A chapter from Key Publishing’s new book “Contact! Early US Naval and Marine Corps Aviation, 1911-1918” by Alan C Carey
At the outbreak of war, the Army and Navy had little idea of how to prepare for aerial warfare, as evidenced in a cablegram from the Secretary of the Navy to Admiral Sims dated April 20, 1918. Sims pointed out: “Immediate and complete information is desired by the Navy Department regarding the current development of the British of their naval aeronautics. For example, what aircraft style is most used and successful over the water? What is the method of launching at sea when the carrier vessel is underway? For coastal patrol and submarine searching, what aircraft types are used?”
Anti‑submarine warfare primarily focused on the waters off the Irish, English, and French coasts. Yet, German U‑boats began operating off the eastern seaboard of the United States starting in the summer of 1918. Long‑range German U‑boats visited the neutral United States on October 7, 1916, when U‑53 paid a visit to Newport, Rhode Island. The boat’s captain showed Germany’s capability to cross the Atlantic and the boat’s capacity to wage submarine warfare – a reminder for the United States to remain neutral. The arrival of such a vessel gave a clear message that attacks from German submarines off the United States were quite possible
The Navy Department, on February 1, 1918, appointed a special board to make recommendations as to the methods to be taken to provide for “defense against submarines in home waters.” The Chief of Naval Operations approved the board’s report with specific alterations on March 6, 1918. Admiral Sims initially concluded that Germany would not operate submarines in US waters. However, later dispatches by April convinced him of the danger and gave necessary information regarding future German submarine activities off the United States. Accordingly, the board recommended that shipping adopt the convoy system for all eastbound shipping and that aircraft, submarine chasers, and destroyers escort such shipping as far as possible.
On May 1, 1918, intelligence from the British Admiralty reported a U‑boat (U‑151) had left its Belgian base for operations off the American coast. U‑151 was one of five cruiser‑class submarines with a length of 213ft 3in, a breadth of 29ft 2in, a displacement surface of 1,700 tons, submerged 2,100 tons, and a range of 17,000 miles surfaced. Armament consisted of two 5.9lb and two 2.2lb guns, one machine gun, and six torpedo tubes (four bow and two stern). From May 15 to October 29, 1918, U‑boats 117, 140, 151, 155, and 156 operated singularly off the eastern seaboard with impunity.
The submarines caused extensive damage to merchant ships sailing along the eastern seaboard between May and October 1918. Seventy‑nine vessels, including 42 American, were sunk by torpedoes, gunfire, or submarine‑laid mines. American naval air stations on anti‑submarine duty operated the single‑engine N‑9, HS‑1, and HS‑2 flying boats, which could cover approximately 1,500 square miles, while the larger H‑12, H‑16, and F5L flying boats could cover 3,000 square miles. Naval and Coast Guard planes occasionally sighted enemy submarines but conducted unsuccessful attacks primarily due to dud bombs and inadequate techniques to engage such vessels. One example is the unsuccessful attack on U‑156 a few miles from the naval air station at Chatham on July 21, 1918. Ensign Eric Lingard, Naval Aviator No. 540, from Chatham NAS, in an HS‑1L, and Captain Philip Eaton of the Coast Guard, Naval Aviator No. 60/Coast Guard Aviator No. 6, piloting a Curtiss R‑9 attacked the submarine with bombs, which did not explode. Defensive fire from the boat kept the planes high. Eaton reported, “As I bore down upon the submarine, it fired. I zigzagged and dove as it fired again. They were [U‑156’s crew] getting under way and scrambling down the hatch when I flew over them and dropped my bomb. The bomb missed, and finally, the U‑boat submerged and was last observed heading south.”
London’s American Naval Planning Section for operational and tactical planning for the waters surrounding the British Isles and those of France were still in the developmental stages ten months after the US declaration of war. On February 15, 1918, The American Naval Planning Section stated that the US naval air effort was still in its initial stages, and the planning section made numerous objectives and recommendations. Naval air strength during 1917 consisted of small concentrations of men and materials scattered throughout France undergoing training by Allied forces. Yet plans called for a superior network of air units to be established as quickly as possible:
(1) To make our primary air effort a continuous bombing offensive against enemy naval objectives.
