The Supermarine Seagull V was a 3 seat all metal hulled air-sea rescue / reconnaissance / maritime patrol amphibian biplane aircraft with a single Bristol Pegasus VI 9-cylinder radial pusher engine (775hp with a top speed of just 217 km/h). The Seagull V was also capable of carrying a military payload of 2 x 0.303 machine guns and up to 8 x 9kg light bombs (these small bombs were probably better suited for annoyance value if they spotted enemy shipping or a submarine on the ocean’s surface!). The aircraft was known as the Walrus in the United Kingdom (the Walrus I was metal hulled and the Walrus II was wooden hulled).
The Seagull V was developed by Supermarine in Great Britain from a 1929 Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) requirement issued for an aircraft that could be catapult launched from Royal Australian Navy cruisers. Interestingly this ungainly looking (it was given nicknames with affection like “The Ugly Duckling“, “The Flying Steam Pigeon”, and “Shagbat“!) but strong, highly effective and versatile aircraft was designed by R.J. Mitchell who would later design the famous and very sleek Supermarine Spitfire fighter! The first Seagull V airframe was completed for testing in 1933 and first flew on July 21st, 1933 from Southampton waters. Catapult trials were conducted later that year.
The RAAF was the first customer of the type and started to receive the first of 24 Seagull V’s in 1935. These aircraft were serialed A2-1 to A2-24 with the last of this initial batch being delivered in 1937.
During World War Two a further 37 Seagull V / Walrus aircraft were received by the RAAF and all of these retained their original British serial numbers. 11 RAAF Seagull V / Walrus amphibians were lost in various incidents. 9 were written off from crashes/accidents and 2 were lost in combat during World War Two. 1 of those, a Walrus I (L2177 delivered to the RAAF in 1940) was lost whilst aboard the Royal Australian Navy cruiser HMAS Sydney, which was infamously sunk on November 19th, 1941 during an engagement with the Germany Navy raider Kormoran (HSK-8) in the Indian Ocean (both ships were lost in the engagement and it all remained a mystery as the Sydney was lost with all 645 aboard until the shipwrecks were finally discovered on the ocean floor in March 2008).
Supermarine Seagull V / Walrus aircraft were operated by RAAF No. 5, 9 and 10 (Fleet Co-operation) Squadrons and were deployed aboard Royal Australian Navy cruisers HMAS Australia, Sydney, Hobart, Perth and Canberra along with other ships such as the HMAS Westralia. In addition to the maritime role, the RAAF also operated these aircraft in the air-sea rescue role from bases in New Guinea, target towing duties, an aerial survey role to help with the mapping of Australia and even helped the Fisheries Department in the migratory tracking of various species such as Tuna! The type was retired from RAAF service in 1947.
The Seagull V / Walrus was not only operated by Australia but also saw service with a number of nations: Argentine Navy, Egypt, French Navy, Irish Air Corps, Royal Air Force (operated by 15 squadrons in the European, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean theatres of war), Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm (entered service in 1936), Royal Canadian Air Force, Royal Canadian Navy, Royal New Zealand Air Force, Royal New Zealand Navy, Soviet Navy, Turkish Air Force. Civilian operators also flew this little amphibian in Australia, Canada, Norway, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
Although 771 Supermarine Seagull V / Walrus aircraft were built between 1933 and 1944, only 4 complete airframes exist on display today. 2 of these were former RAAF aircraft, both of which have an interesting history and the path they took to end up in each museum is very unique.
1 of the former RAAF aircraft is on display at the RAF museum in Hendon, UK. Seagull V A2-4 was one of the original examples built in 1934. It first flew on December 3rd, 1935, the engine was later removed and the aircraft was shipped to Australia in January 1936 arriving at RAAF Laverton the following month. Once the engine was reinstalled test flights began in Australia during March 1936 and was assigned to RAAF No.5 (Fleet Co-operation) Squadron on April 20th, 1936. Deployed on HMAS Australia in February 1937 she made her first catapult launch from the ship on February 9th, 1937. The aircraft participated in various military exercises, survey mapping and Fisheries Department work prior to World War Two. Over those years she suffered a number of damage incidents to the hull but was repaired each time and returned to flight.
