US Navy and Marine Corps aviation in World War One

Published: 12 October 2023

By Alan C. Carey
via the Key Aero web site

A Curtiss HS‑1L flying boat is taxiing at NAS Brest on September 30 1918

A Curtiss HS‑1L flying boat is taxiing at NAS Brest on September 30, 1918. Note the sea sled powered by an aircraft engine and the rowboats near the seaplane ramp.

A chapter from Key Publishing’s new book “Contact! Early US Naval and Marine Corps Aviation, 1911-1918” by Alan C Carey

At the outbreak of war, the Army and Navy had little idea of how to prepare for aerial warfare, as evidenced in a cablegram from the Secretary of the Navy to Admiral Sims dated April 20, 1918. Sims pointed out: “Immediate and complete information is desired by the Navy Department regarding the current development of the British of their naval aeronautics. For example, what aircraft style is most used and successful over the water? What is the method of launching at sea when the carrier vessel is underway? For coastal patrol and submarine searching, what aircraft types are used?”

Anti‑submarine warfare primarily focused on the waters off the Irish, English, and French coasts. Yet, German U‑boats began operating off the eastern seaboard of the United States starting in the summer of 1918. Long‑range German U‑boats visited the neutral United States on October 7, 1916, when U‑53 paid a visit to Newport, Rhode Island. The boat’s captain showed Germany’s capability to cross the Atlantic and the boat’s capacity to wage submarine warfare – a reminder for the United States to remain neutral. The arrival of such a vessel gave a clear message that attacks from German submarines off the United States were quite possible.

The Navy Department, on February 1, 1918, appointed a special board to make recommendations as to the methods to be taken to provide for “defense against submarines in home waters.” The Chief of Naval Operations approved the board’s report with specific alterations on March 6, 1918. Admiral Sims initially concluded that Germany would not operate submarines in US waters. However, later dispatches by April convinced him of the danger and gave necessary information regarding future German submarine activities off the United States. Accordingly, the board recommended that shipping adopt the convoy system for all eastbound shipping and that aircraft, submarine chasers, and destroyers escort such shipping as far as possible.

Ensign Theodore Dillon (left) and Ensign Robert Waters flying their Curtiss HS‑1 flying boat over NAS Tréguier in 1918.

On May 1, 1918, intelligence from the British Admiralty reported a U‑boat (U‑151) had left its Belgian base for operations off the American coast. U‑151 was one of five cruiser‑class submarines with a length of 213ft 3in, a breadth of 29ft 2in, a displacement surface of 1,700 tons, submerged 2,100 tons, and a range of 17,000 miles surfaced. Armament consisted of two 5.9lb and two 2.2lb guns, one machine gun, and six torpedo tubes (four bow and two stern). From May 15 to October 29, 1918, U‑boats 117, 140, 151, 155, and 156 operated singularly off the eastern seaboard with impunity.

The submarines caused extensive damage to merchant ships sailing along the eastern seaboard between May and October 1918. Seventy‑nine vessels, including 42 American, were sunk by torpedoes, gunfire, or submarine‑laid mines. American naval air stations on anti‑submarine duty operated the single‑engine N‑9, HS‑1, and HS‑2 flying boats, which could cover approximately 1,500 square miles, while the larger H‑12, H‑16, and F5L flying boats could cover 3,000 square miles. Naval and Coast Guard planes occasionally sighted enemy submarines but conducted unsuccessful attacks primarily due to dud bombs and inadequate techniques to engage such vessels. One example is the unsuccessful attack on U‑156 a few miles from the naval air station at Chatham on July 21, 1918. Ensign Eric Lingard, Naval Aviator No. 540, from Chatham NAS, in an HS‑1L, and Captain Philip Eaton of the Coast Guard, Naval Aviator No. 60/Coast Guard Aviator No. 6, piloting a Curtiss R‑9 attacked the submarine with bombs, which did not explode. Defensive fire from the boat kept the planes high. Eaton reported, “As I bore down upon the submarine, it fired. I zigzagged and dove as it fired again. They were [U‑156’s crew] getting under way and scrambling down the hatch when I flew over them and dropped my bomb. The bomb missed, and finally, the U‑boat submerged and was last observed heading south.”

London’s American Naval Planning Section for operational and tactical planning for the waters surrounding the British Isles and those of France were still in the developmental stages ten months after the US declaration of war. On February 15, 1918, The American Naval Planning Section stated that the US naval air effort was still in its initial stages, and the planning section made numerous objectives and recommendations. Naval air strength during 1917 consisted of small concentrations of men and materials scattered throughout France undergoing training by Allied forces. Yet plans called for a superior network of air units to be established as quickly as possible:

Read the entire article on the Key Aero web site.
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