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.

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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.

D-class Submarines of the Royal Navy

At the dawn of the 20th century, the submarine was firmly establishing itself within the world’s navies and the Royal Navy began to seriously look at its future applications. In 1905, a committee was set up to finalise the specifications for the next class of British submarine which would be significantly larger than the C-class boats which were then just entering service. While the C-class and the classes before it were short ranged vessels primarily operated in the coastal and harbour protection role, the new class would be the first British submarines designed for a more offensive role requiring greater endurance to conduct patrols at sea.

royal navy c class submarine world war 1 one

C-class submarine

The resulting D-class submarine was one of the most influential designs in the history of the submarine service incorporating numerous innovations that would be carried on in later classes. It was obvious from the very start that the new class of submarine was going to be significantly bigger than the types then being fielded in order to carry sufficient fuel and provisions for its longer ranged mission. They would also have to take greater consideration in to crew comfort and accommodation than previous classes. This saw the new design eventually swell to over twice the displacement of the C-class coming in at 483 tons on the surface and 595 submerged.

The shape of the new sub would also be came radically different compared to the C-class with the fitting of ballast tanks mounted externally along the pressure hull, a feature that would continue until the Oberon-class launched in 1960. These had the advantage of offering a significant increase in reserve buoyancy that made the submarine easier to manoeuvre and safer to operate in unsettled waters. It also freed up considerably more space inside the pressure hull for fuel and supplies. Another feature included in the design aimed at increasing stability was the fitting of hydroplanes on the forward half of the hull as well as the rear. These had been introduced on the C-class but unlike the earlier type they were positioned so that they remained submerged even when the submarine was cruising on the surface while the aft hydroplane was much further forward due to the unusual shape of the external ballast tanks. The angle of rise and dive angles were set at 50 degrees with the forward hydroplane and 70 degrees in the rear.

Perhaps the biggest departure for British submarine design that the D-class undertook was the adoption of a diesel-fuelled engine for cruising on the surface. This offered numerous advantages over the previous petrol-powered types including importantly for its envisioned mission, greater economy. It was also considerably safer since it was found that explosive fumes often built up in the pumps when using petrol engines. The French Navy had launched the world’s first diesel-powered submarine, the Aigrette, the same year the D-class committee met, proving the concept worked although there were some misgivings especially concerning reliability. The two diesel engines were 600hp units developed by Vickers and each drove their own propellers making the D-class the first British twin-screw submarine type. For propulsion underwater the diesels were cut off and power was provided by a 410kw electric motor.

The D-class had a comparatively impressive range of around 2,500 nautical miles making it a truly ocean-going warship while it could cruise at an economical 5 knots submerged for 45 nautical miles. The committee had demanded that the submarines be capable of around 13 knots on the surface and while it was reported that some of the class could on occasion exceed this figure they generally didn’t travel faster than 11 knots. They were designed for a top speed of 10 knots submerged but the actual speed was closer to 9 although it was rare for them to operate at such speeds due to the significant drain on the batteries this would incur.

Primary armament consisted of two forward 18-inch torpedoes mounted in tubes located vertically on top of one another and with a single reload available for each. The tubes were covered by a one-piece external cap designed to be rotated through 90 degrees to reveal them when it came time to fire. The size of the D-class led some on the design committee to raise concerns that it would not be manoeuvrable enough to escape attack by an enemy vessel and so provision was made for an aft torpedo tube that could be used to launch a torpedo at a pursuing attacker. Unlike the earlier coastal types which could signal the shore with lamps or semaphore, the sea-going nature of the D-class made wireless a requirement from the start and as such it was the first British submarine to be designed with the capability. The aerial was mounted in the coning tower and was extended when riding on the surface but unfortunately was quite short ranged.

D-class submarine Royal Navy World War One WWI

So many innovations were being incorporated in to this new design that the committee demanded that the construction of the first-of-class be undertaken by Vickers at Barrow-in-Furness under a veil of total secrecy. The building where HMS D1 was laid down on May 14th 1907 was therefore heavily guarded and all workers sworn to secrecy. The naval race with the Kaiser’s Germany was now in full swing and Germany was building their own submarines starting with the SM U-1 based on the Karp-class designed by Spaniard Raimondo Lorenzo d’Equevilley Montjustin for the Imperial Russian Navy. While inferior to the D-class, the U-1 was an impressive start for the Germans when it was compared to the previous British classes. Further east, the Russians began construction of the Akula as HMS D1 neared completion in 1907 but both these designs were still inferior to the British sub.

D-class submarine royal navy world war one 1 I (1)D1 was launched at Barrow-in-Furness on May 16th 1918, a year and two days after she was laid down, in a secret ceremony where the only invited guests were a handful of officers from the depot ship HMS Mercury. The submarine was formally commissioned in to the Royal Navy in September 1909 by which time work had started on HMS D2 and HMS D3 at Barrow. On May 3rd 1910, D1 received a new commander in Lieutenant Noel F. Laurence (later Admiral Laurence) who commanded the submarine through that year’s annual naval exercise. The exercise was the chance to get some invaluable experience of the new type engaged in operations similar to what it might experience in war. After loading supplies and fuel in Portsmouth, D1 slipped out of harbour and transited to its operating area off the west coast of Scotland completely undetected by the British Home Fleet. The submarine then conducted a three-day patrol simulating two attacks on British cruisers before putting back to port. Key to remaining undetected was D1’s battery capacity which allowed it to remain submerged during the bulk of daylight hours (in winter the D-class was found that it could remain submerged throughout the fewer daylight hours.)

