The Fleet Air Arm

Prior to the First World War naval aviation was in its infancy. The First World War stimulated the rapid development of combat aircraft. The rapid increase in the number of aircraft carriers in the Royal Navy during the Second World War created a great need for pilots and aircrew. Read about the 1066 New Zealanders that were recruited to serve with the Fleet Air Arm.

Prior to the First World War naval aviation was in its infancy. The Admiralty established an Air Department to initially explore the use of airships. The Royal Navy went as far to establish a number of Naval Air stations throughout Britain to support their few airships that were being built.[1] There were a few very primitive aircraft in use as it was thought that the airships would be superior. In July 1913 the Fleet manoeuvres involved aircraft for the first time operating with the 351-strong Royal Navy fleet.[2] The organisation of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was completed in March of 1914. The unit consisted of 103 aircraft, 120 pilots, and 540 ground crew.[3] The aircraft were still very primitive and there were few qualified pilots to provide instruction. The RNAS was formally integrated into the Royal Navy in 1915.[4]

The First World War stimulated the rapid development of combat aircraft. The RNAS formed squadrons flying seaplanes, bombers, and fighters. They operated from bases in Britain, France and the Middle East. There were RNAS pilots flying seaplanes from seaplane tenders operated by the Royal Navy. Men from the Dominions volunteered for service with the RNAS including a number of New Zealanders for example Harold Beamish and Thomas Culling who flew the Sopwith Pup and Triplane becoming aces with eleven and six kills respectively.[5] During the war development continued with the launching of aircraft from ships that had been pioneered by the Royal Navy in 1912 when a seaplane was launched from a ramp built on top of the forward turrets of HMS Hibernia.[6] The aircraft carrier was we know it was still very much in the embryonic stages as the example of HMS Campania showed. She was designed to carry 10 seaplanes which could take off from the deck but had to be recovered from the sea. In 1917, HMS Furious was converted from a battlecruiser to an aircraft carrier. An RNAS pilot made the first landing on a ship underway in August 1917 aboard HMS Furious with a Sopwith Pup.[7] In 1918, the RNAS and the Royal Flying Corps were combined to form the Royal Air Force. With the Armistice in November 1918, there was no impetus for the Royal Navy to develop carriers and it was put to one side while the United States Navy and Japan continued to experiment and develop both the ships and aircraft for naval use.[8]

In 1924 the Fleet Air Arm of the RAF was formed. This unit designation would apply to those pilots and crew embarked on carriers.[9] In the 1920s new aircraft designed for naval aviation were introduced and the carriers HMS Furious and Argus remained in service. During this time the first night landings were successfully carried out. The carriers, crew and aircraft were becoming a true naval force.[10] It was during this time that carriers while on operations were assigned a destroyer to act as the SAR for ditched aircrew. In the early 1930s new aircraft coming on stream forced the RAF and RN to reorganise the FAA. Naval squadrons were now designated with 800 series numbers. The RN had HMS Hermes, Courageous, Glorious and Eagle in service as aircraft carriers. These vessels were light years beyond the rudimentary construction of Furious.[11] It took a lot of inter-service confrontation for the Royal Navy to win control of the Fleet Air Arm. It finally gained full control in May 1939. The new carrier HMS Ark Royal came into service in the later 1930s.[12]  The carriers in service were what we think carriers should be with a flush deck, arresting wires and huge lifts to move aircraft from the hanger to the flight deck. The aircraft for naval use were still not very advanced. They were mostly metal bi-planes like the Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber which did not leave frontline service until 1945.

The outbreak of the Second World War caused major issues for the FAA as they competed for men, aircraft, and new carriers with the demands of the other services. As it took time to complete the carriers laid down prior to the war, tankers and grain ships were converted into simple carriers to escort the convoys crossing the Atlantic. In addition to these converted vessels, there were the merchant aircraft carriers or MACships, to catapult aircraft merchantman (CAM ships), which could launch defensive fighter aircraft (but not recover them, the pilot usually having to ditch alongside the vessel when his retaliatory task was over).  The major successes of the FAA in the early years were the attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto, crippling the Bismark, and the successful operations in the North African campaign.

