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  • Writer's pictureShaun Lewis

A pioneer of naval aviation

I am very excited to have received in today’s post, a first-edition copy of Charles Rumney Samson’s autobiography, Fights and Flights, published in 1930, just a year before his sudden death. Samson was one of the first four Royal Navy pilots and a pioneer of naval aviation. He will feature frequently as a character in my current novel about the Royal Naval Air Service, much as Roger Keyes dipped in and out of my first novel (and will come back in a later novel).

Samson was born in 1883, in a suburb of Manchester, so in his day, he was Lancashire born and bred. He joined the Royal Navy as a cadet in 1897 and spent much of his early career off Africa and in the Persian Gulf, suppressing pirates and gun runners.

In 1911, he was selected to begin flying training. He went on to set up the Royal Naval Air Station at Eastchurch, in Kent, and then its naval flying school. In 1912, following his promotion to Commander, he was the first British pilot to take off in an aircraft launched from a ship and, in May that year, he took off from HMS Hibernia to become the first aviator in the world to be launched from a ship at sea. Soon afterwards, on the formation of the Royal Flying Corps, he was given command of its Naval Wing. Throughout his time in command, he worked tirelessly to develop the Naval Wing as a fighting arm of the Royal Navy and conducted trials on wireless communications, bombing, the dropping of air-launched torpedoes and night flying.

On 1 July 1914, the Naval Wing separated from the RFC to become the RNAS. The following month, following the outbreak of war, Samson took his command to Belgium with the intention of helping with the defence of Ostend. Once this was recognised as being impractical, he was ordered to withdraw to England, but used the excuse of fog to disobey these orders. Instead, he set about working with the French and Belgians to use his aircraft for reconnaissance. His command included a large transport pool and he came up with the idea of using the motor cars to assist in this reconnaissance work and to rescue downed pilots. He was even more fortunate that his force comprised several skilled mechanics and testers from the Rolls-Royce, Wolsey and Talbot works. Gradually, the transport was armed with Lewis and Maxim guns and boiler plate added so that his force was named the RNAS Armoured Car Section (later to become the RN Armoured Car Division). One of Samson’s officers was Lord Grosvenor and he was helpful in financing the purchase of several more Rolls-Royce cars. You will have to wait for me to finish my novel to hear more of this section’s exploits.

Meanwhile, a detachment of Samson’s squadron was the first to initiate the concept of strategic bombing when they bombed the Zeppelin sheds at Cologne and Dusseldorf. This was a role the RNAS retained until it was disbanded on 1 April 1918 on the formation of the Royal Air Force.

In 1915, Samson was sent to the Dardanelles in command of 3 Squadron RNAS. There, the squadron carried a range of operations, including anti-submarine patrols, reconnaissance, spotting for the battleships and providing air cover for the troops ashore. Samson even flew a spare periscope to the Sea of Marmora to replace that of HMS E11 which had been damaged by accurate Turkish artillery fire.

In 1916, Samson was given command of a former Isle of Man ferry that had been converted into a seaplane carrier. He operated in the Mediterranean and Gulf harassing the Turks in Syria, Palestine and Arabia. Samson had a reputation for independence and this did not win him friends at the Admiralty. When asked why his ship was expending so much ammunition, he signalled back, “that there was unfortunately a war on.” He later wrote a critical report on the operation of seaplanes that was considered by their Lordships as “most improper” in its tone and content. His application for promotion was withheld and it did not help that his ship ran aground, although he and his officers were acquitted at the subsequent court martial.

In January 1917, Samson’s ship was sunk by Turkish artillery fire and he transferred his command to one of his escort ships. He shifted his zone of operations to the Indian Ocean where he hunted German commerce raiders. From late 1917 until the end of the war, Samson commanded an air group based at Great Yarmouth and operating over the North Sea in the pursuit of U-boats and Zeppelins. Keen to involve his aircraft in operations deeper into the enemy’s coast, he devised a scheme whereby his aircraft were towed on specially-designed lighters behind warships. The aeroplanes were then launched from these lighters to carry out offensive operations, one of which was a successful raid on a Zeppelin shed.

In October 1918, Samson’s command came under the control of the RAF as 73 Wing of 4 Group and he finally received his promotion to Group Captain, having resigned his naval commission in August 1919. However, he refused to give up his pointed, piratical beard. In 1922, he was promoted Air Commodore, but his career prospects were then blighted in 1923 when he divorced his first wife. To the end of his career he bombarded the Air Staff with pioneering proposals, not always welcome even if well-reasoned, and as Chief of Staff, Middle East Command, he organised and led the first flight of an RAF bomber formation to fly from Cairo to Cape Town, opening up the route to commercial aircraft.

Sadly, in 1929, Samson fell dangerously ill and he resigned his commission. He died suddenly, of a heart attack in his home near Salisbury, in February 1931 at the age of 47, and before the birth of his youngest daughter.

Wing Commander Charles Samson in the Dardanelles

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