Royal Naval Air Service

Royal Naval Air Service

The Royal Naval Air Service or RNAS was the air arm of the Royal Navy until near the end of the First World War, when it merged with the British Army's Royal Flying Corps to form a new service (the first of its kind in the world), the Royal Air Force.


When the RFC was founded on April 13, 1912, it was intended to encompass all military flying. The Navy, however, was not pleased at all forms of naval aviation being moved to an Army corps, and soon formed its own, unauthorised,Fact|date=December 2007 flying branch with a training centre at Eastchurch. Command of this group was given over to Murray Sueter, who had been working on airship development for the navy. [Murray Sueter Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry] At the time, the Admiralty, known as the "Senior Service", had enough political clout to ensure that this act went completely unchallenged. The Royal Naval Air Service was officially recognised on July 1, 1914 by First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. The new service was completely separate from the RFC except for the Central Flying School, which was still used, and became in effect a rival air force.

By the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the RNAS had more aircraft under its control than the RFC.Fact|date=December 2007 The Navy maintained twelve airship stations around the coast of Britain from Longside, Aberdeenshire in the northeast to Anglesey in the west. In addition to seaplanes, carrier borne aircraft, and other aircraft with a legitimate "naval" application the RNAS also maintained several crack fighter squadrons on the Western Front, as well as allocating scarce resources to an independent strategic bombing force at a time when such operations were highly speculative. Inter-service rivalry even affected aircraft procurement. Urgently required Sopwith 1½ Strutter two-seaters had to be transferred from the planned RNAS strategic bombing force (for which the type was in any case quite unsuitable)Fact|date=December 2007 to RFC squadrons on the Western Front because the Navy had "cornered" Sopwith production. In fact this situation continued - although most of Sopwith's products were not specifically naval aircraft. Thus RNAS fighter squadrons obtained Sopwith Pup fighters months before the RFC - and then replaced these first with Sopwith Triplanes and then Camels while the hard-pressed RFC squadrons soldiered on with their obsolescent Pups. An account of this scandalous situation is to be found in the book "No Parachute" by Arthur Gould Lee.

On April 1, 1918 the RNAS was merged with the RFC to form the RAF.At the time of the merger, the Navy's air service had 67,000 officers and men, 2,949 aircraft, 103 airships and 126 coastal stations.

The RNAS squadrons were absorbed into the new structure, individual squadrons receiving new squadron numbers by effectively adding 200 to the number so No. 1 Squadron RNAS (a famous fighter squadron) became No. 201 Squadron RAF.

The Royal Navy regained its own air service in 1937, when the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Air Force (covering carrier borne aircraft, but not the seaplanes and maritime reconnaissance aircraft of Coastal Command) was returned to Admiralty control and renamed the Naval Air Branch. In 1952, the service returned to its pre-1937 name of the Fleet Air Arm.

Roles and missions

The main "naval" roles of the RNAS (ignoring for the minute the service's direct "competition" with the RFC) were fleet reconnaissance, patrolling coasts for enemy ships and submarines, and attacking enemy coastal territory. The RNAS systematically searched convert|4000|sqmi|km2 of the Channel and the North Sea for U-boats. In 1917 alone, they sighted 175 U-boats and attacked 107. Because of the technology of the time the attacks were not very successful in terms of submarines sunk, but the sightings greatly assisted the Navy's surface fleets in combatting the enemy submarines.

It was the RNAS which provided much of the mobile cover using armoured cars, during the withdrawal from Antwerp to the Yser, in 1914. Later in the war, squadrons of the RNAS were sent to France to directly support the RFC. The RNAS was also at one stage entrusted with the air defence of London. This led to its raids on airship stations in Germany, in places as far from the sea as the manufacturing site at Friedrichshafen.

Before techniques were developed for taking off and landing on ships, the RNAS had to use seaplanes in order to operate at sea. Beginning with experiments on the old cruiser HMS "Hermes", special seaplane tenders were developed to support these aircraft. It was from these ships that a raid on Zeppelin bases at Cuxhaven and Wilhelmshaven was launched on Christmas Day of 1914. This was the first attack by ship-borne aircraft. A chain of coastal air stations was also constructed. This followed with the Tondern Raid, again against Zeppelins, which was the first instance of carrier launched aircraft.

Notable personnel

* Henry Allingham - Mechanic - oldest European man, oldest living British WWI veteran at age 112 and last surviving member of the RNAS
* Richard Bell-Davies - 3 Squadron - awarded the Victoria Cross
* Henry John Lawrence Botterell - Naval 8 - longest surviving WWI fighter pilot (he died January 3, 2003 at age 106)
* Raymond Collishaw - Naval 10 - top RNAS ace, with 60 victories
* Christopher Draper - 3 Wing 6 Naval, Naval 8 - "The Mad Major"
* Bert Hinkler - Australian aviation pioneer
* Robert Leckie - Canadian pilot who became an Air Marshal in the Royal Canadian Air Force
* Robert Little - Australia's top scoring ace of WWI, with 47 victories
* Oliver Locker-Lampson - Tory MP
* Anthony Jacques Mantle - awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for services over Turkey
* Ivor Novello - British entertainer
* Ivan Stedeford - industrialist
* Reginald Alexander John Warneford - awarded the Victoria Cross
* Josiah Wedgwood - awarded the D.S.O., commanded the machine guns on the SS River Clyde
* James White - Naval 8 - ace

RNAS Armoured Car Section

In addition to interservice rivalry in the air the RNAS engaged in interservice rivalry on land, possessing for a time the UK's only mechanised land forces in the form of the RNAS Armoured Car Section made up of squadrons of Rolls-Royce Armoured Cars. Originally intended to provide line of communications security and to pick up aircrew who had been forced to land in hostile territory, the armoured car squadrons were soon used to great effect forming part of Naval mechanised raiding columns against the Germans. As trench warfare developed, the armoured cars could no longer operate on the Western Front and were redeployed to other theatres including the Middle East.

However RNAS experience of the Western Front would not be lost, No. 20 Squadron RNAS being formed to further develop armoured vehicles for land battle, these personnel later becoming the nucleus of the team working under the Landships Committee that developed the first tanks. [cite book
last =Gudgin
first =Peter
authorlink =
coauthors =
title =Armoured Firepower
publisher =Sutton Publishing
date =1997
location =
pages =260
url =
doi =
id =
isbn =0-7509-1387-8


* RAF Detling
* Hendon Aerodrome


* Bristol TB.8
* Curtiss H-16

ee also

* List of aircraft of the Royal Naval Air Service
* Fleet Air Arm


succession box
before=Naval Wing, Royal Flying Corps
title=Royal Naval Air Service
after=amalgamated into Royal Air Force

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