Captain Bernard Arthur Smart flies his Sopwith 2F1 Camel from HMS Furious on history’s first carrier-launched air raid.

To kill German zeppelins in their roosts, the British Royal Navy unveiled a secret weapon: the aircraft carrier.

by Don Hollway
Appearing in the July 2016 issue of
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Zeppelin L23, Capt. Ludwig Bockholt commanding, sends a prize crew to take the captured Norwegian bark Royal. 23 April 1917

By 1917, with the German High Seas Fleet blockaded in port, the Royal Navy’s worry was not enemy battleships, but airships. That April Zeppelin L23 even captured the Norwegian bark Royal as it hauled contraband lumber, dropping a bomb off its bow and alighting on the water to send a prize crew. The morning of August 21st L23 was shadowing the British First Light Cruiser Squadron off the Danish coast. A long, long way from British soil, Lieutenant Bernhard Dinter, commanding, must have been astounded to find his ship attacked, seemingly out of nowhere, by a solitary, short-range Sopwith Pup fighter.

Having launched from a platform atop a gun turret of the cruiser HMS Yarmouth (and with his Pup’s roundel insignia masked with gray paint), Lt. Bernard Arthur Smart achieved the heretofore impossible: kill position, 3,000 feet above and behind a zeppelin at sea. The airship belatedly turned toward land, dumping ballast to escape upward. “I now realised the time had come,” Smart would write. “…I pushed forward the control stick and dived. The speed indicator went with a rush up to 150 m.p.h….The roar of the engine had increased to a shrill scream while the wires were whistling and screeching in an awful manner….At 250 yards and at the same height as the Zeppelin, I flattened out slightly and pulled the lever which works the fixed machine-guns….I had just time to see about half a dozen [incendiary bullets] enter the blunt end of the Zeppelin, and a spurt of flame, before my very soul froze with the thought that in my eagerness to aim the gun, I had waited too long and couldn't avoid a collision. Spasmodically I jammed the joystick hard forward and my heart seemed to come into my mouth in the absolute vertical nose dive which followed.”

Lt. Bernard Arthur Smart shoots down Zeppelin L23, August 21, 1917.
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The Pup fell 3,000 feet before Smart could pull out and look back. “The after end of the Zeppelin was now a mass of flames and had dropped so that the nose was pointing to the sky at an angle of 45 degrees while the flames were fast licking up towards the nose….[It] continued to burn on the water for three or four minutes….as the flames finally died out, the smoke, in spite of the wind, hung over the sea in a tremendous column reaching an apparently enormous height.”

Shooting down the Zeppelin, though, was the easy part. There was no great trick to launching a kite-like WWI fighter off a ship—doing 20 knots into a 25-knot headwind gave a takeoff speed of 45 knots, almost half the Pup’s top speed—but nobody had quite yet figured out how to get one back aboard. “This was my first attempt at coming down in the sea in a land machine,” Smart remembered, “but instinct told me that at all costs I must hit with practically no forward way on whatever to avoid turning head over heels.” Coming down ahead of two British escort ships, he pulled the Pup into a stall just above the water. “The machine lost all flying speed and dropped like a stone, hitting the water with a nasty jerk which would probably have meant broken bones had it been on mother earth. The destroyer was alongside in a short time but not before the nose of the machine had sunk and left me just hanging on to the tail.”

Only the Pup’s engine and machine gun were salvageable. The Royal Navy considered losing the rest as more than an even trade for a Zeppelin and its crew. Smart’s was the first successful attack ever by an aircraft launched from a seagoing ship. He was promoted to Flight Lieutenant and awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the French Croix de Guerre, but in secret, to avoid tipping the Germans to the new British weapon. (Potential witnesses Dinter and his crew of 18 all perished; the Germans could only think a British ship had scored a lucky cannon hit.) The wedding of the warship to the fighter aircraft was about to change naval combat forever.

