In order to get much needed supplies safely across the channel, munitions ships from Newhaven would have to be protected. As a result, East Sussex played host to a Seaplane Station to escort these ships from above.
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 between Newhaven and Boulogne.
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.
Newhaven Seaplane Station
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 15 feet (approx. 4.6m) above normal high tide. It stood on a concrete hard-standing, with a wooden slipway leading down to the sea. Three old railway carriages were used as offices and a crew room. Additional buildings included a pigeon loft.
Wing Commander E M Ackery, a Sub Lieutenant at the time, was based at Newhaven in 1918. He remembers that during flights they carried two pigeons in a box for sending messages back to the Station, should their radio fail. There was a knack to releasing the pigeons to prevent them from hitting the plane, “we covered the birds wings with our hands and flung them hard downwards and forwards”. At a time of food shortages, there was a real possibility of pigeons being shot down for a free meal, so notices were posted in the local paper warning people that they would face prosecution if caught.
In 1918, the Station was extended with the addition of another larger seaplane shed (180ft x 60ft – approx.. 54.9m x 18.3m) designed for repairing damaged aircraft. Newhaven Seaplane Station was initially home to four Short 184 floatplanes, later supplemented by a few Fairey Campania and three Fairey IIIB seaplanes. On 1st April 1918 the Royal Flying Corps merged with the Royal Naval Air Service to become the Royal Air Force (RAF). The aircraft stationed at Newhaven formed 408 and 409 flights, which were incorporated into 242 Squadron in July 1918.
Seaplanes from Newhaven would patrol the sea between Dungeness and the Isle of Wight, avoiding Portsmouth where, it was rumoured, overzealous anti-aircraft gunners liked to get in a bit of extra practice! It was difficult to spot submarines around Beachy Head, where the chalky water made the sea cloudy. There were no night flights, but the Station aimed to keep at least one seaplane on patrol during the day, which 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. Sub. Lt. Ackery described how “there was something tremendously exciting about scudding along the crest of a five or six-foot high wave” especially when none of the other seaplane stations managed to get a plane in the air that day.
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, 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.
The risks of flight
Launching and landing could be dangerous, and in seaplanes loaded with bombs, accidents could prove fatal. Sub 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 harbour wall. 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.
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 army 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. In their spare time, the pilots and observers would congregate in one of the railway carriages, smoking and talking. Some evenings, groups from the Station would travel to Brighton or Eastbourne, using petrol from crashed seaplanes to fuel their journeys.
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 in the harbour. 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 was granted Grade II Listing on 23rd July 2012.
The concrete bases of the sheds are still visible on the beach and are occasionally used as a helicopter landing pad by the local coastguard.
If you want to find out more about Wing Commander Ackery and his time at Newhaven Seaplane Station, there is a copy of an article he wrote, in Aeroplane Monthly, at Newhaven Museum (www.newhavenhistoricalsociety.org.uk for details of opening times). The museum also has some other documents, photographs and artefacts relating to Newhaven Seaplane Station and a copy of “A Short History of a Local Seaplane Station” by Peter Fellows.
I am also grateful to Paul Drabot for the use of some of the photographs his grandfather, Henry Ross Alderson, took while he was a pilot at the Seaplane Station. You can find more photos on his website http://climb-out.co.uk/Henryrossalderson.html
This story was written and contributed by Jenny Flood, Newhaven Museum