18th/19th September 1944 – Liberators vs. U-867

Commissioned in to the German Kriegsmarine on December 12th 1943, U-867 was a Type IXC u-boat built by the Aktien-Gesellschaft, Weser company at their yard in Bremen. The new u-boat implemented many of the lessons that had been learned since the early days of the war such as the fitting of a snorkel that allowed the diesel engines to run TYPE IXC U-BOAT GERMAN KRIEGSMARINEunderwater to limit the chances of detection. It also followed the growing trend of having the deck gun deleted since there were now fewer opportunities to use it given the strength of defences around allied convoys.

After working up to operational status through 1944, the u-boat began its first wartime patrol on September 1st 1944 out of Kiel under the command of 39-year old Kpt. Arved von Mühlendahl. Despite his relatively advanced age compared to most other u-boat commanders, U-867 was von Mühlendahl’s first u-boat command. After nearly two weeks at sea, morale aboard the u-boat was increasingly becoming drained by a mix of foul weather battering the sub whenever they surfaced and a lack of any kind of success against the allies.

On September 17th 1944, the u-boat’s diesel engines became disabled in heavy weather forcing von Mühlendahl to order the u-boat to head for the Norwegian coast and the protection of the Luftwaffe. The u-boat made slow progress having to run economically enough on the surface so as to not drain the batteries of the electric engines that were normally reserved to power the u-boat underwater before they met up with one of three other u-boats that had been dispatched to render assistance.

RAF CIt was tense time for von Mühlendahl and his men. They were travelling slowly through waters that were swarming with allied aircraft patrolling overhead. Through the next day, the u-boat crew’s luck held out but then, just after 2100hrs on September 18th they found themselves attracting the attention of a Leigh Light equipped Liberator of RAF Coastal Command’s No.224 Squadron based at RAF Miltown. As the Liberator attacked, the anti-aircraft gunners on U-867 and the nose gunner in the Liberator exchanged fire until the gunners on the u-boat were silenced just as the RAF plane began to drop depth charges. Six depth charges were dropped by the Liberator which landed in a line on the starboard side of the u-boat causing additional damage to the already disabled diesel engines which saw them start leaking oil.

After the depth charge attack, the anti-aircraft gunners were able to return to their positions and start firing on the British aircraft again which was now circling overhead. The British and the Germans briefly exchanged gunfire before von Mühlendahl was forced to resort to the only option left open to him which was to dive the u-boat even though this would probably use up the last of the power in his batteries. Having slipped below the dark waves of the North Sea, the RAF plane lost sight of the u-boat but at the cost of the last of U-867’s battery power.

Three other u-boats had been dispatched to render assistance to the disabled U-867 namely U-218, U-858 and U-1228. In the waning hours of September 18th, U-1228 was illuminated on the surface by another Coastal Command Liberator from No.224 Squadron using its powerful Leigh Light. The Liberator attacked with a stick of depth charges as the u-boat attempted to dive to the safety of the depths below but one of the six depth charges the Liberator released inflicted damaged on the u-boat’s snorkel. Thus when U-1228 attempted to use its snorkel the u-boat quickly filled with choking carbon monoxide from the engines that eventually caused the death of one crew member and left the rest gasping for air until they could surface again and open the hatches. U-1228 was forced to give up on attempting to reach U-867 and so it turned around and headed for port.

The next day, on September 19th 1944, von Mühlendahl and his men began inflating dinghies and lashing them alongside the crippled U-867 as it bobbed up and down on the inhospitable North Sea. The oil leak from the attack the day before now glistened in a RAF Coastal Command Liberatorlarge pool on the surface surrounding the u-boat and the dinghies. Then at 1737hrs, their worst fears were realised when they heard the sound of yet another No.224 Squadron Liberator growling towards them flown by Flight Lieutenant H.J. Rayner. Rayner carried out another attack with depth charges but all six of them overshot their target leaving the Liberator to orbit overhead and report the u-boat’s position so another aircraft could attack.

