Aviation in Peace and War
by Sir Frederick Hugh Sykes
1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse




LONDON EDWARD ARNOLD & CO. 1922 [All rights reserved]

Transcriber's Note:

Minor typographical errors have been corrected without note, whilst more significant amendments have been listed at the end of the text. The oe ligature is represented by [oe].




Early Thoughts on Flight. The Invention of the Balloon. First Experiments in Gliders and Aeroplanes. The Wright Brothers and their Successors in Europe. The First Airships. The Beginnings of Aviation in England. The Inception and Development of Aircraft as Part of the Forces of the Crown: the Balloon Factory; the Air Battalion; the Royal Flying Corps, the Military Wing, the Naval Wing. Tactics and the Machine. Conclusions.


General Remarks on War Development. Co-operation with the Army: Reconnaissance; Photography; Wireless; Bombing; Contact Patrol; Fighting. Co-operation with the Navy: Coast Defence, Patrol and Convoy Work; Fleet Assistance, Reconnaissance, Spotting for Ships' Guns; Bombing; Torpedo Attack. Home Defence: Night Flying and Night Fighting. The Machine and Engine. Tactics and the Strategic Air Offensive. Organization.


The Future of Aerial Defence. Civil Aviation: as a Factor in National Security; as an Instrument of Imperial Progress; Financial and Economic Problems; Weather Conditions and Night Flying; Organization; the Machine and Engine. Air Services: British, Continental and Imperial.



Since the earliest communities of human beings first struggled for supremacy and protection, the principles of warfare have remained unchanged. New methods have been evolved and adopted with the progress of science, but no discovery, save perhaps that of gunpowder, has done so much in so short a time to revolutionize the conduct of war as aviation, the youngest, yet destined perhaps to be the most effective fighting-arm. Yet to-day we are only on the threshold of our knowledge, and, striking as was the impetus given to every branch of aeronautics during the four years of war, its future power can only dimly be seen.

We may indeed feel anxious about this great addition of aviation to the destructive power of modern scientific warfare. Bearing its terrors in mind, we may even impotently seek to check its advance, but the appeal of flying is too deep, its elimination is now impossible, and granted that war is inevitable, it must be accepted for good or ill. Fortunately, although with the other great scientific additions, chemical warfare and the submarine, its potentialities for destruction are very great, yet aircraft, unlike the submarine, can be utilized not only in the conduct of war but in the interests of peace, and it is here that we can guide and strengthen it for good. Just as the naval supremacy of Britain was won because commercially we were the greatest seafaring people in the world, so will air supremacy be achieved by that country which, making aviation a part of its everyday life, becomes an airfaring community.

Our nation as a whole has been educated, owing to its geographical situation and by tradition, to interest itself in the broader aspects of marine policy and development. It requires to take the same interest in aviation, a comparatively new subject, unhampered to a great extent by preconceived notions and therefore offering greater scope for individual thought.

The following sketch[1] has been written in the hope that some of those who read it may be inspired to study aviation in one or other of its branches, whether from the historical, technical, strategical, or commercial point of view. Any opinions expressed are, of course, my own and not official.

[1] First written and delivered as the Lees-Knowles Lectures at Cambridge University in February and March, 1921.

I propose first briefly to trace the history of aviation from its beginnings to the outbreak of war; next to describe the evolution of aircraft and of air strategy during the war; and last to estimate the present position and to look into the future.




The story of the growth of aviation may be likened to that of the discovery and opening up of a new continent. A myth arises, whence no one can tell, of the existence of a new land across the seas. Eventually this land is found without any realization of the importance of the discovery. Then comes the period of colonization and increasing knowledge. But the interior remains unexplored. So, in the case of aviation, man was long convinced, for no scientific reason, that flight was possible. With the first ascent by balloon came the imagined mastery of the air; later, the invention of flight that can be controlled at will. To-day we are still in the stage of colonization. The future resources of the air remain hidden from our view.

The Daedalean myth and the ancient conception of the winged angelic host show how the human mind has long been fascinated by the idea of flight, but the first design of an apparatus to lift man into the air, a parachute-like contrivance, was only reached at the end of the fifteenth century in one of Leonardo da Vinci's manuscripts. About the same time lived the first of the long line of daring practical aviators, without whom success would never have been achieved, one John Damian, a physician of the Court of James IV of Scotland, who "took in hand to fly with wings, and to that effect caused make a pair of wings of feathers, which being fastened upon him, he flew off the castle wall of Stirling, but shortly he fell to the ground and brake his thigh-bone."

Nearly 250 years later the aeronaut had not made much progress, for we read of the Marquis de Bacqueville in 1742 attaching to his arms and legs planes of his own design and launching himself from his house in the attempt to fly across the Seine, into which, regrettably, he fell.

Meanwhile the seventeenth-century philosophers had been theorizing. In 1638 John Wilkins, the founder of the Royal Society, published a book entitled Daedalus, or Mechanical Motions. A few years later John Glanville wrote in Scepsis Scientifica "to them that come after us it may be as ordinary to buy a pair of wings to fly into remotest regions, as now a pair of boots to ride a journey," the sceptic proving a truer prophet than the enthusiast. By 1680 Giovanni Borelli had reached the conclusion, in his book De Volatu, that it was impossible that man should ever achieve flight by his own strength. Nor was he more likely to do so in the first aerial ship, designed in 1670 by Francesco Lana, which was to be buoyed up in the air by being suspended from four globes, made of thin copper sheeting, each of them about 25 feet in diameter. From these globes the air was to be exhausted, so that each, being lighter than the atmosphere, would support the weight of two or three men. A hundred years elapsed before Dr. Joseph Black of the University of Edinburgh made the first practical suggestion, that a balloon inflated with hydrogen would rise.


It was in 1783 that Montgolfier conceived the idea of utilizing the lifting power of hot air and invited the Assembly of Vivarais to watch an exhibition of his invention, when a balloon, 10 feet in circumference, rose to a height of 6,000 feet in under ten minutes. This was followed by a demonstration before Louis XVI at Versailles, when a balloon carrying a sheep, a cock, and a duck, rose 1,500 feet and descended safely. And on November 21st of the same year Pilatre de Rozier, accompanied by the Marquis d'Arlande, made the first human ascent, in the "Reveillon," travelling 5 miles over Paris in twenty minutes.

