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Aegean Air War: A footnote to a sideshow: The French seaplane squadron at the Dardanelles

A footnote to a sideshow: The French seaplane squadron at the Dardanelles

In April and May 1915, a small detachment from the French seaplane squadron at Port Said flew from Tenedos in support of the landings at Gallipoli. If it is mentioned at all in histories of the campaign, it is just in passing. This article, drawing on both French and British sources, attempts to reconcile the somewhat fragmentary accounts of the detachment, describe how it came to be at the Dardanelles, and rescue it from the footnote where it has too long languished.

The aeroplane, it will be remembered, was one of the innovations that would render redundant the long-held appreciation that ships alone could not force the straits.

What were the new factors in 1915 which were not present in 1906 when the experts had pronounced against the attempt? One of the chief was the new air weapon. The effectiveness of naval bombardment, it was held by some, was enormously increased by this new power of observation, especially by indirect laying.1

Battleships would anchor beyond range of enemy fire and commence a ‘slow, deliberate bombardment’ that would work its way up the Dardanelles. As for mines, aircraft would spot them and trawlers would sweep them.

But where were these ‘planes? At the outbreak of war, only France had a naval air capability in the Mediterranean. Although modest, just 14 seaplanes and 27 pilots, l’Aviation maritime française could boast the seaplane carrier Foudre, the first warship in naval history to be altered for service as an aviation vessel.2

In August 1914, the French navy had despatched a squadron of six Nieuports and two Voisins to its base at Bizerte in Tunisia, to be called on when needed. The Allied navies in the Mediterranean, commanded by French admiral Boué de Lapeyrère, expected to face the Austro-Hungarian fleet in a great sea battle. The intentions of the third partner in the Triple Alliance, the Kingdom of Italy, were as yet unknown.

The man in charge of the Bizerte squadron was a pioneering naval aviator, Lieutenant Henry de l’Escaille, the twelfth French sailor to qualify as a pilot. Like Charles Rumney Samson of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and Antoine Césari of l’Aéronautique militaire – his peers in the Mediterranean air war in 1915 – L’Escaille was a daring and courageous commander, determined to prove the potential of the new air arm. ‘A magnificent pilot,’ wrote one British officer, ‘who dealt in deeds, not words.’3

In September and October 1914, two successive detachments of L’Escaille’s squadron were sent to Montenegro to support operations against the enemy’s port of Cattaro. These early forays into the Adriatic by the Allies were ill-judged, and the airmen could render little service. A Nieuport and both Voisins were wrecked. L’Escaille, frustrated, asked that the detachment be recalled and the squadron used where it could be effective.

By now the Ottoman Empire was clearly in the orbit of the Central Powers, and Britain’s attention shifted east. On 31 October 1914, the Admiralty signaled her ships: ‘Commence hostilities at once against Turkey.’ In the Aegean, Vice-Admiral Sackville Carden patrolled the entrance to the Dardanelles, whilst in Egypt, Lieutenant General Sir John Maxwell had guard of the Suez Canal, vital for the passage of oil, trade and dominion troops.

On 18 November, France’s naval attaché in London forwarded a request to the Ministry of Marine in Paris for Foudre and her seaplanes. If available, he said, they would be of great use to Carden at the Dardanelles. The Royal Navy cannot oblige.4

Paris offered a further two machines from Bizerte, noting that an airfield would be needed on the Greek-occupied island of Tenedos. London replied that seaplanes should be used with ships. Paris noted that Foudre could carry only two machines, but five were at Carden’s disposal.

Admiral Lapeyrère, on 24 November, citing L’Escaille’s pessimistic assessment of air operations at Montenegro, agreed to despatch Foudre to the Dardanelles, where she was also to serve as a tender for destroyers and submarines. Jack of all trades, master of none, was the French view of Foudre5 and so it would prove.

Later that same day, however, L’Escaille reported two options to his admiral for the immediate use of the seaplane squadron. First, the Dardanelles, but from Foudre only, the carrier operating two seaplanes, the remainder to be used as spares. The squadron commander warned that, given the distances to be flown, they could carry nothing but fuel and would serve only for reconnaissance. The number of flying days would also be limited, he said, until March, when the weather improved. Alternatively, the seaplanes could operate from a land base at the Suez Canal, freeing Foudre for other duties. The first option L’Escaille considered uncertain with meagre prospects, the second he was confident would yield good results.

Admiral Lapeyrère concurred, and, on 27 November, after consulting with Carden, ordered the seaplane squadron to Egypt. Foudre deposited five seaplanes at Port Said on 30 November, a further five arriving at the end of December.

French seaplane base at Port Said, 1915.

These machines were Nieuport two-seater monoplanes with stepped keel floats and 80 horsepower rotary engines, capable of about 115 kilometres per hour. They were fitted first with Le Rhône then Clerget engines when l’Aéronautique militaire reserved for itself the production of the former. The Nieuports were mostly of type X (1913), an updated design for the military of the Nieuport IV G (1911). The passenger was now sat in front, giving the observer a better field of view, although the pilot’s became correspondingly poor. The other Nieuports delivered to Port Said in 1914 were of type VI (1912). The most visible difference between types VI and X is the curved windshield for the pilot on the latter, a consequence of separate cockpits for pilot and observer.6

Nieuport X profile by David Méchin.

The personnel comprised the commander L’Escaille, six pilots, two observers qualified as civilian pilots who would train up on seaplanes, and some 40 ratings as ground crew.

Although nominally administered by Foudre, and later from the naval air base at Saint-Raphaël on the French Riviera, the squadron was under the operational orders of the Royal Navy, reporting to the chief intelligence officer, Canal Defences, at Port Said. As observers, the French squadron was assigned British officers drawn from the Anglo-Egyptian government. Here was the entente cordiale given its full expression!