This was the final straw for Kapt. von Mühlendahl. Watched by the RAF Liberator crew, he and his men climbed in to the dinghies after appearing to deliberately flood the u-boat and cut themselves free before U-867 slipped beneath the waves for the last time. The Liberator crew reported that there were at least 50 men in the dinghies indicating that the entire crew escaped the doomed submarine.

The crews of U-218 and U-858 were close enough to the area to hear the detonations of the depth charges. Fearing for their comrades, they raced to the scene but at 2010hrs, U-858 found itself attracting the attention of yet another RAF Liberator only this time from No.206 Squadron. The Liberator attacked but U-858 managed to escape any serious damage by first making an aggressive turn to port as the depth charges landed in the water and then crash diving.

With U-867 no longer a threat, the RAF Liberators left von Mühlendahl and his men in their dinghies to continue hunting for other u-boats in the area. Another Liberator overflew a group of dinghies whilst on its patrol and it was long presumed they were from a different u-boat that had been attacked while U-867 was limping home. It is now generally agreed that these dinghies were from U-867. 

Despite being so close to where the final attack on U-867 occurred, the heavy RAF presence in the area coupled with bad weather meant neither U-218 or U-858 was able to locate von Mühlendahl or any of his men. On September 22nd, the Germans called off their search thus confining them to the pages of history.

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Dambusters 75th Anniversary – Simon Weston in Conversation with George ‘Johnny’ Johnson MBE, Britain’s Last Remaining Dambuster

There were many important raids carried out by Allied crews against the Axis powers during World War II but few have captured the imagination of the public like Operation Chastise. Carried out by the specially formed No.617 Squadron flying the Avro Lancaster and led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar, the operation aimed to breach the Edersee, Möhne and Sorpe dams which would result in the catastrophic flooding of the strategically important Ruhr Valley.

In order to breach the dams, the Lancasters utilised the now famous “bouncing bomb” designed by the gifted engineer Barnes Wallis. As its name suggests, this weapon bounced on the surface of the water over the defensive torpedo nets the Germans had laid before hitting the dam wall. It then dropped down to the base of the dam where it exploded for maximum effectiveness. Deploying the weapon was extremely dangerous for the crews who had to fly at just 60ft above the water at the time of release or the weapon would fail. Afterwards, No.617 squadron would forever be remembered as “the dam busters”.

While historians continue to debate the success of the mission, few would deny the boost it gave to British and Allied morale in those dark days. May 16th 2018 marks the 75th anniversary of this incredible mission.


Filmed at the Royal Air Force Museum, Falklands War Veteran Simon Weston CBE talks with George ‘Johnny’ Johnson, the last remaining member of the dambusters about his experience during Operations Chastise.

May 3rd 1813 – Admiral Cockburn’s Raid on Havre de Grace

On June 18th 1812, the 4th President of the United States, James Madison Jr, bowed to pressure from those in Congress who wanted war with Britain and signed the declaration. The calls for war came as a result of a number of skirmishes between British and American ships the former of whom were enforcing a blockade against Napoleonic France and despite the US being officially neutral the British still stopped American ships and even press ganged American sailors in to the King’s service.

While it would last until February 18th 1815, the subsequent conflict is still remembered as the War of 1812. With the majority of British forces committed to fighting Napoleon in mainland Europe, the British had little choice but to initially adopt a defensive strategy against the Americans until they could bolster their numbers with troops from Europe and the enlistment of local native American tribes to carry out a guerrilla-style campaign against American troops.

Admiral Sir George Cockburn raid havre de grace 1813 war of 1812 Royal NavyAt sea, the British fleet was under the command of Admiral Sir John Warren who in November appointed the recently promoted Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn (pronounced Co-Burn, Right) as his second-in-command. Cockburn was an experienced officer having seen several actions throughout his career up to that time against the French and Spanish. Cockburn commanded a force of ships that were directed against disrupting US trade and naval/privateer operations along the northeastern US with the two-year old 36-gun fifth rate frigate HMS Maidstone carrying his flag.

