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Although the Royal Naval Air Service came into being on 1 July 1914 having broken away from the Royal Flying Corps, the foundations had been slowly laid from about 1908. Before 1914 the attitude in Admiralty, and the Fleet generally, towards the possible use of aviation was not one of great enthusiasm. Aeroplanes, let alone the submarine, were barely on the horizon as being capable of use in war. Indeed, an Admiralty letter to the American Wright Brothers in 1907 stated that - "In their Lordship's opinion aeroplanes would not be of any practical use to the Naval Service." The Admiralty were not alone at this time, since the War Office, as well as the American and French governments, also turned down the offer of the Wright Brothers' patents.

However, in 1908, Captain R.H.S. Bacon RN, Director of Naval Ordnance, wrote a paper suggesting the appointment of a Naval Air Assistant and that a rigid airship be built for the Navy. This was approved, as a precaution, by the Admiralty, and the Committee of Imperial Defense under Lord Esher, and on 7 May 1909 a contract was signed for the building of No. I Rigid Naval Airship, later to be popularly known as the "May­fly".

At this time, Captain Murray F. Sueter was appointed as Inspecting Captain of Aircraft, and Commander Oliver Schwann was made his assistant. Both of these officers were to play integral parts in the development of Naval aviation and were among the founding fathers of the Fleet Air Arm. Captain Sueter was a member of the "Advisory Committee on Aeronautics" in 1908; a delegate to the International Conference on "Aerial Nav­igation" in 1910; and in 1912 toured Germany, Austria and France to look into airship development. He then became the first Director of the new Air Department in the Admiralty and was responsible for formulating the defensive role for naval aviation.

It is of interest that in 1910 a Royal Marine Officer, Lieut E.L. Gerrard RMLI, was detailed for duty with No.1 Rigid Airship, the "Mayfly", but in the spring of 1911, just before the "Mayfly" was delivered, he was selected as one of four officers to train as naval pilots.

To revert to the "Mayfly", the airship was delivered in May 1911 but was returned to her shed for alterations. In September 1911 these were complete but whilst being brought out of her shed a gust of wind caught her, swinging her round against the hangar door and causing her back to break. She became a total loss with­out ever flying.

In the meantime the development of the aeroplane h"-d been proceeding. From the early beginnings in 1909. pioneer flying schools were gradually established, the main centers being Sheerness, Brooklands, Hendon and Larkhill. The latter was opened in 1910 by the Bristol School of Aviation, and between 1910 and 1914 over 400 pupils were taught on Bristol Box-kite biplanes. Larkhill was also really the birth place of Service Aviation, when, in 1910, aircraft were used to observe Blueland v Redland maneuvers. In 1911 the Services became more interested and an Air Battalion was formed, with No.1 Airship Company at Farnborough, and No.2 Aeroplane Company at Larkhill, with accommodation at the Royal Artillery Mess at Bulford.

Early in 1911, Mr. Francis K. McLean, who operated his own flying establishment on behalf of the Royal Aero Club at Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey, offered the Admiralty two of his Short Biplane aircraft for instructing Naval pilots, whilst a Mr. George Cockburn offered to instruct them free of charge. The Admiralty took up this offer and called for volunteers, receiving some 200 applications. From these, four were selected of which one was Lieut G.V. Wildman - Lushington RMA. Unfortunately he went sick and his place was taken by Lieut E.L. Gerrard RMLI who obtained his Pilot's Certificate on 2nd May 1911. The three Naval Officers who qualified at the same time were Lieuts CR. Samson, A. Longmore and R. Gregory - the first two, together with Gerrard, later achieved high rank in the Royal Air Force. When the course ended the Admiralty rented 10 acres of the airfield and so Eastchurch became the first Naval Air Station on 11 Oct 1911.

From May 1911 until June 1912 the qualified pilots apparently went ahead gaining experience combining this with an attractive social life. Entries in their log books frequently refer to landing in the grounds of large houses to attend garden parties etc. - the following is an example taken from Vol XVIII of the Globe and Laurel in 1911, page 130 "At the Aviation Practice Grounds at Eastchurch, on the evening of 31st of July, Lieut Gerrard RMLI took up Miss Kerr, lady in waiting to Princess Louise of Battenberg. Rising to about five hundred feet, he accomplished a flight of about 15 minutes' duration." In the meantime, others obtained their R.A.C Brevets at civilian flying schools at their own expense, but if at a later date they were accepted for Naval Aviation the Admiralty then refunded £75 towards their costs. It is believed that I.T. Courtney, R. Gordon, CE. Risk and F.H. Sykes qualified in this way - Sykes at Brooklands in 1912.

THE R.F.C AND R.N.A.S. Back To Top

In April 1912 a Royal Warrant proclaimed the formation of the Royal Flying Corps, with a Military Wing at Farnborough and a Naval Wing at Eastchurch. The CO. of the Military Wing was a Major FH. Sykes, formerly a Cavalry Officer with the 15th King's but then serving at the War Office, whilst the CO. of the Naval Wing was Commander CR. Samson. Major Sykes later transferred to the Royal Marines and was commissioned as a Colonel in 1915 to take command or the RN.A.S. units at Gallipoli and the Dardanelles. In August 1912 the Central Flying School was established at Upavon under the command of Captain Godfrey Paine R.N. (later to become 5th Sea Lord). The instructors included Longmore and Gregory, and also Capt. E.L. Gerrard RMLI who arrived in his own Nieuport Monoplane which had been purchased for him by the Admiralty. The first course included Lieuts G.Y. Wildman - Lushington and J.D. Courtney and Capt CE. Risk and they were all awarded their wings on 5th December 1912. The RF.C Flying Certificate issued to Wildman - Lushington is on display in Eastney Museum and it was he who taught Winston Churchill to fly at Eastchurch.

These early pilots were followed by a steady stream of volunteers, so that by the outbreak of war in 1914 ten experienced RM. pilots were in responsible appointments and were very early into action. (Two others had been killed in accidents prior to the war). Two more qualified by 1917 so that including F.H. Sykes, who was commissioned as a Colonel in 1915, a total of thirteen pilots, plus 3 observers and 2 non flying RM. Officers were in the R.N.AS. during the war, nearly all in senior appointments as Wing Commanders etc. Originally they were, of course, in the Naval Wing of the RFC until 1 July 1914 when the Admiralty declared independence and formed the RNAS. One pilot, St Clair Morford, served with the RFC and was the only RM pilot to do so.