The politeness of the Frenchman is proverbial, but, on one occasion, when a machine side-slipped and crashed into Port Said harbour in trying to avoid a ship in the fairway, the English observer was not to be outdone, and it was quite five minutes before it could be decided as to which was to be rescued first by the boat that dashed up to the scene of the accident.7

The story comes from one of these British observers, writing anonymously8 in The Aeroplane magazine in 1919.

I shall always have the very greatest admiration for those French pilots and mechanics on account of the really wonderful work that they got out of their machines.

In 1915 these machines were identical with those designed, I believe, in 1912, being the ordinary Nieuport monoplanes less the wheels, and with the addition of outer struts to the undercarriage. They could, however, be quickly transformed into land machines, by the removal of the floats and these extra struts, and by fitting the leaf spring and wheels through a socket provided in the central skid.

The system of control was unusual, as the stick controlled the elevator and rudder, and the wings were warped by an upward and downward motion of what is usually the rudder-bar.

A revolution counter and altimeter were the only instruments fitted.

The floats themselves were of unusual design, having a stepped keel, and a metal plane on each side of the nose to prevent the float from “ducking.” They were not provided with bulkheads, but were canvas-covered, and filled with inflated pigs’ bladders. In the case of a crashed float, which occasionally occurred, the whole sea for hundreds of yards around was covered with these bladders, which emitted a most offensive odour.

When at sea, after the machine had been hoisted out of the ship, itself a slow and difficult job with the rough winches, booms and tackle used for cargo-shifting, began the business of getting the engine started. The starting-handle was carried in the observer’s cockpit, which, being very small, made it very difficult for anybody larger than a small boy to swing it from anywhere inside the machine. One usually wound violently for about five minutes, at the end of which the engine would fire once, backfire twice, and catch fire, which meant hurling oneself out of the machine on to the undercarriage, and plugging the air intake pipe with the nearest thing at hand, usually one’s own flying cap.

Having at last got the engine started, we commenced a game of ping-pong with the ocean, and on each bump the observer’s head came in contact with the forward part of the cabane. An 80 h.p. machine has not much power with which to get “unstuck,” and so, if there were no waves, we sometimes got off, but usually did not, and if there were any waves, we certainly never did, but buzzed about like a mil­lion infuriated bees, covered in spray.

The machines had by no means a good performance even in those days. Speed about 52 m.p.h. at sea level, with a ceiling of about 5,000 ft., and the climb to 1,000 metres (about 3,300 ft.), with three hours’ fuel, pilot, obser­ver, a rifle, and forty rounds of ammunition, and one 10 kg. bomb, or a camera, took 30-35 minutes.

In spite of their limits, these ‘quaint, cranky little monoplanes’9 proved most effective in Egypt, delivering on their greatest advantage: an extended range of operations.

Map of Egypt and Palestine

The Suez Canal formed a natural defensive line but a desert of more than 200 kilometres stretched to the east, from which intelligence was difficult to obtain. What route would the Ottoman army take, and when would they strike? The Royal Flying Corps had a detachment at Ismailia but their landplanes – Maurice and Henry Farmans and a solitary B.E.2a – could penetrate at best some 80 kilometres into the desert. The seaplanes, borne by ships, could operate hundreds of kilometres from the canal, right across the enemy’s lines of communication. In December 1914, from HMS Doris, a Nieuport watched Ottoman army concentrations at Beersheba and El Auja, while fellow cruisers Minerva and Diana delivered eyes over Akaba. These improvised seaplane carriers were joined in January 1915 by two German merchant ships seized as prizes, SS Aenne Rickmers and SS Rabenfels,10 who embarked two Nieuports each.

‘Hoisting a Seaplane Aboard. The pilot, seen standing, is a Frenchman and his observer British.’ The Sphere, 3 July 1915.

In mid-January 1915, seaplanes from Aenne Rickmers first spotted the advance of the Ottoman VIII Corps, although the observers had difficulty ascertaining the strength of these columns. By late January, aerial reconnaissance, supplemented by ground intelligence, had pinpointed where the canal would be attacked.11

Maxwell recognised that the work of the Port Said squadron was critical to Egypt’s defence.

I cannot speak too highly of the work of the seaplane detachment. Lengthy land flights are extremely dangerous, yet nothing ever stopped these gallant French aviators from any enterprise.

They furnished me regularly with all information regarding the movements of the enemy.12

When the attack came, in the early hours of 3 February, the defenders were ready. The Nieuports fought all that day, sometimes from as low as 60 metres, ‘constantly under shrapnel and rifle fire,’13 returning to Port Said only to rearm and refuel. That night, the Ottoman army fell back, their retreat found the next day from the air.

It should be remembered that the Nieuports were primarily reconnaissance machines, with no armament other than perhaps a rifle. If they carried a bomb, it was a single 105 millimetre artillery shell with 2 kilograms of melinite.

The bomb-dropping apparatus was very primitive indeed.

In the first place, as the observer was placed in front of the pilot, a tube had to be arranged through the floor of the observer’s cockpit to carry the bomb clear of the undercarriage and floats.

The bomb itself – a 20-lb, H.E. [high explosive] shell, with a tinplate fin attached – was carried strapped to the top of the port wing.

Before dropping, the bomb had to be prepared – quite a long and complicated business. First of all, the bomb had to be unstrapped from the wing, and placed on the observer’s knees. A cork was then drawn from the nose, and the striker screwed in in its place. One end of the string was then attached to a ring at the tail of the bomb, and the other end to a cross strut in the fuselage. One had then to remove the safety-pin from the striker and manoeuvre the bomb into the bomb-tube, a dangerous proceeding, as the bomb with the striker in it was almost the same width as the fuselage.14

Flechettes – steel darts – were more frequently employed. Some 50,000 had been supplied to the squadron at the beginning of the year, along with 200 artillery shells modified as aerial bombs. As for wireless communication or aerial photography, the Nieuports were equipped for neither.