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Over England, zeppelins were the Royal Flying Corps’ problem. Over the North Sea they were a job for the Royal Naval Air Service. The RNAS had no comparable program, its prototype airship having failed in 1911. On Sept. 24, before even completing its first flight, HMA (His Majesty's Airship) No. 1, Hermoine (nicknamed Mayfly) broke its back in heavy winds at the Naval Construction Yard in Barrow. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, who preferred airplanes to airships, told the House of Commons, “The mishap which destroyed the May-fly, or the Won’t Fly, as it would be more accurate to call it, at Barrow, was a very serious set-back to the development of Admiralty policy in airships.” In the coming war the RNAS initially had no answer to the Zeppelins and for much of the war operated under their shadow.

On September 6, 1914, the Imperial Japanese Navy seaplane carrier Wakamiya (ex-Russian transport Lethington, captured in the 1905 Russo-Japanese war) launched a Farman floatplane against the Austro-Hungarian cruiser Kaiserin Elisabeth and the German gunboat Jaguar during the Anglo-Japanese siege of the German colonial port at Tsingtao, China. In this first-ever naval-launched air raid, neither Entente ship was hit, but British naval officers took note. “The mother ship was fitted with a couple of derricks for hoisting them in and out,” reported Lieut. Commanders Geoffrey Nash and George Gipps of the pre-dreadnought HMS Triumph. “During these reconnaissances they were constantly fired at by the German guns mostly with shrapnel, but were never hit. The Japanese airmen usually carried bombs for dropping on the enemy positions.” Before the German surrender on November 7, the Japanese Farmans made almost 50 attacks, dropping almost 200 bombs.

Zeppelins flying out of bases in northern Germany scouted for U-boats, assisted in minelaying and minesweeping operations, and above all conducted long-range reconnaissance with their eagle-eye view of the North Sea. They were beyond the reach of planes flying from France. On Christmas Day, 1914, the British seaplane carriers HMS Engadine, Riviera and Empress penetrated the Heligoland Bight within range of Nordholz Airbase near Cuxhaven, Germany. Of nine seaplanes deployed in heavy seas, seven managed to lift off. They attacked in fog and low cloud, taking thick return fire but pressing through to drop three 20lb bombs apiece, which did little or no damage. On their return four aircraft were lost to the sea. The British touted the Cuxhaven Raid as a triumph of combined air/surface/submarine operations, but in reality it accomplished next to nothing.

M-Class zeppelin L6, which under command of Captain Freiherr Horst Treusch von Buttlar-Bradenfels made the first air attacks on a British warship, on Christmas Day, 1914. After the battle L6 went on to conduct 36 reconnaissance missions over the North Sea, scouting and marking mine fields, and also one successful raid on England in which it dropped 1,500 lb of bombs. On 16 September 1916, while being inflated in its hangar at Fuhlsbüttel, L6 caught fire and and was destroyed along with LZ 36.

While the British seaplanes were attacking Cuxhaven, Capt. Freiherr Treusch von Buttlar-Brandenfels counterattacked the British fleet in Zeppelin L6—the first air attacks on a British warship. Empress had no ship’s guns capable of firing straight up. Commanding officer Lt. Frederick W. Bowhill reported, “The Zeppelin attacked by rising to about 5,000ft on the starboard beam and coming over towards me. When nearly overhead she dived to about 2,000ft, and then manoeuvred to get directly above me, slowing down, and heading in the same direction as myself.... A continual rifle fire was kept up at her, and though, of course, no damage could be seen, I think that she must have been hit in several places, for she sheered off and went on the port quarter. As soon as my after 12 pounders would bear, I fired eight shots at her, and one, I think, went very close, as she sheered right off and did not worry me again.

“I consider that had an anti-aircraft gun been on board we could not have failed to bring her down, as the target was so large, and that any ship so fitted would always bring a Zeppelin down in daytime, should she attack.”

Having fought the Royal Navy to a draw, Buttlar struggled back to base with L6 bleeding hydrogen from 600 bullet holes, but none from British aircraft. “The flying boats the English had did not attack our airships,” reported Buttlar, who flew 221 missions over the North Sea, “because the latter could always outclimb them.”

