The First Known Flight in Malta

At 1:00 pm on Friday, February 12, 1915, three seaplanes were hoisted onto the flying deck of the HMS Ark Royal, the first seaplane carrier to visit Malta. Few hours later, one of these seaplanes, a Short Folder Type 135, marked a historic moment in the island’s aviation history.

by Carmel Attard

The story began on January 13, 1915, when the British Cabinet of Ministers decided to order an attack on the Dardanelles in Turkey. The European continent was then at war which was triggered off by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand who was the heir to the Hapsburgs who were rulers of the then Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Archduke was killed with his wife while on a visit to Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Serb nationalists in Bosnia were against the Austro-Hungarian Empire which ruled over Bosnia. Serbs wanted Bosnia annexed to Serbia. The assassination took place on the anniversary of the defeat of the Serbs by the Turks at the battle of Kosovo in 1349. Austria blamed Serbia for the assassination and on July 23 1914, the Serbs were issued with an ultimatum of five days to honour 15 demands made by the Austrians. Conditions included an undertaking to find the assassin and to punish anyone circulating anti-Austrian propaganda in Serbia. On July 25, Serbia replied that it would adhere to the demands, except that the demand for Austria’s participation in the judicial process inside Serbia nd submitted to the International Tribunal at the Hauge. Austria wanted more.

Under pressure from Germany to take military action against Serbia, Austria declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914 exactly one month after the assassination of the Archduke. This declaration led to the First World War because from a conflict between Austria and Serbia it evolved into a full scale war involving Germany and Turkey at different stages on the side of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Britain, France and Russia on the other. Germany envied the British and the French empires and, having built up a formidable army and navy, the Germans wanted to be leaders in Europe. When in 1912 the Serbs won territory from Turkey the Germans considered the Turkish defeat as a setback for their plans to be also a dominant power in Turkey. Having a common enemy, Turkey got also entangled in the ensuing Austrian-Serbian conflict while Russia got involved because it championed the Slavs cause in Serbia. Besides, British agreements with Russia over territories in Persia and Afghanistan, made the Germans feel they were being encircled. Germany and Austria ended up helping the Bolsheviks to weaken the Tsarist warmongers of Russia.

The battles that ensued in the early months of the First World War were fierce, continuous and thousands of soldiers died. By the end of 1914 there seemed to be a stalemate in the battlefields of the European continent. On January 5, 1915 Lord Kitchener suggested to the British War Council that the Dardanelles in Turkey would be a suitable objective to attack. He argued that an attack on the Dardanelles would re-establish communication with Russia and would draw Greece and perhaps Romania into the conflict. The Council’s secretary, Colonel Hankey added that success in the Dardanelles would give the British and their allies access to the Danube river in order to penetrate into the heart of Austria.

It was with this background that on January 13, 1915, the British War Council decided on a Dardanelles offensive. The Council wanted to use every means at its disposal in order to secure the victory. The Royal Navy had just received one of its newest warships, a vessel specifically designed and built as a seaplane carrier, HMS Ark Royal. It had been Captain (later Admiral) Murray Seuter’s idea that the Royal Navy should have what he described as a “combined destroyer/submarine/aircraft depot ship with a flush deck running down her centreline.” Seuter agreed with the Admiralty’s Chief of Staff, Admiral ECT Troubridge, that the Royal Navy should have an Air Department, Captain Seuter argued that naval aircraft would be useful for reconnaissance, anti-submarine attacks as well as supporting and protecting submarines and surface vessels. Admiral Troubridge suggested four trial ships with seaplanes on board.

The new seaplane carrier was 7,450 tons and a speed which did not exceed 10.6 knots during trials. Having decided on January 13, 1915 to attack the Dardanelles for reasons mentioned earlier, the British Admiralty oredere HMS Ark Royal (pennant number I35) on January 16 to deploy to the Mediterranean and support Admirarlty’s operations there. Ark Royal left the United Kingdom on February 1, 1915. On board the seaplane carrier had eight to ten aircraft. Her aircraft included a Short Folder Type 135, two Wight pusher floatplanes taking a two-men crew each, three Sopwith Type 807 two-seater floatplanes and two Sopwith Tabloid landplanes. Of these, only the Short Folder Type 135 was really useful because the other aircraft could not take off from Ark Royal’s flight-deck in choppy seas. Besides, non of the eight could fly high enough for effective spotting.

It was this Short Folder Type 135, number 136, that made history in Malta. Having left on February 1, 1915 under the command of the Commander RH Clark Hall RN, Ark Royal arrived in Grand Harbour, Malta, from Gibraltar at 10:35 am of Friday, February 12, 1915. At 11.10 am the carrier “secured to N 12 Buoy Bighi Bay.” Ark Royal was writing a new page in the history of Malta by being the first seaplane carrier to visit the Island. A more historical event was to take place some hours later.

At 1.00pm of Friday, February 12, 1915, three seaplanes were hoisted onto the flying deck and after the ship received 318 tons of oil fuel, the seaplanes were placed back in the hold at 5.00pm. The appearance of three heavier-than-air machines is the first known sight of aircraft in Malta. The three seaplanes were those with serials 808, 126 and 172.

According to the logbook of HMS Ark Royal, at 4.50pm “Captain Kilner RMLI proceeded for flight in seaplane 136.” This first known flight by an aircraft in the Maltese skies lasted 35 minutes. Cpt CF Kilner returned at 5.25pm by landing in Grand Habour and then proceed towards Ark Royal which was berthed at Bighi Bay. Twenty minutes later the seaplane was hoisted back on to the carrier to be placed in hold. However, the Ark Royal logbook says that the aircraft was “lost overboard by accident.” The aircraft was recovered. Short Admiralty 135, serialled 136, was then sent to the Dardanelles to take part in the offensive.

After first known flight in Malta’s Grand Harbour of Short Admiralty 135 (serialled 136) on February 13, 1915, the next day, Sunday, February 14, two seaplanes were again hoisted onto the flying deck at 7.00am. These were 136 and 172. A third seaplane, number 808 was also hoisted on the flying deck at 8.30am This third seaplane made what is so far considered as the second known flight. The aircraft, a Sopwith Amiralty 807 Type Folder Tractor biplane seaplane, was piloted by Lieutenant WHS Garnett and left Ark Royal at 8.45am.

Having left Malta on Sunday, February 14, HMS Ark Royal arrived off the Dardanelles three days later on February 17. 1915 and launched a seaplane to make a reconnaissance of Turkish ground forces. The seaplane involved was again Short Admiralty 135, numbered 136. On arrival at Tenedos, the seaplane made a flight: however, its first reconnaissance flight over the Dardanelles was made two days later on February 19.

With the onset of war, Malta was eventually included in the British Admiralty plans, and later the Royal Air Force, to serve as a base for aircraft. After February 1915 events regarding aviation in Malta took a quick pace and within two years the island was even constructing flying boats at the drydocks while a seaplane base was constructed at Kalafrana. Aviation had started in Malta.

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