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Date of Auction: 7th March 2007

Sold for £63,000

Estimate: £30,000 - £40,000

The important Great War D.S.O. and Bar group of five awarded to Captain B. A. Smart, Royal Air Force, late Royal Naval Air Service, whose destruction of the Zeppelin L23 in August 1917 - the first such victory achieved by a ship-launched pilot - influenced the Admiralty’s deliberations and advanced the cause of Naval aviation: he went on to add a Bar to his decoration for his part in the Tondern raid in July 1918, when he obtained a direct hit on a Zeppelin shed before making his escape through a curtain of enemy fire, zig-zagging his Sopwith Camel at 50 feet

Distinguished Service Order, G.V.R., with Second Award Bar, silver-gilt and enamel; 1914-15 Star (F. 1773 P.O.M., R.N.A.S.); British War and Victory Medals (Capt., R.A.F.); French Croix de Guerre 1914-1917, with bronze palm, good very fine and better (5) £30,000-40,000

Footnote

D.S.O. London Gazette 2 November 1917.

An immediate award for the destruction of the Zeppelin L23 but one which carried no citation when announced in the London Gazette - such was the significance of Smart’s achievement in terms of Naval aviation that Their Lordships were anxious it remained shrouded in secrecy.

Bar to D.S.O. London Gazette 21 September 1918:

‘In recognition of gallantry in flying operations against the enemy. He led his flight for 160 miles over sea and land and destroyed by bombs an important enemy airship shed. This service was carried out under exceptionally difficult circumstances requiring great skill, and was most creditably performed.’

Bernard Arthur Smart enlisted in the Royal Naval Air Service in November 1914 and was appointed a Petty Officer Mechanic for duties in Scott Motor Cycles in the newly formed Machine Gun Service, later a component of the Armoured Car Division - in addition to being fitted with a side-car, the Scott Motor Cycle carried a Vickers machine-gun capable of firing 300 rounds a minute. In that capacity, or certainly a similar one, 22 year old Smart went on to witness active service in the Gallipoli operations, but in April 1916, following his return to the U.K., he successfully applied for pilot training, and was confirmed in the rank of Flight Sub. Lieutenant on gaining his Royal Aero Club Aviator’s Certificate (No. 3262) that July.

In September 1916 he commenced training in Seaplanes, and in January 1917 joined the carrier ship H.M.S. Manxman, aboard which vessel he served until August of the latter year. In the same period, however, he was occasionally assigned for duties in the light cruiser Yarmouth, then fitted with an experimental platform for the purposes of launching a plane - a feat that had first been accomplished by Flight Commander F. J. Rutland in a Sopwith Pup in June 1917.


The destruction of the “L23”

And it was exactly in this capacity on 21 August 1917 that Smart made his first ever such ascent, the 60 minute flight resulting in his destruction of the L23 and a significant change in fortune for British Naval aviation. The Zeppelin had been spotted off the Danish coast, where the Yarmouth had been patrolling with elements of the First Light Cruiser Squadron, and at 6.30 a.m. young Smart was safely launched off her experimental platform to do battle. Climbing to 9,000 feet in his Sopwith Pup, he managed to increase his speed to a steady 110 m.p.h. in his subsequent descent, and before too long the ‘aluminium-coloured frame grew in size’.

Smart continues:

‘I could see a man and an object unpleasantly like a machine-gun on top of the envelope, and I now realised the time had come. I was now at 7,000 feet and the Zeppelin a thousand feet below at an angle of 45 degrees and I was still heading straight for her stern. I pushed forward the control stick and dived. The speed indicator went with a rush up to 150 m.p.h. and I was aiming to cut under the Zeppelin a few yards astern of her. The roar of the engine had increased to a shrill scream while the wires were whistling and screeching in an awful manner. I completely lost my head - the earth vanished, the sky vanished, the sea was no more - my universe consisted of that great round silvery object, myself and space. Everything then happened automatically. At 250 yards and at the same height as the Zeppelin, I flattened out slightly and pulled the lever which works the fixed machine-guns. I had misjudged the angle at which this was mounted on the plane, and saw the white stream of my incendiary bullets going too high. In a flash I had nosed down again, flattened out, and rammed down the machine-gun’s operating lever - and held it there. The gun spat out and although the machine was wobbling on account of the enormous speed,

I had just time to see about half a dozen enter the blunt end of the Zeppelin, and a spurt of flame, before my very soul froze with the thought that in my eagerness to aim the gun, I had waited too long and couldn’t avoid a collision. Spasmodically I jammed the joystick hard forward and my heart seemed to come into my mouth in the absolute vertical nose dive which followed. Automatically, again, I found myself straightened out at 3,000 feet lower and turned to see what had happened. The after end of the Zeppelin was now a mass of flames and had dropped so that the nose was pointing to the sky at an angle of 45 degrees while the flames were fast licking up towards the nose ...