The successful elimination of the German surface fleet and with the turning of the tide in the battle of the Atlantic the Royal Navy was able to deploy its Fleet carriers and support groups to the Pacific, forming the British Pacific Fleet (BPF). Now flying American supplied Corsairs, Hellcats, and Avengers along with British Seafires and Albacores the carriers such as HMS Victorious, Illustrious and Indomitable were powerful forces reflecting the rapid development of the FAA and RN carriers. The BPF was the ‘greatest concentration of British naval airpower in history.’[13]

The FAA continued to be part of the RN after the Second World War. With the advent of helicopters the FAA took responsibility for their operation at sea and the came into being the helicopter carrier. The prop-driven planes continued in service until the 1960s when they were replaced by helicopters and jet-powered aircraft. The RN did not build any new carriers from the 1960s when the last ship to carry the name Ark Royal came into service. When she was decommissioned, the Invincible and Hermes remained in service. These however were not full-size carriers as they were designed for the Harrier jump jet and were equipped with a short ramp to launch the fully-laden aircraft. During the Falklands War in 1982 FAA pilots operated helicopters and the Harriers against the Argentinean forces from Invincible and Hermes.

New Zealanders in the FAA

The rapid increase in the number of aircraft carriers in the Royal Navy during the Second World War created a great need for pilots and aircrew. In 1942 New Zealand was invited to recruit personnel for the Royal Navy to serve in the Fleet Air Arm, under what was called ‘Scheme F’. The initial intake consisted primarily of personnel who had volunteered to join the air force, but for whom there was not yet a place. Recruiting for Scheme F continued, somewhat sporadically until June 1945.

Some 1066 recruits left New Zealand under this scheme of whom something in the order of 600 served as frontline pilots or aircrew, with a maximum of about 450 in May 1944. Of the New Zealand personnel who saw service with the Fleet Air Arm, about 150 were lost and there were many awards for gallantry.

Having initially enlisted in the Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve, New Zealand officers in the FAA were to see action and serve with distinction in the Indian Ocean with the British Eastern Fleet, in escort convoys to Russia and across the Atlantic Ocean, in operations off the Norwegian Coast, in the defence of Malta, in the North African campaign, Italy, Greece and Crete, off Madagascar, over the English Channel, and off Normandy and Southern France.

New Zealanders were also to comprise a substantial proportion of the British Pacific Fleet, which on some occasions operated closely with and off the aircraft carriers of the United States Pacific Fleet. Several of the carriers from the British Pacific Fleet made visits to New Zealand ports.

Many aircraft types were flown by the New Zealanders in the FAA, including Swordfishes, Walruses, Albacores, Barracudas, Hurricanes, Fireflies, Corsairs, Hellcats and Seafires. The aircraft carriers from which they operated varied considerably from converted bulk-grain or oil carriers, which had flight decks built over their superstructure, and were known as merchant aircraft carriers, which had flight decks built over their superstructure, and were known as; to the more conventional Escort and Fleet carriers.

In addition to the aircraft carriers of the Pacific Fleet, the other Fleet and Escort carriers on which New Zealanders served included HMS Archer, Argus, Attacker, Audacity, Avenger, Battler, Biter, Carnpania, Eagle, Emperor, Empire MacDermott, Empire Macandrew (and other MAC ships), Fencer, Furious, Hermes, Hunter, Khedive, Nabob, Nairana, Pursuer,  Queen, Searcher, Stalker, Trumpeter, Unicorn, and Vindex.

