Robert A. Lawler,
Guests of the Sultan
When John Tulloch Cull R.N.A.S. (Royal Naval Air Service) approached the front of the palace of Sir Khalifa II bin Harub Al-Said, ninth Sultan of Zanzibar, he stifled a snicker. The newly promoted Flight Commander and D.S.O. (Distinguished Service Order) recipient felt right at home. The palace was a three-story affair, surrounded by ornate balconies and breezeways and surmounted with a two-story clock tower.
The interior of the bright white palace was taken up by a heavily landscaped courtyard, which was actually more of a covered atrium. The total effect would have been magnificent if it hadn’t reminded him of a score of other places he had seen in the Indian subcontinent and scattered about Colombo in Ceylon where he had grown up. The ornate cast iron screens and balconies, plus the detailed crenellation and arches simply confirmed the effect.
The ostensible Indian details were not a mistake; Indian artisans had been imported to achieve the same. The style was a bit of a departure from all of the other local architecture, as was the intent. The palace was also electrified and had an elevator; this was to prove that the Sultan was a modern up-to-date 20th century ruler. The surrounding city, (except for the British areas,) however, was straight out of the middle ages. The palace had one other claim to fame. It was the scene of the shortest war in history. This war was against the British (Navy) and lasted 38 minutes. Her Majesty’s Government had not cared for the ascension of one of the sultan’s predecessors, and had bombarded the place long enough to send Khalid ibn Barghash into retreat and later exile.
A child of the Empire, John Tullogh Cull had been born the son of John Barnabas Cull, Principal of the Royal College, at Colombo, Ceylon on the 22nd of August, 1887. His mother, Edith Rose Tulloch, was the daughter of Archdeacon John Tulloch. John shared his middle name with his order brother, Arthur, who was serving with the Royal Flying Corps in France. Cull was a rather small man, with very fair skin, light coloured hair and a somewhat elongated nose
John had entered the Royal Navy on the 29th of March of 1904, passing out of Britannia into a sub-lieutenancy. His early service records were not noteworthy. He was considered at various times to be quiet and not very zealous, or sleepy but anxious to get the training over with. By the 15th of January 1914 he received his Royal Aero Certificate (No. 726) and had joined the R.N.A.S. in July. By the 7th of January 1915, Flight Lt. Cull was ordered to take a special flight to East Africa to spot the fall of shot for two R.N. river monitors. These ships, H.M.S. Severn and Mersey were being built for Brazil at the beginning of the war. Commandeered by the Admiralty, they were sent from Malta to destroy the German light cruiser S.M.S. Konigsburg.
The succeeding action was watched with some great interest by the by the First Lord before his fall from power and subsequent wounding on the Western Front. As a personal favour, Winston Churchill (the outgoing First Lord of The Admiralty,) had asked Arthur Balfour (his replacement,), to continue with the ongoing plan Churchill had come up with before his fixation with the Dardinelles and subsequent loss of power and position. Balfour had worked with Churchill from the time of the younger man’s entry into politics. It suited this philosopher/politician to continue his predecessors’ work as he was curious himself what the result would be.
As attached to seaplanes as Churchill was, he woke with a flash one night and happened to write down two insights: 1. If an observation aircraft could be launched from the flat deck of a ship via wheels it would have much more range than heavily burdened seaplanes. 2. If this same airplane could be landed next to a ship and equipped with rudimentary flotation devices, the crew and even the aeroplane might be saved.
As the Konigsburg action was to be the first to spot naval shell fire from the air it is also the start of our adventure. The Konigsburg had been the stationed ship of the Imperial German Navy in German East Africa when the War had broken out. She immediately went in for commerce raiding. She managed to sink a grand total of one British merchantman and catch the old cruiser H.M.S. Pegasus at anchor and undergoing boiler repairs in the very harbour Cull was walking past. She was sunk after an utterly uneven battle. Her eight 4” (10cm) quick firing guns were recovered, mounted on improvised field carriages, and used in the subsequent East African land campaign. They were known ever after in the theater as the “Peggy Guns.” The Tenth Heavy Artillery of the South African Army were their keepers throughout the subsequent campaign. (However these weapons were nothing so good as the 105mm guns dismounted from the destroyed Konigsburg and used by the Germans for the rest of the war on improvised carriages.)
This affront to British naval supremacy was simply not to be borne. First came three British light cruisers to oppose her. Konigsburg and her tender, the collier S.S. Somali, went up the twisted delta of the Rufigi River. One of the three, H.M.S. Chatham chased both German ships upstream, almost to the point of going aground. Chatham managed to set Somali afire and she burnt out to a useless hulk. Konigsburg simply went further upriver and was camouflaged as well as possible.
The Admiralty then impressed a civilian pilot by the name of H.D. Cutler. Cutler was flying a pair of ill maintained American Curtiss flying boats. Each powered by a, (theoretical,) 90 H.P. engine. Cutler had been giving exhibition flights at Durban, South Africa, but soon found himself and one of the Curtiss’ onboard the unarmed steamship H.M.S. Kinfauns Castle. Cutler was a newly minted, (temporary,) Flight Sub-Lieutenant in the R.N.A.S. He saw his machine damaged en-route to East Africa and had to send for the ailerons from the second machine back in Durban.