An object was adrift from the forward end of the Zeppelin which I first took to be some part of the fabric falling off, but on looking again I discovered it to be a man descending in a parachute. He was the only one, and as he floated down, he and I seemed to be alone in space. I turned until my compass was in the opposite direction to that when I had been chasing the Zeppelin and then looked back to have a last glance at the blaze. The wreck had just reached the sea, only the very tip of it still being intact. It was still burning away merrily and continued to burn on the water for three or four minutes, the smoke having changed to a blacker colour, probably due to the oil tank bursting and mixing with the flames. I was now a considerable way off and as the flames finally died out, the smoke, in spite of the wind, hung over the sea in a tremendous column reaching an apparently enormous height ...

I began by this time to look anxiously for my squadron of ships which I knew I should meet on the starboard side as I had been edging to port so as to be sure of getting them between myself and the sun, thinking the sheen on the water would make them show up at a greater distance. I had been going about 15 minutes and knew I should sight them by this time but although I peered as far as I could in every direction, nothing could be seen, and I had almost made up my mind for a trip to Denmark when I caught sight of them seven or eight miles on my port beam. I was simply delighted and made for them as hard as I could go. It appears they had taken the smoke from the Zeppelin for the German Fleet and had altered course to get position so that in edging to the left as I had done, I had done the one thing that could enable me to spot them. I was now over the squadron and selecting two destroyers near together, turned off my engine and planed down to land a couple of hundred yards ahead. This was my first attempt at coming down in the sea in a land machine but instinct told me that at all costs I must hit with practically no forward way on whatever to avoid turning head over heels. I undid my strap and put a plug in the tube which acts as a valve to the air bags in the tail and, when about 15 feet off the surface, pulled back the stick gradually keeping at that height, while the machine was getting slower and slower, until I had finally got the stick back as far as possible. The machine lost all flying speed and dropped like a stone, hitting the water with a nasty jerk which would probably have meant broken bones had it been on mother earth. The destroyer was alongside in a short time but not before the nose of the machine had sunk and left me just hanging on to the tail. I was soon safely aboard and giving a short report to be signalled to the Commodore. The officers were very much relieved to hear that there were no Germans in sight ... ’

News of Smart’s feat spread quickly, one of the first congratulatory signals he received - from the Commodore aboard H.M.S.
Caledon - stating ‘I am sure your reward will be prompt’. And no less a personage than Admiral Sir David Beatty was quick to convey the ‘high appreciation’ of Their Lordships. In fact, moves were rapidly afoot to recognise Smart’s gallantry in double quick time, and he was gazetted for his D.S.O. some nine weeks later. As stated above, however, and since the Germans remained unaware of the exact cause of their Zeppelin’s fate, no citation accompanied the announcement in the London Gazette. Instead, this highly significant episode in British Naval aviation remained very much “in-house” at the Admiralty, where Their Lordships were compelled to review their hitherto cautious plans for expansion.

Immediately following his success off Denmark, Smart was transferred to H.M.S. Furious, arriving aboard her just a few days after Squadron Commander E. H. Dunning had been killed carrying out a deck-landing on the carrier’s new 228-foot launching platform - earlier in the same month, he had become the first man ever to complete such a deck-landing. Advanced to Flight Lieutenant, and awarded the French Croix de Guerre, Smart was next ordered to join the Dublin, but fell ill and was hospitalised at Chatham in November-December 1917.

