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Chapter 32

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The First Yale Unit

Ralph D. Paine

printed at
The Riverside Press
Cambridge (Mass.)

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 34
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. II
Chapter XXXIII

The Big Boats at Felixstowe

The British flying base at Felixstowe on the North Sea was in all respects different from the French training schools and the patrol service along the coast of the Bay of Biscay. For one thing the Royal Navy inflexibly maintains its traditions of tautness, order, and discipline in peace and war. From ancient days has been handed down the doctrine that Britannia needs no other bulwarks than her fleet. Drake and Nelson live to‑day as puissant influences. France has no such dominating naval heritage. As one observes her ships, they seem curiously cluttered up and at loose ends. The depletion of the struggle of 1917‑18 which shifted her marines and sailors to fill gaps in the trenches impaired naval efficiency and morale. The air service was bound to feel it.

The contrast impressed Albert Sturtevant and John Vorys when they reported at Felixstowe on December 1, 1917, after two and a half months in France. Unlike most other members of the unit over-seas they had no organization or construction work to undertake, no green men to train or hangars to build. They were sent to join the war flights of a station already running smoothly and on a large scale. Kenneth Whiting, who was there when they arrived, explained another aspect of it: 'Your mission is diplomatic as well as military, boys. We expect you to learn all you can of the game, but you are also the first officers of our naval aviation service to be attached to a British outfit like this for active duty. Remember that. You are to make good with them personally as well as in a  p75 military way. The impression you make will affect the attitude toward those who may come later.'

This was somewhat disturbing, especially when they encountered the temperamental reserve of a British naval mess which was slow to thaw. During this period of breaking the ice, they found a vast deal to interest them in the routine and equipment of the station. It seemed like a huge place, enclosed on the three land sides by a high iron fence. In the gravel parade ground was a tall mast from which rippled the white ensign. Crossing this area, past the shining ship's bell, you found a path leading to the harbor. At the left stretched an almost endless row of huts for the men. Looming conspicuously were the three great seaplane sheds, each three hundred feet long by two hundred feet wide, and beyond them the concrete embankment and runways.

Here was a stirring view of Harwich harbor and Shotley — a tangle of light cruisers and destroyers lying in the river, a floating dock, perhaps a British submarine slinking in between the guard-ships at the boom, returning from a perilous and secretive patrol of five or six days in the Bight of Heligoland, mine-sweepers foaming out in pairs to search for the destructive eggs that Fritz has sown in the war channel overnight. Harwich was the most important naval base on the East Coast. It was here that the fighting sea‑dog, Commodore Sir Reginald Tyrwhitt, flew his pennant over the famous cruiser division which operated as a tactical unit of the Grand Fleet.

All these activities and the Felixstowe air station were under the general command of Rear Admiral Cuthbert Cayley, a bluff and hearty sailor of the blue-water breed who took a strong liking to the young American aviators. At Felixstowe the C. O. was Lieutenant Commander O. H. K. Maguire, R. N., otherwise known as Number one, who was a stickler for naval style and manners. The hours  p76 were tapped off on the big bell. 'The ship's company' was divided into watches and any one leaving the station was 'going ashore.' The men when marching out of the yard were 'the liberty boat.' Divisions, when all hands were mustered on the parade ground or 'quarterdeck' in the morning, was smartly done. And a bagpipers' band marched the crew to mess with a swing and a swagger. Needless drill was sensibly dispensed with, but speed, skill, and accuracy in carrying out orders were continually emphasized. The station force consisted of sixty officers, of whom half were fliers, and about 1400 men.

Commander J. C. Porte was largely absorbed in his experimental and test work with the big flying-boats which he was foremost in developing. He had designed his original boat while connected with the Curtiss Company at Hammondsport in 1914. Several copies of it had arrived from the United States in 1915. A little later these seemed like comic machines, nose-heavy with motors on and tail-heavy in a glide. The stout lads who tried impossible feats with them over the North Sea usually had to be towed back by annoyed destroyers.