After much tinkering and calk the dilapidated Curtiss managed to get into the air with just Cutler aboard. The engine would not tune properly in the heat and humidity and was yielding nowhere near its advertised 90 H.P. The aeroplanes left the water at 0700 on the 6th of November, 1914 on her first reconnaissance flight, but Cutler spotted nothing and was forced to put down offshore. He was picked up by Kinfauns Castle that afternoon and after repairing a new hole in his hull he tried again two days later. He found Konigsburg 12 miles up the river and reported this to Kinfauns Castle who then sent a wireless to Chatham with this information.
Of course the Captains and Admirals in the chain of command did not believe the man on the spot. The Admiralty charts indicated that it was too shallow for Konigsburg to be there, and that was simply that. The Royal Navy required a trained observer to come along. The rest of the second machine was duly sent from Durban to build a functioning craft with the best parts from both machines. A Royal Navy captain and then a commander were taken aloft and confirmed that Konigsburg was indeed where Cutler had said she was. By the time a few weeks had passed Konigsburg had moved, (due no doubt to all of this overhead activity.) On December 10th Cutler pushed his luck once too often and was forced down with loss of petrol pressure near the mouth of the river. He was attempting repairs when a German officer and a squad of native troops appeared on the scene. Cutler was forced to set his aeroplane afire and dump his charts in the river, he was then made a prisoner of the Germans for the remainder of the war and his aeroplane was lost to all parties as the British sank it with gunfire.
This was where things stood when Cull was sent to East Africa, in charge of No. 4 RNAS Expeditionary Force. They had been sent from England to East Africa via Bombay! The group left the United Kingdom in mid January 1915. On the way they picked up two Sopwith 807 Seaplanes, (Folders,) from Calshot which were sent ahead to be onboard the SS Persia as she was sailing from Tilbury immediately. H.M.S. Kinfauns Castle was to meet up with the aeroplanes in Bombay, where they were to be assembled and taken onboard.
Cull had hoped to have Short Folders (827s) instead, but he was nearer the end of a long queue for them. The 807 Folders actually used a wing pivot device that the Short Brothers had patented for their own Folders. Tom Sopwith paid the Short brothers fifteen Pounds for the privilege. The 807s were underpowered and the floats leaked. Most damning of all was that when they finally reached East Africa their wooden frames and propellers came apart in the heat and humidity. Spares were virtually non-existent. The Admiralty works department in Zanzibar, for example, had to make obturator springs, (piston rings, normally of brass,) from silver wire…
Culls musings were interrupted by his arrival at the front of the palace. He straightened himself up as well as he could. It just would not do to arrive looking down at the heel at the invitation of a local potentate. As luck would have it he met up with Flight-Lieutenant Harold E. M. Watkins. Watkins had piloted the other effective aeroplanes the flight possessed that final day of success; a French Caudron III. Cull had piloted a French Henri Farman F27. Both aircraft were mostly open framework and intended for training, reconnaissance and light bombing . The only major difference was the Cadron was a tractor and the Farman was a pusher.
In the company of Watkins was Flight Sub-Lieutenant Harwood J. Arnold. Arnold had been the observer in the F27 in the last action. Cull and Arnold had gone on to win DSOs for their efforts in spotting shell fall and harassing the Konigsburg. Watkins had dropped some bombs early on in the final action, (all missed,) while the monitors were getting into firing position and spotted for the last bit of the Konigsburg’s destruction.
Cull looked the two over. “Well Gentlemen, we have managed to survive thus far and both of your uniforms are ship-shape. Gaskill-Blackburn was kept behind for some last minute reason. I hope he makes it to the celebration.” he said with a smile. “Bye-the-bye, where is Bishop?” Cull was referring to Flight Sub-Lieutenant Alan G. Bishop, a Royal Marine volunteer, who was Watkins observer during the decisive action.
Watkins looked askance at Cull and patted himself all over, “Ship-shape? Certainly not! But I will accept airworthy. And in reply to your question; the ‘Bish’ should be along shortly”
Arnold looked unbelievingly at Cull. “Are you sure about that surviving part, Sir? You came damned near to feeding the crocodiles!” Cull gathered mock decorum about himself like a robe. “Harry, the important thing is I did not feed the crocodiles and am here to celebrate, no little thanks to you. That is at least as much as we can celebrate, with getting nothing to drink stronger than sherbet and ices. Rumour is we‘ll get plenty of cigarettes and cigars out of this at the very least, no pipe tobacco though,” he concluded sadly.
“ Sherbets and ices?! Bloody Mohammedans!” Watkins interjected, with more good humour than not.
“I know, Hal” Cull said soothingly, “We can slip out to someplace in Stone Town after a suitable amount of time has passed. We don’t want to offend the Sultan. He is on our side after all. He seems quite a decent chap actually.”
