The Seaplane Station
Newhaven Seaplane Station
During the First World War, Newhaven was a major supply port for the Western Front. Government Transports (the ships that transported these supplies) carried munitions and stores to France.
In January 1917, the Germans declared unrestricted submarine warfare, effective from 1st February. It was important that the Transports were protected from submarine attack, so for two years from May 1917, a Seaplane Station operated from Newhaven.
The Station, initially under the control of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), was situated half a mile along the beach, east of the town. A double-fronted wooden Seaplane Shed (120ft x 50ft – approx. 36.6m x 15.25m) was built on the beach some 15ft (approx. 4.6m) above normal high tide. It stood on a concrete hard-standing with a wooden slipway leading down to the sea. You can still see the concrete hard-standing, and the runners for the shed doors, on the beach today. Three old railway carriages were used as offices and a crew room. Additional buildings included a pigeon loft. Wing Commander E. M. Ackery, a Lieutenant at the time, was based at Newhaven in 1918. He recalled that during flights, in addition to a radio, they also carried two pigeons in a box for sending messages back to the Station “in the hope that, if they were not shot down for a free meal, they would get through”.
The Station opened in May 1917, and in 1918 was extended, with the addition of another larger Seaplane Shed (180ft x 60ft – approx. 55m x 18m) designed for repairing damaged aircraft. The Station was initially home to four Short 184 floatplanes, later supplemented by a few Fairey Campania and three Fairey IIIB seaplanes. With the creation of the RAF, on 1st April 1918, these aircraft formed 408 and 409 Flights, which were incorporated into 242 Squadron in July 1918.
When fully operational, the Station consisted of 194 staff, including 17 women in uniform and 17 female household staff. The men lived behind the Seaplane Sheds in wooden huts, which were built on piles to avoid flooding. The officers were accommodated at Tide Mills or billeted at Bishopstone.
The Officers’ Mess was located at Tide Mills, where the food was particularly good as they drew rations from the Canadian supply base at Seaford. Those pilots and observers who were 18 or under received extra rations, because they were still classed as children.
When the Station was being run by the Royal Naval Air Service, the women working there would have been Wrens. The Women’s Royal Air Force was founded on 1st April 1918 (the same day as the RAF) and the women became WRAFs.
Most WRAFs were clerical workers. Short-hand typists earned the most, whilst the household staff earned the least, although they had the longest hours. At Newhaven, they could have also worked as Pigeon Keepers or as Seamstresses, repairing the canvass wings of the seaplanes.
Launching and landing could be dangerous, and in seaplanes loaded with bombs, accidents could prove fatal. Lt. Ackery had a lucky escape when he flipped his plane head over heels, or ‘Ack over Tock’, and deposited his observer, Martin Press, into the sea. Ackery himself was trapped in the cockpit, but managed to escape. The next day, on 21st June 1918, Lt. J. F. R. Kitchin and 2nd Lt. G. Cole were not so lucky when their seaplane crashed into the Breakwater. Both men were killed and are buried next to each other in Newhaven Cemetery. On 16th July 1918, another pilot, Lt. Greenwell, was killed when he crashed into the sluices at Tide Mills.
Flying a Seaplane
A seaplane’s full load consisted of one 112lb and two 50lb bombs. There was a Lewis machine gun mounted on the observer’s cockpit, in case of attack by enemy aircraft. The observer also carried a loaded revolver and a Very light pistol. The pistol, invented by American Naval Officer Edward W. Very, fired coloured flares (Very lights), which could be used for signalling.
If the seaplanes came across a submerged submarine, which wasn’t in a Prohibited Area (an area already protected with sunken mines), their orders were to bomb on sight. If the submarine was on the surface, a signal was sent using the Very light pistol. The airmen would then wait for the correct reply signal, indicating the submarine was friendly. Both signals were changed regularly.
The seaplanes from Newhaven would patrol the sea between Dungeness and the Isle of Wight. They avoided Portsmouth where, it was rumoured, overzealous anti-aircraft gunners liked to get in a bit of extra practice!
There were no night flights, but the Station aimed to keep at least one seaplane on patrol during the day. This meant early starts in the summer. A successful take-off depended a lot on the weather. The seaplanes couldn’t take off if the sea was too rough, or too calm. A calm, flat sea meant that the seaplanes couldn’t ride up onto the heels of their floats to take off. Sometimes, if it was rough, the planes could surf along the crest of a wave, although this was tricky and a wing could be damaged if the plane slipped off. Lt. Ackery described how “there was something tremendously exciting about scudding along the crest of a five or six-foot high wave”.
The Station Closes
Newhaven Seaplane Station was officially closed in May 1919 and the buildings were auctioned off in the 1920s. One of the wooden sheds was relocated to the East Quay, where it was used as a bonded wine warehouse. It was completely destroyed by fire in the 1960s. The larger shed was used to manufacture the 50ft (15.2m) concrete piles, which replaced the rotting ones at the East Pier. You can still see one on the beach. The shed was finally relocated to Wimbledon, where it was used to store railway equipment for the electrification of the line. It is currently let out as a storage unit for a film production company. It was granted Grade II Listing on 23rd July 2012.
By Jenny Flood.
Photographs by kind permission of Peter Bailey and Newhaven Museum.
Unless otherwise stated, quotes are taken from Wing Commander Ackery’s article in the ‘Aeroplane Monthly’ a copy of which is held at Newhaven Museum folder 33.1.1.
Tales of an Indifferent Naval Pilot by Wing Commander Ackery in ‘Aeroplane Monthly’ November 1981- February 1982
A Short History of a Local Seaplane Station by Peter Fellows
Copies of both of these can be found in Newhaven Museum folder 33.1.1.