At 0600 a Short seaplane, escorted by two Sopwith Baby seaplanes set out on a mine and U-boat patrol. An hour later, while a thunderstorm was raging over Dunkirk, the bell in the pigeon-loft rang to give warning of the arrival of a bird. The messages had come from one of the Sopwith ‘Baby’ pilots, Flight Lieutenant Robert Graham. They read:
(i) “Short shot down Potvin?? Ten NNE Nieuport. One ‘Hun shot down. My tanks shot. French TBD on its way. Send fighters.”
(ii) “Short landed O.K. down NNE ‘Nieuport-Potvin? I shot one down but he did not crash. My tanks no good can’t climb. French TBD on its way. Send more fighters. Quick.”
Flight Sub-Lieutenant James Edward Potvin was the pilot of the second Sopwith Baby.
The officers in the Short were Flight Sub-Lieutenant Leo Philip Paine and Sub-Lieutenant Thomas Rogers. At 0720 another message arrived by pigeon from Paine. This gave further bad news:
‘Am shot down. Hit in tank, radiator. Rogers dead. Please send C.M.B. at once.’
It later transpired that the British seaplanes had been attacked by three enemy fighting seaplanes. The German pilot Dyck shot down and killed Flight Sub-Lieutenant Potvin, whose seaplane crashed, but Dyck was himself shot down with a bullet in the abdomen from the machine gun of Flight Lieutenant Graham in the second Sopwith ‘Baby’.
Before Flight Lieutenant Graham could turn to engage the other enemy fighters, one of them (Bieber) killed the observer in the Short and shot through the seaplane’s tank and radiator, forcing Paine to land.
In a further fight, the remaining Sopwith ‘Baby’ seaplane was shot about and, with a failing engine, Flight Lieutenant Graham had no choice but to run for home. He eventually landed alongside a French destroyer and asked the commander to go to the assistance of the British and German seaplanes down on the water. He himself was taken in tow by a French trawler back to Dunkirk.
Meanwhile Bieber had landed his seaplane beside his comrade Dyck, had managed to get the wounded pilot aboard his own aircraft, a single-seater, and had succeeded in reaching Ostend. His fine effort, however, was made in vain as Dyck failed to survive the journey.
The raging thunderstorm made it impossible to send other fighter seaplanes away. The Commodore Dunkirk decided to send out two Torpedo boats which was a risky move given that these were a naval secret, and unescorted they might fall into enemy hands.
On the way, the engine in one of the boats broke down and the other boat went on alone, but was soon afterwards attacked by four German destroyers and, after firing a torpedo at one of them without making a hit, had to turn back. It reached harbour safely without having seen anything of the seaplanes. The other coastal motor-boat, however, crippled by its engine trouble, was cut off from Dunkirk by German destroyers and fell into enemy hands.
Soon after 1000 another pigeon came in from the Short with a message, timed 0910, which said the seaplane was still afloat near the pillar buoy, and asked that the pilot should be picked up. But by this time it was too late to do anything further.
In any case, soon after the message had been written, German destroyers had gone alongside the Short and had taken off her unwounded pilot and dead observer.
The whole episode led to the withdrawal of seaplanes and their replacement with regular aeroplanes.