Category Archives: Home Waters

11 April 1918 – “Green balls”

Despite the froamtion of the RAF, the Navy has retained control over some squadrons for naval work. The primary focus at this time was the Navy’s attempts to block the entrance to the canal at Zeebrugge, and to Ostend harbour, in order to close the waterway communications with the German inland naval base at Bruges.

202 Squadron had done extensive work in photographing the area at different times to get information for varying conditions of tide. As the naval blocking operations were to take place at night and under cover of smoke-screens, another important aspect of the air work was a survey of the buoys marking the channels by which the objectives could be reached.

The success of the plan depended on secrecy. The ships were to assemble some sixty miles from the Belgian ports, and because the passage to the objectives would require about seven hours there would be some hours of daylight during which the force might be surprised by German aircraft or by submarines. Arrangements were therefore made to screen the assembly and early movements of the shipsincluding aeroplane, seaplane, and airship patrols. Seaward patrols by surface craft, all directed against possible submarines, and air offensive patrols, over the fleet by aircraft from Dover, and over the Belgian coastal area by Sopwith Camels from Dunkirk were also planned.

Paul Bewsher

During the operation the Royal Air Force was required to divert the attention of the defenders by making bombing attacks on batteries in the area of the objectives. These attacks were to begin two and a half hours before the naval zero hour, and were to continue, with increasing intensity, until the blockships, with their supporting vessels, reached the objectives.

It was hoped that these attacks would impel the crews of the German batteries to seek shelter and leave the guns unattended at the time when the expedition reached the coast, and it was also hoped that the searchlights would be diverted to the aeroplanes, away from the approaching fleet.

During the final period of the approach, the aircraft were to drop incendiary bombs to cause fires which would illuminate the area, and immediately before the time of arrival of the ships the pilots were to release parachute flares for the same reason.

At 2240 this evening, the first of the Handley Pages of 215 Squadron (1462) left its aerodrome, in bad weather, for Zeebrugge. For an hour the Handley Page was presented as a target for the enemy searchlights and anti-aircraft batteries, and it was hit because at 1330, over the sea, one engine suddenly failed, and the aeroplane lost height and eventually crashed on the water seven miles off Ostend.

The pilot, Captain John Robin Allen, was not seen again and presumed drowned, but the observer Captain Paul Bewsher, and the gun-layer Lieutenant Maxwell Clive Purvis, were picked up by a coastal motorboat and taken back to Dunkirk.

Bewsher later published a book about his experiences, “‘Green Balls’ The Adventures of a Night-Bomber”. Here he describes the crash:

“I rush into the back, and push over quickly all the little levers by the side of the machine. I climb forwards into my seat, and see that we are only twenty feet or so from the water, which lies swelling and heaving with an oily heartless calm all round us, lit up by the wavering light of the parachute flares. For a moment I see the sides of a ship on the right sweep past us and vanish. Then I realise we are just above the sea, which now streaks below us: I see the two whirling discs of the propeller on either side; I put one foot on my seat … ready….

CRASH! Crack—splinter—hiss—there is a sudden, swift, tremendous noise and splash of water, and I feel myself whirling over and over, spread-eagle-wise, through the air. I hit the water with a terrible impact … there is a white jagged flash of fire in my brain, I feel the sudden agony of a fearful blow … and sensation ends.

I become conscious of an utter fear. In sodden flying clothes, now terribly heavy, I find myself being dragged under the water as though some sea-monster were gripping my ankles and pulling me under the water. My head sinks beneath the surface, and, inspired by an absolute terror, I frantically beat out my hands. I realise in a swift vivid second that I am going to die—that this is the end. As my head rises again I become conscious of the oil-glittering surface of the sea, shining strangely in the light of the three flickering parachute flares which hang above me like three altar-lamps of death. Here, in the irresistible weight of these soaked clothes, only semi-conscious and quite hysterical, I begin a ceaseless, piteous wail. “Help! Help!…”

In my weakness I sink again below the water, and thrust out my arms wildly to keep myself up, panting furiously, and crying for help.

Some twenty feet or so away the top wing of the machine lies out of the water at an angle, a dark high wall a hundred feet along. Inspired into frantic energy by my sheer dread of dying, I begin to fling myself along the surface of the water with the insane strength of despair. I kick out my heavy legs, so cumbered with the great leather flying boots and huge fur-lined overalls. Frenziedly I beat my arms. Again and again I sink. Nearer and nearer grows the shining surface of the tight fabric.

“Oh! Help! Help!”

