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Laying Eggs in someone else's Basket
Laying Eggs in someone else's Basket
Evolving Sopwith's Torpedoplane
Published by nuuumannn
6 November 2011
Part One: Evolution

The Whitehead locomotive torpedo was once described as a David to a naval battle-fleet’s Goliath; this menacing little weapon was to have a profound effect on naval warfare unforeseen by its British inventor when first produced in 1866. In theory, the addition of the submarine and torpedo boat to any naval fleet could provide a means to narrow down any numerical advantage an opposing battle fleet might have against ones own. It was this plan of strategy that was proposed under Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz’s Doctrine of Risk in 1897, the impetus behind the naval arms race between Britain and Germany prior to the start of the Great War in 1914.

Within the first few months of the war, Tirpitz’s proposed theories were becoming an uncomfortable reality for the Royal Navy. On September 5 1914 the first surface vessel lost to a submarine fired locomotive torpedo, the destroyer HMS Pathfinder was sunk by U 21 off May Island in the Firth of Forth. Seventeen days later Leutnant Otto Weddigen commanding U 9 quickly dispatched the cruisers Cressy, Aboukir and Hogue to the bottom of the North Sea off the Dutch coast. Over 1,650 seamen lost their lives from the four ships sunk that month. After these attacks and a further loss of a fourth cruiser to Weddigen’s torpedoes, HMS Hawke on October 15, a rash of “periscope-itis” (panic sightings of periscopes often where there were none) broke out amongst the surface fleet of the Royal Navy.

The concept of an aeroplane carrying the locomotive torpedo was not lost on aircraft designers prior to the start of hostilities. According to the official document AP1344 "History of the Development of Torpedo Aircraft", compiled by the Aircraft Armament Torpedo Section of the RAF in March 1919, discussions were held concerning the use of torpedo aeroplanes in early 1911. Commander N. F. Usborne, Captain M. F. Sueter and Lieutenants D. H. Hyde Thompson and C. J. L’Estrange Malone of the Royal Navy proposed the use of airships and aeroplanes to carry torpedoes at a time when heavier-than-aircraft were barely capable of lifting a greater weight than that of their pilots.

From their mutual interest in the potential of torpedo carrying aircraft, Capt Sueter and Lt Hyde Thomson drew up the secret Specification No. 6938 "A Torpedo Carrying Seaplane" dated March 19 1914, stating:

“The invention relates to seaplanes (i.e. aeroplanes designed to rise from and alight apon water) which carry and launch automobile torpedoes. According to the invention the torpedo is directly suspended from the fusilage (sic.) of the seaplane and as close thereto as is conveniently possible, and to enable this to be done the supporting and bracing members of the main floats of the seaplane are so arranged as to leave a clear space between the floats to accommodate the torpedo and enable it to be dropped between the floats into the water.”

A profile line drawing of a large heavily braced two-seat twin float machine was submitted with the specification, there were also scrap views of the methods for carrying the torpedo between the floats.

It is generally accepted that the first release of a torpedo from an aircraft in flight took place in 1914 off the Italian city of Venice. Two years earlier prominent Italian lawyer Pateras Pescara advised the Regia Marina (Royal Italian Navy) on the use of a torpedo carrying aeroplane, as Capitano Alessandro Guidoni claims in his book "Aviazione-Idroaviazione", published in 1927. The Italian Navy High Command showed interest in Pescara’s concept, detailing Guidoni to conduct preliminary ballistics trials. Using Guidoni’s “faithful old Farman” biplane, experiments in weight dropping were carried out using lead weights up to 176 lb (80 kg), but the Farman was found to be unsuitable for lifting heavier weights.

From the Pescara-Guidoni PP, an indigenous twin-engined monoplane fitted with hydrofoil floats built to Pescara and Guidoni’s design, an 827 lb (375 kg) mock-up missile was dropped in the waters off Venice on February 26 1914. Despite the fact that the object dropped from the Pescara-Guidoni PP was not an offensive weapon, history records that this was the first air dropping of a torpedo from an aeroplane. Although Guidoni’s experiments were promising, further progression with these early experiments was not continued with immediately afterwards by the Regia Marina.

