By Haydn Brown.
For about 30 months during WW1, the names of Robert Leckie and South Denes at Yarmouth were intrinsically linked. He, a Scottish born Canadian pilot and South Denes being the site of the Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) from where Leckie and some 30 aircraft and air crew played an exceptional roll in keeping the enemy at bay. Whilst at South Denes, Robert Leckie set course to become a highly decorated officer and later, when the war had ended, was to carve out a distinguished career in military flying. As for Great Yarmouth’s RNAS station, she was destined to be all but forgotten and long wiped off the map. Here’s their story:
Long before his defiant speeches helped rally a country at risk from the Nazi menace in World War II, Winston Churchill played a key role in establishing an earlier barrier to German invaders – one in which Great Yarmouth had a vital role to play. Churchill was responsible for the setting up of Great Yarmouth’s Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) at South Denes as part of a national network of stations founded in 1912 to run alongside the new Royal Flying Corps. These stations were charged to counter the perceived growing German menace and their main “naval” role (ignoring the service’s direct field “support” of the Royal Flying Corp) was fleet reconnaissance, patrolling coasts for enemy ships and submarines and attacking enemy coastal territory. It would, during its time, systematically search thousands of square miles of the North Sea for enemy aircraft of any kind and U-boats.
At Yarmouth the site chosen for a regional RNAS station was on the South Denes, an area outside the town’s walls which had had a variety of uses over the centuries, from cattle grazing to public hangings, horse racing to a place for fishermen to dry their nets. It took a little while but the Admiralty eventually earmarked this area after having searched for over a year for suitable land where hydro-aeroplanes could be handled and launched. Gradually, the site witnessed the arrival of concrete hard-standings, service buildings, hangars and slipways.
Commissioned on April 13 1913, the Yarmouth Station grew rapidly, taking on civilians later that year who would be responsible for the care, maintenance and repair of machinery; they would also act as chauffeurs, storekeepers or telephone operators. Then in 1914 came seven officers, two warrant officers, 29 ratings and three pensioners to play their part on one of only eight airfields in Britain, ready-built to combat aerial threats. Interestedly, naval terms would apply; personnel not living on-site were called ‘The Ship’s Company’ and would be treated well, with free transport between their lodgings and the base. As for the public, they were forbidden to approach the site when aircraft movements were likely, but could visit the planes on Sunday afternoons if no ‘emergency’ was declared.
When fully operational, the Yarmouth Station’s 30 planes would go on to fill its potential for combating raids by airborne Zeppelins, spotting German surface raiders and playing a major part in submarine detection. Unlike some RNAS stations, Yarmouth was now equipped to act as both a land and a flying boat base with seaplanes initially launched by trolleys. Later, two slipways of heavy sleepers pinned to beach-driven piles were built, one at each end and intentionally placed opposite aircraft sheds, to aid arriving and departing aircraft. The base was also supported by additional landing ground facilities at satellite bases in Norfolk at Bacton, Burgh Castle, Holt (Bayfield) and Sedgeford, plus Aldeburgh and Covehithe in Suffolk. At the time, the Admiralty had also planned to take over Hickling Broad and use it as a reserve flying boat base and contractors duly built a concrete slipway, but this was never completed. In the event, Hickling was only used during the war for two emergency landings, but a separate arrangement allowed seaplanes destined for Yarmouth to land on the calmer waters of the broad if the sea were too rough. That arrangement is still in force!
A stark reminder of what Yarmouth was up against was when the town became the victim of the first-ever aerial attack on the UK by a Zeppelin airship; this was during the early evening of January 19 1915 when two townsfolk were killed. The South Denes planes, just a mile or two away, were unable to intercept because they could not match the airship’s cruising height. The Station would have to wait until November 27 1916 for its first success when a Zeppelin was shot down over the sea near Lowestoft, the date of which coming close to the moment when Robert Leckie arrived at the station and yet to make his mark and be known as one of “the Zeppelin killers from Canada”.
Robert Leckie was born in Glasgow on 16 April 1890 into a family of weavers who emigrated to Canada. When old enough, Leckie was initially commissioned into the 1st Central Ontario Regiment, and in late 1915 paid 600 Canadian Dollars to begin flying training at the Curtiss Flying School on Toronto Island. However, he had completed only three hours of training in the Curtiss Model F. flying boat at Hanlan’s Point, when the school was forced to close. At the urging of Sir Charles Kingsmill, the Chief of the Canadian Naval staff, the Royal Navy agreed to accept half of the class and Leckie was sent to England. On 6 December 1915, he was commissioned as a probationary temporary flight sub-lieutenant in the Royal
Naval Air Service, and posted to Royal Navy Air Station Chingford, for training. On 10 May 1916, having accumulated 33 hours and 3 minutes flying time, he was granted a Royal Aero Club Aviator’s Certificate and was then sent to RNAS Felixstowe for further training in flying boats. He was confirmed in his rank of flight sub-lieutenant in June, and in August was posted to RNAS Great Yarmouth situated at South Denes.
