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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 11

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,
please let me know!


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Chapter 13
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p130  Chapter XII

Plan, Projects, and Operations

British Admiralty Intelligence, inspired and driven by its grizzled, razor-minded director, Rear Adm. Sir Reginald Hall, was extraordinarily efficient. It furnished Admiral Sims with information that was almost chapter and verse on the distinguishing numbers of U‑boats about to leave their home pen, on their speed, the stores and torpedoes they carried, and the various positions at sea for which they would head. The last was of immense value, for it meant that some in‑bound United States convoys could be diverted, by radio, well away from what would have been a fatal rendezvous. Repeatedly, the accuracy of the information was proven by some lone merchant ship flashing her SOS from a spot on the ocean only a biscuit's toss from the designated position, at an hour very close to the U‑boat's predicted time of arrival there. Sometimes the U‑boat surfaced after the torpedo had struck home, permitting her number to be checked as further proof of accuracy.

There were never enough surface craft available to chase all these U‑boats, or even to intercept them for an attack. Thus they were far too free, after they found themselves quite regularly cheated of offshore convoy targets, to change their practice and concentrate in bottleneck waters like the English Channel and the Irish Sea, through which so many convoys must eventually pass in close formation. Here the enemy had the further advantage that these waters were as cloudy and hard to see through from the air as were those Chesapeake Bay areas of which Towers had long ago complained. Even for use in the shallows, moreover, sound devices in 1917 were very far from what they would become in 1942. By the time the United States Navy became really active in Europe, a graveyard of sunken hulls had accumulated less than 10 miles off the British coasts.

Notwithstanding these handicaps, had the British had enough planes in 1916 and themselves been able to man the many air stations  p131 which the Americans would eventually establish, they could have greatly reduced that graveyard. This was not so much because of the attacking power of aircraft, a power then still in its infancy, as because of the moral effect of such craft on the U‑boats. A plane or a balloon in the air above a convoy might be an indication of the ships' positions but both were more useful than an escort on the surface at detecting a periscope or an oil slick. It was a simple matter for either to summon destroyers, with their dreaded depth charges, and to remain, like a gigantic buoy, in the vicinity of the enemy. In countless instances reports of attacks by depth charge, sent in with the welcome note "Enemy destroyed," were made possible by aircraft which did not drop even one bomb. Since the U‑boats were very well aware of all this, "Keep 'em down" became more than a mere slogan. A sky crowded with aircraft would have meant a sea much less often broken by the swirl around a rising periscope. Sooner or later a U‑boat must rise, because in those days underwater stays were limited and subs had to surface to recharge their batteries at far shorter intervals than now.

As it was, there were too many U‑boats willing to take the chance. Such a fellow as the famous Penmarch Pete, lurking close inshore under the beam of the big French lighthouse, could bag as many as four or five ships a night from some south-bound coastal convoy. German Naval Intelligence must also have been good, because all too often the ships sunk would be the particularly valuable members of that convoy. Every day the war continued made it more evident that defensive measures like espionage, patrols, and coast watchers would never really stop the U‑boats. Only a strong and continuous offensive could do that.

Quite early in 1917 the situation had been summed up at Admiral Sims' Headquarters in a few paragraphs describing the Channel and the Irish coast as the U‑boats' "favorite localities in winter," with activities of the summer months extended "to seaward and to the . . . Bay of Biscay," while the waters off Scotland and the Mediterranean were listed as "operating areas throughout the entire year." Admitting that the enemy controlled the air over the North Sea, from Dunkerque northeastward, this estimate also recognized the high quality of enemy antiaircraft fire which followed Allied planes to great altitudes and made bombing difficult. The tasks properly to be assigned to the United States naval aircraft were therefore outlined as follows: (1) to  p132 make our primary effort a continuous bombing offensive against enemy bases, avoiding sporadic offensives; (2) to make our secondary air effort a patrol in readiness for tactical offensive; (3) to depend upon kite balloons for patrol and escort work.

It was naturally the first task that had always had the greatest appeal for both British and American naval airmen. Whiting, in August, 1917, proposed getting at the offensive by building seaplane carriers to take the bombers to points from which their short cruising radius could permit them to go in over Kiel, Wilhelmshaven, Cuxhaven, and Heligoland as easily as they could already attack Ostend and Bruges. This was no new idea for Whiting. More than a year earlier he had recommended the purchase of the big railroad-ferryboat Henry M. Flagler, on the ground that her double-deck construction, providing both protection for planes and a launching platform, made her ideal for experimental purposes. The recommendation had been disapproved at the time but it is interesting to note that 25 years later, in World War II, two such ferryboats were converted into aircraft transports.