England, it is not surprising to learn, was behind with the invention, but on November 25th, 1783, Count Francesco Zambeccari sent up from Moorfields a small oilskin hydrogen balloon which fell at Petworth; and in August of 1784 James Tytler ascended at Edinburgh in a fire balloon, thus achieving the first ascent in Great Britain. In the same year Lunardi came to London and ballooning became the rage. It was an Englishman, Dr. Jefferies, who accompanied Blanchard in the first cross-Channel flight on January 7th, 1785. Fashionable society soon turned to pursuits other than watching balloon ascents, however, and the joys of the air were confined to a few adventurous spirits, such as Green and Holland, who first substituted coal gas for hydrogen and in 1836 made a voyage of 500 miles from Vauxhall Gardens to Weilburg in Nassau, and James Glaisher, who in the middle of the century began to make meteorological observations from balloons, claiming on one occasion, in 1862, to have reached the great height of 7 miles.


The world seemed content to have achieved the balloon, but there were a few men who realized that the air had not been conquered, and who believed that success could only be attained by the scientific study and practice of gliding. Prominent among these, Sir George Cayley, in 1809, published a paper on the Navigation of the Air, and forecasted the modern aeroplane, and the action of the air on wings. In 1848 Henson and Stringfellow, the latter being the inventive genius, designed and produced a small model aeroplane—the first power-driven machine which actually flew. It is now in the Smithsonian Institute at Washington. Of greater practical value were the gliding experiments by Otto Lilienthal, of Berlin, and Percy Pilcher, an Englishman, at the end of the last century. Both these men met their death in the cause of aviation. Another step forward was made by Laurence Hargrave, an Australian, who invented the box and soaring kite and eighteen machines which flew.

From the theoretical point of view, Professor Langley, an American, reached in his Experiments in Aerodynamics the important conclusion that weight could best be countered by speed. From theory Langley turned to practice and in 1896 designed a steam-driven machine which flew three-quarters of a mile without an operator. Seven years later, at the end of 1903, he produced a new machine fitted with a 52 horse-power engine weighing less than 5 lb. per horse-power; but this machine was severely damaged ten days before Wilbur Wright made his first flight in a controlled power-driven aeroplane.


The Wright brothers directed their whole attention to aviation in 1899. By 1902, as the result of many experiments, they had invented a glider with a horizontal vane in front, a vertical vane behind, and a device for "warping" the wings. Their longest glide was 622-1/4 feet. This was followed by the construction of a machine weighing 600 lb., including the operator and an 8 horse-power engine, which on December 17th, 1903, realized the dreams of centuries.

After an increasing number of experiments, a machine built in 1905 flew 24-1/4 miles at a speed of 38 miles an hour. It is interesting to recall that the new invention was refused once by the United States and three times by the British Government.

It was not until September 13th, 1906, that Ellehammer, a Danish engineer, made the first free flight in Europe, his machine flying 42 metres at a height of a metre and a half. About the same time reports of the Wrights' successes began to reach Europe and were quickly appreciated by the French.

Space forbids that I should enter into the achievements of the early French aviators, among whom the names of Ferber, Bleriot and Farman will always rank high in the story of human faith, courage and determination. It is a record of rapid advance. Farman made a circuit flight of 1 kilometre in 1908, and flew from Chalons to Rheims, a distance of 27 kilometres, in twenty minutes. Bleriot crossed the Channel in a monoplane of his own design in forty minutes. French designers improved the control system, and French machines became famous. The records of the Rheims meeting of 1909 serve to illustrate the progress made during the first phase of aviation. Latham won the altitude prize by flying to a height of over 500 feet. Farman the prize for the flight of longest duration by remaining more than three hours in the air, and the passenger carrying prize by carrying two passengers round a 10-kilometre course in 10-1/2 minutes. The Gnome rotary engine was first used with success at this meeting.

Before turning to the pioneer efforts in England and the pre-war organization of our air forces, some account of the development of the lighter-than-air dirigible is desirable.


The earliest conception of an airship is to be found in General Meusnier's design in 1784 for an egg-shaped balloon driven by three screw propellers, worked, of course, by hand. The chief interest in his design, though it never materialized, lies in the fact that it provided for a double envelope and was the precursor of the ballonet. The first man-carrying airship was built by Henri Giffard in 1852. It had a capacity of 87,000 cu. feet, a length of 144 feet, a 3 horse-power engine, and a speed of 6 miles an hour. A gas engine was first used twenty years later in an Austrian dirigible, giving a speed of 3 miles an hour. About the same time much useful work was accomplished by Dupuy de Lome, whose dirigible, with a propeller driven by man power, gave a speed of 5-1/2 miles an hour. Twelve years later, in 1884, two French Army officers, Captain Kubs and Captain Renard, constructed the first successful power-driven lighter-than-air craft fitted with an 8-1/2 horse-power electric motor, which may be regarded as the progenitor of all subsequent non-rigid airships. In 1901 Santos Dumont flew round the Eiffel Tower, travelling 6-3/4 miles in 1-1/2 hours, and in 1903 the flight of the "Lebaudy," covering a distance of 40 miles at a speed of 20 miles an hour, led the French military authorities to take up the question of airships.

What the French initiated, the Germans, concentrating with characteristic thoroughness on the development of the rigid as opposed to the non-rigid airship, improved. In 1896 Wolfert's rigid airship attained a speed of 9 miles an hour and in 1900 the first Zeppelin was launched. Whatever we may think of the German methods of using their airships during the war, we cannot but admire the courage and determination of Count Zeppelin, who, in spite of many mishaps, succeeded in producing the finest airships in the world and inspiring the German people with a faith in the air which they have never lost. From 1905 onwards development was rapid. In 1907 Zeppelin voyaged in stages from Friedrichshaven to Frankfort, a distance of 200 miles in 7-1/2 hours. Popular enthusiasm is illustrated by the fact that within a few months the same airship made four hundred trips, carrying 8,551 passengers and covering 29,430 miles. Other airships showed similar records. Between 1909 and 1913 eighteen of the Parseval type were built, and 1912 saw the construction of the first Schutte-Lanz, designed expressly for naval and military purposes. If France at this period led the world in aeroplane design, Germany was undeniably ahead in airship development.

In Great Britain, in 1905, we had one very small airship, designed and constructed by Willows.