In the fall of 1916, improved and very much bigger flying-boats built at the Curtiss plant to specifications supplied by Commander Porte, were shipped to Felixstowe. By this time he had produced several experimental boats. He carried on his plans with a scratch collection of draftsmen, with mechanics and carpenters he had trained himself, and obtained the needed materials only by masterly and incessant wangling. It all sounds like the troubles of naval aviation in America. He frequently began work on a new boat and then asked the authorities for the begrudged permission. But he was a genius in his way and he somehow managed to bring out one improved type after another.

His final boat, known unofficially as the 'Port Super-Baby'  p77 and officially as the 'Felixstowe Fury,' was a monster triplane with a wing-span of 127 feet, a bottom of three layers of cedar and mahogany half an inch thick, and five engines giving 1800 h.p. It weighed a total of fifteen tons. On a test flight it carried twenty-four passengers, seven hours' fuel, and five thousand pounds of sand as a makeweight.

This cruiser was too big and too slow for the regular patrol service. The boat finally used for this purpose was a trim, clean craft of ninety‑six feet from wing‑tip to wing‑tip, a forty‑two-foot wooden hull, flat-bottomed with a hydroplane step. The motors turned up 700 h.p. The cruising speed was sixty knots which could be speeded to eighty. It was an imposing sight to see the working party of twenty men roll one of these boats out of the shed. The armorer's squad had fitted on the four Lewis machine guns and had tucked into place under the wing-roots, two on each side of the hull, the four bombs, set to detonate about two seconds after they hit the water or a submarine.

The crew consisted of the first pilot, second pilot, radio operator and engineer. The first pilot had to be very competent. He was the captain of the ship who took the boat out of the harbor and brought her in again, flew her on the hunting ground and in an air fight, and saw that his crew did their duty. He sat in a little padded arm‑chair on the right-hand side of the control cockpit which ran across the full width of the boat, some distance back from the nose. It was covered by a transparent wheelhouse. Before him on the instrument board was the compass, air‑speed indicator, altimeter, bubble cross level, inclinometer which gave the fore-and‑aft angle, oil pressure gauges and engine revolution counters. Close to his hand were the engine switches and throttle control levers. Directly in front of him was an eighteen-inch wheel, like the wheel of a  p78 motor car, but carried vertically upright on a wooden yoke. Besides this control, he worked the steering rudder with his feet.

The second pilot stood beside him. If a sub was sighted, he ducked forward into the bow cockpit, in the very nose of the boat, which contained a machine gun, bomb sight, and release levers. He was also the watch keeper, reporting buoys, lightships, wrecks, and working the position on his chart. The radio operator sat just behind the first pilot. The engineer was in a cockpit amid­ships, surrounded by fuel tanks, and a maze of piping and gadgets too numerous to mention. Two wind-driven pumps forced the gasoline up from the main tanks to a small gravity tank in the top plane.

From the waterfront at Felixstowe you gazed out over the melancholy, turbulent North Sea. To the southeast, ninety miles away, was the Belgian coast with the German submarine and seaplane bases at Zeebrugge and Ostend. One hundred and eighty miles across, to the northeast was Terschelling Island and just around the corner from it the Bight of Heligoland. Half‑way on a line between Felixstowe and the Hook of Holland, fifty‑odd miles from either place, the red, rusty North Hinder lightship marked a sandy shoal. It belonged to the Dutch and was therefore unmolested. A large lantern gleamed on its one steel mast and its name was painted in conspicuous white letters along its sides. This North Hinder light vessel played an important part in the patrol and bombing campaign against the German submarines.

The German submarines that moved down through the southerly part of the North Sea were commerce destroyers and mine-layers. Their commanders kept them on the surface through the Felixstowe area because they could run submerged no more than two hours at eight knots without exhausting their batteries. And low speed, two  p79 knots which could be maintained forty-eight hours when submerged, was of no value to an impatient Fritz anxious to reach his hunting ground in the open sea.

