Early Days 1917-1920

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Naval Seaplane Training School at Lee on Solent, c1918

The Early years and the First World War

Naval aviation began at Lee-on-the-Solent during the First World War when the Admiralty needed to establish a series of air stations around the south and east coasts to supplement the coastguard system and to alert our shore defences against sea and air invasion. The HM Naval Seaplane Training School was opened on the present site on 30 July 1917 under the control of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). It was built as an extension to the seaplane training station at nearby Calshot, at which officers and ratings could be trained to fly the Bristol Bailey seaplane, Short 225 (184), Short 150, S.B.A., observer kite balloons and airships.

In the early part of the 20th century the British Royal Navy used balloons and airships for reconnaissance. After the failure of the Royal Navy's airship Mayfly in 1911, the naval minister, Winston Churchill, began arguing for the development of military aircraft. In 1912 the government formed the Royal Flying Corps, and the Royal Navy also began to build a chain of coastal air stations. In January 1914 the government established the RNAS. Within a few months the RNAS had 217 pilots and 95 aircraft (55 of them seaplanes). By the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the RNAS had more aircraft under its control than the Royal Flying Corps. The main role of the RNAS was fleet reconnaissance, patrolling coasts for enemy ships and submarines, attacking enemy coastal territory and defending Britain from enemy air-raids.

Officer in wartime RNAS uniform

The establishment at Lee on Solent initially had just two officers and thirty men, and 30 acres of land which was requisitioned along with a number of old Victorian houses.  Until the first major slipway was built, the aircraft were transported from temporary hangars by trolley to a crane at the top of the cliff, then lowered by crane onto a trolley which ran on rails into the sea. The seaplane base became permanent in November 1917 and hangars, workshops, accommodation and a new double slipway were constructed. Wartime naval aircraft of the carriers at the time included Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter, Sopwith Pup, Sopwith 2F.1 Ships Camel, and later Sopwith Cuckoo and Parnell Panther.

Further aeronautical schools were established in 1917, when the production programme aimed at 106 Service Squadrons with another 97 in Reserve, and new Cadet Wings founded in various training centres. One of these, the Special Flying School at Gosport, is especially worthy of mention. This was under the command of Major R.R. Smith-Barry, who is credited with the changing of the whole character of aerial fighting.

Short 225 (Short 184) as used in the early days at Lee on Solent

Major Robert Smith-Barry founded the nearby School of Special Flying (1 Reserve Squadron) at Fort Grange at Gosport, just along the coast from Lee-on-Solent. The daring and eccentric Major Smith-Barry, had been CO of No 60 squadron on the Western Front, and commanded such renown aces as Lieutenant Ball. He started his School in August 1917 with the object of training flying instructors, and chose the 100 hp. Avro 504J as the best available type for the purpose, a specialized training aircraft with dual controls, good handling characteristics, adequate power, and in-flight communication between instructor and student by means of an acoustic system of soft rubber tubing--the so-called Gosport tube.

At the RFC School of Special Flying,  Major Robert Smith-Barry introduced a curriculum based on a balanced combination of academic classroom training and dual flight instruction. Philosophically, Smith-Barry's system was based not on avoiding potentially dangerous manoeuvres (as had been the case up till then) but on exposing the student to them in a controlled manner so that he could learn to recover from them, thereby gaining confidence and skill. For the first time, military pilots flew into action as masters of their airplanes. The Gosport system of training was eventually adopted at training schools throughout the world and of course being so close by Lee on Solent was quick to follow this system which remained the dominant method of civil and military flight instruction into the jet age.

At Lee-on-Solent, Smith-Barry's system of training was adopted as at all other training squadrons, with the result that pilots were turned out efficiently trained in an incredibly short time. But the exigencies of war made it necessary to push pupils through in the minimum time, and consequently without much more than a few hours dual instruction time. Some of the brighter pupils flew solo after as little as 40 minutes dual. Three to four hours dual was common. Pupils in 1917, after going "solo", were then given "secondary dual", and taught aerobatics…loops, spins, rolls, etc.

While the aviation establishment at Lee-on-Solent was being developed as a permanent station and the slipway constructed, the administration changed, and the RNAS Seaplane training base was transferred to the fledgling Royal Air Force (RAF) on 5 April 1918, when the Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Flying Corps merged as the RAF. By this time, the RNAS had 67,000 officers and men, 2,949 aircraft, 103 airships and 126 coastal stations. With the handover to the RAF, the Lee-on-Solent Naval Seaplane Training School became No. 209 Training Station of the RAF.