It was the lack of carriers that had drawn so much favorable attention to the British towed-lighter plan, only to have doubt cast on its feasibility partly because of the enemy's prowess in aerial photography already mentioned, partly because the Admiralty finally decided that not enough destroyers could be spared for such operations. Lieutenant Commander Edwards described that plan as "fantastic" but no more so than many another that was "given a trial and, if it failed, shrugged aside as part of the game." Although war was a time for trying anything, however fantastic and costly, other plans for assuming the initiative in the air were somewhat less visionary. Edwards himself proposed taking over the British stations in the vicinity of Land's End and handling the whole patrol of the west coast of Ireland. This, he said, "would complete the defensive organization west of the meridian of Greenwich and in the enemy submarine zone." With a supply base at Plymouth, there would then be a complete chain of United States stations from Lough Foyle to Arcachon which, with the base in the Azores, should permit controlling all the main approaches to Europe for troop and supply ships in convoys from overseas. Noting that existing plans were mainly defensive, Edwards urged that the plans for 1919 include offensive operations from the east coast of England to the east coast of Italy. To carry out the latter  p133 he recommended two landplane bases in Italy and the organization of a southern bombing group to eliminate Pola, Trieste, and any other Austrian bases; operations which would, he said, require a 50 per cent increase in the number of planes based at Porto Corsini and Pescara. The increase in Italy should be in landplanes as much the more effective there. Even if the use of such planes by the Navy necessitated some form of amalgamation with the Army Air Service, Edwards considered that the advantage of having the planes would offset the disadvantages of the amalgamation. For the heavy bombing operations he proposed building large, five-motored flying boats, mounting ten machine guns and capable of carrying 3,000 pounds of bombs in flights of not less than 15 hours, to be driven, if these should have become available in time, by steam turbine motors rather than by Liberties. The Caproni bombers, he said, should be replaced as rapidly as possible by the new Super Handley Pages. As far as seaplanes might continue to operate, he recommended that the H‑16 be replaced by a new design, better equipped to fight the Germans for mastery of the air over the North Sea; a type for which, he said, specifications should be drawn in Europe and submitted to the Navy Department.

Contrasting with Edwards' view came Maxfield's, sent in from Paimboeuf where he commanded the lighter-than‑air forces. Agreeing that control of the North Sea and destruction of enemy submarine bases were the two main objectives, he was confident that nonrigid dirigibles could operate with the Fleet, protect convoys, and patrol all harbor entrances against enemy mine layers, provided bases for them were established at Penmarch on the coast of Brittany and at some point on the south coast of England. He wanted a new nonrigid of 10,000‑cubic-meters capacity, carrying a 75‑mm gun, two machine guns, 800 pounds of bomb, and fuel for 25 hours at cruising speed. Other features which he thought the new type should possess included two motors of 250 horsepower, pusher propellers, a covered nacelle, facilities for cooking or heating food, metal water ballast tanks, increased visibility from the bridge, bombing sights through the nacelle, hand starting gear, and space on either side of the motors for men working upon them. He considered the nonrigid superior to the kite balloon for convoy work and also compared the dirigible with the seaplane to the advantage of the former. Declaring that commanding officers of seaplane bases were coming to his view, he said that the dirigible  p134 could be more accurately navigated, could leave its base at night to meet a convoy at dawn, and could await the convoy at any given point; that it could use its listening devices from the air and keep in constant radio touch with shore bases; that it could follow an enemy submarine in any direction; that it had a greater range of speeds than the seaplane and would, in the course of a year, roll up just as many flying hours. His was a clear case of enthusiasm for the weapon for which he was responsible; over-enthusiasm, perhaps, but in retrospect an interesting commentary upon the general development of the plansº up to that time.

McCrary also favored the offensive and he suggested that the towed lighters might still be used if they were protected by "a number of fighting planes assigned to the Squadrons which operate from the decks of ships." Rather than increase the number of stations in Ireland, he favored using mother ships in protected harbors to supply men and materials to two or three planes coming in for temporary mooring. Two kite balloons, he said, should be carried in each convoy, ready for inflation at sea. Even if such balloons, in the air, might betray the convoy's position, their value would offset this weakness.

