- Payne, Alan
- Biographies and personal histories, Naval history
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Albatross, HMAS Hobart I, HMAS Encounter I, HMAS Sydney III, HMAS Australia II
- March 1976 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The R31 was the largest and fastest rigid airship completed during the war and boasted six 275 horse power Rolls Royce engines and a maximum speed of nearly 70 mph – as fast as any Zeppelin. The R31 Class were a vast improvement on previous British airships and were handsome streamlined airships. Although R31 was not a success due to faulty glue, the sister ship R32 completed in 1919 was a great success and included various improvements including a patent girder of Payne’s.
The Director of Airships asked Payne in January 1919 to go over to Germany to inspect captured Zeppelins. As the Flag Officer in Germany had refused to allow any technical inspection of Zeppelins, the Director asked Payne if he would object to going as an executive officer. So he joined an Allied Naval Mission wearing the uniform of a Flight Commander RNAS in a luxurious American armed yacht. The weather was bad and the yacht strayed into a British minefield and struck a mine. At first it was thought the ship was going to sink, Payne was ordered to lower a boat, but this was stove in. Fortunately the ship was not badly damaged and managed to reach Wilhemshaven.
On 1st April 1920, Short Brothers airship works was taken over by the Air Ministry.
Payne transferred from the Admiralty and was appointed an Airship Constructor and made Yard Manager of the Royal Airship Works under the Superintendent Mr. C.I.R. Mitchell, probably the most experienced airship designer in the country. Under construction were two airships, R37, a passenger ship, and R38 the biggest airship then under construction. As the Navy no longer required airships Mitchell managed to sell the ship to the United States Navy. On the 6th August 1921 R38 crashed into the sea at Hull on her final acceptance trials. The loss of life was heavy and included Mitchell. Payne had been on all the trials except the last. He had no faith in airships for naval use and was glad to be allowed to return to the Admiralty in January 1922, when he was promoted to the rank of Constructor.
Payne’s knowledge of aeronautical matters was soon put to good use when he was appointed Constructor in charge of the Aircraft Carrier Section. At the end of the war there was not a single operational aircraft carrier in service capable of flying off and landing aircraft. But by 1922 the position was quite different. Argus and Hermes were in commission, but Hermes was only a small carrier although the first designed as such. The rest of the carriers were conversions and Payne found it a frustrating business designing the conversion of the Furious, Courageous, Glorious and Eagle, ‘a more unsatisfactory way of producing an aircraft carrier I do not know, and cannot imagine.’ He would much preferred to have designed a big new aircraft carrier, but the Admiralty was stuck with the ships half converted during the war. He did however design one new ship – the Australian seaplane carrier Albatross. The only information he was given was a speed of 21 knots and a cost of one million pounds Australian. The ship was to be built in Australia and to be of the simplest type of construction. Albatross commissioned in January 1929 and had a chequered career. In 1938, after being in reserve for five years, she was sold to the Admiralty as part payment for HMAS Hobart, which Payne had built at Devonport. After the war she became a passenger ship for emigrants to Australia.
In July 1927 Payne was appointed to the naval dockyard at Simonstown, near Cape Town. He had no desire to leave the Aircraft Carrier Section, but due to the death of his youngest son he thought it might help his wife if he asked for an overseas appointment.
‘It was wonderful to be my own boss and 6,000 miles away from the Admiralty’, he wrote. ‘The first morning I took over my head clerk asked me whether I intended to come in afternoons’, I said ‘Yes’ and wondered why he asked me such a stupid question.’
He soon learnt that there was very little work in the dockyard unless there was a ship refitting. The ships at the Cape were then two old coal-fired cruisers, Birmingham and Lowestoft, with four sloops and a very small South African contingent. Later the old cruisers were replaced by Calcutta and Carlisle and an RFA tanker added.
Payne found Simonstown a quiet backwater and very different from Devonport. For the first time he had experience of coloured staff. A Malay had been responsible for the Port Order: ‘It is forbidden to harpoon whales in the Basin’. The Malay had done just that and had been carried out to sea. Although Simonstown was only a very small town at the end of the railway line, Cape Town was easily accessible for one of his main interests – books.
In October 1930 he was appointed back to the Admiralty. The disaster to the airship R101 occurred just before and the press interviewed him for his views.
Soon after he arrived back at the Admiralty he was asked if he would be prepared for more foreign service in a few months time. Normally he would have refused, but the appointment was as Constructor Commander on the staff of the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean. Although it meant the end of family life he felt he could not refuse such an opportunity to see the Mediterranean. Also it meant promotion to Senior Constructor.
In May 1931 Payne took passage to Malta to join the flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth. His two years with the Mediterranean Fleet was the only period he was actually appointed to a ship. During his two years he managed to visit most of the Mediterranean countries and he particularly enjoyed Italy, Greece and Palestine.
Payne found his languages came in useful and also his ability to play the piano by ear. He had a vast repertoire of music hall songs. But the officer with the largest repertoire of songs was Lieutenant Commander Lord Louis Mountbatten, who told Payne he had flown in a Zeppelin as a boy years before he had. Another airship expert in the Fleet was a Wing Commander who had been the captain of the ill-fated R38.
In the thirties the Mediterranean Fleet was the largest and most highly trained in the world and probably the only one apart from the Japanese to carry out extensive night exercises.
Except when the Fleet was at sea, officers worked at the Castille, the Naval Headquarters at Valetta. Here Payne started his autobiography, which he did not finish for forty years.
Payne still had a special interest in aircraft carriers and while he was in the Mediterranean, trials of a new type arresting gear were carried out. He also found that the old V and W destroyers in reserve at Malta were in a bad shape. He organised structure surveys and repairs were carried out by the Dockyard. The old destroyers were later able to take their part in the war.