YOU CAN ALMOST HEAR THE GUNFIRE AS IT SWOOPS OVER THE CLIMBING TANK IN THE FIRST WORLD WAR GALLERIES AT IWM LONDON.
Because this example of the famous British Sopwith Camel – so named because of the covering over the machine guns above the engine – was used by the Royal Naval Air Service.
It possibly never saw an army tank or the trenches of Europe when in service with the RNAS.
But this Camel fighter earned its fame in other ways.
Built as a Camel 2F. 1 to a slightly modified design for use by the RNAS, this particular aircraft help pioneer launching aircraft from the sea. (1)
On 31 July 1918 Flight Sub-Lieutenant Stuart Douglas Culley RNAS used N6812 to successfully demonstrate that an aircraft could take-off from a towed lighter (a type of flat-bottomed barge). (2)
This was not an easy thing to do. The flight deck on the lighter was relatively small and being positioned near to the sea the airflow the aircraft needed to launch could be affected by the towing ship itself.
A previous test by Culley’s commanding officer and fellow pilot had ended with a Camel aircraft fitted with a ski undercarriage crashing into the water, before being run over by the lighter. Happily Charles Rumney Samson emerged uninjured. (3)
Now less than two weeks later on the morning of Sunday 11 August 1918 Culley and his Camel were to be tested operationally.
And by the end of the day N6812 would claim the last Zeppelin downed during the First World War. (4)
Admiral Reginald Tyrwhitt RN, commander of the Harwich Strike Force (which was tasked with defending the east coast of Britain from attack) had sailed from Harwich the day before.
Now off the coast of The Netherlands near Terschelling, Tyrwhitt was conducting an offensive reconnaissance sweep designed to lure German forces into battle.
His ships that day comprised of three light cruisers and thirteen destroyers – five of which towed called lighters carrying either a float plane or a wheeled fighter.
Earlier in the mission Tyrwhitt had despatched six motor gunboats to attack German minesweepers.
But things had not gone to plan. The gunboats were sent without air cover as there was little wind. Caught by German seaplanes three of the small British force were sunk, two more disabled and just one made it to safety. (5)
Then at 08:24 a Zeppelin was spotted. (6)
HMS Redoubt increased speed. Culley and his aircraft were readied and launched into the August sky at 08:45.
Tyrwhitt would later remark that Culley’s take-off flight was ‘most inspiring, although he was soon lost in the clouds in which he manoeuvred to get the sun behind him’.
It would take him and his tiny single-seat fighter more than an hour to reach his quarry.
First flown in August 1917 L-53 was designed as a high-altitude long-range airship for the Marine-Luftschiffabteilung (the German Imperial Navy’s airship division).
With a length of 196.5 metres (approximately 650 feet) it could operate at around 610 metres (20,000 feet) and up to this date had completed nineteen reconnaissance missions observing troop and shipping movements as well as well four bombing raids in which it dropped almost 11.75 tons of ordnance on England. (7) (8)
At the Zeppelin’s operating altitude sub-zero cold and the lack of oxygen became new enemies for both German and British airmen and their machines. Pilots could become disorientated or lose consciousness; instruments, control surfaces – and guns – could freeze.
At last Culley closed on the giant airship from below. Unobserved he pulled the aircraft nose-up to get them on the target quickly opened fire. One gun jammed but he emptied the magazine of the other one.
A streak of flame was seen at 09:40 and then a plume of white smoke. Debris fell into the North Sea below.
Kapitänleutnant Eduard Prölss – an experienced German airship commander – and his crew of nineteen would become the last of the 379 officers and men serving with the Marine-Luftschiffabteilung lost on operations. (9)
As was standard practice at the time Culley flew back to the British ships, carefully landing his aircraft in the sea and waited to be picked up before the flimsy canvas and wood machine sank.
It and the pilot were safely recovered. The time was almost noon. The long time that Culley took to return and be picked up after his engagement – more than two hours – may be due to the fact that conditions limited the pilot’s visibility to just two miles. (10)
Culley would be awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his action.
His aircraft would be presented to the newly-formed Imperial War Museum and (without adequate space to display it) become one of nine lent to the Science Museum in London. Between 1924 and 1932 they were all stored in the museum’s basement. A report in the UK National Archives written at some point during this time describes their condition as ‘very bad’. (11)
In April 1946 (as preparation for a major exhibition to launch the post-war re-opening of Imperial War Museum) the aircraft – now in an RAF store – was viewed by Leslie Bradley, the museum’s director. Another report at the UK National states that when N6812 was assembled its canvas covering was ‘seriously deteriorated’ and it was returned to storage. (12)
Happily things have progressed since then and N6812 (which was subsequently restored and has been a long-term resident at the London site for many year) is now displayed in the First World War Gallery at IWM London in beautiful condition.
(1) https://www.baesystems.com/en/heritage/sopwith-camel – retrieved 19 September 2018
(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/July_1918 – retrieved 19 September 2018
(3) http://www.dreadnoughtproject.org/tfs/index.php/Charles_Rumney_Samson – retrieved 19 September 2018
(4) https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/70000220 – retrieved 19 September 2018
(5) http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/114180.html – retrieved 19 September 2018
(6) Transcript of unreferenced Air Historical Branch document ‘Coastal Motor Boat Operations June – August 1918’ http://www.ww1britainssurvivingvessels.org.uk/data/files/CMB%204/Coastal%20Motor%20Boat%20Operations%20June%20-%20August%201918.pdf – retrieved 19 September 2018. Page 6 of 8.
Note: There appear to be some typographical errors in this report or its transcription – for example Culley’s name is as ‘Cowley’.
(7) http://www.theaerodrome.com/forum/showthread.php?t=34432 – retrieved 19 September 2018
(8) http://aviation-safety.net/wikibase/wiki.php?id=914 – retrieved 19 September 2018
(9) www.denkmalprojekt.org/verlustlisten/vl_off_mar-lsa_wk1.htm – retrieved 19 September 2018
(10) ‘Coastal Motor Boat Operations June – August 1918‘ – ibid. Page 7 of 8
(11) UK National Archives File AIR 2/510 ‘Retention and Disposal of War Period Aircraft at Science Museum’, 1932 – 1936 quoted in https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/documents/collections/74-A-19-Sopwith-Triplane-N5912.pdf – retrieved 19 September 2018
(12) UK National Archives File AIR 20/6289 ‘Reports on the collection and preservation of material for museum purposes – Air Historical Branch 4’
There is a ‘Lives of the First World War’ page for Flight Lieutenant Culley at https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/lifestory/7672468. If you can add to the information already published the project would love you to do so!