Royal Naval Air Service

The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was the air force of the British Royal Navy during the First World War and was assembled at the end of the war with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) to today's Royal Air Force (RAF).



Beginning of military aviation in the UK:

In 1908, the British government recognized that the military use of aircraft must be investigated and for what purpose they can be used for the Navy. For this purpose, an Advisory Committee on Aviation and the Air Subcommittee on British Defense were formed by Prime Minister H. H. Asquith. These committees were composed of politicians, army officers and Royal Navy officers.

On July 21, 1908, the committee member Captain Reginald Bacon submitted to the First Seelord Sir John Fisher a report in which the construction of a rigid airship, as the Germans use, should be sought. After some discussion, the proposal was approved on May 7, 1909 and built at the company Vickers the airship Mayfly. However, after the prototype broke on September 24, 1911 in two halves was immediately imposed by the then First Seelord Sir Arthur Wilson imposed a freeze of airships.

In November 1910, the British Royal Aero Club offered the Royal Navy two aircraft to test them. Already since 21 June 1910 stood with Lt. George Cyril Colmore the first trained pilot in the service of the Royal Navy. Furthermore, the Aero Club offered that its trained pilots can take over the training of new pilots and the airfield in Eastchurch on Sheppey Island can be used by the Royal Navy. On December 6, 1910, the proposals were accepted by the British Admiralty, provided that aspiring pilots must be unmarried and pay membership fees to the Royal Aero Club.

In November 1911, the British Ministry of Defense started to form a new subcommittee to investigate the military benefits of aircraft. On February 28, 1912, the committee presented its report recommending the establishment of a flying corps. This should be subordinate to the army and part of the Royal Navy, in addition, a flight school and aircraft production should be established.

The proposal was approved by the Ministry of Defense and on April 13, 1912, King George V signed a decree establishing the Royal Flying Corps. Since the Royal Navy their aircraft and balloons not subject to the army and thus exercise their own command of the air force already in use, the Royal Naval Air Service was retained as part of the Royal Flying Corps, but was initially integrated into this.

In addition to the central school for the training of pilots and officers in Upavon, the Navy retained the airfield in Eastchurch and was authorized to train there and to test prototypes.

Also in April 1912, the first maneuver was performed in which aircraft with the warships of the Royal Navy worked together. 1913 was followed by a seaplane base on the Isle of Grain and an airship base in Kingsnorth, as the construction of airships was approved again. In order to be able to transport and deploy airplanes over the water, the former cruiser HMS Hermes was the first ship to be converted into a seaplane carrier and tested.

On July 1, 1914, the Royal Naval Air Service was spun off from the Royal Flying Corps and was thus only directly subordinated to the Royal Navy.




Structure and Organization:

Unlike the Royal Flying Corps, the Royal Naval Air Service was not centrally organized, which resulted in several wings and squadrons with the same number.

As the naval aviators were not the size of the RFC, no brigades or divisions were introduced, only squadrons and wings were set up and used.

  • Wing 1 = Used on both the British and the French side of the English Channel
  • Wing 2 = Use when landing in the Dardanelles and Gallipoli
  • Wing 3 = Operation at the landing in the Dardanelles and Gallipoli, was dissolved after the retreat and added to Wing 2. Reorganized in 1916 for strategic bombardments, disbanded in 1917
  • Wing 4 = Mostly fighters, deployment on the Western Front
  • Wing 5 = Mostly bombers, deployment on the Western Front
  • Wing 6 = Patroling the Adriatic

Individual squadrons on the Western Front were given the numbers 1 to 17. Squadrons that were used in the eastern Mediterranean in use against the Ottoman Empire were given the letters A to G and Z.




Ranks of the Royal Naval Air Service:

Both pilots and observers retained the same rank in the RNAS as in the Royal Navy.

These were only extended to insignia. Above the rank, an eagle for pilot or a winged letter "O" was worn for observers.

