Out of Action

Today’s image comes from a WWI postcard.

Image from WWI postcard of captured German Pfalz DIII aircraft.

The original is a very dark sepia with almost no detail in the shadows so although this isn’t perfect, it’s an improvement, believe me. It shows a group of British military personnel gathered round what is left of a German aircraft. I think we can see a mixture of army and Royal Flying Corps uniforms there.

The wreck on the trailer used to be a Pfalz DIII, probably a DIIIa which dates the photograph to sometime between November 1917 – when the type was introduced – and the end of the war twelve months later. The shape of the cross on the fuselage suggests it might have been prior to April 1918. Two R.F.C. men are standing in front of the aircraft’s number which makes it difficult to be any more specific.

Although over a thousand of both variants were made, no originals have survived. There are only two replicas to show what the DIII would have looked like in one piece. This is one of them.

A replica Pfalz D.III German WWI fighter aircraft.


It was made in 1965 for the movie ‘The Blue Max’ so, at 53 years old, it’s edging towards veteran status.


The Navy gets its wings

During the late war [World War One], the Navy acquired its wings with the formation of the Royal Naval Air Service, which corresponded to the the Royal Flying Corps ashore. But these two separate forces were merged into the Royal Air Force, and for many years a dual control of the aircraft attached to the Royal Navy caused a great deal of muddle and misunderstanding. The aircraft were supplied by the Air Ministry. While they were embarked in H.M. Ships they were under the control of the Navy, but when disembarked they were commanded and administered by the R.A.F. The pilot personnel was 70 per cent Naval, while all the observers were Naval officers and men. In 1939 the Admiralty assumed control of the Fleet Air Arm.

Image from cigarette card of H.M.S. Eagle, with Fairey Flycatcher biplane.The first of our ships built to carry aircraft was H.M.S. Eagle, which was under construction as a battleship for the Chilean Navy when war was declared in 1914, and was bought by the British Government as she lay on the stocks in 1917. She is of 22,600 tons, but carries only 21 aircraft. The aircraft in this picture is a Fairey Flycatcher.

World War Two Royal Nay aircarft carrier Furious. Image from a cigarette card.Three heavy ships, of 22,500 tons each, were converted later into aircraft carriers – Furious, carrying 33 aeroplanes and completed in 1925; Courageous, carrying 48, completed in 1928, and Glorious, carrying 48, completed in 1930.

H.M.S. Hermes was the first ship to be designed and built as an aircraft carrier. She is of 10,850 tons, and carries only 15 aeroplanes. But design has advanced rapidly, and the more recent ships – Ark Royal and her successors – have accommodation for 70 aeroplanes.

HMS_sharkIn this picture a Blackburn Shark torpedo-bomber aircraft is seen taking off from the flight deck of H.M.S. Courageous. The wire stretching across the deck in the foreground is an “arrester” which catches on to a hook under the aircraft as it lands. The Courageous carries aircraft of various types adapted for torpedo-bombing, fighting and spotter-reconnaissance work.

HMS_RecPlaneThis shows a Fairey III F reconnaissance ‘plane taking off from H.M.S. Courageous. An aeroplane takes off and lands into the wind, the direction of the steam jet seen coming from the bows of the ship indicating to the navigator when the ship is steaming dead into the wind. The aircraft carrier Courageous belongs to what is admitted to be the Navy’s ugliest class of vessels.

Image from a cigarette card of a WWII Walrus aircraft in flight.The most popular machine in the Fleet Air Arm is the Walrus, an amphibian biplane with the propeller behind the cockpit – a “pusher.” This is essentially a reconnaissance plane, and as it is a very sturdy type of flying-boat it is very seaworthy. It is used chiefly on patrol duty on trade routes, for intercepting ships, spotting submarines and floating mines, and carrying out bombing attacks if necessary.

The Skua is a larger aircraft, a low-winged monoplane, and fighters are usually Gloucester [sic] Gladiators, small biplanes with a very high climbing speed and the utmost manoeuvrability.

Gloster Gladiator

Edited from ‘The Royal Navy’, Wm. Collins Sons and Co. Ltd., June 1941, and cigarette cards from 1936 and 1938. Aircraft design advanced so quickly during this period that the Fairey IIIF and Blackburn Shark had been withdrawn from frontline carrier service by the outbreak of war. Curiously, the 1941 book doesn’t admit that Courageous was sunk back in 1939, although it does mention the loss of H.M.S. Hood in May.

Virginia plane

U S S West VirginiaI bought these two old snapshots from the same online trader although, oddly, they were offered for sale several months apart. They could have been taken on the same day by the same person but were not printed on the same photographic paper. They feature a seaplane, which I didn’t recognise, and the name ‘U.S.S. West Virginia’, which of course I did.

VirginiaPlane2sIn the period between World Wars, American battleships, and those of other navies, carried observation aircraft – ‘spotter planes’ – fitted with floats. Launched by catapult from the deck, they landed beside the ship when their mission was over and were retrieved by crane. This was skilled, dangerous work and easier said than done.