Such was the air force to breach the Narrows!

In London, the new year had seen plans for the Dardanelles snowball from limited, low risk operations to an all-in gamble. On 3 January 1915, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, asked Carden: ‘Do you consider the forcing of the Dardanelles by ships alone a practicable operation.’ ‘They might be forced,’ replied the admiral, ‘by extended operations with large number of ships.’ From this cautious response, Churchill conjured the answer he wanted, and the First Lord directed Carden: ‘Please telegraph in detail what you think could be done by extended operations, what force would be needed and how you consider it should be used.’

The force Carden requested included four seaplanes and Foudre.

Frequent reconnaissance by seaplanes indispensable.15

Chief of the War Staff, Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Jackson, reviewed Carden’s plan and ‘concurred generally.’

The French and British armoured vessels at the Dardanelles, and the ‘Foudre’ with seaplanes, should be able to deal with […] defences at the entrance, on similar lines to the previous bombardment which under unfavourable conditions of light seems to have been effective.16

The French acceded to these plans but, having promised so much, Foudre now exits this narrative. Although the ship forms part of the French naval squadrons in the Mediterranean in 1915, she bears no seaplanes, her workshops turned over to the fleet not the air service.

In place of Foudre comes HMS Ark Royal, purchased in May 1914 and commissioned in December of that year. With Ark Royal at his disposal, Churchill asserted the primacy of British naval air support.

D.A.D. [Director Air Department] should be instructed to hold ‘Ark Royal’ with 8 seaplanes and aeroplanes in readiness for service in Egypt. We cannot rely on French seaplanes for our spotting. The Army have developed a system of wireless telephone from aeroplanes spotting for artillery, which is most effective. Full details of this should be at once obtained, and some of the machines fitted accordingly. Meanwhile the French should be asked not to fly over the Pola area [Churchill’s code name for the Gallipoli peninsula], as it will only lead to the mounting of A. A. guns and complicate spotting later. Admiral Carden should be informed of this.17

Ark Royal was working up at Harwich on 13 January 1915 when the order came to be ready to put to sea at the end of the month. She sailed for the Dardanelles on 1 February, anchoring off Tenedos on 17 February, two days before the opening bombardment.

In addition, the air-minded First Lord anticipated wheeled aircraft: ‘We also want a landing place for aeroplanes on Tenedos.’ The Admiralty ordered an RNAS landplane squadron under Commander Samson to the Aegean on 1 March.

The French naval air service were now, at best, extras in the drama that would unfold.

‘Une reconnaissance d'hydroavion, durant le combat des Dardanelles.’ [A seaplane reconnaissance during naval operations at the Dardanelles.] L’Image de la guerre, March 1915.

The first of the French seaplanes to support operations at the Dardanelles were borne on Aenne Rickmers. They were Nieuports N11 and N17,18 with pilots Lt Antoine Destrem and Leading Seaman Hervé Grall, and observers Capt Ronald E Todd and 2/Lts Sir Robert Joshua Paul, Bt. and Kenneth Lawson Williams.

Captain L B Weldon MC, the intelligence officer who commanded Aenne Rickmers, tells of these operations in his entertaining memoir, Hard lying.

On the morning of the 4th March we were cruising quietly off Gaza when we received a wireless from Port Said asking how much coal we had on board. We replied at once, stating the amount — 460 tons — and wondered why on earth the information was wanted. We had not to wait long for an answer. The next thing we knew was that we were ordered, by wireless, to proceed as quickly as possible to — then followed a longitude and latitude. Wild excitement reigned while the captain looked up his charts. The given position turned out to be the Gulf of Smyrna.19

Aenne Rickmers was to join a small naval force under Vice-Admiral Richard Peirse that was bombarding Smyrna, the largest Ottoman port on the Mediterranean. Hostile submarines, either German or Austrian, were known to be making for these waters, and Smyrna was in striking distance of the Dardanelles. If the British admiral destroyed the shore batteries flanking the approach to the city, the port could be blockaded and its use denied to the enemy. But the same difficulties that presented themselves at the straits were found here. Mines prevented the ships from engaging the forts at close range, and ‘planes were needed to observe fire from distance.

Aenne Rickmers joined Peirse’s naval squadron on 6 March. Only one Nieuport was operational, the other had a broken stay. The admiral asked the airmen to observe what damage, if any, his bombardment had done, and whether the harbour had been blocked by two ships sunk by the enemy at its entrance.20

On 7 March, having been briefed that morning aboard the flagship HMS Euryalus, Destrem and Sir Robert Paul attempted a reconnaissance, but gusty winds restricted their altitude. The next day, bad weather prevented all flying. On 9 March, the pair had better luck.

In the afternoon we hoisted out a ‘plane with Destrem and Paul in it, which flew in towards Smyrna Harbour. They were fired at by the batteries with shrapnel, but returned safely…21

Although they could only reach a height of 800 metres, they found two channels navigable between the block ships for small craft like trawlers, torpedo boats and submarines, while at Fort Hamidieh (Yenikale), they observed three of its seven guns destroyed.22

Admiral Peirse soon lost even this limited air support when Aenne Rickmers was holed by an Ottoman torpedo boat in the early hours of 11 March.

At 2.50 am there was suddenly a terrific explosion and a vast column of water swept the ship.23

Most of the crew, including the French mechanics and Royal Marines, were taken off Aenne Rickmers but Destrem refused to leave his seaplanes. The next day a working party from Euryalus placed a collision mat over the hole, and the ship, down by the head and with a heavy list, limped towards the island of Lemnos for repairs.24 The crew were carried aboard their escort, the battleship HMS Swiftsure, but again Destrem ‘would not leave his planes.’25

Aenne Rickmers in Mudros harbour.

