Royal Navy’s Air Service in the Great War

The author followed a career in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, followed by a tour as curator at the Fleet Air Arm Museum, before becoming an accomplished author of naval aviation history. This new book is a substantial review of the RNAS during the Great War and includes a wealth of images to support the very able text – Most Highly Recommended.

NAME: Royal Navy's Air Service in the Great War
FILE: R2612
AUTHOR: David Hobbs
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword, Seaforth
BINDING: hard back
PAGES:  528
PRICE: £35.00
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: War, Great War, First World War, WWI, World War 1, 
World War I, technology, naval warfare, war at sea, war in the 
air, naval aviators, naval aviation, carriers, seaplanes, 
non-rigid airships, rigid airships, semi-rigid airships, flying 
boats, amphibians, fighters, bombers, tactics, weapons

ISBN: 978-1-84832-348-3

IMAGE: B2612.jpg
DESCRIPTION: The author followed a career in the Royal Navy's 
Fleet Air Arm, followed by a tour as curator at the Fleet Air 
Arm Museum, before becoming an accomplished author of naval 
aviation history. This new book is a substantial review of the 
RNAS during the Great War and includes a wealth of images to 
support the very able text – Most Highly Recommended.

The Royal Navy was an aviation pioneer before the Wright brothers 
historic flight at Kitty Hawk. Larger than life frigate captain 
Thomas Cochrane, who irritated the French so much that he came 
to the attention of Napoleon, who dubbed him “The Sea Wolf”, 
wrote a number of papers considering naval aviation and the use 
of poison gas in warfare. At that time he was considering the use 
of manned balloons flown from warships blockading France. Royal 
Navy observers during the American Civil War took flights in the 
hydrogen balloons used by the Union Army as artillery spotting 
platforms. The Royal Navy did not adopt these ideas for sea use 
because of the difficulties of managing balloons at sea and 
launching them with a reasonable prospect of reaching their 
intended targets. However, Royal Navy gunners made use of 
British Army balloons during the two Boer Wars to spot for the 
naval guns brought ashore  and used in support of the Army. The 
famous field gun race that has been an very popular attraction at 
the annual Royal Tournament and other events is based on the use 
of naval guns ashore during the Boer War.

In 1903, the Royal Navy began extensive trialling of man-carrying 
kites aboard ships from whalers ( a pulling and sailing boat 
carried aboard ship ) to battleships, concluding the trials in 
1908. These trials, using the Cody kites, were very promising but 
were overtaken by Royal Navy support of Cody's powered kite which 
became the first aeroplane to fly in Britain in 1908. The Royal 
Navy then forged ahead, creating a flying school in 1911 with the 
support of the Royal Aeronautical Society who initially ran the 
school for the RN. The first officers to train became the fathers 
of the RNAS and Fleet Air Arm. They learned to fly, but they were 
also tasked with producing papers on how to turn aviation into an 
effective weapon system to assist the RN in achieving tasks that 
would be set in war. The result was that the Royal Navy invented 
naval aviation as an armed component of the Royal Navy.

It is therefore surprising that the politicians tried forcing the 
naval aviators into an air force under Army control. The Royal 
Navy fought against this stupid policy and continued to train its 
officers to fly and continue to devise technology and tactics for 
war in the air. This resistance was rewarded when the politicians 
buckled and gave the RN control once more of its aviation a month 
before the outbreak of WWI. The RN celebrated by successfully 
dropping the first torpedo from an aircraft, starting the Great 
War with aircraft that could drop bombs, depth charges and 
torpedoes, while the Army was content to continue taking frail 
machines from the Government aircraft factory to be used as 
scouts for field formations of the Army.

The Royal Naval Air Service was enormously successful through 
the Great War until the politicians again took aviation away 
from the RN to form the RAF, so missing a number of important 
opportunities before the end of the conflict. The RAF was in 
fact formed to deliver strategic bombing, which had been 
pioneered by the RNAS and which work produced viable long range 
multi-engine bombers with the Vickers Vimmy being used later by 
Alcock and Brown to make the first trans-Atlantic crossing by air.

The RNAS explored every avenue of flight to produce a range of 
air vehicles and pioneer so many aspects of aviation. It produced 
the first fully functional aircraft carriers that could launch and 
recover aircraft with wheeled undercarriage. It also produced and 
trialled the first airship fighter carriers. Seaplanes and flying 
boats formed an important part of its maritime patrol force, but 
it also ordered large numbers of non-rigid and semi-rigid airships 
for maritime patrol and convoy escort. Some of these carried out 
patrols of more than 24 hours duration, spotting for enemy 
submarines and surface ships, with an ability to depth charge and 
bomb them, and with radio communication to direct RN ships to the 

From the beginning of the Great War the RNAS attacked German ports 
and manufacturing facilities. They also intercepted and destroyed 
the huge German Zeppelin airships. However, it was with fixed wing 
fighters that the RNAS achieved some great advances. Part of the 
secret of RNAS success was that the Admiralty avoided the products 
of the Government Aircraft Factory and ordered machines that were 
much more advanced, and often cheaper, direct from commercial 
suppliers. In particular there was a long and fruitful relationship 
with Sopwith which brought out a succession of aircraft that were 
developments of their first design. This approach produced aircraft 
rapidly and took advantage of all the elements of earlier machines 
that had been very successful, reducing risk. The reliable and 
successful two seat Sopwith One an a Half Strutter was developed 
into the single seat Sopwith Pup which fired a machine gun through 
the propeller arc using an interrupter gear. This highly successful 
fighter was further developed into the single seat Sopwith Triplane, 
or Tripe, that was flown with distinction in France and was copied 
by Fokker in the Dr1 triplane made famous by the Red Baron. The 
Tripe was then developed into the highly successful single seat 
Sopwith Camel that was also adopted by the Army for the Royal 
Flying Corps. The Camel was then developed into the Snipe which 
became a mainstay of the newly created RAF, serving on through 
the post war years.

The author has produced an excellent review of this amazing success 
story. It is incredible that politicians should seek to risk a 
success story by taking aviation away from the Royal Navy. 
Fortunately for Great Britain, the RN fought on and won back most 
of its aviation just in time to fight WWII. It is a pity that 
this did not include maritime patrol aircraft that were retained 
and neglected by the RAF, costing so many lives in the Atlantic in 
the early stages of WWII. It is interesting that the attack by FAA 
torpedo planes on the Italian Fleet in harbour, inspiring the 
Japanese planners for their attack on the US Pacific Fleet in 
harbour, was based on the plans made in 1917 to attack the German 
Fleet in harbour. By the time the plans were complete, the RAF had 
taken control and failed to understand the huge benefits of a mass 
attack by surprise from a carrier task force.

This book will now be a staple reference work for enthusiasts and 
historians, but it should be widely read, particularly at a time 
when pro-EU quislings are so keen to run Britain down. The spirit 
that made the RNAS such a success lives on and will be ably 
repeated once the two QECs receive their air wings and continue 
the long history of Royal Navy aviation inventiveness.