Cull had taken the Sultan on a brief flight in one of the Squadron’s three Short 827s which had finally been sent out after the Sopwiths fell apart. The Sultan had been thrilled and had offered to host a reception and celebration for everyone involved in the operation to sink the Konigsburg. This party was for both the air and sea units and everybody was invited. Each and everyone from Admiral King-Hall down to the lowest ranking mechanics and ship's boys were planning on being there. Cull, Watkins, Arnold, and Bishop all had been in the thick of it and were sure to be approached by the Sultan.
Sayyid Sir Khalifa II bin Harub Al-Said, KGMC, was eight years Cull’s senior. He seemed to be a diligent and rather thoughtful monarch. A British knighthood, namely the Order of St Michael and St George had been given him recently. He had also been awarded the King George V Coronation Medal. (It obviously never hurt matters to flatter the native rulers!) The question facing Cull was: How do you treat with a Sultan? He had spoken to a few Rajas and Maharajas in India. The trick was to seem deferential without offending the dignity of an officer of the Royal Naval Air Service. That he could do, the rest was up to the Colonial Office.
As the three young men mounted the steps up to the great, iron studded, double doors, (which had been made large enough to pass the Sultan on the back of an elephant,) Bishop arrived, slightly out of breath.
“Will you fellows slow down!” he panted. “I’ve run all the way from the harbour!”
Cull let him catch his breath and set him straight as to the evenings’ plans. They then walked past the outlandish doormen through the opened doors into the entry hall, straight out the other side and entered the garden. This garden had been set up with a receiving line which Cull and Co. quickly entered.
Being somewhat on the early side they were soon shaking hands with the Sultan, his Courtiers, and their various high flunkies. This took about 15 minutes. The transfer of precise semantic content seemed very doubtful. They got their “drinks,” were given a few cartons of fags and a box of decent cigars, each. Cull took his share all the same; they could be traded later for almost everything.
After this duty was completed the four flyers stood off to the side of the garden and watched the later arrivals. The first group to arrive was Vice-Admiral King-Hall and his staff. To the four men’s surprise, amid this august group, was the other pilot of note in the squadron, Flight Lieutenant Vivian Gaskell-Blackburn. Even more surprising was the presence of Chief Air Mechanic Ebenezer Henry Alexander Boggis and Air Mechanic George Walker Sutcliffe!
In addition there was a Commander with the group whom Cull had never seen before. Cull had heard him introduced as Aaron Tompkins. Tompkins had a barely detectable Scots or Ulsterman’s burr and looked like he had seen more than a few pub brawls. He was in his early to mid thirties and on the large side. He was possessed of a much broken nose, a lantern jaw with flanking mutton-chop whiskers, piercing blue eyes, and had a short shock of thinning light brown wavy hair. He appraised Cull and his men for about 15 seconds. He then smiled mysteriously and turned back to the high ranking group he was with.
What was that all about? Cull wondered. He had never met any Celts with the name Tompkins. He dropped the thought as Squadron Commander Gordon who was in charge of the R.N.A.S. detachment, (by now squadron sized,) arrived with the other officers, petty officers and enlisted men.
Honours among the enlisted men in the air contingent were taken by Chief Air Mechanic Boggis. He had flown with Cull in April in one of the Shorts to observe on the first mission for the contingent. He had also worked wonders on the maintenance side. Cull considered him indispensable. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his efforts. The only enlisted man to be so recognized in the Squadron.
After a few hours had passed the flyers were beginning to grow bored and thirsty for something stronger than fruit ices. They looked around for their Squadron Commander, Robert Gordon, but he had disappeared along with Vice-Admiral King-Hall and Gaskell-Blackburn. Tompkins was speaking to Boggis and Sutcliffe who then left the party with a group of their peers. Tompkins then approached the group of airmen.
“Good evening, Heroes! As you no doubt have heard I am Commander Tompkins and would like to buy you all a drink or several. What say you?” He managed to sound sardonic, serious, and jovial all at the same time.
Cull was perplexed and a more than a little worried, but nobody in their right mind turned down an offer like that.
“Certainly, Sir! We have been waiting for such an opportunity to present itself for the last hour, at the very least. We’re all quite thirsty! We hope you have deep pockets! ”
Tompkins smiled enigmatically. “Very well. In payment for this, I need your input on a program being considered at the Admiralty. No obligations, of course. However you will be told these things on the condition of strictest secrecy.”
Watkins spoke up, “Are Gaskell-Blackburn, Boggis and Sutcliffe to be involved with this program?”
“They have three hours to decide, as I have three hours to discover your minds. Gentlemen. Shall we proceed?”
The quartet looked at each other and shrugged. What did they have to loose?
Tompkins took them down the waterfront to the Tembo Hotel. They found a table on the veranda as the tropical sun set in in splendor toward the general direction of the African mainland. Cull looked at the display with world-weary eyes.
“Makes you wonder what old Lettow-Vorbeck is up to now.” he mused.
Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck had been the ranking military officer in German Tanganyika at the start of the war. His nominal boss, Dr. Heinrich Schnee, had been the governor of this largest German colony since 1912. Schnee had wanted to keep the colonial sphere free of the war that was to rage between the Fatherland and the British Empire. It was not to be. The British quickly took the Cameroons and German South West Africa, on the west coast. Lettow-Vorbeck was not going to let that happen in Tanganyika. He had a large core of trained officers and N.C.O.s with which to train the native troops.