On April 23rd 1813, Cockburn’s force captured Spesutie Island located in the Chesapeake Bay in the US state of Maryland. Recognising the fear his fleet had put in the local population he emphasized to them that as long as they did not oppose the British forces using the island as a base then they would be allowed to go about their daily lives. Reporting to Warren on April 29th following a raid on Frenchtown in which five American vessels were destroyed, he outlined his intention to attack any settlement along the American coastline in Chesepeake Bay which hoisted American colours or fired on his force.

A few days later, Cockburn was returning from Frenchtown, sailing to the north of Spesutie Island when he was fired on by US forces based in the town of Havre de Grace. In his report on the subsequent action which was reprinted in the London Gazette, Cockburn admitted that until he observed the gunfire aimed at him from the settlement he had largely disregarded it. Now, he decided that the settlement which was primarily defended by local militia groups should be punished for their resistance however the town was protected by shoal water that was too shallow for the larger of Cockburn’s fleet to sail over.

He therefore anchored his force off nearby Turkey Point on May 2nd 1813 and transferred over 150 Royal Marines to a flotilla of smaller boats that included a number of  rocket boats for fire support under the command of Captain John Lawrence of HMS Fantome. Lawrence and his men set off under the cover of darkness to carry out a dawn attack. HMS Dolphin (12-guns) and HMS Highflyer (8-guns), both former American privateers captured by the British and pressed in to service against their previous owners, attempted to sail with the boats to offer support but were only able to make it to six miles of the settlement because of the shallow waters.

As Lawrence and his men made their way towards the town, their presence was detected by the local population who warned the militia at Havre de Grace of the impending attack. The Americans decided to withdraw rather than fight a pitched battle with the British with less than 40 men remaining when Lawrence struck at dawn. The Americans manned a battery of cannons at Concord Point and it was here the main action was fought. Cockburn’s report describes what happened next;

Captain Lawrence, however, having got up with the boats, and having very ably and judiciously placed them during the attack, a warm fire was opened on the place at daylight from our launches and rocket boats, which was smartly returned from the battery for a short time, but the launches constantly closing with it, and their fire rather increasing than decreasing, that from the battery soon began to slacken, and Captain Lawrence observing this, very judiciously directed the landing of the marines on the left, which movement, added to the hot fire they were under, induced the Americans to commence withdrawing from the battery, to take shelter in the town.

Admiral Cockburn raid havre de grace 1813 war of 1812 Royal Navy

Lieutenant G. A. Westphal, who had taken his station in the rocket boat close to the battery, therefore now judging the moment to be favourable, pulled directly up under the work, and landing with his boats crew, got immediate possession of it, turned their own guns on them, and thereby soon obliged them to retreat with their whole force to the furthest extremity of the town, whither (the marines having by this time landed) they were closely pursued, and no longer feeling themselves equal to a manly and open resistance, they commenced a teazing and irritating fire from behind the houses, walls, trees, etc. from which I am sorry to say, my gallant first lieutenant received a shot through his hand whilst leading the pursuing party; he, however, continued to head the advance, with which he soon succeeded in dislodging the whole of the enemy from their lurking places, and driving them from shelter to the neighbouring woods, and whilst performing which service, he had the satisfaction to overtake, and with his remaining hand to make Prisoner,-and bring in a captain of their militia.

The captured American was Second Lieutenant John O’Neill who had put up a spirited defence which at one point included manning a cannon single-handedly until he was injured from the weapon’s recoil. He was captured along with two militia men as they attempted to escape to the nearby woods. During the entire attack there was only one fatality; an unfortunate resident of Havre de Grace who was killed when a British rocket exploded nearby.

Cockburn instructed his men not to pursue the Americans in to the woods. Instead they were to either seize or destroy American weapons that came in to their possession. Lawrence’s forces did however travel three miles north to destroy the ironworks centred around the Principio Furnace which was involved in manufacturing cannons for the American war effort. With Havre de Grace in British hands, the Royal Marines and sailors took to looting and vandalising the town, burning somewhere in the region of 60% of the entire settlement although the local church was spared.

