RNAS Felixstowe

The Royal Flying Corps (R.F.C.)was formed on 13th May 1912, with a subtitle “Naval Wing” for the Navy’s hydro-aeroplanes (later known as seaplanes). During June 1912, surveys began to look for a suitable site for a base for Naval hydro-aeroplanes with at first Shotley or Mistley on the River Stour. In the end Felixstowe was chosen and the formation of the new Naval Air Station, along with another one at Great Yarmouth, was announced in April 1913, to be developed along the lines of the already established station on the Isle of Grain.


Construction on the new base began in earnest and three large hangers, 300 feet long and 200 feet wide, with slipways were constructed by Bolton and Paul Ltd of Norwich. A few land planes also operated from the Air Station, flying from Landguard Common.


On 1st July 1914, the Royal Naval Air Service (R.N.A.S.) came into being, being formed from the Naval Wing of the R.F.C. As the fears of war grew, seaplanes from Felixstowe carried out patrols, along with two aeroplanes flying from Landguard Common. A seaplane was also dispatched to Clacton to carry out patrols. With the declaration of war, the patrols intensified, linking up with patrols from Great Yarmouth and Clacton. As the R.N.A.S. had more aircraft than the R.F.C., and as the R.F.C. aircraft would likely be needed in France, it was decided that the R.N.A.S. would be responsible for the air defence of Britain.


As well as carrying out patrols, the war was taken to the enemy using seaplane carriers. On 24th Dec 1914, three ex-South Eastern and Chatham Railway Company’s Channel packets were converted to seaplane carriers and escorted by two light cruisers and eight destroyers left for the Heligoland Bight to attack Zeppelin sheds at Cuxhaven. Fog however made this impossible and alternative targets on the Kiel Canal were bombed instead.


A seaplane carrier, H.M.S. Vindex operated from Felixstowe, planned to operate against the Zeppelins.  The aircraft, two Bristol Scouts, took off from a short improvised runway on the forward deck, the ship having to steam at full speed into the wind in order to create enough windspeed for take-off. The Air Station also serviced the aircraft of the carriers Engadine and Campania.


Felixstowe Air Station, situated on the east of Harwich was ideally placed to attack the German U Boats (Unterseeboaten). U-Boats setting out from the north German ports would hug the coast as far as the Hook of Holland and then turned out into the North Sea to make their way down the middle of the English Channel. The Hook of Holland was only one hours flying distance from Felixstowe.  


U-Boats would run on the surface at every opportunity as their underwater endurance was only about 75 miles and two hours at their top speed of 8 knots drained the batteries flat. While on the surface they were vulnerable to attack from either surface vessels or from the air. However the seaplanes had little effect against the U Boats as they were not really able to carry the load of bombs and fuel required. Although seaplanes were taken to sea by the Royal Navy, lowered onto the sea and retrieved after their flights, this was a hazardous task in choppy seas with many seaplanes lost. The new flying boat, basically a large biplane with a crew of four in the hull, was considered the way to take the war to the enemy in the North Sea - the hull of the flying boats was a lot more seaworthy than the floats of a seaplane and they could carry more fuel and a heavier bomb load.


















Above: Left - Felixstowe RNAS, the three hangers and attendant slipways and jetties

Middle and right - Flying boats from Felixstowe. Middle image shows the dazzle paint scheme that came in late in

the war.


At first the flying boats also had little success against the U-Boats, until the introduction of the “Spider’s Web” patrols. These patrols capitalised on the practice of U-Boats signalling by wireless their homing position, which could be picked up by wireless stations at Hunstanton, Lowestoft and Birchington.  The “Spider’s Web” used the North Hinder Light Vessel, a Dutch maintained Light Vessel some 55 miles from Felixstowe and also the Hook of Holland, as a base point.  An octagonal figure was drawn with eight arms radiating out from a distance of 30 miles from the base point. A set of circumvential lines then joined the radial arms at 10, 20 and 30 miles making eight sectors, each sector divided into three sections.  As the patrolling flying boat flew up and down each sector line, the area was surveyed twice on any patrol and two sectors of the web could be patrolled in under five hours. A flying boat would take off from Felixstowe and head for the North Hinder Light Vessel then fly along a sector line, determined by previous instructions gained from wireless plots, and then along the patrol lines of the sector.  “Web” patrols commenced on 13th April 1917.


