Touching The Face of God!

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:

Yarmouth (RNAS)
Arial view of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) station at South Denes, Yarmouth, Norfolk UK.

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!

Yarmouth (Gnome)
The first arrival at South Denes was a standard military biplane, which flew in from Hendon on May 31 1915. It was the 100hp Gnome, described as a ‘floating machine’. Normally a two-seater for a pilot at the front and rear observer, a third person could also squeeze into the rear but in practice that rarely would happen.

Yarmouth (Attack Plaque).jpgA 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

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.

Yarmouth (Curtiss_F_floatplane)
A Curtiss Model F. Flying Boat

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.

Yarmouth (Curtiss Model H_Large America
A Curtiss H12 ‘Large America’

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.

Yarmouth (L22 Hit)
The Destruction of the L.22 Zeppelin

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.

Yarmouth (Curtiss Model H_Large America_Publicity)
A publicity shot of the crew and their Curtiss H12

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.

Yarmouth (DH4)1
De Havillan DH.4 Biplane

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.

Yarmouth (Pigeon)
“A very gallant gentleman”.

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.

Yarmouth (Felixstowe F2 seaplane)
A Felixstowe F.2A Flying Boat

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……”

Yarmouth (Peter Strasser)
Peter Strasser

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.

Yarmouth (Airco_DH-4)
De Havilland DH.4

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.

Yarmouth (zeppelin L70)
Robert Leckie destroys Zeppellin L.70 off Wells-Next-To-Sea, Norfolk

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.

Yarmouth (Leckie)3
Air Marshal Robert Leckie, CB, DSO, DSC, DFC, CD (16 April 1890 – 31 March 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.

Yarmouth (RNAS Plaque)

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.

THE END

Sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Naval_Air_Service
espritdecorps.ca/history-feature/bob-leckie-zeppelin-strafer
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Leckie_(RCAF_officer)
https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/blog/flying-boats-over-the-north-sea/

COPYRIGHT NOTICE2

Mousehold’s Little Railway

The Norwich Electric Tramway Company was a subsidiary of the New General Traction Company and its construction work started in Norwich in June 1898 with its first routes opened in July 1900. In conjunction with the laying of rail track and all else that is required to establish a tramway system, an electricity generating station was built on Duke Street in Norwich to supply power for the scheme. The Company’s tram depot was also built on Silver Road in the City. The whole network was essentially complete and fully operational by the end of 1901, but there were minor additions and changes in 1918 and 1919 – see below.

Norwich Tramway (Map - Plunkett)
A Diagram of the Norwich Electric Tramway System. Photo: George Plunkett

The above Diagram shows a tramway system which operated seven main routes throughout the central areas of the City; each route ‘colour-coded’ using White, Red, Green, Blue, Orange, Red & Blue and Yellow & Red. This article is concerned only with the Green route which transversed the City from the junction of the Unthank and Newmarket Roads to Castle Meadow, then onwards to Prince of Wales Road, Norwich Thorpe (GER) Railway Station, Riverside Road, Bishopbridge Road ; then generally terminating at the Cavalry Barracks. However, during the summer months there was an ‘extended summer service’ route which ran from Riverside Road, up and along Gurney Road to the elevated spot on Mousehold Heath at the Pavilion (now Zaks) where the trams would terminate and make ready for the return trip.

Norwich Tramway (Cavalry Barracks 1900)
(Photo: copyright owner unknown – see Notice below.)
Norwich Tramway (Tram Riverside)
The section of the Norwich Electric Tramway system ‘Green Route’ which operated between Newmarket Road and the Cavalry Barracks (above), taking in Mousehold Heath during summer months. This photograph shows a tramcar travelling along Riverside Road, between Norwich Thorpe (GER) Station and Bishopsgate Road. (Photo: Courtesy of Norfolk County Council)

Towards the end of World War I (1914-1918) a temporary extension to the ‘Green’ route was laid down to transport armaments, munitions and aircraft parts between the then Mousehold Aerodrome, on which a munitions factory was situated, and Norwich Thorpe (GER) station. This extension was named the ‘Mousehold Light Railway’, and to operate its movements, the Light Railway used part of the existing Newmarket Road to Cavalry Barracks ‘Green’ tram route belonging to the Norwich Electric Tramway – namely,  the section that ran between Norwich Thorpe Station and the Gurney Road Pavilion on Mousehold Heath. Beyond this point, one end of the new ‘extended’ light railway then cut through the valley woods to pass south-east of the ruined St William’s Chapel site, before entering the ‘Mousehold Aerodrome’ site itself, with its munition’s factory. The entrance to this airfield was on the other side of what is now termed the Norwich Ring Road and  along what now is Roundtree Way.