The raid completed and Cockburn’s desire to punish the Americans satisfied, the British force then moved on up the Susquehanna River to attack an American supply depot. The residents returned to their gutted town, horrified at the destruction and accounts of the raid were widely circulated in the American press vilifying Cockburn especially. In response the British position argued that Cockburn and his men had done nothing the Americans had not done themselves in Canada, specifically the burning of York (modern day Toronto) a few days before the raid. Cockburn’s reputation for brutality amongst the Americans would later be solidified when over a year later he played a major role in the burning of Washington on August 24th 1814.

 

April 10th 1795 – Capturing La Gloire

In 1795, the forces of Britain and Revolutionary France had been at war for over two years and the Royal Navy was engaged in a blockade of the main French ports. For their part, the French sent some of their faster ships out in an attempt to bypass the blockade and engage in guerre de course or commerce raiding against British ships along the east coast of England.

At 1000hrs on the morning of April 10th 1795, a British flotilla under the command of Rear-Admiral John Colpoys spotted three French vessels attempting to break out through the Bay of Biscay. The French vessels were led by the 32-gun Gloire and when they realised the British had spotted them, the French commander ordered his force to scatter in the face of the superior British force after the 74-gun HMS Colossus had started firing on them.

Gloire swung north-west while its two compatriots – Gentile and Fraternité – turned west with HMS Hannibal and HMS Robust in hot pursuit of them. Gloire had managed to evade much of the British force except for the frigate HMS Astraea under Captain Lord Henry Paulet, also of 32-guns, which managed to stay in sight of the French warship throughout the afternoon. Finally, at 1800hrs Astrea succeeded in bringing Gloire within range of its quarterdeck cannon and fired several shots which saw Gloire respond with its sternchaser guns.

Royal Navy capture of La Gloire April 10th 1795 by Thomas Whitcombe 1816For over four and a half hours the two warships exchanged cannon fire shot for shot until 2230hrs, when the Astraea finally managed to come alongside the Gloire allowing both to unleash the full fury of their armament on one another. Gloire’s gunners aimed specifically for Astraea’s masts and rigging in an effort to disable the British warship and indeed succeeded in inflicting enough damage on Astraea’s topmast that it eventually collapsed. The British gunners however, concentrated their firepower on the French ship’s hull to silence the opposing gunners or sink the French ship altogether. Among the wounded aboard the Gloire was its captain and at 2328hrs, after sighting two more British warships sailing toward him he ordered the French colours to be lowered signalling the ship’s surrender.

Both vessels were heavily damaged in the engagement with Astraea needing to return to port for repairs to the mast but incredibly had not lost a single man in the engagement even as the topmast collapsed. This was thanks in no small part to the Gloire’s captain ordering his men to try to disable the British ship. By contrast, the Gloire lost 40 men killed or wounded. Sufficient repairs were made to both ships to enable them to sail to Portsmouth for more permanent repairwork with Gloire being sailed by a British prize crew under the command of Astraea’s Lieutenant John Talbot.

More success for the British would come the next morning on April 11th. HMS Hannibal and HMS Robust had continued their pursuit of the Gentile and Fraternité through the night until they managed to surround the Gentile and force its captain to surrender without having to engage in battle. The captain of the Fraternité decided to turn back towards Brest and had his men throw their armaments overboard to lighten the vessel and increase its speed. After several days evading pursuing British ships the Fraternité succeeded in reaching its home port.

Both Gloire and Gentile were pressed in to Royal Navy service with HMS Gloire being kept on charge until 1802.

HMS Hotspur (1870)

Although largely overshadowed in naval history by battles such as Trafalgar, the Battle of Lissa in 1866 was for a time one of the most influential naval engagements of the 19th century. Also known as the Battle of Vis, it took place on July 20th 1866 in the Adriatic between the navies of Austro-Hungary and Italy and was one of the first major engagements between ironclad warships. Naval gunfire during the course of the battle, especially from the Italian fleet, proved largely ineffective due to the superiority of the Battle of Lissa ram shiptarget ship’s armour leading to a series rammings by opponents which proved far more destructive.