(2) To make our secondary air effort a patrol of those areas frequented by enemy submarines in readiness for a tactical offensive.
(3) Protect troop and merchant convoy escort duty.
(4) To concentrate principal air effort in the Felixstowe–Dunkirk area in sufficient force to get local control of the air.
(5) To direct all air effort in the Adriatic against enemy bases in succession, choosing areas to fit conditions.
(6) To make patrol areas, whether patrol by flying boats or by kite balloons, coincident with the operating areas of our surface vessels, with the greatest effort where shipping is most numerous.
(7) To plan and build our air effort against the Helgoland area.
Tactical considerations relied on the British, French, and Italians to furnish instructors, bases, and aircraft since the Americans lacked everything except willing personnel. Moreover, aircraft requirements were general, comprising capabilities that required building bombers, fighters, and kite balloons. The US had no American‑built combat aircraft, except for seaplanes; unprepared for aerial warfare, the Army and Navy had to rely on foreign‑manufactured planes. Admiral Sims endorsed the policy, and the Navy Department agreed in principle. While the Navy assembled the personnel and the materiel essential to war operations in the United States, future sites for air stations were evaluated. Two weeks after the Navy’s announcement, Captain Cone relieved Lieutenant Whiting and assumed command of all naval aviation activities in Europe as commander of United States naval aviation forces under the direction of Vice Admiral Sims.
The US Navy, in conjunction with the Royal Navy, established seven air stations in the British Isles: two in England and five in Ireland, with the principal naval objective being for air and surface forces to protect shipping against submarines. From bases in England and Ireland, patrol aircraft conducted the “Spider Web” network, which sectioned the patrol area in a spider web from a fixed point from the base; it kept submarines from performing overall offensive operations. In this, the success of naval patrol aviation is questionable as there is no evidence American patrol aircraft sank or seriously damaged a single German submarine in the 37 attacks conducted from European bases while conducting 22,000 flights and air coverage of more than 800,000 miles. However, the Navy claimed ten of those attacks inflicted damage.
Anti‑submarine operations during the war were primitive since this was before sonar and radar, with observers aboard patrol planes relying on binoculars to locate a surfaced submarine or following oil patches left behind by such a vessel. Studies written during the 1920s and ’30s bestow glowing reports such as the following:
In general, the work of the naval aviation forces in European waters was of inestimable value. They contributed a significant share in the ultimate victory, not only through their own efforts but indirectly through the assistance rendered to other naval and military forces. Still, their significant contribution was guiding destroyers to submarine contacts and reducing German submarines’ effectiveness in attacking shipping convoys by forcing them to submerge.
In May 1917, at the request of the French government, the Navy Department authorized the sending of a naval aviation force to France by establishing the First Naval Aviation Force (FNAF). The force’s first detachment represented a large proportion of the total aviation strength of the Navy then in existence. The first organized American military unit to land in Europe after the United States entered the war was the First Aeronautic Detachment consisting of seven officers and 122 enlisted men – 50 student naval aviators, 50 student aviation mechanics, and 22 administrative support personnel under the command of Lieutenant Whiting.
The detachment set sail aboard the colliers USS Jupiter (AC‑3) and USS Neptune (AC‑8). After a 12‑day crossing, the force landed in Saint‑Nazaire, France, on June 8, 1917. However, the American preparation had been so disinterested in this vital element of 20th‑century warfare that few aviators were prepared for combat operations. Furthermore, the detachment had no base to operate from and no aircraft or equipment. Between mid‑August and September, those joining the FNAF included graduates of the First Yale Unit; Bob Lovett and “Di” Gates arrived in August 1917, followed by John Vorys and Al Sturtevant. In September, a larger Yale Unit contingent consisted of David Ingalls, Freddie Beach, Sam Walker, Ken Smith, Reginald Coombe, “Chip” McIlwaine, Henry Landon, and Ken MacLeish. Young and innocent about warfare, they looked forward to arriving in France.