With Aenne Rickmers out of action, SS Rabenfels was despatched to the Aegean, entering Mudros harbour at Lemnos on the afternoon of 22 March. She carried the only remaining Nieuports in flying condition – N14, N15 and N16 – along with L’Escaille and pilots de Saizieu and Trouillet.

The intention was to base five seaplanes and four pilots at the Dardanelles, leaving three seaplanes and two pilots at Port Said, but, in effect, Egypt had been stripped of its seaplane force,26 and for little gain. When the climactic battle for the Narrows took place on 18 March, Aenne Rickmers’ two Nieuports were sitting impotent in Mudros harbour, while Rabenfels was only just setting off from Port Said, three days’ sail away. The French naval air service played no part in the seaborne assault of the straits.

Map of the Dardanelles and surrounding islands.

As preparations for the Gallipoli landings got underway, Rabenfels was despatched to the Gulf of Smyrna to rendezvous with the light cruiser HMS Dublin. Their prey was an Ottoman torpedo boat, perhaps Demir Hissar, the plucky little vessel that had crippled Aenne Rickmers two weeks before. Rough seas prevented any flying until the morning of 26 March, when Nieuport N16 took off towards Smyrna.

She reported that a two-funnelled torpedo-boat with two torpedo tubes had come out from near Fort No. 1 and had passed through a passage about 100 yds. wide between three sunken ships at the entrance. A line of mines was located about 200 yds. to the westward of the sunken ships. Light merchant ships were observed in the inner harbour and 60 or more lighters. New earthworks were seen on Churstan Island [Long Island].27

Returning to Mudros the next day, the flying officers reported to Rear Admiral John de Robeck, who had assumed command from Carden, and received orders to proceed to the island of Tenedos, proposed by L’Escaille as a land base for aircraft. From there they were to join the French naval squadron in the Gulf of Xeros to ‘attack Gallipoli and camps near Bulair with their aircraft.’28

A Nieuport with Rabenfels in the Aegean.

Rabenfels anchored off the north-west coast of Tenedos on the afternoon of 27 March, the flying officers going ashore at 4.45pm, then again the next morning at 9.45am. Presumably they met with Commander Samson, who had just reached the island with an advance party of No. 3 Squadron RNAS. The British had spent the last two days landing their aeroplanes and stores on a sandy beach and hauling them up to a vineyard that had been cleared for an airfield. Rabenfels was then visited by de Robeck’s Chief of Staff, Commodore Roger Keyes, at 12.30pm. Between 3pm and 6.30pm, with the assistance of boats from HMS Vengeance, ‘seaplane appurtenances’ – perhaps hangars, oil, fuel and spares – were landed. Just before 8pm, Rabenfels rung off station.

The seaplane carrier steamed north, but had made it no further than Imbros island when, on 30 March, a signal ordered her return to Mudros. Nothing had come of this sortie up the Gallipoli peninsula but that a moderate gale tore her ‘seaplane awnings and screens.’ No flights are recorded in the ship’s log.

Rabenfels was back at Mudros on 31 March. The flying officers reported to admirals Guépratte and de Robeck. Again they were pushed from pillar to post. An Ottoman raiding party had reached the Suez Canal undetected on 22 March and London acceded to General Maxwell’s demand for the return of his seaplanes, ‘the only reliable means of ascertaining hostile movements.’29 In addition, three new machines that were en route for the Dardanelles would be retained in Egypt. The unsatisfactory compromise was to leave a small detachment of the French seaplane squadron at Tenedos.

In the afternoon, the men aboard Rabenfels dismantled Nieuports N15 and N16, presumably to accommodate N11, N17 and the ‘seaplane store’ that was hoisted in from Aenne Rickmers. Her pilots and observers were also transferred to Rabenfels.

On the morning of 1 April, Rabenfels made again for the island of Tenedos. A working party from HMS Implacable, employing her picket boat and pinnace, helped with ‘discharging and embarking apparatuses.’ Two seaplanes were hoisted out and transferred to shore. That evening Rabenfels stood off for Port Said.

The detachment landed at Tenedos comprised Nieuports N14 and N17,30 French pilots de Saizieu and Trouillet, a petty officer and 10 seamen, and British observers Herbert and Hillas.

Lieutenant de Saizieu. Left, at Saigon, 1912. Right, flanked by leading seamen Baille and Méot, early 1915, Aenne Rickmers.

Louis Marie Jules Barthélémy de Saizieu, who commanded the detachment, was a 33 year old lieutenant with more than 14 years’ service with the French navy in the Mediterranean and the Far East. Georges Marius Etienne Trouillet, 24 years of age, was a leading seaman and mechanic. They had joined the Port Said squadron in December 1914 as part of the first reinforcement, de Saizieu initially as observer. Both men were qualified as civilian pilots but had been rated efficient as military aviators at Port Said.

Trouillet is sitting second from left in this photo taken 16 April 1914 at the Nieuport works at Villacoublay.

The two British observers were civil servants in their mid 30s, late of the Anglo-Egyptian government. Captain James Reginald Herbert came from the Survey of Egypt, the department responsible for field survey and mapping, while Lieutenant Henry (Harry) Grant Hillas, Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, had been with the Ministry of Finance.

Captain J R Herbert, December 1915.

The four aviators were, for 1915, relatively experienced, with several months’ operational flying under their belt. Herbert had even participated in landing parties from HMS Doris in December 1914 against telegraph and railway lines in Palestine and Syria.31

A document from the French archives suggests that the squadron, at least at the beginning, was sited 500 metres beyond Commander Samson’s aerodrome, right on the coast, at the extreme north-west of the island.32 There is no protected bay or inlet here, and the shore backs onto sandy ground with low scrub. The makeshift station was short of supplies, and L’Escaille bemoaned the lack of canvas sheds and accommodation, requested of the French marine two months previously, but not supplied.

