Text and research by Brian Roote
William Frith Horner was born in West Ham in 1895 to Leonard Horner and Annie Blew. His father was a builder with his own business. They moved to Wayside, Warlingham. William signed for the Navy and went to Dartmouth College. He was appointed Acting Sub Lieutenant and then full rank announced in The London Gazette of 16 March 1915. He then transferred to the Royal Naval Air Service and began training on airships and eventually qualified as a Flight Commander.
The Royal Naval Air Service was formed on 1 July 1914 from the Royal Flying Corps and only 198 men of all ranks were taken on. They trained on airships at RAF Cranwell.
On qualifying William was posted to Caldale Airfield at Kirkwall. Orkney which was an airship station built 1915/1916. T he main aircraft stationed there were varieties of airships some of which were annotated as SSP short for Submarine Scout Pusher and only 6 were ever built, one of which, SSP4 would take William to his death. The SSP carried 2-3 crew, had wireless telegraphy and a Lewis Gun. Its two tanks carried enough fuel for about 8 hours. It had a Rolls Royce engine with a 6 bladed propeller. SSP 4 was delivered to Caldale on 12 June 1917.
At 17.00 hours on 21 December 1917 SSP 4 left Caldale with William as pilot, Ernest Anthony, engineer and Rowland Behn, wireless operator. Its mission was an anti submarine patrol. The weather got worse as the flight went on and with snow and heavy wind William decided to return to base. All lights at Caldale were turned on to help SSP 4 home.
At 18.10 base received a message requesting information on wind strength and direction. 18.20 message requesting a destroyer be sent to position 72K and show a searchlight.
These and following messages are all in the Caldale logs. Later, at 21.10 a communication between SSP4 and HMS Campania asked for a destroyer at full speed. A final message from SSP 4 was received ‘send destroyer to Sanday, may not be able to get back’ Nothing more was heard from SSP 4 and all lights at Caldale were turned off.
Next morning the wreck was found at Taffs, on the south shore of Westray but no trace of the crew. All confidential papers, charts, a boot, leather jacket and a glove were found on boards. SSP 4 was salvaged and a subsequent Court of Inquiry found that the contact switch was still on, the throttle set at full forward and the propeller badly damaged. The evidence led to the conclusion that the aircraft had hit the water with the engine running. The crew were never found.
The London Gazette of April 30 1918, some 6 months after the accident carried the award of Distinguished Service Cross to Flt Cdr William Frith Horner, R N. His engineer Ernest Anthony was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal which is the equivalent of the Distinguished Service Cross for other ranks. Rather unusually Rowland Behn got nothing.
They are all remembered on the Chatham War Memorial and William is on Warlingham War Memorial and in the memorial in Warlingham Church.