Charles Rumney Samson

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Air Commodore Charles Rumney Samson, C.M.G., D.S.O., A.F.C., R.N. (8 July, 1883 – 5 February, 1931) was a pioneer of naval aviation in the Royal Navy and had an exremely active flying career during the First World War, before transferring to the Royal Air Force.

Early Career

Samson was born at Manchester on 8 July, 1883, the second son of Charles Leopold Samson, solicitor, and his wife, Margaret Alice Rumney. He was educated at Locker's Park, Hemel Hempstead, and Greenwich.

He underwent examinations for several days commencing on 20 July, 1897 and gained entrance to Britannia's term of August, 1897, his 1533 marks placing him fifth among the sixty-three candidates accepted as naval cadets.[1] He joined his first ship as a Midshipman in 1898. He served in the third class protected cruiser Pomone during the Somaliland operations of 1903–4, and as First Lieutenant in the third class protected cruiser Philomel he took part in the suppression of gun-running in the Persian Gulf in 1909–10.

On 3 July, 1906 he was appointed in command of the first-class torpedo boat T.B. 81.[2]

In 1911 Samson was selected by the Admiralty as one of the first four naval officers to be trained to fly. He qualified for his Royal Aero Club aviator's certificate, no. 71, on 25 April after only six weeks of flying, much of it in bad weather. From then onwards his life was devoted to flying, and he helped to establish the first naval flying station, at Eastchurch, in October, 1911. By December that year he had persuaded the Admiralty to equip the Africa with a launching platform which projected over the bows, and in the following year, with similar apparatus, he took off in a Short biplane from the Hibernia while the ship steamed at full speed. This was the first flight from a ship's deck to be made in Europe and marked the beginning of the idea of the aircraft-carrier: Samson contributed largely by experiment and demonstration to the growth of this project. He collaborated with Horace Short in designing a seaplane and was a pioneer in aerial wireless communication and in bomb dropping. On the formation of the Royal Flying Corps he was given command of the naval wing, and as Commandant of Eastchurch from 1912 to 1914 he practised cross-country flying and night flying as exercises in air navigation. He had undertaken so much advanced naval flying during the early months of 1912 that he and four of his officers were allowed to fly over the naval review at Portland in May. However, during naval manœuvres in August, 1913 Samson and his observer were forced to ditch in the North Sea after the engine suddenly cut out. It was a sobering reminder of how hazardous the business of sea flying could be.

The unscheduled swim didn't manage to dampen Samson's desire to press aircraft to their limits, however. On the night of 12 September, he undertook a daring cross-country moonlit night flight in Short biplane No. 38 with Assistant Paymaster E. B. Parker as his passenger. They departed the aerodrome at 9pm and made for Sheerness, flying by compass at 450-500 feet. Signals were exchanged by flashing light with signalmen on the ground before the plane returned to Eastchurch. The flight was believed to be a record for nocturnal flight.[3]

First World War

Upon the outbreak of war in 1914 Samson was given charge of aerial patrols operating over a section of the east coast from a base at Skegness. Soon afterwards he was given work more suited to his temperament when his squadron was sent to Dunkirk with a brigade of marines. When the brigade was withdrawn to England a week later, he contrived to keep his planes behind. Using the slightest appearance of fog as an excuse not to cross the channel, he succeeded in getting an attachment to the French forces in northern France. He then fitted out some of the squadron's motor cars and lorries with machine-guns, and subsequently with a 3-pounder gun, and proceeded to help the French with a mixture of cavalry operations, infantry attack, and air reconnaissance. Self-reliance, dash, and ingenuity gave an air of buccaneering to these operations, which delighted the French and produced results that, although on a small scale, could not be ignored by the British authorities. His mixed collection of aircraft also bombed the Zeppelin sheds at Düsseldorf and Cologne; and by the end of the year, when mobile warfare ended and trench warfare took its place, his squadron had won four D.S.O.s, among them his own, and he was given special promotion and the rank of Commander. He spent the next few months bombing gun positions, submarine depots, and seaplane sheds on the Belgian coast.