Though the names of Pilcher, Dunne, Howard Wright, and Rolls testify to the fact that the science of aviation had its followers in England at the beginning of this century, flying came comparatively late, and the real interest of the movement centres round the early efforts of military aviation from 1912 onwards. Nevertheless this country could ill have dispensed with the experiments of that small and courageous band of aviators, among whom Dickson and Cody were prominent. By 1908 Cody had built an aeroplane and was making experimental flights at Aldershot. In 1907, A. V. Roe, working under great difficulties, constructed and flew his first machine, a triplane fitted with an 8-10 horse-power twin cylinder Jap bicycle engine, the first tractor type machine produced by any country, and a very important contribution to the science of flight. In 1910 and 1911 we find de Havilland, Frank Maclean and the Short Brothers, Ogilvie, Professor Huntingdon, Sopwith and the Bristol Company, starting on the design and construction of machines, of which the names have since become famous. At the same time certain centres of aviation came into existence, such as Brooklands, where I well remember beginning to fly in August, 1910, Hendon, Larkhill and Eastchurch, destined to be the centre of naval aviation. It is significant, however, of the slow progress made that by November 1st, 1910, only twenty-two pilot's certificates had been issued, and it was Conneau, a French naval officer, who in 1911 won the so-called "Circuit of Britain," i.e. a flight from Brooklands and back via Edinburgh, Glasgow, Exeter and Brighton. Cody and Valentine were the only British competitors to complete the full course.

In May 1911 a demonstration was organized by the owners of the Hendon Aerodrome to which a large number of Cabinet Ministers, members of parliament, and army and navy officers were invited. The War Office co-operated by arranging for a small force of horse, foot and guns to be secretly disposed in a specified area some miles distant and by detailing two officers, of whom I was one, to test what could be done to find and report them by air. I remember that I had a special map prepared, the first used in this, and I think any country, for the aeroplane reconnaissance of troops. After a sufficiently exciting trip, and with the troops successfully marked on the map, Hubert, my French pilot, and I, returned and made our report to General Murray, the Director of Military Training. It was a very interesting flight; the weather good; our height about 1,500 feet; the machine a 50 horse-power Gnome "box-kite" Henri Farman, which at one period of our 35 mile an hour return journey elected to point itself skywards for an unpleasant second or two and fly "cabre"; I can see Hubert now anxiously forcing his front elevator downwards and shouting to me to lean forward in order to help to bring the nose to a more comfortable bearing!

Many pages could be filled with the difficulties and exploits of the first British aviators, but enough has been said to show that, compared with that of aeroplanes in France and of airships in Germany, development in this country started late, progressed slowly and excited little public interest. The work of the pioneers was, however, not in vain, since it opened the eyes of our military authorities to the value of aviation and led to the formation of that small but highly efficient flying corps which during the war expanded into an organization without rival. Let us now turn to the inception of the air forces of the Crown and the position with regard to these and to air tactics at the outbreak of war.


Nations have tended to regard flight as a prerogative of war. A balloon school was formed in the early days of the French revolutionary wars; the French victory at Fleurus in 1794 was ascribed to balloon reconnaissance; balloons were used by the Federal Army in the American Civil War, and during the Siege of Paris Gambetta effected his escape by balloon in 1871.

The Balloon Factory.

In England experiments were begun at Woolwich Arsenal in 1878, and in 1883 a Balloon Factory, a Depot and a School of Instruction were established at Chatham. The expedition to Bechuanaland in 1884, under the command of Sir Charles Warren, was accompanied by a detachment of three balloons, and the following year balloons co-operated with the Sudan Expeditionary Force, when Major Elsdale carried out some photographic experiments from the air.

In 1890 a balloon section was introduced into the Army as a unit of the Royal Engineers, and not long afterwards, the Balloon Factory was established at South Farnborough, where in 1912 it was transformed into the Royal Aircraft Factory. Four balloon sections took part in the South African War and were used during the Siege of Ladysmith, at Magersfontein and Paardeburg. Colonel Lynch, who served in the Boer Army, stated at a lecture delivered in Paris after the war that "the Boers took a dislike to balloons. All other instruments of war were at their command; they had artillery superior for the most part to, and better served than, that of the English; they had telegraphic and heliographic apparatus; but the balloons were the symbol of a scientific superiority of the English which seriously disquieted them."

I went through a course in ballooning during leave from West Africa in 1904 and remember that partly owing to the energy of Colonel Capper, partly to the impetus given by the South African War, and partly to the growing interest in all things aeronautical throughout the civilized world, it was noticeable that the activities of the Balloon Factory were increasing in many directions. Although the spherical balloon had been improved, its disabilities were recognized and experiments were made with elongated balloons, man-flying kites, air photography, signalling devices, observation of artillery fire, mechanical apparatus for hauling down balloons, and petrol motors. A grant for a dirigible balloon was obtained in 1903, though it was not until 1907, the year in which Cody began the construction of his aeroplane at Farnborough, and Charles Rolls his experiments, that the airship "Nulli Secundus" made her first flight. She was about 120 feet long and 30 feet in diameter, and was driven by a 40 horse-power engine at a speed of 30 miles an hour. On October 5th this airship flew to London in an hour and a half, circled round St. Paul's, man[oe]uvred over Buckingham Palace, and descended at the Crystal Palace. In the same year, be it remembered, a Zeppelin had made a trip of 200 miles from Friedrichshaven to Frankfort. The "Nulli Secundus" was followed in 1910 by the "Beta" and the "Gamma."

Meanwhile an Advisory Committee for Aeronautics had been appointed, and the National Physical Laboratory had organized a department at Teddington for the investigation of aeronautical problems in co-operation with the Balloon Factory.

The Air Battalion.

In 1911 the authorities could no longer close their eyes, especially at a time when rumours of war were rife, to the rapid development of heavier-than-air craft on the Continent. So far, as we have seen, the aeroplane had been regarded in England as little more than the plaything of a few adventurous but foolhardy spirits. A certain amount of experience in piloting and handling aeroplanes had been gained by a handful of Army officers, but the machines used either belonged to the officers themselves, to civilians, or to aviation firms. I was at that time a general staff officer in the Directorate of Military Operations under General Wilson, now Field Marshal and late Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and was the only officer in the War Office who had learned to fly. It appeared very important that a study of the military possibilities of aviation should be made. The prime role of cavalry, reconnaissance, seemed to have passed from it. In addition to my normal duties, I visited France, Germany and Italy, collected information on foreign activities, wrote reports, and tried to create a knowledge of the possible effect of future military aeronautics and to urge the formation of a flying corps.