Poor weather restricted operations for the first 10 days.33 Strong winds and heavy rain swept Tenedos at the beginning of April 1915.

The first operational flight by the Port Said detachment was on 11 April, when a Nieuport reconnoitered Cape Helles at the southern tip of the Gallipoli peninsula. No Ottoman troop movements were observed.34

A further reconnaissance was flown on 16 April.

A French seaplane flew as far as Paleo Kastro reporting troops and trenches and making a sketch of positions.35

Paleo Kastro is about 3 kilometres south-west of Eren Keui on the Asian side of the Dardanelles. The next day, 17 April, the Nieuports set off to bomb these positions. N14 began at 2.15pm, reaching the village of Eren Keui where she dropped two bombs. N17 started 10 minutes later but a problem with the magneto cut her mission short. She made another attempt at 3.20pm but the motor ‘not giving the proper amount of revolutions’ ended her day.36

The French landings would be on the Asian shore to prevent the enemy’s artillery firing across the straits at the British assault on Helles. Allied naval orders for the Gallipoli landings included ‘special instructions’ for aircraft, and Admiral de Robeck tasked ‘French aircraft to support the French landing.’ Interestingly, the orders, written on 12 April, still anticipate, in addition to the two Nieuports at Tenedos, ‘aeroplanes coming from Egypt.’37 On 23 April, French orders tasked ‘those French seaplanes available’ to fly over the battlefield, gather intelligence and bomb targets of opportunity.38

Drawing by Alex Dumas, Les aéroplanes de 1914-15 : étude technique, avec plans cotés, des principaux aéroplanes, Paris, 1916.

On 25 April 1915, as the Anzacs and British made their assault on the peninsula, French troops landed at Kum Kale. They quickly occupied the fort and village, but behind this defensive screen was deployed a large Ottoman force, two divisions strong.

Nieuports N14 and N17 made three flights that day, one delivering vital intelligence to the troops on the ground.

At five o’clock in the afternoon, the landing of our small expeditionary force is complete. As it will soon be dark, and Lt Barthélemy de Saizieu, in aeroplane number 14, has signaled the approach of strong enemy columns to the south, all movement forward is halted.39

The Ottoman forces counter-attacked that night but the French held their ground with grim determination during bloody fighting. The next morning, while preparing to renew their attack, the French were ordered to withdraw from Kum Kale to assist the British at Helles.

The work of the French seaplanes after the landings is not known in detail, but it seems they flew mainly over Asia Minor, searching out batteries between Yeni Shehr, In Tepe and Eren Keui. Flights included:

  • a reconnaissance on 26 April
  • bombing raids on 28 April and 2 May, aborted due to bad weather and the engines running badly
  • a bombing raid on 3 May
  • artillery cooperation flights from 10 to 14 May, unsuccessful due to the crew’s inexperience with spotting or wireless or both.

Nieuport X with floats replaced by wheels. Profile by David Méchin.

At some point, probably on 5 May, the Nieuports were converted to landplanes. Having flown as seaplanes over land, the wheeled aircraft now had to traverse the sea.

During the Naval attack on the Dardanelles two of the machines were attached to Commander Samson’s squadron at Tenedos, but being so far from the base, and there being very few spare parts, and practically no facilities for engine overhaul, they soon became very soggy. The floats and extra struts were then removed, and they were used for some time as land machines.40

The Mitchell report, a detailed post-war study of operations at the Dardanelles by the British Admiralty, blames altitude, or rather the lack of it, for their conversion to landplanes.

As their performance as seaplanes was not good enough to permit a sufficient altitude to be reached for reconnaissance, their floats were removed and wheels fitted in place.41

Anti-aircraft fire at Gallipoli was fairly accurate against a slow-moving ‘plane at 1,000 metres, so reconnaissance was generally carried out at 1,500 metres. We have already seen at Smyrna how conditions could restrict the Nieuport seaplane to a ceiling of 800 metres.

‘An Aeroplane on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Front of Krithia.’ The Sphere, 3 July 1915.

One of the wheeled Nieuports may have been captured in a photo story published in The Sphere on 3 July 1915. A blurry image, captioned ‘An Aeroplane on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Front of Krithia,’ shows a type X Nieuport in French markings with its floats replaced by wheels. Samson had scouted Helles soon after the landings, and he established a forward aerodrome alongside Hunter Weston Hill in early May. When signaling was not possible or advisable, aircraft would drop messages or land alongside the hill and report directly to headquarters staff. Although newspaper captions should be treated with caution, the lie of the land looks right. If the photograph was taken on Gallipoli, it can only show a Nieuport from the Port Said squadron.

The detachment was under the operational command of Samson but he made no use of its observers in his aeroplanes. Neither Herbert nor Hillas is named in the RNAS flying log. This is notable because trained observers were in short supply at Gallipoli, at least in the early stages of the campaign. Their lack of experience with wireless for gunnery cooperation probably told against them.

On 9 May, a British army officer attached to the RNAS reported that:

The French have had a couple of seaplanes on the Island: they have been flying over the Asiatic side mostly, but the machines are old and of little value. They are returning to Egypt and a new squadron is now landing here; these are land machines.42

Escadrille MF 98 T, Captain Césari’s French army squadron, had reached Tenedos in late April with eight Maurice Farmans, making its first flight on 4 May. Well equipped, with wireless and photographic capability, this squadron was on an equal footing to Samson’s and matched the contribution of the RNAS at Gallipoli.

L’Escaille had rightly decried the splitting of his squadron in two, forcing it to operate a thousand kilometres apart. The isolated section at the Dardanelles was soon on its last legs. À bout de souffle, reported L’Escaille – literally, out of breath. On 25 May, the detachment quit the Dardanelles on the cargo ship Crosshill. Their return to Port Said was well received, writes the officer commanding Aenne Rickmers, Captain Weldon.