Callan, in Italy, called the Adriatic the "most vulnerable front," where a little heavier pressure might cause the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire. He urged taking over one squadron of 80 Capronis at Foggia and perhaps another from the British, to make the offensive against Pola a continuous one. This would require occupying the station at Ancona and building another at Valona, for both of which more personnel and more supplies would urgently be needed. He held that the towed-lighter plan might operate here for long-distance reconnaissance flights, but on the whole he preferred carriers to lighters for this service as well as to protect Allied convoys. He, too, recommended discontinuing sporadic raiding in favor of the offensive which, once started, should never stop until enemy vessels and bases had been destroyed in such numbers that enemy morale shared the same fate. The islands of Poveglia and Sacca Sessola, in the Gulf of Venice, should be taken over, and an army plant built at Venice itself, while a large bombing base at Ferrara could be used to spearhead the proposed drive. The so‑called Briscoe mission, visiting Italy late in 1918, was won over to Callan's view, but Admiral Sims disapproved that part of it which contemplated taking over Ancona. Eventually, in conferences with the Italian air authorities, it was  p135 agreed to proceed immediately with the Poveglia-Venice plan, the United States Navy to furnish several hundred men for the necessary construction of railways and buildings. Doubt of the advisability of this was expressed by Edwards in London, the already evident weakness of Austria-Hungary leading him to consider the effort, which would mean four months' work, as not worth while. Since the Briscoe report was in such marked contrast to these views, another special board, headed by Whiting, started for Italy to re‑examine the situation and was en route when the Armistice was signed.

Still another plan, regarded by many as preposterous, originated on the western side of the Atlantic in the fertile mind of Commander Mustin. Calling the craft he proposed a "sea sled," he described it as "in effect, a double set of floats." One set, he explained, was for cruising and would be designed to stay on the water "when the aeroplane takes the air: the other set, permanently attached to the aeroplane . . . for landing and flotation only." In short, bombers were to be transported on motor-driven sleds and launched when sufficiently close to their targets by the combined thrusts of the plane motor and the sled motor. He admitted the obvious disadvantage that the seaplane, once launched, could not be picked up but must, after its bombing mission was completed, find its way back to a base. The sled, however, could be handled by a crew of one and could get back with its own power. The type, he said, would be "in a way, a freak, for it has no use other than in warfare."

He called for 1,200 sleds, each to carry one seaplane equipped with machine gun or camera; 2,000 sleds to handle planes able to carry 500‑pound bombs; and 2,400 more sleds for plane big enough to carry one 2,000‑pound bomb or one aerial torpedo each. Granting that his numbers were large, he held that construction was well within the capacity of the American automobile industry and that lesser numbers would not permit the essential mass attacks in "simultaneous operations by many large squadrons." He proposed the use of Texel Island as a base, since this would convert the Zuyder Zee, with the waters near Vlieland, Terschelling, and Ameland, into what would amount to a huge aerodrome from which these great squadrons could take off together.

On paper and in tests with models, Mustin's idea proved to have so much to recommend it that he was promptly ordered into the Bureau of Construction and Repair to supervise a building program  p136 and full-scale tests. These tests, made with a Caproni bomber, were success­ful even though this big, lumbering plane was no easy load to handle; but the sled program as a whole proved to be another project which could not be tried in battle before the war was over. The ultimate result was that Mustin's sleds were actually used only in offshore rescue work, a service in which they did prove to be very efficient.

Meanwhile, armed with these various recommendations, Cone, with Captains Craven and Schofield, had conferred with Admiral Salaun and other French authorities late in the summer of 1918. It was agreed that no more stations need be established in France and that Dunkerque should be changed from a seaplane base into a landplane base as the center of a number of such bases assigned to offensive bombing. Belle Ile again came up for consideration, only to be rejected even though it was admittedly better for landplanes than its lack of harbor made it for seaplanes. On the material side, it was agreed that France needed no further seaplane hulls from the United States but should be furnished with motors and with various material for the construction of Zeppelin hangars. Two French dirigibles were to be sold to the United States, one to remain in Europe, the other to be sent home for experiments and for the training of personnel.

A little later, at conferences with the British air authorities, the latter proposed that the United States forces expand their activities widely. In addition to the operations from Dunkerque and Killingholme, as well as over the Bay of Biscay, the British proposed to turn over antisubmarine and coastal patrol, long-distance reconnaissance, and bombing operations in the Adriatic and the Strait of Otranto and also on the Irish coast, keeping in their own hands all other operations from Great Britain, the Mediterranean, and the Aegean. The American position, however, was that the primary effort of American forces should be in a continuous bombing offensive, which would require the production of long-range, heavily armed planes and also involve the gradual break‑up of "mixed" forces in order to bring American units under American command.