In 1911 the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers, consisting of Headquarters, No. 1 Company (Airships) and No. 2 Company (Aeroplanes), was formed and superseded the Balloon School. The creation of No. 2 Company, stationed at Larkhill, marked the first formation of a British military unit composed entirely of heavier-than-air aircraft. The same year witnessed the inception of the B.E., F.E. and S.E. type machines in the Balloon Factory, but the total of our machines, both for naval and military requirements, amounted to something less than twelve aeroplanes and two small airships; and the mishaps suffered by the military machines on their flight from Larkhill to Cambridge, to take part in Army Man[oe]uvres, were significant of their unreliability.

The Royal Flying Corps.

In view, therefore, of the reports received of the progress abroad, the Air Battalion was clearly insufficient to meet the demands which might be made upon it in the event of war; and at the end of 1911 the Prime Minister instructed a standing Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence to consider the future development of air navigation for naval and military purposes. As a result of their deliberations the Committee recommended the creation of a British Air Service to be regarded as one and designated the Royal Flying Corps; the division of the Corps into a Naval Wing, a Military Wing, and a Central Flying School; the maintenance of the closest possible collaboration between the Corps, the Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and the Aircraft (late Balloon) Factory; and the appointment of a permanent Consultative Committee, named the Air Committee, to deal with all aeronautical questions affecting both the Admiralty and the War Office.

Consequent upon these recommendations, a Technical Sub-Committee was formed, consisting of Brig.-General Henderson, Major MacInnes of the directorate of Military Training at the War Office, a splendid officer, who died during the war, and myself, to draft the new scheme. The objects kept in view in framing our peace organization were to suit it to war conditions, as far as they could be foreseen, to base it on an efficient self-contained unit, and, while allowing for the wide differences between naval and military requirements, to ensure the maximum co-operation between the two branches of the Service. Success beyond expectation was achieved in the first two objects, but, as will be seen, the naval and military branches tended for unforeseen but good reasons to diverge, until they joined hands again in 1918 as the Royal Air Force. The bases of the military organization were, a headquarters, the squadron, and the flying depot. These proved their value during the war and have remained the units of our air forces to this day. The Military Wing was to form a single and complete organization and contain a headquarters, seven aeroplane squadrons, each to consist of twelve active machines and six in reserve, one airship and kite squadron, and a flying depot. All pilots, whether of the Naval or the Military Wing, were eventually to graduate at the Central Flying School, whence they could join either the Naval Wing at Eastchurch or one of the Military Squadrons. In time of war each branch of the Service was to form a reserve for the other if required.

The Military Wing.

In accordance with this scheme I received instructions to organize, recruit, train and command the Military Wing of the Royal Flying Corps. The functions of the Military Wing were quite clear: it was to meet the air requirements of the Expeditionary Force primarily for reconnaissance purposes, but its organization was framed so that it could easily be expanded and the scope of its duties widened. Headquarters were established at Farnborough on May 13th, 1912: Barrington-Kennett, an officer of the Grenadier Guards who had been attached to the Air Battalion, was appointed, and made the best of all possible adjutants; and the nucleus of the Corps, consisting at first of the cadres of an airship squadron under Edward Maitland, of two aeroplane squadrons under Burke and Brooke-Popham, and a flying depot (later the aircraft park) under Carden, who was a little later greatly assisted in the complex matter of technical stores by Beatty, came into existence. At the same time the construction of the Central Flying School was started at Upavon, under Captain G. Payne, R.N. With regard to the other squadrons provided for, the nucleus of No. 4 Squadron was formed the same year, and that of No. 5 Squadron the following year, of Nos. 6 and 7 Squadrons in 1914, while No. 8 Squadron was not started until after the outbreak of war.

Records of the progress and growth of the Corps were left at Farnborough when the Headquarters and four squadrons went to France in August, 1914, and have been lost. This is particularly unfortunate because without them it will be difficult for the historian of the Corps adequately to describe the beginnings and to assess the value of the work then carried out.

The task of forming the new service, which was to do much to assist the Army in saving England, was begun. The time was very short. A great energy had to be brought to the work. As with all things new, it had to contend with apathy and opposition on all sides. There was no precedent to help. The organization of the Corps to its smallest detail of technical stores, supply and transport had to be thought out. The type of machine required; the method of obtaining it from a struggling industry; its use and maintenance; the personnel, its training and equipment; these, and a thousand other aspects of the question, required the employment of a large staff of experts. But the experts did not exist and the duties were carried out almost entirely at Farnborough, where in addition time had to be found to compile the official training and other text books and regulations required for an entirely new arm.

In addition to the innumerable problems inherent in the organization, growth and training of the Military Wing, the two years between its inception and the outbreak of war were strenuously applied to solving the problems of air tactics and strategy. Until the South African War the British Army had been drilled under the influence of stereotyped Prussian ideas. Perhaps the South African War led too far in an opposite direction, but it taught us one thing, which was to prove of such importance in 1914—the value of mobility; and we realized in aircraft the advent of the most mobile arm the world has yet seen.

All was new. A new Corps. A new element in which to work. New conditions in peace akin to those in war. And there had to be developed a new spirit, combining the discipline of the old Army, the technical skill of the Navy, and the initiative, energy and dash inseparable from flying. There were the inevitable accidents, but training had to be done. We existed for war and war alone would show whether we had thought and worked without respite aright. We had to prove our value to the other arms, many of the leaders of which, owing to a long period of peace, found difficulty in differentiating between the normal usages of peace and war and in understanding the right use of aircraft. Somehow or other time was found during 1912, 1913 and 1914 to write to reviews, to lecture at army and other centres of training, to attend Staff rides, and to endeavour in every way possible to learn how best to work in with the army commands and to teach those commands the usefulness and limitations of aircraft.

As Ruskin wrote:

"Man is the engine whose motive power is the soul and the largest quantity of work will not be done by this curious engine for pay, or under pressure, or by the help of any kind of fuel which may be supplied by the cauldron. It will be done only when the will or spirit of the creature is brought to its own greatest strength by its own proper fuel, namely the affection."