One of the first pilots into action was Lieut C.H. Collet RMA who was serving in the Eastchurch Wing under Commander Samson, operating on the exposed left flank of the Allied armies near Dunkirk. On 22 Sept 1914 he led a raid of four aircraft against the Zeppelin sheds at Düsseldorf and Cologne. Because of thick mist only Collet reached his target, dropping two 20lb bombs from 400 feet on to the Zeppelin sheds at Düsseldorf. This was the first bombing raid ever carried out and for his exploit Collet was awarded the D.S.O.

A study of the pilots' dossiers shows that they all served with distinction in various theatres:- in raids on the German submarine bases at Cuxhaven, Hoboken and Wilhelmshaven; in the Eastern Mediterranean and even in East Africa. FH. Sykes, as Colonel, commanded all RNAS operations in the eastern Mediterranean in 1915 and the extract from his Record of Service used as a frontispiece gives some idea of the high regard in which the RNAS was held. Sykes' dossier is of particular interest in that he became Chief of the Air Staff on form­ation of the R.A.F before Trenchard finally assumed this office. Lieut J. d'Albiac served in the famous Naval Eight Squadron as an observer at Dunkirk and like nearly all the others he transferred to the R.A.F on its formation. He went on to command all British Forces in Greece in 1941 in World War II and retired as an Air Marshal.

All these R.M. Officers who served as air crew in the Great War between them gained 9 D.S.O.'s, 3 C.M.G., 1 C.B.E., and 2 A.F.C

On the formation of the Royal Air Force in 1918, ten of them transferred to the R.A.F, namely Bishop Courtney, d'Albiac, Gerrard, Gordon, Innes - Baillie, Kilner, Rathborne, Risk and Ward. Of these, one became Wing Commander, two became Group Captains, four Air Commodores and one an Air Marshal. In addition, F.H. Sykes, who had returned to the Army, became the first Chief of the Air Staff.


In July 1917, General Smuts was appointed by the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, to consider the problems of "Air Organization". On 17 Aug 1917 he submitted his report which recommended the creation of an "Air Ministry". This was considered by the Cabinet on 2 September 1917 and an Air Force Bill was duly drafted and became law on 1st April 1918. This provided for a third Service responsible for all Military Air Operations under the control of the Air Ministry, and so the Royal Air Force was born. For the six months until the war ended, R.N.A.S. operations continued as before, but the Air Crews, R.N.A.S and otherwise, were legally and technically members of the R.A.F seconded for service with the Navy.

In the meantime, on 29th Nov 1917, when the Air Force Bill received Royal Assent, Lord Rothermere accepted the appointment of Air Minister. On 16 December 1917, Trenchard was summoned from France and after a long meeting he agreed to become Chief of the Air Staff. However, friction between Trenchard and Lord Rothermere was such that on 19th March 1918 Trenchard resigned. Although the Royal Air Force came into being on 1 ApriI 1918 Trenchard had already resigned and on 8th May he took command of the Independent Bomber Force in France.

On 13th April 1918, Major General F.H. Sykes, who had commanded the R.N.A.S Forces in Dardanelles in 1915 as a Colonel RM took over as Chief of the Air Staff, the post which Trenchard had relinquished before the R.A.F came into being. On 25th April Lord Rothermere was also replaced as Air Minister by Sir William Weir. However, on 15th January 1919, a further change took place when Lloyd George appointed Churchill as Minister for War and Air. In early February 1919, Trenchard was summoned to London by Churchill and on 15th February 1919 he took over again as Chief of Air Staff, Sykes being appointed as Controller of Civil Aviation.

One unfortunate repercussion of the formation of the R.A.F was that the Admiralty surrendered the entire resources of the R.N.A.S to the R.A.F. They persisted however, with a policy of building aircraft carriers and converting ships of the Fleet to carry aircraft, but deprived of the R.N.AS. they soon ran into equipment and manning troubles.


The idea of carrying aircraft and operating them from ships dates back to the ideas of Commander C.R. Samson, one of the first four Naval officers to be trained at Eastchurch in 1911. He cajoled the Admiralty into constructing a rail track on the fore turret and bows of the old cruiser "Africa", and on 10th January 1912 he successfully flew off down these rails in a Short 27 Boxkite at Sheerness. On this occasion the ship was at anchor, but in May 1912, at the Naval Review in Weymouth Bay, he again flew off from the "Hibernia" when she was steaming at 15 knots. Meanwhile, Lieut A. Longmore RN, also one of the first four Naval pilots, and Oswald Short of Short Brothers, had developed the idea of the seaplane on floats capable of operating from water, with some success.

From these experiments, in 1912 the 5,000 ton cruiser "Hermes" was converted to a seaplane carrier with a flying off deck for'ard. On the outbreak of war in 1914, "Empress", "Engadine" and "Riviera" were also hurriedly converted but were no more than floating hangers. "Ark Royal" and "Ben - my - Chree" followed, but although they had primitive flight decks for'ard, these were never used. All these were followed by the "Campania" in 1915, but although she had a 120 foot flying deck even this ship was only operated with sea­planes. Later, however, her flight deck was lengthened to 200 feet so that at 19 knots she was able to launch Short 184 Seaplanes on trollies which were released on take off and recovered by the attendant destroyers. The "Campania" was followed in 1915 by "Vindex" which was also fitted with a flying off deck and stowage for five seaplanes and two single seater fighters. There was however, no question of landing - on again, all the pilot could do at the end of his flight was to ditch alongside a destroyer and hope to be picked up, which was the normal accepted procedure in 1917. This procedure continued with the more recent ships, "Manxman" and "Nairana", even though these were now equipped with Sopwith Pup fighters.