On 28th May our seaplane party, including Herbert, Hillas and de Saizieu, turned up from Tenedos, where they had been landed by the Rabenfels. They had practically commandeered some old tramp steamer to get across. I was glad to see them again, and we all felt that it was quite like old times.43

From Egypt, operations continued apace through 1915, although the year was to be cut short, in almost identical circumstance, for both pilots and seaplanes of the Tenedos detachment.

On 9 October 1915, off Gaza, N14 left Aenne Rickmers, now commissioned in the Royal Navy as HMS Anne, for a reconnaissance over Beersheba. The seaplanes were tracking the progress of the railway line being laid towards the canal. Petty Officer Trouillet was the pilot and Sir Robert Paul his observer. When they did not return, de Saizieu and Lt Horace Ledger went up in N17 to look for the missing ‘plane, but, despite flying all the way to Beersheba, were unsuccessful.

We were all very despondent, as both Paul (who had been decorated by the French Admiral with the Croix de Guerre only a few weeks before) and Trouillet had been very popular on board. Moreover, it did not cheer me up to remember that de l’Escaille had often told me that in his opinion a seaplane with floats could not possibly alight on land without crashing badly, and that the chances were that the occupants would be killed.44

Spirits lifted when the French cruiser Montcalm intercepted a German signal: ‘East of El Arish, enemy reconnaissance plane shot down, machine captured, crew prisoners.’ Sir Robert Paul, writing from Constantinople in November 1915, explained that engine failure had brought them down 20 kilometres short of the coast.

My pilot, a Frenchman named Trouillet, made a magnificent landing without upsetting. The only pity was we came down among a crowd of Arabs, who were on to us in a minute, before we had time to set light to the machine. However, the Arabs proceeded to smash it up pretty effectively, as they explained afterwards to the Turkish officers, they were afraid of it getting up and flying off on its own!!45

On 22 December, Anne was again off Gaza. Two Nieuports set off to reconnoitre Beersheba but a thick mist caused the first seaplane to turn back. The second, N17 with de Saizieu and Ledger, reached the objective, but had its fuel pipe severed by a bullet fired from the ground. About 20 kilometres from the coast, de Saizieu was forced to land on his floats. As he tried to set fire to the machine, the pair were encircled by twenty or more Tarabin Bedouin. Not wanting the seaplane to fall into enemy hands until it had been completely destroyed, they put up a desperate fight with revolver and rifle, de Saizieu killing several men and seriously wounding two others. Ledger was shot through the heart.46 For this action, the British officer, considered by the pilots the best observer in the squadron, was awarded the Legion of Honour, while the French pilot was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

The three men taken prisoner – Trouillet, Sir Robert Paul and de Saizieu – survived captivity.

Trouillet, awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in December 1915, left the French navy in July 1919. He was living in Constantine, Algeria, when he passed away in 1948. As for de Saizieu, he commanded the French naval air base at Toulon from June 1919, attaining the rank of Lieutenant Commander in 1922. He died aged 69 in Paris in 1951.

Herbert flew from HMS Raven (ex Rabenfels) and Anne until August 1915. He returned to London, and was at the War Office (room 242) from 28 September. He joined the Royal Flying Corps as a temporary Second Lieutenant in October and took his flying certificate (number 2220) on a Maurice Farman at Farnborough on 2 December. In February 1916, Herbert passed through 7 then 5 Reserve Squadron, joining 15 Squadron on the Western Front on 20 April. He was back on Home Establishment on 26 June, relinquishing his RFC commission and taking up a staff officer role, presumably in the intelligence corps. The London Gazette has him as a Staff Lieutenant, First Class, from 10 February 1917. Herbert died aged 75 in England on 17 December 1953.

After Tenedos, Hillas served on HMS Hardinge, Raven and Anne. His last recorded flight is on 3 September 1915 over Palestine in N17 with de Saizieu. After the war he returned to the Ministry of Finance, passing away in Cairo in 1919.

Port Said, by Donald Maxwell, 1918 (IWM ART 1872).

On 1 January 1916, the Port Said squadron achieved administrative autonomy with its formal establishment as a French naval air base, although this was short-lived. In May, they left Egypt to form a new station at Argostoli on the Ionian island of Cephalonia. A fine Anglo-French ceremony marked the event with the awarding of decorations. The watch over Palestine was now the responsibility of the East Indies and Egypt Squadron, a wholly British affair.

What did the Port Said detachment achieve at the Dardanelles?

Certainly less than might have been accomplished by the squadron deployed as a whole, although the point may be moot. The naval assault on the Dardanelles and the land campaign at Gallipoli wanted gunnery and artillery cooperation above all else, and the Nieuports carried no wireless set. In addition, they had no camera for aerial photography, and very limited bombing capability. Their trump card, an extended range of operations, couldn’t be played at the Dardanelles.

Against this should be weighed the unit’s effectiveness from Egypt. Percival Elgood, the chief intelligence officer at Port Said, had high praise for L’Escaille’s squadron.

His little unit of six Nieuports got through a wonderful amount of work, and the contrast between the elaborate organisation of the British Naval Sea-plane Detachment (which replaced de l’Escaille’s command in January 1916) and the modest equipment of the French squadron was very striking. Incidentally, the British, unfortunate in their type of engine, flew no farther or no more frequently over enemy territory than their predecessors had done.47

Captain Weldon, the officer commanding Aenne Rickmers, called them ‘our not very new Nieuports’ but they would remain in service at Argostoli until March 1917, a remarkable achievement, and testament to the aircraft and the French ratings who serviced them. The composition of the squadron also played a part, to the credit of the French naval air command. In contrast to the heterogeneous makeup of the RNAS squadrons in the Mediterranean, the Port Said squadron was equipped with a single type.