In March 1915, at Tondern on the North Sea coast, the German Naval Airship Division constructed two sheds on an east-west axis, each 540 feet long, 95 feet high and 120 feet wide, plus two 10,000-liter fuel tanks, hydrogen production and storage facilities, barracks for 600 soldiers, and hangars for five fighter aircraft. The next month the M-class Zeppelin L7 took off on the first of 77 reconnaissance missions it would fly from Tondern, and even attempt bombing raids on English coastal towns. “If only the English do not know anything about it,” Buttlar hoped. “The Danish frontier is damnably near and the spies are good.”

The English learned soon enough, but could do little about it. The minefields and U-boats in the Heligoland Bight held British dreadnoughts from within reach of Tondern. On March 24, 1916, the tender HMS Vindex launched three Short 184 and two Sopwith Baby seaplanes into the teeth of a blizzard to find and attack the unknown German base. Unable to return, three made forced landings on the sea, one being destroyed by its crew and the other two captured, but the remainder made it back with the Germans’ secret. On May 4th, 1916, Vindex and Engadine put 11 Baby fighters in the water off Tondern. In heavy seas, eight failed to lift off, one crashed into an escorting destroyer, and one aborted with engine trouble. The survivor reached land to drop just two bombs, on neutral Denmark by mistake. Such miserable performance factored heavily in future Admiralty reluctance to attack Zeppelin bases, at least with seaplanes. Yet makeshift launch ramps, as on the Yarmouth, and sacrificing land planes to water landings could only be a temporary solution.

First shipboard takeoff and landing

3:15 PM, November 14, 1910: Eugene Barton Ely makes the first shipboard aircraft takeoff from the light cruiser USS Birmingham.

On November 14, 1910, American Eugene Ely had demonstrated that land-based aircraft could operate from naval vessels, taking off from a platform on the cruiser USS Birmingham, lying at anchor at Hampton Roads, Virginia. As he left the ship his Curtiss Model D pusher dipped so low its wheels touched the water. His face full of spray, Ely landed on a nearby beach.

Two months later, though, he took off from Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, California to actually try touching down on a makeshift landing platform aboard the armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania. A 15-mph quartering wind across the deck made the feat, which Italian and French aviators had already failed, especially difficult; Ely reported it “swung me wide of the landing platform, and it was not until I was within 30 yards of the vessel that I straightened out.” The landing stage was equipped with a primitive set of arresting gear—ropes stretched between heavy sandbags—but Just as Ely was about to put down a gust lofted his Curtiss high enough that its landing hook failed to catch anything. He flew it 20 feet straight at the cruiser’s superstructure before nosing down low enough to snag several lines and be dragged to a halt. Nonplussed, an hour later, he took off from the same deck and flew back to San Bruno.

“It was easy enough,” Ely told a reporter. “I think the trick could be successfully turned nine times out of ten.” But both the Birmingham and Pennsylvania had been lying still, at anchor.

Nine months later, while flying at an exhibition in Macon, Georgia, Ely pulled out of a dive too late. He either jumped or was thrown from the crash, and died within minutes of a broken neck. Spectators took his gloves, tie and cap as souvenirs.

First shipborne fighter plane

Flight Commander Frederick Joseph Rutland, DSC and Bar, flies Sopwith Pup #N6453 off a platform on the forward gun turret of HMS Yarmouth, June 1917. A few months later Lt. Bernard Smart would take off from the same launch ramp in #N6430 to shoot down Zeppelin L23. Note single Lewis machine gun angled to fire up through top wing aperture.

The Pup—official name “Scout”—was the first land-based fighter plane to operate off warships. Its single .303in Lewis machinegun was mounted on an angle to fire upward through the top wing aperture for anti-zeppelin work. Some had their wheels replaced with skids for shipboard landing tests; in action, most were simply ditched at sea. Shipbuilders William Beardmore and Co. also built up to 100 of their own version, the W.B. III, with internal flotation airbags and folding wings and undercarriage for shipboard stowage, but its performance was unequal to the Pup’s. Both were superseded by the 2F1 Ships Camel. Lt. Bernard Smart flew N6430 to shoot down Zeppelin L23 on August 21, 1917.