The first attempt to land back on to a ship was made in "Furious" which had been converted from a new 18" cruiser, as also were the later "Courageous" and "Glorious". The Furious had her forward turret replaced by a hangar, the roof of which formed a flight deck 228 feet long and 50 feet wide. The first deck landing was made on 2nd August 1917 by Squadron Commander Dunning who made his approach along the port side and then alighted by side slipping on to the centre line, being caught by a deck party who grabbed toggles on the aircraft. A second landing five days later was also successful, but in making a third attempt his engine cut as he took off and he went over the side and was drowned.

The next development was to fit "Furious" with an aft landing - on deck, retaining the centre bridge struct­ure, but this created so much turbulence that landings were disastrous. At about the same time the "Argus", which had started life as the 'Conte Rosso", a 16,000 ton passenger ship being built for the Italians, was converted to a flush decked carrier without an island but with a retractable bridge. She was commissioned in 1918 just two months before the Armistice. Thus the first completely flush decked aircraft carrier was at Just commissioned and began her work-up with a squadron of Sopwith Cuckoos.

The "Argus" was fitted with a system of fore and aft wires raised on a pair of ramps, and the idea was that a number of small hooks on the under carriage axle picked up the wires and the aircraft was bought to rest by friction between the hooks and the wires. This system proved to be unsatisfactory and in about 1925 it was abandoned so that for some years all F.A.A. Aircraft landed unencumbered by arrester gear. At first this was done without the assistance of brakes, the quality of the landing depending on the skill of the pilot and his judgment of the approach. This problem was eased when later types of aircraft were fitted with brakes, although even so landing was not as dicey as it may sound, since a Fairey TIIF with a deck landing approach speed of only 60 - 65 knots could take some time to catch up with the carrier steaming into a 15 knot wind.

"Courageous" was the first to be fitted with a system of transverse wires which led to the present method of arresting aircraft on deck. By 1933 the problem of controlling the run - out of arresting wires was solved by using hydraulic rams. The standard equipment for all carriers from then until 1938 was to have four arrester wires, but each aircraft as it landed had to be struck down in the lift to the hanger before the next one landed on. The arrester gear speeded this up considerably, each successive pilot aiming to cross the round - down Just as the lift reached flight deck level. With the advent of the "Ark Royal" in 1938 the number of wires was increased to eight plus two or three barriers. The use of barriers removed the need to strike individual aircraft down since they could be taxied forward into the deck park in front of the barriers. As a result a complete squadron could be landed on in a matter of minutes so that the carrier could turn out of wind much earlier than before - a very important factor in time of war. The modern angled deck however, has eliminated the requirement for barriers since the deck park is no longer in the flight path.


Although the Admiralty continued to develop and build aircraft carriers after the Great War, its pilots, observers and aircraft were part of the Royal Air Force, and such squadrons as were allocated for sea duty were known as Air Force Contingents. The Navy possessed no air component of its own apart from these, although in 1920 a Naval Air Section was created in the Admiralty as the first step in rebuilding a naval air service.

The friction between the two Services was considerable and culminated in the Trenchard - Keyes Agreement in April 1924, as a result of which the Fleet Air Arm of the R.A.F. was created. This was composed of R.AF. and Naval Officer air crews, but all maintenance personnel were R.A.F Units placed under the operational and disciplinary control of the RN when embarked, but reverted to R.AF discipline and administration when ashore. Under this agreement, 30% of pilots were to be RAF and 70% of pilots and all observers were to be R.N. or R.M. Volunteers were called for in AFO. 1058/24 which had an excellent response including 19 RM. Officers in 1924/25. From then onwards until the formation of the Brigade Air Squadron there was a continuous representation of Royal Marines in the Fleet Air Arm but this almost traditional connection seems to have virtually ceased in the early 1970s.

In the period 1924 to 1933, the F.A.A was organized into independent Flights of six aircraft and usually two of the pilots were R.A.F and the other four Naval. R.M. pilots counted as Naval and might be employed like the others in fighters, spotter/reconnaissance or torpedo bombers - they had no distinctive Marine role. Aircraft maintenance personnel were all R.A.F, each flight having a flight sergeant, a fitter and a rigger sergeant, and a fitter and a rigger to each aircraft until about 1933 when the trades were re - graded. There were also a leading seaman and six able seaman in each flight for aircraft handling, and naval telegraphist air gunners for each three seater spotter/recce aircraft. The two seater Ripon torpedo bombers also had a few TAGs.

Each aircraft carrier had a Wing Commander, the equivalent of the later Commander (Flying), a Squadron Leader as Flight Deck Officer, and technical and signals Officers, all RAP. All Naval and R.M. pilots were commissioned in the R.AF as Flying Officers and thereafter were promoted to Flight Lieutenant etc. as vacancies and merit required. Flying training took place at R.A.F Leuchars whilst torpedo training took place at R.A.F. Gosport. The Instructors were all R.A.F many with fighting records in the RFC. of 1914 - 1918. Initial training was carried out on Avro 504N a design dating to 1912 but with a modern radial engine in place of a Gnome Rotary, and a modern oleo undercarriage in place of the original rubber. Service and Squadron training was carried out on types such as the Fairey IIID, Blackburn Dart and Ripen whilst fighter pilots progressed on to the Fairey Fly­catcher which was the standard Fleet Fighter from 1924 to 1934.

On 3 April 1933 a new squadron structure was created by amalgamating the F.A.A Fighter Flights into four squadrons. Nos. 402 and 404 Flights became 800 Squadron with nine Nimrods and three Ospreys; No. 401 Flight became 801 Squadron with six Nimrods and three Ospreys; 802 Squadron was formed from 408 and 409 Flights with the same complement as 800 whilst 803 Squadron was formed from 405 Flight as an Osprey Squadron with only one Nimrod included. Later in the year the Torpedo/Bomber and Spotter/Recce. Flights were similarly amalgamated into squadrons, 810 being formed from 463 and 464 Flights; 811 from 465 and 466 Flights and 812 from 461 and 462 Flights and so on.