By the end of September, 1918, agreement was reached, chiefly in line with the views of the United States. It was tentatively proposed to put 18 squadrons in the Adriatic, 12 for day, six for night work. Except for the patrol of the North Sea Mine Barrage and  p137 for occasional operations under the British commander of the east coast of England, there was to be no expansion of the American effort in England. No operations were to be added on the west coast of Ireland. General advance toward American command of United States forces was to be made. Major emphasis was laid upon ceaseless bombing of enemy bases and it was considered "extremely desirable to increase the American Bombing Squadrons in the Dunkirk area to six day and six night squadrons."

On the whole seaplanes were falling into disfavor for bombing operations, attention being concentrated upon landplanes as having far longer range and much greater capacity for bomb carrying. Admiral Sims' planning section advocated designing a special type, to be more wieldy than the current ones and to be equipped to defend itself against enemy aircraft. Pending definite action upon this recommendation, it would be necessary to obtain landplanes from the Army which, as has been noted, had cognizance over the principal producers of these. It was planned, when sufficient planes became available, to organize six squadrons for day bombing, six more for night bombing, and use them with similar British squadrons to deliver a ceaseless rain of bombs upon submarine pens and any other objectives that were properly naval. Some elements of the Army, led by Major General Foulois, head of the Army Air Service overseas, contended that landplanes were strictly army weapons and that the Navy had been engaged on business attacking land bases. Foulois' objections became stronger when the War Department, because of its expanding needs and lagging production, found itself unable to fill the Navy's requests for planes and therefore referred these to General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pershing. The latter, however, had the whole broad picture more clearly in mind and he agreed with Admiral Sims that the important thing was to win the war. If the Navy could gain that end by bombing submarine pens, by all means let the Navy do it — a view in line with that of Sims, who held that the use of landplanes by the Navy was not necessarily an indication that the Navy was encroaching upon the Army's territory.

Unfortunately Foulois remained obstructive, next raising the specter of the German summer offensive as a reason why no planes could be spared by the Army. There were some rather acrimonious exchanges between Foulois and Cone, and these were intensified by current rumors of a plan to consolidate all air forces under one  p138 head. Foulois wanted to be that head while Cone and Edwards, provided planes could be obtained and bombing begun, were willing to risk even subordination, if that must be the price.

Eventually the Navy's requests for army planes were for 75 of the bombers with 40 single-seat pursuit planes for escort purposes, wanted by July 1, 1918, followed by 75 fighters by October 1. The War Department agreed to supply the October needs in fighters but insisted that the question of bombers must be settled by General Pershing. It seemed to escape General Foulois that the German summer offensive would in any case be over before the planes wanted by the Navy could reach Europe and that adequate logistic support of the American Expeditionary Force would become impossible unless the U‑boats were stopped.

There were many discussions, particularly after the first Handley Pages received from the Army proved unsatisfactory. Even though the Army offered to make good all defects, the attention of naval airmen turned to Capronis. As has already been noted, Capronis were another disappointment, and for a time it appeared that the whole bombing offensive, known as the Northern Bombing Project, was doomed to failure. The Navy was determined that this should not happen.

Capt. David Hanrahan, appointed by Admiral Sims to command the whole project, pushed it vigorously from headquarters at Autingues. Liberty motors began arriving at Eastleigh and at Pauillac, slowly followed by planes. Some planes came with warped wings or with other defects such as incomplete wiring, while even the motors were sometimes improperly assembled, defects that caused heartbreaking delays and necessitated what were almost miracles of overhauling. Since it had been decided, however, that the Navy "must provide suitable aircraft for this purpose," no effort to provide them could be spared — and none was.

Personnel requirements had been estimated at about 530 officers and ten times as many enlisted men. Preliminary training in night flying for those pilots who already had at least 40 hours' solo to their credit was begun at Miami under Lieut. Richard E. Byrd. From that school the officers went overseas for further training in British planes such as the Sopwith, which they flew with the Royal Air Force, notably Squadrons 213 and 214. Meanwhile enlisted men, trained as far as might be, were assembled at Eastleigh and other stations for final instruction.

 p139  By September most of the American-manned stations in Europe were in operation. Although it was rare for more than two planes to be sent out at any one time from Lough Foyle, Wexford, Whiddy Island, Queenstown, and Berehaven, altogether they managed to fly over 45,000 miles in patrols and to make attacks on seven U‑boats, seriously damaging at least two. Killingholme, which had begun operations in July, was better off, with 46 planes and 1,900 personnel. Regular patrols were flown from that station by day and by night, until they had covered 100,000 miles, with credit for one sinking and a number of "possibles." In September some planes were moved to Killingholme from the French bases, on the chance that the High Seas Fleet might attempt a final sortie, but this never materialized.

