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 ( 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.

Sopwith 2b2 Rhino


Few aircraft companies in Britain could claim to embrace the triplane arrangement as enthusiastically as Sopwith. While it would be building legendary biplane fighters such as the great Sopwith Camel that the company would be remembered for, it had enjoyed some moderate success with its aptly named Sopwith Triplane fighter which served with the Royal Naval Air Service’s “Black Flight”. Within three months of entering combat the flight had downed 87 German aircraft and the performance of the Triplane was such that it sparked off 1917’s triplane craze in Germany that ultimately led to the famed Fokker Dr.I.

Sopwith Triplane

The Sopwith Triplane didn’t catch on as well as hoped with British forces however and only 147 airframes were built, a comparatively small number for the time. Neither did it attract the hoped-for foreign interest although French, Greek and even Russian forces trialled the aircraft; in the latter case at least one example made its way in to the ranks of the embryonic Red Air Force post-revolution.

While Sopwith would primarily focus on biplanes, they continued to push for research in to triplanes to meet Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service requirements. In 1916, after the RFC issued a requirement for a long-range escort fighter and airship-destroyer, the company began work on another relatively large triplane in response. The resulting aircraft, the rather mechanically-named Sopwith Long Range Tractor Triplane (LRTTr), was a three-bay, narrow chord wing design that featured a streamlined nacelle in the middle of the top wing for a gunner to be positioned. The Sopwith LRTTr was an extremely clumsy aircraft in the sky and by the time of its first flight was already rendered obsolete by the introduction of more capable biplane designs featuring synchronised machine guns that negated the need for the upper wing nacelle.

Sopwith Long Range Tractor Triplane LRTTr

Only the prototype Sopwith LRTTr (right) was built but Sopwith were not dissuaded by this lack of success. On the contrary, they were still so enamoured with the triplane layout that they actually began drawing up a new triplane without there being an actual requirement having been issued by the RFC or RNAS. This time however the aircraft was to be wholly different beast being tailored for the bombing role rather than as a fighter. Experience gained on their previous efforts were put to good use in this new design and the aircraft featured only a single bay within its triplane wings which gave the aircraft a more advanced look to it.

It was intended for the aircraft to carry its offensive armament internally in an effort to streamline the design and so the fuselage was deepened to feature a small bomb bay under the pilot’s seat. It was intended that the aircraft would be armed with 450lbs of bombs that would be first fitted on to a self-contained pack which would then be loaded in to the aircraft. The pilot would be given a forward-firing .303 Vickers machine gun synchronised with the propeller while a defensive gunner had a .303 Lewis machine gun in the rear cockpit.

Sopwith approached the British authorities with their new proposal but were met with opposition since they were working on an aircraft that hadn’t been requested. Nevertheless, the design sufficiently impressed them to grant Sopwith a license to build two prototypes for testing as a private venture. There was in fact reason for Sopwith to be optimistic. After German Gotha bombers began attacking London, the British War Office recommended doubling the size of the RFC with the great majority of new squadrons being equipped with bombers. Airco’s DH.9 looked set to swallow up most of the orders but if Sopwith could prove their new aircraft superior then they might be able to tender it as a replacement in the following year.

Construction of the prototypes began in mid-1917 and the first Sopwith 2B2 Rhino was completed in October before being test flown from Brooklands. Driving the Rhino’s two-bladed propeller was a 230hp Beardmore Halford Pullinger in-line, water-cooled engine; an aeroengine that was widely available at the time and that had powered the prototype DH.9. The engine was mounted ahead and above of the weapon bay with the fuselage curving up toward it the look of which helped inspire the Rhino name. Unfortunately, this engine and its installation would lead to criticism from observers since it was proving unsatisfactory in the DH.9 with poor performance at altitude while its position on the Rhino made the aircraft very nose heavy making it something of a handful to land safely.

Sopwith 2b2 Rhino bomber

The first prototype (above) was nevertheless submitted for official testing in February 1918 which was undertaken at Martlesham Heath. It was joined by the second prototype the following month which was nearly identical except that the simple pillar mounting for the rear gunner was replaced by a more modern scarff ring. Unfortunately, the aircraft proved disappointing. Compared to the similarly powered DH.9, the Rhino was 10mph slower and had a significantly lower rate of climb both of which was of great concern to the RFC who were already unhappy with the speed of the early DH.9s they were receiving. Official figures showed that the Rhino had less endurance than the DH.9 and had a marginally smaller bombload.

