MARKS THE 100 YEAR COMMEMORATION OF
Well before WW1, the London Daily Mail was planning to offer a prize of
£10,000 for the first successful crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. However, with the outbreak of war in 1914,
this venture was put on hold.
Within days of the
end of WW1, the wartime ban on the Atlantic race was lifted. There was considerable excitement in being
the first to fly across the Atlantic with ten or more entries being received to
make an assault on the Atlantic and the associated prize money. With considerable advancements in Aviation
during the war years meant success was more than likely. The Daily Mail renewed its offer of £10,000
which was further boosted by business man Lawrence Phillips - £1,000, and
£2,000 from the Ardath Tobacco Company.
Whilst there was an
initial flurry of entrants, only four serious contenders made it to the
starting point in Newfoundland.
Newfoundland being chosen, as the prevailing winds favoured a West to
The four entrants that
made the journey to Newfoundland were:
Hawker and Mackenzie Grieve in the Sopwith B1 single engine plane Atlantic·
- Raynham and
Morgan in the Martinsyde single engine plane Raymore
Brackley and Wyatt in the converted Handley Page four engine bomber also called
and Brown in a two engine Vicker Vimy
eligible for the prize money, America was represented with three Navy Flying
boats: NC-1, NC-2 and NC-4. They were
further supported by a U.S. flying ship NC-5 and a considerable number of U.S.
Sopwith was very
keen to boost the Sopwith Aviation name and was quick to submit the entry nominating
Harry Hawker as the pilot. The
Navigator chosen for the Sopwith challenge was Lt Cdr Mackenzie Grieve.
The aircraft chosen
was a modified B1 (Bomber), with a 360hp V12 Rolls-Royce engine. Other modifications to the B1, renamed “Atlantic” included a detachable boat or
life raft built into the upper part of the fuselage, additional fuel tanks and
a ‘type 55A’radio, along with a detachable undercarriage. Discarding the undercarriage after take-off
would reduce drag and increase speed (an addition 7mph was achieved). Having an undercarriage would also be
problematic should they need to ditch in the Ocean. As to landing, they would worry about that
when they got there, and a belly landing was not likely to worry Harry.
Harry conducted test
flights at Brooklands including flying the distance of 1,800 miles in nine
hours which was the required distance to cross the Atlantic. With tests and modifications completed and a
proven endurance of 22 hours flying time, all was ready to crate and send the
aircraft to St Johns, Newfoundland in Canada.
Accompanied by a
Rolls-Royce expert and a ‘Cinema man’ from Messers Jury’s, Hawker and Grieve
departed England on 10 March 1919 on the SS Digby. After a rough crossing, they arrived at Placentia
Bay in Newfoundland on 28 March. The
heavy crates were then transported to St Johns by rail, road and horse drawn
wagons. The best field they could find
at St Johns was near Mount Pearl, and still very rough, which would prove
difficult for take-off, as it could not be used in certain wind directions. The Atlantic
was rebuilt in about one week in a wooden hangar erected for that purpose.
Source: Harry Hawker, One of Aviation's Greatest Names, L.K. Blackmore
From the time of
their arrival up until their eventual departure they experienced quite bad
weather. Testing was virtually
restricted to engine runs and because the freezing outside temperature, the
radiator had to re-filled and emptied after each engine run to prevent the
engine from freezing. Harry made his
first test flight at Mount Pearl on 10 April.
On 11 April, another
competing team – Raynham and Morgan arrived with their Martinsyde plane Raymore.
However, the weather was
preventing any of the teams from taking off.
Whilst England was enjoying unusually warm and sunny days, Newfoundland
barely got above freezing – for some 30 days the temperature never rose above
36° and only one day did it reached 62°.
Whilst waiting for
the weather to improve Harry Hawker and Mackenzie Grieve tested out their life
raft and immersion suits in a local lake.
Tension between the competing teams was at times tense, and to help
relieve the tension, as they were all accommodated in the same local Hotel,
agreement was made that the teams would give each other a couple of hours
notice if they planned to take off across the Atlantic.
Source: Harry Hawker, One of Aviation's Greatest Names L .K. Blackmore
With news of the arrival of the three NC
Seaplanes at Trepassey, the pressure to be ready for an attempt certainly
increased amongst the British teams.
Soon after, additional news was received that one of the three NC sea
planes had made it Azores. This news
made Harry determined to take off if the weather allowed.
