CHAPTER XXXVI. Sea-planes for Warfare

"Even in the region of the air, into which with characteristic British prudence we have moved with some tardiness, the Navy need not fear comparison with the Navy of any other country. The British sea-plane, although still in an empirical stage, like everything else in this sphere of warlike operations, has reached a point of progress in advance of anything attained elsewhere.

"Our hearts should go out to-night to those brilliant officers, Commander Samson and his band of brilliant pioneers, to whose endeavours, to whose enterprise, to whose devotion it is due that in an incredibly short space of time our naval aeroplane service has been raised to that primacy from which it must never be cast down.

"It is not only in naval hydroplanes that we must have superiority. The enduring safety of this country will not be maintained by force of arms unless over the whole sphere of aerial development we are able to make ourselves the first nation. That will be a task of long duration. Many difficulties have to be overcome. Other countries have started sooner. The native genius of France, the indomitable perseverance of Germany, have produced results which we at the present time cannot equal."

So said Mr. Winston Churchill at the Lord Mayor's Banquet held in London in 1913, and I have quoted his speech because such a statement, made at such a time, clearly shows the attitude of the British Government toward this new arm of Imperial Defence.

In bygone days the ocean was the great highway which united the various quarters of the Empire, and, what was even more important from the standpoint of our country's defence, it was a formidable barrier between Britain and her Continental neighbours,

"Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house."

But the ocean is no longer the only highway, for the age of aerial navigation has arrived, and, as one writer says: "Every argument which impelled us of old to fight for the dominion of the sea has apparently been found valid in relation to the supremacy of the air."

From some points of view this race between nations for naval and aerial supremacy may be unfortunate, but so long as the fighting instinct of man continues in the human race, so long as rivalry exists between nations, so long must we continue to strengthen our aerial position.

Britain is slow to start on any great venture where great change is effected. Our practice is rather to wait and see what other nations are doing; and there is something to be said for this method of procedure.

In the art of aviation, and in the construction of air-craft, our French, German, and American rivals were very efficient pacemakers in the aerial race for supremacy, and during the years 1909-12 we were in grave peril of being left hopelessly behind. But in 1913 we realized the vital importance to the State of capturing the first place in aviation, particularly that of aerial supremacy at sea, for the Navy is our first line of defence. So rapid has been our progress that we are quite the equal of our French and German rivals in the production of aeroplanes, and in sea-planes we are far ahead of them, both in design and construction, and the war has proved that we are ahead in the art of flight.

The Naval Air Service before the war had been establishing a chain of air stations round the coast. These stations are at Calshot, on Southampton Water, the Isle of Grain, off Sheerness, Leven, on the Firth of Forth, Cromarty, Yarmouth, Blythe, and Cleethorpes.

But what is even more important is the fact that the Government is encouraging sea-plane constructors to go ahead as fast as they can in the production of efficient machines. Messrs. Short Brothers, the Sopwith Aviation Company, and Messrs. Roe are building high-class machines for sea work which can beat anything turned out abroad. Our newest naval water-planes are fitted with British-built wireless apparatus of great range of action, and Messrs. Short Brothers are at the present time constructing for the Admiralty, at their works in the Isle of Sheppey, a fleet of fighting water-planes capable of engaging and destroying the biggest dirigible air-ships.

In 1913 aeroplanes took a very prominent part in our naval manoeuvres, and the cry of the battleship captains was: "Give us water-planes. Give us them of great size and power, large enough to carry a gun and gun crew, and capable of taking twelve-hour cruises at a speed much greater than that of the fastest dirigible air-ship, and we shall be on the highroad to aerial supremacy at sea."

The Admiralty, acting on this advice, at once began to co-operate with the leading firms of aeroplane constructors, and at a great rate machines of all sizes and designs have been turned out. There were light single-seater water-planes able to maintain a speed of over a mile a minute; there were also larger machines for long-distance flying which could carry two passengers. The machines were so designed that their wings could be folded back along their bodies, and their wires, struts, and so on packed into the main parts of the craft, so that they were almost as compact as the body of a bird at rest on its perch, and they took up comparatively little space on board ship.

A brilliantly executed raid was carried out on Cuxhaven, an important German naval base, by seven British water-planes, on Christmas Day, 1914. The water-planes were escorted across the North Sea by a light cruiser and destroyer force, together with submarines. They left the war-ships in the vicinity of Heligoland and flew over Cuxhaven, discharging bombs on points of military significance, and apparently doing considerable damage to the docks and shipping. The British ships remained off the coast for three hours in order to pick up the returning airmen, and during this time they were attacked by dirigibles and submarines, without, however, suffering damage. Six of the sea-planes returned safely to the ships, but one was wrecked in Heligoland Bight.

But the present efficient sea-plane is a development of the war. In the early days many of the raids of the "naval wing" were carried out in land-going aeroplanes. Now the R.N.A.S., which came into being as a separate service in July, 1914, possess two main types of flying machine, the flying boat and the twin float, both types being able to rise from and alight upon the sea, just as an aeroplane can leave and return to the land. Many brilliant raids stand to the credit of the R.N.A.S. The docks at Antwerp, submarine bases at Ostend, and all Germany's fortified posts on the Belgian coast, have seldom been free from their attentions. And when, under the stress of public outcry, the Government at last gave its consent to a measure of "reprisals" it was the R.N.A.S. which opened the campaign with a raid upon the German town of Mannheim.

As the war continued the duties of the naval pilot increased. He played a great part in the ceaseless hunt for submarines. You must often have noticed how easily fish can be seen from a bridge which are quite invisible from the banks of the river. On this principle the submarine can be "spotted" by air-craft, and not until the long silence upon naval affairs is broken, at the end of the war, shall we know to what extent we are indebted to naval airmen for that long list of submarines which, in the words of the German reports, "failed to return" to their bases.

In addition to the "Blimps" of which mention has been made, the Royal Naval Air Service are in charge of air-ships known as the Coast Patrol type, which work farther out to sea, locating minefields and acting as scouts for the great fleet of patrol vessels. The Service has gathered laurels in all parts of the globe, its achievements ranging from an aerial food service into beleaguered Kut to the discovery of the German cruiser Konigsberg, cunningly camouflaged up an African creek.