Air Mechanic Rowland Charles Behn

Service:  Royal Navy Air Service
Service No:  F14634
Date and place of birth: 21 May 1899 in Salisbury, Rhodesia
Date and place of death: 21 December 1917

Family background

In 1911 Rowland Behn (11) was living with his mother Fanny Behn (42) and his siblings: Frederick (10), Ethel (9), Emily (7) and Dorothy (6) in the Alms House, Station Road, Midhurst, Sussex.  Fanny Behn was born in Forton, Hampshire, and all the children were born in Rhodesia. Fanny Behn completed the Census Form, giving her status as ‘married’ and her relationship to the head of the family as ‘wife’.  She gave their address as St Elmo, Station Road, Midhurst.  Living at the same address but completing her own form was Caroline Sparks (76), widow, who gave the address as Allms House (sic), Mint, Station Road. In the 1911 Census Summary Book, Alms House, Station Road was listed as Private House with Mrs Sparks and Mrs Behn as occupiers.

Midhurst Grammar School Pupil Admissions 1903 – 1916 records Rowland Charles Behn, son of Fanny Behn of 3 Petersfield Road, Midhurst, being admitted to the school 21 January 1913 and leaving 18 December 1914 to join the air service. His brother Frederick Evylea James was admitted 14 September 1910 and left 20 December 1916 to be a solicitor’s clerk. Their father’s name is not given but he was a mining prospector by profession.

Caroline Sparks was living at the Mint in 1871 with her son William (8) and her parents Thomas and Mary Titcombe.  She was 34 and a widow.  She was still living there with her parents and son in 1881. In 1891 she was living there with her father.

No link can be traced between the two families.

Military service

Rowland Charles Behn joined the Royal Naval Air Service aged 16, straight from school, as an Air Mechanic (2nd class) and was stationed in Scotland. He served on President II, Daedulus, President II for the second time, and Icarus. His last posting was to HM Airship P4.

RNAS was the air arm of the Royal Navy officially recognised on 1 July  1914 by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. It was disbanded in 1918, when it merged with the Army’s Royal Flying Corps to form a completely new service, the first of its kind in the world, the Royal Air Force. Until the merger, there had been intense rivalry between the two services. It was believed that in August 1914, the RNAS had more aircraft under its control than the RFC. This included airships and Swordfish aircraft operating from both land and aircraft carriers at sea.  The Navy maintained 12 airship stations around the coast from Longside, Aberdeenshire in the Northeast to Anglesey in the West.

Rowland Behn was awarded Victory and British War medals

Death and commemoration

Rowland Behn went Missing in Action on 21 December 1917 while on patrol in HM Airship P4.

At 17.00hrs on 21 December 1917  SSSP-4 left Caldale RNAS station for anti-submarine patrol north of the Orkney Isles. There was a full moon and the weather was favourable. The crew for this flight was

Pilot: Fl.Com. William Firth Horner;  1st Engineer: Leading air mechanic Ernest Frank Anthony;  Wireless/Telegrapher: Air mechanic (2nd Class) Rowland Charles Behn.

The next morning the wreck of SSSP-4 was found on the south shore of the Bay of Tafts, with no sign of the crew. Confidential papers, charts, a boot, weather jacket and a glove were still on board. The airship was salvaged and returned to Caldale where a court of enquiry found that the switch was still in contact position and the throttle set at full forward. The propeller was very badly damaged. It was thought SSSP-4 hit the water while the engine was running. The crew may have abandoned ship believing it was about to sink. None of the crew were ever found.

His mother ‘Fanny Behn 3 Petersfield Road’ was notified of his death.

He is commemorated on Chatham Naval Memorial, Panel 25, in the Memorial Register in the Naval Chapel of Brompton Garrison Church, Gillingham, Medway, Midhurst War Memorial, Memorial Panels in Midhurst Parish Church and the Board in Midhurst Rother College.

Subsequent family history

Fanny Behn died in 1937, aged 68, in the Midhurst district.

Ethel Frances Behn died in 1995, aged 94 in the Chichester district.

Midhurst U3A WW1 War Memorial Project