I was intensely proud of my command and often thought of the time when, as I had been promised, I should, in the event of war, command it in the field. We worked at white heat believing that war was coming soon; believing that our efforts would have a real effect on the result; and determined that the new arm should rank second to none among the forces of the Crown. Esprit de Corps was of vital importance, but as officers and non-commissioned officers were drawn from every branch and every regiment of the army this was no easy matter and was only achieved by the splendid example and precept of such men as Herbert, Becke, Longcroft, Chinnery and Barrington-Kennett. We selected our motto: "Per Ardua ad Astra." It was in this atmosphere that the Military Wing grew in peace. It was in this atmosphere that the soul was formed which later under the great strain of war impelled our pilots forward cheerfully to face every duty and every danger in the true spirit of manliness and fearless confidence.

As in framing the original scheme on paper, so in giving it life it was our aim to organize the Corps, so that, whatever its future strength, it would be sound and efficient, and its continuity of growth effected without even temporary dislocation or waste. The tactical unit of the Military Wing—the squadron, consisting of three flights, each of four machines with two in reserve—had the advantage that it was of sufficient size to act independently, while it was not too unwieldy for a single command. It was equally suitable for independent or co-operative action, and the full complement of seven squadrons would, in addition to a reserve, furnish one squadron for each division of an Army Expeditionary force of the size then contemplated, though no definite allotment of aeroplanes to the lower commands was at first intended. The French and Germans, on the other hand, were building up their organizations with smaller units, with the result that they found even greater difficulties than ourselves in obtaining sufficient experienced officers to command them. It is probable that the consequent lack of concentration, knowledge and determination to stick to sound principles of action was one of the causes underlying the non-success of the German air service in the opening phases of the war.

According to the system employed squadrons were formed, organized, equipped, and a certain amount of preliminary training carried out, at Farnborough, when on completion the squadron moved to one of the stations which I had established or was forming at Netheravon, Montrose, Gosport, Dover, and Orfordness, Netheravon being the largest. This dispersion of squadrons did not affect the entity and cohesion, under Wing headquarters at Farnborough, of the Corps as a whole. No. 3 Squadron, one of the original two referred to, removed to Netheravon from Larkhill in June.

Similarly, and in order to avoid congestion at Farnborough, to foster a spirit of self-support and to enable air operations to be carried out with troops in Scotland, No. 2 Squadron was sent to Montrose. Five of its machines flew all the way, and it became one of the principles of training that machines should fly whenever a move was ordered. Thus in 1913 six machines from this squadron were flown from Montrose to Limerick—a great feat then—to take part in the Irish Command man[oe]uvres, the crossing of the Irish Channel being successfully carried out both ways by all machines. Another flight of an experimental nature was made by Longcroft, with myself as passenger, from Farnborough to Montrose in a single day with only one landing.

The unavoidable and never-relaxing strain inherent in the daily and hourly use of an instrument, in the design, maintenance and improvement of which we could only grope our way, was very great. In peace before the war, as later in the war, the only variation to strain lay in periods of increased strain.

At Headquarters, in addition to the normal duties of command and co-ordination, and the supply of all technical stores to squadrons, there was carried out all recruiting, and I also formed a specialized flight for the study of technical problems, such as the use of wireless from aircraft. The bulk of experimental work was originally undertaken by the Royal Aircraft Factory, under the Superintendent, Mr. O'Gorman, who always helped us in every way possible, but by 1913 I felt it necessary to enlarge the duties of the special flight and an Experimental Section was formed at Wing Headquarters at Farnborough with an officer, Musgrave, in charge. In addition, for each squadron an officer was appointed Squadron Officer for Experiments, thus ensuring the diffusion of information throughout the Corps, and affording the opportunity to each unit of carrying out the experiments best suited to the material and apparatus at its command. Similarly other individual officers were detailed in each squadron on a co-ordinated scheme, for such duties as Officer-in-charge of Stores, Workshops, Mechanical Transport, Meteorology, etc.

The formation at Farnborough of the Line of Communications R.F.C. Workshop or Flying Depot—later known as the Aircraft Park—completed the organization of the Military Wing.

I was very anxious as early as possible to prove the structure as a unified self-supporting, mobile and easily handled flying corps as far as it had gone, and in June, 1914, this was done by the concentration in camp at Netheravon of the entire Military Wing, comprising Headquarters and Headquarters Flight, the four completed squadrons and the nucleus of No. 6 Squadron, the Aircraft Park and a detachment of the Kite Section. Mobilization, a very difficult process when it came, would have been almost impossible had the concentration not taken place. The object of the camp was a month's combined training to test personnel, both in the air and on the ground, and the handling of aircraft and transport both by day and night. Endeavours were made to solve by means of lectures, discussions and committees the problems connected with mobilization, technical and military training, observation, wireless telegraphy, signals, night flying, photography, bomb-dropping, workshops, stores, meteorology, transport, shifting of camp and aerodrome, supply and maintenance of units in the field, etc.—in fact the whole organization essential to the efficiency and cohesion of a Flying Corps, under conditions as similar as possible to those expected on active service. Very valuable experience was obtained from the work carried out. The necessarily wide gaps in our knowledge were brought home in more concrete form. It was also evident that the force was very small. But within three months it was proved under the strain of war that the organization and training had been laid down on sound principles.

The Naval Wing.

As in the case of the Army, it was to airships that the Navy first turned its attention, and the birth of naval aviation may be said to date from July 21st, 1908, when Admiral Bacon submitted proposals for the construction of a rigid airship, the ill-fated "Mayfly" which was destroyed on her preliminary trials. The Admiralty thereupon decided to discontinue the construction of airships, the development of which was left to the Army until May, 1914, when it was decided that all airships—that is No. 1 Squadron of the Military Wing—should be taken over by the Naval Wing. This was partly the result of a report by two Naval Officers, who visited France, Austria and Germany, as was the purchase of two vessels of the Parseval and Astra Torres types, and a small non-rigid from Willows. The construction of a number of other airships was ordered, but for various reasons was delayed or never completed up to the outbreak of war.

Although at first sight the functions of the Naval Wing—coast defence and work with the Fleet—seemed hardly more difficult to perform than those of the Military Wing, in practice, as I was to find later from personal experience when in command of the R.N.A.S. at Gallipoli, they were more complicated, while the slowness of the Admiralty in evolving a clear scheme of employment and a definite objective made itself felt. Before the war the achievements of the Naval Wing were due rather to individual effort than to a definite policy of organized expansion. It was the pilot and the machine rather than the organization which developed.