By 1940 A2-4 was deployed aboard HMAS Perth and suffered serious wing and tail damage from a gun blast in September 1940. Taken back to Sydney for repair it was returned to service in November 1940 and fitted with target towing gear for gunnery practice with No. 9 Squadron. Damaged again in a forced landing incident then again on a take-off incident she was back in for repairs during 1941 but quickly returned to target towing duties. By 1943 she was back on the front line and deployed on anti-submarine patrols off Northern Queensland. She was damaged again in 1943 and spent a lot of time under repair seeing out 1944 and 1945 completing communications duties and other training tasks in New South Wales. The aircraft was declared surplus on March 22nd, 1946. She flew a little longer completing miscellaneous duties before being put into storage.
A2-4 was sold in October 1946 by the Commonwealth Disposals Commission to McIlree Motors Sydney for £600 with 1,660 flight hours logged on the airframe. She remained with this company in storage until 1959 before being sold again to an Ansett Airlines pilot Captain Peter J Gibbes of Melbourne who was a former RAAF Squadron Leader (he was co-owner with 2 other pilots). Refitted with a new engine, they returned the aircraft to the skies on March 17th, 1960 some 14 years after her last flight (for private uses such as fishing trips and charter work with the title ‘Amphibious Air Charters’)!
A2-4 (civil registration VH-ALB) was sold again in 1962 and changed hands a number of times until grounded by the Department of Civil Aviation on September 22nd, 1966 as un-airworthy. The last flight was in April 1966.
The grounding was not the flying demise of A2-4 (VH-ALB) though. Despite being damaged in a windstorm at Camden in New South Wales in November 1968 (the wings were damaged and the floats were torn off), she was restored to flight and modified with an auxiliary fuel tank to increase range for entry in the 1969 London-Sydney air race. They missed the starting date for the race but planned to join the competitors for the leg from Singapore. Problems arose in Timor though due to a lack of suitable fuel and the pilots returned the aircraft to Sydney. It was continued to be flown until a heavy landing in 1970, resulted in the loss of a wing and other heavy damage, which finally grounded her with 1,893 flying hours.
After a couple of years sitting derelict in Bankstown and vandalised the wrecked airframe was purchased by the RAF Museum and shipped back to the UK in 1973 (one of the aircraft used to airlift the wreck had to be fumigated as it was full of spiders that had crept out of the Seagull airframe – we breed them big and nasty in Australia!) where restoration began immediately. A2-4 (VH-ALB) was finally put on display with RAAF markings at the museum in 1979.
The other former RAAF aircraft is on display at the RAAF museum in Point Cook, Victoria. This Walrus, HD874 was originally a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm example that was transferred to the RAAF in September 1943 (Qantas then completed an inspection) and allocated to No. 9 Squadron in December 1943. A heavy landing in Cairns in June 1944 saw the airframe returned to Qantas for repairs. HD874 was then converted for target towing duties in November 1944. By March 1945 it was sent to the No. 1 Flying Boat Repair Depot at Lake Boga in Victoria for a full service and fabric surfaces were re-covered. Following this overhaul it was put into storage in March 1946.
HD874 remained in storage until re-serviced and issued to the Department of External Affairs for the RAAF’s Antarctic Flight in October 1947 now sporting bright yellow paint and named “Snow Goose“. At some stage during its active career it was re-hulled with a metal hull making it suitable for this mission, the first Australian Antarctic expedition since World War Two. Loaded up on Landing Craft LST3501 the aircraft was shipped to Heard Island. 2 days after arriving on the Heard Island a 1.5 hour reconnaissance flight of the island was conducted on December 13th, 1947. This was the only flight completed before the aircraft was totally written off in a storm on December 21st, 1947 (parts were salvaged where possible)!
There she remained for 33 years until recovered by the RAAF in 1980 for a full restoration to the way it was on this Antarctic Flight at the RAAF Museum in Point Cook. Restoration work did not begin until 1993 and was completed in 2002. One wing of the aircraft today has a clear covering to display the inner construction of the wing.
Of the other 2 surviving Walrus aircraft, one is in private hands and under restoration in the UK (Walrus W2718) and the last is at the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm museum at RNAS Yeovilton in the UK (Walrus L2301). The latter was built in 1939 but it actually served with the Irish Air Corps and was never used in combat during World War Two.