One of the more memorable events of World War Two in which New Zealanders in the FAA took part was an attack on the German battleship Tirpitz. Within the strongly escorted carrier attack force, which included Victorious, Furious, Emperor, Searcher, Fencer and Pursuer, there were about 60 New Zealanders, including Barracuda aircrew of Nos. 827 and 830 Squadrons and Hellcat pilots of No. 1840 Squadron. During the series of strikes, which were diving massed attacks from high altitude, the Tirpitz was initially caught by surprise. Eight direct hits and five probable hits were scored, mostly by 725, 450 and 225-kilogram armour-piercing bombs, before the German smoke screen was set up. One bomb hit just forward of the bridge and penetrated two decks, but failed to explode. The Tirpitz was left burning fiercely, but was not sunk. After the FAA attack, described by Winston Churchill as a ‘most brilliant feat of arms’, Sub- Lieutenant (A) (the ‘A’ stood for ‘Air’) J. D. Herrod of Waiuku, who was senior pilot of No. 827 Squadron aboard HMS Furious and pilot of one of the bombers, and Lieutenant (A) R. J Harrison of Nelson, who led a fighter squadron off HMS Searcher, were both awarded the DSC.

Another New Zealander, Lieutenant Commander Archibald (‘Arch’) Richardson of Gisborne, a Hellcat Pilot of No. 1840 Squadron, was considered for the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross for his part in the attack; but eventually received a Mention-in-Despatches. He died during his third mission against the Tirpitz when ‘a hail of flak and shell disintegrated his aircraft’. The 27-year-old Hellcat pilot was very popular aboard Indefatigable, and after the war, when the Fleet Carrier visited New Zealand waters; it made a special visit to the Gisborne area and flew a large formation of its Seafires, Fireflies and Avengers over the town in remembrance of Richardson.

Other awards for gallantry made to the New Zealanders in the FAA during the war included one D.S.O., 37 more DSCs and two bars, one DFC, three MBEs, 47 Mentions-in-Despatches, and two Letters of Commendation.

A disproportionately large number of New Zealanders saw service in the Fleet Air Arm on during World War Two, a number of them on these two carriers, HMS Indomitable, and HMS Victorious (from which this photograph was taken).Many served in the ship-borne fighter squadrons, reportedly making up approximately 50 percent of such aircrew in the final stages of the war. The aircraft in the foreground are Sea Hurricanes; their land equivalents did not have folding wings.

For a small country, New Zealand was to have an incredibly large representation in the FAA, making up more than 10 percent of its total aircrew. This contribution was particularly marked among the big aircraft carriers of the British Pacific Fleet, including HMS Indomitable, Indefatigable, Illustrious, Implacable, Formidable and Victorious, in which the New Zealanders served with distinction. Their presence was particularly marked among the ship-borne fighter squadrons, and, as the war drew to a close, approximately 50 percent of the aircrew in such units was from New Zealand. New Zealanders served in all of the 50-odd aircraft carriers commissioned during the war and in all of the Royal Navy Air Stations, including those in the \Vest Indies. Besides those who flew, many New Zealand ratings also served in the carriers as seamen, telegraphists, and radar operators and mechanics.

[1] Reginald Longstaff, The Fleet Air Arm: A Pictorial History, London: Robert Hale, 1981, p. 17.

[2] ibid., p. 23.

[3] ibid., p. 23.

[4] ibid., p. 67.

[5] Russel Guest, Norman Franks, and Christopher Shores, Above the Trenches: The Complete record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the British Empire Air Forces 1915-1920, London: Grub Street, 1990.

[6] Reginald Longstaff, The Fleet Air Arm: A Pictorial History, London: Robert Hale, 1981, p. 41.

[7] ibid., p. 74. Unfortunately when another attempt to land was made, the pilot was killed when his plane was blown off the side of the carrier by a gust of wind.

[8] ibid., p. 89.

[9] ibid., p. 93.

[10] ibid., p. 94.

[11] ibid., p. 101.

[12] ibid., p. 102. Ark Royal was sunk by U-81 in November 1941.

[13] ibid., p. 116.