Major Oscar Theodor Gnosspelius, FRAeS (1878 – 1953)

Oscar Gnosspelius was a pioneer aeronautical engineer, the only person at Windermere to design and fly his own hydro-aeroplane.

Whilst his parents were Swedish, Gnosspelius was born at Liverpool. By profession he was a civil engineer, and had worked in London, Sweden, South America and Africa. From 1909 he lived at  Silverholme, Graythwaite, his mother Amelia’s home on the south-west shore of the lake.

Having attended the Blackpool Aviation Meeting in October 1909, Gnosspelius began the task of designing an aeroplane which was capable of flying from water. His motive was that it would be more sensible to use freely available water than expensive land. He was a ‘skilled fitter and turner, who had served his time at a boatbuilder’s yard (Crossfield’s) at Arnside, and no doubt did much of the actual construction himself’. – Britain’s Seaplane Pioneers by M H Goodall, Air Pictorial December 1987.

Gnosspelius was collaborating with Edward Wakefield from an early stage, and in October 1910 they visited Henri Fabre at Paris who had made the world’s first flight from water on 28 March that year.

In July 1910, floats with a ‘step’ were constructed by Borwick & Sons for Gnosspelius from his designs and which he tested at Windermere, just south of Rawlinson Nab – the first floats with a hydroplane step in the world. However, his hydro-aeroplane, Gnosspelius No. 1, was not capable of taking off due to lack of power from the 25 horse power Alvaston engine.

Gertrude Bacon, who flew as a passenger at Windermere in 1912, described the step in her book All About Flying as follows: ‘the lower surface of the float, instead of being all of one piece, changes or ‘steps’ abruptly to another level. Some floats have one step, some more’.

Gnosspelius did not protect his designs and it was Wakefield who obtained UK Patent No. 27,771 for a stepped float, having applied on 11 December 1911 through Arthur Edwards & Company, chartered patent agents. The application was opposed by The British and Colonial Aeroplane Company Limited (whose aeroplanes were prefixed Bristol), with a statutory declaration by Gnosspelius. Wakefield, a Barrister, represented himself at the Hearing, having turned down the suggestion by Arthur Edwards of a specialist Barrister at a fee of five guineas. Wakefield wrote that opposing Counsel ‘was very well up in Patent Law but quite at sea about hydroplanes’! At the end of the Hearing, the Judge declared the sealing of a patent and awarded legal costs in Wakefield’s favour, stating that he would give his full decision in a written judgment. Delivered on 18 March 1913, the decision was that, having conducted considerable experiment successfully, Wakefield had combined features in a novel way.

There does not appear to have been any ill-feeling between Gnosspelius and Wakefield; in The Aeroplane magazine of 25 January 1912, Gnosspelius had been described as designer and engineer to Wakefield’s The Lakes Flying Company.

Gnosspelius received instruction in February 1911 by Howard Pixton at the Avro Flying School at Brooklands, where he learned to fly straight and level. On 25 November 1911, he set out from a boathouse of Borwick’s at Bowness Bay in Gnosspelius No. 2, powered by a 50 horse power Clerget engine. He acheived the first take off from Windermere. However, within a minute, following a gust of wind, control was lost and a wingtip dug into the water causing the aeroplane to turn over from back to front. – The Westmorland Gazette, 2 December 1911.

Unaware of Gnosspelius’ accident off Belle Isle, on the morning of 25 November 1911 Herbert Stanley Adams taxied out from Hill of Oaks in Waterbird, commissioned by Wakefield as a landplane from A.V. Roe & Company, took off and alighted. It was the first successful flight off water outside of France and the USA, and the first in the world to successfully use a stepped float. Gnosspelius’ mother wrote a letter to congratulate Wakefield.

The first successful flight made by Gnosspelius No. 2 was on 14 February 1912 when piloted by Gnosspelius. – The Westmorland Gazette, 24 February 1912.

His other work included the design of Waterhen (the immediate successor to Waterbird), the Gnosspelius-Trotter, the Lakes Monoplane, the wings for Seabird, the float for the Avro 501 and the float for the Bristol Coanda. Gnosspelius No. 1 and No. 2 were both hydro-monoplanes, whereas Waterbird and Waterhen were hydro-biplanes.

In a move away from the design of initial seaplane floats, as used by Gnosspelius and Wakefield, Gnosspelius obtained UK Patent No.10,801 on 12 February 1914 for a V-shaped construction, which is used on almost every float made today.

Gnosspelius joined the Royal Naval Air Service in 1914, at the inspection staff of the Admiralty Air Department and then the Technical Department, becoming a Lieutenant Commander, and a Major upon formation of the RAF. He was engaged by Short Brothers at Rochester in 1919 to take charge of the experimental department. Despite leaving Shorts in 1925, he took part on many of their test flights into the 1930s. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1922.

