Tuesday, February 19, 2019

When the people of Edinburgh, the Lothians and Fife awoke on the morning of Saturday 6th November 1918 and unfolded the weekend editions of their newspapers, they found their tight packed columns full of news that victory in the War was at last only days away, and that sailors of the German Navy had mutinied at Kiel in the Baltic.

There was, however, not one single word in either paper about the biggest news story which had broken within their own circulation areas the previous day. The censors had ensured that there was not a mention that carelessness had sunk the Royal Navy’s first ever aircraft carrier HMS Campania within sight of the Forth Bridge.

The 12,950 ton Campania was built on the Clyde by the Fairfield Engineering Company, Govan, not as an aircraft carrier, but as the latest luxury liner to join the Cunard fleet. Like all Cunard liners of the period, her name ended distinctively in the letters, “ia” and together with her sister ship, Lucania, also built by Fairfields, she was to revolutionise transatlantic travel, both because of her speed and because of her luxurious fittings, unsurpassed in her period.

However, after Campania’s launch at Govan on 8th September 1892, Cunard were not happy with their new vessel, because speed trials off the Isle of Arran revealed excessive vibration. Campania was Cunard’s first twin screw vessel; the two huge propellors were deemed the source of the problem. For a time, Cunard threatened to sue Fairfields, but after the pitch of the propellor blades was changed the vibration was greatly reduced.

After a delay of seven months, SS Campania entered service on 22nd April 1893. By the time she sailed on her maiden voyage the shaking was much reduced and, in any case, was really only felt by the 1,000 emigrates huddled together – just as on the later White Star liner, the ill-fated Titanic; in steerage class, so called because it was situated in the stern of the ship where her German designed rudder and the propellor tubes were situated. Meanwhile, her 600 pampered guests in first class and 400 passengers in the almost equally comfortable second class accommodation situated for’ard and amidships, never noticed the problem even when Campania’s captain ordered her full cruising speed of 22 knots. As they disembarked in the United States they were so full of praise for the delightfully comfortable crossing, which they had so much enjoyed, that on the return trip to Britain, her master was encouraged to urge an extra knot from Campania’s two 15,000 horse power triple expansion steam engines, and she set a transatlantic record time of five days, seventeen hours and twenty seven minutes, to arrive home the proud holder of the fabled Blue Riband.

Campania was the pride of the Cunard fleet and company literature boasted of her two enormous red funnels, each almost twenty feet in diameter and rising an impressive 130 feet from keel to rim; her elegant and perfectly designed razor sharp bow to ensure speed, and her twenty lifeboats to ensure safety.

Along with Lucania, which entered service later the same year, Campania, put Cunard well ahead of all of its British and Continental rivals on the North Atlantic route as the 19th century drew to a close.

Throughout the first decade of the new century, Campania continued as the race horse of the Atlantic fleet, but by 1910 Cunard were becoming concerned about the growing expense of operating her. From her launch, Campania’s one hundred furnaces required to heat her thirteen boilers ate up a huge 500 tons of coal every day she was at sea, and as her engines grew older they were becoming ever more expensive to fuel.

Therefore, in 1914 Cunard decided to sell Campania to the breakers. Soon after, the outbreak of hostilities against Germany rescued her from the scrap yard, because the Admiralty, who was desperately seeking a ship to convert into a newfangled aircraft carrier, decided that she would make the ideal vessel. The reasons for its choice were her sleek, streamlined liner length, and her still impressive speed. Now that Great Britain was at war, the cost of the coal and the wages of the 180 firemen and stokers required to achieve that speed, no longer mattered! Up until the outbreak of WWI, the pioneering efforts to utilise the newly available air power in naval warfare had depended on seaplanes, which both took off and landed on water, but now the Lords of the Admiralty were determined to gain the advantage of launching planes from ships, and for that to succeed the speed of the vessel was all important.

After Campania was purchased by the Royal Navy, on 27 November 1914, it took almost eight months to refit her as one of the world’s first aircraft carriers, complete with a 168 foot long wooden flight deck stretching all the way from her bridge to her bows. At last, on 8th August, 1915, all was ready for the first trial of a ship borne take off and Campania’s captain ordered her to sail straight into the wind and rang down to the engine room for her to increase her speed to maximum 23 knots. As the now 23-year-old vessel liner surged forward, the pilot of the Sopworth Baby seaplane on her flight deck opened throttle and thundered along the planks of her runway to make a first successful takeoff. Triumphantly, he circled Campania, dipping his wings in salute to the bridge before touching down in the water on the new aircraft carrier’s lee side and being hoisted safely back on board.

Despite this success, it was decided that Campania’s flight deck was definitely too short for operational use, and so she was ordered back to port for further drastic modifications to provide the additional length required. The work involved removing her forward funnel and replacing it with two narrow smoke pipes on either side of the now extended 200 foot long runway. The work was completed by the end of April 1916 and Campania was ordered to sail with all speed to the Orkneys to rejoin the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow.

It was then that Campania’s luck began to run out. Despite the long light Orcadian twilight at the end of May, her captain missed the final signal to set sail to challenge the German Navy at the Battle of Jutland and, in the brief darkness of the northern night, further failed to see that the rest of the British Grand Fleet had set sail from the anchorage at Scapa Flow. By the time dawn broke about two hours later and the mistake became painfully obvious, the other ships of the fleet were over forty miles out into the North Sea.

Campania set to sea as soon as possible, and with her superior speed to that of any other vessels in the Grand Fleet, would have caught up with them in time to play her part in the vital battle. However, Admiral Jellicoe doubting that she could arrive in time, and ordered her back to Scapa Flow, thus robbing the Royal Navy of air reconnaissance in the ensuing fray. Her ill luck continued, when two months later in August, essential repairs prevented her taking part in the next abortive attack on the German fleet.

Despite these setbacks, in 1917, Campania was equipped with specially built two seater Fairey F 16s. They proved very successful as spotter planes and were named Campanias after their mother ship.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - October 2018 Issue
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