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Yarmouth's Sopwith pup and Flt Sub Lt Smart copyright FAAMuseum
Sopwith Pup

On this day 21 August 1917

Published: 21 Aug 2014

On this day 21 August 1917 Sopwith Pup from HMS YARMOUTH shoots down L23 - first 'kill' by aircraft from a cruiser

Zeppelin L.23 was destroyed near Lodbjerg, Denmark on 21 August 1917 by Flight Sub Lieutenent Bernard Arthur Smart flying a Sopwith Admiralty Pup N6430,  launched from a platform on the cruiser HMS Yarmouth

To counter the threat posed by German Airships, HMS Yarmouth which had been fitted with a special platform over one of its gun turrets. On 21 August 1917, off the coast of Jutland, she launched a Sopwith Pup (ship speed 20 knts, wind speed 25 Knots, takeoff speed 45 knots) flown by Second Lieutenant B.A.Smart. Smart climbed to 9000 ft. above the L23 and dived to attack it. As Smart broke off his attack, he saw the Zeppelin going down in flames. Smart had to ditch his aircraft, but was picked up safely by Torpedo Boat Destroyer Prince. No survivors of the L.23 were found. This was the first time an aircraft had taken off from a moving ship to engage the enemy. Smart was awarded the DSO for this action.

The story of Bernard Arthur Smart. He enlisted in the Royal Naval Air Service in November 1914 and was appointed a Petty Officer Mechanic for duties in Scott Motor Cycles in the newly formed Machine Gun Service, later a component of the Armoured Car Division - in addition to being fitted with a side-car, the Scott Motor Cycle carried a Vickers machine-gun capable of firing 300 rounds a minute. In that capacity, or certainly a similar one, 22 year old Smart went on to witness active service in the Gallipoli operations, but in April 1916, following his return to the U.K., he successfully applied for pilot training, and was confirmed in the rank of Flight Sub. Lieutenant on gaining his Royal Aero Club Aviator’s Certificate (No. 3262) that July.

In September 1916 he commenced training in Seaplanes, and in January 1917 joined the carrier ship HMS Manxman, aboard which vessel he served until August of the that year. In the same period, however, he was occasionally assigned for duties in the light cruiser HMS Yarmouth, then fitted with an experimental platform for the purposes of launching a plane - a feat that had first been accomplished by Flight Commander F. J. Rutland in a Sopwith Pup on 28 June 1917 flying from HMS Yarmouth's platform. 

The Zeppelin had been spotted off the Danish coast, where the Yarmouth had been patrolling with elements of the First Light Cruiser Squadron, and at 6.30 a.m. young Smart was safely launched off her experimental platform to do battle. Climbing to 9,000 feet in his Sopwith Pup, he managed to increase his speed to a steady 110 m.p.h. in his subsequent descent, and before too long the ‘aluminium-coloured frame grew in size’. Smart continues...

I could see a man and an object unpleasantly like a machine-gun on top of the envelope, and I now realised the time had come. I was now at 7,000 feet and the Zeppelin a thousand feet below at an angle of 45 degrees and I was still heading straight for her stern. I pushed forward the control stick and dived. The speed indicator went with a rush up to 150 m.p.h. and I was aiming to cut under the Zeppelin a few yards astern of her. The roar of the engine had increased to a shrill scream while the wires were whistling and screeching in an awful manner. I completely lost my head - the earth vanished, the sky vanished, the sea was no more - my universe consisted of that great round silvery object, myself and space. Everything then happened automatically. At 250 yards and at the same height as the Zeppelin, I flattened out slightly and pulled the lever which works the fixed machine-guns. I had misjudged the angle at which this was mounted on the plane, and saw the white stream of my incendiary bullets going too high. In a flash I had nosed down again, flattened out, and rammed down the machine-gun’s operating lever - and held it there. The gun spat out and although the machine was wobbling on account of the enormous speed,

I had just time to see about half a dozen enter the blunt end of the Zeppelin, and a spurt of flame, before my very soul froze with the thought that in my eagerness to aim the gun, I had waited too long and couldn’t avoid a collision. Spasmodically I jammed the joystick hard forward and my heart seemed to come into my mouth in the absolute vertical nose dive which followed. Automatically, again, I found myself straightened out at 3,000 feet lower and turned to see what had happened. The after end of the Zeppelin was now a mass of flames and had dropped so that the nose was pointing to the sky at an angle of 45 degrees while the flames were fast licking up towards the nose ...

An object was adrift from the forward end of the Zeppelin which I first took to be some part of the fabric falling off, but on looking again I discovered it to be a man descending in a parachute. He was the only one, and as he floated down, he and I seemed to be alone in space. I turned until my compass was in the opposite direction to that when I had been chasing the Zeppelin and then looked back to have a last glance at the blaze. The wreck had just reached the sea, only the very tip of it still being intact. It was still burning away merrily and continued to burn on the water for three or four minutes, the smoke having changed to a blacker colour, probably due to the oil tank bursting and mixing with the flames. I was now a considerable way off and as the flames finally died out, the smoke, in spite of the wind, hung over the sea in a tremendous column reaching an apparently enormous height ...

I began by this time to look anxiously for my squadron of ships which I knew I should meet on the starboard side as I had been edging to port so as to be sure of getting them between myself and the sun, thinking the sheen on the water would make them show up at a greater distance. I had been going about 15 minutes and knew I should sight them by this time but although I peered as far as I could in every direction, nothing could be seen, and I had almost made up my mind for a trip to Denmark when I caught sight of them seven or eight miles on my port beam. I was simply delighted and made for them as hard as I could go. It appears they had taken the smoke from the Zeppelin for the German Fleet and had altered course to get position so that in edging to the left as I had done, I had done the one thing that could enable me to spot them. I was now over the squadron and selecting two destroyers near together, turned off my engine and planed down to land a couple of hundred yards ahead. This was my first attempt at coming down in the sea in a land machine but instinct told me that at all costs I must hit with practically no forward way on whatever to avoid turning head over heels. I undid my strap and put a plug in the tube which acts as a valve to the air bags in the tail and, when about 15 feet off the surface, pulled back the stick gradually keeping at that height, while the machine was getting slower and slower, until I had finally got the stick back as far as possible. The machine lost all flying speed and dropped like a stone, hitting the water with a nasty jerk which would probably have meant broken bones had it been on mother earth. The destroyer was alongside in a short time but not before the nose of the machine had sunk and left me just hanging on to the tail. I was soon safely aboard and giving a short report to be signalled to the Commodore. The officers were very much relieved to hear that there were no Germans in sight ... ’

News of Smart’s feat spread quickly, one of the first congratulatory signals he received - from the Commodore aboard HMS Caledon - stating ‘I am sure your reward will be prompt’. And no less a personage than Admiral Sir David Beatty was quick to convey the ‘high appreciation’ of Their Lordships. In fact, moves were rapidly afoot to recognise Smart’s gallantry in double quick time, and he was gazetted for his DSO some nine weeks later. However, since the Germans remained unaware of the exact cause of their Zeppelin’s fate, no citation accompanied the announcement in the London Gazette. Instead, this highly significant episode in British Naval aviation remained very much “in-house” at the Admiralty.

Immediately following his success off Denmark, Smart was transferred to HMS Furious, arriving aboard her less than a month after Squadron Commander E. H. Dunning had been killed carrying out a deck-landing on the carrier’s new 228-foot launching platform - earlier in the same month, he had become the first man ever to complete such a deck-landing. Smart was promoted to Flight Lieutenant, and awarded the French Croix de Guerre.

Smart later led the Tondern raid which destroyed L54 & L60 and gained a bar to his DSO.


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