Under the water goes my agony-twisted mouth. Again I rise and resume the unending cry to the empty night.

At last I reach the wing and begin to beat vainly upon its smooth steep surface with my sodden leather gloves. There is nothing on which I can grip, and with an ever-growing weakness I drag my hands down, down, down its wet slope like a drowning dog at the edge of a quay. It seems awful to die so near some kind of help. Kicking my legs out, I manage to move along the wing and at last come to the hinge, where the wing is folded back when not in use, and there I find a small square opening into which I can thrust my hand.

With a feeling of immense relief I let my body sink down into the water. One hand and my head are above the surface. So weak am I, and so heavy my water-soaked flying clothes, that I can scarce hold up my weight. Across my battered face is plastered the fur of my flying-cap. My strength is so rapidly ebbing away that I know that in but a few minutes I will have to leave go and drown unless I am helped. So once again I send my sad wail across the cruel shining waters. Now and again I hear a deep dull boom sound across the sea, and I presume that somewhere a monitor is shelling the German coast.

Now I suddenly see sitting astride the top of the plane, some nine or ten feet above me, a muffled figure. I think at once that my pilot is saved and begin to shout out—

“Hello! Roy! I can’t hang on! Oh! I can’t hang on! What shall I do? Is any one coming? Is there any chance?… I’m drowning, I’m drowning!”

“Hang on if you can!” comes the encouraging answer. “There is a boat coming!”

My strength, however, has almost gone, and it is an effort even to hold up my head above the water.

Now does reason whisper to me to leave go. You have got to die one day, it says, and if you sink down now and drown you will suffer scarcely at all. Since you have suffered such agony already, why not drift away easily to dim sleep and the awakening dreams of the new life. Leave go, it whispers, leave go. Tempted, I listen to the voice, and agree with it. Shall I leave go, I ask myself; and then instinct, the never absent impulse of life, cries out, “No! Hang on!” and I hang on with renewed strength inspired by the dread of approaching death.

“Hang on, hang on! The boat is coming up!” shouts the man above me.

“Oh! what are they doing? I can’t hang on any longer!”

“They’re lowering a boat—hang on—they’ll be here soon!” encourages the watcher on the wing.

Changing hands I turn round quickly, and vaguely see in the darkness a motor-launch or some such boat, twenty feet or so away.

“Hurry, hurry, hurry!” I yell, dreading that my strength may give out in these last moments of waiting. It seems utterly wonderful that I may be saved. I realise how fortunate it is that the machine is floating. If it were to sink but a foot or two, and the little hole through which my hand is thrust were to go under the water with it, then I should not be able to hold myself up, and would soon die. Still sounds the roar of near-by explosions: still shines the smooth cruel sea around me: still float the quivering flares above; then I hear the glorious sound of a voice crying—

“Where are you? Give us a hail so that we can find you!”

“Here—here! Hanging on the wing! Do come quickly—do come—I can’t hang on any longer.”

I hear the splash of oars, and then two strong arms slip under my armpits, and I am dragged up to the edge of the boat. I am utterly weak and can use no muscle at all, so for a moment or two they struggle with me, and then I fall over the side on to the floor, where I lie, a sodden, streaming, half-dead thing.

“Save my pal! Save my pal!” I cry.

Down the wing slides the other man, and suddenly I see it is not the pilot at all, but the back gunlayer.

“Where’s Roy? Where’s Roy?” I shout in a sudden dread.

“He never came up!” is the terrible answer.

“Oh! Save my pilot! Save my pilot!” I call out, bursting into sobs, partly with hysteria at the ending of the strain, partly with utter grief. “He was a wonderful chap … one of the best … one of the best. Save him! Oh! Do save him! He can’t be dead! Roy! Roy! He was the best chap there—ever—was.”

About the time that the Handley Page crashed, the weather became worse, with rainstorms and poor visibity, and only three of the six additional Handley Pages of 214 and 215 Squadrons, allotted for similar bombing attacks, reached the objectives. One of them (3119) was forced to land in Holland and was interned with its crew, Captain Edward Robert Barker, Lieutenant Frederick Herbert Hudson, and Lieutenant David Crichton Kinmond.

The Navy then decided to abandon the mission because of the unfavourable weather, and the fleet accordingly withdrew.

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12 March 1918 – Lucky 13

Horatio Slatter

After commenting on the relative rarity of dogfights out at sea yesterday, another followed in quick succession. The RNAS Communiqué reported:

“On March 12th two British seaplanes encountered and attacked five enemy aircraft in the southern part of the North Sea. An engagement took place which lasted for 30 minutes. One enemy two-seater was shot down and destroyed, the observer of a second machine was killed, and a third seaplane was driven down on the water. The engagement terminated when the British seaplanes had expended all their ammunition. Both machines returned safely.”