Right: The Spiders Web
























The first U-Boat was spotted in the “Web” on 16th April but despite making successful bombing runs, the bombs failed to leave the aircraft and the U-Boat escaped.  A week later the first U-Boat was probably destroyed when a flying boat dropped four 100lb bombs onto it.  


A U-Boat was confirmed sunk on 23rd April. A flying boat found a U-Boat on the surface during a routine patrol off the Dutch coast but it dived before it could be attacked. The flying boat continued its patrol and eventually approached the area where the U-Boat had been seen and amazingly there it was again. The U-Boat was not so lucky this time and was sunk by the four 100lb bombs.  On 23rd July, a mine-laying submarine was sunk in the “Web” with a new type of bomb – a heavy 235lb bomb carried under each wing.


The flying boats also flew patrols against the German Navy’s Zeppelins which carried out spying patrols daily over the North Sea.  Ranging over the Heligoland Bight they were able to keep an eye on any intruding movements by the Royal Navy and by wireless guide fighter seaplanes to the Felixstowe flying boats carrying out patrols off the Dutch coast.  The Zeppelins also allowed German destroyers operating from Zeebrugge to avoid British ships sent out to engage them. The first Zeppelin patrol was flown during May. On 14th June, a flying boat fitted with extra fuel tanks shot down Zeppelin L.43 off the Dutch islands.


During 1917, the flying boats flew a total of 554 offensive patrols, a total of 77,500 miles and had bombed 25 U-Boats, sighted 45 more and destroyed one Zeppelin.


By 1918, the convoy system had greatly reduced shipping losses to U-Boats. As a result, U-Boats had taken to attacking unescorted ships in British coastal waters. By January 1918 these counted for a total of 60% of all losses. The Admiralty requested more aircraft to patrol coastal waters. As an emergency, 200 surplus DH6 training aircraft were provided. These operated from the coastal landing grounds such as Aldeburgh and Covehithe, and although they could not carry the bomb load to destroy U-Boats they did help keep the submarines submerged.  


At the end of 1917 and into early 1918, the flying boats encountered increasing attacks by new German single engine monoplane seaplanes and a number were lost. Plans were made to close the eyes of the German fighter seaplanes, by destroying the Zeppelins patrolling over the Heligoland Bight. As the range was too great for flying boats, specially designed submersible lighters were constructed on which the Navy could tow the flying boats. The lighters had a hull designed not to create a large bow wave. Hollow tanks along the side allowed the lighters to be flooded and the aircraft floated in. Compressed air tanks then blew out the water and the lighter and flying boat were ready for towing.

















       Above: Sopwith Camel towed on a lighter

       Right - Flying boast towed on a lighter



The first operation took place on 2nd March when three flying boats were towed out to the Haaks light vessel.  From there they flew into the Heligoland Bight and were able to photograph enemy shipping.  A second attempt was made on 21st March.


In June a joint attempt with Great Yarmouth flying boats was made against the Zeppelins which were now ranging further west into the North Sea. No Zeppelins were encountered but a fierce battle with German seaplane fighters ensured, the enemy losing six seaplanes and two flying boats were lost, both interned off the Dutch coast.


Another ambitious operation was mounted in the Heligoland Bight on 11th August. This was a joint operation with the Navy. Six coastal motor boats were to be carried by light cruisers of the Harwich Force and when launched to make a nuisance of themselves. In addition a lighter had been adapted with the addition of a thirty foot long sloping deck for a Sopwith Camel. The lighter would be towed into the wind at full speed, the Camel released by special quick release clamps and take off with the aid of the towing head wind. The idea was that the Camel, with its quicker climbing abilities would be able to surprise any Zeppelin encountered – on most occasions the Zeppelins were able to climb faster than the flying boats.  Flying boats from Great Yarmouth also took part.


The first part of the operation went to plan, with the coastal motor boats launched. However the swell was too heavy for the flying boats to become airborne and they had to float back onto their lighters.  The force was sighted by Zeppelin L43 which wirelessed back the position. The force was attacked by 15 German seaplanes with little effect. Meanwhile the destroyer towing the Sopwith Camel opened up to 30 knots allowing the Camel to get airborne.  The Zeppelin was completely surprised and shot down in flames. The Camel ditched in the sea near the parent fleet and was retrieved and the force set for home. The operation was not without cost - three of the motor boats were lost to bombing attacks by German seaplanes and the rest, unable to return to the main fleet, had to make for the Dutch coast to be interned.


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