Monday, May 8, 2023

Herbert Dennis Cutler

Annamaria on Monday



Well, if I don't tell you, in my experience you won’t easily find out who he was,

 - certainly not by googling him.  The only response I got about Herbert Dennis Cutler was from the British National Archives in Krew .  

You can get copies of a few records that look like this:


 Yours for three pounds-fifty each.


To spare us all such expenditures, I will tell you what I know.

In 1914 and 15, the Brits in East Africa had a big problem.  Since the moment war was declared, the Konigsberg, a powerful low-draught German warship, had been wrecking havoc with their blockade of German East Africa to their south.  And by the end of 1914, their Gerry nemesis was hiding in the Rufiji River delta, where the water was too shallow for the typical Royal Navy ship to go.  But the K's guns were powerful enough to reach British targets.

After months of trying to block the Konigberg's escape route or fire shells that would reach it, Admiral King-Hall had a bright idea.  Suppose an aeroplane could drop a bomb on the bloody beast.

 And so Equatorial Africa's first Naval Air Service was born.  

King-Hall started to search for an aviator and a plane.  Enter Herbert Dennis Cutler, a Londoner who was earning a meager living, barnstorming in Durban, South Africa.  He came with his own plane - a Curtiss, American-made hydroplane and most important, his fearless attitude.

Planes in those days were made of wood and cloth.  Pilots sat in the wicker chair with their legs hanging out.  Cutler's was a rear-mounted, single-engine job with pontoons instead of wheels.

Our man, Herbert quickly accepted a commission in the Royal Navy Reserve, loaded his plane onto a supply ship, and headed north.  No one, not King-Hall, not Cutler himself had any idea that he would become the very first pilot ever to attack a warship.

In late December 1914, he took off for the Rufiji with a home-made gelatin bomb, but given the difficulties of staying aloft in the hot-sticky Equatorial air, the heavy bomb was too much for the tiny engine to carry.  Cutler had to return to the airstrip immediately, leave the bomb behind, and make his first mission objective one of reconnaissance: to find the Konigsberg's exact position.  Unfortunately, he had barely gotten his craft above the trees when the radiator started to leak.  Cutler managed an emergency landing on a small river island out of reach of K's big guns.  He was taking a refreshing dip in the river when a rescue party on a steam launch got to him.

The broken radiator could've ended the mission right there, were it not for an imaginative sailor on one the British ships, who remembered reading that Henry Ford and the maker of the airplane, David Curtis were on friendly terms.  There were Ford motor cars in Mombasa, and perhaps a radiator from a car would work for the plane. With a little bit of adaptation on a car radiator, Cutler was back in business.

Cutler made three more missions, all scouting expeditions. In the end, he located exactly where the Konigsberg was hiding. He made his last attempt under fire from Germans on the ground. By then, everyone was pretty sure, that – given the overheated air – the tiny plane, which wasn't much more than a kite, would never be able to carry bombs. Cutler crash landed on his last mission.  A rescue party found his plane, but not Cutler in it or nearby.  All assumed that the intrepid pilot had drowned or been eaten by a crocodile.

It wasn't until the war was over that the truth came to light.  Cutler had managed to swim to shore, was captured by the Germans, and remained their prisoner until after the armistice in 1918. Nobody really knows how he spent his time after that, but his death is recorded. He died in London in 1963.

The Konigsberg was eventually destroyed, but that's a story for another day. 


  1. What an amazing story, Annamaria. I've never heard of this chap before. It brings a whole new meaning to 'flying by the seat of your pants', doesn't it?

    1. Thank you Zoe, I think he would be better known if the world knew about the rest of his life . But he just disappeared.

  2. Replies
    1. Right you are, Caro! The description I read talked about how each time he was shot down or crash landed, "Another on of his nine lives..."

  3. F-A-S-C-I-N-A-T-I-N-G. A true Indiana Jones character if ever there were one!

    1. You so right. his exploits could be a movie that ends with him emerging from the jungle two weeks after the armistice, Paul von Vorbeck--the German commander finally learned the war was over.

  4. Wonderful story, AmA. I was struck by how similar the top-most photo looked to today's ultralight planes. In fact, until I started reading the article (given the color and what looks like blue-jeans and hiking boots), I could have easily mis-guessed that it was an early ultralight from the 70s.

    1. What eyes you have, EvKa! That photo at the top is of a replica, available for sale, in case you are interested in a new hobby.

  5. Any chance he may feature in a new East Africa book?

    1. Thank you, Michael. I have one more hurdle to jump, and then I will have my rights back to all the Vera&Tolliver books. Then I can pick up the series. Book four has been waiting for this to be accomplished. Then it will FINALLY see the light of day. It is set in 1914. The fifth in the series is set in 1915. That book is about half done. In it, HDC may make a cameo appearance. HOPING!!!