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Maurice Lea Cooper

It’s a bit unclear what this is referring to as the the only encounter at sea was that of 13 Squadron RNAS getting some revenge for their 2 Squadron colleagues. The Squadron diary recorded the encounter as follows:

“A flight of No.13 squadron returning from Fleet patrol engaged a 2-seater Rumpler off Wenduyne. All pilots of the flight successively engaged this machine. A small explosion occurred and the E.A. burst into flames, and in a thick smoke spun into the sea.”

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George Chisholm Mackay

At this point 13 Squadron were flying Sopwith Camels and the following were up on patrol:

  • Flight Commander Leonard Horatio Slatter (B6400)
  • Flight Sub-Lieutenant Maurice Lea Cooper (B6410)
  • Flight Sub-Lieutenant John Edmund Greene (B6407)
  • Flight Sub-Lieutenant Edward Vaughan Bell (B7226)
  • Flight Sub-Lieutenant George Chisholm Mackay (D3351)

John Edmund Greene


Indeed German records only record the loss of Leutnants Oskar Kampmann and Ernst Steinadler from Marine Küsten Flieger Abteilung Flandern in their Rumpler C.

11 March 1918 – Lost at sea

Better weather returned to the Western Front today with activity the whole length of the front with consequent losses on both sides.

It was not unusual for aircraft and their crew to be lost near or between the lines with neither the crew nor the aircraft being recovered. That said recovery crews made every effort to recover aircraft if only for the engines.

Today, however, a DH4 (N5965) from 2 Squadron RNAS based at Dunkirk was out on patrol in the English Channel when it was attacked by a lone Albatross DV piloted by Vize Flugmeister Bertram Heinrich from DFJ1. Heinrich shot down the DH4 and saw it crash in the sea.

It was unusual for dogfights to take place out at sea. This was Heinrich’s tenth victory and the only one at sea.

The crew, Flight Sub Lieutenant Colin Gordon Macdonald and his observer Percy John Capp were both drowned. Macdonald was one of many Canadians in the RNAS – in this case from Prince Edward Island.

Heinrich recorded the crash site in the Squadron records. See below.

6 January 1918 – Phillimore or less

Today, Rear Admiral Richard Fortescue Phillimore was appointed to the position of Admiral Commanding Aircraft for the Royal Navy. With the imminent demise of the Royal Naval Air Service, the Navy is putting in place a command structure for its aircraft.

He the first Flag Officer for Aircraft in the Navy. He is in command of Seaplane Carriers and the administrative control of all aircraft working with the Fleet.

It’s hard to call Phillimore an airman as he has no experience of flying. He does however have extensive experience as a Commander and during The was has held various positions.

However, he has as his Flagship the HMS Furious which has been at the forefront of experimental flying from ships.

5 January 1918 – Zeppelin Disaster

German Zeppelins have not visited Britain since October 1917, when heavy losses put a hold on the programme. Today, atny attempts to resume the bombing suffered a serious setback when 5 Zeppelins were destroyed.

This afternoon 5 airships were in the sheds at Ahlhorn – Zeppelins L46, L47, L51, and L58, and the Schütte-Lanz SL20. Two cleaners were at work in the after car in the L51 and six civilian employees were making repairs to the Schütte -Lanz, Other than this, the sheds were empty. Most of the 1000 airship and ground personnel were in the adjacent barracks.

Suddenly a series of explosions were heard and the sheds burst into flames, The flames spread rapidly, and within a minute the five airships and three of the four sheds which contained them had been destroyed. Fifteen men were killed, thirty seriously injured, and 104 slightly injured.

The initial reaction was that the disaster had been caused by a British air attack. Once that was ruled out, rumours of sabotage and traitors spread. An official investigation found that the fire had started in the double shed housing the L47 and L51. The two cleaners in the latter ship, who escaped with burns, testified that a fire followed a dull report in front of the car in which they were working.

The official report was that the disaster had been due to an accident, and the suggestion was put forward that a piece of roofing, made loose by the winter storms, had fallen and damaged a fuel tank, and that the fire was possibly started by sparks thrown off from bracing wires as they were struck by the falling piece of roof.

The exact cause of the explosion remains a mystery. At the time many never accepted the official explanation and believed that the destruction resulted from an act of sabotage.