As already stated, Eastchurch was chosen by the Short Brothers for their experiments in aeroplanes in 1909, but it was not until 1911 that the Admiralty bought two machines and established the first Naval Flying School at that place. The same year Commander O. Swann purchased from Messrs. A. V. Roe a 35 horse-power biplane and began to carry out experiments with different types of floats, as a result of which a twin-float seaplane was produced—the first to rise off the water in this country.

For some time seaplanes were in a very experimental stage and at best could only rise from, and alight on, calm water, though it is interesting to note that as far back as 1911 the employment of seaplanes for torpedo attack, which I think will be one of the most important developments of aircraft in the future, engaged the attention of the Navy, and a Sopwith seaplane carrying a 14-inch torpedo made its first flight at Calshot in 1913. For this reason, therefore, it appeared that principally aeroplanes and airships would have to be employed from shore bases for coast defence and that "carrier" ships would be necessary to enable seaplanes to work with the Fleet.

The first stations set up were Eastchurch, Isle of Grain, Calshot, Felixstowe, Yarmouth, Cromarty and Kingsnorth, from which at the outbreak of war an organized coastal patrol was established.

From the outset the Naval Wing, assisted by its large percentage of skilled technical personnel, paid great attention to experimental work of all sorts. Thus in 1912 the detection of submarines by aircraft was taken up, in 1913 valuable results were obtained from bomb-dropping, and a large number of experiments in wireless, machine gunnery and fighting carried out. In addition, efforts were made to extend the power, range and capacity of engine and machine.

The second Naval problem, that of co-operation with the Fleet, involved the flight of aircraft from ships and the design of aircraft carriers. In 1911 an aeroplane for the first time took off successfully from the deck of a cruiser at anchor, and the following year an aeroplane flew from H.M.S. "Hibernia," while under weigh, but it was not until after the outbreak of war that alighting on decks was successfully accomplished. The first ship to be fitted up as a parent ship for seaplanes was the "Hermes" in 1913.

These specialized technical requirements and developments explain why the Naval Wing and the Royal Naval Air Service tended towards individualism rather than cohesion. While the Military Wing, or Royal Flying Corps, progressed further as an organized fighting force, the Royal Naval Air Service, amongst the 100 odd aeroplanes and seaplanes on charge which were mainly of the Short, Sopwith, Avro, Farman and Wright types, possessed in 1914 the more powerful engines and a number of aeroplanes fitted with wireless and machine guns, while their bomb-dropping arrangements were also in a more advanced stage of development.

An Air Department was formed at the Admiralty in 1912 to deal with all questions relating to naval aircraft. Naval officers were trained from the beginning at Eastchurch rather than at the Central Flying School, and in 1913 the appointment of an Inspecting Captain for Aircraft, with a Central Air Office at Sheerness as his headquarters, accentuated a growing tendency for the Naval Wing to work on independent lines.

The Naval Wing grew rapidly and in the middle of 1914 was reorganized as the Royal Naval Air Service, comprising the Air Department of the Admiralty, the Central Air Office, the Royal Naval Flying School, the Royal Naval Air Stations, and all aircraft, seaplane ships and balloons employed for naval purposes. This placed the naval air force on a self-supporting basis and the entity of the Royal Flying Corps as a whole, as originally provided for, was lost.


The value of the application of flying to war requires little demonstration. The most important attributes of generalship are quick appreciation of a situation and quick decision. To the ordinary Commander the absence of information is paralysing. In the nineteenth century the mass of cavalry was the special instrument of information and to obtain it contact with the enemy's main forces had to be effected. It thus acted as a shield and also tried to provide the information necessary to enable the infantry to take the offensive.

Aviation, by the wide field of observation it commands, by the speed with which it can collect and transmit information, to a great extent lifts the fog of war and enables a general to act on knowledge where before he acted largely on deduction. Information once obtained, its mobile and far-reaching offensive power introduces the element of surprise, and permits of lightning strokes against the enemy's vital points.

Before the war reconnaissance was regarded as the principal duty of the aircraft of the Military Wing. This was due to two reasons, first, the obvious one that aircraft possessed advantages shared by no other arm for obtaining information quickly and over wide areas and reporting to Headquarters, and second, that experiment had proved the difficulty of loading aeroplanes with offensive weapons, such as bombs or machine guns, without impairing speed and climb.

The following statement, which I drafted and which was issued by the General Staff before the Army Man[oe]uvres of 1912, summarizes the position:—

"As regards strategical reconnaissance," it says, "a General is probably now justified in requiring a well-trained flyer, flying a modern aeroplane, to reconnoitre some 70 miles out and return 70 miles. This would be done at a speed of, say, 60 miles an hour in ordinary weather over ordinary country. Thus within four hours, allowing a wide margin, a report as to the approximate strength, formation and direction of movement of the enemy, if he is within a 70-mile radius, should be in the hands of the Commander."

To those imbued with a knowledge of military history this new method of ascertaining the enemy's movements might well seem revolutionary.

Let us take two instances illustrating what aircraft, with a radius of little over 100 miles, might have done in previous campaigns. For the operations which terminated in the capitulation of Ulm in 1805 Napoleon concentrated two army corps at Wuerzburg and five along the left bank of the Rhine between Mannheim and Strasburg, his main body of cavalry under Murat being at the latter place. The Austrian Army under Mack was behind the Iller between Ulm and Memmingen, and expected the French to advance through the defiles of the Black Forest, where Napoleon did actually make a feint with his cavalry. Napoleon, however, crossing the Rhine on September 26th, 1805, moved east, and it was not until October 2nd, when the French Army had reached the line Ansbach, Langenburg, Hall and Ludwigsburg, and his envelopment was far advanced, that Mack realized that the main French advance was coming from the north. Aeroplanes of the type we possessed in 1914 could have reconnoitred the whole of Napoleon's preliminary position, could have detected his line of advance, especially as it was concentrated on a very narrow front, and could have brought back the information to the Austrian Headquarters within a few hours.