The Tondern Raid

Returning to active duty in February 1918, he rejoined his old ship Furious, now refitted with a 300-foot long landing platform with a hanger below, in addition to her forward flying-off deck. This, then, an indication of how quickly British naval aviation was moving forward, and largely thanks to Smart’s trail-blazing exploits back in August 1917. And indeed one of the first operations mounted by the pilots aboard the Furious was also of a Zeppelin nature - except this time they were going to destroy their quarry on the ground, in the sheds at Tondern. Code-named “Operation F7”, the attacking force comprised seven Sopwith Camels, in two flights, each of them armed with a brace of 50lb bombs. Smart commanded the second wave of four aircraft which departed Furious’ decks at 0315 hours on 18 July 1918 - fifteen minutes behind schedule. Once again, he takes up the story:

‘At 0445 hours, I saw Tondern some 10 miles to the South-West and steered West. Shortly after fairly heavy anti-aircraft fire opened on us. I was unable to see the sheds for some minutes, but eventually three A.A. batteries close together attracted my attention, and near them I discovered the sheds, two large ones and one smaller, one of the larger having the roof partially destroyed and emitting large volumes of dense black smoke [thanks to the earlier visit of the first flight]. When in position I gave the signal and dived on the remaining large shed, releasing my bombs at 800 to 1,000 feet. The first fell short, but the second hit the centre of the shed, sending up a quantity of smoke or dust. Whether this burst into flames later I am unable to state, as the whole surroundings were thick with mechanics or soldiers armed with rifles and machine-guns, which gave so disconcerting a fire that I dived with full engine to 50 feet and skimmed over the ground in a zig-zag course to avoid it, and by the time I got clear I was unable to see the sheds on account of the thick screen of smoke from the first shed.

The clouds were now very low and a general haze made visibility bad. I searched in all directions for the remainder of my flight, but seeing nothing made straight for the pre-arranged rendezvous at Brede. Here I slowed down to wait for the others, but after doing a circuit at slow speed and with still nothing in sight, I decided it was inadvisable to wait longer as I had already been in the air nearly two hours and the wind had increased; also the clouds were so low and thick as to give all of us, though separated, ample protection from superior forces of hostile craft.

I proceeded in a North-West direction above the lower clouds and on descending to pick up my bearings, my engine failed to open out and I got to 400 feet before getting a single fire. Then two or three of the cylinders cut in, but I dropped to about 20 feet before getting 1000 revs., which was just enough to keep me in the air.

I skimmed along at this height until the engine gradually got better, but it was quite 10 minutes before she was doing 1200 again. I followed the coast until sighting Lyndvig Light, when I went out to sea and after two or three minutes saw a destroyer. I released the axle pins and dropped the wheels by slideslipping alternately, and landed ahead of H.M.S. Violent at 0630 hours.’

Smart was left sitting on the tail of his sinking aircraft for 15 minutes in a 15-foot swell, and ultimately fell into the sea, losing his lifebelt. And, having swallowed a lot of water, he was ‘done in by the time the boat arrived ... three able bodied seamen clutched hold of me and hauled me aboard like a sack of flour’. But the raid had been a great success, two Zeppelins being destroyed in their sheds, and Smart was again the recipient of a special congratulatory message from Admiral Sir David Beatty. In fact, on 21 July, he and Captain W. D. Jackson, the other Tondern raid flight commander, were both invited aboard the Admiral’s flagship, where, to their surprise, they were introduced to the King. Even more surprising was the fact Smart was invested with the Bar to his earlier D.S.O. on the same occasion, barely 48 hours after the raid, or certainly according to his own account:

‘The King seemed awfully pleased and knew practically every detail. He talked to me for nearly ten minutes and wanted to know all about the show. His questions were very sensible and to the point and his speech is very dignified and gentlemanly. Having given me the Bar he shook hands, after which I saluted and walked off, when Dickson had to go through the mill.’

Having been advanced to Captain in the Royal Air Force, Smart was demobilised in May 1919 and went into business in Luton, where he proved to be as equally adept in local tennis competitions as he had been as a young Naval aviator. He died in May 1979, aged 87 years.

Sold with the recipient’s original D.S.O. warrant in the name of ‘Bernard Arthur Smart, Esquire, Flight Sub. Lieutenant in Our Royal Naval Air Service’, and dated 2 November 1917, framed and glazed; together with his handwritten account of his memorable Zeppelin victory, entitled “Impressions of a Zep Straffe”, 7pp., on H.M.S. Yarmouth notepaper; two old photographs, also framed and glazed, one depicting the officers and pilots of H.M.S. Furious, and the other believed to be of Smart’s Sopwith Camel in flight, circa 1918; and a half-propeller blade, bearing the crest of William Beardmore & Co. Ltd., this, too, believed to have been taken from his Sopwith Camel.