The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was the flying arm of the Royal Navy. Towards the end of World War One, the Royal Naval Air Service was merged with the Royal Flying Corps to form the Royal Air Force.
The first thought given to an aerial service for the Royal Navy occurred in 1908 when the idea was floated to provide the navy with an airship. Sir John Fisher, First Sea Lord, gave the idea his support in 1909. The airship, the ‘Mayfly’, never flew and broke in half in September 1911. If the idea of aerial support for the Navy had its detractors, the experience of the ‘Mayfly’ confirmed what they thought. It was hardly an auspicious start to an idea that eventually culminated in the Royal Naval Air Service.
Some Royal Navy officers were already training to fly aircraft in 1910. However, it was all outside of formal naval training. Four officers were trained at the Royal Aero Club on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent. Club members acted as instructors as opposed to anyone in the Navy. However, it is questionable whether the Admiralty had any faith in the scheme because it was stipulated that the four men who were accepted for training had to be unmarried. Those who trained to fly pre-World War One in any capacity, engaged in a dangerous activity and fatality rates among trainee pilots was high. The four officers concerned also had to pay their own club fees.
However, the idea of aircraft providing the Royal Navy with another layer of protection and offensive capability, did take hold. Seaplanes – lifted into and out of the water from a carrier – gave the Navy a great advantage in the days pre-radar when they could fly ahead of a fleet looking out for enemy ships and submarines.
In 1912, the Air Department at the Admiralty was created commanded by Captain Murray Sueter. Sueter’s brief was simple. He was responsible for “all matters” connected to the Naval Air Service.
A formal Naval Air Service seaplane base was established on the Isle of Grain, Kent, and in 1913, aircraft from the Naval Air Service formally took part in naval manoeuvres for the first time with ships from the Royal Navy. ‘HMS Hermes’ was used as a seaplane carrier.
The Naval Air Service also used airships and these were based at Kingsnorth, Kent, near the seaplane base.
The Naval Air Service became the Royal Naval Air Service on July 1st 1914 and became the naval wing of the Royal Flying Corps. It became independent of the RFC on August 1st, 1915, when the RNAS was put under the sole control of the Royal Navy. . By the time World War One had broken out, the RNAS was equipped with 93 aircraft, six airships and had a staff of 720.
The airships were based around the British coast during the war to give forewarning of any approaching enemy ships and submarines.
The RNAS aircraft also patrolled the UK’s coastline. But attacks on German coastal positions in Belgium were not unknown and it also had two squadrons fighting on the Western Front. The RNAS was also for a short time given the task of defending London from bombers and Zeppelins.
Rivalry with the RFC was intense and it was RFC aces such as Albert Ball and James McCudden who became national heroes rather than RNAS pilots. However, RNAS pilots took part in some daring raids against the Germans. On Christmas Day 1914, the RNAS attacked German Zeppelin bases at Cuxhaven and Wilhelmshaven. During the Gallipoli campaign a RNAS pilot, Flight Commander C Edmonds, attacked a Turkish ship with a torpedo slung underneath his aircraft. The ship was sunk. Edmonds attacked flying just 15 feet above the waves.
The growth of the RNAS during World War One was huge. At the start of the war, the RNAS had a total of 720 personnel attached to it. By the time of its amalgamation with the RFC towards the end of the war, it had a personnel of 55,000. 93 aircraft had grown to just under 3,000 and 6 airships had become 103.