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10. Back to Imbros


I’ve been talking exclusively about the Bristol Scout, and that’s the way it should be. But for today, let’s talk instead about Granddad’s flying career. In those days, a pilot was expected to be able to cope with many different types of aircraft, and no significant training was given to acquaint you with the various different features or handling characteristics. No. 2 Wing RNAS at Imbros was very small – on average they only had 23 aircraft, 17 pilots and 10 observers available. But the 23 aircraft sported an astonishing variety of types. Granddad’s logbook records an Avro 504K,  Voisin III, Bristol Scout C & D, Caudron G3 & G4, Nieuport Gunbus (Nieuport 12) and Scout (Nieuport 11), BE2C and occasionally a Farman HF20. That’s ten different types. Maintenance and the provision of spares – particularly as far away as the Eastern Mediterranean – must have been incredibly difficult.

Voisin III – the type in which Granddad was shot down

Farman HF20

Caudron G3 at Gallipoli

Nieuport G12 Gunbus – FDHB has written ‘?Adams launching’

He arrived at Imbros on 19 Dec 1915, fresh from the Naval Air Station at Chingford, with his Royal Aero Club certificate no1884, and less than 30 hours’ flying time. (There was no such thing as a pilot’s licence in those days). Imbros was an island about 15 miles off the coast of the Dardanelles peninsula, and so every flight involved a return flight across water – something sport aviators still shudder at even today! The decision had already been taken to abandon the Gallipoli campaign, and after three flights in an Avro 504K to familiarise himself he made his first solo flight in the Voisin on 27 Dec, and was out on his first operational mission the next day, spotting for the Naval guns. The anti-aircraft fire didn’t trouble him much, and he ‘sighted Hun and chased him a short way, but he was a long way off and far too fast.‘ This was the first time he’d ever taken a passenger. On his seventh operational flight, on 8 Jan 1916, he was spotting for the guns of HMS Peterborough in the Voisin. The engine wasn’t performing well, and he couldn’t get above 8,300ft. On his way back, while still over the peninsula he was ‘…attacked by the Hun who came up unobserved behind and slightly above me.’ Granddad tried to manoeuvre to get his Lewis gun to bear, but the Hun peeled off and though Granddad tried to follow he was ‘… far too fast and nippy for me to bring my gun to bear on him.‘ (the German was flying the infamous Fokker Eindekker). Granddad found his engine misfiring, and it eventually gave out altogether, which meant that he had to make an emergency landing on the airstrip on the peninsula at Cape Helles. The Turkish guns opened up as he came in and they had to dodge the 6in shells as they were trying to push the Voisin into a dugout. On investigation he found that the damage to the engine had been caused by enemy gunfire, which had wrecked one cylinder and peppered the water cooling system, though he and his observer had been unaware of it at the time.

Voisin on Dardanelles emergency airstrip at Helles

This is an extract from a picture taken from 6000ft of that event. You can just about make out the white wing of the Voisin in the dugout, with the shell holes in the bottom of the picture. Unfortunately Granddad had landed on the very evening of the final evacuation of Allied troops from the peninsula, so he was told to destroy the aircraft without setting fire to it (which would have made an easy target for the Turks). He did the best he could with ‘… a pick, a shovel and a sledge hammer‘, but he reckoned it was surprisingly difficult to inflict permanent damage in a short time with these! He was attacked some time after 1630 and was on board a lighter by 1830 which departed at 0130 and took him to SS Partridge, the second last ship to leave. You might think that with the ground forces gone, there would be nothing for the air forces to do, but they stayed on until the end of May, carrying out an astonishingly varied number of tasks. Ten days after the evacuation, he had his ‘first flip in a fast machine’ – the Bristol Scout. He ‘did not like right handed turns at first, but got better towards the end.’ ‘On the whole much easier to fly than I expected, though not so comfortable as pusher.’ On 20 Jan he was ‘Escorting M.F.1383 over Kithia and Fusilier Bluff.‘ ‘Flew in too slowly and pancaked on landing. It was an off day for me and although I flew with confidence and was quite comfortable the whole time I was flying damn badly. A most unsatisfactory performance. Came down 9,000ft in 7 or 8 min. Too damn fast.’ January was all escorting two-seaters doing observation work, but on 4 Feb he carried four 16lb bombs to drop on Galata aerodrome with two Nieuports. ‘Had great difficulty aiming machine as I had to fly with left hand, looking down through hole in bottom of fuselage. Dropped bombs too soon and too far to left. My first go at bomb dropping – I have never even practiced it before.‘ This with no training and only 55 hours total time in the air! The next day he had his first go in a twin-engined Caudron; ‘Very heavy on rudder. Had great difficulty keeping her straight just before landing. This difficulty would probably have disappeared if I had wangled the engines. Rather unwieldy in the air, but with proper use of engines she might become fairly controllable.’ On 12 Feb he was off submarine hunting between Kephalos and Tenedos, and on 23 Feb he was bombing a destroyer in Kilia Leman. On the way back he thought one of his bombs had stuck up so he paid very particular attention to his landing! On 6 Mar he slowed right down to 35knots on his bombing run and the bomb contacted the aircraft’s axle… The Scout was apparently quite steady at 35kt. There were quite a lot of practice flights in March, interspersed with chasing submarines, Huns (flying) and escort flights, and then on 18 March, on his third flight of the day, the engine of 1259 cut out at 1000ft. He made a good circuit dead stick, but left the final turn a bit late and stalled the last few feet. The undercarriage collapsed and the aircraft turned over on its back. Granddad was fine, but his pride and confidence were shaken, and the machine was written off. ‘My first smash. I did not mind it in the least.’ But his troubles weren’t over. The very next day, he tried 1264 with the le Rhone engine instead of the Gnome, and once again tipped up on landing. ‘I must have had a good deal of drift on. Why the devil didn’t I see that? Two crashes in two days and I was flying very well in the air. Poor old ’64. She was such a ripper and I did love her. Only two machines have I damaged in any way, and they were the two machines I loved best.’

