Our Heritage: RAN Naval Aviation 1913-1947 Photographs

Above Left:  Flight Commander Sampson lifts off from the bow ramp of HMS Hibernia.   The ship was a King Edward VII class pre-dreadnought battleship that participated in aviation trials by adding a temporary runway to her foredeck. This photograph shows the very first launch of an aircraft (a Short improved S27 biplane) from a vessel underway on either 2 or 4 May 1912.  The ship was steaming at 10.5 knots. Based on this and similar aviation experiments in HMS London, the Royal Navy concluded that aircraft were useful aboard ships for spotting and other purposes, but their interference with the guns and the danger of recovering floatplane aircraft  in anything but calm conditions offset the desirability of having them aboard. (Wikipedia).  Above right:  As early as 1913 the Australian Navy was seeking advice from the British Admiralty on establishing aviation units, as this memo of 06 June of that year shows. 

The RAN was kept well informed of the Royal Navy’s rapid¬†advance in the use¬†of¬†naval aircraft, and by 1913 had a clear understanding of¬†both their operation and their utility. ¬†A¬†Central Flying School was established at Point Cook (VIC) in 1914, but¬†the¬†plan to establish an Australian Naval Air Squadron was¬†thwarted by the start of the First World War.
The¬†RAN did not embark¬†an aircraft¬†in an operational capacity until May 1917: ¬†a ¬†modest deployment involving a Sopwith Baby (photograph left) borrowed from the RN for spotting duties aboard HMAS Brisbane in her quest for the German raider Wolf. ¬†The Baby was a simple¬†aircraft which had to be lowered to the sea for take off and hoisted back aboard after landing: a significant burden for any warship. ¬† Her primary role was reconnaissance, but she carried two Lewis Guns just in case, as recorded in Flight Commander Clemson’s report here. ¬†The full story of ‘Brisbane’s Baby’, which marked the beginning of Australian naval aircraft operations at sea, can be read here.

Below. A Sopwith F.1. Camel is launched from one of the new-fangled platforms fastened to a main turret aboard HMAS Sydney. HMAS Melbourne is in the background. (Image¬†courtesy¬†of AWM, via “Navy News” 23Apr82). The idea took Naval Aviation a huge step forward – previously, only floatplanes could be carried and the mother ship was required to heave-to to lower its aircraft into the sea for launching. ¬†The AWM advises the photo was taken at Scapa Flow in May of 1918.
The two Australian light cruisers were at the forefront of the gun-turret platform testing, as¬†Sydney¬†(and, to a lesser extent, Melbourne) conducted the first trial of the device in December 1917. ¬†The pilot was Flight Sub-Lieutenant Harold Brearley, who flew a Sopwith Pup –¬†lesser¬†powered than the Camel but far more docile and perhaps better suited for those early steps. ¬†By the time the photo below was taken the last of the Pups had gone, however, and Camels were the standard fighter – more agile,¬†but very unforgiving:¬†almost as many young pilots were lost in accidents as were killed in combat. ¬†Brierley was himself killed in January ¬†1918 when he spun into the ground whilst converting to the new aircraft. ¬†You can read his story¬†here.

Below.  Despite early accidents, the ability to take off directly from a ship whilst underway was irresistible, and was quickly adopted. Here a Sopwith Camel is being readied for launch from HMAS Sydney, in May of 1918. 

Right:¬†A painting by David Marshall hangs in the Fleet Air Arm Museum¬†at HMAS Albatross, entitled ‚ÄėHMAS Sydney launches her Camel Fighter, 1918′. ¬†This most likely refers to the action in which the fighter drove off an attack by enemy aircraft before ditching in the sea ‚Äď the first recorded event of its type.¬† Below. ¬†LEUT Sharwood, the pilot of the aircraft.¬†