These so called Askaris were to prove their value in the theater again and again. The British had even trained some of the troops the Germans had hired on. The British never seemed to get the idea that anyone other than natives were at a huge disadvantage fighting in Equatorial Africa. There were Kings African Rifles units to be sure; but they were undermanned and the Germans were able to hire these surplus unemployed soldiers.
The troops brought in by the world’s mightiest empire were at first from the Indian Army. The officers were British; however these levies were all around four or five generations from serious combat and had not been trained to fight against a European trained opponent. It showed in the casualties, number of prisoners taken and general spinelessness of these troops. The Germans turned the attempted landing at Tanga into a bloody and embarrassing repulse. Lettow-Vorbeck took every advantage of this victory to utilize both the morale boost and the capture of much needed supplies. These supplies were left behind when the British withdrew, rather abruptly. A poor showing altogether.
“What ever he does,” Tompkins replied, “it is going to cost us in time, material, and casualties. He is playing his role to perfection, as did the damned Konigsburg acting as a fleet in being. I do wish we could afford to ignore them and not be tied down here.”
“What are you worried about, Sir?” Bishop broke into the conversation. “We’re the ones who will be stuck here for the rest of the war chasing the Germans around!”
“Are you sure?” Tompkins asked, a glint of amusement in his eye.
The first round of drinks arrived without an order. Cull suspected prearrangements. It was a more than halfway decent India Pale Ale.
Arnold looked disappointed. “Commander, I hope you have something stronger planned later for this evenings libations.”
“All in good time, Flight Sub Lieutenant. I want you all to make this decision with relatively clear heads.”
The four men looked at each other and then to Tompkins. Cull as the ranking member of the group poised the concerns.
“Ah, Commander, can you be any clearer as to what you are offering us?”
“First, tell me what you think of floats or a floating hull vs. wheels for aeroplanes?”
Cull took a drink to warm to his subject. “There is no comparison. Wheeled aeroplanes are lighter, faster, and more maneuverable. We made the switch ourselves because of the poor performance of the Sopwith and Short seaplanes we were working with. The Farmans and Caudrons may be second or third rate back in Europe but they’ve done fine against the local Germans. I really don’t think seaplanes are suited to the tropics. At least the present offerings as of 1915. They are just not powerful enough to get off the water in high temperature and humidity. Nor can they lift any useful load. It will be interesting to see how Squadron Commander Gordon does with the Shorts on the Tigris in Mesopotamia.”
Tompkins smiled, “I’ve wondered about that myself. The Admiralty on the whole does not agree with you and you might be surprised by the performance of the new Short 184. Nonetheless, there are some few in, and out of power who believe that we will not have effective naval aeroplanes until they are on fairly equal terms with landplanes. That would seem to imply wheels. Very intriguing.”
Cull looked intrigued then horrified. “So that’s your game, is it? Commander, you can’t be serious! Even if you are assuming a launch like Commander Samson from Hibernia before the war. Even if you allow for a prepared ramp aboard a ship moving fast enough to assist in shortening your take off run you’ve still got to understand one thing: Landplanes are Not Partial to Water! My landing in the river was damned near fatal.”
“It was the four wheeled undercart, striking the water, wasn’t it?” Tompkins asked quietly.
“Too right, it was! I had on my safety strap, then forgot to unbuckle it as we hit the water. Of course the Farman turned right over. I didn’t think I was going to get out. Thank God, Arnold came to my assistance. As it is, even Bishop can tell us how it is to use landplanes in the mud”
Alan Bishop looked daggers at his Flight Commander and then broke into an apologetic grin. Flight-Commander Harold Watkins had landed the Caldron in some haste back on Mafia Island after Admiral King-Hall had called a cease-fire. He also managed to flip his aeroplane landing in the mud and Bishop was the one trapped, upside down and quite temporarily. Everyone save Bishop had been amused. However, this mishap managed to write off the Flight’s last functioning aeroplane.
“What if you were able to jettison the wheel assembly and alight upon sturdy airbags?”
“Where…Sir? A millpond perhaps? Or were you thinking of the North Atlantic?” Cull asked with some asperity.
Tompkins was unperturbed, “No, actually we’re speaking of the North Sea.”
Cull rolled his eyes histrionically. “Oh! My goodness! That is such a huge relief!”
Tompkins laughed. “One would think that you were unwilling to sacrifice all for King and Country!”
“To what use? If I drown, you shan’t get a report. That Rouzet wireless is very heavy. What sort of ship and aeroplanes are you talking about?’
Tompkins smiled. “You do seem to be thinking this over!”
“Thinking may be the only thing you get out of us! If I can’t get anything more concrete than these veiled hints, how can I make an informed decision, for myself and my men?”
“As you wish, do remember that this is still very secret!”
“So you’ve told us! It’s not as if we will be spying on the High Seas Fleet. It’s probably some sort of anti-submarine junket.” Cull said unconcernedly.
“We do indeed plan on that usage, later in the program. Your first surmise was wrong. You will be spying on the High Seas Fleet. Have you gentlemen heard of the Campania?”
