Short_184

25 March 1916 – Search And Rescue

The Royal Naval Air Service has made a priority of hunting Zeppelins in their sheds since the beginning of the war, and today sees another mission to strike a suspected shelter at Tondern in Schleswig-Holstein. Five seaplanes take off from the HMS Vindex, a converted carrier. Consisting of three Short Type 184s like that seen above and two Sopwith Baby floatplanes, the small force fails to do any damage or destroy any airships, but does prompt the German Navy to sortie small craft and airplanes of their own.

Only two of the five British planes return to their ship; the others crews experience mechanical problems and are forced to land on the water, where they are captured by German patrols. But Admiral Reginald Tyrwhitt has dispatched ships of his Harwich Force of Essex to support the Vindex, and rather than abandon his lost aviators, he sends his destroyers to look for them.  As a result, the Laverock encounters a pair of German patrol boats, sinking both in a flurry of gunnery. She is still plucking the survivors from the water when she collides with her sister ship Medusa, holing her engine room and leaving the vessel without power. Lightfoot, the flotilla flagship, takes the Medusa under tow, but when the weather turns worse the hapless boat must be scuttled.

HMSVindex1915

Originally the Viking, a steamer packet ship, in November 1915 HMS Vindex became the first ship to launch a landplane

The day is still not over yet. On the return to Harwich, the light cruiser Cleopatra comes upon the German destroy G 194, ramming the enemy amidships and sinking her. Worse, she collides with her fellow light cruiser Undaunted, causing heavy damage in the ensuing confusion of rescue and recovery. Weather soon precludes acts of humanity, and so the Harwich Force retires.

Yet the ‘success’ of engaging German naval response at all is seen in Whitehall as a reason to repeat the experiment at Tondern on May 4th with a second seaplane tender carrying four machines, the Engadine, which already took part in the Cuxhaven raid of 1914. A new tactical environment has evolved on the North Sea: shipborne or seaborne aircraft, small boats, and light warships predominate, while torpedoes and mines proliferate. A Short Type 184 already became the first aircraft to sink a ship with a torpedo in the Mediterranean. A tactically similar environment has evolved in the Adriatic Sea, and both developments were paralleled in Japan’s siege of the German colony at Tsingtao.

Meanwhile, the apocalyptic clash of steel titans that was supposed to settle the issue in a single battle has yet to unfold.

Loyal Laforey Class

The HMS Loyal, a Laforey class destroyer like the ones sailing in the Harwich Force today

In large part, today’s failure — and its bumbling attrition — are a communications problem. Aircraft are still fragile constructions, and while they have been fitted with wireless sets, range and power and bandwidth remain key issues between air and surface as well as between ships. Radio is difficult to encrypt and impossible to hide, making it a useful tool for enemy intelligence exploitation. Wireless sets are simply not strong enough yet; a plane from the Engadine will spot the High Seas Fleet on its way to Jutland at the end of May, but her mother ship is unable to get a message through.

Never giving up on its Zeppelin hunt, the RNAS will continue to develop fighting floatplanes — and keep attacking Tondern — until the end of the war.

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A Sopwith Baby floatplane. Note the wooden water ramp