The exact positions of these U‑boats was obtained from time to time, when their skippers reported to Germany by radio after passing through the Straits of Dover, homeward bound, or when well on their way outward bound. The wireless messages were picked up by two direction-finding stations in England and the cross-bearings plotted to obtain a 'fix.'

These radio fixes demonstrated that, as a rule, the U‑boats passed close to the North Hinder lightship as a mark by which to set their courses. A system of search was devised at Felixstowe, called the Spider Web, with the North Hinder lightship as centre or hub. The Web was sixty miles in diameter and swept an area of four thousand square miles. It was an octagonal figure with eight radial arms thirty miles in length and with three sets of circumferential lines joining the arms at ten, twenty, and thirty miles out from the centre. Eight sectors were thus provided for patrol, and all kinds of combinations could be worked out.

The tables were turned on Fritz, the hunter. Here he was the quarry, the fly which had to pass through one of the sectors of the Web. The flying-boat was the spider. A chart, carefully kept, showed the positions, dates, and times of the day that submarines were fixed by wireless, and it was from this chart that the sectors which it seemed promising to search were determined. The pilots went booming out from Felixstowe to the North Hinder, followed a radial line as instructed and covered the designated patrol area, sweeping from the outside to the centre. It was a method far better than cruising about at random, and achieved definite results.

Another routine duty was the 'Beef Trip.' This was a  p80 convoy of merchant ships which ran two or three times a month between England and the Hook of Holland and was alleged by the flying-boat escort to carry Dutch beef to the British, and good British beer to the Dutch. In the dark hours of the specified morning a dozen to twenty cargo steamers would gather in the war channel near the Shipwash and there be picked up by destroyers and light cruisers from Harwich. The Felixstowe air pilots were sent out the night before to patrol the secret route across the North Sea and look for lurking U‑boats craving beef and beer.

When the convoy sailed, the fliers scouted ahead. At the plodding pace of the Beef Trip, eleven hours were required for the passage. The flying-boats were therefore sent out in relays, remaining with the surface craft until relieved. Each pair of Felixstowe machines was out five and a half hours. The work called for extreme nicety in navigation in order to make contact with the moving ships at the correct time and position. At first the results were rather ragged but eventually it became a skilled evolution. The pilots were informed, in a letter of appreciation, that before they took a hand in the game, the crews of the light cruisers and destroyers were kept at battle stations throughout the entire trip, but that after the flying-boats accompanied them half the men were allowed to go off watch.

The active service against the enemy in which Vorys and Sturtevant took part consisted, in the main, of these regular patrols, the Spider Web which carried them well over toward the German coast, and the Beef Trip to Holland. The American pilots were in training for some time, however, before being assigned to the war flights. The British manner soon warmed into a very genuine friendliness and cordiality. In fact, the Yanks received so many attentions that it was almost embarrassing.

 p81  At first there were four of them. The others were Lieutenant Hull, U. S. N., and — er — Ensign Fallon. A little later Ensign Philip Page joined them. After being there only four days he was accidentally quoted in a training smash. Bob Lovett arrived on this same date, December 14th, his mission being to observe and make notes and concoct ideas. Vorys somehow failed to grasp the importance of it or else he was in one of his curdled moods, for he made mention:

Bob Lovett came along and with his usual sang-froid, savoir-faire, etc., got through his training — found out how the wheels of the station ran round, armed with note-book and pencil and the diplomatic question — spent his spare time mooning over a picture of Adele and saying harsh words about the noise some people made getting into bed much later than he did — received and sent big, confidential letters from and to Captain 'Hutch‑Eye' Cone and Admiral Sims, and the aforementioned lady, and then was off again to pastures new.

