A Flight of Fact

(notes edited by John McGivering)


First published in Nash’s Magazine and the Pall Mall Magazine for June 1918 (Martindell, p. 223, 2nd Edition, 1923) and the Metropolitan Magazine of the same date (ORG, p. 2892, Volume 6). Collected in Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides (1923), the Sussex Edition, Volume 16, page 95, the Burwash Edition, Volume 14 and Scribners Edition, Volume 35.

The story

During the War some destroyer commanders are reminiscing over a drink, in a harbour on the east coast of England. One tells a merry tale of two officers from the Royal Naval Air Service who get separated from their mother ship in the ‘Pelungas’, an archipelago of coral atolls in the Indian Ocean. Their ‘plane, out of fuel, gets washed up on an island, and then runs adrift.

After the initial shock the local islanders make friends with them, and help them to recover it.

The airmen then spend several weeks with their rescuers.

They have a convivial time in the best traditions of the Navy until they are able to rejoin their ship, wearing massive beards, and the spectacular uniforms of the Pelunga army, ‘a cross between a macaw and a rainbow-ended mandrill…’


In his headnote to the story, Kipling writes:

Most of this tale actually happened during the War about the years 1916 or 1917; but it was much funnier as I heard it told by a Naval officer than it stands as I have written it from memory. It shows, what one always believed was true—that there is nothing that cannot happen in the Navy.

Andrew Lycett (p. 465) records that Kipling was drawing on information from Sir James Dunlop Smith at the India Office about:

… an airman, Flight Lieutenant Guy Duncan Smith, who had flown to the Maldives to arrest a tribal leader suspected of sympathising with the Germans.

Comprehensive details about the career and background of Flight Sub-Lieutenant Smith, and his adventures in the Maldives can be found in an article in KJ 344, December 2011, by Ian Burns, entitled “Marooned in the Maldives”.

The early days of Naval aviation

Alastair Wilson writes: Aviation in general, and naval aviation in particular, made great strides during World War I. The first launch of an aeroplane from a ship was effected by Lieutenant Ellyson, United States Navy, in November 1910: he also made the first landing back on to a ship in January 1911. In both cases the ship was stationary. In May 1912, Lieutenant Charles Samson, Royal Navy, became the first man to fly an aeroplane off a moving ship, using a platform mounted on the forward turret of the battleship HMS Hibernia in Weymouth Bay.

It was not until the last year of the war that the first recognisable aircraft carriers, as understood today, appeared. HMS Furious, one of Fisher’s enormous, but tactically useless, cruisers was converted to have a flying off deck in front of her superstructure, and a landing-on deck behind the superstructure, and could operate ordinary wheeled fighter and spotter aircraft – after a fashion.

But the Royal Navy preferred, during the war, to make use of floatplanes, otherwise known as hydroplanes, and later as seaplanes. These were carried around in what were called aircraft carriers, and were hoisted out by cranes or derricks to take off from the sea: on completion of a mission they returned to their parent ship, landed on the sea alongside, and were hoisted in. The aircraft’s prime purpose was reconnaissance, or to spot the fall of shot for gun actions.

One of the problems which had to be solved was that the early engines were insufficiently powerful to lift a worthwhile payload into the air, and keep it up in the air reliably (a major point, that) for a worth-while length of time: but in the forcing house of the war, developments were fast, and by late 1915 or early 1916, the engines in use were quite adequate for their tasks. Another problem, associated with that of the engine, was the need for a wireless (radio) set sufficiently light to be carried in an aircraft, but reliable enough to ensure that the valves which made it work weren’t broken by the vibration caused by the aircraft’s engine, and with an adequate range. With the radio set went the need for an operator, who not only had to operate the set, but was required to navigate the aircraft as well. Thus was born the Observer. And finally, the aircraft had to carry enough fuel to take this payload for a reasonable distance, with a sufficient margin for navigational error when returning to the ship. Associated with all these problems, was the need for a compass and other instruments for navigation. It must be remembered that it was only four years since Claude Grahame-White, in the London-Manchester air race, had navigated by following the railway lines – no such aids to navigation existed in the ocean.