Toward the end of June Capt. Thomas T. Craven, at Cone's request, took command of the French bases and Cone himself went to London headquarters. By that time, Ile Tudy, Le Croisic, Dunkerque — all seaplane bases — were established, Paimboeuf was ready for dirigibles, and Pauillac and the Moutchic school were in operation. A few other French stations were completed and ready for American planes.

Flights from Dunkerque were begun September 1, 1918, but they continued only ten days before it was decided to abandon that base. Arcachon started its flights early in October and, as more planes arrived overseas, Tréguier was ready in November. At La Trinité the first kite balloon from the United States was delivered on October 18. The first formal patrol from Le Croisic had gone into the air on November 18, 1917; the last one would be flown on December 13, 1918, as an escort to President Wilson, arriving in France for the Versailles Conference. During those months 27 submarines were sighted, 25 attacked, 12 described as "damaged."

The first independent Northern Bombing Group operation was carried out on the night of August 15, 1918, when a single Caproni, flown up from Italy shortly before, went over Ostend and dropped 1,250 pounds of bombs on the U‑boat pen there. Unfortunately this particular plane on each of its next two attempts was turned back by engine trouble, a circumstance which forced the decision that Capronis, even if they could make the hard flight over the Alps, would not do for northern bombing.

At about this time, three marine fighter squadrons reached Europe. Under Major Cunningham, they were based in France, at Oye and at Le Frêne, where the pilots were rotated in their  p140 assignments in order to permit each to fly on three missions as a member of one or another of the Royal Air Force squadrons. Since not enough American planes had been received to organize independent squadrons, such planes as had arrived were loaned to the British and it was not until October 13, 1918, that Marine Day Squadron 9 carried out the first raid in force by a unit of the Northern Bombing Group.

During that same month Captain Hanrahan had three Capronis, four DH‑9, and seven DH‑4 planes actually flying, with some 200 other planes of various types in process of assembly and test. At the outset the Northern Bombing Group had been placed under the operational direction of the British admiral at Dover, who selected the group's targets. Presently, however, as evidence that the enemy was weakening began to pile up, it was decided that the bombers might be used to greater advantage if they were attached to the 5th Group, Royal Air Force. When this had been agreed to by all the High Commands, the group found itself raiding over canals, railroads, supply dumps, and airfields, completing eight of these raids into Belgium during the month. Other American naval pilots flew with French and British land squadrons over Steenbrugge, Eecloo, Ghent, Deynze, and Lokeren, besides destroying the munition work at Bruges, blowing up a lock gate at Zeebrugge, and bombing several enemy destroyers away from their berths alongside various docks. Now and then, when they were operating independently, members of the group got a little combat experience in brushes with the enemy. Through a series of such brushes, in which he shot down at least five planes and balloons, Lieutenant Ingalls of the original Yale Unit qualified as the Navy's only ace in World War I.​a

As the German retreat continued the group moved forward until by November 1 one day squadron had reached the enemy's abandoned station at Knessalare,º in Belgium, while several other day squadrons were close behind it and the leading night squadron had reached Marin Alta. At that date the group had a force of 250 officers and 2,400 enlisted men in the field, backed by about the same number in reserve at British bases. All hands were just getting into fighting condition when Armistice Day halted operations and made it unnecessary to carry out the extensive plans for bombing in 1919, laid upon the foundation of the lessons learned. An idea of the number of missions actually flown may be had from the following table, based upon the Navy's using bombs  p141 weighing from 500 to 1,500 pounds while the Marine Corps' smaller ones weighed 50 to 100 pounds:

Pounds of Bombs Dropped
Naval pilots flying with Allied units 54,332
Naval observers or gunners with Allied units 21,984
Naval personnel, Northern Bombing Group (night) 22,670
Marine Corps pilots flying with Allied units 15,077
Marine Corps observers or gunners with Allied units 625
Marine Corps personnel, Northern Bombing Group (day) 11,614
Total 126,302

Considering the short period of time covered, the figures are impressive, and a longer war would have made them much more so. The coming of peace brought a feeling of security which allowed dust to accumulate upon many of the lessons learned and this meant that they had to be learned anew, years later.

Thayer's Note:

a For full details, see Chapter 45 of Payne's First Yale Unit: "Dave Ingalls, the Naval Ace"; and elsewhere in the same book, he is mentioned 70 further times.

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