopwith Pup aeroplanes were allotted to the Manxman.

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