The Atlantic Attempt
On the following
Sunday morning, May 18, the sky at St Johns was cloudless, and the official
referee of the Daily Mail contest was given notice that the Sopwith team flying
the Atlantic would be leaving that
afternoon. The Raymore was also advised of the Atlantic’s
impending departure, and they also made a decision to leave after Hawker.
The Atlantic’s fuel tanks were filled,
letters from a mail bag, which had been divided between Hawker and Raynham were
also put on board. Letters were addressed to King George V, England’s Prime
Minister Lloyd George and to “the people of Britain from the people of Newfoundland”.
appropriately warmed, Harry Hawker and Mackenzie Grieve seated in the open
cockpit made a final wave to the 200 or so people who had heard that a take-off
was going ahead. At 3:40pm local time,
the Atlantic picked up speed as it headed
down the bumpy field and at 300 yards lifted off very slowly, avoiding a ditch
and a fence which loomed ahead. Once
off the ground and climbing, Harry throttled back slightly and headed out towards
the Atlantic Ocean and Ireland.
When they crossed the coast line Harry pulled
the under-carriage trigger which released the 450lb undercarriage and the Atlantic
immediately increased its speed another 7mph.
Meanwhile, on the
ground the Raynham-Morgan contingent was making ready for their imminent
departure. Shortly after 4pm their plane
having started, they began their journey across the field. In earlier test flights the Raymore
was able to take off in less than 100yards, however, with the winds
behind them they were not able gain sufficient lift to take-off and after 300
yards, they hit a bump, rose into the air and then plummeted down hitting the
ground and destroying the undercarriage.
So ended the Raymore
Source: Harry Hawker, One of Aviation's Greatest Names,
All was going well
for first the few hours for the Atlantic.
Above the fog, which had greeted them very early in their flight, the weather was much clearer and the
Rolls-Royce engine was performing well and maintaining a speed of 110mph. Grieve was able to take sextant shots every
half hour. After flying an easterly
course for 4½ hours they believed that they had reached the shipping lanes so
they altered their course to follow it.
However, the further
they progressed the worse the weather . Heavy clouds caused visibility to
decrease and they began to experience heavy rain squalls. Strong Northerly winds were now buffeting the
Atlantic and the risk of being blown
off course was high. Harry decided to
climb higher through the darkness to 10,000 feet.
When Grieve was
finally able to get a sextant reading he figured that they were 300km south of
their desired course.
After five hours
they had covered 725km. Harry was
concerned about the radiator temperature which had crept up to 85.6°C, even
though the shutters being wide open.
this temperature he knew they would boil dry before reaching land. Harry decided to turn off the engine, hoping
the change in pressure at the water pump might dislodge any foreign matter that
was causing the overheating problem.
In total darkness he
cut off the engine and descended through the clouds towards the Atlantic Ocean. The temperature fell and Harry restarted the
engine and climbed back to their cruising altitude. An hour or so later the temperature yet
again. They were now 1600km out and past
the point of no return. Harry flew to
12,000 feet They made several more power-off dives flying to 12,000 feet and
then 15,000 feet in an attempt to keep the radiator cool, but it was always
only going to be a temporary reprieve, as each time they attempted to climb, so
did the radiator temperature. To make
matters worse for the duo, they were flying into a severe storm.
Harry attempted to
fly over the storm, but the steam from the boiling radiator turned to ice,
after three attempts they were again forced to cut the engine and dive towards
the sea. At 300 meters, Harry went to
restart the engine, but it was non- responsive—in less than a minute they would be in the ocean. Harry shouted to Grieve to
get busy on the hand gasoline pump.
Nothing happened. Harry tried to
hold the Atlantic in a low flat
glide, but he could not prevent further decent.
When Harry could see the ocean, he knew there was going to be a crash and
if Grieve remained where he was, trying to pump fuel into the engine, he would
be flung forward head first into the fuel tank.
Harry yelled out to
Grieve telling him that they were going to crash, when what seemed to have been
just meters above the water the engine started, and coughed back into life!
Harry and his
navigator knew that with the Atlantic’s
power now purposely reduced to avoid overheating, and unable to climb, that
their attempt was lost. The best they
could hope for was to stay aloft until dawn and find ship—or perish.
Grieve sent out SOS
messages every fifteen minutes, but had no way of knowing if their distress
call from their 25Watt transmitter would be received by anyone.
As the sun rose the
winds again increased to what seemed to
be gale force, but peering through the rain, they miraculously spotted a small
steamer. Harry headed for the ship and
circled it three times, Grieves let off three red Verey light distress signals
to indicate their distress, which were seen by the First Mate of SS Mary, W.
