The Failure of Royal Navy Aircraft in World War Two

supermarine seafire


A Supermarine Seafire landing on board HMS ILLUSTRIOUS, February 1943. This was the naval version of the famed Spitfire.

During the First World War, the British Navy developed a highly successful naval air force called the Royal Navy Air Service (RNAS). This entity designed and built naval aircraft to be catapulted from surface ships. Toward the end of the war, a flight deck was added to a RN battlecruiser and the first landing of an aircraft on a ship took place. RNAS trained its own pilots and maintenance crews all of whom were regular Royal Navy officers and other ranks.

After the war, the Royal Navy lost control of their aviation to the Royal Air Force. Part of its brief was to provide the Royal Navy with suitable aircraft and to train aircrew and maintenance crews. This system did not work well and led to absurbdities such as Royal Navy commanders given a sub-lieutenant’s rank in the RAF while they did their pilot or observer training and being treated as such. Additionally, the Royal Air Force, like the US Army Air Force, was controlled by “Bomber Barons.”

These men were only interested in building up their strategic bombing forces and they ignored the the highly specialized aircraft requirements of the Royal Navy. This resulted in a lack of aircraft designed  to be used on aircraft carriers and dramatically reduced the effectiveness of the British naval aviation. Only when the the US came into the war did the RN slowly begin to acquire planes built to withstand the rigor of carrier operations.

As a substitute in the first years of the war, the British Admiralty pressed into carrier service the Seafire, a hastily cobbled together carrier plane created by making slight modifications to the famous RAF Spitfire. Unfortunately, the Spitfire was never desgined to operate from an aircraft carrier. Since the Seafire was nothing but a Spitfire with a few design changes, this was less than a successful solution. That the Spitfire was difficult to fly only added to the problems.

 

 

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A Supermarine Seafire nosed over on the flight deck of HMS SMITER after a landing accident, 1944. Official Royal Navy photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

 

Because of this, two less-than-ideal-things often happened: the landing gear couldn’t take the strain and collapsed. This caused the Seafire to skid on its belly down the steel flight deck which bent the propeller. Second, given the desgin of the Spitfire/Seafire, the aircraft had a tendency to nose forward a bit on landing. On an aircraft carrier, this also caused the propeller to hit the steel deck and bent the propeller.

Machinists on British carriers did not have the ability to fix propellers so badly damaged. Hence, they had to replace them and RN aircraft carriers using Seafires would go through fifty or a hundred replacement propellers in a handful of days when on active operations.

In his memoirs, Admiral of the Fleet Philip Vian, commanding Allied aircraft carriers covering Allied landings off Salerno,  wrote that one exasperated aircraft carrier captain had eight inches sawed of the propeller blades of all his Seafires. This dramatically reduced the number of bent propellers which increased operational readiness dramtically and had no effect on the performance of the aircraft.

Landing on an aircraft aircraft has been described by naval pilots as a “controlled crash.” The deck is so short in relation to a landing strip on the ground that the objective is to get the plane on the deck of the carrier as soon as you can so the arresting wires will catch the tail hook and jerk the plane to a halt.

There were a series of arresting wires, as many as nine on World War Two carriers, so the odds were good that your tailhook would catch one of them. When landing you approached the aircraft carrier from astern and were guided into landing by the “batsman,” (in Royal Navy parlance), an experienced naval aviator with a luminous paddle in each hand.

This was a tricky business. You had to come in low and slow enough to get your plane on the deck of the carrier as soon as you could without crashing into the stern. Trying to do this in a heavy sea with the stern rising and falling required exquisite timing. In bad weather the bow and stern could be rising or falling as much as forty feet in less than a minute.

While the RN regained controlled of naval aviation in 1937, the reformed RNAS, then re-named as the Fleet Air Arm (FAA), never came up to par with the aviation units of either the US Navy or Japanese Navy. Making this more insufferable, it was the Royal Navy which had invented carrier aviation.

The residual anger over their treatment by the RAF in the interwar years, caused a contentious relationship between the RN and the RAF throughout the 1939-1945 war. That RAF pilots did not excel in ship recognition and attacked almost every ship they came across, including RN ships, did not help ameliorate the strain between the services. Neither did the RN response which was to open fire on any aircraft.

The Royal Navy was well aware of the problems with the Seafire but used it because they had no choice until more US planes built for operating of aircraft carriers became available to the British.

 

Published by

Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/