While this is the story of the birth of a British flat-top, the credit for the first flight off a ship’s deck must go to the United States Navy. As far back as 1910, Eugene Ely flew a plane off the deck of the cruiser Birmingham at Norfolk, Virginia. Again in 1911 this same aviator landed a plane on the deck of the battleship Pennsylvania to try out a complicated arrangement consisting of twenty-two lines stretched across a platform which formed the landing deck, all lines being fitted at each end with a fifty-pound sand bag. A group of hooks on the plane caught each line in succession, thus checking its speed and bringing it to a halt. Such was the first arresting gear!
It is a pity that this was never followed through at that time, for then we might have had a carrier at the start of World War I. But just as the advent of steam was viewed with misgivings as a replacement for sails, so it must have been with the coming of the so- called “flying machine.”
When the Battle of Jutland was fought, perhaps the most insignificant of the British fleet was HMS Engadine, a seaplane carrier by courtesy title only. She was a converted passenger ship and carried a few seaplanes which had to be hoisted over the stern by a crane. This launching process necessitated the ship’s stopping, which truly made her a sitting duck. Her Senior Flight Officer was a naval lieutenant named Rutland, and he did make one flight for reconnaissance purposes. However, since the weather was overcast this was not of any great assistance and the Engadine was ordered out of the battle area as she had neither guns nor armor.
Later in the battle HMS Warrior was hit and disabled, and the Engadine took her in tow. She went alongside the Warrior to take off the ship’s company and to attach a tow line. In this operation a seaman fell between the two vessels, and it was the Senior Flight Officer who volunteered to go overside with a line and pulled the man to safety. Eventually the Warrior became so water-logged that she had to be cut adrift, and presumably she sank.
At this time another and slightly larger ship was being fitted out at Chatham Naval Dockyard. This was a Midland Railway vessel named Manxman. She was driven by triple screw turbines, and on her regular run between Heysham and Belfast was reputed to do twenty-four knots. However, in the change-over, which included extra bunker space, extra machinery, two heavy hangars and so forth, the increase in weight raised her waterline three feet higher. During her peacetime service Manxman never had to clean fires at sea (she was a coal burner) since the distance between Heysham and Belfast is only about 150 miles.
In October of 1916 this writer joined the Manxman as an engineer officer, and after the din of dockyard activity it was a relief to put to sea for a trial run. We cleared the river and pushed her up to twenty-three knots, and at the end of the first four hours we cleaned fires. Then down came the steam —and the speed; at the end of sixteen hours her best speed was sixteen knots, so we put back to Chatham. A few days later a gang of Regular Navy firemen with an engineer captain in charge took her out again, and the results were even more disappointing; at the end of twelve hours we came back even more slowly than on the previous run. The dockyard could do nothing more for us, so they gave us their blessing and sent us out to join the Grand Fleet at the Firth of Forth. We were now fully commissioned with seaplanes in both hangars, pilots, observers, an army of mechanics to service the planes, and a Senior Flight Officer named Rutland.
The next few months were something of a “low” in the Manxman’s career. The Grand Fleet would put to sea, and after a few hours, with our speed dropping, we would be ordered to return to the base. During one such period an incident (which later proved to be of some importance) took place.
We were alongside the dock at Leith at the time. I happened to be officer of the day when an official car discharged a Navy captain who introduced himself and asked if any of our pilots were around. I presented one of the boys to the captain, and he asked if the pilot would care to do a little flying for him the next day, but he wouldn’t say anything more as to what it was all about. The following day a car arrived for us, and we were driven up to Edinburgh in a Rolls-Royce with a Marine chauffeur. We were taken to the captain’s house where we had tea with his family, and then we were all driven to a small R.A.F. airfield a few miles out of town.
We walked over to a hangar which had only about four planes in it, but one of them was similar to that which our pilot had used for training. This one was rolled out on to the runway—and only then did the captain tell us what he wanted. Apparently he was on detached duty experimenting with the manufacture of bombs, and he wanted our boy to test a small non-explosive but highly incendiary missile to be dropped from a plane. The plane went up, and after circling the field several times to get altitude, our pilot dropped the bomb just outside the field limits. The little bomb was as incendiary as anticipated, because it burned down a haystack in short order. The captain told me later that he paid the irate farmer at least three times the market value of his hay. Subsequent events were to prove to us how valuable a friend the captain was.