Sopwith 2b2 Rhino bomber prototype martlesham heathSopwith knew any effort to develop the design would be fruitless since 1917’s triplane craze which it had largely helped create was now well and truly over. While it was true that triplanes had the advantage of being able to use shorter span wings than an equivalent biplane which made them smaller targets in the air than an equivalent DH.9, the trade-off however was that they were often heavier than their biplane counterparts and they incurred far more drag. They were also prone to cross wind interference which was especially dangerous on landing. As the air war dragged on over the trenches it became increasingly obvious that speed was going to be the deciding factor and the newer biplanes were leaving triplanes behind. Sopwith would continue to dabble in triplane designs up until the end with their last aircraft, the Sopwith Snark, being developed in both biplane and triplane forms.

The two Rhino prototypes would be returned to Sopwith where they would have a short career testing new propeller designs before they were disposed of to join the list of British aviation oddities of World War I.

The Royal Navy’s Battle with Bolshevik Submarines in The Baltic, 1918 – 19

HMS Vindictive Royal Navy aircraft carrier Russian civil war 1918

Although she arrived halfway through 1919, HMS Vindictive played a major role in the last half of the fighting.

Even before the guns of World War I had fallen silent in Europe, the great powers were already finding themselves embroiled in another great conflict that was sparking up in the east. Having seemed constantly on the verge of revolution for two decades, the Great War finally broke the Russian Empire and on March 15th 1917, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne and a provisional government was installed to replace him.

Then on October 25th, the socialist Bolsheviks under Lenin who had been in exile during the war rose up against the provisional government and seized power. Almost immediately, Russia descended in to civil war between the Bolshevik “Reds” and the “White Russians” – a loose alliance of factions each with their own goals but united in their desire to destroy Bolshevism. The old powers in western Europe such as Britain, France and Germany viewed the situation in Russia with horror, concerned that their own countries could be torn apart by their own Marxist uprisings. They therefore committed equipment, ships and troops to support the White Russians in fighting the Red Army and Navy.

Volk Bars-class submarine Bolshevik Navy

Russian Bars-class submarine

The Royal Navy had already been active in the Baltic Sea with a large submarine presence supporting their Russian Navy allies in preventing the import of iron ore from Sweden to Imperial Germany since 1914 but now those allies were likely to be hostile towards them if the Russian crews supported the Bolsheviks. Russian pride in their navy’s major surface combatants was still tainted by their defeat at the hands of the Japanese at Tsushima in 1908 and its ability to function had been further inhibited by the loss of experienced officers in the revolution and the general breakdown of discipline amongst the remaining crews. However, the Russian submarine force remained a significant threat with their smaller crews having a greater sense of loyalty to one another than in the bigger ships. They were also equipped with quite capable submarines built during the force’s expansion upon the outbreak of World War I such as the Bars-class which were armed with a single 57mm deck gun and eight 18inch torpedoes.

With Germany and the Bolsheviks negotiating for peace at the end of 1917, a flotilla of eight British submarines found themselves trapped between two hostile powers and were ordered to Finland where they remained until April 1918 when, with German forces closing in, they were taken to sea one at a time and scuttled. On November 11th 1918, World War I ended and the focus was now turned entirely to defeating the Bolsheviks including sending a British naval taskforce in to the Baltic. Dubbed Operation Red Trek and commanded by Rear-Admiral Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair, the taskforce sailed on November 28th and comprised of a number of fairly modern destroyers and cruisers as well as a number of submarines that had survived the First World War in the Baltic. Red Trek had four primary goals;

  • To contain Bolshevism.
  • To protect Britain’s interests in the region.
  • Maintain the freedom of the seas.
  • Prevent the newly declared independent states of Estonia and Latvia from being seized by Red forces or remnant German units.

Opposing Alexander-Sinclar’s taskforce was Russia’s Baltic Fleet that still included a number of capital ships such as the Gangut-class battleship Petropavlovsk but was seriously weakened by the manpower shortage and so did little to stop the British ships from landing troops and equipment in Estonia. The British did suffer their first casualty during this time however when the light cruiser HMS Cassandra struck a mine on December 5th near Saaremaa in the Gulf of Finland. The mine had been laid by the Germans during the war and the British were unaware of the minefield’s presence. Mines would prove to be the number one threat to the British in the coming year accounting for a number of losses.

