- Payne, Alan
- Biographies and personal histories, Naval history
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Albatross, HMAS Hobart I, HMAS Encounter, HMAS Sydney III, HMAS Australia II
- March 1976 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
After graduating, Payne was appointed to Devonport Dockyard and was put in charge of the refits of the early submarines, which were very small. In 1912 he applied to the Manager to be put in charge of a new light cruiser which had not yet been laid down. This was the Aurora, one of eight of a new class.
Churchill referred to these cruisers as ‘. . . the smallest, fastest vessels protected by vertical armour ever projected for the Royal Navy. They will be strong enough and fast enough to overhaul and cut down any torpedo-boat or destroyer afloat, and generally they will be available for the purposes of observation and reconnaissance’.
The class was most successful, and developed into the ‘C’ and ‘D’ classes which continued to give good service in the Second World War.
In addition to Aurora he was also given two small tankers to build, and when the cruiser was launched, the first of her class, a slightly bigger cruiser was laid down. This was Cleopatra.
Payne was appointed to the Admiralty in January 1915 after launching Cleopatra. He worked on the design of the battle cruisers Renown and Repulse, the ill-fated fast steam driven K Class submarines and the fast J Class Submarines; all six of the surviving J Class were transferred to the RAN in 1919.
In August 1915 Payne was transferred to a new airship design section which was originally staffed from the submarine section. The design of rigid airships had previously been left to Vickers, who were years behind the Germans. The first Vickers airship Mayfly had been a complete failure as it broke its back before its first flight in 1911. Airship No. 9 had been started in 1914 but work had been stopped by Churchill in February 1915. Churchill had no time for airships and was an aeroplane man. If he had been a friend of the airship his tremendous drive would have speeded up the development of British airships very considerably.
The Germans were ahead of the British in airship design. Count Zeppelin’s first airship had flown in 1900 and the German Navy started to operate Zeppelins in 1912. No useful information was available at the Admiralty in 1915 until a Zeppelin was brought down in France later in the year and as much as possible copied from the wreck. Vickers Airship No. 9 did not fly until November 1916, so the Admiralty designers were forced to obtain their information from any available source, but the rule seems to have been to copy the successful Zeppelins.
During 1915 and 1916 Zeppelins bombed London without much opposition until 3rd September 1916, when SL.11 was shot down in flames over London. The pilot, the grandson of a naval constructor, was awarded the VC and became a national hero. The airship was seen burning by millions of Londoners and they were greatly cheered by the first victory over an enemy airship in Britain.
SL.11 was not however a Zeppelin, but a wooden Schutte-Lanz. Except for a very short girder connected to a gondola, which fell away, all the girders were burnt. Payne took charge of the girder and kept it until it was finally burnt in the Plymouth blitz.
Some time before the destruction of SL.11 the British Ambassador in Switzerland reported to the Admiralty that a Swiss employed by Schutte-Lanz had offered to sell the secret of the design. The Swiss, Muller, was brought to London and kept under strict surveillance. He brought with him drawings and a specimen of the special glue used for the plywood construction. Payne was most impressed with the man’s practical experience and ability and was not surprised to learn that he had been in charge of girder construction.
The Admiralty decided to cancel two Vickers design airships and build two improved copies of what was known at the time as the SLM – Schutte-Lanz-Muller. As for the Swiss, his secret was so well kept that over sixty years later air historians remain mystified by the whole affair. The Admiralty had gained very little information from the burnt out wreck of SL.11, but only three weeks later the Zeppelin L33 was brought down almost intact and the airship constructor realised for the first time how far ahead the Germans were in design. So L33 was also copied and became the R33 Class, of which R34 crossed the Atlantic both ways in 1919.
The Director of Naval Construction, Sir Eustace d’Eyncourt, was invited to head a naval mission to France in November 1916 and decided to take Payne as Secretary- Interpreter, a job he had done before.
The French were aware that Churchill had appointed d’Eyncourt as the Chairman of the Committee on Tank Design and so arranged a visit to a factory producing tanks. In Paris the Minister for Marine was an Admiral and at the time also Minister for War. The Admiral asked d’Eyncourt where he would like to go and the reply was Verdun. The Admiral then asked Payne what he would like to see. With airship design in mind, he replied that he would like to meet the famous Gustave Eiffel, then 84. Eiffel had not only built the Eiffel Tower in 1889 but had also built the first aerodynamic laboratory in the world.
At Verdun the party was taken into No Man’s Land under cover of mist, but this was soon stopped by some routine shelling. The party then retired to the safety of the citadel of Verdun, built at the time of Louis XIV.
On returning to the Admiralty, Payne was appointed Chief Airship Overseer for the construction of the wooden airships R31 and R32 at Bedford. The famous airship shed had only just been started and Short Brothers had no workshops ready. Work was carried on by prefabrication at other works and improvisation was required for all aspects of the construction.
In due course the great airship shed at Cardington and all the workshops were completed. R31 flew for the first time in August 1918. On the trials Payne had climbed to the top of the airship to a gun platform when the First Lieutenant informed him that the top vertical fin had collapsed. Water ballast was immediately jettisoned and the ship given a big trim up by the bows. The air pressure at 40 knots kept the horizontal fins in position and thus allowed the lower rudder to operate. The airship slowly returned to Cardington, dropping bits of girder and fabric on the way.