Shortly after the haystack burning incident another event of some moment occurred. Nearly every night Rutland, myself, and two other officers (Reese, who was engineer officer for the planes, and Edwards, who was officer for structural maintenance of the planes) played cards in the wardroom. Many of the pilots and observers were Canadians, and they kept a pretty hot poker game going nightly, but the four of us stuck to whist. One night Reese said he didn’t care to play and went to the piano and began improvising (he was a splendid musician, like most Welshmen). Edwards was working on a plane, so Rutland and I started a cribbage game. He was not very interested and appeared to be deeply preoccupied. Eventually he put his cards down, leaned back in his chair, and said, “Watson, get your flashlight. Let’s go topside. You know, I think I could fly a plane off the deck.”
We went on to the deck, and Rutland outlined how he thought a runway could be built from the top of the forward hangar to the foc’sle.
The following morning Rutland got permission from our skipper, Commander Robinson, to make a signal to the flagship, HMS Lion, asking for an interview with Admiral Beatty. Permission was granted, and Rutland asked if I would care to accompany him. Our visit to HMS Lion was short. Rutland told Admiral Beatty that if the Admiral would grant him permission to build a runway on the Manxman he would try to fly a plane off the ship. The Admiral said “No!” The Admiralty had decided that seaplane carriers were not much use, and no more money was to be spent on them. I asked if we could not be converted to oil to get more speed to make off-deck flying more practicable. Again, the answer was “no.” Then Rutland asked if we could build a deck ourselves, and to this we got a grudging “yes”— provided we did not incur any expenses!
End of interview!
Mr. Turner, our chief gunner, was a warrant officer with forty years’ service and a man who knew all the angles. He and I went into the dockyard on the next possible occasion and spotted some likely timbers—I think they were 12" by 12". Then next day we took a work party ashore as if we had all the right in the world and started to get the timbers into the water ready for towing away. Naturally, someone had to appear just at this inauspicious moment and ask if we had a requisition for those timbers—and this ill-timed individual had to be the very man who was in charge of stores—including the timbers. He was accompanied by a most distinguished gentleman who stood back, listening but saying nothing. He looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place him. Then it came like a flash—Prince Louis of Battenberg! Prince Louis, who as the First Sea Lord had patriotically given up his naval career at the beginning of the war because he had a German title and German family connections. To him I explained what we were doing, and why. He turned to the yard man and said, “I think it will be in order to let them have what they want.” So that was that. Prince Louis then came aboard with us for lunch, and I think he got a good deal of amusement out of our brash appropriation of Navy supplies.
Edwards and his gang did most of the work in building the future flying deck, and eventually it was finished. Then came the job of getting a plane with wheels, as all ours had pontoons. Rutland asked if my “haystack-burning” friend could help, so we went to Edinburgh to see him and told him what we wanted. The captain was enthused at the idea of flying off a ship’s deck and managed to borrow a Sopwith Pup from that same field where the incendiary bomb had proved its worth. The light plane was sent down to Leith by lorry and then was loaded onto a lighter and towed out to the ship.
Everything was now set for the trial. The next day was dull, but the following morning was ideal—bright and sunny, with a thirty- mile wind blowing right up the river. Conditions would never be better, so a signal was made to the Lion requesting permission to make the trial and asking Admiral Beatty if he would care to witness it from the deck of the Manxman. He would. As soon as the Admiral was on board we slipped our moorings and headed out under the famous Firth bridge. The Manxman seemed to know what was expected of her and went like a scared cat. With all clean fires we had her up to twenty-five knots. With wind speed thirty, (flying speed was approximately fifty) that made a total relative speed of 55 knots. I went up from the engine-room and told Rutland what speed the Manxman was making. He was already in the plane, with the engine running. A quick handshake, and he gave the signal to pull out the chocks from the wheels (these were operated by two men lying flat on the deck and getting the full force of the wind from the prop). No one, of course, had any idea how long the run would be before the plane lifted. However, somebody had the bright idea of stretching light yarn, which would easily break, at three foot intervals just about the height of the center of the wheels. Just four of these broke! The plane went up so fast it looked as though a giant had kicked it up! Rutland’s idea had proved its worth. He circled the ship, dipped his wings to the Admiral, and flew the plane back to the field from which it was borrowed.
