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By Simon Batchelor on

Railway ships and the birth of the Aircraft Carrier.

Our Assistant Curator, Simon Batchelor, talks about the little-known role of railway ships in the birth of the aircraft carrier.

At the outbreak of the First World War the idea of aerial warfare was in its infancy. The Royal Navy had only just begun experimenting with aircraft support vessels in 1913 when the elderly Highflyer Class cruiser HMS “Hermes” had been converted into an experimental seaplane carrier with a forward launching ramp and aft hangar. At the end of the experiment the ship was reconverted and put in reserve. On the outbreak of war “Hermes” was reconverted to an aircraft transport and re-commissioned. She was sunk in October 1914

In May 1914 the Royal Navy purchased a vessel being built in Blyth, Northumberland. Originally intended to be a freighter the RN purchase led the vessel to be redesigned as a seaplane carrier, the first ship in history to be specifically designed for the carrying of aircraft – HMS “Ark Royal” was commissioned in December 1914.

Shortly after the declaration of war the Admiralty began requisitioning merchant vessels for use as naval support vessels, among those ‘taken up’ were three cross-channel steamers belonging to the South Eastern and Chatham Railway; Empress, Engadine and Riviera.  After initial use as transports for the Royal Naval Air Service, these ships were sent to Chatham Dockyard for rapid conversion into Seaplane Tenders. Each ship was fitted with canvass hangers to house its three aircraft (one forward and two aft), recovery derricks (each aircraft had to be lowered outboard to take off and then upon recovery raised inboard to be housed) and defensive armaments. By the end of September 1914 conversion of all three was completed, the ships were commissioned and attached to the Harwich Force. Between November 1914 and January 1915 these three former railway vessels became the only British vessels capable of launching aircraft available to the Admiralty. In December the Harwich Force including the three Seaplane Tenders were sent into the North Sea. On Christmas Day all three launched their seaplanes in an attack on the Zeppelin Base and port installations at Cuxhaven – this was the first ever attack carried out by carrier based aircraft on enemy port installations undertaken by the Royal Navy.


TSS Riviera before conversion.

January 1915 saw another Railway connected ship taken over and converted; the Isle of Man steamer Ben-my-Chree. The work was undertaken at the Cammell Laird yard, Birkenhead and differed from the earlier ships, an hangar for four – six seaplanes was constructed aft of the rear funnel, along with the derricks necessary for lifting the aircraft into and out of the sea. A dismountable flying off platform was installed for the foredeck, this was equipped with rails and a trolley thus allowing seaplanes to be launched from the deck. On commission in March 1915 she was sent to the Harwich Force.

Whilst this conversion was taking place the Admiralty sought to increase its permanent seaplane carrier fleet, in February 1915 it bought Engadine and Riviera from the South Eastern and Chatham Railway and both were sent to be modified at the Cunard shipyards. Like the Ben-my-Chree they both received aft permanent aft hangars for four aircraft but no forward launch ramp. Armaments were upgraded and they were also fitted with pigeon lofts which housed the carrier pigeons used by aircrews if their radios failed. Upon completion they were once again sent to the Harwich Force.

March 1915 saw another Manx steamer requisitioned, SS Viking, and converted to same design as Ben-my-Chree. Commissioned as HMS “Vindex”, she too was initially sent to Harwich, and in November 1915 was purchased from her owners. The concentration of seaplane carriers at Harwich lead to a number of joint operations between the ships: In July Engadine and Riviera took part in a reconnaissance of the River Ems, unfortunately the mission was unsuccessful as only one plane from Riviera was able to take off successfully and none of the aircraft detailed to attack the observing Zeppelins were launched from Engadine. A similar mission in 1916 involving Engadine and Vindex was also unsuccessful.

1915 also saw the development of a new group of seaplane carriers, following her conversion Empress was sent to Queenstown before receiving orders, at the end of the year, to join the East Indies and Egypt Seaplane Squadron, which then consisted of the Ben-my-Chree, HMS Anne and HMS Raven II, two former German merchantmen that had been impounded in Port Said at the outbreak of war. Ben-my-Chree made naval aviation history in June, during the Dardanelles campaign, when one of her aircraft launched the first aerial torpedo attack.

Finally aviation history was also made onboard Vindex when a Bristol Scout C aeroplane made a successful takeoff from her launch ramp, the first take of by a land type aircraft (one with wheeled landing gear) from a Royal Navy ship

1916 saw the arrival of another former railway steamer, the Midland Railway’s Manxman, into the ranks of the seaplane carrier fleet. Manxman had been converted at Chatham and boasted two hangars and a flying-off deck, and unlike her fellow converts she was immediately assigned to The Grand Fleet, but her conversion had a serious effect on her speed and it was found that she was unable to generate sufficient speed to keep up with the fleet, despite this she remained with The Grand Fleet until 1917.


1975-7948: Model of HMS. Engadine as she appeared at the battle of Jutland.

Perhaps the most famous sea battle of the war also took place in 1916 and the railway steamers were represented by Engadine which had been transferred to Beatty’s Battlecruiser fleet shortly after the joint action with Vindex. On the 30th May as part of the 3rd Light Cruiser Squadron she was sent to locate the German High Seas Fleet. 31st May she launched one of her aircraft and received a report that they had observed several enemy vessels, spot reports continued to come in until a ruptured fuel line forced the aircraft down. This was the first time in history that a heavier-than-air aircraft had reconnoitred an enemy fleet and it is unfortunate that Engadine’s wireless operators were unable to relay the messages to the main fleet.

This was not the end of the action for Engadine however, at approximately 18:30 hours she came up to the crippled HMS Warrior  whom she took in tow, but it was not enough to save the cruiser and early the following morning the tow was slipped and Engadine went alongside and transferred 675 officers and men from the stricken vessel.

1917 saw the last of the railway steamer conversions come into service, HMS Pegasus had originally been ordered by the Great Eastern Railway in 1914 but upon the outbreak of war work was stopped and the SS Stockholm as it was meant to be called was mothballed. In 1917 the Admiralty bought the partially built vessel and fitted it out as a mixed aircraft carrier. Beneath the forward mounted flight deck was a hangar for fighter aircraft; these were delivered to the flight deck by the first ever aircraft lift fitted to a Royal Navy Vessel.

Of the fifteen ships that served as aircraft carriers between 1914 and 1919 seven were former channel steamers owned by railway companies and their partners, and of these seven only one, Ben-my-Chree, was lost. One should also remember that when the ships were initially taken up so were their crews, the only exceptions to this being female stewards and non essential sea going staff over the age of sixty. Those who remained were expected to learn new methods of working, command structures and discipline, to understand the needs of the Royal Navy, the aircraft, their pilots and mechanics, and an entirely new form of ship, all in the time it took the shipyard to convert their cross channel steamer to a ship of war and for the Admiralty to test and commission it; approximately ten weeks.

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