Right: ¬†This Sopwith 1¬Ĺ Strutter can be seen on a gun mounted platform on HMAS Australia in 1918, illuminated by the ship’s searchlights. ¬†By the end of WW1 most¬†cruisers carried either one of these aircraft, or a Sopwith Camel. ¬†Wheeled aircraft of this type were regarded as¬†preferable to floatplanes as they could be launched directly from the ship, even if they might subsequently have to ditch. ¬†



By the end of 1919, however, the idea of seaplanes was being resurrected, and an Avro 504 was embarked in HMAS Australia (and then HMAS Melbourne) for trials (photo below).  The 504 was large, fragile and underpowered and the above trials were unsuccessful Рbut they provided valuable insight into embarked floatplane operations.  You can read the full story of the Avro 504 trial here. 


A Timeline of Naval Aviation Milestones

1903. RN experimenting with balloons and kites.

1910. The first ever landing and take off from a warship by Eugene Ely. See the full amazing story here.

1912. The first launch of a Naval Aircraft HMS Hibernia, whilst underway. See more here.

1912. The Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps formed in the UK. This became the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) in 1914.

1913. The Central Flying School was established at Point Cook, Victoria.

1913. The RAN Naval Board sought guidance on the formation of an Australian Naval Air Service, but the advent of WW1 set it on hold.

1917. HMAS Brisbane embarks a Sopwith Baby for operations in the Indian Ocean. See full story here.

1917-18. HMA ships Australia, Sydney and Melbourne played a leading part in launching aircraft from gun turrets.

1918. Sopwith fighter from HMAS Sydney in the first air to air combat.

1919. Attention switches to floatplanes. Avro 504s embarked in HMA Ships Australia and then Melbourne for tropical trials.

1921. The Royal Australian Air Force formed, scuppering any hope of a Naval Air Service. RAAF forms the Fleet Cooperation Unit.

1921. Six Fairey 111D seaplanes ordered for gunnery spotting and reconnaissance.

1925. RAAF ordered six Supermarine Seagull III aircraft to replace Fairey IIIDs. This order was supplemented by a further three aircraft in 1927.

1928. HMAS Albatross, a custom built seaplane carrier, launched. See full story here.

1929. Six Seagull IIIs embarked in new seaplane carrier HMAS Albatross. Ship was placed in reserve in 1933.

1934-35. Seagull IIIs operate from heavy cruisers Australia and Canberra, but were found to be unsuitable.

1935. Seagull IIIs replaced by more robust Seagull Vs, which could be launched by catapult. Seagull Vs served on a number of ships throughout WW2.  The story of the Supermarine Seagull can be found here.

1945. Early post war plans to acquire aircraft carriers. Extensive work on Nowra aerodrome – see DMR video here.

1947. Government approves the formation of the RAN Fleet Air Arm.

1948. Two FAA air wings formed with Sea Furies and Firefly aircraft, HMA Carriers Sydney and Vengence, and an air station at NAS Nowra.

Above.  The Fairey 111D was bought with the seaplane carrier HMAS Albatross in mind, but by the time she commissioned they were obsolete. Although they were an improvement on earlier floatplanes, they were really too big and cumbersome for operations off RAN cruisers.  They did useful work with HMAS Geranium on the Great Barrier Reef survey, but their operational life of only four or five years was very short.   Below. The Supermarine Seagull IIIs were bought as replacements to the Fairey IIIDs and were an improvement, but with their wooden hulls were found to be susceptible to both handling and environmental damage.   They were also not strong enough to use a catapult so had to be hoisted both to and from the water to operate.

Below.  Seagull IIIs operated from a number of ships, including this one being lowered into the sea off HMAS Canberra, circa 1935.   This was the final year of their operation, when the far more robust Seagull V was introduced.  With its all-metal construction and ability to be catapulted, the V was a quantum step forward in capability, but it did not last long. 

