Topic: BatzN - Heligoland
The Battle of Heligoland Bight
North Sea, 1 June 1915
Heligoland Bight, a minor action on 1 June 1918 involving aircraft launched from the Australian light cruisers Melbourne and Sydney, which represented the first use of air power in combat by the RAN. During a three-month refit carried out at the Royal Navy dockyard at Chatham in the last quarter of 1917, Sydney had acquired a revolving aircraft launching platform fitted behind and partly over the forward 6-inch gun turret. This enabled the ship to take on board a Sopwith Camel scout for operational use, probably in February 1918. After being similarly fitted with a platform the following month, Melbourne also began operating a Camel in May that year.
When Admiral David Beatty, commanderin-chief of the Grand Fleet, sent a large force to raid enemy minesweepers in the Heligoland Bight on 1 June, both Australian ships were with the Second Light Cruiser Squadron which led the operation. Included in the main body were two heavy cruisers (Courageous and Glorious) which had been fitted out to carry aircraft, escorted by nine destroyers, and the First Battle Cruiser Squadron with Beatty in HMS Lion. Late in the afternoon, with the operation well underway, two enemy seaplanes suddenly broke through cloud cover overhead, passing the cruiser force and making directly towards the bottle-cruisers beyond. After dropping five bombs, the enemy machines turned and within five minutes were reprising the light cruisers on their way back to base to report what they had sighted.
Meanwhile, Sydney and Melbourne had each launched their own aircraft, getting these aloft in the creditable time of just two minutes. The pilot of Melbourne's aircraft lost sight of the quarry as he climbed through the clouds, but Sydney's aviator, Flight Lieutenant A.G. Sharwood, RAF, kept the enemy planes in view and steadily overhauled them in the course of a 100-kilometre pursuit. Eventually getting within range, he opened fire on one of the aircraft and observed it drop down through the mist in a spinning dive. Sharwood was about to follow his opponent down when he spotted another enemy machine behind him, presumably the first seaplane's partner, and was obliged to turn to meet this threat. In the short combat which followed, one of the Camel's guns ran out of ammunition and the other jammed soon afterwards, forcing Sharwood to disengage and head back towards the fleet.
With petrol running low, Sharwood Was beginning to despair of finding the ships when he sighted two British light cruisers with several destroyers and turned towards them. One of these vessels fired at him before he was able to identify himself, but he was then able to descend to make a landing on the water ahead of one of the destroyers - the only way cruiser-launched aircraft could be recovered at that time. Forced to cling for twenty minutes to the tail of his ditched machine, which fortunately stayed afloat, he Was eventually picked up and his Camel subsequently salvaged. Although the incident was not generally regarded as significant, it was actually a useful early demonstration within the RAN of the utility of seaborne air power in support of naval operations.
Extracted from the book produced by Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998, pp. 147-148.
Additional References cited by Chris Coulthard-Clark:
Keith Isaacs (1971) Military Aircraft of Australia 1909 - 1918, Canberra; Australian War Memorial.
The Battle of Heligoland Bight, North Sea, 1 June 1915
The Battle of Heligoland Bight, North Sea, 1 June 1915, Roll of Honour
Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920
Citation: The Battle of Heligoland Bight, North Sea, 1 June 1915, Outline