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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 10

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
History of
United States Naval Aviation

Archibald D. Turnbull
and Clifford L. Lord

published by
Yale University Press
New Haven

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
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Chapter 12
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p119  Chapter XI

Early Effort Overseas

Of the various United States armed forces sent immediately to Europe, one of the first to get there was a detachment from Naval Aviation. Seven pilots and 122 mechanics, divided between the colliers Jupiter and Neptune, landed at Bordeaux and St. Nazaire respectively in the first week of June, 1917. Appropriately enough, the advance guard of fighting men was headed by impulsive, fire-eating Lieut. Kenneth Whiting.

The group had no plane and was sent over primarily to show a war‑weary France that United States forces were actually on their way and thus be an antidote to the epidemic of unrest, nearly amounting to mutiny, affecting the French forces. Almost by accident, however, the result was to be much more important and far reaching because of the enthusiastic initiative of the man in command. Whiting's written orders merely told him to proceed to Paris and to keep the United States naval attaché there informed of his movements. When he had asked, in Washington, for detailed instructions, he had been given nothing beyond the advice that if he wanted to go to the war zone — anyone who knew Whiting could be certain he did — he had better get started before some change of policy should cancel his orders. Upon this he had moved at once, and as soon as he reached Paris he began to act very much at his own discretion and on his own judgment.

Immediately he went into conference with the French Naval Chief of Staff, Admiral De Bon, and the Chief of the French Naval Air Force, Captain Cazenau. Although technically quite without authority to make commitments, Whiting agreed, with these officers, that American pilots would be trained at the French Army School, tours, while American mechanics went to the machine school at St. Raphael. Further, he agreed to a plan for manning certain French air stations with American personnel, beginning at the Dunkerque Seaplane Station with some of Whiting's own men and following this by assigning other detachments, as they  p120 might reach France, to such stations as Le Croisic, St. Trojan, and Moutchic. Although these agreements were duly cabled to the Navy Department, it is worthy of note that they were made without consulting Admiral Sims who through some unexplained administrative oversight had never been told that Whiting and his men were coming. It was from the ever-watchful British Admiralty that Sims got his first news, coupled with an inquiry as to this extensive planning for France while relatively little had been done about England. This naturally put Sims in the embarrassing position of having to admit that the whole matter was a mystery to him, and he sent immediately for Whiting. If history had not already established the admiral's qualities of leader­ship, his action in this instance would prove them. When he had studied what Whiting had done he approved the whole plan and commended Whiting for his initiative. Any question of action without authority was dropped into the files.

It is safe to say that had conferences been held at the level of high command before Whiting acted, air bases in England and Ireland would have been chosen ahead of any bases in France, for supporting aerial operations against U‑boats. Nevertheless the bases in France were to be of importance in forcing the enemy out into the open sea, where targets were more widely separated and danger to Allied shipping was therefore relatively less. If the concentration of so much American Naval Aviation in France could not be considered strategically justified by the state of the antisubmarine war at the time of Whiting's agreements, it did prove sound in the end.

Whiting's more detailed recommendations proposed that pilots, observers, gunners, and signalmen be sent to France as rapidly as possible, the basis of their suggested assignment being an estimated total of 200 officers and men for each station. In addition, he asked for prompt consideration of a much broader French plan, calling upon the United States to take over 12 seaplane stations and three dirigible stations, all of which were either to be completed by the French from an unfinished state or, in some instances, built by them from plans to paint. On this point he was supported by Capt. R. H. Jackson, the naval attaché at Paris, who went even further to recommend the manning of five more stations: Brest, Ile Tudy, and Arcachon on the Atlantic; Antibes and Cette on the Mediterranean. To explain the French plan in detail Whiting arranged for the return to Washington of Capt. B. L. Smith of the  p121 Marine Corps, who made representations that were shortly supported by those of Naval Constructor Westervelt and Lieut. W. G. Child of the Bolling Commission. Eventually, in August, plans for the first four bases were approved by the Secretary of the Navy with the remark that, "when practicable, the further assistance in aviation that has been requested will be given." A month later the Navy Department approved the program for 15 bases, five of which were also to have facilities for handling kite balloons and dirigibles.