  • Wing Captain
    Rank in the Royal Navy: Captain
  • Wing Commander / Wing Observer
    Rank in the Royal Navy: Commander
  • Squadron Commander / Squadron Observer
    Rank in the Royal Navy: Lieutenant-Commander
  • Squadron Commander / Squadron Observer
    Up to eight years of service
    Rank in the Royal Navy: Lieutenant
  • Flight Commander / Flight Observer
    Rank in the Royal Navy: Lieutenant
  • Flight Lieutenant / Observer Lieutenant
    Rank in the Royal Navy: Lieutenant
  • Flight Sub-lieutenant / Observer Sub-lieutenant
    Rank in the Royal Navy: Sub-lieutenant
  • Chief Petty Officer Mechanic, 1st Grade
  • Chief Petty Officer Mechanic, 2nd Grade
  • Chief Petty Officer Mechanic, 3rd Grade
  • Petty Officer Mechanic
  • Leading Mechanic
  • Air Mechanic, 1st Class
  • Air Mechanic, 1st Class (acting)
  • Air Mechanic, 2nd Class



The rank of Royal Naval Air Service Wing Commander




Marine Airfields:

Like the Royal Flying Corps, the Royal Naval Air Service maintained some bases for naval aviation:

Great Britain:
  • Aldeburgh, Suffolk
  • Arbroath, Angus
  • Atwick, Yorkshire
  • Bacton, Norfolk
  • Calshot, Hampshire
  • Chingford, Essex
  • Covehithe, Suffolk
  • Cranwell, Lincolnshire
  • Detling, Kent
  • Dover (Guston Road), Kent
  • Eastbourne (St Anthony's Hill), East Sussex
  • Eastchurch, Kent
  • East Fortune, East Lothian
  • Fairlop, Essex
  • Felixstowe (Landguard Common), Suffolk
  • Felixstowe Dock, Suffolk
  • Fishguard, Pembrokeshire
  • Goldhanger, Essex
  • Gosport, Hampshire
  • Hendon Aerodrome, Middlesex
  • Lee-On-Solent, Hampshire
  • Loch Doon, Ayrshire
  • Longside
  • Scapa Flow
  • Turnhouse
  • Yarmouth
  • Dunkirk
  • Saint-Pol-sur-Mer
  • Walmer
  • La Bellevue
  • Vendome
Eastern Mediterranean:
  • Imbros
  • Mudros
  • Stravos
  • Thasos
  • Durban
  • Otranto
  • Malta
  • Mombassa





The main task of the airplanes and airships of RNAS was fleet reconnaissance and coastal patrols. Since the technical possibilities before and during the First World War in the area of ​​the Enlightenment had not progressed so far, the commander in chief depended on air reconnaissance to know where the enemy stood.

This task counted in the countryside as well as on the sea.

In the course of the war, RNAS aircraft monitored some 10,000 square kilometers of the North Sea and the English Channel. In addition, with the first use of submarines began the fight from the air by airplanes. Alone in 1917, 175 submarines were sighted and 107 of them were attacked by planes. Although the success of an attack was rather modest, the reports helped the Royal Navy warships to find submarines and fight them themselves.

Since there was no suitable technology for take off and landing on ships before the First World War, the British naval aircraft began with seaplanes. These were lowered by cranes and had to be brought back to the ship. Only at the beginning of the war were catapults mounted on ships or landing platforms mounted.

List of existing and used seaplane and aircraft carrier ships:

