Gareloch was WW1 seaplane base

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Wight 840-1-w

HOW, when and why the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment based itself at Helensburgh and Rhu during World War Two is well documented, but the Gareloch was also a seaplane base during World War One.

Retired Merseyside newspaper editor Robin Bird, who has written two books about what was officially named RAF Helensburgh from 1939-45, has uncovered information about a Royal Naval Air Station Helensburgh in the Great War.

The Royal Naval Air Service, formed in July 1914, was the air arm of the Royal Navy, and the Royal Naval Air Station at Isle of Grain in North Kent was testing seaplanes that year.

The outbreak of war put pressure on the Service to develop new bases away from the south coast and to provide flying boat protection around the British coastline, and one of the first new Royal Naval Air Stations to be established was at Helensburgh.

Robin said: “It is likely that the Gareloch was used for testing new seaplanes, much in the same way as RAF Helensburgh, but it could have also been used as a base to patrol the west coast of Scotland for enemy warships and submarines.

“At Rhu there was a slipway. It was a similar situation to when MAEE moved to Helensburgh on the outbreak of World War Two and used facilities at the Blackburn factory at Dumbarton.”

The Isle of Grain seaplane base was used by the Admiralty and Royal Naval Air Service to test and develop new seaplanes for wartime purposes.

Flying boats then were still ‘boats that flew’, and were often constructed by ship and boat builders. Air warfare was still in its infancy, and so was submarine warfare.

Shipbuilders J.Samuel White & Co. Ltd. on the Isle of Wight also built seaplanes, and just before the outbreak of war it received an order from Germany for new flying boats.

However the firm refused to complete the order for what was by then the enemy, but instead supplied the British Government with aircraft.

White produced the all new ‘Wight Seaplane Admiralty 840’ torpedo carrying bi-plane seaplane. It was powered by a single 225 hp Sunbeam engine with two bladed prop, and a crew of two sat up front in an open cockpit.

The 840 was something of a ‘stringbag’, having lots of wing struts to hold the wings together, but it was a new war plane, albeit a development of White’s ‘pusher’ aircraft.

The Admiralty 840 had a top speed of 81 mph. Armament was one 810lb torpedo, or bombs, but there was no provision for a gun.

One of the first 840s went to RNAS Helensburgh for secret trials and development, and the Admiralty ordered a total of 68.

Whites, on a war footing, could not cope with such a large order, so shipbuilders and builders William Beardmore of Dalmuir started producing 840s under license, and built a total of 52.

Initially RNAS seaplanes were used as spotters looking for surfaced U-Boats. In reality pilots did not have the weaponry to launch an attack — they would fly back to base, or alert Royal Navy warships in the area.

As in World War Two the U-Boat threat grew stronger, but British aircraft became better equipped to attack them.

In August 1917, a Wight seaplane became the first ever aircraft to destroy a submarine when Sub Lieutenant Charles Stanley Mossop bombed UB-32 in the English Channel.

He was awarded the Distinguish Service Cross, but was killed in 1918 when his Wight aircraft crashed.

Robin said: “RNAS Helensburgh would have requisitioned buildings or erected huts for its personnel, but not on the same scale as the MAEE.

“The RNAS was disbanded in 1918, and it would have left no trace when it departed the Gareloch. There is no record of aircraft or the number of people at the base, or known photographs.

“Incidentally, Captain Norman Blackburn, the son of George Blackburn, who founded Blackburn Aircraft which had a factory at Dumbarton in World War Two, was an RNAS pilot.”

The Felixstowe flying boat base was put on a care and maintenance basis following the formation of the Royal Air Force on April 1 1918, and Royal Naval Air Stations no longer existed.

Money was allocated for new hangars and slipways, and in 1924 the seaplane base got the new title of Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment.

On the outbreak of World War Two history repeated itself, and Helensburgh, Rhu and the Gareloch became an experimental flying boat base again.

That RNAS Helensburgh had operated successfully may well have been one of the reasons for MAEE moving north from Felixstowe in September 1939, as well as secrecy.

Its top secret role was to test and develop flying boats and seaplanes for anti-submarine duties with RAF Coastal Command, as U-Boats threatened to defeat Britain by sinking its convoys.

The Gareloch proved to be the ideal airstrip for testing Sunderland and Catalina flying boats. The slipway at Rhu accommodated these aircraft where they were serviced, repaired or parked.

MAEE had close links with the Blackburn Aircraft Factory at Dumbarton, where Sunderland flying boats were built.

Were there other reasons why was Helensburgh chosen to be the wartime home of MAEE? Why not Stranraer, for example?

It is said that the commanding officer at Felixstowe, Group Captain E.J.P.Burling, was responsible.

Burling, who was the first commanding officer of MAEE/RAF Helensburgh, was a keen yachtsman as well as an experienced pilot.

He sailed the Gareloch just before the war, and he almost certainly enjoyed the hospitality of the then Royal Northern Yacht Club in its plush headquarters in Ardenvohr, Rhu.

A strong, colourful character, Burling used his influence and local knowledge of the Gareloch to recommend Helensburgh as a seaplane base, even though there were no facilities there at the time.

He earmarked Ardenvohr as his Officers Mess, with the MAEE headquarters next door in Rosslea, and his recommendations were accepted

Robin feels that he has now completed his research into MAEE, and he is hoping to produce a dvd containing all he has found out.

He said: “This seems the best route ahead as I have so much material, but there is still just time for anyone with more information to contact me.”

Robin is also still campaigning for a local MAEE memorial, perhaps overlooking the Gareloch at Kidston Park.