In the United Kingdom however, trials were held between aeroplanes built by Sopwith and Short Brothers in the spring of 1914 at Calshot, on the recommendation of Sueter and Hyde Thomson, with support from the First Lord of the Admiralty, Wintson Churchill. A milestone was reached when the commander of the Calshot Naval Air Station, Squadron Commander Arthur Longmore (later Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Murray Longmore G.C.B., D.S.O. RAF) flying a Short Folder (called as such due to their folding wings for stowage aboard ship, a first in naval aviation) carried out a successful air dropping of a torpedo on July 28 1914. Hyde Thompson had constructed a bracket to carry the 14-inch torpedo between the float undercarriage of the Short Folder No.121.

Despite the experiments in torpedo dropping in northern Italy in February 1914, to the Royal Naval Air Service goes credit for introducing the air dropped torpedo into service first. During the disastrous Dardanelles campaign of 1915 the torpedo-carrying aeroplane first proved its worth in action. Whilst embarked aboard the seaplane carrier Ben-My-Chree, Flight Commander C.K. Edmonds flying Short S.184 No. 842 sank a Turkish steamer previously damaged after attack by the British submarine E.14, on August 12 1915.

Flt Cdr Edmonds scored a second kill with his torpedo-armed seaplane when five days later on August 17 he sank a Turkish supply vessel. These successes were added to on the same day when Flt Lt G. B. Dacre, also in a Short 184 torpedoed a Turkish tug. Whilst on patrol with Edmonds, Dacre’s Short suffered an engine failure and he landed on the sea. Whilst undertaking repairs to the engine, he sighted the Turkish vessel, which he promptly torpedoed from the surface of the water!

The Royal Navy’s successes with the Short 184 proved that aircraft could provide a third dimension to the use of the torpedo in warfare, although the machines in use were cumbersome seaplanes of limited flexibility. Wooden floats shattered with heavy landings and flying operations were called off in anything more than a moderate sea state. Furthermore, the 14-inch torpedo these aeroplanes carried was not considered sufficiently powerful enough to penetrate the waterline armour plating of modern capital warships.

The ships that carried the torpedo-armed seaplanes were converted merchantmen of poor turn of speed, which precluded their use in fleet actions. These ‘seaplane tenders’ as they were termed also had to come to a full stop in order to launch and retrieve their aeroplanes, thereby increasing their vulnerability to submarine attack.

The shortcomings of the Short seaplanes and possible remedial solutions to the question of launching torpedoes from aeroplanes were brought up at a conference held at the Board of Admiralty on April 3 1915. In attendance were senior RNAS personnel including Harris Booth of the Admiralty Air Department and Capt Sueter as Director of the Admiralty Air Department. Chairing the meeting was Churchill, who, on hearing of the inadequacies of the Short 184 was quick to ask why such an aeroplane could not be fitted with wheels instead of floats to be flown off a flat-topped barge? Concluding logically, he stated that after all, the weight saving with the removal of the floats could be utilised to carry a useful load.

By that time much innovation had been carried out in the field of launching aeroplanes from ships, but no purpose built vessels for the operation of landplanes existed. In spite of Booth stating that creating a landplane by simply removing the floats of a seaplane was not possible in counter to Churchill’s query (although the Short Bomber was essentially a S.184 seaplane with a lengthened empennage and wheeled undercarriage); those assembled saw the sense in Churchill’s statement.

The First Lord ended the discussion with his statement that torpedo carrying aircraft “must be pressed on with, so that if possible a decisive blow may be aimed at some of the enemy’s capital ships with this weapon, either in a fleet action or in his harbours.” It is likely that this is the first official mention of the use of torpedo armed aircraft for this purpose.