There is another glimpse of Lovett at Felixstowe, this time in action. Vorys goes on to say:

One phase of our entente cordiale was playing football, in which Commander-in‑Chief Lovett was a sensational feature. I played on the regular team, but there was a special game at Christmas between the officers and the men. The rank and file laid up grudges for a whole year against their officers and then played this game to square accounts. It was rugged stuff. And Bob did himself proud. If Adele had known about it she would have lost at least twelve years of her beautiful life in just thinking it over, because Bob was risking fame, honor, limbs, and pulchritude in that struggle. Personally I was so badly scratched and cut up that I couldn't shave myself. Romping up to London on leave, I dragged myself into a barber shop and crawled into the so‑called chair. I was in a khaki uniform and the barber said, 'Ah, sir, you have been in the trenches. Barbed wire, I suppose.' And I crisply retorted, 'Naw, a football game.'

This suggests the martial mustaches with which John  p82 and Al were decorated when they presented themselves at Felixstowe. They had been permitted to sprout at Hourtin by way of diversion. It was a sporty rivalry, getting off to an even start with Fearing and Cabot as judges. After three weeks of intensive cultivation it was ruled that Sturtevant had won by a hair, or several of them. His mustache came out strong and red with a Teutonic turn‑up at the ends. He carried it proudly to Saint Raphael where the mistral blew through it with a whistling sound. At Felixstowe, however, the British officers expressed frank disapproval. It was the only flaw they could find in 'Al' Sturtevant. Clean-shaven or a full beard, but no mustaches in the Royal Navy! 'Al' made the sacrifice reluctantly, the first day cutting off the points, bringing himself to final obliteration on the next day. Then he turned on John Vorys and insulted him in public for wearing a smudge on his upper lip that disgraced the American uniform!

These were happy days, to be recalled with a smile and a sigh. The training period was not difficult or burdensome. They began in the small Americas, such as they had learned to know during the summer at Port Washington. From this they stepped up to the H‑12s which were almost out‑of-date for the war patrol and were more useful for instruction. Then they were graduated into the big F‑boats which were easily handled after the smaller machines. In these they were able to solo after a total of four hours or so. The station had an elastic way of doing things. Vorys explains it as follows:

While receiving flight instruction we were also going to ground school which, if it seemed informal and rather casual, was thorough and practical. The padre taught navigation, and a darned good teacher he was, too. He invented a gadget for finding courses and distances that was simpler, cheaper, and quicker than the Battenburg board, but it was not accepted for our  p83 because Ken Whiting said it made the pilots mentally lazy, and because Fallon . . . (deleted by the censor).

We had machine gunnery and bombery with Uncle Partridge, the ordnance officer and did firing and dropping practice under the British first pilots who practiced on their days off duty. That really completed the ground school. We were, like the Persian youth, 'taught to ride and shoot and speak the truth.'​a Yet somehow or other, too regularly to be accidental, an old pilot would volunteer to show us some new wrinkles or a ground officer — Radio, Intelligence, or Engineering — would carelessly happen to explain his pidgin to us, so that by the time we were ready to go on patrol we were rather well informed on what a young pilot should know. It was a peculiarly British kind of school but it worked, although you could not have drawn a blue print of it.

The social life was jolly and quite elaborate to American eyes. A Briton is seriously annoyed when a war interferes with his sports or his dinners. The officers' mess at Felixstowe observed the formalities, the C. O. presiding, the members dressing, with special song nights and parties for guests. Here it was, a combat station and the most active one on the British coast, with picnics and golf and tennis until winter weather came, and dances at the Felix Hotel every week. It reminded the Yale men of Peacock Point.

Death and glory and harmless gaiety incongruously intermingled! After waiting for a British pilot, John Hodson, who was late in returning from patrol, Vorys and 'Al' trotted along to one of these hotel dances without him. People were beginning to wonder what had happened to him when he came breezing in, immaculately attired and bubbling over with excuses and apologies. Silly rot to be late, but he had been detained. Couldn't help it, really. Pressed for an explanation, he was too busy trying to fill his dance programme. This vital business under way, he found time to say that he had been engaged in a running fight with a flock of Hun seaplanes. He had shot  p84 one of the blighters down, but they had riddled his own machine with holes and chased him off his course some forty miles before he could fetch the coast again. A nuisance, rather, with these nice girls who had saved him almost no dances, what?