26 December 1917 – Coastals clash

The various aircraft types have been doing their best to protect the convoys sailing from England. Often their presence is enough to cause u-boats to dive or call off attacks to avoid detection. The waters around the Cornish Coast were often too rough for seaplanes and much of the patrol work here is carried out by airships. In fact the base at Mullion was the busiest of all the airship stations during 1917 flying 2845 hours, sighting 17 submarines and bombing 12 of them.

Today, the Airship C23A left its base at Mullion around 1100 to patrol east of Falmouth to ensure that the way was clear for a convoy of 24 ships.

At 1420 the convoy was in line ahead with its escort of two destroyers and ten armed trawlers on the starboard side and the airship on the port side. At 1500 when the airship was steering east for the head of the line some distance away, one of the leading ships, the steamer Benito was hit by a torpedo.

The C23A moved at full speed towards the ship, which was about seven miles away, and three minutes later saw a second ship – the steamer Tregenna – torpedoed.

At 1510 the airship had reached the position, and within three minutes one of the ships sank. The other was abandoned. The airship continued to patrol between the derelict vessel and the convoy, and at 1540 spotted a torpedo breaking the surface astern of the last ship of the group. The airship located the beginning of the torpedo track and dropped two 100lb. bombs with delay-action fuses. The sea was rough and no results were observed. The airship crew kept watch over the rear of the convoy for another hour, but no trace of the U-boat was discovered. This also allowed the crews of both ships were rescued.

Subsequent records show that the attack was carried out by UB57, which sunk another ship on 28 December and clearly escaped unscathed.

21 December 1917 – SSP4 Lost

After the loss of the Airship SSP2 on 26 November 1917, the Airship station at Caldale on the Orkney’s suffered another disaster today as the SSP4 failed to return from an anti-submarine patrol and was assumed lost.

The SSP4 left the base at 1700 for the night patrol with a crew of tree Flight Commander William Frith Horner, Engineer Ernest Frank Anthony and Wireless Operator Rowland Charles Behn.

At around 1750 the SSP4 sent a message that they would be returning to base due to heavy snow. The base lights were put on facilitate the return of the ship. At 1810 another message was received from SSP4 requesting information on wind strength and direction. 10 minutes later another message from SSP 4 arrived asking for a destroyer to be sent to 72K and use searchlight.

At 18.50 Caldale received another request from SSP4 for weather conditions at the base. SSP 4 was told that a destroyer had been sent to the position 72K grid square on chart and was asked if they were having difficulties. SSP4 then started having communication problems as it could not receive messages from Caldale although Caldale could hear SSP4. SSP 4 started communicating through Peterhead.

At 1925 a new message arrived:

”Making no headway, ask Destroyers to search east of Orkney”

SSP 4 was lost and needing to get a position fix. To assist both Copinsay and Auskerry lighthouses on islands to the east of the main island were lit and destroyers and patrol boats sent out.

The lights and flares at Caldale were then put out as it was thought the airship would not arrive back for some hours.

At 2110 a message was intercepted from SSP4 to HMS the Campania:

”Despatch destroyer at full speed with searchlight to bearing 355 from Peterhead”

At 2200 the Admiral Commanding Orkney and Shetland (ACOS) sent the following message,

“Can you see any searchlights or shorelights”

By this time Caldale had restored communications with SSP4. The wireless operator estimated that the airship could be no more than 20 miles away from the base. 10 minutes later SSP sent the following:

“Send destroyer to Sanday, may not be able to get back”

At 2233, a message was received at Caldale from ACOS to be passed to SSP 4.

”Priority, you passed over Mull Head Papa Westray at 22.00. The lights at Caldale were lit again.

At 2315 a similar message was sent to SSP4

”Priority, you were over Skea Skerries at 22.45, ships in [Scapa] Flow are burning searchlights”

HNothing more was heard from the airship and at 0100 the lights at Caldale were turned off as the airship was known only to have enough fuel to last until midnight.

The next morning the wreck of SSP 4 was found at Tafts on the south shore of Westray but there was no sign of the crew. Various items including papers, charts, a boot, leather jacket and a glove were found still on board. The airship was salvaged and returned to Caldale. A subsequent court of enquiry determined that the SSP4 hit the water while the engine was still running. The crew likely abandoned the ship thinking it would sink. None of the crew were ever found.

This second accident led to the RNAS abandoning the base at Caldale as too dangerous and the remaining airships were moved to

Further detail of this accident and the base at Caldale, including photographs available at http://crashsiteorkney.com/caldale-station-and-airships.