Notes towards a history of the commercial bomber in New Zealand

The main reason for my recent New Zealand trip was to go to a conference, but afterwards I spent a week researching in Archives New Zealand and the National Library of New Zealand. My main reason for that was to look into the trans-Tasman counterpart to the 1918 mystery aeroplane scare in Australia. I didn't quite find what I wanted (more on that another day), but I did find many other, unexpected and interesting, things. For example, commercial bombers.

In my commercial bomber article, I focused on the rhetorical use of the threat posed by commercial bombers in British airpower discourse more than the actual use of actual airliners as actual bombers. However, in a recent discussion I suggested that smaller air forces might have been more interested in convertibility, since they would tend to lack the resources to invest in long-range bombing or maritime patrol aircraft. And the evidence from New Zealand seems to bear this out (though the accuracy of my further suggestion that it was only attractive in desperate times is mixed).

The New Zealand Permanent Air Force (later Royal New Zealand Air Force) was not formed until 1923, but military aviation was given some thought before then. The question was how a small, distant and geographically rugged country could afford anything useful, which is why the idea of subsidising civil aviation to help do the work was attractive.1 So, for example, in November 1913 proposal Edward C. Powell, the managing director of the National (Passenger Airships) Association (why the parentheses, I don't know, but that's how it was written on the company letterhead and in the press), suggested to the New Zealand Minister of Defence, James Allen, that rather than the expensive

suggestion that New Zealand should establish a fleet of Dirigibles with air-harbours &c. as a self-contained defensive force, it occurs to me to suggest that the same end might be achieved by a system of subsidy, by which a fleet of Dirigibles to be formed to carry on a passenger service would be available for defensive purposes in cases of need.2

(More commercial airship bombers!) Ordinarily, the airships 'might usefully be employed in mail-carrying', even between New Zealand and Australia since this distance 'is already within the bounds of practical airship flight'.3 Naturally, National (Passenger Airships) Association, a British company (though with intimate connections to a German airship construction firm, August Riedinger Ballonfabrik GmbH), was prepared to supply and operate these airships, having secured the services of one H. Houber, who had -- apparently -- successfully designed and flown a non-rigid airship capable of carrying 16 passengers and another semi-rigid which had been tested by the German government.4 The production model would be modular: the passenger section could be remove and replaced with 'a car designed to carry guns [...] and/or a large supply of explosives with an apparatus for aiming and dropping them on the desired object'.5 The proposal was forwarded on in January 1914 but not followed up, and soon the war intervened anyway. The National (Passenger Airships) Association was wound up in 1917.

In April 1918, another aviation company sought a subsidy from Allen, still the Minister of Defence. This time it was a flying school based in Auckland, the New Zealand Flying School, which wanted to buy 'three highpowered seaplanes suitable for coastal patrol', but which in the ordinary course of things would be used for flight training.6 These 'machines and personnel would be held available for any duties in connection with coast patrol or defence that may be assigned by the [Defence] Department'.7 Leo Walsh, one of the two brothers who founded the school, wrote that

Although it is to be hoped that the occasion will never arise when our shipping and coasts will be threatened by raiders or enemy aircraft, nevertheless we would submit that it would be of considerable military advantage to have within the country machines available for reconnaissance, and coast patrol. The amount of subsidy suggested may very justly be regarded as insurance and the sum is small in proportion to the value of service it may be possible to render and the proportion that may possibly be afforded to our vulnerable and valuable coasts and shipping.8

While Walsh did not explicitly mention arming these seaplanes, it is clear from ensuing discussions inside the New Zealand Military Forces that, in the words of Colonel J. L. Sleeman, Director of Military Training, they would need to carry 'a suitable supply of bombs, petrol, machine guns, and ammunition', otherwise their 'value for costal [sic] purposes is nil'.9 This time the proposal was taken up. However, when Wellington asked London for advice and assistance in procuring suitable seaplanes, the answer was that none could be diverted from more urgent wartime needs. But they did get help in the form of a RAF officer, Colonel A. V. Bettington, who was sent to New Zealand to advise on air policy and duly submitted a report in June 1919 recommending the establishment of a permanent air force.

