THE FLEET AIR ARM
The Fleet Air Arm began life as the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corp in 1912 although experimental flying from ships had been tried for over 100 years prior to that, beginning with using Kites in 1806 from HMS Pallas. In 1908 Admiral Fisher accepted a proposal by Captain Bacon for a Naval Air Assistant to be added to the staff of the Admiralty establishing the Air Department of the Navy and an airship was ordered in May1909 – the Mayfly aptly named as it broke its back prior to its first flight. The Royal Aero Club at Eastchurch formally trained four officers in 1911 as the official Naval pilots; other officers had been privately trained holding private pilots certificates.
From these early days the Air Department was built upon with more pilots, aircraft were ordered (these were maintained by artificers transferring from the other engineering branches of the fleet) for experimental work in support of the fleet mostly spotting the fall of shot from the warships. Many other trials took place including launching and landing on ships with flight decks installed over gun turrets, the dropping of bombs and torpedoes, long distance flights, aerial photography and aerial combat. Many procedures used today were all developed from these early trials which produced many firsts – first landing on a ship and the first takeoff from a ship underway. Commander C R Samson took off from HMS Hibernia at the 1912 Fleet Review in the presence of King George V, aircraft from the Air Department also flew over the assembled fleet.
The Admiralty, encouraged by Winston Churchill, needed to order ships capable of carrying seaplanes with his idea of having folding wings for easier stowage on board. In 1913 Four gun monitors were converted to carry two Sopwith seaplanes with folding wings, The cruiser HMS Hermes was converted as the worlds first aircraft carrier; other ships were also converted to carry seaplanes and the worlds first designed and built aircraft carrier with an unobstructed deck HMS Argus, entered service in 1918. Its right to say that all the devices used in today’s modern naval aviation came from inventions by the Air Department, Naval Air Wings and the Fleet Air Arm albeit very modified over the past 100 years.
World war one saw many major developments in naval aviation and aviation warfare in general and the Naval Wing were instrumental in a large percentage of them including developing the first aircraft simulator. During the conflict many aerial successes were achieved; the first zeppelin was shot down, a submarine was sunk with an aircraft launched torpedo, the first air battle with an aircraft launched from an aircraft carrier, the first destruction of a Zeppelin from the air (earning the fist Naval Wing VC for Flt. Sub Lt Rex Warneford). The first armoured vehicles for use on the front line, and many more throughout the conflict. Sqdn Cdr Richard Bell Davis won the second VC when he rescued a fellow pilot shot down over Turkish lines in the Dardanelles’.
Nearing the end of the war a fateful decision was made to join the Naval Wing with the Royal Flying Corp to form the Royal Air Force (RAF) from 1st April 1918; many Naval Wing air, and ground crews joined this new organisation with many Naval Squadrons continuing to operate with new RAF squadron numbers. However, this new organisation did not support the naval aviation side of flying which was not helped by the fact that many admirals were still in favour of battleships as the fleet’s main capital ships.
Not to be lost in the ether, a few naval officers fought for the existence of naval aviation; the Admiralty instituted the Naval Air Section in 1920 to oversee the requirements of the fleet and ensuring the full support of this new element of the British Forces. Specific RAF squadrons were dedicated to operating with the fleet, the following year the Aircrew Observer Branch was formed to train observers in naval operation roles rather than just a navigator as for the RAF. The next step was the organisation of Naval aircraft units for use with the fleet in 1923, later in 1923 the Balfour Committee was commissioned to look at the role of aviation with the fleet and the following year recommended that all aircraft observers and 70% of all pilots flying with the fleet be RN or RM officers. These aircrew along with the designated fleet squadrons formally became the Fleet Air Arm of the RAF from 1st April six years after losing their identity with the formation of the RAF, The FAA was born. Full control was finally established in May 1939 when the FAA became independent of the RAF.
During the interwar years the aircraft for the fleet were usually outdated variants of the RAF’s aircraft. Eventually aircraft for operations specifically for the fleet began to be ordered and eventually arrive in the squadrons however many were old designs. Development of naval aviation did however continue through this period helping establish safe operations from aircraft carriers and other RN warships. When war broke out in 1939 a mere three months after the FAA official came into being the service was ill equipped with obsolete aircraft or aircraft not capable to fully support fleet operations such as the venerable Swordfish that although completely obsolete became the stalwart of the fleet seeing operations throughout the six years of the war even continuing to operate when its successor the Albacore was withdrawn.
In the Mediterranean the fleet carried out a daring raid on the main fleet base of the Italian Navy at Taranto on 11th November 1940 using the venerable Swordfish, crippling or destroying the Italian Fleet, giving the RN the Naval balance of power in the sea. This enabled many successful operations supporting the operations in the Mediterranean Europe and North Africa for the remainder of the war.