Leaving five of his ships to support the Estonians, Alexander-Sinclair then sortied south to asses the situation in Latvia and lend support to that country’s security. The Bolsheviks decided to launch an attack against the weakened British force to punish them for meddling in Russian affairs sending a flotilla of their ships to attack them. This flotilla almost completely disintegrated as it sailed out to intercept the British due to a combination of poor leadership, even poorer discipline among the crews and generally low reliability amongst the ships to the point where only two destroyers – the Avtroil and Spartak –  made a valiant attack on their own. Unfortunately for the Bolshevik crews, courage did not translate in to success. During the engagement off Reval in Estonia, one crew got disoriented and ran aground while the other tried to make an escape but became surrounded and so elected to surrender rather than become martyrs.

The Bolsheviks worked hard over the next few weeks to address the problems typified by the whole affair and aware that if they were to succeed then they could brush away Alexander-Sinclair’s force with their battleships, the British sent the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron under the command of Rear Admiral Sir Walter Cowan to the Baltic. Cowan was a forceful commander who wanted to exercise a more aggressive approach to tackling the Russians when he took over command of the mission in early 1919. His efforts were initially inhibited however by the harsh winter which slowed progress and lowered British morale considerably. The Bolsheviks put to sea again in May 1919 but were forced back by Cowan’s fleet leaving mines and submarines as the only real way they could fight the British.

One such Bolshevik submarine was the Bars-class Pantera under the command of 24-year old Alexander N. Bakhtin which left the port of Kronstadt on the night of July 23rd/24th. Bakhtin was one of the more experienced commanders amongst the Bolsheviks having served successfully aboard the Volk during the fighting with Germany. Bakhtin and his men had orders to attack British vessels off Kaporia Bight, the second submarine crew to be dispatched on this mission with the first, the Vepr, having been forced back to port with engine troubles. They did not have to wait long to encounter a British force spotting two British submarines travelling on the surface the next day. Keeping the sun at his back to conceal his position, Bakhtin launched an attack by firing a single torpedo at the furthest British submarine which spotted it early enough to evade it.

Pantera Bars-class submarine Bolshevik Navy

The Pantera (after the Russian Civil War)

Bakhtin then turned the Pantera on to the closer submarine, HMS E40, and launched two torpedoes in its direction. He then ordered his crew to turn away and dive deep in order to evade a counterattack. Again, Bakhtin’s efforts proved fruitless as the two torpedoes were quickly evaded by the E40 which continued turning until her bow was brought to bear on the diving Pantera. The E40 dispatched a torpedo towards the Pantera but had as much luck as the Russians with it passing alongside the Bars-class sub as it dived. A nearby British destroyer, HMS Watchman, conducted a depth charge attack but Bakhtin and the Pantera escaped back to Kronstadt.

Having been repaired, the Vepr made a second attempt to intercept the British a few days later on July 27th. Early the next day, the Vepr detected two British warships and fired a salvo of torpedoes towards them but without success. Having been detected, the Vepr attempted to escape as it was attacked with depth charges that inflicted significant damage on the submarine including to the electrics which plunged some of the crew in to absolute darkness. Despite having difficulty maintaining their depth due to damage, the crew of the Vepr managed to avoid destruction by the two destroyers – HMS Valorous and Vancouver – and later avoided an attempted attack by the British submarine HMS L15 to limp back to Kronstadt for repairs.

PLEASE NOTE – It is sometimes reported that the submarine involved was actually the Ersh but according to Geoffrey & Rodney Bennett in their book Freeing the Baltic 1918–1920 there is no evidence to suggest the submarine was in the area on July 28th 1919. Record keeping was not a priority in Russia at this time.

Despite the lack of success thus far on the part of the Russians, Rear Admiral Cowan was particularly concerned by the attacks and the potential they could have on his force which now included the aircraft carrier HMS Vindictive. As part of the effort to contain the Russian fleet, Cowan’s forces instigated a widescale mining operation around Kronstadt and neighbouring ports held by the Bolsheviks. Submarine nets were also deployed near his own harbours to protect his ships from being ambushed as they sailed in to the Baltic while the addition of the Third Destroyer Flotilla increased the number of British ships equipped with hydrophones to listen out for the submarines as they cruised submerged. Cowan committed most of his assets that were not directly supporting land operations to hunt and destroy the submarines including some of his cruisers and aircraft from Vindictive.