During the period between the wars aircraft carriers had been coming into service as follows :

1918 Argus - Ex Conte Rosso.

1923 Eagle - Ex Almirante Cochrane

1924 Hermes - the first to be designed as a carrier from the waterline upwards

1925 Furious - after reconstruction

1928 Courageous

1930 Glorious

1938 Ark Royal - the first aircraft carrier to be completely designed as a carrier from the keel upwards.

Of the old carriers used in the Great War, Hermes was sunk by torpedoes in the Channel on 31 October 1914, and Ben - my - Chree was sunk by Turkish gunfire in Castelorigo Harbour in the Eastern Mediterranean in January 1916. Campania survived the war only to be sunk in November 1918 when she dragged her anchor and was rammed by the Royal Oak in the Firth of Forth. With the exception of Ark Royal II all the rest were pensioned off but the old "Ark" Was renamed "Pegasus" and earned her keep right through World War II as a catapult training ship except for a period in 1941 when she became a Fighter Catapult Ship equipped with Fulmar fighters of 804 Squadron. The Flight Commander at the time, - later Squadron CO, was Captain A.E. Marsh R.M.

Throughout the twenties, the fundamentals of carrier flying were being continuously hammered out. Originally without brakes or arrester gear, the aircraft became more sophisticated and being fitted with brakes could stop more easily. Then the modern transverse arrester wires were developed and the aircraft were fitted with arrester hooks so that the speed of landing on could be increased as well as being much safer generally. Lifts were also developed so that after landing on the aircraft could be struck down into the hangar. As progress was made, procedures were laid for the tactical handling of aircraft carriers in company, and an efficient system of carrier air drill for flying off, forming up etc. was instituted.

In 1926, progress was made with night operations and on 1 July 1926 Flight Lieut G.B. Boyce RAF made the first night deck landing in a Blackburn Dart aboard Furious. The first night deck landing in a single seater fighter - a Flycatcher - was made on 26 Nov 1929 by a Royal Marine pilot, Lieut Owen Cathcart -Jones, on board Courageous. By 1930 night flying from carriers was quite common, though limited to experienced pilots. After the resignation of Trenchard from the post of Chief of Air Staff on 31 Dec 1929, relations between the R.A.F and Royal Navy improved. By 1930 nothing had been done to expand the FAA as had been re­quested by the Admiralty, so that the FAA still only had a total of 92 Naval Officer air crew. However, in 1931 the post of Flag Officer (Air) was created and the appointment was given to Rear Admiral R.G.H. Henderson, a believer in Naval Air Power. His actual appointment was Rear Admiral Aircraft Carriers and he flew his flag in the Courageous. Under him a completely new set of tactics governing aircraft carrier op­erations was devised. From then onwards, the provision of aircraft improved. In 1932 the Flycatcher was replaced by the Hawker Nimrod (a variant of the RAF Fury) and in time this was followed by the Blackburn Skua, Fulmar and Firefly. The Fairey IIIF was replaced in 1933 by the Seal which had both brakes and an arrester hook, and this in turn was replaced by the Blackburn Shark in 1935/36 followed by the Swordfish in 1938.

The first squadron to receive the Skua in November 1938 was 800 Squadron aboard Ark Royal, and by Sept 1939,801 and 803 Squadrons also had Skuas. These three squadrons had several RM. pilots e.g. Capt. Partridge, Capt. McIver, Capt. Bird, Lieut Harris, Lieut Griffiths and Lieut Hay, and were in very early action in World War II. These are mentioned later. A new squadron, No. 804 was also formed in 1939 and was equipped with Gloster Gladiators, and Lieut Marsh and Wright both gained the Battle of Britain Bar in this squadron.


Whilst all the above was in progress, in July 1937 the Admiralty at last regained control of the Fleet Air Arm, although this was not fully completed until May 1939.

A crash programme of expansion was immediately put in hand which included the ordering of four new Fleet Carriers followed by two more within two years. With aircraft however, it was a different story. Plans were made to increase the front line strength from 200 in 1938 to 540 by 1942, but at first no one knew what the future war in the air would be like. Available aircraft still reflected over - emphasis on the requirement for a rear cockpit with an observer, and the main defence of the Fleet against air attack was still considered to be the anti - aircraft gun. At that stage R/T was still unreliable and radar and D.F. were still undeveloped, so that there was no method of homing a single seat fighter back to his carrier. All F.A.A aircraft in those days were a compromise, the Skua, for example having to double up as a fighter as well as a dive bomber, whilst the Fulmar which followed the Skua into service had to combine reconnaissance duties with its role as a fighter, and as a result was unable to catch up with a JU 88 in level flight let alone shoot it down.

The F.A.A entered the Second World War with the Skua as its principal fighter in three squadrons, plus two squadrons of Gladiators. These were later replaced by the Fulmar followed by the Sea Hurricane and Seafire which were necessarily converted from the R.A.F version. It was not until the American Wildcat, Hellcat and Corsair came into service mid-way through the war that the F.A.A could breathe freely. The situation with the Torpedo/Spotter/Reece. (T.S.R.) was similar, the mainstay throughout the war being the Swordfish. Its British replacement, the Albacore and Barracuda were never really successful although the Albacore proved to be very useful as a flare dropper in the Western Desert, whilst the Barracuda had its moments of glory in a raid on the Tirpitz. Neither of these matched up to the Grumman Avenger loaned by the Americans and used by the B.P.F in operations against Sumatra and the Pacific Islands.

Plans were also made to increase the number of aircrew from 403 in 1938 to 1570 by 1942. To achieve this a Short Service scheme for aircrew was promulgated and in 1938 the first Short Service (A) pilots started training. Pilot training was also opened up to rating pilots at the same time and the early ones included nine Royal Marine N.C.O.s who volunteered under AFO. 495/38.

To carry out the training programme which was still undertaken by the R.A.F, No.1 Flying Training. School was moved from Leuchars to Netheravon where many of the earlier pilots had learned to fly. Included in the first course were Lieut L.A. Harris RM and Lieut A.E. Marsh RM who were awarded their Wings in December 1938. Both flew successfully right through the war and survived to normal retirement.

In addition to the newly trained pilots, a considerable number of experienced serving and ex R.A.F pilots were given commissions in the "A" Branch. Likewise a large number of .RA.F maintenance personnel con­tinued to serve in the F.A.A whilst some transferred to the RN.

