RFA ManicaThe Allied naval bombardment of the Dardanelles forts in February 1915 had disclosed the fact that the Turks had concealed their batteries on the peninsula very cleverly, and that airplanes and seaplanes had their limitations as directors of gunfire. Apart from troubles with their engines, there was always the self-evident axiom that an observer moving rapidly through the air cannot spot as accurately as an observer sitting in the basket of a stationary balloon. The Naval Commanders at the Dardanelles sent out an urgent signal for observation balloons, urging that they should be dispatched from England at once, so as to arrive in time for the landing on the Gallipoli peninsula.

 

 

 The Allied naval bombardment of the Dardanelles forts in February 1915 had disclosed the fact that the Turks had concealed their batteries on the peninsula very cleverly, and that airplanes and seaplanes had their limitations as directors of gunfire. Apart from troubles with their engines, there was always the self-evident axiom that an observer moving rapidly through the air cannot spot as accurately as an observer sitting in the basket of a stationary balloon. The Naval Commanders at the Dardanelles sent out an urgent signal for observation balloons, urging that they should be dispatched from England at once, so as to arrive in time for the landing on the Gallipoli peninsula.

 

RFA Manica

 

When this message came through on 8 March 1915, the R.N.A.S. had got as far as the establishment of a kite-balloon division with a training centre in south west London near Richmond Park, where the owner of Upper Grove House had generously placed his house and grounds at the disposal of the Admiralty. A nucleus of officers and men trained in airship work had been collected, and were busily imparting their knowledge to the new recruits. But there were no kite-balloons, no winches, no cables, no telephones, when the order was received to proceed at once to Mudros with a kite-balloon section fully equipped. Now it was quite useless for them to say, “We are not ready,” because that is one of the things that no one in the Navy is ever allowed to say, and because the answer is obvious - “Then you have jolly well got to be ready.” The only thing that could possibly be said in the circumstances was, "Aye, aye, sir; we'll carry on at once, and push off at the earliest possible moment,” and when that is said in a cheerful tone of voice by a much-harassed commanding officer, it goes far to persuade the Admiralty that almost anything, short of a miracle, will be accomplished by him.

The first thing to do was to get hold of a kite balloon. Luckily the French had been making some, so an officer was packed off to Paris, who could talk French, and had a winning smile. He came back in a very short time and announced that he had borrowed not only a kite-balloon, but also a winch for its cable, and spoke as eloquently as circumstances would permit about French generosity and French hospitality. The next problem required some careful thought. According to all established precedents, it required a large open space like Salisbury Plain or Richmond Park to negotiate a balloon ascent, and how were they to find such a space on the Gallipoli Peninsula, seeing that the whole of it was in the hands of the enemy? Only one possible solution presented itself - the balloon must be flown from a ship.

They found the ship - it was an old tramp unloading manure from Australia, and was called the Manica - and they proceeded to convert her to their needs, by lifting up a long sloping deck from forecastle to waist, fixing a dynamo to drive a hydrogen compressor, installing their winch and connecting it with the main engines, building a wireless telegraphy house, building quarters for officers and men, and generally adapting the fittings and appointments to what they conceived to be the requirements of a kite-balloon ship. Then they collected the necessary personnel and stores, and in an incredibly short space of time - within seventeen days of receiving the order from Gallipoli - they sailed from Birkenhead.

Like many RFA ships in World War 1 she was commissioned as HMS Manica with her senior merchant naval Officers being made T124 members of the Royal Naval Reserve and her junior officers and her ships crew were made members of the Mercantile Marine Reserve. 

The Manica also carried the ninety seven R.N.A.S. Officers and men of the 1st Kite Balloon Section under the command of Flight Commander John Dolben Mackworth who had originally been commissioned into the Royal West Surry Regiment. In September 1909 he had qualified for his aviator’s certificate (No 209) in a Bristol Biplane at Brooklands in April 1912 and so joined the ‘Military Wing’ of the Royal Flying Corp in the following month. In July 1913 he was the seventeenth man to qualify for the newly created ‘Ballooning & Airship’ certificate. He was appointed a Flight Commander in the Royal Naval Air Service in 1914 serving on the left flank of the Allied lines with Colonel Maitland’s balloon detachment (Nieuport Sector). 

