Category Archives: Home Waters

21 July 1917 – RNAS Cherbourg

The anti—submarine patrols in the English Channel remain an essential tool in combatting the submarine attacks. Today the RNAS opened a new base in France at Cherbourg as a substation of the base at RNAS Calshot.

The new base is equipped with three Wight ‘Converted’ seaplanes. These aircraft were originally designed as a bomber (prototype N501) but when it proved unsatisfactory it was converted into a seaplane with the addition of floats and ailerons on both wings. The aircraft was initially powered by the 275hp Rolls-Royce Eagle engine but later examples used the Sunbeam Maori as the Rolls Royce engines were in short supply.
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The aircraft was able to carry four 100lb bombs but had a fairly mediocre endurance for a bomber of only 3 ½ hours. In the end only 37 were built, likely out of necessity. By the end of the war only three were still in service, having been replaced by Short 184s.

12 July 1917 – Balloon sinks U-Boat

The use of Kite balloons with the fleet to detect submarines has been the subject of much debate with many suggesting that the balloon will give away the position of the ships. However the failure of the latest sortie by destoyers in the North Sea to score any hits has persuaded Admiral Beatty to give them a try.

A Kite Balloon Force of six destroyers, five of which carried balloons, was organized. The destroyers were to spread out across the known U-boat tracks and make an experiment in co-operative stalking. During the first operation, early in July, although submarines were sighted from the balloons, no attacks could be developed.

Yesterday however, a force of five destroyers (three with balloons) went out again, and this morning the observer in the balloon flown from the Patriot (Flight Lieutenant Osborne Arthur Butcher) sighted a U-boat on the surface twenty-eight miles away,

The destroyer raced away to the area. Before she arrived, the submarine had gone under, but shortly reappeared on the surface four miles off. The Patriot opened fire, but the U-boat went under again before a hit could be made. The destroyer, guided by the observer in the balloon, then dropped depth-charges. A small quantity of oil came to the surface, insufficient to indicate certain damage to the submarine, and the ships kept a close watch over the area. A little later there was an under-water explosion in the place where the U-boat had submerged, and a great oil patch began to form. It is possible that this was the U69 which was lost around this time with all 40 crew. However German sources are unable to corroborate this loss. And some sources suggest the boat was still operating until 24 July 1917.

This success led to the opening of new balloon bases at ports where destroyers and other patrol vessels were favourably placed for submarine hunting.

9 July 1917 – German torpedo attacks on ships

This afternoon a formation of five German seaplanes attacked a convoy of 16 ships between the Sunk and the Shipwash Light Vessels. Three ships were targeted with torpedoes, but there were no hits.

In the evening two torpedoes were fired at another convoy east of Southwold, again without success.

One of these, the SS Haslingden, shot down one of the seaplanes with her twelve-pounder gun. A second German seaplane landed alongside and rescued the crew, but with the extra load could not get off the water again and eventually surrendered to an armed trawler.

3 July 1917 – Tracing U

Back in May 1917 the navy finally cottoned on the to the fact that its seaplanes would have the best chance of destroying enemy u-boats if
intelligence about U-boats was received without delay at the RNAS air stations. At that point, orders were issued that all reports of U-boat movements were to be communicated direct to air stations in a position to take action.

Now, in an effort to improve matters further, and to maintain secrecy, a special form of squared chart, called Tracing U (Unterseeboot), to cover the North Sea east of a line running from Flamborough Head to the Straits of Dover, was issued to the East Coast air stations required to take anti-submarine action. IN addition the Admiralty arranged that the positions of U-boats as determined by directional wireless would be plotted at the Admiralty and passed immediately to the air stations according to the code of the squared chart.

28 June 1917 – Rutland takes off

Back in February 1917, One of the recommendations of the Grand Fleet Aircraft Committee was that fighter aeroplanes fitted with airbags instead of seaplanes should be carried for defence against Zeppelins. Ostensibly this was for two reasons:

  • regular aircraft had much better speed and climbing ability and might actually be able to reach the Zeppelins
  • the seaplanes were laborious to unload and could only take off in relatively calm conditions

Enabling regular aircraft to take off from the deck would provide a significant improvement.

Various attempts had been made to fit launching platforms to ships, particularly the light cruisers attached to the Fleet.

In early 1917, the Admiralty agreed to experiment with HMS Yarmouth and the ship was fitted with a launch deck mounted above the conning tower and the forecastle gun to give a run of twenty feet.

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Rutland taking off from the Yarmouth

Today, Flight Commander Frederick Joseph Rutland took off in a Sopwith Pup from the platform, the first successful launch of its type.

The approach was subsequently adopted and the Yarmouth began patrols with the Pup at the ready.

28 June 1917 – U boat bombing

Today one of the H12 flyingboats from Felixstowe was out escorting a convoy across the English Channel when it spotted a submarine in full buoyancy. The crew (Flight Lieutenant Warren Rawson Mackenzie, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Robert Frederick Lea Dickey, Air Mechanic J. Watts, and Air Mechanic E. E. Hughes) decided to attack immediately.

The pilot promptly dived on the submarine and dropped three 100lb bombs before the U-boat could dive. The submarine then disappeared under the water and oil and air bubbles appeared on the surface suggesting that the vessel had been damaged.

However at the time the destruction could not be confirmed, The Official history published in 1934 suggested that it was probably UB36 which was lost around this time. Later research suggests that UB36 was in fact sunk on 9 May 1917 after hitting a mine. There is no record of a submarine being lost on 28 June 1917, so we can only assume that whichever craft it was escaped.

Nevertheless, shortly after this Dickey was awarded the DSO for this action and the previous destruction of Zeppelin L43 on 14 June 1917.

19 June 1917 – Seaplane disaster

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.”

and

(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.”

BABEF85A-BEBE-4674-8833-863726D4EEC5-1545-00000183B52D8390Flight 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.