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  • Writer's pictureShaun Lewis

The birth of naval aviation

My third novel in the WW1 naval thriller For Those in Peril series is scheduled for publication by Endeavour Media in January 2020. It continues the Miller family saga and focuses on the history of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). The book is called The Wings of the Wind.

The Royal Navy's air arm began life as the naval wing of the newly created Royal Flying Corps in April 1912. A few months later, a new Air Department at the Admiralty was formed under the command of Captain Murray Sueter to oversee all naval aviation matters. A year earlier, four naval officers had been selected and trained to fly at a civilian airfield in Kent. One of these officers was Charles Samson, destined to command the naval wing and to become a pioneer of naval aviation. In May 1913, Samson piloted the first aeroplane to be launched from a ship underway. He had a fascinating career, winning several gallantry awards and ending his career as an Air Commodore in the RAF. My novel draws extensively on his autobiography Fights and Flights.

Although a central flying school was established at Upavon to teach both army and naval officers to fly, the navy was permitted to conduct experimental flying at its new school at Eastchurch, under the command of Samson. As naval aircraft were expected to operate from ships and the sea, unlike the army, the navy was able to approach a wide variety of aircraft manufacturers to design and build suitable machines.

By 1914, it had become clear that the army's and navy's needs were very different and that they needed to operate independently. Accordingly, on 1 July 1914, the Royal Naval Air Service was established, wholly under the control of the Admiralty. The army had to operate those aeroplanes built by the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough, principally the BE2, a reconnaissance aircraft too slow for use as a fighter. However, the navy had established contracts with such manufacturers as Sopwith to provide a variety of aircraft to defend the fleet and its bases. As a result, during WW1, it was the navy that had to provide fighter escorts over the Western Front as well as taking on the duties of air defence against the Zeppelins. One of the squadrons in France, 'Naval Eight', later to become the RAF's 208 Squadron, was to serve with distinction to offer the British air superiority. The lending of a naval squadron to the army was so successful that a further four naval squadrons were sent to France.

The RNAS continued in existence until it was merged with the RFC on 1 April 1918 to form the Royal April Fools (RAF). It was not until May 1939 that the navy regained total control of its own air branch. Although the Fleet Air Arm was formed in 1924, it came under the control of the RAF and encompassed those RAF units normally embarked in ships.

As the Royal Navy prepares to receive its first batch of carrier-borne fixed wing aircraft since the withdrawal of the Sea Harrier in 2004, it can look back with pride at over 100 years of pioneering aviation history.

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