“What?” asked Watkins. “You mean the old Cunarder?”
“Yes, though she has not seen the work or received the notoriety of her smaller consorts in the Channel and the North Sea…and in the Dardinelles.” Tompkins concluded grimly.
Tompkins went on to explain, (though everyone at the table knew bits and pieces of the story,) that at the beginning of the war the Admiralty had commandeered several cross Channel and, later, Irish Sea ferries. These were fitted with semi-temporary hangers and could service and support a few small seaplanes each. These were fast enough to keep up with the Battle Cruisers. Something much larger was proposed to accompany the Dreadnought Battleships.
The RMS Campania had been launched in 1892 and had her maiden Atlantic crossing on the 22nd of April 1893. She established a new record on her return crossing and went on to make 255 crossings before she was sold to the breakers. Even so, her execution was stayed. The Admiralty bought her at the last moment, with much of her bow spaces already cleared, and began the conversion to a most curious ship.
Campania had been built as a twin funnel, twin shaft, passenger vessel of the then enormous displacement of 18,000 tons at a water line length of 600‘. Her speed was 21 knots and she had a prodigious appetite for coal, consuming some 480 tons of it per day. She was also the first Cunard Ship to put to sea completely without sails.
Her first conversion was rather simple. Like many of the smaller seaplane carriers she was equipped with the ability to put seaplanes over the side and crane them back out again. Thus equipped she was added to the Grand Fleet on the 30th of April 1915. Subsequent operations revealed serious deficiencies: The ship had to stop, (with exposure to U-Boats,) to put aeroplanes over the side for take off as well as landing, and she could not embark any greater number of aeroplanes than her smaller sisters.
She returned to the Cammel Laird yard to have a 120’ takeoff ramp placed over the foredeck from the bridge to the bow. On May 5 of 1915 Lieutenant Breeze of Campania’s air group managed to get a Sopwith Schneider seaplane, fitted with wheels under the floats, off the deck under way. It required the ship’s top speed and a force 4 wind.
The Schneider was a single seat small seaplane based on the prewar Tabloid, which had standard wheels, and was intended to race. At a top speed of 93mph in 1913, the Royal Navy became very interested and bought some. These aircraft were to develop into the later Sopwith Baby. The wheeled Tabloids were to make history on several occasions in that first epic month of the war. Although they never carried a machine gun aloft they were the first British aeroplanes to bomb German territory. One of them was also the first to destroy a Zeppelin, (though it was on the ground in it’s shed.)
Watkins interrupted Tompkins’ monologue. “Don’t forget the Avro 504s and the raid on Friedrichshafen! Just three aeroplanes, two seaters and working with only 80hp each and look at the results. We were told a zeppelin was badly damaged at the very least, it‘s surrounding workshops and hydrogen generation facilities destroyed.”
“Indeed,” remarked Tompkins. “Yet another example of my point. Of course shipping the Avros via rail to Belfort was the only way to achieve the necessary range. We hope to do much the same with the ships.”
Cull’s head jerked up. “So that’s where Gaskill-Blackburn is! Has he decided?”
“I don’t know, he is speaking to my superior. His experience with the Cuxhaven raid makes him very important to the success of what we have in mind.”
The four aviators had been working away manfully at their IPAs, (and some refills,) throughout the informal briefing. Cull noticed that Tompkins first glass remained almost untouched and had tried to drink a bit slowly himself. After he made eye contact with his three subordinates and received assent, he decided to take the plunge.
“So are when are we going to meet your superior?” he asked.
“Now, if you like.” said Tompkins.
Tompkins rose from his seat, drained his ale in one long pull, and motioned for the four aviators to follow him. With a final uncomfortable glance between them, the quartet rose from their seats, drained their glasses, and followed him into the African evening.
Leaving the hotel, the four men found themselves headed back in the direction of the harbour. The term ‘harbour’ was by courtesy only. Stone Town had an open roadstead, one small free standing breakwater at the north end and a few piers. The former White Star liner S.S Laurentic lay in the deeper water offshore, a few hundred yards to the west of the beach. On the Liverpool to Montreal run, she was in Canada at the start of the war. Commandeered as a troopship she was given a few deck guns and re-christened as the armed merchant cruiser H.M.S. Laurentic. Her most belligerent act was the offshore patrolling of Dar-es-Salaam. The Germans had a few short range artillery pieces covering the approaches to the port; (the salvaged 105s were not yet removed from the crippled Konigsburg.) Laurentic wisely remained out of range of anything that Germans could throw at her and kept an eye on the harbour mouth. She was shortly to return home.
The group followed Tompkins in a North-easterly direction along the waterfront. They passed the old fort which was attached to the Sultan’s current palace on the South-western side. This fort had served the Arab traders during the last of the slave trading days in the 19th Century. A practice that the Royal Navy had helped to stamp out. It was at this point that the road forked and Tompkins bore to the left, taking the low road to the beach proper. Once they had passed some trees and shrubs to their right, their view opened up to the town. To their right they passed the “Old” palace and then the “New”
hospital which looked quite a bit like the current palace with nearly as much ornamentation. They eventually reached the dock and were ushered onboard a steam launch, which, to nobody’s great surprise, made for the boarding gangway of Laurentic. They soon arrived. The coxin made the launch fast to the floating gangway platform and the four aviators stepped aboard and began to climb up behind Tompkins.
