Remembrance 2018: Pioneering WWI aerial photographer Walden Hammond

PUBLISHED: 15:20 23 November 2018 | UPDATED: 15:20 23 November 2018

The Photographic Flight, Martlesham Heath 1919, photographed by Walden Hammond

The Photographic Flight, Martlesham Heath 1919, photographed by Walden Hammond

Permission: Vicky Gunnell

From her great uncle’s First World War diary Vicky Gunnell pieced together the career of a pioneer in aerial photography at Orford Ness and Martlesham Heath

Apart from my great uncle Walden Hammond’s successful studio photography career, I knew nothing of his First World War role, until I inherited his pioneering photographs and little diary of his Royal Flying Corps days at Orford Ness and Martlesham Heath from 1917-1918.

Walden grew up in Cambridge. Keen on photography, he was employed as a chemist’s photographic assistant and joined the local photographic club. He had been married to Lottie Fisher for less than two weeks when the First World War started.

Having been turned down repeatedly from active service, eventually the Royal Flying Corps interviewed him at its headquarters, Adastral House, London. Walden had the qualifications required for the unit about to be formed for research and experimentation in aerial photography. At his medical, the MO told him he had heart disease and must not fly, or do anything more violent than riding a bicycle.

As second lieutenant on probation, Walden was posted to R&E Farnborough on September 24, 1916. He needed someone to fly him, to find out what would happen to him in the air. He climbed into the front nacelle of the ‘pusher’ aircraft, with the pilot sitting high up behind him.

Lt Walden HammondLt Walden Hammond

He survived the flight – and chose to ignore the MO’s warning. But Walden became bored waiting for his posting, so he went back to RFC HQ and was subsequently posted to his first active R&E station at Orford Ness in March 1917.

Orford Ness emerged as an experimental station for the RFC during 1917-1919. There had previously been an experimental flight at the Central Flying School at Upavon. The joint services venture expanded, the RNAS opened an experimental station on the Isle of Grain in Kent, the technical side of the RFC went to Orford Ness and the aeroplane testing went to Martlesham Heath.

Orford Ness opened at the end of 1916. The aerodrome was on the marshes of the Ness across the tidal River Ore and a ferry boat took personnel across from Orford Quay. Accommodation on the island was limited, so most personnel were billeted in Orford town.

HQ was in Orford town hall and the officers’ mess at the Crown and Castle hotel. Major Hopkinson, a Cambridge professor of engineering, had overall control from the ministry in London, assisted by university lecturers Henry Tizzard, FA Lindemann and Captain Bourdillon.

A Zeppelin crash at Theberton photographed by Walden HammondA Zeppelin crash at Theberton photographed by Walden Hammond

Research work was under three university dons, BM Jones, who dealt with machine guns and sights, Humphrey Raikes, with pyrotechnics, including the testing of bombs and bomb sights, and Griffiths with navigation and other aspects of flying.

There were three flights. A Flight was equipped with reconnaissance and fighter/bomber aircraft. B Flight flew bombers, principally testing bombs for faults. C Flight flew scouts and worked on machine gun sights and the development of fighter tactics for aerial combat.

It was to this site that Walden was posted as experimental photographic officer. He kept a small diary, where he entered comments about his work and from which I pieced together the experiments he was involved with.

Walden was described as a real enthusiast, who flew whenever he had the opportunity, a pioneering photographer of technical brilliance and rare imagination, whose wonderful pictures are the reason we know so much about the early days of Orford Ness.

The famous The famous "pagodas" of Orford Ness on the distant skyline

His large, wooden camera had glass plates and was hand-held initially, until they found a way of attaching it to the outside of the aircraft fuselage. Walden wasn’t strapped in, neither did he have a parachute, the powers-that-be believing it was safer to stay in the aircraft if it crashed.

One of his photographs shows barges delivering materials for the airfield, but probably his best known view is of the airfield, showing huts, hangars, motor vehicles and some aircraft, with Stony ditch and the bridges leading to the beach.

Another is of the airfield showing the temporary aircraft hangars and the circle which was used by pilots as a navigational aid. Although he took many pictures of aircraft and personnel on the ground, perhaps the most unusual for those times, were his air-to-air photographs of aircraft and skyscapes.