It was at the hotel dances that our two Yale aviators met the fascinating Mrs. Dowson. Vorys forgets to crab for once and raves in this language:

Her father was an Irishman and her mother came from the Argentine. She had an ivory skin and dark blue eyes and was very, very lovely. A lady with a past but still a lady! She had come down from London with a captain of the Bedford Regiment and was supposedly his fiancée. Al and I both took a shine to her; in short, we were smitten. We being who we were, the delightful Mrs. Dowson fell for Al and his charms and skill as a dancer. Although I had hoof and mouth disease I will say it as shouldn't that we were better dancers than most of the Britishers. We went big with Mrs. Dowson, but mostly Al. She liked his tall figure and blond hair and his hot line and all that. And I was trailing along.

Well, it was a congenial party. And we were making plans for meeting her in London on our next leave, and so on. She was indubitably one of the fairest of her well-known sex. And then, one day or one evening, when Al and I went into the hotel bar to get a — to get a match — the A. P. M. of the District sauntered in and steered us to a quiet corner of the bar while we were — were drinking our match, and he said, while he kept an eye on Al who was the lady's favorite (I am forced to admit):

'Young men, I have a very awkward subject to take up with you and I hope you will not think I am intruding. It concerns a certain lady who is being very carefully watched by our Intelligence Service. I cannot tell you all about it, but the evidence leads us to suspect that she is a German secret agent. In confidence I will inform you that the British army officer who brought her down here will probably be court-martialed. It would be a great pity if two of the first American officers to be attached to a British command should, because of an indiscretion, be also involved in court-martial proceedings. I hope you will pardon me for breaking in on your personal affairs, but I  p85 feel it necessary to offer this friendly hint. Will you be good enough to join me in a drink?'

After that [continues Vorys] we danced with Mrs. Dowson and were scrupulously polite, but nothing more — no, indeed, nothing more. In fact, she intrigued us about as much as a case of smallpox. We never heard the sequel. She was clever enough to be a spy. She could certainly find out everything you knew, and with a little persuasion you would tell her a great many things you didn't know.

These dances and the wonderful nights in the mess room when we would sit around and bat up flies and play bridge and sing were part of the diplomatic mission which was very important in our estimation and tremendously interesting.

It was singularly fortunate that in his last days at Felixstowe there should have been with 'Al' Sturtevant a close comrade such as John Vorys who could preserve for the rest of the Unit the incidents and impressions which otherwise would have been lost. They lived together in an old manor house a mile from the station proper, which was turned into officers' quarters.

We were on the ground floor [says John] and every one would drop in there. We used to come over from tea on the five o'clock car. They had an automobile to carry the officers to and fro. A crowd would pile into our room and have a wonderful time arguing about flying, making plans, improving about everything that had been invented, etc. There was where Al came out strong, for he had been through Sheff and he knew the scientific part of it and how to work out the theories. With his slide rule and formulae that he always had pat, he could put things on paper and make us understand.

He and I were pretty homesick at times. We had been together a lot and knew each other well so we talked about home, and he would tell me about his folks and vice versa, and discuss girls. As I look back on it, these times we had together were the best of my life, just because we had such talks. I don't know how to explain it, but we'd always find something to talk about.

At Christmas time we Americans went on leave together to London where we stayed at the Grosvenor Hotel. We met Ken  p86 MacLeish, Dave Ingalls and Shorty Smith there and had a joyful reunion and a great deal of gossip about what the various boys from Huntington were doing. The last night of our leave Al and I went to see Bruce Bairnsfather's play 'The Better 'Ole' and Al was very much taken with it and, as he always did, remembered the songs and sang them most of the time.

