Sydney Francis Anderson was an electrical and mechanical engineer from Napier who joined the Royal Naval Air Service in 1916. He was posted to seaplanes undertaking reconnaissance and anti-submarine patrols in the North Sea. During his service he was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, the Distinguished Service Medal, was Mentioned in Despatches and was awarded the Board of Trade medal for saving life at sea.
Born in Napier on 20 May 1892 to Emily and John Nicholson Anderson, Sydney Francis Anderson entered into an apprenticeship with H. Williams and Sons after leaving school. By 1916 he was shop-foreman for Duncan and Co., motor engineers of Napier. Early that year he travelled to England, arriving in mid-March and four days later, on 21 March he had entered the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) as an Air Mechanic First Class.
He was posted to Royal Naval Air Station, Felixstowe, which was a seaplane base, operating reconnaissance and anti-submarine patrols in the North Sea and the eastern approaches to the English Channel. The main aircraft operating from the base was the Felixstowe F2 seaplane and later variants, which had two engines and carried a crew of four, including a mechanic. Anti-submarine operations were purely visual, more effective at that time than in WWII, because submarines of the First World War had to spend most of their time on the surface. The North Sea had a patrol area divided into sections that resembled a spider’s web and gained that nickname. Enemy zeppelins were often encountered and the seaplanes were a match for them. They could also hold their own with fighters that were frequently encountered off the Belgian Coast.
Sydney climbed out on to the lower wing and began to repair the water supply system. This took 1 hour and 45 minutes, the whole time the engine was still working and he was being buffeted by 90 miles (145km) per hour winds
Sydney first came to notice in May 1917, now with the rank of Leading Mechanic, when he helped rescue two other men of the RNAS whose aircraft had come down in the North Sea. They had been drifting on a raft for five days and the prominent part that Sydney played in their rescue was recognised by the award of the Board of Trade Silver Medal for saving life at sea. In July he came to prominence again. This time the aircraft he was in was attacked by German seaplanes while on a sortie off the Belgian coast. For his actions on this occasion he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. Unfortunately the London Gazette entry does not provide any further information, indeed the actual notice was published in another man’s name and had to be corrected four months later. A few months later Sydney again distinguished himself, this time in an action with a German submarine. For this he was recognized by a Mention in Despatches. On 19 March 1918 he was in the crew of a plane that encountered two German aircraft. One was shot down, but in the dog-fight the petrol supply lines to the engines was extensively damaged. He repaired the fuel lines, but then noticed that the water coolant for the starboard engine was violently boiling, a result of six of the nine gallons of the water being lost (27 of the 40 litres). After reporting this to the pilot and requesting that the engine be throttled back as far as possible, Sydney climbed out on to the lower wing and began to repair the water supply system. This took 1 hour and 45 minutes, the whole time the engine was still working and he was being buffeted by 90 miles (145km) per hour winds. With the repairs finally effected the aircraft was able to make it safely back to base and without these it would undoubtedly been lost. Sydney was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal for this day’s work. By way of contrast, during WWII another New Zealander, Flight Sergeant James Ward RNZAF went out on the wing of a bomber, secured by a life-line, to extinguish a fire in one of the aircraft’s engines and received the Victoria Cross.
As with most RNAS personnel, Sydney was transferred to the newly formed Royal Air Force on 1 April 1918. He continued to serve until the end of the war and subsequently moved to Australia, where he died in 1979. Like many men with gallantry awards, his campaign medals were not important and it was not until 1978 that he claimed his British War Medal and Victory Medal.