THE ROYAL NAVY’S AIR SERVICE IN THE GREAT WAR

Reviewed by: Bill Evershed

This book became a conversation with my father as he died when I was 16 and so we never enjoyed a proper conversation about his Service; nor mine. He served throughout WW1 and for 30 years afterwards. Commissioned initially into the RNVR as an Observer, I have his RNAS cap badge, a RNAS reefer button, his wings, his three war medals, his flying log, a 1916/23 photograph album, and a model of HMS Engadine, in which he was privileged to serve. He survived three crashes, one serious, but said that his most dangerous moments were standing up in the swaying cockpit of his seaplane, seeking to connect the hook to be hoisted back onboard and avoid getting his skull crushed by the swinging crane ball.

Hobbs does not mention this hazard but he mentions just about everything else and his book is effectively the Official History of the RNAS and ‘For This Bounty Much Thanks’. We learn that in 1914 the RNAS had only 1,300 officers and men but by 1918 it had over 55,000.  To get this book into proper perspective, best to turn first to the Appendices. Here you will find that together with 36 battleships and battle-cruisers and 35 cruisers, the RN had 17 ships dedicated to naval aviation; that there were 25 RNAS stations in Flanders, 34 RNAS fixed-wing bases and 56 seaplane and airship bases in the UK, mainly on the south and east coasts.  Then you can start reading the book itself.

Hobbs, a former FAA pilot with 800 deck-landings to his credit, and then one-time Curator of the FAA Museum, author of 20 books, lecturer, knows what he is writing about. It never ceases to amaze me how military historians of his calibre, Max Hastings is another, find the time to research so meticulously and then write with such magnetic fluency. From experience, how much do they have to omit? As you would expect we are taken to the war at sea but as seen from above: the Dardanelles and Greece; countless anti-submarine patrols in the North Sea and Channel; scouting ahead of the Grand Fleet, spotting for monitors’ shore bombardments, occasional attacks upon German Zeppelin and aircraft bases, and air-to-air combat, even dog-fights.

Aircraft go missing; some crash on land or at sea, some are recovered: Not all attacks are successful. Zeppelin raids are countered: at least two shot down by RNAS pilots.  Aircraft evolve to suit their maritime environment, folding wings to facilitate ship-borne hangar stowage, taking off from and alighting on the sea; taking off from ships; and eventually deck landings. So the warships too evolve to meet these requirements. And so too do aircraft bombing and air-to-air gunnery techniques, ‘through the prop’ firing, and the necessary ammunition, especially that needed to destroy airships. Hydrogen (cheaper than helium) in airships burns just as ferociously as WW2 AVGAS. Developments in wireless telegraphy bring dramatic improvements. Air-launched torpedoes are also successfully trialled.

By 1918, after a series of trials in HMS Furious with both fore and after central flight decks, HMS Argus, the first true ‘flat top’ aircraft carrier is commissioned. Initially she has a retractable central bridge and may be conned from the bridge wings during flying but as WW1 draws to an end, an ‘Island’ is trialled with all the success that is now taken for granted.  The ‘flat-top’ is a game-changer: a strategic strike against the German High Seas fleet in its bases is planned but never exercised. Taranto and Pearl Harbor lie ahead.

Some personal anecdotes are fascinating. We learn about the process for selection of aircrew; initially, would-be pilots were expected before joining to pay for their own private tuition to obtain a Pilot’s Licence. One chap’s ‘Medical’ consisted of climbing a rope naked and hopping around a room on one leg. Ability to ride a motor-cycle was an asset. Training and its hazards in the aircraft of the time led to quite a high attrition rate. Flying Pay was quite generous but aircrew had to buy their own flying clothing, usually from Gieves.

Just as in WW2, this is a young man’s war. Many RNAS officers are very bright indeed and their ingenuity is recognised and rewarded. We meet very many of them. Promotion can be rapid.  Churchill, the ab initio First Lord of the Admiralty, recognises and grasps the potential for naval aviation but his astute enthusiasm is not shared by all of his political or even some senior uniformed but uninformed colleagues. As early as 1916 we can detect the very beginnings of the schism that was to bedevil relationships between the RN and the RAF for at least the next 70 years.

Towards the end of the book there is a chapter – The Report that forgot about Sea Power – and this just about sums it all up.  A classic case of “Don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up”. On April Fool’s Day 1918, the politicised Air Committee forced a benumbed Admiralty and War Office to amalgamate their RNAS and RFC into a new RAF, which was land-centric. Readers may gauge the extent to which the RAF has wrought changes during the past 100 years. Meanwhile, on the front line the war continued and most in the RNAS eschewed their new military ranks and wore their old naval uniforms but over time much of their expertise and maritime war experience, was consigned to the ship breakers yard. A US observer sent to monitor the RN’s then lead in maritime air warfare returned to ensure that the USN did not fall into the same trap: hence the USAAF in WW2.

At £35, this book might be thought rather expensive, but if you buy 5 books at a time from Seaforth you can obtain a very substantial discount, and this is the route I take. Abundantly illustrated with many of the photographs from the author’s collection, this is very much a book for those who have an interest in RN history and especially for those who served in or with the FAA and who recognise the courage of their pioneering forbears who, a century ago, were the first to carve their names in the annals of naval aviation. And, for me, it was a wonderful conversation with my father.