The first British aircraft used at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 – destroyed by the Luftwaffe on 31 January 1941

RICHARD MADDOX

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

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

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)

THE MODEL OF HMS HERCULES which was displayed by IWM in the Naval Gallery until a German bomb hit the museum on 31 January 1941. IWM catalogue reference MOD 49. Original source https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30018109

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.

Sources

(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

A Vampire on HMS Belfast – 11 January 1949

RICHARD MADDOX

A de Havilland Vampire jet fighter from the Vampire Trials Unit, RAF Tengah, Singapore being transferred from an landing craft to HMS Belfast after landing on the beach at Bias Bay, north of Hong Kong when its fuel ran out on 11 January 1948. Copyright © IWM. IWM catalogue reference HU 56824. Original source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205178970

A de Havilland Vampire jet fighter from the Vampire Trials Unit, RAF Tengah, Singapore being transferred from an landing craft to HMS Belfast after landing on the beach at Bias Bay, north of Hong Kong when its fuel ran out on 11 January 1948. Copyright © IWM. IWM catalogue reference HU 56824. Original source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205178970

WITH JET AIRCRAFT BEING USED OPERATIONALLY BY BOTH THE LUFTWAFFE AND THE RAF at the end of the Second World War, it was clear that this was the next leap for aviation.

Although the British had not had the first jet in the air – that honour fell to the German Heinkel HE 178 in 1939 followed by the Italian Caproni Campini N1 a year later – the Gloster E-28/39 (which first flew in May 1941) had paved the way for that company’s Meteor twin-engined jet, the only allied jet to be used operationally.

Now with the war over a new battle was about to begin.

Armed with their own calculations and those of German scientists, each of the wartime allies prepared to compete against each other to equip the world’s air forces with the new wonder planes.

In doing so not only would they gather cash to rebuild their war-worn economies, they would develop technologies and gain valuable markets for future sales in the years to come.

But the jets and technology would not be simply for export. They would keep the air arms of the manufacturing countries strong.

And the Royal Air Force, still with bases across the globe had to be confident that the Meteor – and Britain’s second operational design the de Havilland Vampire – would perform just as they did in the skies of Western Europe.

RAF Tengah in Singapore was one of the locations chosen to test both designs in tropical conditions.

In June 1947 Gloster Meteor F4s serial numbers EE595 and EE596 flew in and returned to the UK the following month, the trials having been successfully concluded.

In February 1948 it was the turn of the Vampire. (1)

The previous December the de Havilland company and the RAF had jointly established the Vampire Test Unit which would operate two Vampires F3 aircraft (VG 702 and VG 703) from RAF Tengah.

The Vampire was already in front line service with the RAF in the UK and Germany where the little jet complemented the Meteor and had become the first jet aircraft to cross the Atlantic (albeit in stages) when six examples from No.54 Squadron RAF had completed the journey over two days with a flight time of 8 hours 18 minutes. (2)

But would the aircraft – with its plywood fuselage pod – be affected by the heat and humidity of tropical environment? How would the ‘Goblin’ jet engine perform? Would the flight controls still respond as they were designed to?

And what about the effect of cockpit temperature and genhumidity on the pilot?

Flight Lieutenant George ‘Kiwi’ Francis, AFC was an experienced pilot who had gained much experience flying fighters during the Second World War over north- west Europe and the Mediterranean. (3)

He would be monitored by the Aeromedical Branch of the Royal Aeronautical Establishment as he flew the aircraft on test and demonstration flights throughout the region. (4)

These demonstration flights were a chance to ‘fly the flag’ for the new British technology in the hope of attracting sales orders.

As would be expected with someone undertaking this role, Francis was already a skilled and experienced pilot, having joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1940. (5)

Over a period of almost 18 months the Vampire was flown at locations across the Middle, East, Africa and around the Mediterranean.

But it all nearly went badly wrong on Tuesday 11 February 1949 when the tiny single-seat aircraft was making a much anticipated flight from its base at Singapore to the RAF airfield at Kai Tek in Hong Kong.

Already low on fuel from the five hour flight and finding the colony unexpected covered by thick cloud and rain, Frances flying Vampire VG703 looked for a way down onto the airfield.

Then the aircraft’s fuel ran out.

Losing contact with RAF Kai Tek he saw a narrow curving strip of beach about 50 miles from the airfield and decided to try and land the fighter there. The Vampire glided in, making a perfect landing in the soft sand.

But his troubles had not ended.

The beach was on the edge of Bias Bay and in China. It was used by Chinese pirates – some of whom had sided with the Japanese during the Second World War.(6)

In addition to the safety of the pilot and the security of the modern aircraft, it was a time of tension in China. Nationalists and Communists forces were still engaged in a civil war which would last until October 1949 when Mao Zedung proclaimed victory and established the People’s Republic of China. (7)

A Short Sunderland maritime patrol aircraft from No. 88 Squadron RAF saw Frances land, signalled his position and then landed off-shore nearby.