Various RAF airfields were also taken over, such as Lee-on-Solent, Worthy Down, Gosport, Donibristle and later, Ford and Eastleigh. Work was also started on Yeovilton and Arbroath which today is a Royal Marine Base for 45 Commando RM. By 1945, the FAA had 45 airfields in use.


Between the wars one of the best known RM pilots made his name as a record breaker. Lieut Owen Cathcart - Jones, who made the first night deck landing ever in a fighter aircraft in 1929, qualified as a pilot at Leuchars in 1925 and served in 403 Flight in Hermes and 404 Flight in Courageous, before leaving the Corps for a civilian aviation job in 1930. Partnered by Ken Waller, he took part in the McRobertson Centenary Air Race to Australia on 20 Oct 1934 in a specially built twin engine, tandem two - seater De Haviland Comet. After finishing third he promptly turned round and flew back to London in record time, breaking the record for the round trip by a wide margin. He also broke several other records, including the England - Capetown in 1931, and by 1934 he held eight world long distance records.

Although other pilots had a less glamorous career in the F.A.A the life was certainly full and interesting. R.M. pilots were actively involved in 1920 in the Turkish crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean, and in 1926 they were also involved in action against bandits and pirate junks in Chinese waters, operating from the "Hermes". They were also busy during the trouble between North and South China in 1926, being based at Kai Tak, Hong Kong. Among these pilots, H.M.A Day (Wings Day) ,whose George Cross is now in the medal collection in the R.M. Museum, was O.C. at Kai Talc G.E. Wildman - Lushington, who had flown in the Great War on Channel patrols, was Flight Commander of 441 Flight in Eagle and in Hermes in China, and received Their Lordship's Commendation for his leadership of 441 Flight during the Shanghai operations in 1927. Other pilots in various Flights at the time were Cathcart - Jones, Ellison, Warren and Woolley. Later. in 1928, more RM. pilots were involved in Palestine when trouble flared up between Jews and Arabs, and Courageous was rushed to Jaffa to intervene.

On the lighter side of life in the F.A.A in those days, a letter from a RM. pilot who served on the China Station at the time mentions cruises to Japan. Manila, Batavia and Singapore where they disembarked at Seletar. These are pleasures usually missing from life in the modern Royal Navy.

Another well known RM pilot between the wars was B.W. de Courcy - Ireland who served in 810 and 820 Squadrons in which he led a Section. He was selected in 1937 to pilot the Flag aircraft and on 20 May 1937 had the distinction of leading the F.A.A Fly - past at the Coronation Review for King George VI.


During the Second World War, R.M. pilots distinguished themselves in all theatres. Thirty one pilots and two Observers, plus nine ex NCOs who transferred to the R.N. as rating pilots flew in action. Of these, eighteen of the pilots commanded squadrons or wings, and eight became Commander (Flying) of aircraft carriers. (In the case of Patch, Marsh and Wright, two each in succession, making a total of eleven carriers with RM. Pilots as "Wings".)

The "Courageous" having been sunk on 17 September 1939 within a fortnight of the declaration of war, the first squadrons into action were those in Furious, Ark Royal and Glorious in the Atlantic and Norwegian waters. Guy Griffiths flying a Skua in 803 Squadron from "Ark Royal" was an early casualty being the victim of his own bomb whilst attacking a U-boat on 14 Sept. 1939. Fortunately he was rescued and spent the rest of the war as a P.O.W. in the company of "Birdie" Partridge R.M.. and "Wings" Day R.AF., among others. After the German invasion of Norway, the three Skua Squadrons, 800, 801 and 803 were continuously in action. Operating from Ark Royal, Furious and the R N. Air Station at Hatston in the Orkneys, they gave fighter cover to our forces ashore in Norway, and also attacked German ships, including the Konigsberg which was sunk by Skuas of 800 and 803 Squadrons. The R.M. pilots taking part were Captain Partridge in com­mand of 800 Squadron and Captain McIver and Lieu! Harris in 803 Squadron. Of these, Captain Partridge was later shot down and taken prisoner (rather badly burned), Lieut Harris was shot down and wounded in the shoulder but was rescued, whilst Capt. McIver was killed. In addition in the same area, Lieut Hay was serving in 801 Squadron giving fighter cover to the Fleet. At the same time the Swordfish squadrons were very active. No. 816 Squadron led by Captain Burch who was Senior Pilot made the first Squadron Torpedo attack ever made against enemy ships on 11.4.40. He also led other successful bombing raids against German destroyers and aircraft on the ground. In the same month, Captain Skene leading 810 Squadron from Ark Royal, with Capt W.H.N. Martin as a Flight Commander, made very successful bombing raids against railways and bridges in the Narvik area of Norway.

For their leadership in. this campaign, Partridge was awarded the D.S.O. whilst Burch, Harris and Skene were awarded the D.S.C.

A little later, between July and October, Lieuts Marsh and Wright in 804 Squadron and Lieut Hay in 808 Squadron, took part in the fighter defence of the UK under 13 Group R.A.F and all three were awarded the Battle of Britain Bar. Petty Officer Mahoney (ex Corporal R.M.) was also awarded this Bar. During this period Marsh also made two trips to Norway in Furious for raids on Trondheim and Tromso. Apart from these, Captains Nott and Owens were serving on 802 Squadron in Glorious when she was sunk by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau on 8 June 1940 and both were killed.

During the Dunkirk withdrawal in 1940, Lieut R.C Hay worked from Detling in Kent in 801 Squadron. He was twice in charge of the Squadron when the C.Os were lost, and survived a battle with ME 1O9s over North Foreland. In 825 Squadron at the same time Captain Aston was busy raiding barges and mine laying in the Scheldt Estuary as well as attacking German tanks and vehicles to delay the German advance. Lieut T.A. Johnston, one of the only two qualified Observers in the Corps was in 812 Squadron operating in the same way as 825 Squadron. Unfortunately he was killed on 4 August 1940.

In the Mediterranean, Captain Patch was serving in 824 Squadron in "Eagle". On 20 July 1940 he took part in the raid on Tobruk and on 22 August 1940 he led a flight of three Swordfish against Italian ships in Bomba Bay. The flight sank four ships with three torpedoes, an exploit which won him the D.S.O. Three months later, on 11 November 1940 he took part in the epic raid on Taranto and was awarded the D.S.C.