Lieutenant Whiting departed for Paris on June 12, where he had little guidance in establishing the force. He found himself in charge of a mission with little specification and, by default, engaged in forming a close working relationship liaising with the French regarding establishing air stations; even Admiral Sims seemed oblivious to Whiting’s actions. He had written orders for Whiting to proceed with his detachment to France and to advise the naval attaché in Paris of his whereabouts upon arrival. Before leaving the US, Whiting sought further and more detailed information concerning his duties. Still, he could not obtain instructions or advice except that if he wanted to go to the war zone, he had better leave at once before a policy change revoked his orders. Accordingly, upon his arrival in Paris, he entered negotiations with the French Admiralty, during which he agreed, on behalf of the United States, to establish certain naval air stations on the French coast, entirely on his initiative. He spoke about his lone journey: “… there was practically no understanding as to the arrangements made in the United States whereby this Detachment had been sent to France.” However, Whiting wrote that, despite their surprise, “the French expressed their gratitude and bade us welcome in an enthusiastic manner.”
The French were conciliatory toward the American naval officer and made recommendations on structuring the First Naval Detachment by agreeing to send American pilots, observers, and mechanics to French training schools. Whiting and French officials decided to send the American pilots to the French army school of instruction at Tours and the observers to the French navy school at Saint‑Raphaël. The continued discussion resulted in the decision to establish “a suitable nucleus for the operation and manning of three air stations and a training school,” located at Dunkerque, at the mouths of the Loire River (Saint‑Nazaire) and the Gironde estuary (Brest), and at Lake Hourtin in France’s Médoc region. The French plans were to establish 50 seaplane bases for operations against German submarines and additional ones for dirigibles. Of these 50, they wanted the Americans to operate 12.
Whiting returned to Brest on June 12 with orders to take the detachment to the French naval air station at Camaret. With these arrangements, Aeronautic Detachment No. 1 began training at the French bases. Preparations to create an American base began at Lacanau on the Bay of Biscay, which soon became home to France’s first US naval air station: NAS Le Moutchic. In August 1917, students from the training schools began operating at the station.
Whiting’s presence in Europe was unknown to Admiral Sims until someone brought up the establishment of naval patrol stations for discussion at a meeting of the Board of Admiralty. Sims was asked to explain the reason for his secretive policy of concentrating a large air force in France when the most vital areas of the enemy submarine campaign lay in and adjacent to the coasts of England and Ireland. Admiral Sims was obliged to explain that the total commitment was as much of a mystery to him as it was to them. He did not know any officer empowered to represent the United States in France and, admitting to the contention that England and Ireland offered a much more fruitful field for aerial operations against submarines, he would investigate the matter without delay. Accordingly, Sims summoned the lieutenant from Paris and found that in the absence of any orders or instructions, Whiting had taken it upon himself to order the construction of several naval air stations. Sims stated that, “because of this, his assumption of responsibility and initiative in doing what he did were commendable.”
Lieutenant Whiting immediately proceeded to Paris and held a conference with Admiral Le Bon, French Minister of Marine, and Capitaine de Vaisseau Cazenau, chief of the French Naval Air Service. At this conference, they agreed to send a mission of French and American officers to inspect the French coast and locate sites for future United States Navy air stations. Accordingly, Capitaine de Fregate Laborde, Lieutenant Whiting, Paymaster Conger, and Captain Smith (the assistant to the United States naval attaché), were appointed board members. After a careful inspection of the French coast, completed around July 1, they submitted their recommendations in a report. The recommendations formed the basis of an agreement between Lieutenant Whiting and the French Minister of Marine (French Naval Air Service), who forwarded their recommendations to the Navy Department for approval.
However, significant problems persisted well into the spring and summer of 1918, according to Captain Cone, whose official title was Commander of the United States Naval Aviation Forces, Foreign Service. He stated: “Establishing US Naval aviation in Europe has been one of the most challenging undertakings of early American naval operations. Although delays and mistakes in the shipment of aviation material probably caused more trouble than anything else.”
The Navy’s First Aeronautical Company and the FNAF found very little in air bases or aircraft to operate as an independent force. Instead, Britain and France provided the sites for establishing air stations – some from scratch – for seaplane and flying boat operations. At the same time, some American naval personnel operated from previously established RNAS bases.