This highly successful exercise was unfortunately marred by repeated troubles with the revolutionary diesel engines. The fact that D1 had two diesel engines meaning there was always a spare to fall back on was viewed as positively as possible by its supporters but it was clear Vickers had to address this problem if the D-class was to be a success. Despite grand ambitions for a fleet of 18 D-class vessels, the orders was scaled back to ten to allow Vickers time to remedy the reliability issues with the diesels so that these could be implemented on the recently laid down D4, D5, D6, D7 and D8. The latter two vessels in the class were constructed at Chatham Royal Dockyard in Kent and were followed by HMS D9 and D10.  During this time, the D-class would find itself receiving yet another first when D4 was completed with a 12-pounder quick firing deck gun and while this would not be fitted to any other members of the class, deck guns would remain on British designs until after World War II.

As experience on HMS D1 and D2 filtered back, a series of recommendations for improvements were submitted and began to be incorporated in HMS D9 and D10. These improvements became so extensive and included greater armament, increased displacement and improved engines that they became a new class entirely. As such D9 and D10 became the first of the new E-class submarines which would serve with great distinction during the Great War however they would also scupper plans for anymore D-class boats. HMS D6 would be the final D-class to be commissioned (April 19th 1912) while D8 was built to a marginally different configuration incorporating redesigned hydroplanes that were all set at 50 degrees for changing depth as opposed to the 50/70 split in the previous vessels. Along with the E-class fleet, the eight D-class boats formed the backbone of the Royal Navy’s patrol submarine force upon the outbreak of war in August 1914.

D-class submarine royal navy world war one 1 I (3)On August 28th 1914, the Royal Navy met the German Navy in their first major engagement of the war at the First Battle of the Heligoland Bight. The battle took place in the south-eastern North Sea after a British force attacked German patrols off the north-west German coast. Although entirely a surface action, British submarines did play their part and among them was HMS D2 and D8 who were tasked with patrolling the mouth to the River Ems in north-west Germany to block any German reinforcements that may attempt to enter the battle.

Nearly two months later, D8 was sent to shadow the German hospital ship Ophelia which was reportedly looking for survivors from German torpedo boats destroyed in an engagement with HMS Undaunted. The British had become suspicious of the hospital ship because of the amount of radio communication it was making with the German Admiralty and when her crew spotted the British submarine’s periscope they quickly changed course and headed for home even though they were protected under the articles of war which both sides respected in the early months. The M-class destroyer HMS Meteor was sent to inspect the ship under international law and observed her commanding officer throwing secret documents overboard as it approached. The British decided to seize the vessel as a war prize believing it had been spying on British warships thus invalidating its hospital ship status. The British renamed the ship SS Huntley and used it for transporting fuel from Portishead to Boulogne before it was sunk by UB-10 on December 21st 1915.

The class would suffer its first combat loss on November 3rd 1914. D5 was sailing near South Cross Buoy off Great Yarmouth in pursuit of German Admiral Franz von Hipper’s battlecruisers that had raided Yarmouth the day before when it struck a mine laid by the SMS Stralsund. There were only five survivors including Lieutenant Commander Godfrey Herbert who had been in command. Almost three weeks later on November 23rd 1914, D2’s commanding officer Lieutenant Commander Arthur Jameson was washed overboard while the submarine was charging its batteries on the surface. The submarine was then put under the command of Lieutenant Commander Clement Head but his captaincy would be shortlived for on November 25th, just two days after Jameson’s death, D2 was spotted by a German patrol boat on the surface off Borkum which proceeded to ram the British vessel. The submarine quickly sank taking Head and his entire crew of 25 with it.

Along with the E-class fleet, the D-class spent much of the early war years patrolling the Heligoland Bight as part of the British effort to contain the German Navy in port. On June 15th 1915, HMS D4 under the command of Lieutenant Commander John R. G. Moncreiffe stumbled across the unfortunate German netlayer Bielefeld that had ran aground and was being assisted by a German destroyer. Seizing the opportunity, Moncreiffe attacked the destroyer with a single torpedo which unfortunately missed and alerted the Germans to D4’s presence. The destroyer powered up and went in pursuit of the submarine in the extremely shallow water attempting to ram its coning tower that was only just below the surface. Luckily for Moncreiffe and his crew, he eventually managed to evade the destroyer and return to the position of the Bielefeld where they sank the German ship before escaping out to sea.