On July 30th, he ordered the planes from Vindictive to make a bold early morning attack on Kronstadt one of the aims of which was to target the submarine tender Pamiat Azova. Anti-aircraft fire over Kronstadt was very heavy but the pilots reported scoring a hit on the vessel and claimed a hit on a nearby drydock. It would later be learned that the pilots had mistook the oil tanker Tatiana for the submarine tender which remained undamaged. On August 18th, Cowan’s forces attacked the harbour with a force of coastal motor boats supported by Vindictive’s aircraft. This time they scored hits on the Pamiat Azova after which it sank and lay on its port side in the shallow water.

This aggressive reaction typified Cowan’s style as a commander and appeared to alarm the Bolsheviks to the point where their submarines didn’t venture out of port for the best part of the following month. In the wake of the attack on Kronstadt, it was late in the month when Bakhtin and the Pantera ventured out to face the British again. On August 31st, Bakhtin’s men sighted two British warships including the modern V-class destroyer HMS Vittoria under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Vernon Hammersley-Heenan and which had been configured for laying mines. Bakhtin and his men stalked the British ship for over a day spending much of the time submerged to avoid detection.

HMS Vittoria v-class admiralty destroyer Royal Navy

HMS Vittoria

Finally, the next day Bakhtin was presented with his opportunity to attack as the Vittoria and HMS Abdiel anchored off the island of Seiskari in the Gulf of Finland. Bakhtin fired a pair of 18inch torpedoes toward the British ship one of which missed but the other struck the side of the vessel blowing a hole in the hull. Less than five minutes after being hit, the 22-month old Vittoria had completely sunk taking eight of her crew with her. Bakhtin observed the Abdiel powering up and with depleted batteries, decided to withdraw rather than attempt to attack it too thus allowing the British ship to go to the rescue of their comrades who had survived the sinking of their ship.

Despite this victory, the Russian submarine threat was proving more of a concern for British sailors than their actual impact on the strategic situation. The main threat to British ships remained the many minefields that had been laid in the region with another V-class destroyer, HMS Verulam, being lost to one just three days after the Vittoria was sunk. Unfortunately for the British Admiralty and Cowan in particular, these losses had a profound impact on the already suffering morale of the British crews. The British government had repeatedly made claims that those British servicemen fighting in the Russian Civil War were volunteers but it seemed this did not extend completely to the Royal Navy. Many of the British sailors were quite sullen over the fact that the war they had joined up to fight was now over yet they were still being ordered to risk their lives in combat on behalf of a foreign nation. Added to this was the threat from the much-vaunted underwater menace that was the submarine which along with the hundreds of mines meant many sailors were left wondering if their ship would suddenly blow up from underneath them. This mood was only worsened by the freezing weather experienced in the early months of 1919, the poor conditions onboard many of the destroyers in which crews had to spend a considerable amount of time and Cowan’s repeated cancellation of shore leave in order to achieve his latest aims.

What started as a morale problem quickly escalated and even spread beyond the ships in the Baltic. The First Destroyer Flotilla was due to set sail for the Baltic Sea in early October 1919 but upon hearing this, over 150 seamen abandoned their posts and attempted to make their way to London to present their protests to Whitehall. Over 100 of them were arrested as they travelled by train but 44 of them made it to London although the effort was in vain and they too were arrested and imprisoned. The First Destroyer Flotilla was reinforced with volunteers from battleships and cruisers and set sail on October 14th although with only half the number of destroyers it had expected to have. Even if the crews reported to their ships there still seemed to be a conspiracy to stop them. Socialism was spreading amongst the working class in Britain after the Great War that was seen as a calamity brought upon them by the ruling classes. This led to support for the Bolsheviks and resulted in several refusals by dock workers to load ships headed for the Baltic.

Cowan’s biggest ships weren’t exempt from disruption by disgruntled sailors. In November 1919, discipline aboard Vindictive was seriously breaking down in the wake of cancelled leave during a stopover in Copenhagen, Denmark leading to Royal Marines having to break up a group of protesters. Later, two stokers were caught trying to sabotage the engines and when news of this got out it only encouraged further dissent leading to the captain enforcing harsh punishments on men he identified as ringleaders. The following month, aboard the cruiser HMS Delhi a quarter of the crew refused to report for duty.