At the head of the list of bases established as the result of this approval stands Moutchic, commissioned on July 17, 1917. From there the earliest flights by American aviators were made within another ten days, or only six weeks after the first group had reached France. Not far behind followed Le Croisic, built largely by German prisoners whom Whiting called "the best workmen in Europe" and pushed through by Lieut. J. L. Callan, who has already been mentioned in these pages as one of Glenn Curtiss' early civilian pilots, flying with Ellyson and Towers. Callan had entered the Naval Reserve as a lieutenant of the line, but after brief service on the cruiser Seattle he had left her in a French port to return to his first love, the air. Later on, considerable further use would be made of his abilities.

At St. Trojan and Dunkerque skeleton American crews were soon active, each as an earnest of the many more that were to come; a total then expected to reach, within the next 12 months, 3,000 officers and men. Arcachon was begun in November and St. Trojan in the following January; L'Aber Vrach, Fromentine, Guipavas, and Gujan in February, 1918. At Tréguier and Paimboeuf French construction was so far along that United States forces, when they eventually arrived, could move in immediately. These were exceptions, because in most cases the French had been far too optimistic in their promises to build. Skilled labor in France other than the German variety was extremely scarce and daily becoming scarcer; materials were not locally available and their importation from the United States was made anything but easy by the demands from everywhere else in Europe. Captain Jackson and Whiting both urged that portable hangars and barracks be sent and that personnel allotments be revised to provide for taking over all existing French bases and completing them. Nevertheless, even after Adm. H. T. Mayo, Commander in Chief of the United States Fleet, on a visit to Europe, had expressed to the Navy Department his approval  p122 of these recommendations, it still remained a practical impossibility to meet them all.

During the summer of 1917 studies of the whole air situation had been progressing at headquarters in London. Originally this study had been begun in response to a dispatch, very revealing as to how little was known in the United States, which had been sent to Admiral Sims in the spring: "Immediate and full information is desired by the Navy Department as to the present development by the British of their naval aeronautics. What style of aircraft is most used and what is most success­ful over the water? What is the method of launching at sea when carrier vessel is under way? For coastal patrol and searching what are the types of aircraft used?"

After replying in detail to the specific question, the admiral had made recommendations that the United States send carriers, tenders, kite balloons, and whole squadrons of seaplanes with high-powered motors and adequate spares. All these, he had said, must be manned and serviced by trained men in almost unlimited number. As he and his staff saw the situation, it should be possible for American naval forces eventually to take over, from the hard-driven British, not only wide areas of the sea but also the protection of those areas from the air. With his strong convictions daily growing stronger, the admiral continued to move toward that end.

By September his forces were getting fresh inspiration from the new aid for aviation, Capt. Hutch I. Cone. Realizing that more rank in aviation was imperative and seeking "an able administrator, not necessarily an aviator," the admiral had asked for the transfer to his staff of this lean, sandy-haired former Engineer in Chief of the Navy, who was then serving as Marine Superintendent of the Panama Canal. Sims always knew his man but here was one man known to the whole Navy for his ability, progressiveness, and trenchant, witty comment. A year earlier there had been many among the pioneers in Naval Aviation who had urged that he be chosen to succeed Captain Bristol because of the help he had been giving aviation on the technical side and because he could be counted on not to hesitate in making his own decisions or in pressing for action by higher authority. As aid for aviation, he provided both the rank and the ability which the admiral needed to represent him in all inter-Allied conferences on the war in the air.

Fitting into the organization, Cone gathered about him Comdr.  p123 F. R. McCrary as lighter-than‑air expert; Civil Engineers Ernest H. Brownell and David C. Copeland to handle problems of construction; Lieuts. N. R. Van der Veer and Harry F. Guggenheim as aides. Later his deputy in France would be Capt. Thomas T. Craven; in London Lt. Comdr. W. Atlee Edwards, who also served as liaison officer with the British Air Ministry. It would have been difficult to find a group better qualified for these assignments.