Aircraft would have been of even greater value on August 16th, 1870, at the Battle of Rezonville, where neither the French nor the Germans were aware of the other's movements. On the 14th a battle had been fought east of Metz which had resulted in the French retreat. On the morning of the 16th Moltke thought the French had retired west by the Metz-Verdun road and those to the north of it, and consequently he directed his left wing due west towards the Meuse to head off the French, sending his right army towards Rezonville to harass their rearguard. The French retreat, however, had been slow and two corps were still at Rezonville, while three corps and the reserve cavalry were within easy reach, some 130,000 men in all. At 9 in the morning the German 3rd Corps, unaided and far from support, attacked a position within reach of the whole French Army, believing it had to deal with a rearguard only. Bazaine, on the other hand, thinking that he was faced by the German main army, remained on the defensive, and lost the opportunity of defeating in detail first the 3rd and then the 10th German Corps. A few aeroplanes operating on a radius of 30 miles would have disclosed between daybreak and 10 a.m. the true position to either commander. Neither the German nor the French cavalry, though both were engaged, obtained any reliable information.

The problem as to how far aircraft would reduce the value of cavalry was widely discussed before the war. It was seen that by day aircraft could obtain quicker and more accurate information, but that cavalry retained their power of night reconnaissance, of mobile offensive action and of pinning the enemy to his ground by fighting. This was found to be so during the retreat, when, in addition to the direct value of aircraft for long-distance reconnaissance, an indirect asset of great importance lay in the release of the cavalry for battle action in assistance of the infantry. The question has become more acute since the offensive action of aircraft against ground targets has developed, but although we must never forget the splendid work of the mounted arm during the Retreat from Mons, and in March, 1918, factors have arisen tending to make the use of cavalry a problem of extreme difficulty in European wars, and it is possible that, in addition to their reconnaissance functions, aircraft will supersede the shock tactics and delaying action of cavalry, though this may be modified if, the sabre being a thing of the past, cavalry are converted into mounted machine gunners.

Air tactics and training were, therefore, chiefly studied from the point of view of reconnaissance. In addition to the possibility of being shot at by other aircraft, an important consideration was vulnerability from the ground. Before the war reconnaissances were carried out at heights varying from 2,000 to 6,000 feet, but it was generally considered that the aeroplane was safe from fire from the ground at heights above 3,000 feet.

Serious difficulties affecting the mobility of aircraft were the means of providing a regular supply of fuel and the selection of landing grounds when moving camp, which had to be close enough behind the front line as not to entail waste of time in flying out and back over friendly territory. This was later brought home to us in a very acute form during the Retreat from Mons.

As machines improved, increasing attention was paid to bettering their power of reconnaissance by air photography, their value in co-operation with artillery by wireless equipment, their offensive action by bomb dropping and their offence and defence by armament.

The value of a correct initiative and the aeroplane's role as an offensive weapon were fully appreciated and brought out in the Training Manual of the Royal Flying Corps which we compiled at Farnborough, and which was published early in 1914 by the War Office. It says:—

"It is probable that one phase of the struggle for the command of the air will resolve itself into a series of combats between individual aeroplanes, or pairs of aeroplanes. If the pilots of one side can succeed in obtaining victory in a succession of such combats, they will establish a moral ascendancy over the surviving pilots of the enemy, and be left free to carry out their duties of reconnaissance. The actual tactics must depend on the types of the aeroplanes engaged, the object of the pilot being to obtain for his passenger the free use of his own weapon while denying to the enemy the use of his. To disable the pilot of the opposing aeroplane will be the first object. In the case of fast reconnaissance aeroplanes it will often be advisable to avoid fighting, in order to carry out a mission or to deliver information; but it must be borne in mind that this will be sometimes impossible, and that, as in every other class of fighting, a fixed determination to attack and win will be the surest road to victory."

Speaking generally, the evolution of the machine, as apart from the engine, which hung behind, followed upon the evolution of air tactics. As soon as experience, often hard won at the cost of a valuable life, opened up new fields of activity for aircraft, the designer and constructor evolved new designs to meet the new requirements. It was no small achievement in this period to have solved the problem of inherent stability, both in theory and practice, so successfully, that from the aerodynamic standpoint our machines in 1914 compare favourably with those in use at the end of the war.

In dealing with the evolution of the machine during the three years prior to the war there are three landmarks: in the autumn of 1911 the few machines belonging to the Air Battalion failed to reach their destination for Army Man[oe]uvres; in May, 1912, the Royal Flying Corps was formed and experiments with a view to meeting military requirements were for the first time energetically and methodically prosecuted; and in August, 1914, four squadrons flew to France with machines which had attained a high degree of stability and were not inferior to any of those possessed by other countries. When it is remembered in what a short time these machines were evolved, it is not surprising that attention had been chiefly confined to the problem of the 'plane and stability, the engine and speed and reliability. Wireless, bombing, photography, night flying and machine gunnery had been discussed and experimented with, but no progress was made comparable to that effected under war conditions.

Machines and engines before the war were chiefly French. It is interesting to note those with which No. 3 Squadron, one of the first to be formed, commenced its career in May, 1912. They consisted of one 50 horse-power Gnome Nieuport, one Deperdussin, which by the way was privately owned, one Gnome Bristol, two Gnome Bleriot monoplanes, one Avro and one Bristol box-kite biplane. By September, 1912, the Squadron possessed fourteen monoplanes, but in that month, owing to the number of accidents incurred by them, the use of monoplanes was temporarily forbidden, and it was not until April, 1913, that the Squadron was fully equipped with B.E. and Maurice Farman biplanes organized in flights.

These types formed the backbone of the Military Wing, which also included Codys, Breguets, Avros, and, later, Sopwiths. The B.E.2c was produced by the Royal Aircraft Factory in the autumn of 1913 and demonstrated its high degree of stability by flying from Aldershot to Froyle and from Froyle to Fleet, distances of 6-3/4 and 8 miles respectively, without the use of ailerons or elevators. The progress made is illustrated by the fact that at the Army Man[oe]uvres of 1913 twelve machines covered 4,545 miles on reconnaissance and 3,210 miles on other flights, accurate observations being made from a height of 6,000 feet, without serious mishap.

In 1913 I recommended the gradual substitution of B.E.'s for Farmans on the ground of the all-round efficiency and superior fighting qualities of the former, and to secure the advantage of standardization, but it was objected by the War Office that the Farmans were the only machines that could mount weapons in front—an objection which was not met until firing through the airscrew was introduced—and that the slower Farmans offered greater advantages for observation, an idea which was long prevalent. As a result, a compromise was effected, and two squadrons were equipped with B.E.'s and two with homogeneous flights of Farmans, Bleriots and Avros.