Norwich Tramway (Mousehold)
A section of Mousehold Heath through which the Light Railway once ran. Photo: Blipfoto

The other end of the Mousehold Light Railway separated itself from the existing ‘Green’ passenger tram route at the southern end of Riverside Road; from there, it crossed the Thorpe Road junction east of Foundry Bridge and entered the Thorpe Station forecourt. From there, a spur line was laid to run parallel to the northern side of the rail Terminus to a siding which effectively served as Platform 7; here, the goods were off-loaded on to suitable main line rolling stock for onward main line trains journeys. The wagons used along the whole length Light Railway were hauled by two Government owned electric tractors, with BTH controllers and 38hp motors, powerful enough to pull the heavy loads up into and across Mousehold Heath. At the end of the War the line was discontinued and the tractors passed into the possession of Norwich Electric Tramcar Company who converted them for tram use. They were known as ‘Dreadnoughts’ due to their wartime role.

As for the rail line extensions, these were recycled from the disused King Street tram-route but differed in re-construction with the use of wooden sleepers. These rails and sleepers remained in- situ for about twelve years before being taken up in the 1930’s. Today, there still remains some evidence of the course of the light railway; a short length of former tramway survives as a cutting close to the south-east corner of the earthworks associated with St William’s Chapel.

Norwich Tramway (Mousehold - Lidar)
A Lidar image of Mousehold Heath showing  the St William’s Chapel site (center) and the approximate route of that section of the Mousehold Light Railway that linked what is now Rowntree Way with the Gurney Road section of the ‘Green’ Norwich Electric Tramway system, thus allowing the Light Railway to reach into Thorpe Station.

MOUSEHOLD AERODROME SITE

During much of the 19th century, the area outside of the present outer ring road, between the present-day Salhouse and Plumstead roads, used to be the Norfolk Regiment’s Cavalry Drilling Ground. During World War I (1914 and 1918), the area became a Royal Flying Corps (RFC) airfield and was sometimes referred to as ‘Norwich Aerodrome’. In April 1918 it became the ‘Royal Air Force Station Mousehold Heath’; its size covering 263 acres and containing a domestic and technical site. The technical site was equipped with a number of hangars including a coupled General Service shed. The first unit based at Mousehold Heath was Number 9 Training Squadron which stayed there until January 1918. A number of other squadrons stayed at the airfield including 18, 37, 85 and 117 Squadrons. From 1916 Mousehold Heath was the headquarters of the RFC Number 7 Wing.

Norwich Tramway (No.3 Badge)No. 3 Group Headquarters was located at Mousehold Heath between July and November 1919.

Norwich Tramway (B & P Mousehold)
One of Boulton & Paul’s Hangers at Mousehold Aerodrome in 1918. (Photo: copyright owner unknown – see Notice below.)

The airfield also became an important repair and maintenance depot in 1917 which subsequently became the Number 3 Acceptance park. This was formed on 22 March 1917 originally as the Norwich Aircraft Acceptance Park later designated as the No. 3 (Norwich) Aircraft Acceptance Park and on 26 July 1919 became the Norwich Storage Park. The park was to accept aircraft into service from local manufacturers Boulton & Paul, Mann Egerton, Portholme and Ransome Simms & Jeffries until 1930.

Norwich Tramway (Bi-Plane)
The Beardmore Inflexible aircraft at the Norwich Air Display, Mousehold Aerodrome, May 1929. Photo: The Flight magazine archive from Flightglobal, CC BY-SA 4.0,  

The Norwich & Norfolk Aero Club was formed at the airfield in 1927 and the airfield operated as Norwich Municipal Airport between 1933 and 1939. During this period, the airfield was also used by the military as a Motor Transport Storage site and as an Elementary (and Refresher) Flying Training School (Number 40 E & RFTS) between 1937 and 1939. Then, during the Second World War, the airfield came to be used as a bombing decoy with dummy aircraft stragetically place throughout the area. The airfield also had an anti-aircraft battery and radio beacon; further to this, it has been suggested that part of the area may have been used as a Prisoner of War camp. Flying from the airfield finished in the early 1950s and the hangars were subsequently converted into light industrial use as part of Roundtree industrial estate.  The whole area is now the Heartsease Housing Estate.

Norwich Tramway (Heartsease)
Aerial view of the early stages of the Heartsease Estate. Photo: No date, Plate P1195

THE END

Sources:
https://www.blipfoto.com/entry/4116220
http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=1492579
War Work at Boulton and Paul, Norwich.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAF_Mousehold_Heath
www.edp24.co.uk/features/when-trams-ruled-the-streets-of-norwich-1-4856536
Header Picture: Painting by John Crome, circa 1818-1820. Tate Gallery, London.
Photographs by George Plunkett are published by kind permission of Jonathan Plunkett.

NOTICE: This is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which endeavours, where required, to obtain permission to use other copyright owner’s material. However, for various reasons, identification of, and means of communicating with, owners can sometimes be difficult or impossible to establish. Nevertheless, rest assured: No violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intended here.