Commodore Murray Sueter recommended John Lankester Parker, a Windermere instructor, to Oswald Short for the position of a test pilot at Eastchurch. Parker became Chief Test Pilot for Shorts 1918-1945, and in September 1942 flew the first Windermere-assembled Sunderland flying boat. Parker succeded Ronald Kemp as Chief Test Pilot, who had flown Waterbird as a landplane at Brooklands in June 1911 and Gnosspelius No. 2 at Windermere in April 1912. Gnosspelius served under Sueter at the Air Department. Gnosspelius designed a Gull aeroplane, which was built by Shorts at Rochester and test-flown by Parker in 1923. So, when German bombers were attacking Rochester in 1940, achieving a direct hit on the Shorts’ works, and it was decided to urgently disperse part of Sunderland production, there was a significant resource of experience of Windermere to draw upon in coming to the decision as to where that factory should be sited. Gnosspelius was involved on behalf of Shorts in the local negotiations for the factory built at White Cross Bay.

Gnosspelius also had an interest in motor boats, being a first year member of the Windermere Motor Boat Racing Club and wrote a chapter ‘Motor-boating’ for the book The Lake Counties by his father-in-law W.G. Collingwood. Pigeon Post by Arthur Ransome, published in 1936, was dedicated To Oscar Gnosspelius, in which the character ‘Squashy Hat’ was based upon him. Following marriage he lived at Coniston from 1925, where he is buried.

Windermere: birthplace of British naval and civil marine aeroplanes

World War One

Waterbird

On 25 November 1911, from Windermere, Waterbird achieved the world's first successful flight to use a stepped float. Waterbird was an Avro Curtiss-type hydro-aeroplane. The pilot was Herbert Stanley Adams (later Lieutenant Colonel).

Waterbird was commissioned by Captain Edward Wakefield from A. V. Roe & Company. Wakefield patented the stepped float and means of attachment, for which he entered into a contract on 14 March 1912 with the Admiralty, and also to convert a Deperdussin naval serial M.1 to a hydro-aeroplane.

'We believe that with the exception of the hydro-aeroplanes of the Unites States Navy no other machine of like nature has been so successful.' - Kendal Mercury & Times, 22 December 1911.

Deperdussin at Windermere

The dismantled Deperdussin arrived by rail at Windermere on 13 June 1912, and, having been successfully converted from a landplane, was flown during July by Adams, Lieutenant Reginald Gregory and Lieutenant (later Air Commodore) Charles Samson. On 10 January 1912 off Sheerness, Samson had achieved the first aeroplane launch from a British warship - HMS Africa, and on 2 May 1912 off Weymouth, the first take-off from a moving ship - HMS Hibernia.

Quotes

In a letter to the Times, on 11 January 1912, Wakefield wrote 'I yield to no one in love for the scenery, and loyalty to the interests of my country. But many, who along with me learnt during the war in South Africa, the value of scouting, believe that scouting by hydro-aeroplane will shortly become a necessity for the safety of this island. England is far too behind other powers in aircraft and in flying men for both Army and Navy.'

'Edward Wakefield was convinced that the future for Naval hydro-aeroplanes lay in scouting for the fleet and relaying back information – extending the Naval battle space over the horizon. He knew that Naval aircraft could be the eyes and ears of the fleet.' – Commander Sue Eagles, Fly Navy Heritage Trust, in the Fleet Air Arm diary 2012.

'Not only did Edward Wakefield correctly predict the need for floatplanes in the Great War but also the role for the Sunderland flying boats that were to be built on the lake 30 years later.' – Wings on Windermere by Allan King.

The Importance of Private Enterprise

On 28 February 1912, the Report of the Technical Sub-Committee of the Standing Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence was approved, which recommended that the Naval Wing of the Flying Corps should be established and that it attached importance to the maintenance of private enterprise in the field of aeronautics. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty and a member of the Standing Sub-Committee, when asked in the House of Commons about the Royal Navy and hydro-aeroplanes, referred to the experiments at Windermere and that 'the results so far attained have been promising'.

On 16 April 1912, Churchill confirmed in the Commons that private hydro-aeroplane tests would continue on Windermere. Click here for image.

The term 'seaplane' was coined by Churchill when he answered a question in the Commons on 17 July 1913.