They reached a hatch in the side of the ship where the gangway ended and Tompkins approached a Royal Marine Sergeant who was waiting at the top of the ladder. The Sergeant came to attention and saluted smartly.
Tompkins returned the salute. “Has everyone arrived, Simpson?”
“Aye, Sir. They’re all waiting in the main saloon.”
“Very good. Come along, Gentlemen.”
Simpson came to attention once again and saluted as they all walked by. Cull wondered if he saw a slight smile play about the NCOs lips. He was a little tired of not being ‘in the know.’ No matter, all was to be revealed now. With this thought he followed Tompkins up internal ladders to the main deck and entered the saloon.
The furnishings of Laurentic’s saloon were more along the lines of comfortable rather than sumptuous. A large white painted well windowed room, with waist high dark wainscoting, extended the width of the ship. The iron roof beams were supported by ornate iron pillars, perhaps four inches in diameter at about 15 foot intervals. The foremast passed ceiling to floor through this room at a pronounced rake. The lath turned furnishings were covered in a simple pattern and looked rather like they belonged in a domestic parlor.
Cull and the group stopped short at the entrance. Seated in this room were Admiral King-Hall, Squadron Commander Gordon, and Vivian Gaskill-Blackburn. Sitting next to each other, and looking a bit ill at ease were Chief Air Mechanic Boggis and Air Mechanic Sutcliffe. As far as Cull knew, Sutcliffe was being transferred to the Dardinelles Theater. Cull mentally wished him the best of luck but soon realized that if he was at this ‘Hush-Hush!’ briefing he was most likely in on ‘The Mystery’ also.
A number of mess orderlies were bustling about the saloon. A respectable repast had been laid out. To the men’s more immediate delight several generous sized bottles of scotch, gin, Pusser’s Rum, brandy and various other potables were in evidence. Tompkins had the quartet order drinks and be seated. At that point a tall, stooped and somewhat untidy man in the uniform of a captain of the Royal Navy entered the saloon from a door astern. Cull watched him approach an easel with a number of sheets attached to it. These sheets were covered with a blank sheet.
The more Cull watched the mannerisms of the “Captain” the more he was convinced that this man was primarily an academic. He certainly would have looked out of place on a Dreadnought’s bridge. Cull would have known, his father was a headmaster. He resembled the more popular illustrations of Sherlock Holmes. When the man spoke all remaining doubts vanished as to his academic nature.
“Good evening, Gentlemen. I’m sure you have a multitude of questions. If you remain quiet and attentive, this briefing should answer them. For the record you will know me as ‘Captain Trent.’ As most of you will have surmised; I am not a Line officer.”
“However,” Trent continued. “I hold several advanced degrees in Mechanical and in Marine Engineering from Portsmouth and Greenwich and do hold a commission in Naval Intelligence. I was dispatched here to assess the problems you had, and solved, to spot for the monitors. We will be involved with a crash program. (If you will forgive the unfortunate adjective!”)
“None the less, we will be under the gun, (there I go again,) to have this program ready for the late Spring or early Summer of 1916. As you are all now aware, HMS Campania is having her launching deck extended to something over 200 feet. This is to allow her to at least launch dollied seaplanes without stopping to lower them over the side. She is slated to carry Sopwith Schneiders, Sopwith Babies, and the large, new Short 184s.” Trent flipped the blank sheet over to display artistic impressions of the final form of Campania and the three embarked seaplane types.
“These Shorts have a water cooled engine of at least 200 horsepower, with several different make of engine to spread the work around. Several different aeroplane manufacturers and other light manufacturers will be building them in addition to the Short brothers. The Admiralty has important plans for these aeroplanes. They are powerful enough to carry the latest W/T transmitter/receivers. Some variants will also carry torpedoes.
“Not withstanding, these types are all seaplanes of the float variety. They do not operate well even in a relatively light sea. The Cuxhaven operation was postponed more than once on that account, was it not, Mr. Gaskill-Blackburn?”
“Yes Sir. It took several tries but by Christmas morning the sea was as nearly as flat as the proverbial millpond.”
Cull flinched inwardly as he thought he heard a strangled snort of laughter come from Tompkins.
Vivian Gaskill-Blackburn, (“Vi” to his mates,) held an odd position in the squadron. He had “soloed” at Brooklands Aerodrome on the 10th of September, 1913 in a Bristol Biplane, as a private subject of the Crown. His Royal Aero Club Certificate number was 617. (Cull‘s was higher at 726, but he had been in the Navy much longer. RHIP.) He had served with the RNAS since the beginning of the war, taking part in the ultimately fruitless, but highly instructive raid on the German port and Zeppelin base of Cuxhaven. This took place in a freezing very light swell on Christmas morning in 1914.
The trio of original converted cross Channel ferries; Engardine, Empress, and Riviera, were escorted into the Helgoland Bight by the Harwich Force of light cruisers and destroyers. Numerous British submarines also took part to rescue any downed and/or disabled aviators. The British submarines had a conspicuous red and white checkerboard band around their conning towers to aide the aviators to find them on return.
