Throughout its long history, the Royal Navy has been both an innovator of, and adapter to, technological change. By the end of the 19th century, the sailing warship of Nelson’s day had been transformed into the all steel construction, reciprocating engine, electric powered and radio equipped, battleship. As formidable an implement of sea power as the modern battleship, Robert Whitehead’s 1866 invention of the self-propelled torpedo, despite its diminutive stature, threatened to undermine the relevance of the big-gun warship. Britain’s traditional naval strategy- close blockade and combined maritime operations- built on a foundation, according to Admiral Mahan, of sea power generated by the line-of-battle-ship, now seemed increasingly risky when faced against the meek, but deadly, coastal torpedo boat. The modern submarine, actualized by John Holland in 1900, effectively hid the otherwise vulnerable torpedo boat and thus brought the danger of torpedo attack to a new degree of immediacy.
Submarines, despite the critiques of skeptics, were soon added to the inventories of the naval powers, yet, the battleships only continued to grow in size, complexity and cost. To some radical naval thinkers, it seemed only a matter of time before the extinction of the old ways. It was at this point, at the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century, when the disruptive asymmetry between super-heavy warships and ultra-light flotilla craft was reaching a crescendo, that another transformative technology began to enter the armouries of the naval powers, a technology that promised to transform naval warfare more profoundly than all preceding developments, and perhaps, countering the submarine along the way.
Although it is little known, the Royal Navy laid surprisingly strong foundations for the use of aircraft in anti-submarine warfare before the start of the First World War. The role of aircraft in ASW was proposed, demonstrated and operationalized between 1912 and 1914. During 1915 and 1916, however, this developing ability was placed on the backburner as wartime priorities shifted. Nevertheless, the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) had been primed to play a critical role in the submarine crisis, helping to contain and defeat the submarines at sea in 1917-1918. What were the roots of this wartime transformation?
Within the ranks of Royal Navy, and the nascent naval air service, there were several far-sighted officers, submariners, and undersea warfare specialists, who believed aircraft could play a vital role in ASW. Late in 1909, as his first tenure as First Sea Lord was coming to an end, Sir John Fisher established what soon became the Admiralty Submarine Committee, responsible for, amongst other trials, using aircraft to search for, and bomb, submarines. The first chairman of the Fisher committee was Admiral Cecil Burney, and it was his son, Lt. Charles Burney, who was one of the first to examine the possibility of using aircraft against submarines, a possibility he discussed in a 1913 Naval Review article (volume I, issue two). Burney then went to work for the Bristol Company, where he contributed to the development of seaplanes, specifically engineered for ASW, when the war broke out. After the disaster of 22 September 1914, when U-9 sank HMS Cressy, Hogue, and Aboukir, Burney was re-assigned to the RN’s torpedo school, HMS Vernon, to develop an anti-submarine explosive, the result of which was the towed paravane explosive, like the depth charge, both introduced in January 1916.
Another important pre-war practitioner was a submariner, Lt. Hugh Williamson. In early 1912, he published a paper that was circulated by Captain Murray Sueter, the Director of the Navy’s Air Department. Williamson’s paper identified and explored the significant role he believed aircraft could play in ASW: by traveling aboard a parent carrier ship, the airplanes could be delivered to the submarine’s operational area, and deployed in flights to patrol. Once detected, an enemy submarine would be forced to dive, thus shortly exhausting its battery power.
Williamson was supported by Sueter, who envisioned ASW as one of the essential duties of the Naval Wing. In the event, Williamson, following injuries sustained in a disastrous seaplane crash in March 1915, while acting as a gunfire observer at the Dardanelles, was appointed as an assistant to Rear Admiral Charles Vaughan-Lee, the Director Air Services (Sueter’s replacement). Williamson later became an influential staff officer, head of the Naval Staff’s Section 11 (Air) at the Operations Division.