The original images were obviously personal snaps taken by one or more of the West Virginia’s crew, not the work of a Navy photographer, but after a quick rinse through software they scrubbed up looking like this



I’ll admit that U.S. Navy aircraft of the 1920s are not my strong point. In my defence, I can’t possibly know everything and that’s why we have search engines. I discovered two things
(1) there are more to sort through than you might imagine
(2) as all you aviation experts already know, this is a Vought OU-1 – standard equipment in the U.S. Navy for ten years from 1923 and an aircraft with a couple of notable firsts to its credit.

In 1924 it was the first plane to be catapulted off a battleship at night and, five years later, the first plane to dock with a dirigible (airship) in flight! “Why?”, I hear you ask. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The San Diego Air and Space Museum have several better quality images on their Flickr site and you can find a good photograph of USS Pennsylvania with two planes mounted aft on this well researched page about the short history of catapult aviation.

Two mysteries remain – the location of the photographs (if you can help with that, please leave a comment) and how did these personal souvenirs from an American battleship end up in New Zealand?

The West Virginia found fame later in life when she was sunk at Pearl Harbour, salvaged, rebuilt, and put back into the fight. She was in Tokyo Bay for the Japanese surrender in 1945.


A small boat rescues a USS West Virginia crew member from the water after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Two men can be seen on the superstructure, upper center. The mast of the USS Tennessee is beyond the burning West Virginia.
USN/AP via rarehistoricalphotos

Fighter Ace

Closeup of red poppies on a war memorial wreath.Tomorrow will be the 11th day of the 11th month and, at the 11th hour, Armistice Day will be commemorated in many countries around the world. Begun as a way to mark the end of the Great War and remember all those who didn’t come home, it now includes all who have died in subsequent wars. It is sometimes referred to as Remembrance Day, possibly because of the lines repeated at every war memorial service “…at the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.” So here is one story to remember on Armistice Day.

In June 1940, with the advancing German army just days away from Paris, R.A.F. pilot Paul Richey decided to take a last look at the city.

“Paris as a whole retained its irresponsible gaiety – though one felt it was even rather too irresponsible. The couples still sipped their champagne and sang the choruses of romantic songs in the boulevard cafes. Albert still bowed one in with a portly gesture and a welcoming smile at Maxim’s. The Ritz Bar was still in full swing before lunch and again before dinner. The only thing changed was the almost total abscence of soldiers.

It was as I walked down the Champs Elysees towards the Concorde one afternoon that I came upon Cobber, of 73 Squadron, sitting at a pavement table with the 73 Squadron Doctor and a well-known journalist. Over a drink Cobber told me that the rest of the original 73 had gone back to England, and that they had been re-formed, like us. He had stayed behind to help get things going, but was off in a couple of days’ time. He was on a few hours’ leave now. He said they’d had some losses – about five killed, I think – and in answer to my question told me his own personal score of Huns was 17. I noticed, but without surprise in the circumstances, that he seemed nervous and pre-occupied, and kept breaking matches savagely in one hand while he glowered into the middle distance. Like the rest of us, he’d had enough for a bit.

HurricaneThe following day [7th] a Hurricane roared down and beat up 73’s aerodrome south-west of Paris. To finish up with it did a couple of flick-rolls in succession at 200 feet, and foolishly attempted a third with insufficient speed. Naturally it spun off. It straightened out promptly enough, but of course had no height and went in. The rescue squad was shocked to find an identity disc marked with Cobber’s name on the body. So died Cobber.”
‘Fighter Pilot’, 1941.

Cobber KainB

© IWM (C 1148)

Flying Officer Edgar “Cobber” Kain, DFC, from Hastings, New Zealand, was recognised as the R.A.F.’s first fighter ace of World War Two. He was 21 years old when he died on 7th June. He had become engaged to the English actress Joyce Phillips in April. The wedding was planned for July.

Parachute training

parachuteParachutes are to the airman what lifeboats are to the sailor; the service pilot of to-day has one for use in emergency. More than 100 lives have been saved since they were introduced into the R.A.F. ten years ago. Training in their use is given to all pilots in the Service, and a mass descent demonstration has been a feature of the annual display at Hendon for several years past. We show a cheerful parachutist on the wing of an aeroplane, waiting to pull the ripcord which will release his parachute and draw him backwards into space.
Cigarette card, Ardath Tobacco Co., 1936.

If this caption is accurate, parachutes were first issued to R.A.F. pilots in 1926, so they took their own sweet time in handing out the “lifeboats”. You can read more about the Service’s shameful attitude to parachutes here.

Pulling the ripcord before jumping sounds like a good way to get the canopy wrapped around the aircraft’s tail, but we have to assume they knew what they were doing. Don’t we?

You can see a British Pathé newsreel of the 1937 Hendon air display on Youtube.

Boats and ‘Planes

This photograph came to me in an auction lot of miscellaneous images labelled “ships”.

Competing seaplanes in the 1929 Schneider Trophy air race.