The raid used almost every model of Short seaplane model the RNAS had in its inventory at the time. Vi had been assigned Admiralty No. 814. This was known as the Short Type 74. It had a 100hp Gnome Rotary engine and was a single seater. Vi’s ship was the Empress, which carried all of the Type 74s used in the raid. Admiralty No. 815 was flown by Vi’s immediate commander, Flt. Cmdr Douglas Oliver. The third Type 74 would not start in the cold of pre-dawn. (It was, in fact, so cold that the mechanics had to remove the crankcase castor oil and warm it, whilst the engines themselves were swaddled in red flannel!) Quite a bit different from the troubles they had suffered in the tropics. Cull knew most of this from Vi himself. Cull found himself wondering if Vi planed on going back to Europe? He would have to ask privately later, if he didn’t find out much sooner!
Trent was still lecturing. “…The fact is we will most likely be fighting in warmer weather, though one cannot rule out mist and fog. In the coming battle, Campania with W/T equipped Short 184s will be stationed one nautical mile off the unengaged side of the flagship. During daylight hours, in calm enough seas, the seaplanes will launch to engage the enemy normally.
We intend to keep the particular stratagem of high performance, wheeled and/or skid equipped, night flying aeroplanes a secret as long as possible. The very last thing we want to do is to frighten the Germans back into port. The first night flight from Eastchurch took place on the night of a full moon, with some mist. Commander Samson found his way back to the field with little difficulty. We expect similar conditions to apply to any possible sorties from our friends across the North Sea, most likely near the Summer Solstice, to allow for length of daylight. They do not seem to like fleet actions at night any more than we do. We do know that they have been trained in them.
Admiral Jellico has stated to the Admiralty that he will break off combat at the onset of any night action. It would seem that the few times that the Grand Fleet attempted night exercises were fiascos. That surely had a strong effect on the Admiral’s point of view. It seems to me it would be more a question of improving communication and ship handling. If the German Navy can stay out all night the Royal Navy should certainly be able to at least stay between them and their bases if daylight contact and a favorable tactical position can be achieved. This is where the upcoming Sopwiths come into the picture.”
‘Ah!’ thought Cull. ‘The main course!’
Trent then went to the easel and flipped the page. A three perspective view, with portioned cut-aways, of a two seat tractor biplane was exhibited. It did not seem like anything special. It was obviously a product of the Sopwith works. It looked like a Tabloid which had been stretched to allow for the second seat. The Tabloid’s “Bull-Nose” engine cowling was in full pugnacious evidence. The tail section was the familiar “Sopwith Comma.”
The wings were of single bay construction. The outboard pairs of struts were of an asymmetrical placement near the ends of the wings. The forward struts were perpendicular to the wings in all planes. The rear struts were angled toward the fuselage at the bottom with about a 70 degree angle. However the center struts at the fuselage were only half there, or so it seemed.
When the aeroplane was viewed from the front (or rear), the only thing holding the upper wing halves together and off the pilot’s head were two W shaped tubular structures. These W’s were installed with the top centre point at the junction of the wings. The outer top outside points were attached to the upper wing three to four feet from the centreline. The bottom points of the W were attached to the fuselage to each side. The first W was just behind the leading edge of the slightly larger top wing. The second was about 2/3 toward the trailing edge. The undercart was a standard twin V with half axled wheels bound with rubber cord in the center. The undercart also had a single anti-nose over skid.
“You are looking at the Sigrist Bus, designed by Fred Sigrist of Sopwith Aviation Company. We have received by wireless the confirmation of a new British altitude record, of 18,393 feet. Sopwith’s chief test pilot, Harry Hawker, was flying it. I realize that it does not look like much, and yes that is still only a 80hp Gnome engine under the cowling, as in the Tabloid. Let me draw your attention to these new developments.”
Trent drew the diagram over the back of the easel, exposing a diagram of an unknown, seven cylinder, rotary, aero engine.
“Gentlemen, meet the Clerget. No odd intake and exhaust system such as you have in the Gnome. There is a much simplified connecting rod apparatus compared to the Le Rhone. With 110 throttled horsepower, we expect this engine to power a number of upcoming French, British and perhaps even Russian and Italian aeroplanes models. The one that concerns us this evening is this offering from Sopwith.”
Trent drew the second sheet over the easel. “This is the Clerget Land Tractor. As you can see it has a number of improvements over the Bus. First of all, the Clerget is in a proper annular cowling. Secondly, much more attention has been paid to the lines of the aeroplanes, hopefully improving both performance and range. Third, (although this will not apply to you gentlemen,) it will have a synchronized Vickers machine gun firing through the propeller. There will also be provision for a rearward firing Lewis gun.”
Cull could listen in mute silence no longer.
“Sir, if I may ask, why won’t we be armed?!”
“The fact is, Flight Lieutenant, the only thing we see you armed with is a pair of good binoculars and a Very Gun with copious amounts of Very lights. You will be ‘Belling the Cat’ of the High Seas Fleet. We expect you will have no problem launching from a deck such as Campania’s…”
“It isn’t the launch I’m worried about…Sir. Where Do I Land?”