In 1942, Major Alan Newson, who had previously flown from "Ark Royal" in the Norwegian campaign in 820 Squadron, was appointed to command 821 Sqdn operating in the Western Desert. This squadron earned considerable praise for finding and illuminating targets for the R.A.F. Bombers, as well as mine laying, raids on shipping, and bombardment spotting. For this work he was awarded the D.S.C. The squadron then moved to Malta in November 1942 and wrought havoc among enemy shipping between Italy and North Africa. On one night alone four of the Albacores sank or seriously damaged two merchant ships and a destroyer with three torpedoes. For these operations from Malta Newson was awarded the D.S.O.

In the final phase of the operations in North Africa during the landings in November 1942 at Oran and Algiers, R.C. Hay who had previously been awarded the D.S.C in earlier actions in the Mediterranean, led 809 Squadron in support of the Army. The squadron had been specially trained in Army Cooperation and were quipped with six Fulmars and operated from "Victorious". They reconnoitered roads into Algiers, photographed bridges and airfields and even made personal contact with the troops by landing near them.

Somewhat earlier, in 1941, the British Forces in Greece were commanded by Air Marshal John d'Albiac, a Royal Marine pilot during the Great War who transferred to the R.A.F on its formation in 1918. He gained his D.S.O. whilst serving in the famous Naval Eight Squadron at Dunkirk.

Moving on to 1943, during the operations in Sicily and Southern Italy, Major F.D.G. Bird was CO of No. 888 Wildcat Squadron in Formidable and was mentioned in despatches for gallant and distinguished services. One of his pilots was Lieut P.S. Cowen but unfortunately he was killed on 21 December 1942 at Mers - el - Kebir when he crashed into the sea whilst doing aerobatics near his ship.

At Salerno (9-12 Sept 1943) air cover to the landings was provided by Force V under Admiral Vian. The Commander (Flying) of H.M.S. Battler, one of four Escort Carriers taking part, was Major A.R. Burch D.S.C and one of his pilots in 808 Squadron was Lieut A.C. Palmer. Also at Salerno was Major 'Al' Wright who was CO of 809 Seafire Squadron operating from "Unicorn". He also received a mention in despatches.

The next major operation to cover landing operations took place in August 1944, when 168 Seafires, Hellcats and Wildcats from seven British Escort Carriers, Attacker, Emperor, Khedive, Pursuer, Searcher, Hunter and Stalker combined with 48 Hellcats from two American carriers, covered the landings in the South of France (Operation Dragoon). Lieut O.R. Oakes D.S.C. was a leader in 800 Hellcat Squadron and describes how they bombed and strafed anything they could see and immobilising 70% of the 9th Panzer Division. He also remembers attacking an 'E' Boat which blew up as he strafed it. This operation was followed by some in the Aegean from 15 Sept to 14 November 1944 clearing the Germans from the islands and destroying their transport.


Prior to our carrier forces moving to the Mediterranean and the Far East, further carrier operations took place in Norwegian waters in 1944. The German battleship "Tirpitz" was still lurking in the Norwegian fjords and several raids were made on her by the Fleet Air Arm. The most successful was operation "Tungsten" mounted on 3 April 1944 when the "Tirpitz" was in KAA FJORD. Lieut O.R. Oakes was a Flight Com­mander in 804 Squadron on this raid operating from "Emperor". He was awarded the D.S.C. A further attack was made on 17 July 1944 when "Tirpitz" was in ALTENFJORD, by aircraft from "Furious", "Formidable" and "Indefatigable" one of the newest armoured carriers which had now joined the Fleet. In this action the new 1770 Firefly Squadron led by Major V.E.G. Cheesman was in action for the first time. For this operation he was awarded the D.S.O.

Major A.C. Newson D.S.O, D.S.C was also involved in several actions off Norway and in Russian convoys as Commander (Flying) of H.M.S. Trumpeter. This ship saw more operational service than any other Escort Carrier and took part in thirteen offensive operations between August 1944 and May 1945. From 17 Jan 1945 her Cdr (F) was another R.M. pilot, Major O. Patch D.S.O., D.S.C. who had been Cdr. (F) in H.M.S. Thane, and he took part in the later operations, particularly Convoy JW 65 to Russia.

In the U.K. Lieut A. C. Palmer, who had been in 808 Squadron at Salerno in September 1943, was in 897 Squadron, part of No.3 Naval Fighter Wing, when the invasion of France took place on 6 June 1944. The Wing operated from Lee on Solent across the Channel and by mid July had made 1230 combat sorties supporting the invasion forces in France.


Moving further afield, in early 1941, Capt. V.B.G. Cheesman who had qualified as a seaplane pilot, was serving as a Walrus pilot on HMS Albatross based at Freetown, Sierra Leone when a British merchant ship the FUMAES was torpedoed 100 miles off the west coast of Africa. Cheesman was soon on the scene and attacked the submarine with depth charges before alighting near the survivors. For many hours he shepherded, rescued and encouraged the survivors, even towing the ships boats to within their reach. More than once he stopped his engine to swim to the assistance of wounded men. He remained there until all survivors were picked up, and then after an all night tow he taxied back to his ship. For this he was awarded the M.B.E. He later received the D.S.O as already described for leading his squadron in Norway, and in 1945 he was awarded the D.S.C for operations in the Pacific.

In the Indian Ocean, Major A.R. Burch was Cdr (F) of "Battler" from October 1943 to late 1944 on convoy duties between Aden and Bombay and this ship was responsible for the sinking of the U-boat depot ship "Brake" on 12 March 1944. On one occasion in late 1944, "Ameer" and "Battler" were leaving Cochin as "Rajah" arrived. The respective Commanders (F) were Majors Aston, Burch and Marsh so that for a short while there were three carriers with R.M. Officers as Senior Air Officers all within hailing distance of one another.

Earlier, in 1942, Major W.H.N. Martin was based Ceylon in command of 814 Squadron at the time of the Japanese raids on the Island. At the same time, Lieut. Nelson - Gracie was serving in 803 Fulmar Squadron which had been disembarked to Ceylon. He was in action when the Japanese attacked Colombo on 5 April 1942 and again when "Hermes" was sunk by Japanese D3A bombers 65 miles from Trincomalee.