Gallipoli

In March, 1915 Samson's unit was moved to the Dardanelles, and he was allotted a base made out of vineyards on the island of Tenedos. He was later moved to Imbros, where he rejected the existing aerodrome and made a new one, using seventy Turkish prisoners as labourers. One of these R.N.A.S. bases had its workshops destroyed by a fire, which earned Samson Admiralty criticism of a "want of care in performance of duties." His squadron otherwise patrolled the straits, spotted for the battleship bombardment operations, attacked the Turkish communications, including railway bridges, and ultimately covered the allied evacuation. He even made his own brand of large bomb out of a 26 gallon petrol tank, when he considered the regulation 20 lb bombs inadequate. At Gallipoli and elsewhere "Samson was more interested in adventure than in the duller work of adhering to the routine of reconnaissance and ordered bomb-dropping for the army" (The Times). While his bravery was admired, this penchant for freelancing ultimately had an adverse effect on his career, and at Gallipoli he was passed over for the position of overall commander of air operations, a great disappointment to him. He left for England by way of Malta aboard the minelayer H.M.S. Wahine in the last week of 1915.

Samson's unit was disbanded at the end of the campaign. In mid-April 1916, he was given command of the Ben-my-Chree, a former Isle of Man passenger steamer fitted out as a seaplane carrier, and attended by two slower ships as escorts. Based on Port Said, he ranged the coasts of Palestine, Syria, and Arabia, sometimes bombarding Turkish positions, sometimes sending his seaplanes on reconnaissance and offensive tasks, and always demanding more work from the naval and military commanders. He was chastised for grounding Ben My Chree on 25 August, 1916 – especially since no one had thought to use the sounding machine.

In January, 1917 he sailed to the island of Kastelorizo to carry out some operations with the French, and in the harbour there the Ben My Chree was sunk by Turkish gunfire that erupted, unanticipated, from the Asian shore. His two escort ships, already equipped to carry a few seaplanes, were now fitted out for independent air operations, and from Aden and later Colombo he searched among the islands and over the expanses of the Indian Ocean for enemy raiders.

Samson was appointed to the Seaplane Depot in Port Said on 12 January, 1917. A notation in his service record indicates, mysteriously, "Letter of 26/1/17 forwarding 2 Roses to indicate [illeg]". A separate letter, sent 4 December, 1916 and forwarded through the C-in-C, East Indies containing notes on seaplanes and their use was deemed to possess "most improper" criticisms and tone. He was apparently not winning friends back home; he was ordered to return to England on 15 March and informed that his appeals to be promoted to Wing Commander had been received and considered, and that the Naval Secretary would verbally relay the reasons why his promotion was being withheld.[4]

Anti-submarine Warfare

From November, 1917 to October, 1918 Samson was in command of the aircraft group at Great Yarmouth which was responsible for anti-submarine and anti-Zeppelin operations over the North Sea. He remained in this position until the end of the war and during that time his group shot down five Zeppelins. In order to bring fighter aircraft into action near the enemy coasts, he devised lighters to be towed behind naval ships and used as take-off platforms by fighter aircraft. Samson insisted on using skids rather than wheels for his undercarriage, running the risk that if these dislodged from their runners they would foul on the deck. When he attempted his first take-off in a trial off Orfordness, on 30 May 1918, this is exactly what happened. His Camel tumbled over the port bow, the lighter passing over both aeroplane and pilot at over 30 knots. With Samson jammed in the wreckage under water, it seemed impossible, as one eye-witness later recalled, that he "could avoid being battered to atoms"[5] In fact he emerged unhurt, and upon regaining the deck of the towing destroyer exclaimed: "Well! … I think it well worth trying again."[5] He afterwards modified the design of the aeroplane and platform so that it served satisfactorily, and the system later led to the destruction of a Zeppelin by one of Samson's team. In October, 1918 the group at Great Yarmouth became 73 Wing of the new 4 Group based at Felixstowe, under the control of the Royal Air Force; Samson became commanding officer of this group, and in August, 1919 he gave up his naval commission and received a permanent commission in the R.A.F. with the rank of Group Captain.

