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Atlantic Crossing Attempt 

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 East flight. 

The four entrants that made the journey to Newfoundland were:   

  • Harry Hawker and Mackenzie Grieve in the Sopwith B1 single engine plane Atlantic·
  • Raynham and Morgan in the Martinsyde single engine plane Raymore
  • Kerr, Brackley and Wyatt in the converted Handley Page four engine bomber also called Atlantic·
  • Alcock and Brown in a two engine Vicker Vimy 

Although not 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. navy ships.

Sopwith Entry 

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°.

Source: Harry Hawker, One of Aviation's Greatest Names L .K. Blackmore

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.

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”.

The engine 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 challenge.              

Source: Harry Hawker, One of Aviation's Greatest Names,

L.K. Blackmore

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.

At 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

L.K. Blackmore

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 two aviators.

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 “ 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.

They noted that the ship first gave its name M_A_R_Y.

The next message was S-A-V-E-D-H-A-N-D-S.

The fags signalled S-O-P-W-I-T-H A-E-R-O-P-L-A-N-E.

The signal station then signalled the Mary I-S-I-T-H-A-W-K-E-R?

Then Mary raised the flag signifying YES.

The Mary continued on her course. The time was 10:00am, the signal station immediately sent a message to the Naval base a Scapa Flow. 

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 were safe.

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 one read:

“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. Mackenzie Grieve
  • Hawker - One of Aviation's Greatest Names; L.K. Blackmore
  • The Great Atlantic Air Race; Percy Rowe
  • National Library of Australia - TROVE
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