RNAS officers being introduced to the King

At this time Lee-on-Solent started to take on students from around the world and influence aviation in those countries. The beginnings of the military aviation in parts of the British Empire and even as far as Brazil owe their origins to the instructors at Lee-on-Solent. The First World War decorated Canadian Captain James Maitland, a former architect in Montreal sailed for England on the Philadelphia in December 1915, and was stationed at Calshot from 18 September 1916, being detached to Lee-on-Solent from about 18 September 1918 onwards. He was award the Air Force Cross - awarded as per London Gazette dated 1 January 1919.

First World War hangers by the Daedalus seaplane slipway onto the Solent

Brazilian officers from the Army and Navy were sent to Britain, in January 1918, to receive flying training from the Royal Naval Air Service - RNAS (the former Royal Navy air corps). Those officers were trained in the naval air stations of Eastbourne, Lee-on-Solent and Calshot; two of them died in accidents. Afterwards, the Brazilian officers flew combat missions, on a flight of the newly-created Royal Air Force, composed by Brazilian, American and British airmen (Events which occurred, affecting the development of the Brazilian military aviation).

Experience in Flying training in WWI around the world
Recollections of RNAS at Lee-on-Solent in 1917 by the 102 year old Philip Bristow in 2001

I can remember in the early years, about 1907 to 8, being interested in news as it came in from other parts of the world and the news that came from the United States that two men called Wright, the Wright brothers, had made an aeroplane which they  had been able to get aloft, get it properly airborne with a small motor driving propellers. This happened in 1903 in Kittyhawk in the United States. 

At the start of the Great War you volunteered for the Navy and you had to go for an interview in London?

That's right yes. Then I became 17 or 17 ½ and my parents were naturally concerned about it. I said I wanted to join the Royal Naval Air Service. So enquiries were made and we found out what it was necessary I had to have. An application form which we sent for - filled it in, then they required further answers as to my education and were there some sponsors who could speak for me independently as to my character and having done all that they eventually said well we want to see you and I think it was in July that I was summoned to go to a selection board at the HQ of the RNAS which at that time was on one the floors of the Hotel Cecil in the Strand, London. 

So when the time came when I was nearly 18 I got my things together. I acquired a uniform, I had a list of what was required, I had to provide all that myself and have that put in my trunk with my other gear and off I went to London and eventually got out to Greenwich where I presented myself on a Sunday afternoon with a number of other rookies like myself arriving to join up. 

Most of the people who came on that week's intake seemed to me to be Canadians. There were roughly I suppose half of us English and half of us Canadian and that was the squad that I joined when I got to the Royal Naval College, Greenwich and the time came to go to learn to fly and the Royal Navy had a number of flying schools in various parts of the country, but they had one in France and I was told to go to Vendome, La Rochelle, France to learn to fly. 

Reporting at Lee on Solent

When I got back to England I reported at Lee on Solent. Here was a seaplane base on the low cliffs above the Solent. They had chosen that place because further away at Calshot was a seaplane base also, a very large one, where they had float planes and flying boats, but this one at Lee on Solent was chosen because it was most suitable for a quick take off and get back onto the beach. The seaplanes were kept on the cliffs and were lowered onto the beach every morning with a crane and brought back at night time. So here were these low cliffs, 20 or 30 feet, not very high, and this gravely beach. The seaplanes and the small flying boats were floated there and were tethered to the beach and had to have a rating to look after each one because of the ebb and flow of the tide, and they had to be kept just grounded, no more. 

So when the time came to fly the engine was started, after the pilot and observer or instructor had got into the aeroplane, and the thing would be pushed out. You did exactly the same thing on the water as you did on land. You went out some distance and looked to see which way the wind was blowing and obviously you took off into the wind. I seem to remember that when I was there we had very good flying conditions. It was late spring I suppose, March or April, the weather was very nice anyway gradually getting warm, and the weather conditions were very good. We had gentle breezes coming from the East so we’d take off in that direction. 

Lee on Solent had a small pier and in my time they even had a concert party performing on the pier for the summer season which was rather a joke in a way but the great thing was if you had to push yourself out from the beach and get out sufficiently for take off, you had to get far enough out to avoid hitting the pier on take off. That I remember very well. 