Cone's earliest move was a tour of Ireland with his experts, examining possible sites for American operating air bases. Presently he agreed with the British that there should be four of these: Queenstown, Whiddy Island, Lough Foyle, and Wexford, all four eventually to come under the command of McCrary, with headquarters at Queenstown, where the United States destroyers were based. In the original British proposals two other Irish sites had also been included as suitable for American balloon stations, Lough Swilly and Berehaven. Cone objected to both of these on the ground that because United States ships were not operating in adjacent waters there would be no need for American aircraft. When he discovered, however, that construction work at Berehaven was well along, he changed his mind as to this station and some American balloons were finally established there. Before long it was the become apparent that they would be more helpful in France and they were accordingly transferred cross-Channel with consequent temporary United States abandonment of Berehaven.

A similar tour of England ultimately resulted in the establishment of a United States assembly-and‑repair base built by the British at Eastleigh, near Southampton, and of an operating base at Killingholme, on the east coast near the mouth of the Humber. Because Killingholme lies almost directly opposite the Heligoland Bight, the British considered it particularly important and had already begun the construction of a base. Eventually the United States made it one of the most power­ful air stations in Europe; some 2,000 men and about 50 seaplanes were based there for patrol flights that covered a total of 100,000 miles. Not long before the end of the war, when the enemy's offensive threatened the bases in the Dunkerque area, numerous planes were flown to Killingholme from American bases in France and held there in preparation against a possible final sortie by the German High Seas Fleet.

From England Cone went to France. After approving all that Whiting had accomplished, he took command and proceeded to  p124 choose, as the principal air station in that country, the small town of Pauillac, in the heart of the Medoc wine country near Bordeaux. Well situated as to security, reasonably accessible to merchant ships because of good depth of water, and with space to expand if necessary, the choice proved a good one, and it was to Pauillac that United States planes eventually came in hundreds. True, there would be considerable delay in their operation because, although the base went into commission in December of 1917, it was not until the following April that motors and planes began to arrive from the United States. Even then, both planes and motors were often delivered damaged in one way or another, while some planes arrived without the right motors and without spare parts. More than once, although originally consigned to Pauillac, they were landed at Brest or somewhere else. Eventually Pauillac would become a factory-town, with sawmills, sail-lofts, machine shops, warehouses, hospitals, barracks, garages, besides several long docks which contrived to handle not only the merchantmen from overseas but also the so‑called Suicide Fleet, that small group of converted yachts doing escort duty with French-bound convoys. The base commander, at the peak, was Capt. Frank Taylor Evans, son of Fighting Bob. His father's equal as a blue-water sailor, he was much more generously supplied with the milk of human kindness; an inspired leader of his own forces and particularly success­ful with local authorities because he was perfectly at home in the language of the Paris boulevards; altogether a most happy selection for a difficult, exacting duty. Over 7,000 men would finally make up the command, to assemble, overhaul, and test aircraft, as well as to form what would become the distribution center for aviation personnel in Europe. From Pauillac men went to all the 28 bases finally to be operated under the United States Navy in Europe; some occupied after they were finished by the French, British, and Italians; others taken over half finished and completed; still others built from the turning of the very first sod. Since all of these except Eastleigh, Moutchic, and Pauillac itself were "operating bases" — that is, used for combat activities — their need for additional personnel and replacements was continuous.

An early question for Cone's further study was whether or not he should establish an air base on Belle Ile, off the southern French coast, famous as the site of Sarah Bernhardt's summer home but, at this moment of war, of possibly greater importance for seaplanes. Ultimately, after Cone decided that a seaplane tender  p125 operating offshore would be as much use as a base on the island, the French abandoned this particular proposal. Similarly, on a British suggestion that the United States take over the aircraft at Le Havre, Cone's decision was that the French were already so well established there that they should not be disturbed.

