Monday, July 3, 2023

The Air War: East Africa 1915, Part 2

 Annamaria on Monday

A few weeks back, I gave you the Indiana Jones-like story of Herbert Dennis Cutler, the first pilot ever to attack a battleship.

That story, about a relative failure, told of Admiral King-Hall (above), whom one historian called "the ugliest man in the Royal Navy."  He may not have been handsome, but he was not a quitter either. He persisted in his effort to use aeroplanes against the Royal Navy's nemesis: the Konigsberg. 


By early 1915, Britain had established The Royal Naval Air Service.  The fight against the Konigsberg had the British navy's highest priority.  King-Hall, in charge of that goal, requisitioned a squadron to carry on with his plan.  Enter Lieutenant John Tullock Cull, who arrived in British East Africa with two Sopwith hydroplanes and accompanying officers and a crew of mechanics.  They took up residence at a newly built airstrip on Mafia Island, in Indian Ocean, just off the African east coast, which had easy access to the Rufiji Delta, where the Konigsberg was hiding out.  Oh, and did I say that RNAS men also brought with them racks of sixteen and fifty pound bombs.

Problem was that the Sopwith planes literally fell apart in the humid, equatorial climate.  Their laminated, hardwood propellers became literally unglued, spinning in the muggy air.  The engines seized up.  One had an exhaust valve failure that cut the engine in midair, and the plane dropped into the drink.  Cull survived.  The Sopwith did not.

Try though they may, the mechanics could not overcome the problems and make the planes strong enough to carry more than a pilot, much less a copilot and heavy bombs.  In fact, when they did fly with just the pilot, they ascended barely high enough to avoid the tree tops.

But like their Admiral, King-Hall's men were not quitters! They brought in two Caudron and two Henry Farnum seaplanes.  Though older models than the Sopwiths, they were, one hoped, more likely to stand up to the climate.  They did.  Well, sort of.  In April of 1915, Sublieutenant Arnold joined Cull on one of the flimsy Farnums.  They got the thing up to about 800 feet and made for the delta. Traveling at a pokey 60 mph, they were subject to Germans firing on them from the ground.  Suddenly a huge explosion behind them caused a shock wave that hit the plane.  It sputtered.  Nevertheless less, Cull descended to 700 feet and banked the plane for a better look, with the full knowledge that he was making it easier for the German riflemen to hit them.  He saw where the big shell had come from.

There is was!  The Konigsberg, anchored at a bend in the river, facing downstream, ready to break out of its hiding place.  Cull circled twice, and just for fun he and Arnold took a few potshots at the battleship with their pistols.  Cull grabbed his Brownie camera and took several  photographs of 
the Konigsberg before he hightailed it off into the clouds and made for open water.  This time the enemy on the ground hit the Farnum with small arms fire.  The engine quit.

Culll managed to land the seaplane within a mile or so of the Mafia airstrip.  Steam launches came to tow the plane to safety.  A German bullet was later found in engines' oil-feed.

But Cull has had made history!  The photographs he took that day were the first ever taken from the air of a battleship under siege.



  1. Laminated wood aircraft were a real problem in hot, humid climates. If I remember correctly, which is highly unlikely, the famous Douglas DC 3 came into being because of this problem. Initially there was a single DC-1 prototype. Then Douglas sold about 200 DC-2s. Then finally the DC-3, which, if my memory serves me well - unlikely - became the best selling commercial airliner ever.

  2. Thank you, Stan!! I have no knowledge of the history of the DC-series. But I can attest, at least this much to the DC-3's popularity and reliability and its role in my history. Sometime around 1982, I flew on a scheduled flight from Charlotte, West Virginia to Raleigh, NC in a DC-3. We passengers walked through the foggy night, to board the aircraft. I was even wearing a Burberry raincoat. I felt as if I had been transported into the movie Casablanca!

    The thing that knocks me out about the fliers in East Africa in 1915, is how flimsy their aircraft were. They called them "crates," which they mightily resembled. And they circled around over the Rifuji Delta while the German's were firing at them!!!