Trent smiled. “I can understand your concern, Flight Lieutenant. That brings the final trick out of our hats…”
Trent flipped over the fourth page.
“We have been researching these.” Trent pointed to two long tubes extending under either side of the fuselage in the left of the current illustration. They stretched from a little behind the engine to just behind the trailing edge of the bottom wing. “These tubes will be have a slit facing down and outward and will carry two bags which will fill with compressed air or the gas from a small Cordite charge as you can see in the right hand illustration. These bags will be deployed for alighting on water.”
“How long will these bags remain inflated, Sir?”
“We do not have that data yet, Cull. Part of what you will be doing in this project is establishing parameters.”
“To whom am I to render thanks for this invention?” Cull asked.
“A chap by the name of Harry Busteed. Australian, I believe.”
“I’ve met the man. I hate to disparage a fellow officer, Sir, but he struck me as slightly daft. I had a course of instruction from him at RNAS Grain. He actually tried to convince me that one could launch a seaplane from a flatbed railway goods wagon and a straight stretch of track!” Cull laughed.
“He has every chance of doing so, as soon as we can get a powerful enough seaplane, Flight Commander. He was extremely upset by the timing of this project. Busteed was to go to the United States, this last March, on a Liaison/Purchasing assignment. As the former chief test pilot of Bristol aeroplanes in the prewar days he knows much about this new industrial process of building aeroplanes. He has an even keener inventive mind. The Royal Navy intends to foster this talent of his at home. Someone else will go in his stead.”
Cull would have not minded an assignment out of the war zone. He could almost feel sorry for Busteed, but these were the fortunes of war. Cull had not even been offered a junket across the Atlantic. At least if he took this assignment he could get home to his wife. He had married shortly before coming to East Africa.
“So, if we go, when do we leave? Sir.”
Admiral King-Hall spoke up. “Mr. Cull, you still sound hesitant.”
“I’m not hesitant, Sir. I just don’t want this to be a fool’s errand. What if Admirals Jellico and Beatty decide in the end that they don’t want to work with us?”
Tompkins spoke. “But John, wasn’t that what you wanted? To have a choice to back out if the project was not working?”
“Yes, but on our terms.”
“What or whom do you mean by ‘our’?” asked Trent, with some amusement.
“I mean my men and myself, Sir. If we take this job we will sweat blood to make this work. We will do our part, IF we get support from all in this room who outrank us to smooth away any difficulties. Most of you have been in the Navy longer than I have and know what I am talking about, difficulties always crop up.” Cull ended with a regretful sigh.
The roomful of men joined in laughter.
“Indeed, Mr. Cull,” chuckled the Admiral. “I’ve been at this longer than anyone in this room. However you can count on us to back you up. Both Admirals are aware of this project and are looking forward to your participation. With great anticipation, I might add.”
Cull pressed on doggedly. “I have two final questions; first, will we be able to critique the performance of those who must work with us. I would hate to be shadowing the High Seas Fleet and have nobody notice our signals. I foresee much trial and error in this process.”
Trent answered, “There must be full cooperation and performance from all aspects of this operation for it to even have a chance. As I said, we do not expect this to fully mature until March or April of next year. And we are not sure about the Very lights; The North Sea does tend to mist up…”
Cull cringed inwardly. That was another difficulty he had not considered.
“For information only, how close are we to get?”
“Close enough to keep the enemy in your sight, but high enough for our side to make out your flares.” Trent informed him.
“So, success will all depend on weather, and since it is after dark, the amount of moonlight at a given point in it’s cycle
“That is it in a nutshell, Flight Commander.” Trent smiled.
Cull turned to Gaskill-Blackburn, “Vi, are you planning on attending this party?”
“Well, Sir, we do get to go home and it does sound interesting.”
Cull was to find that the last statement was to be an understatement at the very least. He asked the rest of his mates of the evening what they thought. Watkins spoke for the rest of the group.
“Why not? They did ask US to do it. They must think we have something to offer, although I have no idea what! It does get us home for a while.”
Cull turned back to the planners. “We agree, but what about Squadron Commander Gordon when he is in Mesopotamia, not to mention reconnaissance for our local ground forces in East Africa? Who will fly the aeroplanes?”
Tompkins took this one. “John, listen closely. Arnold, Gaskill-Blackburn and yourself are not the only pilots we have locally. We also now have large classes of pilots in training at many locations back home. As much as I hate to say it, (and this is no reflection on your men and what they have done, Admiral,) East Africa and Mesopotamia are but sideshows. We need your experience at home. It is time to let others finish the job you started so well. The missions will be covered.”
“As I said, we‘re in. I repeat, when do we leave?”
“As soon as the launch returns to shore with those who are staying.” said Tompkins.
“But, our gear and personal possessions!” blurted Bishop.
“Already on board, Mr. Bishop. Along with all the rest of yours.” Tompkins gestured to the group.
Cull smiled, relaxed and filled his pipe. It looked as though he was in for a long passage home. And nobody seemed to be in a hurry to remove the food and drink…