With these Channel and near-Channel bases chosen, attention turned to the question of future operations, and this brought to the fore the British idea of launching bomber-seaplanes from lighters or barges, towed as near the targets as possible by destroyers and then partially submerged to permit launching the planes. Under this plan the British proposed to build and furnish 50 units while the United States provided 30 lighters and 40 planes, all to be in readiness for a heavy offensive in March, 1918. Admiral Benson, on his November, 1917, visit to London, approved the plan and cabled the Navy Department to begin immediately upon a building program to produce 30 lighters, 40 H‑16 planes, and 100 motors. He also directed that 100 pilots, with the same number of observers and half as many special mechanics, be put into training for this project, while 600 additional enlisted ratings were to be assembled and trained to man Killingholme and the other bases. Whiting, placed in direct charge of this operation as prospective commander at Killingholme, made a trip to Washington to expedite the building program, which was given priority over all other dealing with the war in the air, and to do what he could to further plans for training personnel. Meanwhile pilots, observers, and ground crews already in Europe were being given opportunities to serve with the British Air Force for bombing and combat experience.

At the European end work upon a bombing project was advanced when Admiral Sims obtained the Navy Department's approval of his proposal to establish a planning section at London headquarters. This section, which could take immediate advantage of intelligence information, made studies covering the general strategy of the war and collaborated most closely with the Admiralty. Capt. N. C. Twining, as Chief of Staff, was ex officio head of the section but its chief working members were three other outstanding captains, F. H. Schofield, Dudley W. Knox, and H. C. Yarnell. They made most of the studies, with the occasional assistance of Capt. L. McNamee and of Col. R. H. Dunlap of the Marine Corps. None of these officers was an aviator, nor had any of them a technical knowledge of aircraft; all of them were exceptionally equipped, mentally and professionally, to grasp the strategic possibilities  p126 of the use of aircraft. Generally in full agreement with the views of Captain Cone, they reached a series of decisions in which the essential feature was the advocacy of a continuous bombing offensive as the only hope of defeating the U‑boat. They held that such an offensive, directed especially at U‑boat pens, should be carried out even at the expense of reducing the air escort given to convoys.

Putting any such plan into operation was delayed by one matter demanding attention both in Washington and in London. This was the enemy's effort to create a strong impression that U‑boats were about to invade the United States coast in force, an effort based upon the correct conviction that Washington would not dare to let Americans believe themselves inadequately defended. The Helm Board, reconvened in October, 1917, recommended additional air stations at Morehead City and Wilmington, North Carolina; Georgetown, Charlestown, and Beaufort, South Carolina; Daufuskie Island and Brunswick, Georgia; Fernandina, Jacksonville, Tampa, and St. Andrews, Florida; Mobile, Alabama; Port Arthur and Galveston, Texas. At the same time Captain Irwin urged the enlargement of all the bases already built or building, while Whiting, back from Europe in January, 1918, suggested that the best defense against expected U‑boat raids would be coastal stations at regular 120‑mile intervals, each maintaining 24 H‑16 boats, with small refueling posts between the larger stations. Later, in May, 1918, when the expected raids began to come, only a few older bases were really ready: Chatham, Montauk, Bay Shore, Rockaway, Cape May, Hampton Roads, Miami, Key West, and Coco Solo. Among these Bay Shore, Miami, and Key West were used chiefly for elementary training; Pensacola and Hampton Roads chiefly for advanced work. The pilots who finished at either of these stations were required to get their final training at Moutchic in France under Allied instructors or under Americans already experienced overseas.

In January, 1918, negotiations for some time in progress with Portugal terminated in the establishment of a base at Ponta Delgada in the Azores, and 90 qualified pilots of the Marine Corps were sent there. Unfortunately, their planes were already obsolescent because they had no radio equipment and because they were capable of only a bare two hours' flight, handicaps which made the base little more than a "token" air factor during the war.