1264 comes a cropper 20 Mar 1916

But things looked up after that. Only three days later the mechanics had repaired 1264 and he took her up again, using the more powerful le Rhone engine once more – and this time all went well, and he was able to keep up with his colleague in the Nieuport 11. Two days after that he had an encounter with a Fokker Eindekker. In a letter home he wrote ‘I waited a bit to entice him a bit further from his home, and then swung round and went straight for him. He also came straight at me and went above me. I let him do this as I guessed his game. (The usual Fokker trick is to come over a machine and then turn very sharply indeed and so swing round just behind the other machine). Sure enough just before he got to me he started to turn left. I said to myself “Here’s a fool showing his hand in that manner.” So I judged a pause, so to speak, and then did a vertical bank left turn. In consequence, instead of his coming out on my tail, I came out jolly near his and I gave him a little dose of machine gun medicine. He started to dodge and weave all over the place like a frightened pigeon, but I was all over him and he could not get behind me, also unfortunately I could not quite get behind him, so I had to fire with a good deal of deflection and I don’t think I hit him in a vital place. He then suddenly went into a devil of a nose dive and got away from me. He was flattening out a good way below and I was just starting after him when there was a flash past me and the other escort, who had been flying a bit above us, came by in a nose dive, got behind him, and gave him beans good and proper. ‘I was then about 9,000ft so I up with my tail and let her go. I had a glance at my speed indicator, but that only goes up to 95 knots, so it was not much use, and in what seemed to me to be an interval of a few seconds only, I found myself at 4,000ft, and once more about 30 yards behind old Fokker. He had by this time dived away from my pal and I don’t think he quite expected me, for it seemed to startle him somewhat when he got another dose of medicine. Again I could not quite get behind him, and he dived away and I lost sight of him. ‘That dive of mine, 5,000ft in one swoop, was one of the most exhilarating things I have done. My little bus fairly hummed down.’ And bear in mind that any one of the bullets he fired at the Fokker could have taken his own propeller off! From then on Granddad was flying very regularly, mostly on escort duties. There are occasional days off – even ten days at one point, but very often he was flying two or three times a day. On18 May he does his first night flight. It’s not clear whether he had any illumination for his instruments, but he seems to have managed okay, and on 30 May they transferred to Thasos, which involved a 75 mile water crossing, or about an hour and a half over water with an engine which he describes as vibrating very badly… No GPS for navigation in those days, and even with one it’s a flight that would give most modern sport aviators the collywobbles. They had flown to Thasos to bring the war to Bulgaria, and they did this mostly by bombing – sometimes towns (on 8 June they attacked Xanthi)  – and sometimes crops, using incendiary bombs. His log book becomes more and more involved with the technical details – getting the engines to run nicely, making adjustments to the airframe to get them properly trimmed, and so on. At the end of July 1916 he was invalided back with a persistent and ill-defined illness that resulted in heart irregularities. He was only declared fit for ground duties in March 1917, and was posted as First Lieutenant of RNAS Redcar. By March 1918 he was posted, also as First Lieutenant, to the Experimental Station at Orfordness, and finally got a clean bill of health to go flying on 4 April, by which time he had been a Captain in the RAF for three days (the RAF was formed on 1 April). He made a few flights in April and May of that year, but never resumed combat flying. He had a total of about 140 hours flying. Phew! Time for bed, methinks.

  1. Sue permalink

    Really enjoyed the background and photographs 🙂

  2. Fabulous…I am researching RNAS at Gallipoli and have published a book and a factual graphic novel on same topic. Hugh Dolan…look on ibooks.

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