Andrew Choong Han Lin is our Curator of Historic Photographs & Ship Plans. Ahead of his talk for our Maritime Lecture Series, he looks at the development of naval aircraft in the First World War. 

On 23 March 1908 the new Isle of Man packet steamer Ben-My-Chree (meaning Girl of My Heart) was launched from the Vickers shipyard at Barrow-in-Furness. Few of those present could have imagined that within seven years this handsome vessel would be in the service of the Royal Navy, hosting in her role as a seaplane carrier machines at the cutting edge of contemporary technology.

The First World War drove the development of a variety of new weapons systems, one of the most significant being the naval aircraft. The navy had initiated a series of cautious experiments before the war, and in January 1912 HMS Africa became the first warship to successfully launch an aeroplane. Despite these successes it was clear that specialised ships would be far more effective in operating aircraft. Identifying and converting suitable merchant ships was deemed the best way forward and by August 1914 a number of vessels (including Ben-My-Chree) were being converted for this purpose.

A Short 184 torpedo bomber taxiing past HMS Attentive off Dunkirk. A Short 184 torpedo bomber taxiing past HMS Attentive off Dunkirk.

When Ben-My-Chree emerged from her conversion in January 1915 she was the fastest of the seaplane carriers in service, with an impressive ability to maintain 20 knots in most conditions. Her air group comprised four Short 184 seaplane torpedo bombers, the most advanced type then in service with the navy. A more useful ship than some of the earlier conversions, she was attached to the Harwich Force and participated in some abortive raids on the north German coast. In May she was sent to the Mediterranean to support operations in the Dardanelles, and it was here that she and her crew were to achieve some notable successes.

HMS Ben-My-Chree in home waters, April 1915. Note the early camouflage paint scheme and the stowed Short 184s visible through the open hangar doors. HMS Ben-My-Chree in home waters, April 1915. Note the early camouflage paint scheme and the stowed Short 184s visible through the open hangar doors.

In August 1915 seaplanes from the ship carried out three torpedo attacks on Ottoman merchant ships, the second of which represented the first successful aerial torpedo attack in naval history. They also conducted aerial reconnaissance of enemy positions ashore, and  served as artillery spotters for warships on bombardment duty. In September, the British troopship Southland was torpedoed off Lemnos. Ben-My-Chree not only rescued about 300 survivors, but also towed the damaged ship to port.

Ben-My-Chree’s good fortune finally ran out in early 1917. Despatched to Castellorizo to support French operations ashore, the ship unwittingly anchored within range of Ottoman artillery. After about half an hour’s bombardment, it was clear the blazing carrier could not be saved and the crew abandoned ship. Remarkably, there were no fatalities among the crew and even the ship’s pets survived to be retrieved the next day.

The wreck of HMS Ben-My-Chree The wreck of HMS Ben-My-Chree

The wreck remained in shallow water for the rest of the war and was salvaged in 1920. Repairs were considered uneconomical and the remains were sold for scrap. She was the only British seaplane carrier to be lost to enemy action.

Photograph taken aboard the wreck during salvage operations. Photograph taken aboard the wreck during salvage operations.

On 7 May Andrew will be looking at the experiences of the Royal Navy between the summers of 1914 and 1915, and examining how well they had adjusted to this new conflict. For more info see our website here.