Meanwhile Cone, acting always with the unqualified approval  p127 and support of Sims, took up the question of how to help in the Mediterranean. Conferences with the Italian authorities, begun in November after the catastrophe at Caporetto in October, had brought about a lift in the Italian national morale. The man who had been so success­ful at the French bases, Lieut. J. L. Callan, was shortly sent to Rome to report upon the whole situation. His knowledge of the Italian language and his previous experience, gained while still a civilian, as flying instructor for the Italian Navy, enabled him to perform this duty with distinction. From Captain de Filippi, head of Italian naval aviation, he learned that the latter was expecting 50 American pilots, all trained and ready for duty on the Austrian front; an expectation not at all justified by the contemporary plan in Washington which called for sending 50 students for training in Italy but ultimate use in France. Thanks to Callan's tact, supplemented by the efforts of Comdr. Russell Train, naval attaché at Rome, under whose general direction Callan acted, the Italians were persuaded to accept the Washington plan, but they continued to press for another group of pilots, trained as they had at first proposed. The training school at Lake Bolsena was assigned for use by the American fliers, and it was further agreed by de Filippi that United States forces, preparatory to an offensive against Austrian submarine bases at Pola, take over three stations, arranged in a crescent around Pola: Porto Corsini, Pescara, and San Severo, all of which the Italians expected to have ready by March, 1918. "Taking over" was to mean manning the base with pilots and mechanics, the Italians to maintain the base itself and to supply the planes. For example, 80 Caproni bombers were to be supplied for San Severo.

This Italian proposal was not approved. Such a major operation as it was likely to involve appeared, at the moment, to be impossible of accomplishment while the bombing of German bases was being carried out. It was, however, agreed that the United States would man the seaplane stations at Porto Corsini and Pescara, where the forces would operate under the Italian vice-admiral commanding air patrols for the district. Administration, however, was to be by United States officers, under the general supervision of Cone in London. The Italians were to continue training American pilots, in groups of 50, at the Lake Bolsena school, and they were to keep a group of skilled mechanics at the seaplane stations as long as these might be needed. Further, they were to maintain the schools and the stations in equipment, including planes, motors, fuel, lubricants,  p128 hangars, barracks, and mess facilities. Under these circumstances, and because construction of the Italian bases was practically complete whereas the French bases were unfinished, Callan recommended that some personnel be diverted from the latter to the former, and Cone, believing that the morale of the United States fliers would be improved by such a course, agreed. A preliminary detachment reached Lake Bolsena in the middle of February under Ens. William B. Atwater, and it was soon joined by an additional 35 officers and 30 enlisted men.

It would not be long before the Italian program would flounder. The Caproni land bomber was regarded as much more effective than any seaplane, and for this reason agreement had been made with Italy that the Caproni firm would furnish such planes in exchange for raw materials from the United States. Then it was learned that the United States Army had previously ordered 200 Capronis which had not been delivered, the Italians offering the excuse that they had not received the raw materials. Upon this the Navy agreed to deliver its own materials, a promise which led the Army's representative to protest violently that the Navy, because it had its own ships to carry cargo, was taking an unfair advantage. This army officer told the Italian Minister of Aeronautics that the Navy, as represented by Commander Train and Lieutenant Callan, had no authority to make any agreements. Very promptly the two naval officers went to the Minister and told him they did have authority. With the approval of Cone and Sims it was then agreed that material shipped to Italy should be enough to replace all that might be used for building planes for the Navy and the Italians promised 30 Capronis for July and July, 1918, 80 more in August, and 20 a month thereafter. By negotiations with the Army on high levels amicable arrangements were made for the delivery to the Army of certain material brought in by the Navy, the Army to pass this along to the Italians and in return to accept planes and turn them over to the Navy. This proved to be an excellent agreement in theory but in practice it was a failure.

Callan, in his testimony before a committee of Congress some years after the war, said the army officer at the Caproni factory appeared to be a determined obstructionist because he refused to allow naval men, sent to the factory for instruction, to enter the building, and also put other obstacles in the way of progress on the Navy's program. Certainly that progress was very slow and the delay had a definite effect upon plans for a naval air offensive.  p129 This was particularly disappointing because, after the "towed-lighter" plan lost favor when some of the lighters were photographed by enemy Zeppelins over the Heligoland Bight, the demand for Capronis as the best type of long range bombers grew greater. Since the Italian factories could not meet the demand, naval bombing operations suffered accordingly.

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