By now the situation on land was becoming more and more hopeless for the White Russians and their foreign allies. While the Royal Navy had largely kept the Bolshevik fleet at bay, the failure of the White Russian General Nikolai Yudenich to capture Petrograd (St. Petersburg) and the continued collapse of anti-Bolshevik forces made the allies realise that the war was lost and in December 1919, Cowan began withdrawing his fleet. They had however secured the independence of Estonia and Latvia but it had cost 112 British sailors’ lives. Cowan would continue on in the Royal Navy commanding the Battlecruiser Squadron from HMS Hood before retiring as a full Admiral only to return to service in World War II. He was captured by the Italians in 1942 in Libya but was repatriated a year later. He retired a second time in 1945 and died in 1956 aged 85, the last of the Cowan Barons.

Alexander Bakhtin and his crew returned home as heroes with the Pantera itself finding a special place in the hearts of the revolutionary Russians, it being the first submarine of the Red Navy to sink an enemy vessel in combat. It later dispensed with its imperial-given name, instead adopting the name Kommisar and remained in service long after its surviving sisters had been withdrawn ending its days as a harbour training vessel.

Bakhtin however would not be so fortunate. His immediate fame was short lived when in 1924, two years after Lenin’s death and Stalin’s rise to power in the new Soviet Union, his noble heritage was made public and he was stripped of all his revolutionary accolades before being sent to the Solovki gulag in the Solovetsky Islands of the White Sea. There he endured five years of hard labour that seemed to considerably age him beyond his 34 years when he was released in 1929. Two years later he contracted tuberculosis and died almost unnoticed by the people of the revolution he had fought and killed for.

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.


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.

The First British Fighter Pilots

During the summer of 1912 the British Army based at home in Britain conducted their annual military exercises to hone skills and test new techniques. As normal, two opposing forces were assembled to “fight” each other designated Blue Force and Red Force but in 1912 both sides were given an air component from the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). The RFC was barely out of the womb having been formed on April 13th of that year and the small cadre of pilots were keen to show their stuff. With the aircraft themselves being very primitive the only real mission they could carry out was reconnaissance and so the pilots went about tracking the “enemy” forces as they made their way to the battlefield. This gave an unparalleled view of the tactical situation to the opposing generals whose orders were given based on the intelligence the new-fangled machines offered. In fact, it was an aeroplane that allowed Blue Force to defeat Red Force when a Blue aircraft spotted a concentration of enemy troops and reported them back to the Blue Force commander, Lieutenant-General Sir James Grierson. Grierson was therefore able to meet them on more favourable terms for his own side which led to his men’s success.

Despite this there was still a lot of scepticism in the Army about the importance of military aircraft in the wake of the exercise, especially amongst officers assigned to Red Force, but Grierson immediately recognised both the advantages and the dangers they brought to the battlefield. With remarkable foresight he wrote of the aircraft’s role in the future;

So long as hostile aircraft are hovering over one’s troops all movements are likely to be seen and reported. Therefore, the first step in war will be to get rid of hostile aircraft.

Wright flyer machine gun

Wright brothers with their armed Military Flyer (

Unwittingly, Grierson had in a sense made some of the first comments on the importance of control of the air above the battlefield before the term “air superiority” came in to common usage. In America, Britain, France and Germany experiments were already being carried out to arm aircraft for combat with even the Wright Brothers themselves suggesting a machine gun could be fitted to their revolutionary Wright Flyer – the very first true aeroplane! However, the experiments were still largely experimental when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914 sparking World War I. Thus the armies of Entente (Britain and France) met the Germans and Austro-Hungarians with aircraft carrying out their vital reconnaissance role and just like in 1912 they were proving very good at it.

The need to take down enemy fliers was obvious and some airmen became obsessed with finding ways to do just that. Some pilots in the field experimented with all kinds of possible methods to deprive the enemy of the advantages of flight the most legendary of which was the grappling hook method whereby one plane would attempt to snag the wings of an enemy plane as it passed over it. While almost comical now, the aim of bringing down enemy fliers was no joke to these men and the first aircraft to be deliberately brought down by another in combat was actually the result of a ramming by a Russian pilot on 8th September 1918 of an Austrian reconnaissance plane.