Granted, there is a large motor yacht in the middle of the shot (flying an R.A.F. flag at the stern) but the real interest in the picture is the group of five streamlined seaplanes in the foreground. It didn’t take long to realize that these are the competitors in the Schneider Trophy air race held on the South coast of England in 1929. The two farthest from the camera are British Supermarine aircraft and the trio in the foreground make up the Italian team of Macchis. It’s a pity the photograph isn’t in colour, the Italian machines were painted bright red.

The Schneider Trophy.The trophy had been presented to the Aero Club of France by Jacques Schneider in 1912 for a competition open to all types of seaplane over a course determined in advance. This could be either in a straight line, a broken line, or over a circuit of not less than 150 nautical miles. A competitor winning three times out of five consecutive contests would keep the trophy permanently. The first race in 1913, won by France at just over 45 miles per hour, was a fairly low key affair but the contest soon attracted world wide attention and became the symbol of advanced technology and speed in the air. Soaring development costs eventually demanded government sponsorship and winning the trophy became a matter of national prestige. The Royal Air Force formed a special team, the High Speed Flight led by Squadron Leader Orlebar, to achieve that goal.

Britain had won in 1927 against an Italian team and, with the withdrawal of America, Germany and France in 1929, the stage was set for a rematch. The winner was aircraft number 2 in the picture, a Supermarine S.6 flown by Flight Lieutenant Richard Waghorn, followed by the Macchi M.52R of Warrant Officer Tommaso Dal Molin (number 4), and, in third place, the Supermarine S.5 (number 5) of Flight Lieutenant (later Air Commodore) D’Arcy Greig. David Masters described the scene in his book ‘On the Wing’ (1934).
“There must have been 1,000,000 people watching all round the course on September 7, 1929, which luckily turned out to be an ideal day. …..
One of the most thrilling moments was when Waghorn, seeing Dal Molin just ahead on a turn, sped after him and overtook him…… It was Waghorn’s race, with an average speed of 328.63 miles an hour, but he himself did not at first realize it. He was under the impression that he had another lap to go, so he went roaring on like a destroying demon”.

The ‘demon’ ran out of fuel and was forced to land short of his imagined finish line. When his support crew reached him – “He was cursing like anything over what he thought was his hard luck – “swearing like a trooper” is the way Orlebar described his language – and his relief can be guessed when he learned he had tried to do an extra lap”.

Tragically, 26 year old Waghorn and 28 year old Dal Molin would both die flight-testing aircraft before the next trophy race in 1931, which Britain won by default. France and Italy were unable to get their machines ready in time for the start so it was left to Flight Lieutenant John Boothman to fly the course on his own in a Supermarine S.6b, pushing the record to 340 m.p.h. and winning the trophy outright.

British Supermarine S6B racing floatplane. Winner of the 1931 Schneider Trophy.

Supermarine S.6b. “There really is very little sensation of speed even when flying low, because one cannot see vertically downwards even if one wanted to, owing to the bulge of the fuselage”. (Squadron Leader Augustus Orlebar).

Pilots of the R. F. C.


Officers and Men of the Royal Flying Corps with Their Machines

On the right is a sergeant of the R. F. C., wearing the new badge of a propeller on his arm. He is saluting two aviation officers, one dressed for flying, the other wearing the flying certificate badge. On the right is an army B. E. biplane, with its four-bladed propeller and two seats for pilot and observer. This type, it is stated, is becoming more and more the standard pattern of machine for use by the R. F. C. On the left is a Bleriot monoplane and in the air a Henri Farman biplane.
‘Earl Kitchener and the Great War’, 1916.

One of the first honours of 1916, if not the very first, was the Military Cross awarded to Captain W. D. S. Sanday, who went out on January 1 in a very high wind to observe the fire of a battery near Hulluch, and owing to the clouds was forced to fly at a height of no more than between 800 and 900 feet. Nothing daunted by the heavy rifle-fire to which he was continually subjected, he did not return until he had enabled our battery to score several direct hits.

One of the youngest heroes of the Buffs, Second-Lieutenant Frank Hudson, attached to the Royal Flying Corps, was similarly decorated in the early months of this year for skill and gallantry on several occasions. “This young officer”, to quote from the Gazette, “is only eighteen years of age, but has many times driven off enemy machines and twice forced them to the ground.” Once he was severely wounded in the head, but successfully completed his aerial reconnaissance, although after recrossing our line and landing at an aerodrome he at once lost consciousness.

More dramatic still was the magnificent feat of Lieutenant M. Henderson, of the Seaforth Highlanders and Royal Flying Corps, who was struck by a shell from a German anti-aircraft gun [21 Feb 1916]. The shell passed through the nacelle of Lieutenant Henderson’s machine and took off his left leg just below the knee; but in spite of this he succeeded in descending from a height of 7000 feet and landing 3000 yards behind our line, thus saving his aeroplane and the life of his observer as well. For this he received the D.S.O.
‘The Great World War Vol. V.’ The Gresham Publishing Company Ltd, London. c. 1917