Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Triplane over the Aegean

The Sopwith Triplane, often referred to as the "Tripe", saw sterling service with the Royal Naval Air Service on the Western Front between December 1916 and November of 1917. However, one, and only one Triplane, N5431, was dispatched to Macedonia in January 1917, and it served the RNAS No. 2 Naval Wing. This Wing operated from Imbros and other Aegean Islands in support of Allied forces in Salonika and the Dardanelles, mainly flying from Mudros Bay on the island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea. N5431 flew with the Wings 'E' Flight, and it was coded with the letter 'L'. Its first pilot Flight Lieutenant John William Alcock, who would undertake the first transatlantic flight together with Arthur Whitten Brown after the war. However, Alcock managed to crash N5431 at Mikra Bay Airfield in Saloniki on March 26. The Tripe overturned after running into a ditch and it was badly damaged. N5431 was initially written off, but nevertheless rebuilt at Mudros. In mid-May it flew again, this time with 'B' Squadron at Thermi, and sans the letter 'L' on the fuselage. It was later taken over by 'C' Squadron at Imbros, Its first action was the pursuit of an enemy aircraft over Suvla Bay, but without any result. Later on, the Tripe became the aircraft of choice for a Flight Lieutenant Mellings.


Flight Lieutenant Harold Thomas Mellings DFC, DSC and Bar, was born in Shropshire in August of 1897 or on August 5, 1899 (sources vary). Mellings joined the RNAS in 1915, and he received Royal Aero Club Aviators' Certificate No. 2028 on November 11, 1915 at the Beatty flying School in Hendon while flying a Caudron. He was confirmed a Flight Sub-Lieutenant on April 3, 1916, and he was eventually posted to No. 2 Naval Wing on the Macedonian Front in October 1916. Mellings shot down his first aircraft, an LVG, on September 30, 1916, while flying a Bristol Scout over Smyrna. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for "...when he attacked a hostile aeroplane with great gallantry at heights varying from 12,000 to 2,000 feet" on March 19, 1917. On September 21, 1917, Mellings was awarded the Hellenic Silver War Medal. 
Sopwith Triplane N5431

On May 25, 1917, Mellings flew the Tripe as an escort for a BE 2c above Suvla Bay when he spotted a Halberstadt scout near Aivali. Mellings promptly attacked, and a scrap ensued. The Halberstadt eventually dived away in a tail-spin with smoke coming out of its engine.It fell down to some 3,000 feet, where the pilot righted the Halberstadt. Mellings turned and dove after the Halberstadt, chasing the German back to his airfield, where ground fire forced Mellings to break off the pursuit. The German did claim that the BE 2c had been shot down into the sea, though. 

The German forces in Turkey had deployed a number of aircraft, including a number of Albatros W.4 float planes. This was an aircraft that looked similar to the Albatros D.I, although the W.4 was somewhat bigger, and it handled well despite the two floats suspended under the fuselage. The W.4:s were paqrt of the German Navy's Wasserfliegerabteilung at Chanak Kale in Turkey. They were apparently known as "Blue Birds' by the RNAS due to their blueish-gray camouflage markings. Five W.4s were deployed to Turkey and, while eight second hand W.4s were used by the Austro-Hungarian air forces. Two of the former W.4s were to destined meet Mellings. 

 Albatros W.4

On the early morning of September 30, 1917, said two W.4s were escorting a German reconnaissance two-seater over Mudros Bay. Mellings in N5431 was ordered to intercept the hostile force together with Arthur Brown in a Sopwith Camel and another pilot in a Sopwith Pup. Harold Mellings initially headed for the two-seater, but he was engaged by one of the W.4s. He avoided being hit or tailed, and fired a burst at the second W.4, but with no visible results. Alcock also attacked a W.4, possibly the one that had fired on Mellings, but Alcock stalled his Camel after firing. As Alcock fell away from the dogfight, he saw smoke from the W.4 he had fired at. Meanwhile, the second W.4, piloted by Fliegerobermaat Walter Krüger, was being pursued by Mellings as it dove towards the sea. Mellings fired again, taking off the upper left wing of the W.4 and wounding the pilot. Krüger crashed into the Aegean and was killed, while Mellings climbed back at altitude to have another go at the two-seater while Alcock finished off the remaining W.4, although he soon had to head back to the airfield with an engine problem. The Tripe and the Pup followed the German two-seater down to sea level, but the Germans managed to get away. However, the unidentified pilot that was fired upon by Alcock in his Camel was brought down as well and described by RNAS Captain Augustine F. Marlowe as follows: "We  have been showing a Hun prisoner around. He was forced to down in the sea and we picked him up. He seems quite a nice bloke and very friendly." Arthur Whitten Brown was awarded a DSC for the action on September 30, while Mellings received a Bar to his DSC: "For the great skill, judgment and dash displayed by him off Mudros on 30 September 1917, in a successful attack on three enemy seaplanes, two of which were brought down in the sea".

September 30 ended badly for Arthur Whitten Brown, though. That evening, Brown took off together with Lieutenants Wise and Aird in a O/100 bomber to attack the railway station at Haydarpasa in Constantinople. The aircraft had to make an emergency landing at sea due to a broken oil pipe, and the crew was captured (see

Mellings continued flying the Tripe through 1917. On November 19, Mellings shot down an Albatros D.III, wounding Vizefeldwbel van Ahlen of Fliegerabteilung 30 in the process. A Rumpler was shot down in flames over Drama on November 25, and another D.III was shot down on November 29. Mellings was subsequently re-deployed to the Western Front.and No. 10 Naval Squadron in 1918. He had ten confirmed victories, five driven down and two unconfirmed victories when he was shot down by Ludwig Beckmann of Jasta 56 on July 22, 1918.

Trusty N5431 hit a wall upon landing in 1918, and she was broken up.

The London Gazette (Supplement) no. 30437, December 18, 1917
Norman Frank. Sopwith Triplane Aces of World War One.

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