With the invasion of Europe well in hand in 1944, the attention of the Fleet Air Arm was re-directed to the Far East and task forces were organised to support the Americans in their onslaught on the Japanese. The main tasks which finally fell to the British Navy was to assist in the destruction and neutralisation of the Japanese Air Force, destruction of airfields and oil supply installations, and disruption of communications.

All this had to be achieved by direct ground attack by fighters, and high level and dive bombing by the T.E.R. squadrons, all operating from carriers. It was probably a coincidence that in April 1943 Captain A.E. Marsh who was on the staff of C.C.O. as Fleet Air Arm Planner, wrote a paper on this subject, albeit really intended to secure the formation of a Royal Marines Air Section. It transpired from correspondence between C.C.O. and A.C.N.S. (A) that the F.A.A only allocated and trained squadrons for Army Co-operation when not re­quired for carriers, and that future requirements for the war in the Pacific had not been considered. At about the same time Capt N.A.G.H. Beal also made a submission as to the provision of Air Liaison Sections in aircraft carriers.

These two papers led to a meeting held by A.C.N.S. (A) at the Admiralty attended by Capt. Marsh who was allowed to speak. As a result it was decided to include ground support training in the syllabus for all fighter pilots in readiness for the Far Eastern war. It can therefore, be reasonably claimed that this training was in fact prompted by the far sightedness of two RM. Captains.

There were two phases in the final participation by the F.A.A in the Far East. Firstly came the move to the Indian Ocean and East Indies at the end of 1944, for preliminary assembly and training. This was followed by the move into the Pacific in early 1945 leaving the 21st Aircraft Carrier Squadron to assemble for operations in the East Indies against Sumatra, Burma and Malaya. All of this is well covered in 'The Forgotten Fleet" by John Winton.

In the meantime, Major R.C. Hay RM. had qualified on a R.A.F Wing Leaders Course and had then flown out to Ceylon in November 1943 to prepare fighter training facilities for the Far East War, a move which had been agreed at the meeting with A.C.N.S. (A). In August 1944 Hay was appointed Wing Leader of 47 Naval Fighter Wing in Victorious for operations against Sumatra. The subsequent events are covered in Hay's dossier. Two other R.M. pilots were also deeply involved in this phase of the war - Cheesman as CO of 1770 Firefly Squadron in Indefatigable, and Nelson - Gracie who became Air Group Leader of the 8th Carrier Air Group in Formidable. Their activities are covered in their dossiers but a point to note is that Hay received a D.S.O. and a bar to his D.S.C, whilst Cheesman added a D.S.C. to his D.S.O. and M.B.E. before the Pacific War ended.

At the same time, in the East Indies, Major Aston as Cdr (F) of "Ameer" was busy operating off the Arakan giving covering support to 3 Commando Brigade in their assaults on Akyab and Ramree etc. No. 804 Squadron from "Ameer" also gave support for the assault on Cheduba by the Royal Marines of the East Indies Fleet. In the later stages "Khedive" was also involved, Major Marsh the Commander (F) having transferred from "Rajah" to "Khedive" in January 1945. So the entire air cover for the 3 Cdo. Brigade and Royal Marine landings in the Arakan was provided from two Assault Carriers whose Senior Air Officers were both R.M. and who remained in the theatre until hostilities ceased.


It is not generally known in the Fleet Air Arm that a very efficient night fighter development unit operated from Ford and was closely linked with the R.A.F. This was commanded by Captain "Skeets" Harris D.S.C RM, and Captain J.O. Armour RM was a senior pilot in this unit who later commanded the first operational night fighter squadron in the F.A.A. This was No. 892 Squadron equipped with the latest Hellcat Night Fighter aircraft and was embarked in "Vengeance".

Armour saw action flying Mosquito night fighters in the night defence of the UK and in Intruder Operations over Europe. On 24 Feb. 1944 he shot down a JU 188 which crashed in the sea off Newhaven; on 24/25 March 1944 he engaged a JU 88 over Weybridge but this escaped in a damaged condition. Finally, on 15 July 1944 during the Allied invasion of Europe, he intercepted a ME 110 west of Antwerp and this was seen to crash in flames - the details have since been confirmed from German records.

Some RM pilots even got mixed up with unusual missions which have not been recorded. In early 1940 several Naval pilots, including the writer, were hurriedly whipped up to Admiralty and in one frenzied forenoon had resigned their commissions and had been issued with passports and papers as civilians to enable them to deliver fighter aircraft, including redundant Blackburn Rocs, via Norway and Sweden to Finland where all had carte blanche to remain if they wished and assist the Finnish Air Force against the Russians. The writer still has his passport as a civil engineer which was issued for the trip. Although most of them got airborne en route, the war collapsed before they arrived which was perhaps just as well since the Russians might not have been very friendly if they had been caught.

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After the end of the Second World War, most of the RM pilots gradually returned to Corps Duty since most of them had been away from the Corps for up to eight years. Two of them, R.E. Hay and J.O. Armour transferred to the Royal Navy whilst Nelson - Gracie retired at his Own request in 1948, followed by Cheesman in 1950, Partridge in 1951 and Marsh in 1953.

Eight RM. Officers, however, were still seconded in the normal way after the war for training as fixed wing pilots and three of them actually served together in the same squadron, 807 Squadron in 17 C.A.G. in Theseus. These were Capt. P.J.F. Whiteley (later C.G.R.M.), M. Joughin and R.T. Highett. The latter flew during the Korean War and finally transferred to the Royal Navy as Lieut. Cdrs. In the late '40s the requirement for RM fixed wing pilots diminished and appears to have been suspended until 1958. The last RM. fixed wing pilot to qualify was Lieutenant T.J.P. Murphy who gained his wings in August 1959. He was also the first RM Officer to fly jets and flew Sea Hawk FGA jet fighters with 806 Squadron F.A.A.