14 May 1917: Leckie’s First Success.
On 26 April 1917 the Admiralty put a new tracking system in place to detect Zeppelins. As Zeppelins patrolled, their courses were methodically plotted by the British wireless interception stations and, if they approached within 150 miles of the English Coast, their position, course, and speed were communicated direct to one or more of the East Coast flying-boat bases. Local commanders then had discretion to send out aircraft – keeping them up to date with the Zeppelin’s position by wireless.
Soon after dawn on the 14 May 1917, in misty weather, news was received of a Zeppelin near the Terschelling Light Vessel. A Curtiss H12 ‘Large America’, manned by Flight Lieutenant Christopher John Galpin, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Robert Leckie, Chief Petty Officer Vernon Frank Whatling, and Air Mechanic J Laycock, was sent out from Yarmouth. As pilot, Galpin took off from South Denes at 03.30 a.m. in poor weather with heavy rain and low cloud. After eighty miles, the flying-boat shut down the wireless to lessen the chances of discovery. At 04.45am, the weather cleared as the aircraft approached the Dutch island of Texel, then further on, crew spotted the Terschelling Light Vessel and at 04.48 the Zeppelin L 22 came into view at a distance of about 10–15 miles. Immediately, the Curtiss increased speed and gained height, and Leckie took over the controls as Galpin manned the twin Lewis guns mounted in the bow.
Leckie managed to approach to within half a mile before his Curtiss was spotted and the Zeppelin attempted to take evasive action but as events turned out, it was too late. Leckie made a skilful approach and dived on the Zeppelin until he was twenty feet below and fifty feet to starboard of her gondolas. Galpin then opened fire from the two Lewis guns in the forward cock-pit, but after a burst of fire both guns jammed, one after the other. Leckie turned the aircraft away and an attempt was made to clear the guns, however, no second attack was necessary. As the flying-boat turned, the L22 Zeppelin began to glow and within seconds she was falling in flames. Her skeleton plunged upright into the sea, leaving no trace in the dawning light save a mound of black ash on the surface of the water. The Curtiss returned to South Denes base by 7:50 a.m and they found only two bullet holes, in the left upper wing and the hull amidships, where the Germans had returned fire. In his Report to the Commander of Yarmouth RNAS, Galpin stated “……..I would submit to your notice that the success of the attack was due to the good judgment and skill of Flt Sub Lt Leckie…….” On 22 June, Leckie was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his part in downing the L 22; on 30 June, Leckie was promoted to flight lieutenant.
Leckie’s Subsequent Successes.
The next success for Leckie was at 10.35 a.m. on 5 September 1917, again flying a Curtiss H-12 from South Denes, under Squadron Commander Vincent Nicholl. They were accompanied by a de Havillan DH.4 biplane, and were again heading for Terschelling. However, they were only part-way to their destination when they unexpectedly encountered the Zeppelins L 44 and L 46 accompanied by support ships. The British aircrafts were hit by enemy fire, but pressed their attack on the L 44. Nicholl noted several hits on the Zeppelin from his guns, but it did not catch fire. Leckie then turned the aircraft to attack the L 46, but it had turned rapidly away and was out of range, as was the L 44 by the time he turned back. Both British aircraft had been hit, and the DH.4’s engine soon failed. The Curtiss had also been hit in one engine and one wing was badly damaged.
The DH.4 was forced to ditch into the sea, and Nicholl ordered Leckie to put the aircraft down to rescue the two crew. However, now with six men aboard, damaged, and in heavy seas Leckie was unable to take off again. Some 75 miles from the English coast, the aircraft began to taxi towards home. Their radio was waterlogged, but they did have four homing pigeons. Nicholl attached messages to the birds giving their position and course and sent them off at intervals. After four hours the aircraft ran out of fuel, and began to drift, so they improvised a sea anchor from empty fuel cans to steady it. That night the damaged wing tip broke off, and each man then had to spend two hours at a time outside balanced on the opposite wing to keep the broken wing from filling with water and dragging the aircraft under.
After three days at sea, the six men were suffering badly with no food and only two gallons of drinking water, gained from draining the radiators of their water-cooled engines. Finally, at dawn on 8 September, as search operations were about to be called off, one of the pigeons was found dead, from exhaustion, by the coastguard station at Walcot, barely 20 miles north of the RNAS base at South Denes. Shortly after midday Leckie and crew were rescued by the torpedo gunboat HMS Halcyon. As for the pigeon, it would not be forgotten. The bird was preserved and kept in the officers’ mess at RNAS Yarmouth until the base closed after the war; later it would find a home at the RAF Museum Hendon where it is now on display. A brass plate on the display case bears the inscription “A very gallant gentleman”.On 31 December 1917 Leckie was appointed to flight commander.
