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The Royal Naval Air Service

RNAS 1914–18

Commander Sue Eagles QVRM RD pays tribute to the pioneering spirit of the RNAS in the First World War

The night-time duel fought with a Zeppelin by Warneford VC in his Morane-Saulnier aircraft.

This year’s centenary of the end of the First World War is a landmark anniversary for Britain and the world. The colossal impact of the war has been extensively documented, yet public awareness of the daring and courageous exploits of the Royal Naval Air Service and the influence of naval aviation is still little known.

The Royal Naval Air Service (1914–18) fought with distinction and valour on all fronts during the First World War, pioneering many aspects of aerial warfare, winning two Victoria Crosses and leading the way in innovation and endeavour – thereby establishing the ethos and spirit of the Fleet Air Arm today.

Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, and even though flying was barely out of its infancy, within weeks the RNAS had pioneered the first strategic air raids against Zeppelins in their bases many miles from the sea – outstanding achievements in navigation and daring.

Winston Churchill saw the potential of naval aviation from the outset. The RNAS raid on the Zeppelin factory at Friedrichshafen on 21 November 1914, a flight of 250 miles across enemy country, although only partially successful in damaging the sheds, had far-reaching effect and is recognised as the first strategic bombing raid in history.

A few weeks later, in December 1914, the RNAS raid on Cuxhaven was another defining moment in history, being the birth of ‘Carrier Strike’, the first time aircraft operating from ships at sea achieved strategic effect ashore. Naval Air Squadrons also flew alongside the Royal Flying Corps in combat over the trenches, making an important contribution to the air war on the Western Front.

The young airmen of the RNAS were spirited and ingenious adventurers with a zest for life – and for pushing the boundaries. In four short years they pioneered the development of ship-borne combat aircraft, anti-submarine warfare and the first aircraft carrier, skilfully building the RNAS into a highly effective naval air arm. It is often overlooked that the RNAS also developed the first armoured cars. By the end of the war, the RNAS had 55,000 personnel, 3,000 aircraft and 103 airships. Their efforts and sacrifice not only led to the present-day Fleet Air Arm but live on through the work of the charity, Navy Wings, which held an Armistice Centenary Dinner in London on 9 October 2018 in tribute to the courage and gallantry of all those who served in the Royal Naval Air Service.

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