So aviation, particularly naval aviation, was exciting and risky, and, for those with eyes to see, a major factor in future naval warfare; just the thing to attract Lieutenant Duckett’s sub lieutenant.

The original, on whom Kipling’s Baxter was based, was, it would seem, Flight Lieutenant Guy Duncan Smith, and it is possible, using the Navy Lists of the period, to provide some background detail about his career, which corroborate Sir James Dunlop Smith’s identification. (It must be possible that they were related.)

The first four naval officers had learned to fly in 1910 (Charles Samson was one of them). In mid-1914, the Royal Naval Air Service had 295 pilots, and 95 aircraft, over half of them seaplanes (and that was more aircraft than the Royal Flying Corps had). The outbreak of war brought an enormous expansion of both air services, and that required many more pilots. They were recruited into the Royal Navy proper, rather than into the Reserves, and initially, all pilots were granted temporary commissions (hence the extremely snobbish expression, sometimes used in the 1920s, ‘Oh, he’s only a temporary gent’ – said of someone who was ‘not quite the thing’, and implying that he did not really display the qualities expected of an ‘officer and a gentleman’). By the end of the war, the RNAS had 67,000 officers and men, and nearly 3,000 aeroplanes, and 103 airships (the latter all ‘blimps’, much like the advertising airships we still see sometimes today).

Thus, Guy Smith entered the Navy in 1915, becoming a Temporary Probationary Flight Sub Lieutenant, with seniority of 6 September 1915, which was probably the date he joined the Navy. He was immediately sent to learn to fly, at Eastbourne, where there was then a Naval Flying School. By March 1916, he was at Calshot, learning to fly seaplanes and/or flying-boats. (A flying-boat had a boat-like hull which floated on the water, to which the wings were attached, with the engines usually mounted between the pair of wings; while a seaplane was more like an ordinary land-plane, but with a pair of floats taking the place of the usual undercarriage.) In the July 1916 Navy List, he was serving at the seaplane base at Dover (still ‘Temporary’, but no longer ‘Probationary’). For the next year, August 1916-August 1917, he was serving in Egypt. His Commanding Officer was Charles Samson, now a Wing Commander, who had covered himself with glory in various operations at the time of the Dardanelles operations, and in operations against the Turks in the eastern Mediterranean.

During this period, Guy Smith was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (gazetted in the Supplement to the London Gazette, 29 July 1917 (p. 7426). The citation read:

In recognition of his services in the East Indies and Egypt Seaplane Squadron during the period 1 April 1916-31 March 1917. During this time he took part in several valuable reconnaissances and bombing flights, obtaining important information and doing considerable damage to enemy organisations.

By September 1917, Guy Smith was serving in HMS City of Oxford, it would seem on the East Indies station, and he was now a Flight Lieutenant, seniority 1 April 1917 (and still ‘Temporary’). The Navy Lists are inconsistent, in that the April 1917 list (corrected to 18 March 1917) says he was in ‘Egypt’, whereas the April 1918 list says he joined HMS City of Oxford, 22 June 1916. However, this is clearly an error, since the City of Oxford did not go out to the East Indies station until mid-1917, let alone his citation.

It is not clear what happened to him at the end of the war. From the May 1918 Navy List, the names of all officers in the Royal Naval Air Service disappear from the Navy List, because they had all become officers of the Royal air Force, as from 1st April. However, his name still appears, now as a Lieutenant RAF, as part of the aircrew on board the City of Oxford. But by October 1918, City of Oxford no longer has any aircrew.

HMS City of Oxford had started out as a 7,000 ton merchantman, and was taken over by the Admiralty as a kite balloon ship in 1915. Kite balloon ships were used to ‘spot’ for shore bombardments, and were used at Gallipoli and on the coast of Belgium, among other places. In late 1916, the City of Oxford was converted to carry seaplanes, probably six at the most, and sent out to the East Indies station, which ran from the Gulf of Suez southwards, to include the Persian Gulf (as it was then called), Indian waters and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and the East African coast down to Zanzibar.