The genesis of the first true aircraft carrier based torpedo-dropping aeroplane originates from a letter penned by Murray Sueter, by then a Commodore, marked “Most Secret” to Thomas Sopwith and hand delivered by courier on October 9 1916. Sueter requested Sopwith investigate “…with as little delay as possible” two potential torpedo-carrying aeroplane specifications. The first, designated T.1 was a single-seater carrying 1 x 1,000 lb torpedo and four hours fuel, the second (T.2) was to carry two 1,000 lb torpedoes.

The document suggested that the proposed machines would be catapult launched, “…giving the machine an acceleration of 90 ft/sec in 60 feet”. An appendix attached gave a break down of performance of a 225 Short seaplane taking off from a wheeled trolley on the deck of the seaplane tender HMS Campania for comparison. (Two-Two-Five was a frequently used name for the ubiquitous Short 184, derived from the power output of its Sunbeam-Coatalen Mohawk Vee-twelve engine.)

Sueter followed up his letter to Sopwith with a memorandum to the Admiralty titled Policy to be followed as regards development and use of torpedo carrying seaplanes, on December 20 1916. In this paper he outlined the possible offensive use of torpedo seaplanes, stating that “the two most obvious objectives are the High Seas Fleet at Wilhelmshaven and the Austrian Fleet in the Adriatic harbours…”

In old naval parlance the term for this kind of first strike operation was to “Copenhagen” the enemy battle fleet, after Admiral Horatio Nelson’s renowned action against the Danish fleet over a century earlier in 1801. In the paper, Sueter added, “with the aid of Mr Sopwith I have secretly got out a torpedo-carrying aeroplane and one is being built. The machine should be able to get off any 200 ft. deck, and as she will be without floats she will be lightly loaded.”

This wasn’t the first proposal to attack German warships in their ports by torpedo armed aeroplanes put forward to the Admiralty, however. Squadron Commander W. P. de Courcy Ireland, commander of the Royal Naval Air Station at Great Yarmouth, sent a letter to the Admiralty asking questions about using seaplanes for launching torpedoes against the High Seas Fleet, which was submitted to a conference held on January 4 1916 by Royal Naval Air Service personnel.

The conference was held to consider the best type of aircraft to carry an 18-inch torpedo after examination of Sqn Cdr Ireland’s paper. In attendance were Harris Booth and Flt Cdr Hyde Thompson, among others. Points for discussion included the probable use for a torpedo seaplane, which could be classed under two headings:

1 “Raids on enemy harbours carried out by single-engined seaplanes, taken within a certain distance of their objective by seaplane carrier cruisers.”

2 “Operations in the North Sea in accordance with reputed movements of enemy vessels at a distance not exceeding two hundred miles from seaplane base. The torpedo probably carried would be the 1,400 lb long range 18-inch torpedo.”

Regarding Sqn Cdr Ireland’s proposal, those at the meeting agreed that, “the probability of using large seaplanes for raids from our East Coast Stations as proposed by Sqn Cdr Ireland in his recent paper… was not admitted in view of the size of the seaplane and the difficulty of handling the machines in crowded defended harbours.”

In mid 1917 Flt Cdr F. J. Rutland (commonly known as Rutland of Jutland because of his aerial reconnaissance of the German fleet during that engagement) and Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond produced a paper titled “Considerations of an attack by torpedo planes on the High Seas Fleet”. This paper was similar in many ways to those that had been issued before, but like Sueter’s paper dated December 20 1916, mentioning a new purpose built torpedo plane then undergoing development.

It was stipulated in the paper that in order to carry out such an attack, the torpedo plane requirement was “…as many machines as possible, and not less than 121, to be carried in specially fitted carrier ships to within not more than one hour’s fly (sic.) from Wilhelmshaven.” In addition to torpedo planes, the paper also recommended that Curtiss H-12 Large America flying boats should also take part in the attack, using 230 lb (140 kg) bombs.