The first aircraft carrier

In January 1917 Admiral of the Fleet Sir David Beatty created the Grand Fleet Aircraft Committee. Its recommendation, in February, was that a warship for the espress purpose of carrying and launching land-based aircraft could not be designed and built quickly enough to deal with the immediate zeppelin problem; better to convert an existing hull to the purpose. Such ships were already under construction and available. Former First Sea Lord Jacky Fisher, father of the “speed-is-armor” battlecruiser, had long dreamed of a seaborne invasion of Germany via the Baltic Sea, and ordered the construction of three large, light Courageous-class battlecruisers, HMS Courageous, Glorious and Furious, not to engage in line of battle but for the express purpose of pounding land defenses. The first two mounted standard 15-inch guns, but Furious would carry two 18-inchers, then the largest guns afloat, comparable to those of the Japanese Yamato-class battleships 20 years later. (In practice firings the guns’ blast waves sheared rivet heads off the ship’s hull.) After his battlecruisers proved fatally vulnerable at Jutland, however, Fisher had left office, and his ideas fell into disfavor. His “large light cruiser” concept endowed the Navy with three expensive hulks having no realistic purpose. The Committee’s solution, with which the Board of the Admiralty agreed and even big-gun proponent Beatty reluctantly acquiesced, was to convert Furious into an all-new type of warship: an aircraft carrier.

HMS Furious as originally designed, with single 18in turrets. Not completed in this configuration.

HMS Furious as originally designed, with single 18in turrets. Not completed in this configuration.

HMS Furious as completed in 1917, with flight deck/hangar forward, one 18in gun aft.

HMS Furious as re-commissioned on 15 March 1918, with hangar, 284 x 70 foot landing deck and crash barrier aft of funnel. Naval airship SSZ, Sea Scout Zero, operated from the aft flight deck.

HMS Furious after postwar conversion to flush-deck carrier.

HMS Furious after the 1939 addition of a starboard island, 4in guns, and increased AA weapons and radars.

Artwork courtesy of James Jackson, used by permission.

Laid down in June 1915 as one of three 20,000-ton Courageous-class “large light cruisers” intended to support a planned invasion of Germany via the Baltic, Furious mounted two 18-inch cannons—then the largest naval guns in the world and the largest ever on a Royal Navy warship, rivaled only by the 18-inchers on the Imperial Japanese Navy battleships Yamato and Musashi, 20 years later. (When test-fired, their blast sheared rivets off the hull.) Furious was still under construction, however, when Royal Navy planners foresaw that the airplane would replace the dreadnought as primary naval weapon. The forward turret was replaced by a boxy hangar with a 228-foot flight deck on the roof. Over the winter of 1917-18 her aft turret was replaced by an even larger flight deck and hangar aft, but the difficulty of putting down in the turbulence from the centerline superstructure and funnel ruled out landings there during the war.

HMS Furious as originally completed in 1917, with flight deck forward and single 18" gun aft

Fore quarter view of HMS Furious in 1917, with flight deck forward and single 18" gun aft.

HMS Furious as re-commissioned in 1918, with flight decks forward and aft and “dazzle” camouflage.

Naval airship SSZ, Sea Scout Zero, on the aft flight deck of HMS Furious, 1918. Note catwalks around midships and forward elevator.

Under command of Captain Wilmot S. Nicholson, with RNAS Squadron Commander Edwin Harris Dunning as senior flying officer, Furious joined the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow in July 1917, with a compliment of three Shorts and five Sopwith Pups. Warships were already so fast, and airplanes still so slow, that their speeds overlapped comfortably. On August 2nd, as the carrier made 26 knots in Scapa Flow, Dunning approached from the side, matched velocity, and sideslipped in over the flight deck at practically a hover (a recovery technique strikingly similar to that of STOVL Sea Harrier “jump jets” off the Falklands, 65 years later), so slow relative to the ship that deck handlers could run out and actually grab the Pup by its “arresting gear”—rope loops attached to its lower wingtips—to manually haul it down. It was the first landing by an aircraft on a moving vessel. Five days later (three weeks before Smart shot down L23) the squadron commander repeated his feat, but on a second try that day his engine choked. The Pup bounced off the deck and went over the side. Dunning was knocked unconscious, and drowned.

