Early naval aviation off East Anglia
At the beginning of the twentieth-century, Harwich Harbour, on the coast of East Anglia, was an important naval anchorage, and it was from here, in 1912, that Commander C. R. Samson, the pioneer naval aviator, made a number of flights off the Suffolk coast.
Born in 1883, Charles Rumney Samson had entered the Royal Navy in 1898, and as a Lieutenant in 1911, he had been selected as one of the first naval officers to be taught to fly. By May 1912, Acting-Commander Samson was in charge of the new naval flying school at Eastchurch, on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. Small in stature, he was nonetheless an impressive figure, with his pointed beard, piercing grey-blue eyes, and dashing manner.
In preparation for his first visit, two large sheds were erected on the northern shore of Harwich Harbour just to the east of the Government pier at HMS Ganges, the Boys Training Establishment of the Royal Navy at Shotley. Each shed was fitted with a full-width door and a slipway running down to the waters edge.
Commander Samson arrived at Shotley on the afternoon of Monday, 3 June 1912, after flying the forty miles across the Thames Estuary from Burntwick Island near Sheerness in the Short S.41 seaplane. Over the course of the next eight days, he made four flights with a passenger out over the North Sea to investigate the possibility of detecting submerged submarines from the air. The trials took place about six miles off the Suffolk coast and each flight lasted between two and three hours. The C class submarines of the Harwich flotilla acted as submerged targets for the trial, and the torpedo-boat destroyer HMS Zebra was usually on hand as escort for the seaplane. Samson also made four local flights around the harbour area during his this stay at Shotley, on one occasion carrying Admiral Tupper as a passenger.
Samson flew back to Sheerness with the Short S.41 on the morning of Friday, 14 June. His visit had attracted large crowds to all sides of the harbour every day, and his departure was much mourned by the local traders – but the aeroplane sheds at Shotley remained standing.
One month later, Commander Samson paid a second visit to Harwich Harbour when he was assigned to the Red (attacking) Fleet, commanded by Admiral Callaghan, for a large naval exercise in the North Sea. Samson, accompanied by Artificer O’Conner, arrived over the harbour in the ShortS.41 just after two o’clock on the afternoon of Sunday, 14 July, at the end of a flight around the coast from Portsmouth that had included an overnight stop at Dover due to bad weather. After a quick circuit around the harbour, the seaplane came to rest on the water opposite the aeroplane sheds at Shotley where it was brought ashore. The torpedo-boat destroyer, HMS Kestrel, acting as a tender for the seaplane, arrived at Harwich soon afterwards.
Just before eleven o’clock on the morning of Tuesday, 16 July, Samson and O’Conner took-off from the sheltered waters of Harwich Harbour on a scouting mission to Great Yarmouth. Flying a few hundred yards from the shore, the seaplane followed the coast northwards, both occupants being clearly visible to the holidaymakers on the beaches below. Just off Lowestoft, the Gnome engine of the Short S.41 began to falter, forcing the machine to alight on the water near the South Pier. About half-an-hour later, HMS Kestrel arrived and a working party of sailors manhandled the seaplane onto the beach where adjustments were made to the engine during the afternoon, watched by a large crowd.
Just before nine o’clock the next morning, Samson and O’Conner began the flight back to Harwich, but after only five miles, more engine trouble forced them to descend just north of Covehithe. The seaplane drifted down with the tide until it was abreast of Southwold where the faithful Kestrel took it in tow for the remainder of the journey.
The destroyer arrived back off Shotley at about two o’clock that afternoon and the stricken seaplane was hauled ignominiously into one of the aeroplane sheds. The thirty-five-mile tow through the choppy North Sea behind the Kestrel had taken its toll, and the Short S.41 remained under repair at Shotley until Commander Samson flew it back to Sheerness on Tuesday, 27 August 1912.
The aeroplane sheds at Shotley were dismantled during October 1912, but Harwich Harbour had not seen the last of Charles Samson, as he pursued his illustrious career in the years that followed.