Bettington's report was far too ambitious and was shelved even after he scaled it down.10 However, airpower was now on the agenda; in September 1920 the government set up an Air Board to advise on aviation matters, including subsidies for civil aviation, which was recognised as essential in order to make military aviation affordable.11 In his modified report Bettington had suggested that the flying schools at Auckland and Christchurch (Henry Wigram's Canterbury Aviation Company) be subsidised. I don't know whether his proposed subsidy would have involved any provision for conversion of civilian aircraft into combat machines, but eventually this almost happened. The Air Board's first subsidy schemes apparently had no strings attached. But in July 1921, it declared that

It is vitally necessary that in a National emergency the Dominion should possess adequate reserves of highly trained personnel, up-to-date machines, and properly equipped aerodromes and workshops.12

Because the existing subsidy scheme was not doing this, in May 1922, the government proposed a new schedule, which provided in part that:

The Company shall receive a grant payable monthly for the aircraft owned and maintained in serviceable condition by it in accordance with the following scale based on service utility [...]

A class: Machines suitable and capable of being converted for use as an escort, or as long distance reconnaissance, bombing, or photographic machines, at the rate of 20% of capital value per annum as valued by the Air Board.
B class: Machines capable of being adapted for self defence for use as inter-communication machines, and having an endurance of four hours and an air-speed of at least 100 m.p.h., at the rate of 10% of capital value per annum as valued by the Air Board.
C class: Other machines classified by the Air Board as suitable and capable of being used for instructional work at the rate of 5% of capital value per annum as valued by the Air Board.13

Here, 'A class' machines were potentially convertible into commercial bombers. Along with the already announced Territorial Air Force and a robust scheme of refresher courses for ex-RAF pilots, this system could have provided New Zealand's airpower needs at relatively little expense. But this was not to be. In September 1922 the companies concerned suggested raising the subsides rates by 5% across the board and introducing a 5% subsidy for seaplanes.14 They probably did this because they were bleeding money, and in the end it appears that the subsidy scheme was not implemented because it wasn't enough. Instead the New Zealand Permanent Air Force was formed, and the assets of the civil aviation companies were bought by the government. (Most notably, as RNZAF Wigram Canterbury Aviation's Sockburn aerodrome became home to the Central Flying School and is now the site of the Air Force Museum of New Zealand.)

So, in the end it doesn't appear that New Zealand ever relied on commercial bombers. But the idea was proposed more than once; while in 1914 it went nowhere, in 1918 and again in 1922 it appeared to provide the possibility of affordable and flexible airpower. In 1918 it may have helped smooth the path towards an independent air force, though that momentum faltered; in 1922 it was an alternative to a permanent air force which then foundered because civil aviation was just not yet viable on a serious scale, subsidies or not. While finance was the key selling point for both government and business, the challenging environment for postwar civil aviation meant that in the end it was not reliable enough a foundation for military airpower, and so an air force on the RAF model was created instead. Still, just as in Britain, convertibility had a role to play in the development of New Zealand's airpower even when it didn't happen.

  1. An alternative was to rely on aircraft donated by patriotic individuals or groups or even the British government. New Zealand's first government aeroplane arrived this way, but obviously this model was not sustainable. 

  2. Archives New Zealand [ANZ]: AAYS 8652 AD19/34 106/27, letter, Edward C. Powell to Robert S. Herries, 26 November 1913. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Though I can find little about him. Powell sent along a couple of photos of what looks like an impressively large airship, which must be a model. 

  5. ANZ: AAYS 8652 AD19/34 106/27, letter, Powell to Herries, 26 November 1913. 

  6. ANZ: AAYT 8490 N1/82 5/4/1, letter, Leo A. Walsh to James Allen, 30 April 1918. 

  7. Ibid. 

  8. Ibid. 

  9. Ibid., memorandum, Lieutenant-Colonel J. L. Sleeman, 4 June 1918. 

  10. Just like the Sykes memorandum only a few months earlier, and possibly not coincidentally: Bettington's proposed force structure for the New Zealand air force is almost identical to that proposed in Sykes's now-moribund proposal. Perhaps Bettington was a Sykes man; he was chosen for the New Zealand mission right around the time Sykes was fired, so it might even have been Trenchard cleaning house. 

  11. Brian Lockstone, Into Wind... The Birth of the RNZAF (Christchurch: RNZAF Museum, 2007), 25. 

  12. Quoted in L. M. Noble, Sir Henry Wigram: Pioneer of New Zealand Aviation (Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1952), 87. 

  13. Proposed subsidy scheme for civil aviation, 10 May 1922, in ibid., 126. See also ibid., 94. 

  14. Ibid., 129. 

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