The obvious answer of course was to take a gun up and shoot the enemy plane to either disable its engine or kill its pilot but this brought a whole host of problems with it since the machines were not suited to combat or carrying heavy weapons. As a stop-gap measure pilots and their observers carried pistols and rifles with which to shoot at any enemy planes they may encounter while carrying out their reconnaissance duties. This was an extremely difficult task for even the best shot. The aircraft were hardly stable gun platforms and the target aircraft was often manoeuvring in three dimensions and returning fire with their own rifles.

It would be two Frenchmen who would be credited with the first air-to-air victory using aerial gunnery. On 5th October 1914, Joseph Frantz and his observer Louis Quenault flying a Voisin LA fitted with a machine gun attacked a German reconnaissance plane sending it crashing to the ground. The French machine was hardly suited to the fighter role and the weight of the crew and the gun severely restricted performance but true air combat had, somewhat clumsily, been born.

The Royal Flying Corps were already well in to developing the first dedicated fighter aircraft in the shape of the Vickers FB ‘Gun Carrier’, a pusher-plane with a machine gun mounted in the nose but it would not be ready for deployment to France until mid-1915. In the meantime, the RFC’s reconnaissance planes such as the Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2 and the Avro 504 had to rely on the observer firing the standard infantry weapon, the Lee-Enfield .303 bolt action rifle, at any enemy planes they might encounter. The comparatively small number of aircraft available to both sides in the early days of the war meant that there were few encounters and when there were it would often end with both sides running out of rifle rounds and then resorting to waving as they both turned for home.

Avro 504

Avro 504 (Ed Coates)

That changed on 25th August 1914. No.5 Squadron RFC was operating Avro 504s from an airfield at La Cateau in Northern France and amongst their number was Second Lieutenant C. W. Wilson and Lieutenant Euan Rabagliati. On this particular day, news fed back to La Cateau that a German aircraft, a Taube, had been spotted by ground forces to the south of the airfield. The squadron’s commanding officer, Major John Higgins, ordered Wilson and Rabagliati to take off in their Avro 504 and go after it. The terms “scramble” or “Quick Reaction Alert” had not yet been brought in to existence within British military aviation but this sudden launching of aircraft to intercept an enemy machine was very much in that spirit. The aircraft lifted off with Rabagliati in the observer’s seat armed with his Lee-Enfield and over one hundred rounds of ammunition.

Taube aeroplane

Taube aeroplane (commons.wikimedia)

Proceeding south towards the last known position of the Taube, the two British airmen must have known that their chances of shooting down the German plane were slim to say nothing of finding it in the first place; once airborne they were out of contact with the observers on the ground who first spotted the aircraft. Their Avro 504 chugged its way south with both men scouring the sky with their eyes looking for the unique shape of the German-built Taube and soon they spotted their bird-like quarry soaring almost majestically over the British side of the lines. Given the slow speeds of the two aircraft (less than 80mph) any attempt to sneak up on the German was futile and it was not long before the solitary pilot spotted the British biplane coming towards him.

The first dogfight between a British and German aircraft was about to begin.

The German pilot was no beginner and knew enough that he lacked the speed to outrun the 504 and if he flew straight and level then he would make himself a tempting target for Rabagliati with the rifle. He therefore took out his Mauser pistol fitted with a wooden stock and turned in to the direction of the British aircraft. The two planes began circling each other like two lions battling to be the alpha of their pride while both the German and Rabagliati exchanged fire with their respective handheld weapons. A pattern was set whereby the two aircraft flew in tight circles to keep the other from getting a clear shot while exchanging fire as the distance closed and reloading as the distance opened. At more than one point, in the heat of the fight, the two planes came unnervingly close to colliding but even at this distance hitting one another was frustratingly difficult and after expending nearly all his ammunition Rabagliati knew he only had a few shots left before they would have to disengage.

Then suddenly, after discharging yet another .303 round at the German with the hefty rifle the German aircraft pitched upwards before the nose dipped forward. Rabagliati saw that the pilot, having been hit by one of his rounds, had slumped forwards on his controls sending the Taube in to its final descent to Earth. It crashed ahead of an advancing British infantry unit which rushed to the scene of the crash and confirmed the pilot was dead. As such Rabagliati is credited as scoring the first British air-to-air victory but it had been a close call; an ammunition check upon his return to La Cateau showed he had astonishingly fired over 100 rounds with his bolt action rifle during the battle.