At about this time the question of training more RM pilots was reconsidered in view of the time and cost involved, particularly as the helicopter was coming more into its own for the Royal Marines. This was probably a development from the Suez adventure of 6 November 1956 when the first assault by helicopter took place from HMS Theseus and Ocean. In this operation, Whirlwinds and Sycamores of 845 Squadron and the J.H.U. landed 415 men and 23 tons of stores of 45 Commando in front of the casino at Port Said in 1 hour 17 minutes.

In 1961 with the advent of the Commando ship, it was agreed that Royal Marines would provide a proportion of helicopter pilots for Naval Air Squadrons. Lieuts Murphy, Learoyd and Wise were the first officers in the Corps to specialise in the role of troop lift helicopter pilots. Murphy in fact went further than this and had the unique distinction of also flying light helicopters for the Army and the Royal Marines. He was also the first RM Officer to qualify as a helicopter instructor. All three of the above pilots served in 848 Squadron in HMS Bulwark in 1961. This squadron was later commanded by Captain M.J. Reece in 1969 when it was equipped with Wessex helicopters, so becoming the nineteenth RM. Officer to command a Fleet Air Arm squadron since the Great War. So far as can be traced, 25 Regular Officers plus a further 17 Special Entry Officers on Short Service Commissions trained in the Fleet Air Arm as troop lift helicopter pilots and these are listed in the appendices.

Sadly these were the last RM Officers qualified to wear the coveted golden wings of the Fleet Air Arm, and RM pilots in the 3 Commando Brigade Air Squadron now qualify for the lesser wings of the Army light helicopter pilot.

In 1965, each RM Commando had its own three Sioux light helicopters but in 1968 these were centralised into the Commando Brigade Air Squadron and ultimately in 1971 on withdrawal from Singapore it was concentrated under one RM Commanding Officer based at Plymouth from whence the Commando Flights support all the Commando Units alongside the Fleet Air Arm.


At the time of writing (1979), the Corps had only one pilot, Captain Paul Belding, serving in the Fleet Air Arm so that a tradition dating back to the earliest days of Naval Aviation has almost been broken. This is partly the result of Defence cuts and the run down of the Fleet Air Arm which has steadily been forced to disband squadron after squadron, whilst also closing down or handing over its most important air stations such as Lossiemouth to the R.AF. The culmination of all this came in 1979 when "Ark Royal" was phased out, her last aircraft, Phantom No. 012 of 892 Squadron (with an R.A.F. pilot) being launched on 27th November 1978.

Having progressively lost all their fixed wing aircraft such as the Phantom, Buccaneers and Gannets, the F.A.A have themselves been playing almost a survival role for some years with helicopters. Coupled with the requirement for pilots for the Commando Brigade Air Squadron, one can understand what is hoped is only a temporary lapse in the RM connection with the F.A.A. Unfortunately this has meant that those training as pilots have only been able to qualify for the Army "Wings" instead of the coveted gold ones of the F.A.A.

A step in the right direction has fortunately been made with the appointment of three RM pilots, who are already qualified on light helicopters, to R.N.A.S Yeovilton in September 1979 to undergo a five months course in advanced and operational flying on Wessex helicopters. The course will include operating from aircraft carriers. It seems however, that because their initial training was with the Army instead of the F.A.A, on completion of their course in February 1980 they will not be granted the privilege of wearing Fleet Air Arm wings which seems rather unfair.

In addition to the three pilots mentioned above, it is also intended that all the R.N. aircrewmen in the Naval Air Commando Squadrons will be replaced by Royal Marines by 1983/84. Already three are under training and together with three others will give an initial unit of six for 845 and 846 Squadrons in 1980. This will gradually expand to form a single RM Aircrewman section, about 70 strong, to cover both of the Naval Air Commando Squadrons and the Brigade Air Squadron.

The two RN Commando Squadrons, 845 and 846 are at present equipped with Wessex Mk 5s. It is intended that these will be supplemented by Sea King Mk 4 medium lift helicopters. These are a derivative of the Westland "Commando" export Sea King and incorporate the best and most appropriate features of the RN Sea King Mk 2 and RAF Sea King Mk 3. It is able to carry either 28 armed men, or the Royal Marine new heavier guns and vehicles as under slung loads. Operating alongside the current Wessex 5s they will provide the Commando Squadrons with much needed additional lift capacity. The first of these will be allocated to 846 Squadron in late 1979.

Other Fleet Air Arm ASW Squadrons are equipped with Sea King Mk 2 but will start converting to the later, better equipped Mark 5s in 1980. Its ultimate replacement for the new ASW cruisers will probably be the Westland WG - 34, a three engine conventional helicopter with a much greater range and capability. Approval to proceed to full development is being sought.

With the departure of the "Ark", the Royal Navy is, left for the moment with only two helicopter carriers, the Hermes and Bulwark, the latter having been brought out of reserve, and there are no carriers capable of operating fixed wing aircraft left in commission. However, in 1980, the "Invincible", the first of the new Invincible class of through deck anti submarine cruisers will commission, to be followed by "Illustrious" and "Ark Royal". This will to some extent redress the situation.

Although the prime role of these new ships is anti submarine, they will also carry the Harrier FRS Mk I which will be the only V/STOL aircraft capable of all - weather reconnaissance and surface attack missions. Three squadrons of these have been nominated at present, the first being 800 Squadron which has already been formed and is working up.

It seems that at last the undeniable requirement for the aircraft carrier has been accepted once again. With the inevitable expansion of the Fleet Air Arm and the revival of the fixed wing concept, there should surely be renewed opportunities for the Corps to re - establish its traditional connection with the F.A.A. Apart from the desirability of having our own troop lift helicopter pilots, one wonders who will be the first Royal Marine to qualify as a Harrier pilot and to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors by rising to command such a squadron. Apart from the pioneers who led wings and formations in the RNAS in the Great War, nineteen RM officers have commanded first line squadrons and Air Groups since then in the Fleet Air Arm. Who will be next?

Note: Since this article was written, much has changed in Royal Marine aviation. We do indeed have 3 pilots qualified to fly the Harrier, reviving the tradition of Royal Marines in fixed wing Naval Aviation, but as yet none have made it to a command postion on a fixed wing squadron. Royal Marines pilots have also returned to wearing the F.A.A flying wings, although there are still many Royal Marines pilots still serving who equally proudly wear Army flying wings.
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