Monday, 14 March 2016

Austin Robinson - World War One aviator - Part 3

Austin returned to RNAS Killingholme for operational training on flying boats in late September 1917. The seaplane base had grown considerably since its establishment in 1914 and this reflected the growing importance of its two major roles - defence against attacks by Zeppelins on East Coast ports and oil installation and defence against submarine attacks on Allied shipping in the North Sea. The threat posed by German submarines was particularly acute.  Earlier in 1917 Germany had resumed unrestricted submarine warfare with considerable success and, by March, twenty-five percent of all British bound shipping was being sunk. By the time Austin arrived back at Killingholme various anti-submarine countermeasures - particularly the introduction of convoys - were helping to reduce losses to U-boats but the allies were still losing over 300,000 tons of shipping per month. Austin was thus entering the conflict at a critical time and the urgent need for flying boat pilots meant that his operational training would be comparatively short. 

Aerial shot of RNAS Killingholme showing what was then the country's largest hangar (Austin Robinson Papers 12/5/2)

Austin’s operational training lasted barely a month and involved local flights above the Humber estuary in an underpowered Curtis H-4 flying boat. He was not impressed with this aircraft describing it as ‘useless for serious operations’. (EAGR Papers 2/9/4)

The next aircraft flown by Austin was the Curtis H-12 Large America. This was the first really capable flying boat in RNAS service. It carried sufficient fuel for a patrol lasting 6 to 8 hours and a formidable armament of two 230lb bombs and four machine guns.

Felixstowe F.2A in US Navy markings pictured at Killingholme (Austin Robinson Papers 12/5/1)

Austin flew his first operational mission on the 16th November when he took a Curtis H-12 flying boat on an anti-submarine patrol from Spurn Head to Flamburgh Head and then 50 miles out to sea and then back to Killingholme.

The purpose of these patrols was to locate and attack German U-boats during the vulnerable stage of their ten hour journey from their Belgian bases to their patrol areas in British coastal waters. Once U-boats were submerged they were virtually undetectable but during their voyage across the North Sea they tried to remain surfaced in order to conserve the power in their batteries. In the absence of radar it was still very difficult to locate U-boats and this is reflected by the fact that aircraft only accounted for 5 of the 140 German U-boats sunk during World War One. This is certainly confirmed by Austin's own operational experience. In the months that followed his initial operation he flew many more anti-submarine patrols but wrote later that "I never saw a German submarine on the surface, nor did I see an indubitable sign of one below the surface. But on various occasions I was called up by someone else who had seen signs of a submarine and dropped my bombs where there was some indication that there was a possible submarine". (EAGR Papers 2/9/4)

Factors other than aircraft - such as the convoy system, mines and hydrophones - certainly played a greater role in the defeat of the U-boat threat during World War One but the role of aircraft should not be underestimated. Austin's account shows that, although the location and destruction of U-boats was extremely difficult, it does seem likely that the presence of RNAS flying boats handicapped their operation by forcing them to submerge early and thus dramatically reduce their speed and efficiency.

 Convoy photographed by Austin while on anti-submarine patrol (Austin Robinson Papers 12/5/3)

Another photo taken by Austin while on patrol, this time of a sinking merchantman. It may have been torpedoed but is more likely to have struck a mine. (Austin Robinson Papers 12/5/3) 

 In addition Austin was also engaged in anti-Zeppelin patrols. In the absence of radar these were also extremely hard to locate and, once located, were often able to escape their attackers by rapidly ascending to higher altitude. This is what happened when Austin sighted a Zeppelin while on patrol in early 1918 while flying a Curtis H-12. Despite climbing to about 8,000 feet and firing "... off a good many rounds of explosive ammunition in the direction of the Zeppelin" it climbed much higher than Austin's aircraft was capable of reaching. (EAGR Papers 2/9/4) The improving efficiency of British air defences throughout 1916 and 1917 had forced the Germans to introduce new Zeppelins - 'height climbers' - capable of attaining altitudes in excess of 20,000 feet. Although this rendered them fairly safe from aerial attack it also imposed severe strain on their crews who were subjected to extreme cold and anoxia, and this made accurate navigation and bombing extremely difficult. Thus, although the flying boats of the RNAS rarely managed to destroy a Zeppelin they did succeed, as Austin's encounter demonstrates, in forcing them to operate at altitudes where thier effectiveness was substantially reduced.

Although the risks from enemy action were comparatively slight there can be no doubt that the long oversea patrols - some lasting up to eight hours - were estremely hazardous and imposed great strain on the pilots undertaking them. Aviation technology was still in its infancy and Austin notes that the flying boat engines were "... not completely reliable. There were various things that could perfectly easily go wrong". (EAGR Papers 2/9/4) Two particular problems noted by Austin were faulty engine magnitos and the fact that the aircraft themselves were not completely rigid and that this often caused fractures in the petrol pipes between the petrol tank and the engine. Either problem could cause an engine to fail which could result in the loss of an aircraft and its crew - Austin notes the "With one engine we could fly for five or ten miles losing height. We could not fly the whole way home". Faced with such a predicament pilots would be forced to land on the sea - if it was sufficiently calm - and try to make repairs.

"Some of us loved the sea" noted Austin, "some of us hated the sea and found it a great strain flying out of sight of land for eight hours or whatever it took to do one of the long patrols". (EAGR Papers 2/9/4) As a result several pilots apparently suffered nervous breakdowns under the contstant pressure of operational flying.

 Although Austin never saw a German submarine he took several photos of surfaced British craft. This is an extremely rare photo of  HMS C19 which was then part of the 3rd Flotilla with HMS Hebe at Immingham.  (Austin Robinson Papers 12/5/2)
Austin's operational combat flights came to an end in July 1918 when RNAS Killingholme was handed over to the command of the United States Navy. American naval aviators now took on the task of maritime patrols over the North Sea using Curtis H-16 seaplanes.

For the rest of the war Austin's duties involved testing and delivery of newly built flying boats and it is this stage of his career that will be examined in the next blog in this series.