The usefulness of airplanes operating in the anti-submarine role was actually demonstrated during the 1913 naval maneuvers. Commander Vivian, the captain of HMS Hermes, the Navy’s first seaplane carrier, wrote an encouraging report, emphasizing the success of ship- and shore- launched aircraft for spotting submarines. In December 1913, Vivian followed up with a lecture for the Royal Navy College at Plymouth, in which he endorsed aircraft for the anti-submarine role. Another proponent, Lt. Boothby, had made the same case in the RUSI Journal in 1912, although he favoured airships.
All told, Sueter, Boothby, Burney, Williamson, and Vivian provided a solid theoretical foundation for the use of aircraft in ASW. By 1913, as Arthur Marder pointed out, it was “not an uncommon belief” that the airplanes of the future would be used to attack, and indeed bomb, submarines. The RNAS had gone some way towards operationalizing these theories by July 1914.
However, at the beginning of the war, the RNAS still possessed no specialized equipment for ASW, and the implementation of theory now confronted a dramatic wartime reality. Hermes was torpedoed by U-27 in the Dover Straits on 31 October- Vivian had been reassigned- and Williamson was dispatched to the Dardanelles. Burney’s work at Bristol was interrupted, and Sueter soon had his hands full, controlling the air defence of London during the Zeppelin raids of spring 1915.
Fisher returned to the Admiralty as First Sea Lord in October 1914, and, the following February, urged the development of an aerial stopgap measure for ASW. Taking a page from Lt. Boothby, Fisher looked to non-rigid airships (blimps) to fill the role. The resulting Sea Scout, perhaps the direct antecedent of the helicopter in terms of its ASW function, was soon put into production by the airship section of the Air Department. Likewise, other kit was being perfected: J. C. Porte, of Felixstowe fame, was at work improving the American Curtiss flying boats, which, of all types of naval aircraft, were the most highly anticipated for their potential range of capabilities, including ASW.
These were bold developments. However, as the land war ground to a stalemate, and the attractiveness of using submarines against merchant shipping led to the February 1915 War Zone declaration by Germany, the inability of the Navy and its Air Department to respond decisively was exposed. Deliveries of flying boats and Sea Scouts proved far short of requirements, and the machines themselves were short on horse-power, striking power, and crew comforts. Compounding these technical limitations, in May 1915, the air-minded Churchill-Fisher regime collapsed over the prosecution of the Dardanelles campaign. The RNAS, under the following Balfour-Jackson administration, was restructured and placed in a subordinate position to the Navy’s district commanders, not always harmoniously, and thus lacked coordination and central control. Resources were stretched thin, not least because the RNAS had to compete for aircraft with the Royal Flying Corps, from competing priorities within the Air Department itself. RNAS squadrons were sent to France to supplement the RFC, and an increasing number of units were engaged in the defence of British airspace from Germany’s Zeppelin raiders. The ASW campaign was only beginning, and diplomacy had so far prevented the threat from becoming critical.
When this state of affairs changed in 1917, the RNAS had three years of experience to fall back on. The pre-war theorists were soon vindicated: the aircraft would play an integral role, hunting submarines at sea, and flying protection for merchant convoys, while also striking out against the submarine bases, and thus contributing to the failure of the desperate effort to knock Britain out of the war.
This history of theory and adaptation, hesitant development and ad-hoc innovation, all under wartime pressure, is crucial, not only for the historiography of the World Wars (as many of the lessons learnt in 1914-1916 had to be relearned after 1939), but because it was a case where an ounce of prevention truly was worth a pound of cure. Although the airplane did not defeat the submarine threat, airplanes and airships did dramatically restrict U-boat areas of operation, and could have functioned (as the pre-war theory and experiments demonstrated) as part of a synergistic combined arms approach to combating the submarines right from the outset, rather than three years into the conflict. Admittedly, such an enticing possibility remained unlikely due to limitations of kit, manpower and doctrine, however, developing these capabilities before 1914 would have cost relatively little compared to the expense of the super-dreadnought arms race and lives ultimately lost during the long submarine campaign against merchant shipping.
Image: Felixstowe F.2A in flight during an anti-submarine patrol, via the Imperial War Museum.