The Seagull V was introduced in 1939 and was the principal shipborne RAN aircraft type throughout WW2.  With its metal hull and enclosed cabin it was a big step forward from its predecessor.  Carried primarily on light cruisers, it also served on the armed merchantmen Westralia and Manoora, which had been requisitioned for the war effort.  Some Seagulls were lost to action as their slow speed and ungainly manoeuvrability made them vulnerable to enemy fighters.   The Seagull Heritage article is here. 

Left. ¬†The winds of change were gathering by the end of WW2. ¬† The success of carrier operations such as at the Battle of the Coral Sea made it clear that an organic air arm was a necessity, and both the Naval Board and the Government was supportive. ¬†In 1947 three RN officers (Captain Anstice, Commander A.F. Turner and Commander B..J Robinson) were appointed to establish the post-WW2 RAN FAA Planning Unit, at Navy Office in Melbourne, with Lt Cdr VAT Smith RAN assisting ‚Äď The Argus, 03 Oct 1947. ¬† Right: a letter from the British Admiralty acknowledging the work of Captain Anstice. ¬† Insert:¬†Admiral Sir Guy Royle RN was the RAN‚Äôs CNS and 1st¬†Naval Member from 1941 to 1945. Well acquainted with RN FAA he encouraged the Australian government to acquire an aircraft carrier ‚Äď AWM photo.

Below:  Job done!  Cabinet approved an RAN FAA on 3 July 1947. Two Majestic Class light fleet carriers were acquired, the first being HMAS Sydney (right), which commissioned on 16 December 1948. 

Life in Britain was grim at the end of the war.  Rationing was still in place (and would be until 1947) and work was difficult to find.  The advertisements placed in British newspapers for pilots and maintainers to join the new RAN Fleet Air Arm was irresistible to the many hundreds who applied.  As the Telegraph of 19 June 1945 reported:  

“The first 12 Australian fighter pilots to be transferred from the R.A.A.F. to the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm began a six weeks’ intensive training course yesterday.¬†They will be fully trained as Seafire carrier pilots.
¬† ¬† ¬† The men were received by Commander D. M. Russell, R.N.¬†Training Commander, Naval Air Stations, on behalf of Rear-Admiral Portal, the Chief of Naval Air Stations of the British Pacific Fleet.Commander Russell said, in an address to the recruits: ‘This is a great day for the Fleet Air Arm, and marks the conclusion of a long battle to gain the use of Australia pilots.¬†We were surprised at the number who volunteered. Many offered to forgo rank and pay to have the privilege of serving.¬†I can assure you that we would have taken more if our training facilities had been larger.We are very keen to have as many experienced Australian pilots as possible.’
     Veteran Pilot Acting-Squadron-Leader Ian S. Loudon, D.F.C., 23, of Port Moresby, was the highest ranking officer of the 12. Formerly a rubber planter in New Guinea, he has done two tours of operations, one in Spitfires in the United Kingdom, and the second at Milne Bay. Darwin, Goodenough Island, and the Admiralties.
      Veteran flyer of the bunch is Flight-Lieutenant A. J. Gould, of Brisbane, a member of No. 1 Course of the Empire Air Training Scheme. Gould has completed two tours of Operations, including five months in Russia in early 1942.
¬† ¬† ¬†Others selected for the first course are: Flight-Lieutenants G. Pagan (Q), B. Carroll (Q.), B. Smith (S.A.), and C. H. Gray (Dungog, N.S.W.), and Flying-Officers J. O’Connor (Vic.), C. C. Bowley (Q.), P. Crothers (W.A.) R. Dayies (Neutral Bay, N.S.W.), L. Norman (Mosman, N.S.W.), and S. Brown (Vic.)
¬† ¬† ¬†The men transferred to the Fleet Air Arm will receive the equivalent of their R.A.A.F. rank in the Royal Navy, and will be allowed to wear “Australia” flashes on their shoulders.”

The two photographs below were not from the same newspaper article but show a selection of some of the pilots wearing their new (RAN) uniforms. ¬†Regrettably we haven’t been able to match faces to names, but the two-ringer in the middle of the walking group is almost certainly Nat Gould.