[Philip Kenning Fowler talks about serving with the Royal Naval Air Service during World War I].
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Philip Kenning Fowler of Palmerston North recalls his career with the Royal Naval Air Service in World War I in an interview with Mr. Lawrence, possibly Irvine Lawrence, station manager of 2ZA.
Fowler: While I was at Eastbourne, there was a Blériot there. Some of the advanced pilots who were just about to pass-out, had the opportunity of flying this Blériot, which was the exactly the same as the one the Frenchman flew across, where the plaque is in the ground, by Dover Castle, where he landed, the first time across the English Channel. It had a sixty-horse Gnome engine in it, fitted. It had warp wings, no ailerons, an open fuselage with an ordinary elevator and bicycle wheels for landing on. We were rather scared to take it up in windy weather because, you couldn't, the warp control, it was just bending of the wings.
Interviewer: Buckle one wing on one side.
Fowler: Yes, yes. We had a flying test of sorts to pass-out and then we were drafted to Cranwell, which is still pass-out centre for the RAF. Now, our standard of ground instruction in those days, our syllabus of training, well, just really didn't exist much. I don't know whether it did in the RFC, but today, our syllabus of training in the RNZAF is very fine syllabus indeed, I handled it a lot in World War II. But there was none of that in World War I. We did flight instruction on navigation, setting our courses, but our compasses were never swung and we never used them. We flew by railway lines and vision.
Interviewer: Main roads, yes?
Fowler: Yes, didn't we? We took signals and semaphore, engines and air frames and a slight bit of navigation. That was the pass-out. Well, I managed to pass-out at Cranwell and then I was posted to an advanced training place, to do a gunnery course, gunnery school. We did our bomb-dropping and our air-firing from the nacelle in the front. Just the same as your F.E.2b [Farman Experimental 2 biplane].
Interviewer: Yes. What bomb sights would you have on those?
Fowler: Well, it was called a C.F.S. That's Central Flying School's bomb sight. You used a stop watch and took your drift and your times and you set it off by turning screws and you set off your speed and your ground speed by cross wires, the same as sighting a 25-pounder, say.
Interviewer: It was amazing though, that the standard of aiming was fairly high.
Fowler: Oh yes.
Interviewer: I don't say it was dead accurate, but it was reasonably satisfactory.
Fowler: Mmm. In our dummy bomb-dropping we carried them in the fuselage and just dropped them over the side.
Interviewer: Just slung them out?
Fowler: Yes [laughs].
Interviewer: Did they then ultimately attach you at the end of 1915 or beginning of 1916, to a ship?
Fowler: They attached me to HMS Ark Royal. Now, that was the old Ark Royal. She was an old freighter with a hangar on the back and an ordinary winch to hoist out seaplanes.
Interviewer: Goodness gracious.
Fowler: I used that as a base in the British Aegean. I didn't fly seaplanes on my first joining, out east in British Aegean. I came under Wing Commander Samson [Charles Rumney Samson] then.
Interviewer: Older man with a beard?
Fowler: Yes. We flew, we were out there really, to do submarine patrols, to watch the Turks and to watch the Goeben and Breslau, who had fled up there after we evacuated.
Interviewer: You were out towards the Dardanelles area?
Fowler: Yes, I was right at the mouth of the Dardanelles on an island called Imbros.
Interviewer: Oh, you were at Imbros?
Fowler: Yes, Thasos and Tenedos. Flying mostly Sopwiths: fighters, Camels, Pups and I did quite a lot of bombing in Bulgaria. Mostly burning crops.
Interviewer: Ah, how did you go about that?
Fowler: Well, we loaded the old Henri Farmans up with petrol bombs. They hold about a gallon of petrol. And when the crops were ripe we would fly down the windward side at about two hundred feet and drop them down. We burnt thousands of acres. Reminding you Mr. Lawrence, that all this wheat and stuff went into Germany, you see.
Interviewer: Of course, yes.
Fowler: We destroyed thousands and thousands of acres of that, but we lost a lot of aircraft. The Germans sent out and they land in a paddock and stow a fighter under a tree and we were really cat's meat to these er, Fokkers.
Interviewer: Yes, they were faster.
Fowler: They'd get in behind us and we couldn't shoot behind because it's a pusher-type aircraft. And we were really, we had fourteen miles of sea to fly over and it was pretty dicey. I've been chased home a couple of times and mighty glad to get home.
Interviewer: Now what about the Dardanelles now, flying over there. Could you see the men in the trenches?
Fowler: Now I was there just after the evacuation. Suvla Bay and all up there you could see all the trenches exactly. It's a very rugged peninsula. I don't know how our fellows ever got ashore really, you know, in places. Suvla Bay is flat. They had a big seaplane base at Suvla Bay and they used to do patrols. Had some rather fast seaplanes. Float-type jobs, single float type and twin.
Interviewer: And then you came back to New Zealand with the war being over in November?
Fowler: I came back with malaria and had a month at home, leave. And went back again and was posted to Dover under Admiral Keyes [Roger Keyes] and at Yarmouth I was under Wing Commander Samson again. And here I volunteered for, on Camels to be towed behind fast cruisers, on a pontoon for Zepp [Zeppelin] strafing. I was never actually called up for it, but this was Wing Commander Samson's idea and he was a man that would never ask anybody to do a thing, but he'd do it himself first. He had a go at this. The idea was, the Camel was on the pontoon, towed behind a fast cruiser, with its tail up in flying position, the engine at full throttle and the pilot pulled a lever, and off she jumped.
Interviewer: Good grief.
Fowler: Of course you had about thirty-odd knots to start on. Well, Wing Commander Samson tried the first time and he just went over the side and disappeared, but he bobbed up. He had another go, he got off the next time. He was game as Ned Kelly, he would take on anything. We got two Zepps that way, over on the Dutch coast. We would tow over, cause the Camel had no range you see, and you had to get up to about fourteen or fifteen thousand, which was fairly high in those days. A Camel would do, I had one up to nineteen thousand, that's the highest I've ever been in World War I.
Interviewer: And did you have oxygen?
Fowler: No. No parachutes.
Interviewer: Amazing what a man could stand in those days.
Fowler: If I moved in my seat a bit fast I would begin to puff.
Interviewer: Now, coming back to Samson. He was the only man in the RAF with a beard? He brought his beard into it, I remember. Now what about this Camel? I can see the poor fellow taking off, the thing being towed at thirty knots, but what about landing? Crash landing?
Fowler: Well, you just landed alongside. You dumped it down tail first and hoped for the best and they picked you up, the cruiser picked you up. You couldn't get back to base, you didn't have enough range.
Transcript by Sound Archives/Ngā Taonga Kōrero
Reference number 253279
Media type AUDIO
Collection Sound Collection
Nonfiction radio programs
Lawrence, Irvine, Interviewer
Fowler, Philip Kenning, 1885-1970, Interviewee
New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (estab. 1962, closed 1975), Broadcaster