In 18 months, the Nieuports and their French pilots and British observers made 1,072 flights from three seas and eight ships, along 2,000 kilometres of coastline. Of the 2,000 hours flown, 500 were over enemy territory. The cost: three aircraft wrecked in accidents, three lost behind enemy lines, three airmen taken prisoner and three killed in action. Their achievement begs no embellishment.

Table: French Nieuports at Port Said

No. Type Engine Start date End date
N3 VI Gnome 100hp (effective 85hp) 1914 end-Dec No mentions after Dec 1914. Sent back to Saint-Raphaël 1915-03-18.
“… two very ancient three-seaters with 100 h.p. 14-cylinder Gnomes, one of which dated back to a Paris Show some time before the Flood.” (The Aeroplane)
N5 VI Gnome 100hp (effective 85hp) 1914 end-Dec
N7 Hors-série Le Rhône 80hp 1914-11-30 Single seater. No mentions after Dec 1914. Sent back to Saint-Raphaël 1915-03-18.
N11 X Le Rhône 80hp 1914-11-30 Lost 1915-12-04, forced landing off Port Said, sunk. Crew swam to shore, OK.
N12 X Le Rhône 80hp 1914-11-30 Wrecked 1915-02-13, forced landing at sea. Sent back to Saint-Raphaël 1915-03-18.
N13 X Clerget 80hp 1914-11-30 Lost 1914-12-31, forced landing behind enemy lines. (Recon to Ma’an from Minerva off Akaba, crashed 32 km from coast, Grall & Stirling OK.)
N14 X Le Rhône 80hp 1914-11-30 Lost 1915-10-10, forced landing east of El Arish, Trouillet & Paul POW. (Also forced landing 1915-01-27, machine found abandoned off coast by Aenne Rickmers, Le Gall & Partridge shot accidentally.)
N15 X Clerget 80hp 1914 end-Dec 1916-05-03
N16 X Clerget 80hp 1914 end-Dec 1916-05-03
N17 X Clerget 80hp 1914 end-Dec Lost 1915-12-24, forced landing behind enemy lines, de Saizeu POW, Ledger KIA.
N18 X Clerget 80hp 1915-04-14 1916-05-03
N19 X Clerget 80hp 1915-04-14 1916-05-03
N20 X Clerget 80hp 1915-04-14 1916-05-03
N21 X Clerget 100hp 1915-11 1916-05-03
N22 X Clerget 100hp 1915-11 Lost 1916-04-16, hit wave on take-off and capsized.
N23 X Clerget 100hp 1915-11 1916-05-03
NB1 X Clerget 100hp 1916-02 1916-05-03
NB2 X Clerget 100hp 1916-02 1916-05-03
NB3 X Clerget 100hp 1916-02 1916-05-03


  • 1915, ‘RABENFELS’ [ship’s log 29 Jan – 21 Jul], The National Archives, Kew, ADM 53/57018 and ADM 53/57019.
  • 1915, ‘Reconnaissance reports: R.N.A.S. Raven and Anne’, The National Archives, Kew, AIR 1/2285/209/75/13.
  • 1919, ‘AVIATION IN EGYPT IN 1915. By an Observer in the French Seaplane Squadron, Port Said.’ The Aeroplane, vol. 17, no. 13.
  • 1921, ‘Report of the Committee Appointed to Investigate the Attacks Delivered on and the Enemy Defences of the Dardanelles Straits’ [Mitchell report], London : Admiralty.
  • Carné, LMA de 192?, L’organisation de l’Aéronautique maritime : Fascicule 1, Paris : Service historique de l’Etat-Major Général de la Marine, <>.
  • Cronin, D 1990, Royal Navy shipboard aircraft developments, 1912-1931, Tonbridge : Air-Britain.
  • Feuilloy, R & Morareau, L 2014-2016, ‘L’aéronautique maritime en 1914/1915/1916’, Les cahiers de l’Ardhan numbers 25, 27 and 29, Association pour la recherche de documentation sur l’histoire de l’aéronautique navale (ARDHAN).
  • Gilbert, M 1972, Winston S. Churchill [companion volume 3, part 1], London : Heinemann.
  • Morareau, L et al. 1999, L’aviation maritime française pendant la Grande Guerre : hydravions et avions, Paris : ARDHAN.
  • Weldon, LB 1926, ‘Hard lying’ : Eastern Mediterranean 1914-1919, London : Herbert Jenkins Ltd.


1 Jones, HA 1922, The war in the air : being the story of the part played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, Oxford : Clarendon Press, vol. 2, p. 6.

2 Layman, RD 1989, Before the aircraft carrier : the development of aviation vessels 1849-1922, London : Conway Maritime, p. 18. Foudre (‘lightning’) was launched in 1895, and played several different roles, including operating a spherical balloon during manoeuvres in 1898 and 1901, before being modified as a seaplane carrier in 1911-12.

3 Elgood, PG 1924, Egypt and the Army, London : Oxford University Press, p. 119.

4 Carné, pp 16-18. The exchange of telegrams that follow are also from this source.

5 ‘La Foudre, navire omnibus, bon à tout, propre à rien.’ Armée et marine : revue hebdomadaire illustrée des armées de terre et de mer 1914, [s.n.], Paris,

6 Dumas, A & Desmons, R 1916, Les aéroplanes de 1914-15 : étude technique, avec plans cotés, des principaux aéroplanes, Paris : Librarie Aéronautique, Hartmann, G 2006, ‘Les premiers Nieuport à flotteurs’,

7 The Aeroplane, pp. 1198-1200.

8 The writer gives some clues. He had ‘taken an interest in aviation since the early efforts of H. Farman and the Wright brothers’ and ‘was serving with an Indian regiment on the Suez Canal.’ The writer is probably Kenneth Lawson Williams (1893-?), an Indian army officer who ‘learnt construction’ with Horatio Barber’s Aeronautical Syndicate Ltd at Hendon aerodrome (Dec 1912 to Apr 1913). Williams later became a pilot.