Observers the world over looked to the battle as an example of how modern naval warfare was to be conducted and concluded that while every effort should be made to address the problem with the guns, ramming would in the meantime become a major part of naval warfare. Even before Lissa, some naval leaders were already coming to this conclusion with the French proposing dedicated ram ships that took advantage of steam propulsion to propel them in to an enemy as early as 1840. However, it was not until after the battle that most navies began to take the tactic seriously in the industrial age leading to the retrofitting of rams to existing ships and the addition of a ram on nearly every new major warship then being designed or under construction. Most rams protruded several feet ahead of the ship and below the waterline, something that would cause more than one tragic collision over time.

Even in the wake of Lissa, few countries took the concept of dedicated ram ships seriously but the British Royal Navy saw great value in their application. Work began on designing such a vessel within a year of Lissa and the design for HMS Hotspur was finalised and authorised in 1868. A number of considerations were made regarding the mission of the vessel. With the ram being considered the principle means of attack, it was expected to survive more than one ramming during a major engagement and so was reinforced by an extension of the armour belt.

As well as the ram, Hotspur was designed to carry a single 12inch (305 mm) 25-ton muzzle-loading rifle forward of the superstructure. This weapon was intended to allow the Hotspur to rake a rammed enemy vessel with gunfire should the two ships become stuck on one another as happened on at least one occasion at Lissa. Alternatively, the gun could fire at a target the Hotspur had missed with its ram or defend itself against counter attack while the ram was brought to bear. While rotating turrets were becoming a common fixture on warships at the time, the designers of Hotspur were concerned that the bearings on which such turrets rotated would not survive the violence of an impact against another ship. Therefore they designed a static armoured gunhouse in which the weapon would be located on top of a rotating turntable. The gun would then be aligned to one of four gun ports to aim at the enemy – two to starboard and two to port – however the gun could not be fired directly ahead at the ship the ram was heading for. The 12inch gun was supported by two muzzle-loading 64-pounder (160mm) weapons in open mounts positioned aft.

HMS Hotspur 1870 royal navy ram shipConstruction of the Hotspur was undertaken by Robert Napier & Sons of Glasgow in their shipyard at Govan on the River Clyde. The design featured a short but prominent forecastle that gave way to a waist with a railing before meeting the long main deck that extended to the stern. Hotspur had a typical complement of 209 men, displaced 4,331 tons and was powered by 3,500 indicated horse power Napier reciprocating steam engines that drove two propellers. The Royal Navy commissioned Hotspur in to the fleet on November 17th 1871 but quickly proved something of a disappointment. While the new warship displayed excellent manoeuvrability, something important for attacking a warship taking evasive action, the vessel was unfortunately significantly underpowered and was unable to overtake or often even match the speeds of the ships that were its intended target. Commissioned the same year as Hotspur, the 7,749-ton French ironclad Océan had a top speed of 13 knots compared to the British vessel’s best speed of 12.65 knots despite being over 3,000 tons heavier.

This fact cast an unfavourable light on the vessel since it was clear it could not adequately perform its intended mission namely supporting the main fleet in a major engagement. However, some suspected that the Royal Navy actually had a more aggressive role in mind for the vessel but had kept it to themselves so as to avoid the fury of the growing number of radical voices in Parliament such as John Bright who had staunchly opposed the Crimean War and and any foreign policy that was aggressive in nature. Once in service, one mission conceived for the Hotspur was to attack ships moored in port possibly in a preemptive strike. In this capacity, the ram ship’s relatively poor top speed was less of an issue but such an attack would have to be carried out with significant support from conventional warships to destroy or decoy enemy defensive fire. MPs such as Bright feared the development of such offensive weapons would provoke an arms race or encourage an opponent to make their own preemptive strike first.