We returned to our moorings, and Admiral Beatty’s barge took him back to the flagship. We heard later that this demonstration had changed the Admiral’s mind entirely, because that night he took the train for London, and after an interview with the Admiralty, the converting of HMS Furious, Glorious, and Courageous was started.
Dockyard men were sent aboard us meantime, and they ripped out our homemade flying deck and built a much more permanent structure. While this was going on we were still at our moorings and under orders to go out with the Fleet on call. This led to an amusing little episode. About three o’clock one day the flagship made orders for the Fleet to put to sea at four p.m. The water was quite rough, and a strong wind blowing. We hoisted the flag for the dockyard to send their boat to take off the shoreside workers. No boat came, but four o’clock did! At one minute past four we were heading out to sea with about a dozen very indignant dockyard civilian workers still aboard. How those men kicked and how the crew enjoyed it—especially since a couple of them had been very vociferous in telling our men what good wages they made without having to run any risks! We were out all night, and those poor devils were told all the tall stories we could think up! At least a dozen submarines must have been sighted, and although the dockyard workers were told that they could sleep in the engineers’ store room where they could at least keep warm, they elected to remain on deck all night. They did have some good meals—those who could manage to eat at all. But after all, they had the last laugh; on our return they demanded (and got) overtime pay from the time they left until we got back!
There now started a period of activity for the Manxman, and she was no longer an unwanted child. We still kept four seaplanes in the after hangar, but those in the forward hangar were replaced by small land machines. We moved down the river to Porto- bello and had two of the fastest destroyers in the Navy attached to us—HMS Gabriel and HMS Abigail. The following is typical of a good many runs we made.
We would head for the island of Helgoland, and when about seventy-five miles from it we would send off one or two land planes. We would then turn back to our home port while the two destroyers cruised around to pick up the pilot when he ditched. The theory was that the Germans, on seeing a land plane, would in effect say to themselves, “That is from a ship, let’s go out and get her.” The Grand Fleet in the meanwhile was standing by out of sight to the north of us where they would come in behind the German fleet and cut them off. Unfortunately, the Germans never took the bait, but still our operation was a good idea.
In theory the planes flown off the Manxman were supposed to keep afloat for quite a time, as the air in the canvas wings was supposed to give sufficient buoyancy. However in practice the landing speed was so high (for that time) that in hitting a never- quite-smooth North Sea the plane invariably up-ended, and the engine, hanging downward, pulled them apart. The planes of thirty-eight years ago were a far cry from the aircraft of today.
About the second or third run we made, Rutland took one of the planes as usual. But when we all got back to port our two destroyers reported that they had cruised around the appointed spot where he should have come down for more than the allotted time, but they had seen no sign of him either in the air or in the water.
This was the first time we had lost a pilot, and that it should be Rutland put a deep gloom over the ship. Several weeks went by, and one day Captain Robinson sent for me and Gammon who was acting now as S.F.O., and said he had received word from the Admiralty that Rutland must be considered lost. As we knew him better than anyone else on board, we were asked to break the news to Mrs. Rutland, who, like so many Navy wives, was living near Leith. Such an errand would have been a sad job at any time. However, Mrs. Rutland was not worried, and said, “What nonsense, he’s not dead.” And that was that, and nothing would change her mind. And how right she was! For after another two or three weeks, one day when we were at lunch, there was the damnedest racket on deck, and everyone rushed up to see what was the matter. And there was Rutland, in civilian clothes, but still wearing the same old familiar smile. This is his story as we learned it later.