Short 184 in the Solent

I started off with an instructor with dual controls, the same as on the other aircraft, and when the instructor was satisfied that you, the pupil behind, were sufficiently skilful in controlling the thing you were sent off solo. You had to fly so many  hours, I think it was a Short 150 the smaller one that we learnt on and after that we went on to a bigger one a Short 225. This had a Renault Mercedes engine, a very big engine - 12 cylinders, water cooled with a much bigger propeller, and we had to learn to fly that. Although the controls were similar the feel was different, the aircraft was much bigger and so on, and these sort of things have to be practiced frequently. Taking off and landing, so you can become quite skilful in these different types. 

We also had at Lee on Solent a small flying boat called an SBA. This was a small plywood boat tapering off at the back to a tail where there was a tail plane and a rudder. Of biplane construction. The two occupants of the flying boat sat side by side in the front with the biplane wings behind and the propulsion was by a small rotary engine behind the wings. That is to say it was a pusher and therefore the weight of the engine and the propulsion unit had to do a sort of balancing act.  When you took off you opened the engine up fully and skidded along the top, the surface of the water and then became airborne, just like that, and very pleasant it was indeed because here you are in an open boat with all the world in front of you, you couldn’t see the wings or the engine, they were behind and many a time I can look back to flying over the Solent and the Isle of Wight and those areas, particularly in the early morning, in one of these things and seeing the dawn come and the sun rise and the beautiful view below me, but the thing was to get this thing down on the water. 

Now this is where the trick came in. As you headed for the point you wanted to alight at a certain height and a certain distance away as usual and this time you had to remember you had to come down in a much steeper glide that in the other aircraft. All the other aircraft I had flown had the engine in front so therefore they were nose heavy and would naturally get into a dive. This on the contrary had the weight behind, the engine behind, and furthermore once you lost the power the tendency was for the tail to sink so as soon as you throttled back the engine you had to at the same time push forward the controls and put it into a fairly steep glide heading now for the water and as you approach the water you naturally levelled out and touched down without having to splash in or without having to hit it too hard. Just to glide onto the surface, and having done that you opened up the engine again and taxied back to the beach. 

The rotary engine was a development …..? 

This was a remarkable engine that had been developed. I said earlier on that the whole problem was weight, power to weight ratio. We were using flying seaplanes with large V shaped engines with water jackets, water cooled radiators, all the impedimenta associated with that kind of engine. They gave us very great power but they were very heavy too. So, if greater power could be acquired without all this necessary apparatus so much the better, so the rotary engine was invented. Instead of the engine being fixed and the crank shaft turning the propeller the crank shaft was fixed, the propeller was attached to the rotary engine which was, it had to be on odd numbers of cylinders, 7 or 9. I won't go into details of the intricacies of that, it all had to do with the balance of the engine and the fact that induction and exhaust had to be very carefully controlled. So here we had an air cooled engine with the propeller attached to it and the crank shaft fixed to the aircraft and this is what the rotary engine did. As you opened it up the cylinders whirred round at anything up to 1200 rpm I think, it was very considerable but the swift motion of the cylinders through the air kept it cool. 

Do you remember who made them?

There was one called the Gnome. I don't know who made it, they were made in this country. Another one called a Clerget,  I think that was a French one - that was about 130 hp. I think the Gnome was about 110 hp.

How did the people of Lee on Solent take to being invaded by intrepid Young men in flying machines and boats? 

They took it in their stride. There was a war on. It was a desperate war. We commandeered their lovely houses on the front. I had a lovely room in a beautiful house on the cliff top etc. They took a lot of land inland and it became an airfield and land based affair for the RAF that I believe it is now.

Did you fly operationally from either Calshot or Lee on Solent?

No. Westgate on Sea. That's where I did my operational flying, over the North Sea. Most of my flying was done there. What I'm telling you is only a little bit. I did a great many hours after that in that thing - a Short 184 with a 230lb bomb and about 700 rounds of ammunition and about 80 gallons of petrol, enough to keep you airborne for about 4 - 5 hours. After my tuition at Lee on Solent and finally at Calshot where I was taken up and dropped dummy bombs on targets on Fawley Marshes and where we engaged in aerial combat with another seaplane, firing at each other with camera guns on which was recorded the accuracy of our aim. That only took about a week or two anyway, and after that I was detailed on an operational station, a seaplane station at Westgate on Sea near Margate at the extreme end of Kent. This was the nearest part of our operations to the enemy who were not so very far away across that corner of the North Sea in Belgium.

Extracts from a TV interview: HTV Wales Wings over Wales - WELSH FLYING ACES INTERVIEWED. ‘Wings Over Wales’ is a Raw Charm production for HTV (2001).


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