HMS Manica arrived at Mudros on 16 April 1915, and a few days later she was in the thick of it.

 

Manica_off_Gallipoli

 

Manica and the cruiser HMS Bacchante were ordered to leave Mudros at night, and to creep up to the Peninsula just before dawn, and engage any suitable target that might be found.

On high from Manica 1915

The Observers view of Manica's hold as their basket rose into the sky

 

The chief interest of this trial lay in its unexpectedness. The enemy was not aware of the presence of a balloon ship, and had taken no special precautions against being overlooked.

HMS_Bacchante

 

The consequence was that when Manica put up her balloon, the first sight which greeted the observers was a sleeping Turkish camp, neatly arranged in a dip in the ground, out of sight of Bacchante but within easy range of her guns. Through their excellent field-glasses they could see an occasional dot moving about, but for the most part the camp was not yet astir. If there were sentries, they doubtless regarded the distant balloon hanging in the sky as a harmless form of amusement for the jaded British, and saw no connection between it and the long guns of the Bacchante which were turning toward them.

But the boom of the cruiser’s forward turret opened their eyes, and a rude awakening followed when the top of the hillock some hundred yards beyond the camp was hurled into the air. No reveille ever blown commanded so instant a response. Every tent burst into life, and the ground was soon swarming with running specks. A second shot burst on the northernmost fringe of the camp and third right in the midst of the tents. Bacchante had the range to a nicety, and began to fire salvoes of 6-inch. A scene of indescribable confusion followed. Tents were rent to pieces and flung into the air; dust spouted in huge fans and columns, and brightly through the reek could be seen flashes of bursting shells. Like ants from an overturned nest, the little brown dots swarmed and scattered. Across the plain galloped a few terrified mules, and in an incredibly short time the wreckage was complete.

Of the once orderly camp nothing remained but torn earth and twisted canvas, and when the smoke cleared away, no movement was to be seen. The trial was simple but convincing. Manica signaled “Cease fire,” and lumbered home behind her consort, metaphorically wagging her tail ... ’ 

During the next three weeks her observers spotted for various ships of the squadron, including HMS’s Bacchante, Triumph, Lord Nelson, and Prince George, but latterly they devoted most of their time to HMS Queen Elizabeth. On 24 April the Gaba Tepe position was shelled and the Turkish barracks destroyed.

 

 

Queen_Elizabeth_1913_Dardanelles

On 25 April while supporting the troops at Anzac Cove Manica's balloon was air born from 0521hrs until 1405hrs. It wasn't long (at 0535hrs) before her observers sighted the Turkish Battleship Turgud Reis (the ex German SMS Weissenburg) in the Narrows. A message was sent to HMS Triumph and its balloon-directed fire forced the Turkish warship to withdraw. Soon after 0900hrs the Turgus Reis returned and fired at the ANZAC transport ships while the troops were still taking to the boats. The Transports steamed out of range while the Manica/Triumph combination again went into action. The Turgus Reis steamed out of range of the Triumph's four 10 inch guns. She returned a third time in the afternoon but was again chased away.

On 26 April Manica's balloon made seven ascents in support of the ANZAC operations spotting again for HMS Triumph and also for HMS Queen Elizabeth - the first battleship in the world to mount 15 inch guns. During the afternoon shells from HMS Queen Elizabeth blew up an ammunition store at Kojadere.

On 27 April they had a red-letter day. The observers sitting up aloft in their basket saw something of more than usual interest on the other side of the peninsula, so one of them put his mouth to the telephone and told the communicators in the Manica about it. "There's a nice fat Turkish transport in the Straits,” he said; “she is lying in Square 215 W. Quite a nice plump bird. Seven thousand tons at least.” 

The communicator at the other end of the wire told the joke to a signalman, who repeated it by visual signaling to the Queen Elizabeth. Now, of course, they could not see the transport from the Queen Elizabeth, because there was a peninsula in between, but they looked at their map and found the square marked 215 W, and then, just to make sure of things, they asked for a bearing by compass. The observers in the basket gave them the bearing, and the Q.E. trained one of her guns accordingly and fired. The 15-inch shell weighed as much as a lorry and she sent it clean over the peninsula to a distance of about eleven miles. It was a comparatively short range for her; if the distance had been twenty miles, she would not have been disconcerted.

