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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, December 25, 2016


At 0430 on the 14th of May 1917 Zeppelin LZ-64 (Formerly LZ-22) was cruising about over the North Sea near Terschelling. She was engaged on her 31st reconnaissance flight, in preparation for a Kriegsmarine sortie the next day. However she'd never make it back to base. About ten miles away and two to three thousand feet higher was a Curtiss H-12 flying boat of the RNAS. After it spotted the Zeppelin it began to climb in order to gain a bigger height advantage. It then dove down on the lumbering German behemoth, pulling into level flight about twenty feet lower than the German and only fifty feet away. The front gunner opened fire with his twin Lewis guns, but almost immediately both guns jammed. The Curtiss flying boat began a bank away from the Zeppelin to allow the gunner to clear his jams, however as it turned the gunner thought he saw a glow inside the envelope. When the Zeppelin came into sight again a mere 15 seconds later she was hanging at an angle of 45  degrees tail down down and the underside of the envelope was fully alight. Five seconds later she was a glowing inferno, falling tail first vertically. A mere 45 seconds after the attack commenced the fires were out leaving a charred blackened metal skeleton plummeting into the sea. When she impacted she left a massive slick of black ash and a 1500 foot smoke column.
This was one of the many incidents in the air over the North Sea in the later years of the war that has gone largely unmarked by authors to date. One of the key players in this story were the Curtiss flying boats. When first delivered they were considered unfit for purpose by their aircrews, however, several modifications and most importantly two engine upgrades later and the definitive Felixstowe F.2a version appeared.
These flying boats were a key part in halting the German U-boats in the channel. And as well as reconnaissance they also carried out attacks carrying bombs. Equally as we have seen they fought with German Zeppelins on at least three occasions, one of the later attacks was flown by the pilot in the opening paragraph, Flight Sub-Lieutenant R. Leckie.

While robust, agile for such a large craft and well armed the F.2a didn't have it all its own way. The Germans began to mount naval sweeps with floatplane fighters. One such plane was the Hansa-Brandenburg W.29. Rumoured to have been designed on the back of a wine list by Ernst Heinkel at a cabaret show one night, it involved removing the top wing from an earlier double decker seaplane. On several occasions these German patrols (not always in W.29's) clashed, for honours even.
One such event, on 18th March 1918, one F.2a was attacked by two German planes, later in the same patrol they got attacked by another three. Upon reaching base they counted 80 bullet holes in the plane, with one through the pilots coat and another through his boot!
By far the biggest fight between the two foes was on the 4th of June. A patrol of four F.2a's and a H-12 was lead by the now promoted Captain R. Leckie. On the German side were 14 W.29's led by the Ace Friedrich Christiansen. Before the battle started one of the F.2a’s suffered a blocked fuel line and had to land. Interestingly it seems that Christiansen claimed this plane as a kill. In the roiling furball the Germans lost six planes, and the British had another F.2a forced down due to the blocked fuel line problem, which was common on the type.

At this point two stories appear. One has one of the F.2a's involved being painted bright red with yellow lightning bolts, and it was claimed by the pilots its was the only way they could identify it. Another is that the fuel line problem was so common the threat of being forced down at sea meant there was a need for a high visibility scheme that meant the flying boats could be spotted and rescued easier.
Whichever was true the go ahead was given for the pilots to paint their craft as they so desired.
The risk of landing without the ability to take off again was not a minor one. On one occasion a H.12 landed at sea to rescue the crew of another plane that had been forced down. They then found the sea to rough to take off again. The crew released four homing pigeons with a message for help and their location.
Pigeon N.U.R.P/17/F.16331 arrived with the message after a gruelling flight of fifty miles, and the crew was rescued. However the incident was not without casualty. The gallant pigeon collapsed from exhaustion and died shortly after arriving. He was stuffed and preserved with the title of "A very gallant gentleman", and is currently on display at the RAF Museum at Cosford.
One of the most graphic accounts of the battles in the North Sea comes from the 31st July 1918. Friedrich Christiansen was leading his squadron when they spotted a lone F.2a, which had set out on its patrol at 0600.  What makes this so unique was one of the observers in the W.29's had brought a camera with him and recorded what happened next.
Caught from several directions at once the F.2a tried to dive away reaching just over 100mph. However their escape route was cut off by two of the W.29's who made a head on attack killing the bow gunner with a bullet to the neck. Then the five W.29's sat on the F.2a's tail and took turns to riddle it with bursts of gunfire. Eventually one of the bursts hit the gravity tank. Full of holes this began to leak fuel everywhere, and more seriously this meant the engines were not getting enough fuel and they spluttered and died, forcing the pilot to set down on the water. The pilot got a carrier pigeon away, and was about to send another when the five W.29's re-appeared line astern and began to strafe the sitting duck of a F.2a.
The F.2a landing, under attack.
The crew clings to the wing for safety as the fuel leaking from the gravity tank catches fire under repeated strafing attacks.

One of the crew, who didn't know how to swim, and had a damaged life jacket was set on fire and severely burnt, so he leaps overboard from the nose of the aircraft. Seeing their comrade sinking the last two surviving crew abandon the burning plane and swim to his rescue.

The burning F.2a was soon to sink, leaving a pool of burning petrol. The crew (seen here in front of the nose) swam away and after 35 minutes in the water were rescued by HMS Halcyon.

Of the people mentioned so far, Robert Leckie retired from the RCAF as an Air Marshall in 1947, and died on 31st of March 1975. Friedrich Christiansen survived the First World War, and during the Second World War was in charge of the occupation of Holland, and was tried for war crimes after the war. Originally sentenced to twelve years in prison in 1948 he was released in 1951, and died in 1972.

Image Credits:
nzhistory.govt.nz, www.aviastar.org and www.wingnutwings.com