On August 13th 1917, D6 under the command of Commander William Richardson took part in an effort to lure out German U-boats using a decoy sailing vessel, HMS Prize so-named because she was actually a German topsail schooner captured in the English Channel mere hours after the war began. During the patrol, the two British vessels encountered the U-Boat UB-48 which exchanged gunfire with Prize before disappearing. Later that night close to midnight, D6 was on the surface when they observed Prize explode from a torpedo hit from UB-48 which had returned under the cover of darkness before escaping again. Prize sank with all hands.

D-class submarine royal navy world war one 1 I (3)

On September 12th 1917, D7 under the command of Lieutenant Oswald E. Hallifax was cruising off the coast of Northern Ireland when he and his men spotted the German U-boat U-45. U-45’s war up to that point had been a successful one having sunk 45,622 tons of allied shipping. Hallifax dispatched a torpedo at the U-boat which struck the rear of U-45 as its crew attempted to dive to safety. U-45 sank killing all but two of its crew who were rescued by D7 and taken prisoner.

HMS D3 2

The crew of HMS D3 

Tragedy was narrowly averted on February 10th 1918 when D7 was mistakenly depth charged by the M-class destroyer HMS Pelican. Now under the command of Lieutenant George Tweedy, D7 managed to surface and show her flag to the Pelican before any serious damage was done. Not as lucky however was D3 which on March 12th 1918, found itself the focus of attention from French airship AT-0 off Fecamp in the English Channel which mistook the identification rockets the British crew released for being German. The French airship dropped a series of bombs on the British submarine which sent it under the waves. Survivors of the attack managed to escape the doomed submarine and it was only when the French airmen heard them speaking English did they realise their mistake. Efforts to rescue the men proved to be in vain and they had drowned by the time help arrived.

D4 would add another U-boat to the D-class’ list of victims on May 12th 1918 when under the command of Lieutenant Claud Barry, it attacked and sank UB-72 in the English Channel south of Weymouth. The U-boat had been in service with the Germans for just eight months but accounted for sinking over 10,000 tons of allied shipping. Only three of the crew survived the sinking.

A month later on June 24th 1918, the D-class fleet would suffer its last wartime loss when D6 was attacked by UB-73 with a torpedo from a range of just 80 meters. UB-73’s torpedo passed under D6 and exploded throwing a column of water 30-40 feet into the air. At first it appeared D6 was unscathed but approximately half a minute later the front of the British submarine pitched down abruptly and it sank soon afterwards. Only two of D6’s crew survived the sinking and were taken prisoner by the Germans. When these men were questioned over the sinking after the war, the British Admiralty determined that the torpedo must have employed a magnetic pistol; a device used to trigger the warhead by detecting the magnetic field around a metal object such as a ship. UB-73 would survive the war to be surrendered to the French.

As 1918 drew on, the surviving four D-class vessels were becoming increasingly obsolete compared to the newer types then being fielded by the Royal Navy. When it was decided to conduct experiments in to new ways to detect a submerged submarine such as with piezoelectric hydrophones dipped in to the sea from airships (a precursor to modern ASW helicopters), the 10-year old D1 was chosen to be deliberately sunk off Dartmouth harbour. The submarine was sunk to a depth of 25 fathoms (150 feet) on October 23rd 1918 for the trials.

The remaining three submarines were briefly retained by the Royal Navy after the war but seldom went to sea or even had a permanent crew assigned. D4, D7 and D8 were then decommissioned in 1919 before being sold for scrap in December 1921 to H. Pounds based in Portsmouth. Despite their problematic birth, the D-class can be considered a success in their own right. However, their contribution to the development of British submarines and their operation cannot be overstated and would prove the genesis from which nearly every major British submarine class was derived until the nuclear age.

 

 

 

 

British Army Bayonet Training Manual, 1916

The following extracts are taken from a US-produced reproduction of the British Army’s Bayonet Training Manual revised in 1916 to take in to consideration the nature of the fighting on the Western Front of World War I. With the US declaring war on Germany and the other Central Powers on January 9th 1917, they looked to take advantage of the lessons the Allied powers had learned in the previous two and a half years and apply them to their own troops.

Source: Archive.org.


100 Years Ago Today…Jutland

It’s been 100 years since one of the most decisive naval battles of the 20th century. The Battle of Jutland took place between May 31st to June 1st 1916. The battle has been viewed by historians as a tactical defeat but a vital strategic victory for the British that helped contain the German surface fleet in port for the rest of the war.

Sopwith Pup N6452 replica at Yeovilton Fleet Air Arm Museum

History: Fleet Air Arm Museum
Photos: Tony Wilkins

The Sopwith Pup was a single-seater biplane fighter built by the Sopwith Aviation Company. It entered service with the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service in the autumn of 1916 and served on the Western Front until the end of 1917 by which time it was outclassed by some of the latest German fighting scouts.

The aircraft displayed at Yeovilton is a replica built in the 1980s.

12/04/1983 – first flight at Old Warden as G-BIAU
07/1983 – noted at Cranfield Airshow
01/08/1983 – by now at the Whitehall Theatre of War
10/06/1985 – arrived at FAAM after being bought at auction
13/09/1989 – Certificate of Airworthiness expired