Joining the fleet, Hotspur spent much of her early life in reserve or conducting trials to develop tactics for other ram ships then under construction such as HMS Rupert which was built along similar lines as Hotspur but featured a rotating turret. In the second half of the 1870s, Imperial Russia was expanding and under Tsar Alexander II had waged a series of conflicts with the Ottoman-Turks aimed at reclaiming lost territories and reestablishing a Russian naval presence in the Black Sea. The perceived threat this posed to British shipping in the eastern Mediterranean upon the outbreak of yet another Russo-Turkish War in 1877 was enough to warrant a significant build-up of British naval forces in the region and this included Hotspur.

HMS Hotspur 1870 royal navy ram ship 2

On February 14th 1878, Hotspur and nine other ironclad warships were instructed by the British government to transit the Dardanelles with the aim of reaching Constantinople to protect British lives and ships that had gathered at the city. Under the command of Admiral Geoffrey Hornby, the force went in two waves with Hotspur and Rupert both being in the second wave. Poor weather helped conceal their journey from eyes on the shore and this included the Turkish defensive gunners who were on a war footing and Hornby’s force had not yet received permission from the Turkish authorities to sail through. In the end, Hotspur and its compatriots steamed through unmolested although one ironclad, HMS Alexandra, ran aground and had to be towed back to open water by HMS Sultan.

Being moored off Constantinople, the crew of Hotspur and the other British warships could actually see the tents of the Russian Army outside the city. The combined firepower of the British force was enough to discourage the Russian artillery units from engaging them but soon news filtered down that the Russians planned to float mines at the British ships as they operated in the Sea of Marmora should Britain join in the war. Fortunately, the Russian desire to negotiate grew stronger than the desire to sink British warships and the crisis began to wind down.

Hotspur returned to Britain and put in to Devonport, Plymouth where it sat waiting for a major reconstruction to be undertaken. The work finally began in 1881 and was undertaken by Laird & Sons of Birkenhead in Merseyside. The work was primarily concerned with up-gunning the ironclad to make it a more flexible warship and saw the addition of a second 12-inch gun. The two 64-pounders were replaced by two 6-inch rifled breechloading guns and these were backed up by eight 3-inch guns and eight machine gun mounts.

Two years after the reconstruction was completed, in 1885 war loomed with Russia once again. On April 7th 1885, news reached Britain that Russia’s troops had attacked an Afghan fort as they expanded across central Asia. With Aghanistan providing a buffer between the Russian Empire and the British Empire in India, the attack sparked a diplomatic crisis and the Royal Navy mobilised the Particular Service Squadron, again under Admiral Hornby and including the HotspurHotspur, under the command of Captain Francis Durrant, expected to sail for the Baltic but mediation between the two superpowers by the Afghans themselves helped avoid war.

Shortly after the crisis passed, Hotspur found itself sailing off North Wales as it undertook guard duties for the port of Holyhead until 1893 after which it was once again put on the reserve list. It should have been the end for the ship at that point but it was given a new lease of life when it was reactivated in 1897 and made ready to sail to Bermuda to take up guard duties there. Hotspur remained at Bermuda throughout the last years of the 19th century and in to the 20th century when the ship would provide the backdrop to a tragic mystery.

Commander Frank Garforth assumed command on September 15th 1900. His career had been marred by an incident in which several sailors were injured and he was held responsible aboard another dedicated ram ship, HMS Conqueror, earlier that year. On November 7th 1901, his lifeless body was discovered floating in the sea and it remains unclear exactly how he died. He was replaced by Commander Robert H. Travers who remained in command until 1904 when the Hotspur was finally scrapped in Bermuda by which time the concept of dedicated rams was long dead as naval guns improved.

The first V.C. of the Tank Corps

Born out of the blood and mud of the trench warfare that had cut Europe in half, the tanks and their crews became a key part of every major offensive after their surprise debut on September 15th 1916. As such, many tank crews found themselves thrown in to the thickest of the fighting and suffered for it. The Tank Corps would end the war with four Victoria Crosses awarded to men who had served within its ranks. All four VCs were awarded posthumously.