R.A.F.

During 1920 Samson served in the Coastal Area as chief staff officer, and in August, 1921 he became air officer commanding R.A.F. units in the Mediterranean, with headquarters at Malta. In 1922 he was promoted Air Commodore and given command of 6 Fighter Group at Kenley. At this period his domestic affairs caused him much grief and anxiety and seemed to shake the buoyant self-assurance which was part of the secret of his success. He had married in 1917 Honor Oakden Patrickson, the daughter of Herbert Storey, of Lancaster; they had one daughter. The couple were divorced in 1923. Samson did excellent work a few years later, but the incident left its mark and probably had some influence on his early retirement from the service. In 1924 he married Winifred, daughter of Herbert Kempson Reeves, solicitor, of Leatherhead; they had a son and a daughter (who was born after his death). In June, 1926 he became chief staff officer, Middle East Command, and in that position he did the last of his pioneering work. He organized and led the first flight of an RAF bomber formation over Africa from Cairo to the Cape. This involved making and supplying the necessary bases and surveying an undeveloped route. The flight, made by four Fairey III.Fs, succeeded. Where Samson had led, other formations followed, and later on commercial air transport for the most part used the trail which Samson had blazed in 1926. He remained with the Middle East command until August, 1927, but the great flight through Africa was his last big task.

Samson's chief qualities were his energy, his skill in improvisation, his personal courage, and his ability to pick the right men and to inspire them to intense and efficient effort. He was short and thick-set, and continued to wear a pointed beard after his transfer to the otherwise beardless R.A.F. To contemporaries he was a real-life Captain Kettle, the fictional hero of Charles John Cutliffe Hyne's pre-war novels, and this dashing temperament accorded with his appearance. His superiors, continually bombarded with well-thought-out if advanced proposals, were never allowed to forget his existence for long. While at R.A.F. Hospital Uxbridge, he was listed as dangerously ill on 28 March, 1929. He resigned his commission that year and died suddenly of heart failure at his home, Red House, Cholderton, near Salisbury, Wiltshire, on 5 February, 1931. He was buried at Putney on 10 February.

Bibliography

  • "Air Commodore Samson" (Obituaries). The Times. Friday, 6 February, 1931. Issue 45740, col C, p. 16.

Papers

Service Records

Naval Appointments
Preceded by
Robert W. Richardson
Captain of H.M. T.B. 99
Jun, 1906 – 3 Jul, 1906
Succeeded by
Herbert I. N. Lyon
Preceded by
Herbert R. L. Edwards
Captain of H.M. T.B. 81
3 Jul, 1906[6] – 18 Feb, 1908
Succeeded by
Arthur G. Harris
Preceded by
Cecil J. L'E. Malone
Captain of H.M.S. Ben-my-Chree
12 Apr, 1916[7] – 11 Jan, 1917[8]
Succeeded by
Vessel Lost


Footnotes

  1. "Naval & Military Intelligence." The Times (London, England), Friday, Aug 13, 1897; pg. 8; Issue 35281.
  2. The Navy List. (January, 1907). p. 400.
  3. "Naval And Military Intelligence." The Times (London, England), Monday, Sep 15, 1913; pg. 3; Issue 40317.
  4. Samson Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 196/48/29. f. 432.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Snowden Gamble, p. 393.
  6. The Navy List. (March, 1907). p. 400.
  7. The Navy List. (December, 1916). p. 401l.
  8. Hepper. British Warship Losses in the Ironclad Era: 1860-1919. p. 77.