The observer in the basket watched the fall of the shell, and remarked tritely down the telephone, “A hundred up; deflection five right.” This, being interpreted, means, “Increase your range by a hundred yards, and turn your gun five points to the right.” The comment was repeated by the communicator in the Manica to the signalman, who repeated it to the Q.E., who received it just thirty seconds after they had fired the shot. They made the corrections and fired again.

“Fifty down,” said the observer in the basket, and the message was duly passed along the line. Then the Q.E. tried a third time, and waited expectantly to know the result. There was a short pause before the voice from the basket came down the telephone wire.

"Got her,” the observer reported laconically. “She's sinking by the head.”

Here are a few extracts from the official record of the Manica's achievements during the next fortnight.

“28 April. - Two field batteries silenced; several guns destroyed.

“30 April. - Chanak shelled; burned for two hours.

“2 May. - Battery of 8-inch guns shelled; three direct hits.

“8 May. - Four batteries silenced.

“12 May. - House, reported to be Turkish Headquarters, destroyed.”

 

And so the story goes on, each day showing some record of damage to the enemy's defences. It must be borne in mind that two months previously there was not a single kite-balloon in England, that no one had ever attempted before to fly a kite-balloon from a ship, that the kite-balloon, the ship, stores, equipment, officers, and men had all been scraped together in England within the space of seventeen days, that the whole of the Kite-Balloon Division was in an embryonic state, and above all, that they were always face to face with a preconceived notion that airplanes and seaplanes had rendered obsolete all lighter-than-air craft. This prejudice was not altogether unreasonable in view of the comparative failure of the Zeppelin as a weapon of war, but what it did not recognise was that there are certain functions which can only be discharged satisfactorily by means of some craft that can remain stationary in the air. The experiences of HMS Manica at Gallipoli removed the prejudice for ever.

 Manica and Balloon

HMS Manica and it balloon

Souce The ADF Journal, Australia

After a while the Turks began to take a violent dislike to our kite-balloon. They tried attacking it and the Manica with bomb-dropping airplanes, but the fleet’s anti-aircraft guns kept up a merry tattoo, and "Percy” got frightened. Then they decided to signify their disapproval in a dignified but passive kind of way. As soon as the balloon went up, all the Turkish ships near Chanak got under way, quietly and unostentatiously, and disappeared up the Dardanelles, doubtless remembering the fate of the fat transport which had dallied too long in the danger zone. At the same time the Turkish batteries suddenly relapsed into silence, realising that a well-concealed battery can only be detected by the flashes of the guns. So the ascent of the kite-balloon transformed a noisy war zone into a peaceful calm. 

The demand for Manica's services was out of all proportion to that which a single ship could provide. As a result a second kite balloon ship HMS Hector was hurriedly fitted out and arrived at the Dardenelles on 9 July. A third balloon ship, HMS Canning, reached Gallipoli on the 2 October to replace HMS Manica which, in mid September, had returned to the UK for a refit and deployment elsewhere.

The refit at Cammell Lairds & Company provided a replacement balloon platform, additional firepower and facilities to operate a seaplane and when completed she was deployed to East Africa to do some more useful work. It will be noted that Manica was the RFA’s first aircraft carrier.

The highly successful use of Manica and the Kite Ballon resulted in other ships being similarly fitted for such duties and by July 1918 no less than 30 ships of the Grand Fleet were fitted to fly Kite Balloons. Other baloons were fitted to be towed by trawlers, drifters and motor lauches for recogaissance purposes when hunting submarines and also when escorting convoys.

Flight Commander Mackworth was promoted to the Acting Rank of Wing Captain in December 1917 and was awarded the CBE the following year. He later served on the Staff of the newly established Royal Air Force in the rank of Temporary Colonel as the Deputy Director of Balloons at the Air Ministry.

RFA Manica's Master - Commander Wallace E Whittingham RNR

 Captain W. E WHITTINGHAM

Commander Wallace E Whittingham RD RNR

was later awarded the OBE (in 1919) and the Croix de Guerre (also in 1919) 

Copyright © 2008 – 2017 Christopher J White

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