British air stations and their counterparts in France first served as training stations for the newly arrived American aviation personnel, as most had flown less than 50 hours and had very little practice in gunnery or bombing while training in the United States. Afterward, pilots and observers went to active stations to conduct anti‑submarine and scouting operations. In contrast, others went to serve with British night bombing squadrons or the Night Wing of the American NBG. Finally, an even smaller contingent served as fighter pilots with British and French units.
The Navy established two naval air stations in England. Killingholme, located in north Lincolnshire, between the River Humber and River Hull, and Eastleigh in north Hampshire, between Southampton and Winchester. The station served as a patrol station, which was placed in commission on June 30, 1918. This station initially intended to conduct offensive operations in the Heligoland Bight area of the Belgian coast. Still, due to the limited fuel‑carrying capacity of available seaplanes at that time, patrols of this area were not feasible, and convoy coverage became the station’s primary duty. From June 30, 1917, until the signing of the Armistice, the Killingholme patrol station convoyed 6,243 Allied vessels and covered around 60,000 miles during 233 patrols. A considerable number of naval pilots operated under the Royal Navy’s air branch at RNAS Felixstowe.
The Eastleigh station primary operations consisted of reception, assembly, and overhaul of DH‑4 and Caproni bombers for the NBG when they became available beginning in September 1918. For this purpose, it was located only four miles from the port of Southampton, had good rail connections, and was within flying distance of the aerodromes of the Northern Bombing squadrons across the channel. Initially designed and built as a reception park for the Royal Air Force, US naval forces began operations from there in the middle of June 1918. This station also served as a supply depot for Killingholme and the NBG.
The Irish stations were Queenstown, Wexford, Lough Foyle, Whiddy Island, and Berehaven. In March 1918, construction of those stations, under US Navy civil engineers’ supervision, began. Completion of those stations occurred at practically the same time, around the middle of September 1917, and operations started immediately. The station at Queenstown was located in the southwestern section of Queenstown Bay. In addition to being a patrol station, it was also an assembly, repair, and supply depot and the headquarters of the US naval air operation commander. This station supplied patrols and convoys from Cape Clear on the west, south into the English Channel, to the sector covered by the aerial patrols from the north coast of France, and southeast and east to the sectors covered by the stations in the southwest of England and at Wexford. The station at Wexford was located on the eastern shore of a wide, shallow bay in the southeastern corner of Ireland. Its purpose was to provide convoy protection and patrols in the sector to the east of Queenstown.
The station at Lough Foyle was located on a long, narrow arm of the sea on the north coast of Ireland, about six miles north of the town of Londonderry. This station patrolled the waters in the vicinity of the northern outlet to the Irish Sea. The Whiddy Island station was located on the eastern side of the island of that name in Bantry Bay. This station furnished patrols and convoys for the waters to the southwest of Ireland. Berehaven was a kite balloon station used in conjunction with torpedo‑boat destroyers. This station was located on a sound formed within Bantry Bay behind Bere Island near Castletown. The total number of aircraft in England and Ireland operating from US naval air stations was 43 H‑16 flying boats, although there were 124 authorized. Anti‑submarine and patrolling by US naval personnel would have extended for many miles with the addition of those aircraft. However, the RNAS carried out most of such duties. The individuals responsible for establishing American naval air stations in France were Rear Admiral Henry B. Wilson, commander of all matters regarding naval aviation forces in France, with Captain Thomas T. Craven becoming the aide for the admiral’s staff.
Lieutenant Whiting’s independence and diplomatic abilities with the French were paramount, even though he exceeded the authority of his rank by establishing air stations in that country. As a result, on September 16, 1917, the Navy Department authorized the establishment of 17 air stations, with 11 commissioned before the Armistice: Dunkerque, L’Aber Vrach, Brest, Île‑Tudy, Le Croisic, Paimboeuf, Fromentine, Rochefort, Saint‑Trojan‑les‑Bains, Moutchic, and Pauillac. Six additional stations, primarily for balloons, were established later at Tréguier, Guipavas, La Trinité‑sur‑Mer, La Pallice, Gujan, and Arcachon.