The Vampire’s position was signalled to Hong Kong and also HMS Belfast which had been exercising in Mirs Bay was dispatched to provide assistance. The ship maintained ‘radio contact with naval authorities’ (8)

According to an article in de Havilland’s in-house magazine written later by Lance Westlake, de Havilland’s company engineer in Singapore at the time, he and a medical officer (whose services were not required) were landed from a rubber dingy after being flown to the scene in another Sunderland of No.88 Squadron RAF.

HMS Belfast was anchored about two miles away and had put a detachment of Royal Marines to safeguard the aircraft and pilot.

In addition a landing craft – loaded with fuel, timber, steel planking and other items in case a temporary runway had to be built – together with a small boat had been despatched from Hong Kong.

These vessels carried around 50 RAF technicians and a further armed detachment – this time from ‘The Buffs’, the British Army’s Royal East Kent Regiment. The little party left at 0600. (9) (10)

In the end it was decided to bring the aircraft back on the landing craft and a further 50 men – this time from HMS Belfast who helped move the aircraft into a position from which it could be loaded onto the landing craft – the men who had arrived from Hong Kong being very sea-sick after their ten-hour voyage.

Work carried on into the night lit by portable electric lamps on the beach and searchlights on two Chinese government anti-piracy vessels offshore. It was just after midnight when all was ready for the party to leave with their precious cargo.

Then it was discovered that the landing craft had been beached by the falling tide. For two hours men laboured in the waist-high water to free the landing craft, . Eventually they succeeded.

The landing craft and its accompanying small boat moved about half a mile away from the coast and anchored so that the men could be taken to HMS Belfast and be fed and rested.

Now the weather took a hand. The sea became rougher.

The landing craft with the aircraft still onboard was rising and falling about a metre and there was concern that it could be damaged.

Despite the potential dangers and political embarrassment, everything appears to have passed off without further incident – although Frances does say in one interview that he was ‘fired’ on. It is also said that having landed the aircraft he was immediately surrounded by curious Chinese villagers who he appears to have put to work moving the aircraft away from the water’s edge. (11) (12)

However the sea was becoming rough and it was thought the landing craft might sink in the mounting waves.

So it made for HMS Belfast. Once alongside the tiny silver fighter jet was hoisted up onto the ship’s boat deck and made secure for the journey to Hong Kong.

On arrival it was transferred from the Royal Navy ship to a barge and then taken to a hangar owned by the  Jardine Aircraft Maintenance Company – part of the famous Jardine Matheson group which has roots back to 1832.(13) (14)

The aircraft was inspected the next day, hosed down and sand removed from vents with a vacuum cleaner (!).

Then the engine was tested.

The aircraft appeared to have suffered no ill effects from its unscheduled landing and subsequent man-handling and rescue.

On Saturday 15 January 1949 it flew again ‘giving a thrilling exhibition of aerobatics’.

The display was descrobed as ‘difficult at times to follow… so rapidly did it [the aircraft] zoom into sight – only to go streaking off again into the blue’ during the 20-minute performance over the British colony. (15)

Following extensive testing and demonstration flights to many air forces in the Middle East and Far East, the aircraft was handed back to the de Havilland Aircraft company in October 1949.

When he retired in 1974, George Francis’ RAF career spanned some thirty-four years, during which he flew more than 30 different aircraft types.

He died in July 2006 at the age of eighty-nine. (16)

SOURCES

(1) https://www.northlincsweb.net/103Sqn/html/raf_tengah.html – retrieved 30 October 2018

(2) https://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1948/1948%20-%201135.html – retrieved 30 October 2018

(3) http://www.rafcommands.com/forum/showthread.php?8416-NZ405226-F-O-G-Francis-RNZAF – retrieved 30 October 2018

(4) https://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1948/1948%20-%201135.html – retrieved 30 October 2018

(5) https://www.bournemouthecho.co.uk/news/855710.vampire_pilot_and_war_hero_kiwi_dies_aged_89/ – retrieved 30 October 2018

(6) https://gwulo.com/atom/30775 – retrieved 30 October 2018

(7) https://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/chinese-rev – retrieved 30 October 2018

(8) (9) https://gwulo.com/atom/30774 – retrieved 30 October 2018

(10) https://gwulo.com/atom/30775 – retrieved 30 October 2018

(11) https://www.bournemouthecho.co.uk/news/855710.vampire_pilot_and_war_hero_kiwi_dies_aged_89/ – retrieved 30 October 2018

(12) https://www.scmp.com/article/106257/vampires-teething-problems – retrieved 30 October 2018

(13) https://gwulo.com/atom/30776 – retrieved 30 October 2018

(14) https://www.jardines.com/en/group/history.html – retrieved 30 October 2018

(15) https://gwulo.com/atom/30783 – retrieved 30 October 2018

(16) https://www.bournemouthecho.co.uk/news/855710.vampire_pilot_and_war_hero_kiwi_dies_aged_89/ – retrieved 30 October 2018