He had flown farther than he intended, hoping to get a shot at a Zeppelin, and found he would not have enough petrol to get back to the rendezvous with the destroyers, so he flew in towards the coast of Denmark. He picked a small coastal village, flew near enough to attract the attention of some fishermen, then turned seaward again so as to be out of the three mile limit. When he saw them start toward him he crashed the plane, having first taken the precaution to remove all buttons and insignia. He told them after they had picked him up that he was a civilian test pilot who had been blown off his course. This was to prevent internment for the duration of the war. It was perhaps a fine point of international law, but it worked. Denmark was very friendly to the Allies anyway. From Denmark he got over to Norway, another friendly country, where he stayed with Royalty and eventually got back to England on a freighter—wearing, he vowed, one of His Norwegian Majesty’s suits!
The Admiralty had by now recognized how useful a land plane could be on a ship, and a cruiser was fitted with a small flight deck- One of our pilots, Lieutenant Smart, was assigned to her, and he got a Zeppelin over the North Sea with a Lewis gun.
Manxman's days of usefulness in the North Sea were now about over. Rutland and most of our original and best trained pilots received other assignments, and the Manxman was sent to the Mediterranean to be attached to the Italian Navy. She was at various times in Syracuse, Taranto, and Brindisi. We were in latter port on January 20, 1918, when the Goeben and Breslau came out of the Dardanelles. As history tells us, Breslau was sunk and the Goeben was beached at Chanak, just inside the straits, and the Germans were working frantically to get her free despite the light bombs we were dropping from small aircraft based at Mudros. Light bombs not being too effective, a torpedo was brought from Malta to us. This torpedo weighed 1,000 pounds, and we had instructions to attach it under the belly of a plane, parallel to the water, and take off for Mudros without delay. This didn’t mean much to the Italian admiral in charge for he refused to open the barrier protecting the entrance to the harbor for fear a submarine might sneak in. Then we asked for a destroyer escort, as we had to cross what was at that time the most sub-infested stretch of water in the world. This request, too, was refused. Too dangerous! We eventually got out and hightailed it for the Corinth canal as this would save (or should have) many miles of going around the south of Greece. We got to Corinth just as it was getting dark, and the Greek authorities would not let us go through the canal in the dark. So there we lay at anchor until morning. We eventually got to Mudros, to learn that the Goeben was still on the rocks.
The plan for using the torpedo was for the pilot to fly inland well behind the Goeben, and then swing and fly down the Straits as near the water as possible. He was to let the torpedo go at the most opportune time so as to hit her just about the water line. Well, we got the plane onto the water—and this morning it was smooth as glass. No wind, not even a ripple, and nothing the pilot could do would lift the pontoons even an inch. We got out three motor boats and tried to create broken water, but no good. A two-seater sea plane, even with only one man in it, just was not designed to lift a thousand pounds from a dead calm. (I believe the plane was a D. H. 4). That night it started to blow, and the Germans got the Goeben off, and she returned to Constantinople, so our trip was fruitless. Our pilot, a young Canadian—I have forgotten his name—almost cried when he heard the news. He begged to be allowed to fly up to Constantinople and try to drop the torpedo so as to hit the drydock gates in which the Goeben lay, being repaired. This was refused, since the chances of success were so remote.
We left Mudros to rejoin the Italians, going back the same way, through the Corinth canal, but bad luck was still with us. At the eastern end of the canal was a ferry which was pulled from one side to the other by means of heavy chains under the water. One of our outside propellers hit this chain and sheared off all three blades close to the hub. Now we had to recross the Gulf of Corinth and the Ionian Sea with only two propellers —and again without any escort, since our people couldn’t spare any destroyers, as they were all needed for guarding the Dardanelles. In spite of our reduced speed, however, we got safely across and went into Taranto where we waited for six weeks before we could be put into drydock to have a spare propeller fitted.
During this wait a regular patrol was carried out each morning and evening by our seaplanes. Taranto is a large harbor, so the planes could take off without endangering any Italian ships through having to open the harbor entrance for them to go out. So far as I remember not a single plane had been flown off the ship since we left the Firth of Forth, and most of the original pilot complement was now scattered. At this time I requested a change and was ordered to Portsmouth for fuel oil and diesel instruction. And that was the end of my connection with the Manxman.
* Editor’s note: For an account of the conversions of the 18-inch gun light cruiser which served as an aircraft carrier in both World War I and World War II, see “Fisher’s Folly—The Fabulous Furious" in the June, 1955 Proceedings.