Squadron Commander E. H. Dunning lands his Sopwith Pup on the flying-off deck of HMS Furious, Scapa Flow, 7 August 1917.

Five days later Dunning’s Pup veers off the flight deck during his second and fatal attempt to land on the carrier while underway.

Zeppelin sheds at Tondern: L-R Tobias, Toni and Toska

At Tondern the Germans weren’t having it all their own way. L7 had been shot down by the Arethusa-class light cruisers HMS Phaeton and HMS Galatea on May 4, 1916, but it was just the first of over a dozen different Zeppelins to fly out of the base. Their increasing size required upgrades to the base facilities. In January 1917 a huge third shed (if “shed” is the proper word for a steel building 730 feet long, 220 feet wide, and 130 feet high) was capable of holding two Zeppelins at once. With the two smaller sheds named “Tobias” and “Toni” (“To” for Tondern), the third was christened “Toska.”

Even before its completion, on Nov. 7, 1915, the P-class Zeppelin L18 was refueling inside the still-uncompleted shed when a leaking gas pipe caused a fire and the airship burned, leaving one man dead and seven wounded. In March 1916 the Q-class L22 struck Toska’s gate, badly damaging its nose. (On May 14 1917, L22 would be shot down near the island of Terschelling, by Flight Commander (later Air Vice Marshal) Robert Leckie in a Curtiss H-12 flying boat.) And on December 28, as the Q-class L24 was being reeled into Toska next to the P-class L17, a heavy wind caused its aft tackle to part. The airship not only broke its back on the hangar gates, it lofted up and crushed a light in the roof. The sparking short started a fire, and in moments L24 and L17 both burned inside the hangar.

On March 15, 1918, Furious was re-commissioned at Rosyth under the flag of R. Adm. Richard F. Phillimore. That he had been named Admiral Commanding Aircraft might have indicated the Navy’s newfound emphasis on airplanes, except that two weeks later the RNAS and Royal Flying Corps were combined into the Royal Air Force. Phillimore’s flight commander, RNAS Wing Commander turned RAF Lieutenant Colonel Richard Bell Davies, had won the DSO in January 1915 for an attack on U-boat pens at Zeebrugge, in which he was badly wounded. That November he won the Victoria Cross for landing in Turkish-held Bulgaria to rescue a downed pilot. “...Squadron-Commander Davies descended at a safe distance from the burning machine, took up Sub-Lieutenant [Gilbert Formby] Smylie, in spite of the near approach of a party of the enemy,” reads his citation, “and returned to the aerodrome, a feat of airmanship that can seldom have been equalled for skill and gallantry.”

Practice landings in Pups fitted with landing skids and arresting hooks went well enough on a dummy deck at the naval air station on Isle of Grain, Scotland, but proved impractical at sea. Under way, the ex-cruiser’s superstructure and funnel, still on its centerline, created such turbulence aft that the little Sopwiths were buffeted overboard, smashed on the deck or, unable to put down, struck the barrier. Out of thirteen landing attempts only three could be considered successful. Since rendering Furious into a flush-deck carrier would have taken another year or more, shipboard landings were suspended. Pilots continued to ditch at sea, and as Furious could not be risked stopping in submarine-infested waters to pick them up, that job was left to a retinue of destroyers, which lacked large enough derricks and frequently damaged the aircraft bringing them aboard. In the best case, their waterlogged fabric skins had to be replaced after each sortie. The sacrifice of an airplane per mission was reckoned no worse than the loss of a torpedo when fired; in those days torpedoes actually cost more than fighter aircraft.

The pilots soon traded in their outmoded Shorts and Pups for two-seat Sopwith 1½-Strutters, already outclassed as fighter-bombers but still viable observation planes, and a naval version of the famous Sopwith F1 Camel: the 2F1 Ships Camel, modified especially for shipboard operations. For stowage in the tight confines aboard ship the Strutters were converted with detachable wings, and the Camels with folding rear fuselages.