In order to transport the large number of aircraft, under the heading of “Carriers”, it was suggested that, “…ordinary merchant ships could be fitted to carry torpedo planes and launch them from the deck, by building flying decks to them.” An idea fulfilled during the Second World War in the form of Merchant Aircraft Carriers. Eight of these ships suitably converted were to carry a minimum of 17 aircraft each, with “…two fighting planes to destroy the Zeppelin Scouting vessels” on each carrier. Richmond and Rutland drew their paper to the attention of the Commander of the Grand Fleet, Admiral Sir David Beatty (later Baron Beatty of the North Sea and of Brooksby PC, GCB, OM, GCVO, DSO, DCL, LLD).

As Admiral of the Grand Fleet, Beatty’s motive for promoting the proposal was simple; the complete eradication of the High Seas Fleet. Although languishing at anchor in the Shillig Roads on the River Jade since the Battle of Jutland on May 31 1916, the German ships’ mere existence was considered by Beatty as a fleet-in-being, a constant threat that kept the Grand Fleet at a state of short term readiness at all times.

The removal of this stalemate situation would be entirely favourable to the Royal Navy; Beatty was enthusiastic about the proposal. A quote from Richmond and Rutland’s paper expressed Beatty’s thoughts on the matter. ”It is therefore of the highest importance to immobilize the High Seas Fleet, or, if that be not completely effected, to drive it to the East and block its return, so to prevent it from operating against an inshore squadron of the type we desire to maintain...”

On August 24 1917 Beatty held a meeting in the boardroom of his flagship, the Dreadnought HMS Queen Elizabeth, with the First Sea Lord Earl Jellicoe attending among others from the Admiralty. To the assembled he presented Richmond and Rutland’s proposal, earnestly stating that an attack at dawn by torpedo planes on a large scale against the High Seas Fleet in their harbours “…would be most difficult to repel.” Few of those present shared Beatty’s enthusiasm however.

Both Jellicoe and Admiral Sir George Hope openly expressed disdain for the idea, giving every obstacle that had to be overcome in order to achieve the aim of the proposal as a reason why it should not be carried out. There weren’t sufficient ships to carry the aeroplanes, and the likelihood of them being spotted on route by Zeppelins or submarines was high, thus alerting the German Naval High Command to their objective. And if the aircraft were launched, the likelihood of success was slim; the machines would be picked off by enemy air defences before they got near the fleet anchorage. That was of course, if enough torpedo aeroplanes could be manufactured to make up the numbers required by mid 1918.

Admiral Beatty brought Rutland and Richmond’s recommendations to the Board of Admiralty’s attention less than a month later on September 11 1917. Beatty’s covering letter stipulated that time was of great importance. “Every endeavour should be made to be ready for operations by the Spring of 1918.” Despite the reaction of senior personnel to it aboard Beatty’s flagship less than a month earlier, when officially published the proposal was not automatically disregarded, no doubt to Beatty’s surprise, but nor was there any great enthusiasm shown toward it by the Board.

Lack of interest in the proposal by the Admiralty has been subsequently criticised by historians as evidence of the Board's disinterest in naval aviation. Nothing could be further from the truth; the ground breaking Tondern raid of 18/19 July 1918 distinctly demonstrates a positive attitude toward the aeroplane as an offensive weapon by Admiralty personnel in both the targets selected: airship sheds and the weapon used to disable them: ship launched Sopwith 'Ship's Camels'. The Royal Navy's attack on the Tondern airship sheds by aeroplanes launched from HMS Furious was the very first successful aircraft carrier launched air strike in history.

The Board's reluctance to allocate resources to the scheme is almost certainly because the members' over riding opinion was that efforts should be devoted to producing merchant shipping to counter losses suffered as a result of Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare policy, and not the conversion of these precious hulls into ‘aircraft carriers’. The middle of 1919 was estimated as a more attainable date for when the resources might be available to the Royal Navy to launch Beatty’s offensive.



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