  • HMS Hermes
    A light cruiser converted into a seaplane carrier. Sunk on October 31, 1914 by the German submarine U-27
  • HMS Empress, HMS Engadin, HMS Riviera, HMS Vindex and HMS Manxman
    Rebuilt channel ferries. The first three ships, each with three seaplanes, made the first naval attack on Cuxhaven on December 25, 1914. HMS Vindex had a launch pad and was the first ship to launch a wheeled aircraft
  • HMS Ben-my-Chre
    A fast ferry of the Isle of Man, which was converted into a seaplane carrier and served in the Battle of Gallipoli. Ben-My-Chree delivered the plane that made the first successful torpedo attack on ships. A short seaplane carried a 14-inch torpedo between the rafts, which was dropped from a height of 15 feet and hit and sank a Turkish ship. Ben-my-Chre was sunk in 1917 by the Turkish artillery
  • HMS Ark Royal
    Used in Gallipoli and still served after the First World War. It was renamed in 1934 Pegasus to make the name for the new modern aircraft carrier Ark Royal
  • HMS Campania
    Former Cunard liner. Sank on November 5, 1918 in the Firth of Forth after a collision with HMS Royal Oak
  • HMS Manica
    Rebuilt steamer equipped with the Navy's first kite balloon observation platform
  • HMS Nairana
    Converted passenger ship with a launch pad
  • HMS Furious
    Converted battlecruiser, with an 18-inch cannon aft and a flying deck forward. It was rebuilt after 1918 with a continuous flight deck and served during the Second World War
  • HMS Argus
    Starting in 1914 as Italian steamer Conte Rosso, was completed in September 1918 as a carrier with a full flight deck






The RNAS armored vehicle department:

The RNAS was not only equipped with airships and airplanes, at times it had the only British mechanized unit.

At the beginning of the war, the squadrons were equipped with unarmoured touring cars, which were used for communication and to bring down shot-down pilots in the enemy's field. On September 4, 1914 Commander Charles Samson just performed one of these missions, where he had equipped his vehicle with a Maxim machine gun. When he was able to destroy a German military vehicle in the vicinity of Cassel, he began to consider the construction of armored vehicles. For this purpose, the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost vehicles used armor plates for protection and also mounted a 7.62 mm Maxim machine gun. After a few successful missions, the British High Command decided to use all of Britain's Rolls Royce Silver Ghost chassis for the British Army and to build these armored vehicles. In November 1914, the Royal Naval Armored Car Division (RNACD) was founded with these vehicles.

Until August 1915, the Rolls-Royce were in use in all six units of the RNAS until production had to be discontinued because the Rolls-Royce company no longer had to produce vehicles but instead produce aircraft engines. Also the units of the RNAS in Dunkirk were dissolved and distributed to other theaters of war.



Rolls-Royce armored car


Armored Cars of the RNAS during the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915




The Royal Naval Air Service in World War I:

When the First World War broke out, the RNAS was under 93 aircraft, six airships, two balloons, and 727 soldiers.

The Royal Navy maintained 12 airship stations around the British coast from Longside, Aberdeenshire in the northeast to Anglesey in the west.

On August 1, 1915, the RNAS was officially released from the Royal Flying Corps and placed directly under the Royal Navy.

On December 25, 1914, the Royal Navy succeeded with the attack on Cuxhaven to carry out the first use of aircraft launched by ships. The target was the Zeppelin Hangars and the Zeppelins, which should be destroyed if possible. But fog and strong German air defense prevented the attack.

During the war, however, the competition between the RNAS and the RFC was noticeable. Thus, the existing resources were badly divided, the Navy maintained a squadron for strategic bombing at a time when they could not be properly used and partly the Navy received the latest fighter pilots, although they were much more urgently needed by the RFC on the Western Front. This competition ended only at the end of the war with the merger of the two units.



Officers of the Royal Navy Air Service at the end of 1914


A shorts S.38 seaplane takes off from HMS Hibernia under the supervision of Commander C. Samson


Squadron leader E. H. Dunning tried to land his Sopwith Pup on the deck of the HMS Furious. He was killed when his plane drifted off the flight deck into the sea




Foundation of the Royal Air Force:

Already on 17 August 1917, General Jan Smuts submitted a report to the British Ministry of Defense, in which he presented possibilities for the future direction of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy Air Service.

Crucial to this report were the ideas of Smut, who saw in planes the potential of devastation of hostile countries and the destruction of industrial and populous centers on a large scale. For this purpose, a force should be created, which was equal in strength to that of the army and the Royal Navy.

In addition, competition between the RFC and the RNAS would negatively impact the pooling of resources. These two forces should be joined together, but they can operate independently like the army and the navy.