The social life at Felixstowe, or our part in it, was more important than such stuff usually is. We had been told to make a good impression but you didn't have to tell Al Sturtevant. He made a tremendous hit with the Englishmen and Canadians at the station and among the ladies of Felixstowe. When dolled up in his evening clothes he was as handsome as a picture and sure to make the hearts flutter. Among men he was just crusty enough not to take anything from the Limies and so smooth that they would take anything from him. With his caustic wit and readiness to show the British their defects, he was the good fellow who could stand being teased in return. And his ardent Americanism never jarred them, for he had the polish and good taste that met their ideas of what a gentleman should be. If the sparks flew, that winsomely boyish manner of his was enough to cool them.

As a flier he soon won their respect and admiration. He struck his real stride with the big boats. He had always been a cautious pilot, very steady, with the tremendous endurance he had shown as an oarsman. In the big boats, these qualities combined with his scientific aptitude and training brought him to the front. He qualified very quickly and was considered a remarkably fine pilot. We were started in as second or assistant pilots and the veterans were keen to have Al with them. I was not so eagerly sought after.

We flew together only once. This was in one of the small Americas. First Al would fly the boat and then I would take it over. Then we came down on the water and sat and talked and ate chocolate. Al razzed me when I took the controls, pointing to the instruments and making nasty remarks about my rotten style, and of course when he was flying the boat I was far from polite in my criticisms. As a matter of fact, we did very well.

The English lads used to love to hear Al grousing. He would make a thorough job of it, and finally, since everything else was rationed in England, we had to ration him on resigning from the Navy. This was always the climax, 'Well, I will resign,' and so  p87 we limited him to two resignations a day. After luncheon and dinner we used to loaf with the crowd in the ward-room and the favorite amusement was throwing the bull. The custom was to wait for Al too start it. He was so popular and such an artist at kidding, that all hands thoroughly enjoyed these sessions.

He developed into the best of the American pilots. He figured out navigation with his slip-stick while I was correcting my first mistake. He drew his own charts and fixed up some wonderful gadgets to simplify navigation. We sent them to H. Q. but they were probably lost in red‑tape. I found them useful in my later work at Hampton Roads. Whether he was holding his boat on her course within a gnat's ear or rolling calmly and safely through the bumps over Harwich in a norther, he was at home and the master of his bus. There was a lively competition as to who should get him as No. 2. Nobody fought over me, or Fallon.

Vorys describes the dinner given by Admiral Cayley on board the station flagship Ganges at which he and Al were guests. It was the present writer's pleasure to be among those at the dinner. At the time I happened to be visiting Admiral Cayley at his home on shore.

A memorable episode, this party in the admiral's cabin of the obsolete steam frigate which would never go to sea again! She embodied the traditions of the Royal Navy and was kept in commission because an admiral had to have a flagship, chiefly as a place to entertain visitors. That night the boyish American officers came over the gangway in some awe and trepidation. It was a novel experience. They were conscious of their lowly rank. However, they kept their emotions up their sleeves with their handkerchiefs and dreaded a stiff, ceremonious evening.

Commander Porte was there, and Captain Lyon of the Ganges and gruff Commodore Sir Douglas Brownrigg, Chief Censor of the Admiralty. All these gold stripes frightened Vorys, as he frankly confesses. It looked as if this might be worse than the adventure of the Wags who girded on their swords in London. It was soon discovered, however, that Admiral Cayley was a capital host. The  p88 stories he told when the port went round had a kick to them. They were distinctly informal. The tension loosened. Nobody worried about his rank. They were all friends and good fellows together.

When the table was cleared, packs of cards came on. The game was 'Twenty‑one.' The Admiral was the leading spirit. He had cause to regret it. The luck of the British Navy was banged in the eye. The American delegation won all the loose change, and the Admiral's orderly had to leg it to the paymaster's office to dig up more coin for the Yanks to take away with them. It was a happy way to end an evening, — for the guests. When, at midnight or thereabouts, the young gentlemen from Felixstowe paid their respects and adieus, it was handsome, debonnair 'Al' Sturtevant who called me aside to whisper:

'Mr. Paine, if you should happen to meet my father, or to write him when you go back to the States, do you mind telling him that you met me dining with a British Admiral?'

Thayer's Note:

a The famous line is from Herodotus, I.136.2.

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