British Army WW1 World War One Mark I tank

The first man to receive the award was Captain Clement Robertson. Born in to a military family, Robertson’s father was serving in the Royal Artillery and stationed in South Africa when he was born on December 15th 1890. Having studied engineering in Dublin, he went to work in Egypt before joining the Army upon the outbreak of war in 1914. In February 1917, he joined the Heavy Branch, Machine Gun Corps which was the precursor to the Tank Corps.

In the beginning of October 1917, acting-Captain Robertson was tasked with helping capture the high ground over the Reutel Valley in western Belgium. September had seen extremely heavy fighting in the region under the blanket of the Third Battle of Ypres. The British had achieved success against the Germans on the Menin Ridge Road between September 20th-26th 1917 and again in Polygon Wood immediately after prompting the German 4th Army to launch a counter attack. Between September 30th and October 4th, the Germans made several calculated counterattacks often many hours after the British had attacked to gather as much intelligence on the enemy and organise effective artillery support.

It was during this campaign that Robertson would become the first soldier in the still-infant Tank Corps to receive the Victoria Cross but at the cost of his life.

His citation reads:

Captain Clement Robertson Victoria Cross VC Tank CorpsFrom 30 September to 4 October this officer worked without a break under heavy fire preparing a route for his tanks to go into action against Reutel. He finished late on the night of October 3rd, and at once led his tanks up to the starting point for the attack. He brought them safely up by 3 A.M. on 4 October, and at 6 A.M. led them into action.

The ground was very bad and heavily broken by shell fire and the road demolished for 500 yards. Captain Robertson, knowing the risk of the tanks missing the way, continued to lead them on foot. In addition to the heavy shell fire, intense machine-gun and rifle fire was directed at the tanks. Although knowing that his action would almost inevitably cost him his life, Captain Robertson deliberately continued to lead the tanks when well ahead of our own infantry, guiding them carefully and patiently towards their objective.

Just as they reached the road he was killed by a bullet through the head; but his objective had been reached, and the tanks in consequence were enabled to fight a very successful action. By his very gallant devotion Captain Robertson deliberately sacrificed his life to make certain the success of his tanks.

At the time of his death he was 26 years old and had not married. Consequently, his Victoria Cross was instead presented to his mother, Frances Robertson, in a ceremony held at the Royal Barracks, Dublin, on March 27th 1918. The exact location of his remains are unclear but he is believed to have been buried at the Oxford Road Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery located less than two miles from Ypres.

Westland N.1B

Westland’s First Warplane

The urgent requirement for aircraft to equip the rapidly expanding Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) saw a number of companies start dabbling in the construction of aircraft under license from their designers. One such company was Petters Limited based in Yeovil, Somerset which undertook the construction of petrol and diesel engines but in 1915, a subdivision was established to handle the manufacture of a dozen Short Type 184 seaplanes. The subdivision was named the Westland Aircraft Works and a steady stream of additional orders kept its staff busy well in to 1916 by which time the management team felt confident enough to use their experience manufacturing aircraft to design their own.

At around the same time, the Royal Naval Air Service was looking for a new fighting scout seaplane issuing a demanding set of requirements. The Admiralty stipulated that the aircraft should be capable of achieving 100mph and have a service ceiling of 20,000ft, ample performance for intercepting the Zeppelins which were still terrorising mainland Britain and the latest version of the Fokker Eindecker which was entering service with the German Luftstreitkräfte as the requirement was drawn up.