The Department of Defense approved most of the points in the proposal, and on April 1, 1918, the RFC and RNAS were merged into the newly-formed Air Ministry, and the Royal Air Force emerged as an independent force.






You can find the right literature here:


Royal Naval Air Service Pilot 1914–18 (Warrior)

Royal Naval Air Service Pilot 1914–18 (Warrior) Paperback – November 23, 2010

Osprey's survey of the Royal Naval Air Service pilot during World War I (1914-1918). In 1914 the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps was subsumed into the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). With the bulk of the Royal Flying Corps engaged in France, the aircraft and seaplane pilots of the RNAS protected Britain from the deadly and terrifying Zeppelin menace. In 1915 the RNAS sent aircraft to support the operations in the Dardanelles, and also gave increasing support to the Royal Flying Corps units engaged on the Western Front, conducting reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and artillery spotting, bombing raids, and aerial combat with German pilots. This book explores all of these fascinating areas, and charts the pioneering role of the RNAS in military aviation.

Click here!



The Royal Naval Air Services during WWI (Voices in Flight)

The Royal Naval Air Services during WWI (Voices in Flight) Hardcover – November 2, 2014

Following in the same style as his previous book of Fleet Air Arm recollections, Malcolm Smith has collected a compendium of reminiscences from pilots who flew for the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines during the First World War. He includes firsthand testimonies from pilots manning early seaplane stations, an enthralling account from F.J. Rutland (the 'Rutland of Jutland'), who became the first pilot to take off in a Sopwith Pup from a platform on the roof of one of HMS Yarmouth's gun turrets, the true tale behind Rudyard Kipling's short story 'A Flight of Fact' (concerning Guy Duncan-Smith's experience of becoming marooned in the Maldives following a dramatic shoot-down), amongst many other personalized and illuminating stories.

All these anecdotes are drawn from the extensive archive maintained by the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton, Somerset. The archive contains an enormous quantity of material, in the form of handwritten diaries, transcripts, log books and documentation of many kinds. Alongside the written material, the Museum maintains an unrivaled photographic archive and a representative sample of these images is included in the book.

Excerpts from diaries, transcripts of spoken firsthand accounts and other recorded narratives make up the bulk of the book, with whole chapters dedicated to some of the most vocal members to see service during the course of the RNAS's Great War history. Guy Leather, a pilot destined to track an impressive trajectory with the RNAS features in one such chapter; his day to day accounts relay the full gamut of pilot experience at this time.

This humane and thoughtful consolidation of pilot reflections is sure to appeal broadly, particularly as we approach the one hundredth year anniversary of the First World War.

Click here!



The Royal Naval Air Service in the First World War: Aircraft and Events as Recorded in Official Documents

The Royal Naval Air Service in the First World War: Aircraft and Events as Recorded in Official Documents Hardcover – March 5, 2016

This book makes five original documents relating to the work of Britain’s Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) during the First World War readily available to students and historians. To enhance visual interest a large collection of photographs, many hitherto unpublished, has been added. Some of these relate directly to the aircraft and events mentioned in the documents, but others show developments before and after the periods covered. The five documents concerned are the Diary of Important Operations, Flanders, 1916; Disposition of Aircraft, 24 February, 1917; Royal Naval Air Service Communiques Nos 1 to 14; Truing-up of airplanes: Issued by the Air Department on 1 September 1916; and The Grain drawings, a unique set of sketches and drawings made by a draftsman at the RNAS seaplane repair station at Port Victoria, Isle of Grain, in Kent during the Great War.

All of these documents offer an array of fascinating insight into Royal Naval Air Service practices during the Great War. Much of the content on display has never been printed before. This unique treasure trove of visual reference is sure to appeal to all serious First World War historians, students and enthusiasts.

Click here!



The Royal Naval Air Service (Images of Aviation)

The Royal Naval Air Service (Images of Aviation) Paperback – June 1, 1999

This book is part of the Images of Aviation series, which uses old photographs and archived images to show the history of various aviation companies and groups in Great Britain.

Click here!






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