Walden also featured the German prisoner of war camp on King’s Marsh. The POWs were initially housed in tents and later in a more substantial hutted encampment. They maintained the airfield, including keeping sluices and ditches clear and helping the Chinese labour corps with the construction of the Old Chinese Wall sea defence.

Orford ness showing 'The Street', huts and the bridge, photographed by Walden HammondOrford ness showing 'The Street', huts and the bridge, photographed by Walden Hammond

Most of the Ness’s experimental work related to aerial warfare. On March 30, Walden had two flights in an FE 2b, photographing Rankin darts being dropped, steel incendiary darts, about the size of a large candle, invented by Commander F Rankin, RN, for use against airships.

His pictures of aerial photography were far in advance of anything previously attempted, including a sequence showing Vernon Brown looping the loop in a Sopwith triplane.

There were experiments, such as testing interrupter gear to help prevent bullets hitting the propeller, and shooting at moving aircraft from a moving aircraft, under variable weather conditions, which involved highly complex mathematics. Walden photographed a group of airmen and officers watching an aircraft towing a target drone, and a weather balloon about to ascend.

Being stationed on the east coast and near to Harwich, it was expected that they would take part in Home Defence. Night flying commenced in 1917 and on the night of June 16, Fl Lt Holder, in his FE 2b B401, assisted in the shooting down of a Zeppelin LZ 48, which Walden and Lottie saw coming down in flames from their cottage in Orford at 3.26am.

The Black Beacon on Orford nessThe Black Beacon on Orford ness

Walden flew with Holder to photograph the crash site in a field at Theberton. The FE 2b flew at 2,000ft for 35 minutes while he took photographs, then Walden went up again with Capt Wackett in an FE, again at 2,000ft for 35 minutes, so he could take more photographs.

A few days later, War Office officials came to photograph the scene, but the weather had closed in, and despite army guards posted around the ill-fated Zeppelin, many local people looted the wreckage. Officials were relieved when they discovered Walden had already taken photographs, which they commandeered as the official aerial record.

Walden’s research was of great military significance. He tried to find a way of compensating for inevitable vibration when photographing from an aeroplane and experimented with new ideas, one of which was taking aerial reconnaissance shots at an oblique angle.

He then attached a perspective grid to indicate range which the Army always required for intelligence purposes. Its pictures were taken from vertically overhead, ignoring the fact that this was an extremely dangerous procedure.

Dangerous times at Orford Ness, photographed by Walden HammondDangerous times at Orford Ness, photographed by Walden Hammond

But Walden’s perfectly practical solution was rejected and was not officially adopted for military purposes until 1941. No recognition was ever accorded to its first inventor. Today, they are known as Air Perspective Maps.

Walden’s first night flight was in a borrowed RE8, for experiments with night flying props. He pioneered the technique of night photography, using flares to light the subject, achieving shots of Wickham Market Railway Station, Norwich Cathedral and Butley.

He was in the middle of night flying in connection with vibration tests when, on December 6, 1917, a medical examination established he should do home service. On December 18 he was posted, as a lieutenant described as a ‘photographic experimental officer’, to the RFC Aeroplane Experimental Research Station at Martlesham Heath, where he set up its first photographic flight.

From April 1 1918, the RFC became part of the Royal Air Force. Experiments continued and Walden flew in a Maurice Shorthorn, a ‘pusher’ with dual controls, to record big bomb experiments from the twin-engined Handley Page machine. Orford Ness was the target.

German U-Boats surrender at Harwich, photoghraphed by Walden HammondGerman U-Boats surrender at Harwich, photoghraphed by Walden Hammond

Walden was made captain on November 1, 1918. On November 21 he took aerial shots of the German submarine fleet surrendering at Harwich. He flew 112 times between March 1917 and August 1919. Finally, Capt Walden Hammond was demobilised on October 1, 1919.

Lottie Hammond summed up their life at Orford Ness and Martlesham Heath. “At one time, the death toll was 100 per cent per annum. The dear things would probably be dining with us one night and had gone the next night. Flying in those days was indeed a great risk, with such machines, doing aerobatics in the day, to test strain.”

Despite warning him about not being fit enough to fly, Walden lived to be 81 years old.

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