Sopwith F1 Camel cutaway

The Sopwith 2F1 Ships Camel was the first seagoing fighter equal to any contemporary land-based aircraft. For shipboard operations, the 2F1's upper wing featured a reduced-width center section, shortening the span by 13 inches to just under 27 feet, with upper hooks for attachment to ships' cranes for recovery from the sea. The lower wing’s dihedral was increased by over five degrees and the 18½-foot fuselage was hinged behind the cockpit, allowing the tail to be folded for stowage. The pilot’s stick was connected to the elevator cables via external control levers. Air bags in the rear fuselage served as flotation gear. The cabane struts from the cowl to the upper wing were steel tubes instead of the usual wood. The undercarriage track was made narrower, and for ditching at sea (where their drag pitched the plane sharply forward, often banging the pilot’s face on his gun butt) the wheels were reverse-mounted with their convex sides in and flat inner hubs outward; when quick-release pins were pulled via cockpit cables, the airstream across their convex sides acted to blow them off the axles and the 2F1 presented nothing but slim undercarriage struts to the water. In late 1918 Ships Camels achieved successful water landings with spring-loaded wheel ejectors and hydrovanes at the axle and tailskid, but improvements in the aircraft carrier concept soon rendered ditchings at sea unnecessary.

The 2F1 traded one of the standard Camel’s two cowl-mounted .303in Vickers machineguns for an unsynchronized .303in Lewis atop the upper wing—useful against zeppelins, which were most often pursued from below. Later mounts allowed the pilot to swivel the gun to aim upward and pull it down to reload. For airship work the guns fired a mix of explosive bullets to open the airship’s skin, and incendiary rounds to ignite the escaping hydrogen. The standard Camel bombload was four 20lb. Cooper Mark II-A or 25lb. Mark II-B bombs, but on the Tondern mission each plane instead carried two 49lb. Mark III bombs. Metal prongs projecting down from the front of the rack prevented the munitions’ nose vanes from spinning until dropped, when the airstream twisted them off to expose the impact fuzes.

Capt. Bernard Smart's 2F1, thought to be number N6755, wore a blue and white nose on the Tondern Raid.

As wing commander aboard the seaplane carrier HMS Campania, Davies had seen firsthand the futility of chasing Zeppelins in the air. “The best and easiest place to catch a Zep,” he knew, “was at her home base.” He urged an attack on Tondern itself, not with seaplanes but fighter planes. The plan went all the way up the line to Beatty himself, who approved. Before the old-school battlewagon commander could change his mind, the Navy pilots planned their “Operation F.5” for late May.

On the morning of the raid Tondern’s smaller sheds, Toni and Tobias, were obsolete—Tobias held only a dirigible balloon and Toni was being dismantled—but the double shed, Toska, was full to capacity: two zeppelins, Buttlar’s L53 and the even newer L60 with almost two million cubic feet of hydrogen each, not to mention several tons of bombs waiting to be loaded.

The U-class Zeppelin L54 (factory number LZ 99) was of the late-war “height climber” classes designed to elude new high-performance Allied fighters by reaching previously unattainable altitudes. Although operating above enemy warplanes and antiaircraft fire (so high their engines could not be heard from the ground and they attacked by surprise), the height climbers encountered problems with navigation above cloud layers and the unexpected effects of oxygen deprivation and subzero temperatures on human and mechanical performance. Inability to forecast wind conditions above 15,000 feet also led to high-velocity jet streams threatening the airships’ light construction. L60 (LZ 108) was of the even newer V-class, of similar dimensions and performance, but with 14 gas cells (vs. 18 in L54), deleted tailskid and other modifications for simpler design and weight savings. Sopwith 2F1 Camel, length 18½ feet, shown to scale.

2F1 Ships Camels arrayed on the forward flight deck of HMS Furious en route to Tondern. Rondel insignia appear to have been masked with paint, but also visible are several distinctive individual paint schemes. Even the retaining fence complies with the ship’s dazzle camouflage.

”Furious Camels” by James Field

“Fast and Furious” by Stan Stokes

The Tondern Raid as depicted by Dugald Cameron

The Tondern Raid as depicted by Simon Smith, from Osprey Publishing’s “Sopwith Camel”

Get the full story! Read all about the Tondern Raid and the birth of the aircraft carrier in the July 2016 issue of AVIATION HISTORY magazine.

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