Moutchic, located on the north shore of Lake Lacanau, four miles from the Atlantic Ocean and 32 miles from Bordeaux, became active in July 1917. At this station, Ensign Robert Lovett made the first flight from the naval air station in seaplane FBA No. 295 on September 27, 1917. Naval Air Station Trequier was located between the towns of Trequier and Plougiel, about four miles from the coast at the junction of the Guindy and Jaudy rivers, which form the Trequier River at this point. The purpose of this station was to provide aerial patrols into the English Channel, connecting up with the sectors covered by the French seaplane stations east of the Cherbourg Peninsula and in the northwest with the L’Aber Vrach sector. The first aircraft delivery, consisting of several HS‑1 planes, arrived at the station on September 24, 1918.
Naval Air Station L’Aber Vrach, was situated on the rocky island of Ehre in the harbor of Vrach. The station was one and a half miles south of the large Ile Vierge lighthouse, which marks the southern entrance to the English Channel and 21 miles north of Brest. The patrol area of this station extended over the English Channel to the sectors patrolled by the Irish bases. The first construction work commenced on February 1, 1918. On July 18, 1918, the first seaplane arrived at the station.
By September 2, 1918, ten planes, all HS flying boats, arrived, and regular patrol flights and convoy coverage began. The United States naval air station, Brest, located in the western extremity of the French navy yard, consisted of both a seaplane base and a kite balloon station. The first seaplane pilot to report on the station was Lieutenant. Commander F. C. “Dyke” Dichman, Naval Aviator No. 30, who arrived on February 13, 1918. The only fatal accident at this station occurred on August 21, 1918, when an HS‑1 seaplane – piloted by Ensign Robert F. Clark, Naval Aviator No. 196, with Ensign Arthur L. Boorse, Naval Aviator No. 333, and W. F. Rodman, machinist mate – crashed, killing the crew.
Le Croisic was the first United States naval air station organized in France; it was also the first completed and the first to operate. The station was on two small islands called Les Petit et Grand Joncheres. These islands had previously been used by fishermen as a place to dry their nets and were a part of the village of Le Croisic, situated on the Baie du Croisic, about 18 miles from Saint‑Nazaire. The principal objective of having a station at Le Croisic was to provide aerial escorts for the troop convoys coming into the Loire River. The station’s building started on July 26, 1917, and on October 6, 1917, the first planes arrived. These were French seaplanes of the Tellier type. On November 13, 1917, the first patrol flight was made, and from that date to the Armistice, patrol and convoy flights regularly operated, weather permitting. During this entire period, there was but one fatal airplane crash. This crash occurred on July 1, 1918, when T. M. Weddell, pilot, and E. C. Kneip, observer, were killed due to one wing of their plane collapsing, which caused the aircraft to fall into a nosedive.
The US NAS Fromentine was located at the southern end of the island of Fromentine in the Vendée region. The island is about 12 miles long, separated from the mainland by a half‑mile stretch of water. The sheltered water between the island and the mainland made it an ideal location for a seaplane station. Construction work at this station began on February 23, 1918, and continued until October 26. United States naval personnel carried out the entire construction work using only American materials. On June 29, two HS‑1 flying boats arrived at Pauillac, and by the end of July, eight planes had arrived, enabling patrol operations over the French coast.
Captain Hutchinson Cone managed aircraft, parts, and personnel shipments to France. However, shipping aircraft from the United States to England – assembled, tested, and flown to air bases in France – proved to be the most troublesome. So much so that pilots and mechanics operated with the American Army and British, and French aviation units, warranting a close working relationship. This proved problematic, not with the Allies but with General Pershing, commander‑in‑chief of the American Expeditionary Force, who believed the Navy was not cooperating with the US Air Service. This view came from meetings of Aircraft Production Board representatives in which the Chief of the Army Air Service regarded the Naval Aviation Force as somewhat insignificant in overall war plans except for the creation of the NBG, discussed later in this book. Naval air representatives, in turn, felt slighted during production board meetings as they pressed their needs primarily in acquiring aircraft and supplies. The poor relationship between the naval air service and the American Flying Corps remained throughout the war.
A memorandum sent by Lieutenant John L. Callan to Captain Craven details the problematic issues facing US naval air units:
Lieutenant John L. Callan, U.S.N.R.F., To Captain Thomas T. Craven
28 February, 1918
M E M O R A N D U M.
TO: Captain Craven.
