The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was established in 1914 and absorbed into the Royal Air Force in 1918. In the interim a number of New Zealanders served with the RNAS, some being decorated for gallantry and a few being killed.
The Royal Naval Air Service, was formally established on 1 July 1914. It had grown out of the naval wing of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) which had been formed in May 1912, but it was not until 1 August 1915 that it became an integral part of the Royal Navy. Two and a half years later on 1 April 1918 the RNAS along with the RFC, was absorbed into the newly formed Royal Air Force (RAF).
As part of the Army plan to fight a continental war in Europe the RFC deployed to France in August 1914 and the responsibility for the air defence of the United Kingdom devolved on the RNAS. Prior to the war there had been at times acrimonious discussions between the Army and the Navy as to what types of aircraft the other should have, with the Army in particular pushing for the Navy to be restricted to seaplanes. In the event both land planes and seaplanes were acquired by the Navy.
To provide aerial support to the fleet a merchant ship then building was purchased in 1913 and completed as the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal in 1915. At the outbreak of war three cross-Channel steamers, Engadine, Empress and Riviera and the old Cunard liner Campania were purchased for conversion to seaplane carriers. As the war progressed taking off from ships became routine and by late in the war, landing on was also possible. Other ships were later converted to aircraft carriers and in January 1918 the first purpose-built aircraft carrier, Hermes, was laid down.
Around the coast of Britain the RNAS maintained constant anti-submarine patrols. A grid was set-up over the North Sea which resembled a spider web and aircraft were allocated to patrol various sectors of the grid.
Although responsible for the air defence of Britain, the RNAS also deployed both land and seaplanes to Dunkirk in 1914 in support of the Royal Marine Brigade. Attacks on the German Zeppelin bases were also planned. On Christmas Day 1914, covered by cruisers and destroyers from the Harwich Force the seaplane carriers Engadine, Empress and Riviera attacked the Zeppelin sheds at Cuxhaven. Unfortunately fog precluded accurate bombing and the raid was not a success. While the raid was taking place German seaplanes and a Zeppelin attacked the ships – the first air attack experienced by Royal Navy ships.
Elsewhere around this time Lieutenant Gordon Bell successfully launched a torpedo from an aircraft and from early 1915 the Short 184 seaplane became the first purpose built torpedo bomber. On 12 August of that year Lieutenant Charles Esmond operating from the seaplane carrier Ben-my-Cheree sank a Turkish ship in the Sea of Mamora during the Gallipoli campaign.
In France the RNAS became skilled in both fighting aircraft and bombers. New Zealanders such as Harold Beamish, Thomas Culling and Euan Dickson were amongst the successful fighter pilots and Donald Harkness was involved in bombing raids. Elsewhere, such as East Africa, men like Wing Commander Frederick Bowhill were doing their bit with the RNAS.
Around the coast of Britain the RNAS maintained constant anti-submarine patrols. A grid was set-up over the North Sea which resembled a spider web and aircraft were allocated to patrol various sectors of the grid. In 1917 there were 170 sightings of U Boats in the North Sea by RNAS aircraft. These were large aircraft carrying a crew of four, a pilot, an observer, a radio operator and a mechanic. One of the mechanics was Sydney Anderson who received the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal for going out on the wing of his aircraft, while in flight, and making repairs which enabled the aircraft to return to base.
An unusual off-shoot of the RNAS was the development of the Armoured Car. These were first used around Dunkirk to protect the airfields and reconnaissance, but later almost all were transferred to the Army. One squadron was expanded into the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division and sent to aid the Russians in late 1915, while another was instrumental in the development of the tank.
New Zealanders such as Harold Beamish, Thomas Culling and Euan Dickson were amongst the successful fighter pilots and Donald Harkness was involved in bombing raids.
By 1917 a serious debate raged about the future of the air services. Both the Navy and the Army now recognised the value of aircraft but many of those who flew them believed that it could only reach its full potential if the air arms became a separate, independent service. With much political support at high levels the decision was made to form the Royal Air Force, thus taking responsibility and control of air operations away from the other two services. Most of the RNAS personnel transferred to the new service although some reverted to the Navy.
One of the New Zealanders who had been in the RNAS and transferred to the RAF was Lieutenant Samuel Dawson. He was one of the pilots who took part in a raid on the Zeppelin sheds at Tondern in July 1918 from the carrier HMS Furious. This raid was a success and Samuel was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.