Westland Yeovil West Hendford N.1B N16 floatplane fighterWestland was under the leadership of Robert Arthur Bruce, a former Royal Navy officer who had worked with Sopwith before heading the establishment of the Westland factory in West Hendford, Somerset. Bruce had taken 24-year old draughtsman Arthur Davenport from their parent company to help him work on the company’s first aircraft. Together they produced a rather compact, two-bay equal-span biplane of wooden and fabric covering with a relatively deep looking fuselage shape. Like nearly all naval aircraft, the wings were designed to fold to save space when it was stowed onboard ship while the trailing-edge camber could be varied producing an effect similar to basic, plain flaps when the aircraft was landing. The powerplant chosen for the aircraft was the Bentley BR.1 aeroengine, a modified version of the French Clerget 9B manufactured in Britain under license. The BR.1 was a nine cylinder, air-cooled rotary engine that churned out 130hp and was already selected for Sopwith’s latest fighter, the Camel.

For the business of engaging enemy aircraft, Bruce and Davenport adopted the familiar two-gun configuration being used by fighting scouts such as the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5. A single .303 (7.7mm) Vickers machine gun was mounted between the cockpit and the engine with firing being synchronised with the two bladed propeller. This was backed up with a flexibly-mounted .303 (7.7.mm) Lewis gun above the upper wing centre section firing over the propeller arc.

Two prototypes were ordered from Westland and work began at West Hendford. During construction of the airframes, attention was turned towards what kind of float arrangement would best suit the aircraft for landing and taking off from water. To cover all their bases, they decided that both aircraft would have different float configurations in order to test which one was best and thus be adopted on any production aircraft. The first prototype was fitted with two 11 ft (3.35 m) long main floats manufactured by Sopwith and supported by a 5 ft (1.52 m) long tail float which meant it had a nose high stance when floating or taxing on the water. The second prototype dispensed with the tail float and instead incorporated longer 17ft 6in (5.34 m) main floats which kept the tail clear of the water and the airframe more horizontal when stationary.

Collectively, the aircraft were known as Westland N.1B reflecting the navy’s requirement N.1B which outlined their desired specification. Individually, the prototype fitted with the Sopwith floats was given the serial number N16 while the second prototype became N17. Literature at the time sometimes confused matters by describing the two aircraft as individual types becoming the “Westland N16” and “Westland N17”.

Westland Yeovil West Hendford N.1B N17 floatplane fighterN16 was rolled out first and would take to the air for the first time in August 1917 with 28-year old Australian-born test pilot Harry Hawker, who was on loan from Sopwith, at the controls. N17 was completed soon after and in October the two aircraft were transported to the Port Victoria Marine Experimental Aircraft Depot on the Isle of Grain in Kent for evaluation. Westland were well ahead of their competitors for the Admiralty contract with Blackburn’s own N.1B and Supermarine’s Baby – interestingly both were flying boat designs rather than floatplanes – still under construction. The pilots assigned to fly the two aircraft praised them for their sprightly performance but more importantly their excellent handling qualities; something highly sought after at a time when just as many pilots were being lost in accidents as they were in combat.

Unfortunately, developments in naval aviation were conspiring to doom the project. On August 2nd 1917, shortly before N16 was completed, Squadron Commander Edwin Dunning landed Sopwith Pup N6453 aboard HMS Furious and in doing so became the first person to land an aircraft on a moving ship. While Dunning would be killed making another landing soon after, he had nevertheless proven that aircraft carriers were feasible and these offered a number of advantages over floatplanes the most significant of which was that aircraft could be launched and recovered far more quickly than floatplanes which had to be hoisted in and out of the sea by a crane. Floatplanes would remain a significant part of British naval aviation for the remainder of the war but carrier aircraft were the future.

Thus, Westland found themselves waiting for a contract that would ultimately never come. Any thoughts of giving the N.1B aircraft wheels for carrier operations was also folly since the RNAS were looking at Sopwith’s Pup and Camel aircraft for the fighting scout role. The two prototypes would soon-after disappear in to aviation history but they had helped kickstart aircraft development at Westland. Robert Arthur Bruce would go on to work on a number of civil aircraft after the war including the Westland Limousine which won a government competition for a light commercial transport aircraft. Arthur Davenport would have his name attached to a number of more successful Westland designs in the future such as the famed-Lysander, the original Whirlwind twin-engined fighter and the Wyvern.