George Francklyn Lawrence

 

Excerpts from George “Lotta” Lawrence’s account of his service as a naval aviator in WWI. Courtesy David Lawrence.

By George Francklyn Lawrence



I became Naval Aviator No. 89, August 17th, 1917 and was commissioned Ensign and ordered to Squantum, Mas. Sept. 1st as an instructor. I arrived there to find that flying had stopped and the machines were being packed up to go to Hampton Roads for the winter. This wasn’t much of a disappointment as it was a miserable camp set in a swamp an very unhealthy in anything but the driest weather. Both officers and men lived in tents and the hanger and the beach facilities were poor and over crowded. But due to the efforts of the skipper, Lt. Spencer, Stuffy’s brother, the flying record in the later part of the summer had been very good. There was a bully crowd of students on the station, many of whom I later ran into abroad. After waiting around for two or three weeks, the boat that was to  take us to Hampton Roads finally showed up, but at the same time I received orders to go to Rockaway, as seaplane pilot. Frank Lynch and I arrived there together to find four small barracks erected in a waste of sand and nothing more. Lt. Stone who recently flew the NC-4 across the Atlantic was the only officer on the station. There were about 75 men. From then on it was a continual struggle against a lack of everything but sand, and that coupled with the severest winter this part of the world has ever experienced, made it pretty hard going on Rockaway Point. But a seaplane hanger was finally erected and Stone took the first machine up, an R-6. On 5th of December Lt. Commander Childs arrived and took command and several other officers came and the station was enlarged to 250 men.

(Note: In mid-June of 1918, Lawrence and Unit member Frank Lynch sailed for Killingholme, England where Commander Bowhill, an English R.N.A.S. pilot was in command.)

