A SMALL BUT SIGNIFICANT STEP FORWARD in the history of aviation occured on 31 May 1916.
It was the first time an aircraft was used to to locate an enemy ‘over the horizon’ – that is beyond visual range.
It happened as the opposing fleets were closing on each other off the west coast of Denmark.
The Battle of Jutland – what would become largest sea battle of the First World War – was about to begin.
It lasted for thirty-six hours and involved some 250 vessels and around 100,000 men. (1)
When the battle ended some seven thousand men would be dead. (2)
On the first day of the battle – for the first time ever – a Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) Short 184 aircraft took to the skies at just after 15:00 from the seaplane carrier HMS Engadine, a former cross – Channel ferry. (3)
The first sea-launched air reconnaissance mission had begun.
Flown by Flight Sub-Lieutenant Frederick Rutand and his observer Assistant Paymaster George Trewin, the aircraft had to fly at relatively low level because of the weather conditions.
At around 15:30 they spotted a group of three German cruisers and their destroyers attempting to locate the British fleet and signalled their location and progress.
Then a fuel line ruptured and forced the aircraft down.
Climbing out onto one of the aircraft’s floats, Rutand repaired the damage.
The crew signalled they were ready to resume their patrol but were told to taxi the aircraft back to Engadine.
With that the sortie was over.
In December 1917 the aircraft was presented to the newly-founded Imperial War Museum.
Imperial War Museum has had a nomadic existence.
For the first three years it had no permanent exhibition site with its offices and artefact in various locations in London. In 1920 it moved to the huge former Great Exhibition site (also known as Crystal Palace) near Sydenham in south London where it remained for four years. (4)
In 1924 the museum moved to South Kensington in London, near to National History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Science Museum – to which its aircraft collection was loaned.
It spent some time stored with other similar IWM exhibits – including the Sopwith Camel currently displayed in the First World War galleries – in the basement of the Science Museum. Conditions were not ideal as a report stated that the artefacts were stored in a ‘very bad condition’. (5)
THE BOMB-DAMAGED NAVAL GALLERY AT IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM 31 January 1941 showing extensive damage to fuselage of the Short 184 seaplane used at the Battle of Jutland. Note what may be a staff member wearing a Brodie steel helmet. Copyright: © IWM. IWM catalogue reference MH 127. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections /item/object/205219844
ANOTHER VIEW OF THE HEAVILY DAMAGED SHORT 184 at the Imperial War Museum’s Naval Gallery Road, 31 January 1941 showing the shredded wings and canvas covering on the aircraft’s fuselage. Image Copyright: © IWM. IWM catalogue reference MH 116. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196686
The Imperial War Museum moved to its present home at Lambeth, south London in 1932 and the aircraft was displayed in the Naval Gallery at the museum.
On 31 January 1941 a German bomb landed directly on the gallery, severely damaging the Short 184 as well as other artefacts.
These included a model of HMS Hercules was badly damaged in the attack and not repaired for almost seventy year’s .
The actual ship was also at the Battle of Jutland and narrowly missed being hit on two occassions by torpedoes fired from German destroyers. (6)
Fate did not smile on the ship model that day.
The bomb blast shattered the model’s glass showcase, and turned the ship’s masts and other fittings into a tangled mess.
The smashed model was simply gathered up and put into storage.
It remained in that condition until 2010.
A group of men working in the gallery were luckier.
They had gone to lunch prior to the attack and were uninjured. (7)
In 2010 – sixty-nine years after the model was damaged and as IWM London began planning exhibits to mark the centenary of the First World War – the model was painstakingly restored.
Since 2014 it has been displayed in IWM London’s First World War Galleries.
There it helps tell the story of British pre-World War One maritime and naval power.
In 1976 a substantial amout of the unrestored fuselage of the Short 184 was loaned to the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton, Somerset, England as part of the Museum’s marking of the sixtieth anniversary of the Battle of Jutland. (8)
During the course of the war the Imperial War Museum was hit forty-one times by bombs with the resulting damage – like similar museums – not being completely repaired until the 1950s.
(1) https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/what-was-the-battle-of-jutland – retrieved 17 September 2018
(2) https://www.nmrn.org.uk/news-events/nmrn-blog/pioneering-aircraft-battle-jutland-be-brought-life-exhibition-fleet-air-arm – retrieved 17 September 2018
(3) http://www.historynet.com/frederick-rutland-tinker-sailor-aviator-spy.htm – retrieved 17 September 2018
(4) https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/iwms-early-years-in-16-images – retrieved 17 September 2018
(5) https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/documents/collections/74-A-19-Sopwith-Triplane-N5912.pdf – retrieved 17 September 2018
(6) https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30018109 – retrieved 17 September 2018
(7) https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/iwms-early-years-in-16-images – retrieved 17 September 2018
(8) https://www.fleetairarm.com/exhibit/Short-184-8359/1-29-2.aspx – retrieved 17 September 2018