Nor are the Navy Lists as forthcoming about where ships were, nor (in the case of aircraft and seaplane carriers) about the aircraft they carried) as they were before and after the war – scarcely surprising, since the Navy List was an unclassified document, and could easily have reached the enemy, (for the same reason, although an Admiral’s appointment to an individual ship is given, the nature of his command was not.) So we cannot be sure what kind of seaplanes the City of Oxford was carrying, but it is most likely that they were the Short type 184; a single-engined biplane floatplane, with a crew of two, of which some 900 were built from 1915 onwards. It had a top speed of 88 miles per hour, and was capable of carrying a small torpedo.

After the first nine months of the war, sea warfare was confined to the eastern North Atlantic and UK waters, the Mediterranean, the Baltic and to minor support operations in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, around what was then the periphery of the crumbling Turkish Empire. In the rest of the world, the Cape of Good Hope, the North America and West Indies, the China and the Australian stations, very much reduced squadrons continued with the Navy’s traditional duties of policing the Empire. And it would seem that the City of Oxford was occupied on these duties when Lieutenant Smith/Baxter had the adventures which Kipling picked up from Sir James Dunlop Smith. Given the identification of ‘Baxter’ as Guy Smith, and what we know of the latter’s movements and those of the City of Oxford, it seems most likely that the events actually occurred in the second half of 1917, rather than in 1916. It is, perhaps, a sad reflection of the lack of appreciation of air power in some circles – but certainly not in all – that the official naval history of the “Great War”, started by Sir Julian Corbett and completed by Sir Henry Newbolt, makes no mention of the operations of the Egypt and East Indies Seaplane Squadron against the Turks.

The Maldive Islands (the ‘Pelungas’) are now a popular holiday destination: but during World War II and until the withdrawal of British armed forces from east of Suez in 1971, Addu Atoll, and the island of Gan were important as a staging post. Gan contained a Royal Air Force station, while its Atoll had an elderly tanker swinging round her anchor to refuel RN ships on their way across the Indian Ocean: both of them were utterly unpopular appointments, comparable to being in a desert fort of the French Foreign Legion.

In the early 1960s, this contributor spent three weeks at anchor off the island of Malé, the capital, in the middle of the Maldives chain, during a disagreement between the inhabitants and the British authorities. The latter consisted of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s representative, Mr. Arthington Davy (known, I regret to say, to the ship’s company as Mr. Accrington Stanley – very British joke that) who lived with three Ceylonese servants, and three RAF signallers, on a small palm-covered island opposite Malé. Apart from the palm trees, all that could be seen was a flag-pole rising above them, from which fluttered (when there was sufficient breeze) an enormous Union Jack. The island itself was about 400 yards in circumference, and contained the residence – a large bungalow, with a positively enormous Royal coat of arms over the front door, and a tennis court: and that was all. My ship’s name was HMS Blackpool, and the local inhabitants, showing a distinctly British sense of humour, had produced, within about 48 hours of our arrival, a large cardboard cut-out of our silhouette, named, conspicuously, HMS Whitefool. Lieutenant Commander Jerry Martlett’s assessment of the inhabitants of the Pelungas, and ‘Baxter’s’ teaching them to sing ‘Hello, hello, who’s your lady-friend?’ seemed to have rubbed off on their next generation. [A.W.}

Other writings by Kipling about the Royal Navy

See “A Naval Mutiny” (Limits and Renewals), “The Bonds of Discipline,” “Steam Tactics” “Mrs. Bathurst and “Their Lawful Occasions” (Traffics and Discoveries), “Sea Constables” (Debits and Credits), ”The Horse Marines” (A Diversity of Creatures), “A Sea Dog” (Collected Dog Stories), “Judson and the Empire” (Many Inventions), “The Spirit of the Navy” and “The First Sailor” (A Book of Words). See also A Fleet in Being and Sea Warfare, and a number of poems.

[J H McG]

©John McGivering 2007 All rights reserved