The Royal Navy’s Air Service in the Great War

3 mins read
The Royal Navy’s Air Service in the Great War
David Hobbs
Seaforth, £35 (hbk)
ISBN 978-1848323483

David Hobbs’ carefully chosen title gives some indication of the political complexities surrounding his latest subject, as a book about the actual Royal Naval Air Service would technically have to end on 1 April 1918 with the RNAS’s absorption into the newly created Royal Air Force, a service which, the author robustly argues, ‘cared little for the sea power on which Britain and its Empire depended’.

Hobbs begins with the Royal Navy’s first airship, HM Rigid Airship Number 1, in 1909, and ends with the construction of the world’s first flush-decked aircraft carrier, HMS Argus, in 1918, concluding with an outline of the proposed use of Argus in an air-strike attack by specialised torpedo bombers on the German High Seas Fleet at anchor in its bases – an operation that would, of course, have pre-dated the carrier-based raids on Pearl Harbor and Taranto by more than two decades.

There is perhaps no better example of how war can provide a catalyst for technological change at breathtaking pace: in just nine years, the Royal Navy’s air service evolved from a series of experiments with balloons, airships, and flimsy aircraft resembling kites to an organisation that encompassed nearly all the features of a modern naval air arm, with a range of equipment that encompassed aircraft-carriers; bespoke strike, reconnaissance, and fighter aircraft; and anti-submarine and long-range reconnaissance capabilities.

We should perhaps reflect on this when next we convince ourselves that the latest version of a must have smartphone or a new way of consuming video represents the ‘white heat’ of technological change.

Hobbs’ book is well structured, taking his readers through the development of the Royal Navy’s air service in 18 chapters, the last being a short and very appropriate reflection. The book is broadly chronological, although several chapters are self-contained and explore themes that developed throughout the war, including the advancements in deck-landing techniques (Chapter 11) and RNAS training (Chapter 12).

Chapter 7 takes readers down a series of unfortunate Churchill-inspired technological blind alleys for the RNAS, including the service’s flirtations with tanks and armoured trains.

Chapters 13 and 14 are rightly devoted to the political in-fighting that eventually led to the creation of the Royal Air Force. This disaster set back British naval aviation for years, with the unforeseen consequence of forcing the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, back in its rightful home again since May 1939, to enter the Second World War poorly equipped and under-prepared.

Chapter 14 is a sobering account of the Smuts Report, the centenary of which was marked last year, which was the smoking gun of the whole affair, and is rightly dubbed by Hobbs as ‘the report that forgot about sea power’.

HMS Argus, the world’s first true aircraft carrier, deservedly gets a chapter to itself. The importance of this ship, a conversion from the Italian liner Conte Rosso, is often overlooked, as it arrived too late to make much of a contribution to the war at sea. However, the carrier represented an extraordinary leap forward in capability and Hobbs, as I believe, correctly notes it to be ‘the crowning achievement of the RNAS’.

‘To put things in perspective,’ he goes on to say, ‘the first tentative steps to evaluate the operational usefulness of aircraft launched from a ship’s deck in the open sea had taken place… during 1913.’ Five years later, Argus joined the fleet with many of the features that define a modern aircraft carrier, including a fully enclosed 330ft-long hangar, a full-length flight deck, aircraft lifts, rudimentary but effective fire-prevention systems, and a crude but workable arrester system using a latticework of retaining wires stretched foreand-aft along Argus’s deck.

The carrier’s air wing included Sopwith Camel fighters and innovative Sopwith T.1 Cuckoo torpedo bombers, the first bespoke maritime strike aircraft, with folding wings to facilitate easy stowage in a carrier hangar. Argus’s Camels and Cuckoos would have featured in the Tondern Raid, the projected attack on the German High Seas Fleet in harbour, which also appropriately receives a chapter to itself.

Useful appendices show the locations of the principal airfields used by the RNAS in Britain, France, and Flanders; the evolution of the RNAS uniform; and a list of every Royal Navy ship that was equipped to operate aircraft during the Great War. The book is lavishly illustrated, with maps and many photographs new to me; these often drawn from the author’s own private collection.

The Royal Navy’s Air Service in the Great War is rigorously researched and engagingly written, peppered with as many personality-led anecdotes of these pioneering days of naval flying as it is with hard facts and figures. It is a definitive history, and essential reading for any serious student of naval aviation or the First World War.

Having now recently reviewed two books by Hobbs, his research and writings have definitely left me far better informed about the various incarnations of the Royal Navy’s aviation branch than before.

Nick Hewitt

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