Schubert, who was on watch. When Harry
was sure they were sighted he turned off the engine one final time and landed
in the rough seas immediately ahead of the Mary.
Neither were hurt in
the landing, and they managed to launch their life raft. Their immersion suits
kept them reasonably dry.
Although the Mary was able to get as close as 200m,
owing the very rough seas, it took an hour and a half for the life raft from
the Mary to reach them.
Owing to the heavy
seas, they were not able to salvage anything from the Atlantic . However, of note another vessel, the Lake Charlotteville did come across the Atlantic some days later and was able to
salvage the remains of the Atlantic and
the Mail Bag.
The storm that now
engulfed the Mary was so bad that the
Mary could only manage an average
speed of one knot.
The battering that
the airman received whilst in the air, was now taking its toll, with both suffering sea sickness – especially Harry. And to make matters worse, the Mary had no radio which meant no word of
their rescue and survival would reach England for another six days.
Source: Harry Hawker, One of Aviation's Greatest Names
In England, numerous
false reports were circulated as to fate of the Atlantic and its two man crew.
Some reports had the Atlantic 40
miles off the coast of Ireland, other
reports had them in still different locations. All of course were wrong.
Two squadrons of RAF planes started a hunt. Two destroyers, a sloop, a Naval patrol boat
and three paddles steamers were despatched from Irish ports to search for the
By Tuesday hope of
finding Hawker and Grieve was diminishing.
When a demand was made for a more sizable effort to search for the Atlantic, the Admiralty responded that it
had too many commitments to allow this to be carried out for “..an unofficial
undertaking". This response raised the eye
brows of many an Englishman as they could not but compare the assistance the
Americans received (in the order of hundred Navy ships) for their crossing
only days earlier.
Andrew (Banjo) Barton Paterson, also believing that Harry Hawker had perished, wrote a poem eulogising Harry Hawker - Hawker The Standard Bearer
On Saturday 24 May,
Empire Day and six days since Harry departed Newfoundland,
King George V sent a
telegram to Harry’s wife:
“The King, fearing the worst must now be
realised regarding the fate of your husband, wishes to express his deepest
sympathy and that of the Queen in your sudden and tragic sorrow. His Majesty feels that the nation has lost
one of its most able and daring pilots to sacrifice his life for the fame and
honour of British flying”
The following Sunday
as Harry’s wife Muriel was returning from Church, a reporter from the Daily
Mail phoned to say Harry and Grieves were safe.
That same Sunday
morning on the Butt of Lewis – the most northerly point of Outer Hebrides, off
Scotland, a small ship came in view of the signal station. The officers on watch saw that flags of the
international code were broken out.
Although the prevailing wind made it difficult to read the flags.
noted that the ship first gave its name M_A_R_Y.
The next message
The fags signalled S-O-P-W-I-T-H
The signal station
then signalled the Mary I-S-I-T-H-A-W-K-E-R?
Then Mary raised the flag
The Mary continued on her course. The time
was 10:00am, the signal station immediately sent a message to the Naval base a
Off the coast of
Loch Erribel, a destroyer, the Woolston,
came along side the Mary and Hawker and Grieves were taken aboard. Not long after that, they were on land and bound for London by train.
When news reached
London, special editions of the Sunday News papers announced “Hawker
Saved”. In London’s Albert Hall, in the
middle of a concert, the audience stood and cheered as the news
circulated. News also reached
Newfoundland by Radio almost one week to the hour of their departure, that they
Union Jacks which
had been at half mast were raised, Raynham
sent a telegram from Newfoundland to London, addressed to Mackenzie Grieves
asking him to be his Navigator.
Thousands jammed London’s Kings Cross station to
welcome the return of the airmen. They
were raised shoulder high and carried to Sopwith’s waiting Rolls Royce.
The next day they
were received by King George V, who invested each of them with the Air Force
Cross. This was the first time this
famed decoration had been personally awarded by the King and also the first time the
Air Force Cross had been awarded to a civilian.
Source: Welcoming crowds in London for aviator
H. G. Hawker. Searcy Collection (TROVE)
The King sent another telegram to Muriel. This
“The King, rejoices with you and the nation
on the happy rescue of your gallant husband.
He trusts that he may long be spared to you”
- Our Atlantic Attempt; H.G Hawker and K.
- Hawker - One of Aviation's Greatest Names; L.K. Blackmore
- The Great Atlantic Air Race; Percy Rowe
- National Library of Australia - TROVE