Durban's Earliest Hydroplanes

By Allan Jackson - 23 February 2004

In Facts About Durban I wrote:

In 1915 a Durban-based Curtiss seaplane participated in what must have been one of the very first instances in which a naval force used an aircraft for reconnaissance. The German cruiser Koenigsberg was stationed in German East Africa and posed a serious threat to allied shipping in the area. It was cornered and took refuge in the Rufiji River where the Royal Navy could not reach it because their ships were too big to enter the river and unable to engage it because they didn’t know exactly where it was. The Admiralty chartered the Curtiss seaplane from Mr Hudson in Durban and sent it north on the Kinfauns Castle to Dar es Salaam where it succeeded in locating the Koenigsberg. The navy, with two seaplanes of its own, eventually managed to destroy the Koenigsberg on July 11th.

One of the two Curtiss-Wright hydroplanes [water flying machines] owned by Mr Gerard Hudson. They were piloted by Dennis Cutler who is pictured here. My apologies for the poor quality of the picture which was taken from a photocopy but it is enough to get some idea of what the machines were like.

Since writing the above I have been in touch with Gerard Hudson's daughter Kathleen Hamilton who was kind enough to send me a packet of information about her father and his planes. Hudson was apparently chief engineer at the Koffiefontein diamond mine where he spent a lot of time building models of aeroplanes. He resigned his job to go to England to visit aeroplane factories and ended-up buying two Curtiss-Wright seaplanes [or hydroplanes as they were known then] which he brought back to South Africa along with Royal Flying Corps pilot Dennis Cutler.

The two planes first flew in Cape Town in 1914 and were brought up to Durban as a money-making attraction later that year. One of the machines was damaged soon after it arrived when it crashed on take-off from the bay but the pilot wasn't hurt and it was soon repaired. The wings were removed from one of the machines and it was used to take passengers skimming across the bay on what must have been a pretty thrilling ride.

Hudson later made an arrangement with the British Admiralty, as noted above, and his hydroplane was sent to assist in the search for the Konigsberg. One of Kathleen Hamilton's uncles wrote a book on the subject and, in an extract which I have, he says that Dennis Cutler not only found the Konigsberg but also threw some homemade bombs which had been cooked-up in Durban at it. On returning to the scene Cutler apparently saw what he took to be the mast of the Konigsberg sticking out of the water but it turned that that was decoy left by the Germans and that the ship had been secretly moved. The raider was eventually destroyed and the aircraft was shot down and Cutler taken prisoner. The second machine was also sent to Dar es Salaam but apparently also crashed.

I also have an undated copy of a newpaper article originating most probably from Kenya in which the writer says he saw the original contract between Admiral H.G. King-Hall and D. Cutler, Airman, [on behalf of G Hudson]. The contract stipulated that the Admiralty was to pay £150 per month for the hire of the aircraft and that it was to assume responsibility for risks posed by the enemy to the full value of the aircraft [£2000] and that the owner and the Admiralty would share the ordinary flying risks to the value of £1000 each.


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