The Officer Pilots from Pensacola, who have lately reported for duty in England and France, have only received training on Curtiss type N.91 and R.62 tractor seaplanes. Each one has had on an average only about 25 hours in the air; none of them have been trained on flying boats.
As our present policy calls for the use of only flying boats at our Stations in France and Ireland, it will be necessary to give all of these Pilots and any others who may come in the future, with the same training, another course in flying which will include flying boats.
At present the facilities for this training in France are very limited owing to the fact that the Lake at Moutchic is too small to conduct both a school for pilots and one for bombing instruction. As the school is primarily for bombing and firing, and as practically all of the Lake is needed for that purpose, it will be very difficult to handle the pilotage instruction there.
However, it is suggested that at least four dual control flying boats, Tellier type, be bought immediately and sent to Moutchic to be used for the instruction of those Pilots who have already reported from Pensacola and for the training of those Pilots now in England on patrol work at British Stations, using tractor seaplanes, who will eventually come to France after completing their work there.
It is further suggested that the Department be notified of the limited conditions for training in France and be advised of the necessity for training on flying boats, and be so instructed that in the future all Pilots will know how to fly boats before being sent abroad for active service.
Yet, cooperation between naval representatives with their British and French counterparts appeared to be very supportive, according to memorandums sent by the Commander of Naval Aviation Forces to the commander of Naval Forces Operating in European Waters. However, General Pershing believed representatives of the US Naval Aviation Forces were reasonable for their concerns about the lack of cooperation between the Army and Navy. A memorandum by the commander of US Naval Aviation Forces, dated May 22, 1918, addressed Pershing’s misunderstanding of the matter:
It has been the aim of this organization to cooperate in every way possible with all the different interests with whom we deal. For this reason, the very general statement of General Pershing, that we have failed to cooperate with the U.S. Air Service without stating in what particular, is to be deplored. This organization is put on the defensive much to our disadvantage and it is believed solely because General Pershing has been misinformed.
Based on the following statement, it does appear that the Army Air Service was providing adequate cooperation or support with establishing naval aviation forces in Europe,
No comment nor criticism has ever been received from them [Army Air Service] on any of these plans nor has the U.S. Air Service furnished us with its own program or organization charts, although requested to do so.
The status of establishing, maintaining, and operating US Naval Air Stations in France, even by the summer of 1918, apparently remained problematic according to Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a cablegram to the Secretary of the Navy:
The Assistant Secretary Of The Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt To Secretary Of The Navy Josephus Daniels
Subject: Inspection of Air Stations.
Source: Asst. Secretary of the Navy.
From: Asst. Secretary of the Navy.
To: Secretary of the Navy.
Have inspected Paulliac and other air stations. Not a single American Naval airplane in France can operate offensively. Only 8 can fly. Propellers and gasoline pumps defective. Liberty motors short of parts and reported improperly assembled. 8 starters received for 145 motors. 220 hours work per motor necessary before it is in good condition. Not a single bomb sight or spare part received. Trouble evidently lack of following up and proper factory and shipping inspection. List missing parts in Washington, D.C. Drastic action on part of all bureaus necessary present condition scandalous. Have absolute proof of above. Figures should be given to all concerned. 16517.
3:25 PM. 8‑18‑18
What other air stations did Roosevelt visit during the summer of 1918? It is difficult to conceive that “Not a single American Naval airplane in France can operate offensively,” as he stated. Paulliac was an assembly and repair station. Aircraft there would have been in different stages of repair, and maybe the Assistant Secretary of the Navy did not take that into allowance. Eight naval air stations received aircraft beginning in August 1917. Brest and Moutchic were both assembly and repair stations, and aircraft could have been in those different stages. The other seven operated American, French, and Italian seaplanes between October 1917 and November 1918. There is an indication that those stations were short of operational aircraft compared to the total number of aircraft allocated. By November 1, 1918, three or four months after Roosevelt‘s visit, the following air stations, except Brest and Moutchic, had the following American and foreign aircraft on hand:
There was a plan to replace French and Italian aircraft with the American HS‑1L and the H‑16. Such an increase could have extended operations in the North Seas, the English Channel, and the Bay of Biscay. Unfortunately, that plan never materialized due to the Armistice. Instead, Brest was dual‑purpose: an assembly and repair station.
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