Seaplanes in War

Churchill wrote in a Minute of 10 February 1914 that 'The objectives of land aeroplanes can never be so definite or important as the objectives of seaplanes, which, when they carry torpedoes, may prove capable of playing a decisive part in operations against capital ships. The facilities of reconnaissance at sea, where hostile vessels can be sighted at enormous distances while the seaplane remains out of possible range, offer a far wider prospect even in the domain of information to seaplanes than to land aeroplanes',

Whilst Wakefield advocated defensive scouting, derived from his experience in the Boer War, Churchill, however, came to the view that attack was the prime tactic for defence: 'The great defence against aerial menace is to attack the enemy's aircraft as near as possible to their point of departure'. Three years and one month after Waterbird's first flight, carrier-borne seaplanes were launched against Germany. 'The Cuxhaven raid marks the first employment of the seaplanes of the Royal Naval Air Service in an attack on the enemy's harbours from the sea, and, apart from the results achieved, is an occasion of historical moment. Not only so, but for the first time in history a naval attack has been delivered simultaneously above, on, and from below the surface of the water.' – Flight magazine, 1 January 1915.

Training for Naval Marine Aeroplanes at Windermere

A private Seaplane School was formed at Hill of Oaks on the south east shore of Windermere. For an example of the fate of Windermere students, click here.

Following the outbreak of war, Adams joined the RNAS becoming a Lieutenant Colonel with the DSC and MBE, and Wakefield joined the Cheshire Regiment becoming commander of a Labour Battalion on the Western Front. On 11 November 1914, the Cockshott Point hangar lease, together with Waterhen, Seabird and Lakes Monoplane were sold by the Lakes Flying Company to the Northern Aircraft Company Ltd.

'Large numbers of probationary Sub-Lieutenants R.N. were sent to Windermere for basic instruction, in addition to those who had already qualified on land machines.' - Britain's Seaplane Pioneers by M H Goodall, Air Pictorial January 1988.

The School was taken over on behalf of the Government, and in May 1916 training operations at Cockshott Point and Hill of Oaks became RNAS Unit Hill of Oaks. In June 1916, the headquarters of the RNAS at Windermere moved from Cockshott Point to Hill of Oaks, and, with the departure of civilian instructors, the name was changed to RNAS Windermere.

A Royal Naval Air Station was established at Hill of Oaks 1916-1917. At various times, the fleet included 4 Nieuport VI seaplanes, 9 F.B.A. flying boats, and 3 Short 827 seaplanes.

The first pupil to obtain a Hydro-aeroplane Certificate at RNAS Hill of Oaks was Paul Gadbois, on 14 June 1916. He departed Windermere on 26 June 1916, but two weeks later was seriously injured in a seaplane accident. The last pupil to obtain a Certificate at Windermere was Edward Haller, on 16 August 1916. He joined the RFC, but was killed on 3 June 1917, when shot down flying a Sopwith 1½ Strutter.

RNAS personnel involved themselves in the local community, even putting on a concert. However, parents of daughters complained that the prefix to RNAS Hill of Oaks stood for Rather Naughty After Sunset!

A Tribute to Windermere

'Perhaps the greatest tribute we can pay Hill of Oaks, Windermere is that but for its existence, just a few years later Britain could quite easily have starved to death as a result of the U-boat blockade. Thankfully the deterrent aspect of seaplanes and other aerial craft forced enemy submarines to stay under the surface and therefore make them less effective.' – The Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust.

On 20 May 1917, two ex-Windermere pupils, Flight Sub-Lieutenants Charles Morrish and Henry Boswell, were officially credited with the first aerial sinking of a U-boat whilst flying a Curtiss H-12 flying boat.  Both of them were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

On 3 June 1918, ex-Windermere pupil Captain Harold Gonyon was amongst the first recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross

Borwick & Sons, boat builders of Bowness-on-Windermere, who constructed the floats and aeroplanes of Oscar Gnosspelius (later Major), Waterbird's floats, floats for the RNAS and pinnaces for the Admiralty, were sub-contracted in 1918 to manufacture Felixstowe flying boat hulls.

On 10 May 1918, Captain Cooper Pattinson from Windermere was first pilot of an S.E. Saunders Ltd-built Felixstowe flying boat which shot down a Zeppelin at Heligoland Bight, for which he was among the first recipients of the Distinguished Flying Cross. On 16 May 1918, whilst carrying out an anti-submarine patrol, he achieved the record for the longest duration flight during World War 1 at that time of 9 hours 45 minutes. It is claimed that Pattinson invented the spotlight altimeter in 1918, wrongly attributed to Guy Gibson in 1943 in the Dam Busters film.

Wavell Wakefield

On 1 November 1918, Flight Lieutenant Wavell Wakefield (Edward Wakefield's nephew, later Lord Wakefield of Kendal) landed a Sopwith Pup on the after deck of HMS Vindictive at Scapa Flow.

Arthur Wakefield

Doctor Arthur Wakefield (Edward Wakefield's brother) unveiled a memorial on 8 June 1924 at the summit of Great Gable to the twenty members of The Fell & Rock Climbing Club who fell in World War One.

 

Windermere: birthplace of British naval and civil marine aeroplanes

Admiralty Deperdussin

Cuxhaven Raid