While on patrol on 20 February 1918, Leckie, now a flight commander, spotted an enemy submarine on the surface and attacked it with bombs, seeing one strike the vessel as it dived, leaving a large oil slick. Leckie was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Service Order on 17 May 1918, only to learn much later that he had not actually sunk it.
On 1 April 1918, the Royal Naval Air Service was merged with the Army’s Royal Flying Corps to form the Royal Air Force, and Leckie transferred to the new service with the rank of lieutenant (temporary captain) whilst remaining at South Denes. By the 8th of April he was promoted to the temporary rank of major.
On 4 June 1918 Leckie led an offensive patrol of four Felixstowe F.2 A flying boats and a Curtiss H.12 towards the Haaks Light Vessel off the Dutch coast. They saw no enemy aircraft until one of the F.2A’s was forced down with a broken fuel feed-pipe. At that moment, five enemy seaplanes appeared, but seemed more interested in attacking the crippled F2 as it taxied towards to the Dutch coast where the crew eventually burned their aircraft before being interned. Then more German seaplanes then appeared and Leckie promptly led his small force into a head on attack; a dogfight ensued which lasted for 40 minutes. Despite further mechanical difficulties with two other F2A’s, necessitating further makeshift repairs while in the middle of the action, two German aircraft were shot down. In addition, four were badly damaged causing the Germans to break off the action, for the loss of one F.2A and the Curtiss – its crew to survive but interned by the Dutch; one man was killed. Leckie’s force returned to South Denes where, in his report, Leckie was to bitterly remark “…..these operations were robbed of complete success entirely through faulty petrol pipes…… It is obvious that our greatest foes are not the enemy……”
Two months later Leckie was involved in arguably his most famous sortie. It took place on the afternoon of 5 August 1918 after a squadron of five Zeppelins had taken off from Friedrichshafen for the east coast of England and a night raid against Norwich, Boston and the Humber Estuary. The leading airship, L 70, commanded by Johann von Lossnitzer, had on board Peter Strasser, chief commander of the German Imperial Navy Zeppelins, the main force operating bombing campaigns from 1915 to 1917. He, together with everyone else on board, were unaware of what was in store for them and their aircraft; they were probably also unaware that the airship squadron had been spotted while out at sea by the Lenman Tail lightship which signalled its course and position to the Admiralty who then passed the details on to South Denes for action.
The first to respond to this notification was Major Egbert “Bertie” Cadbury, (member of the Cadbury family) who raced to the only aircraft available, a DH.4, and jumped into the pilot’s seat while Leckie, who was close behind, occupied the observer/gunner’s position. After about an hour they spotted the L 70 and attacked, with Leckie firing eighty rounds of incendiary bullets into her. Fire rapidly consumed the airship as it plummeted into the sea just north of Wells-next-the-Sea on the Norfolk coast. None of the 23 men aboard survived. Cadbury and Leckie and another pilot, Lieutenant Ralph Edmund Keys, then attacked and damaged another Zeppelin, which promptly turned tail and headed for home. This was to be the last airship raid over Great Britain. As for the three combatants, they each received the Distinguished Flying Cross for their actions.
A few days later, on 11 August 1918 Leckie took part in another operation over the North Sea. Zeppelins often shadowed British naval ships, while carefully operating at higher altitudes than anti-aircraft guns or flying boats could achieve, and out of range of land based aircraft, so the Harwich Light Cruiser Force set out with a Sopwith Camel lashed to a decked lighter towed by the destroyer HMS Redoubt. When Leckie’s reconnaissance flight reported an approaching Zeppelin, the Redoubt steamed at full speed into the wind, allowing the Camel’s pilot Lieutenant Culley to take off with only a five-yard run. Culley climbed to 18,800 feet, approached the L 53 out of the sun, and attacked with his twin Lewis guns, setting the airship on fire.
As the war entered its final months, the RNAS was absorbed into the newly formed RAF and on 20 August 1918 Leckie was appointed commander of the newly formed No. 228 Squadron, flying the Curtis H-12 and Felixstowe F.2A out of Great Yarmouth. Within three months the Armistice brought the fighting to an end and on 31 March 1919 Robert Leckie said his farewells to South Denes when he retired from the RAF to pursue a career in a variety of military flying roles. He died in 1975.
As for the Yarmouth Station, it lasted until late in 1920 whilst most RNAS sites – including Burgh Castle, Sedgeford, Holt, Aldeburgh and Covehithe closed by September 1919. South Denes was then used for commercial flights until the 1930s when the area became the South Denes Camping and Caravan site. New buildings were constructed and one former station building was to remain even beyond closure of the camp site in 1990. Then a new era began and any trace of what had gone before was finally buried by thousands of tons of sand, stone and concrete to form Yarmouth’s new Outer Harbour complex.
In June 2009, Yarmouth’s Royal Naval Air Station was recognised with the unveiling of a plaque in honour of the men who protected the nation from the Kaiser’s air force and navy. This is outside 25 Regent Street, the RNAS regional headquarters from 1913 to 1920.
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