The station was located on the west bank of the River Humber, we finally discovered, about two miles below Hull, and excellent location but with one drawback; an 8 knot tide in the river, which caused us many broken wings before we got through. There were about 900 English and 500 Americans in the station, officers and men. Frank and I were started flying at once, going on our first patrol within a couple of days of our arrival. (We used F 2As and H-12s with Rolls motors and later H-16s with Liberties). It was then I realized fully what a great benefit our small F-boat training at Palm Beach and Huntington had been. With the exception of the pilots who had been flying with the British at Felixtowe not one of the American pilots that we found on the station could fly boats and many of them never learned at all, and until the pilots who had been training with us at Hampton Roads got over, about a month later, the five from Fleixtowe, and Frank and myself did all the boat flying and consequently got in on all the good trips. Captain Whiting took the station over from the British early in July, with Lt. Leighton as executive and Tom Murphy as squadron Commander. Subs were thick in July and scarcely a day passed without reports of one or more. Our war charts were covered with their activities, and “something” was bombed at least two or three times a week. Occasionally they were caught running on the surface, but more often wakes and oil were bombed. Capt. Whiting and Tom Murphy, both old submarine men, were wonders at plotting their positions and subs usually showed up where they were expected too.
My one meeting with a sub was on my third patrol late one evening in July about 15 miles off shore approximately where Captain Whiting had plotted it. My observer, George Hodges, spotted a suspicious wake and flew over it. The general outline was very clear and the long stream of bubbles from behind each of the 2 propellers convinced me one was there. On the second trip over it we dropped one bomb (a British 230) circled and dropped the other. The propellers stopped revolving and some oil came up. We called up a destroyer by blinker which was convoying a ship near by, and she dropped six or eight depth charges on the spot – a wonderful sight. This had occasioned a great lot of oil to come to the surface and we went home a pretty cheerful crew. Two days later Hodges and I went to see the Admiral of the East Coast who congratulated us and told us that one of his divers had been down into the submarine and that preparations were being made to raise it. Matters rested there for some time until Hodges went down again to see the Admiral and was told that owing to a storm the buoys had been lost and the sub could not be found. We heard nothing more until a report came in from the Admiralty in London saying that owing to the fact that he buoys were lost, the submarine could not be located again and therefore proof of  the sinking could not be established, a little disappointing to say the least.
My next exciting trip was an all night affair with Tex Hawkins. Zeps had been reported off the coast several times during the preceding week coming nearer each time apparently preparing for a raid. On the night of the tenth of August or thereabouts, Zeps were reported from several quarters headed for the  English coast at the mouth of the Humber. We were called out about 8 P.M. and at about 10 P.M. Tex and I were ordered away in an F.2a especially equipped for night flying. We had orders to patrol at 10,000 feet from Robins Hood bay to the Wash – a stretch of about 60 miles, and to remain out until dawn. Tex having had night flying experience at Felixtowe took command. It was blowing quite hard when we left and raining a little and looked like a nasty night. We hit the clouds at about a thousand feet and climbed through them coming out at intervals until we reached 9,000 feet where we fortunately got clear except for an occasional small cloud.  Then we proceeded to chase everything in sight, stars, which we took for exhaust flames or signals of Zeps, small clouds which we thought were Zeps themselves, and even the moon when she first started to come up. A passing airplane gave us a real thrill as there was no mistaking her riding lights. We came close and she gave us the correct signal and shortly after we made her out, and so were disappointed again. So it went all night. We tried to navigate in a general way but had no idea where the wind was coming from at that altitude. It had been blowing onto the coast when we left, so we kept working to sea to avoid being blown over the land in case we had to come down. It nearly proved our undoing. Morning came at last and we found ourselves above an endless sea of clouds with not a thing in sight. As our gas was getting low, we were faced with the necessity of an immediate return. As we hadn’t the slightest idea where we were, we applied the rule of all pilots flying off the East coast. “When in doubt, fly west” So we dropped down thru the clouds until our altimeter registered 200 feet when we finally came out. We found to our great joy that we had a 30 mile wind behind us, which would be a great help with our depleted supply of gasoline. It was raining hard and a big sea was running so you can bet we were in a hurry. After what seemed hours (as a matter of fact it was 45 minutes) we suddenly came on a fleet of trawlers headed out to sea. As we had 30 minutes gas left, you can imagine how we felt, so we took a course from them and headed for what we knew must be a harbor, what or where we didn’t care, and sure enough twenty minutes later suddenly out of the fog ahead loomed the breakwater of what proved to be Tynemouth. When we landed, Tex and I fell on each others neck and then proceeded to take stock of the situation. Talk about luck! We landed with 10 minutes of gas left. Tyenmouth is the only harbor for fifty miles. On each side it is possible to land a seaplane with any kind of an easterly wind blowing. The coast on either side for fifty miles or more is composed of cliffs which run up from 200 to 400 feet above the sea. If we had not come on the trawlers we would have run a good chance of hitting the cliffs, as the visibility was then about 500 feet. If we hand not had good luck running in from the trawler fleet we might have hit the cliffs which run up sheer on either side of Tynemouth. As it was, we went plumb over the middle of the breakwater about 100 feet up and Tex made a magnificent turn and a perfect landing on the very heavy swell then running to the harbor from the sea. We found Tynemouth to be 150 mile up the coast from the Humber which distance we had drifted during the night, and from that we figured that we had had fifty miles of wind at ten thousand feet blowing us up the coast. Tex and I turned in and slept for a while at the R.F.C. headquarters in the town and then about 4 P.M. started for Killingholme down the coast. After various adventures in the heavy fog then lying in spots along the coast, such as nearly hitting the cliffs twice, flying down the main streets of towns on the shore and chasing various flocks of animals in nearby fields (all this in a bi-motored F-a-A) we arrived at Killingholme about 6 P.M., and very glad to be there. Just two hours later I had turned in for the night, when the fire call sounded and the general assembly, and at the same time there was a dull explosion. I rushed to the window and it seemed tome as if all our hangars were in flames. On arrival at the beach I found two machines blazing fiercely in the center hangar, and among them and a complete wreck, the machine Tex and I had just made or flight in. It seems that the mechanics had just completed filling her with gasoline and the armorers had gone into her to look over the armament, one of them taking with him a lighted lantern, strictly against orders. There was a lot of vaporized gas lying in the bottom of the hull and the first think he knew she was in flames. By attaching ropes to outlying portions of the machines nearest the door, we pulled them out onto the concrete and excepting burnt wings, managed to same the other three, in the hangar and probably the whole place as there were 250 gallons of gas in each machine. One of the bravest things I have ever seen occurred that night. One of the two machines, completely destroyed - an H-16, was all set for early morning patrol, which meant that she had four hundred rounds of machine gun ammunition in her and two – 230 pound bombs hanging under her wings, one under each wing. As she was furthest in and behind our machine which was burning in the doorway it was not noticed at first. Then one of the armament men remembered and without hesitating, he dashed through fire, pulled the release wire of one bomb which dropped onto his shoulders, carried it out and then went back after the other, repeating the performance although severely burnt the first trip. This act undoubtedly saved the hangars and all our machines.

(Note: Later in the account, Lawrence sums up the accomplishments of the American contingent at Killingholme Naval Air Station.)

Under the American regime, really a remarkable amount of flying was done out of Killingholme. In September and October an average of well over a hundred hours a week was maintainable and some weeks it exceeded 200. Killingholme had the highest record in number of hours of patrol and ships convoyed (6,000) of any station in England, during the months of August, September and October. This might have been bettered but, for the awful weather during September, particularly, when hardly a day went by without rain or fog and the wind never seemed to stop blowing a gale. But in spite of it, there were very few days when flying was “washed out”. The fog and rain cost us several lives and many smashed machines (3 in one morning once) but it was the best weather for sub-hunting and nearly all bombings took place in foggy or rainy weather. We did a lot of Mine Layer convoying toward the end, a very dull but important job. The British mine laying base a Immingham was only a mile below the station and there was a whole fleet of mine laying destroyers and steamers which had to be protected while laying their mines. Of course a convoy of coast steamers went up or down the war channel everyday, a buoyed channel running up the whole length of the East Coast of England which was kept continually swept clear of mines and outside of which no steamer was allowed (without special reason) and had to have aerial convoy, weather permitting. These were the gathering places of all types of coastal aircraft, ranging form enormous British Zeps, hanging like great sausages over the convoy to tiny Sopwith pups which used to fly circles around our great lumbering boats. Convoying was tiresome work, but most important, and eventually drove the subs off the East Coast.

Photo: Courtesy David Lawrence. 

National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD
 
Personnel at Killingholme NAS.
 
 
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