South African Military History Society


The Fleet Air Arm can trace its origins to the formation of the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps in April 1912, thereafter becoming the Royal Naval Air Service in 1914. It was this fascinating history which our guest from the British High Commission in Pretoria, Cdr Les Sin RN, introduced with illustrations and a Video.

For the first six years British naval aviation was firmly in the hands of the Admiralty, but on 1 April 1918 the RNAS and RAF were combined to form the Royal Air Force. By that time, the RNAS had been built up to a strength of 55 000 officers and men, had 2 900 aircraft and 103 airships, and controlled 126 air stations at home and overseas. But in the postwar period the naval element of the RAF was run down and a shadow of its former might. Only when a number of aircraft carriers came into service, the RAF disbanded its naval squadrons in 1923 and formed the 400-series flights, better suited to carrier embarkation. One year later, this small force was styled the Fleet Air Arm of the RAF, and the Fleet Air Arm it has been ever since. HMS Argus seems to have been the first carrier to receive its aircraft. The FAA served in Home Waters, the Mediterranean and on the China Station. In the early twenties the Fairey Flycatcher became its standard fighter, with the Fairey 111F the Hawker Nimrod and the Hawker Osprey following in the thirties. 1936 was an important year, as it saw the arrival of the versatile Fairey Swordfish, and around this time the batsman system was introduced, the Deck Landing Control Officer. In 1939, the modern carrier HMS Ark Royal entered service, to carry Blackburn Skua fighters.

WW II began on a slow note, but with the German invasion of Norway, action picked up. There were sinkings of German warships and U-boats, and during the evacuation at Dunkirk, land-based aircraft from the FAA played a part. Thereafter, their attention turned to the Mediterranean, and many attacks were made against Italian and German shipping. The most notable was the night attack on Taranto on 11 Nov 1940, when twenty Swordfish from HMS Illustrious put half the Italian fleet out of action. FAA aircraft participated in the defence of Greece and Crete, in June 1941 a number of squadrons were involved in the Syrian campaign, and several were attached to the Desert Air Force. From May 1941 Sea Hurricanes and Fulmars operated from catapult-armed merchantmen or CAMships. At the end of 1941 Japan entered the war, and the FAA soon became involved in the defence of Ceylon. The FAA also played its part in further Arctic convoys, and in Nov 1942 participated in Operation Torch. Seven British carriers were employed, including the small Escort carriers or Woolworth carriers, as they were unofficially known.

During Operation Avalanche, 100 fighters from Force V assisted in the Salerno landings. By April 1944 the Eastern Fleet had built up sufficient strength and attacked Sabang and other Japanese targets, flying the US-built Corsairs on these missions. In August 1944 the FAA took part in Operation Dragoon, the landings in the south of France, more attacks were made against targets in Norway, and the last attack by the FAA in this theatre of war was made shortly before VE-day.
The Korean War started in 1950, and several of the Royal Navy's light fleet carriers took part before the end of hostilities in 1953. Helicopters came into operational use in 1953 and were used against terrorists in Malaya. From then on there was hardly a military encounter in which the FAA was not involved: Operation Musketeer, the joint French/British attack on the Suez Canal area in 1956; protecting Kuwait in 1961; fighting for the Federation of Malaysia until Oct 1966. But the FAA's greatest test was the role it played in the Falklands hostilities in 1982, during which their unwritten credo of: CAN Do! once again carried the day, as it had done so often before during its distinguished history. After his talk, Les showed a Video updating us on the technical advances made in aircraft and carriers, notably helicopters and VTO aircraft, followed by an interesting Q&A session.
Tony Gordon closed the evening by thanking our speaker for a most entertaining and informative presentation.



8 February 2001
The Angolan War
Talk by Stephen Fourie
8 March 2001
THE LONGEST RETREAT: The retreat from Burma, January to May 1942
Illustrated Talk by Lt Col "Dickie" Bullen MC (Middlesex Yeomanry), Member of the Burma Star Association
12 April 2001
Illustrated Talk by Rodney Constantine
10 May 2OOl
Illustrated Talk by Johan v.d. Berg

We will feature another Potpourrie-Evening of talks later this year. Any member wishing to be a 15-minute speaker is asked to contact our Chairman with his choice of topic.

Fellow Member Mac Bisset highly recommends the book: Octavian's Gift by Peter Keene. It is a dramatic, albeit ficticious, description of embassy life in Europe with a fair slice of James Bond thrown in, and a naval slant. Mac found it almost unputdownable. For more information please contact Mac Bisset or the Scribe, or, if you wish to order a copy, Johan v.d.Berg.

Your Committee has been compelled to raise fees slightly to cover general increases and Journal printing costs. Renewal Forms and stamped reply envelopes are included with this Newsletter.

are normally held on the 2nd Thursday of each month at 20h00 at the Recreation Hall of the SA LEGION'S ROSEDALE COMPLEX, Lower Nursery Road, Rosebank (off Alma Road), opposite Rosebank Railway Station, below the line. All visitors welcome. Tea and biscuits will be served.

John Mahncke, (Vice-Chairman/Scribe), (021) 797 5167

South African Military History Society /