9 Benn, William Wedgwood 1919, In the side shows, London ; New York [etc.] : Hodder and Stoughton, p. 16. En route to Gallipoli, Benn met Major Herbert Phillips Fletcher, a squadron leader in Benn’s regiment, who was attached to the Port Said squadron as an observer. Benn was given a joy ride over Suez, ‘strictly against orders,’ by the French pilot de Saizieu.

10 Accorded prefix SS at commencement of their service, then HMFA from approximately 8 February to June 1915, when they were incorporated into the Royal Navy and renamed HMS Anne and HMS Raven.

11 Sheffy, Y 1998, British military intelligence in the Palestine campaign, 1914-1918, London ; Portland : Frank Cass, pp. 53-55.

12 Supplement to The London Gazette, 21 June 1916, pp. 6174 and 6163.

13 Major-General Alexander Wilson, Headquarters, Canal Defences, to the General Staff, Headquarters, Cairo, 11 February 1915. Supplement to The London Gazette, 21 June 1916, p. 6168.

14 The Aeroplane, p. 1199.

15 Vice-Admiral Carden to Winston Churchill, telegram, 11 January 1915. Gilbert, p. 405.

16 Ibid. pp. 419-421. The ‘previous bombardment’ is the naval bombardment of 3 November 1914.

17 Ibid. pp. 412-413. Presumably Egypt was named as Ark Royal’s destination to maintain secrecy.

18 Although a number of sources show Aenne Rickmers carrying N15 and N17 at this time, the ship’s log for Rabenfels has her ‘receiving seaplane store’ and ‘hoisting in’ Nieuports N11 and N17 from Aenne Rickmers on the afternoon of 31 March, while N15 is recorded on 15 March 1915 at Port Said when Aenne Rickmers had already sailed for Palestine and Smyrna.

19 Weldon, p. 26.

20 Weldon to Elgood, Chief Intelligence Officer, Port Said, 11 April 1915, Lemnos. AIR 1/2285/209/75/13.

21 Weldon, p. 32.

22 Naval Staff, Training and Staff Duties Division 1923, Monograph 21. The Mediterranean, 1914-1915., Admiralty, London, p. 121. Weldon to Elgood, 11 April 1915.

23 Weldon to Elgood, 11 April 1915.

24 Aenne Rickmers would be stuck at Mudros until 14 May 1915, when makeshift repairs allowed her to return to Alexandria and be docked. Incidentally, she made acquaintance at Mudros with the French seaplane carrier, albeit in her more prosaic role. On 30 March, ‘a French working party came from French repair ship Foudre, the work is too big for them. They will repair minor cracks, so hold can be pumped dry to get the hole above water.’ Weldon to Elgood, 11 April 1915.

25 Weldon to Elgood, 11 April 1915.

26 The three machines left at Port Said were probably not airworthy. Carné notes (p. 46) that four ‘worn out’ seaplanes were returned to Saint-Raphaël in March 1915. These must be N3, N5, N7 and N12.

27 Mitchell report, p. 95.

28 Vice-Admiral de Robeck to Admiralty, 25 March 1915. Gilbert, p. 740.

29 Sheffy, pp. 94-95.

30 Further evidence for N14 and N17 being the Nieuports at Gallipoli is found in Commander Samson’s ‘AEROPLANE REPORT, 17th April’ which names the aircraft. The report is among Sir John Monash’s personal files at the Australian War Memorial (RCDIG0000581).

31 1915, ‘Three months on the Syrian coast’, Naval Review, vol. 3, no. 4, pp. 623-626. In one incident, on 18 December, four miles north of Sidon, telegraph and telephone wires were cut. There was no fighting but Herbert captured ‘a number of tortoises and two rare frogs’ that were subsequently presented to the Cairo Zoological Gardens.

32 ‘Les hydravions français sur la côte N à environ 1500m du phare situé à l’extrême pointe W de Ténédos; L’aérodrome et le camp des aviateurs britanniques et français à environ 500m dans le S.’ Service Historique de la Marine à Toulon, Sous-série 4 S 57. Collection of M. Hakan Gürüney, Bozcaada Müzesi.

33 Information on flights comes from notes by Bernard Klaeyle (sourced mainly from L’Escaille’s reports, SHM Vh13), against which were matched flights listed in the Mitchell report.

34 Mention of this seaplane reconnaissance in the Mitchell report is assumed to be by a French Nieuport as Ark Royal was not in the vicinity.

35 Mitchell report, p. 96.

36 ‘Aeroplane report, 17th April, 1915, C. R. Samson, Commander’, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, RCDIG0000581.

37 Mitchell report, p. 108. Aspinall-Oglander, CF 1929, Military operations : Gallipoli : vol. 1 maps and appendices, London : William Heinemann.

38 Ministère de la guerre, état-major de l’armée, service historique 1924, Les armées françaises dans la Grande guerre. Tome VIII, vol. 1, Annexes, vol. 1, Paris : Imprimerie nationale, pp. 148 and 151.

39 Vedel, É 1916, Nos marins à la guerre (sur mer et sur terre), Paris : Payot, p. 140.

40 The Aeroplane, p. 1200.

41 Mitchell report, p. 518.

42 ‘Headquarters, RFC ME. Major Hogg’s Reports.’, The National Archives, Kew, AIR 1/2119/207/72/2.

43 Weldon, p. 86.

44 Weldon, p. 107.

45 Weldon, p. 238.

46 Le Roy, T 1996, ‘THE “PORT-SAID SQUADRON” The First Squadron of the French Naval Aviation 1914-1916’, Over The Front, vol. 11, no. 4, p. 316. The Aeroplane, p. 1200.

47 Elgood, Egypt and the Army, p. 119.

This article first published in the journal of the Australian Society of WW1 Aero Historians.