Plane’s collision showed strength of local mast

The Sopwith Baby biplane is embedded in the mast at Horsea Island, off Portsmouth. Reader William Martin's grandfather helped retrieve the plane after it crashed in thick fog in September 1917
The Sopwith Baby biplane is embedded in the mast at Horsea Island, off Portsmouth. Reader William Martin's grandfather helped retrieve the plane after it crashed in thick fog in September 1917

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Ooops! In daylight and clear visibility, this looks rather ridiculous.

A biplane embedded in a 400ft tall mast. You would have thought the pilot might have spotted it.

William Martin's grandfather, seated left, was one of the party that retrieved the stricken biplane from the mast

William Martin's grandfather, seated left, was one of the party that retrieved the stricken biplane from the mast

But he didn’t because Portsmouth was shrouded in thick fog on September 14, 1917, when Flt Cdr EA de Ville ploughed straight into the wooden wireless structure on Horsea Island in Portsmouth Harbour.

The aircraft was stuck, upside down, in the latticework, with the unconscious de Ville coming to rest on the underside of a wing.

Many thanks to William Martin, of Military Road, Hilsea, Portsmouth, for providing this photographic evidence of that memorable day.

He has a particular reason for having it in his family’s history because his grandfather, also William Martin, helped retrieve the plane. He’s sitting on the extreme left in the other photo.

The plane was a Sopwith Baby seaplane used by the Royal Naval Air Service from 1915 and de Ville survived, having been rescued by sailors whose job it was to continuously paint the masts.

William says this picture of the accident was used as proof of the quality of the Elwell mast. ‘Elwell supplied masts to countries all over the world. Initially there were four at Horsea, all 446ft high.’

De Ville was rescued by three sailors – Messrs Rath, Abbot and Knoulton – who climbed the mast. Rath got out to the machine and attached a rope to the pilot, who was then lowered down the inside of the mast. Rath was subsequently decorated.

William’s 59-year-old grandfather was a member of the Dockyard Masthead Shipwrights’ team which then had the job of getting the plane down.