Things began to change after the loss of two aircraft carriers early in the conflict and the loss of merchant shipping to German U-boats. New carriers were ordered, many from the USA for the role of escorting the convoys; and many merchant ships were converted to carry their own aircraft; mostly Swordfish and some navalised versions of frontline fighters (Spitfire & Hurricane). A successful attack on the German battleship Bismark in May 1941 led by Lt Cdr Esmonde in the Western Approaches employing HMS Ark Royal & the new HMS Victorious demonstrated the importance of the aircraft carrier in the modern naval warfare – again the Swordfish was the aircraft that successfully attacked the ship. With the introduction of the escort carrier fleet and the converted merchantman the U-boat attacks were eventually thwarted, and successful convoys were able to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
The first of two VC were awarded during the European war, the first was by Lt Cdr Eugene Esmonde (of Bismark fame) for his heroic leadership in the most publicised and ill-fated attack of the German battle fleet of IGN ships Gneisenau, Scharnhorst and Prinz Eugen transiting through the English Channel on their journey from Brest to Kiel. His Swordfish squadron No825, equipped with six very old and antiquated aircraft were tasked with torpedo strikes on the ships as they passed through the Dover Straits. In appalling weather on the 11th February 1942 and with little aerial cover promised by the RAF he led the squadron on a suicide mission against these heavily armoured warships. Only two aircraft launched their torpedoes both unsuccessful, the aircraft were destroyed and only five members of the 18 crew who manned the aircraft survived. Known as the Channel Dash, it is the only occasion that the aircrew from a complete squadron were all awarded gallantry medals with Esmonde receiving a posthumous VC.
It also had major repercussions across the country as it highlighted the obsolescence of aircraft used by the FAA that on the orders of the government the FAA was to receive modern up to date aircraft and equipment for naval operations. Most of the aircraft received from then on was received under a Lend-Lease agreement from America.
When the Pacific war began the RN had only HMS Hermes in the theatre and she was quickly disposed of by the Japanese. Other aircraft were dispatched to the region including many of the newer armour-plated carriers with some of the escort carriers. In fact, HMS Victorious was loaned to the USN as the USS Robin from late December 1942 to September 1943 for Pacific operations as the USN only had one fleet carrier available. More carriers were ordered as well as receiving many US naval aircraft types which carried out many successful operations in the region before the Japanese surrender.
During the war developments continued and new aircraft for naval use were received, so that when war ceased quality ships and aircraft were either in, entering or being built for the service this included the introduction of helicopters at the end of the war – the FAA were the first military service to order and introduce this mode of aviation into military service. Trials continued with many great developments in naval aviation being achieved by Lt Cdr Eric “Winkle” Brown including the first landing and take off from a jet aircraft from an aircraft carrier. This brought the FAA into the jet age with bigger, faster and heavier aircraft; this resulted in many new carriers operational equipment being developed for safer operation of these aircraft. These developments have continued right up until today with the new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carrier and the very modern aircraft used today.
Piston power was not yet done though, before the arrival of the jet aircraft the worlds fastest piston engined aircraft the Sea Fury was the frontline fighter with the firefly as the major attack aircraft, operating from the light fleet carriers currently in service. These were called upon for UN duties during the Korean War where the RN/ RAN with their respective Fleet Air Arms supplied the UK’s aerial firepower throughout the conflict. During the conflict Lt P “Hoagey” Carmichael was credited with shooting down a Chinese Mig jet fighter (this was later confirmed to be his wingman Sub Lt B “Smoo” Ellis’s kill) the first time a piston aircraft had successfully destroyed a jet aircraft in aerial combat.
Since WWII the FAA has been called in to support UK and UN military operations in every theatre – flooding in Holland and East Africa, anti terrorist operations in Borneo, the Suez War, Blockade patrols off Beira, peace keeping in Aden, the Cod War with Iceland, the Falklands War, the Gulf Wars, Balkan Wars in the eastern Mediterranean with the breakdown of Yugoslavia, operations in Afghanistan and Libya, support following hurricanes and the Caribbean and Typhoons in Asia. Patrols in the Gulf and off Somalia the list goes on.
The Fleet Air Arm is a major component of the British Military with its Commando Helicopter force of Merlin and Wildcat helicopters. Its Anti submarine and Airborne Early Warning fleet of Merlin helicopters, the joint force F35 Thunderbolt aircraft and the ship borne Wildcat and Merlin helicopters operating from all the ships of the fleet. The attack carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales the assault ships HMS Albion & Bulwark the support units operating with the RFA fleet and other roles and will continue to do so as it ahs been doing for the past 120 years.
The Fleet Air Arm Association was set up in 1986 as an Association for ex FAA members to offer friendship, support and comradeship both whilst serving and on leaving the service. Membership is open to anyone who has served with or in the FAA or who is currently serving.