At the outbreak of war the most successful machines possessed by the Military Wing were the B.E.2 tractor with a 70 horse-power Renault engine, a speed of 73 miles an hour, and a climb of 3,000 feet in nine minutes; and a Henri Farman pusher with a speed of 60 miles an hour, and a climb of 3,000 feet in fourteen minutes. A special study was being made in 1914 of the best methods of ensuring clear observation of the ground, and partly in this connection staggered planes were introduced, culminating in the B.E.2c's, which were not, however, available for service in any numbers until 1915.

To sum up, the technical development of aircraft has taken place, and will continue side by side with the evolution of the uses to which aircraft can be put. While due attention was paid to problems connected with the anticipated duties of aircraft ancillary to that of reconnaissance, owing to the short space of time between the formation of the Royal Flying Corps and the outbreak of war, to the difficulties connected with the engine, and to causes inseparable from peace conditions, development had been more or less confined to evolving a stable and reliable machine with a good field of view.


The foregoing outline of the development of aviation from the earliest times up to the war—a story of human endeavour and achievement in the air with its attendant dangers and difficulties—is not without value in endeavouring to assess that which has since occurred.

At the beginning of the year 1912 the Royal Flying Corps did not exist. At the beginning of the Great War, in 1914, England found herself with an air service which, though much smaller than those of Germany or France, was so excellently manned and organized, trained and equipped, that it placed her at a bound in the front rank of aviation.

The machine was stable, but the engine still unequal to the tasks laid upon it. Civil Aviation practically did not exist.

I shall now describe the extension of air duties under war conditions; the increasing value of aircraft for general action and air tactics and their development and far-reaching effect as the right hand of strategy. This resulted in the expansion of our flying corps from a total of 1,844 officers and men, and seven squadrons with some 150 machines fit for war use, to a total of nearly 300,000 officers and men, and 201 squadrons and 22,000 machines in use at the end of the war, and in the evolution of the machine to a point where we can regard it, not only as a weapon of war, but as a new method of transport for commercial purposes in peace.




In dealing with the story of the beginnings of aviation and the evolution of aircraft up to the war, we have seen that though its growth was infinitesimal compared with that which came with the impetus of war, the air service took definite and practical shape more rapidly than had up to that time any other arm of the Army or Navy in peace.

In 1914 we had reached a point where we possessed a small but mobile and efficient flying force, equipped and trained essentially for reconnaissance. Although experiments had been made, little had been achieved in the use of wireless from aircraft, air photography, bomb dropping, armament or the development of air fighting. As with the Army and Navy, war quickened and expanded all the attributes of air operations in a way which could not have been foreseen before the struggle occurred; and, as it would have been impossible for the Army and Navy to build up their war organization without the foundation of the pre-war service, so it was the splendid quality of the original Royal Flying Corps that made this expansion possible.

Before the war the Royal Flying Corps was considerably smaller than the air services of either France or Germany, and to attain even the strength with which the Military Wing left England the bulk of the trained officers and men, and almost all the machines fit for service, had to be taken. When I started to raise the Corps, in May, 1912, the War Office estimated that its organization, (of a headquarters and seven aeroplane and one airship squadrons) would take at least four years; instead, there had been little more than two. Even at the risk of leaving insufficient personnel and material behind to form and train new squadrons, I recommended that four complete squadrons (including the wireless machines which had to be thrown in to make up the numbers) should be sent overseas to help the British Expeditionary Force in bearing the brunt of the terrific blow that was to come. It was a very serious matter that so little could be left with which to carry on in England, but we considered it essential to dispatch at once to France every available machine and pilot, because both political and military authorities were of opinion that for economic and financial reasons a war with a great European power could not last more than a few months. Another reason was that those of us who had been at the Staff College during the few years before the war, or who had recently served on the General Staff at the War Office, believed that the weight of the German attack would be made through Belgium, where, owing to the enclosed nature of the country, cavalry would be at a disadvantage, and we realized therefore, and urged, the great effect which the air would have from the commencement of operations—a view which was not widely held, especially among senior officers in the Army. We also felt the necessity of using our maximum air strength from the outset, so as to prove its supreme importance as quickly and practically as possible. It required the Retreat from Mons before even G.H.Q. as a whole would accept the fact, though Colonel Macdonogh, the head of the intelligence section, was our firm ally. The iron of confidence, both to used and user, had to be welded with the first great blows on the anvil of war. For these reasons it was vital that every available trained pilot and suitable machine should be employed with the Army, even at the danger of serious initial depletion at Home. The smooth progress of expansion was largely attributable alike to the strength of the pre-war spirit, organization and training,[2] and to the results actual and moral obtained by the first four squadrons during the Retreat and the following weeks of the war under centralized control. The French distributed their "Escadrilles," which were approximately of the size of our "flight," from the beginning, and it is probable that one cause of failure in the German air service during the same period lay in the initial dispersion of units and lack of unified control by the higher command. The British Expeditionary Force having been saved during the Retreat, Paris having been saved at the Marne, the great German army having made a retirement, a lengthy war of position having become obvious, confidence in the air service, both within and without, having been established, the centralized system necessarily adopted up to that time could be relaxed, and we were able to send home officers and men with greatly increased experience to help build up the many new squadrons which would be required to co-operate with the new armies.

[2] On October 17, 1914, Sir J. French wrote: "Such efficiency as the R.F.C. may have shown in the field is, in my opinion, principally due to organization and training."

Gradually, as the numbers in the field permitted, increased duties were undertaken. The Army, though it did not do so at first, yet came to understand the immense importance to itself of air reconnaissance. So much so indeed that our machines and pilots were generally many too few to attempt more than the absolute essentials, and calls were often made upon them which were beyond their strength to meet. An ironic contrast to this was supplied, however, at the evacuation of the Dardanelles, where I was commanding the air service (the R.N.A.S.), and was asked to be careful not to do too much air work. This at a time when through stress and strain and loss we had, I think, a total of five machines left able to take the air!

Observation was, and remains, the prime purpose for which the Royal Flying Corps was formed. 1914 was a year of reconnaissance, but with the advent of trench warfare at the Battle of the Aisne, the first attempts were made to extend its scope by the use of wireless for artillery co-operation, and by air photography, both of which developed rapidly. Headway was also being made with bombing. Then machines carrying out their special duties had to be protected, while it became necessary to prevent hostile machines from effecting similar functions, with the result that 1915 saw the beginnings of systematic air fighting.

In 1915 the easily man[oe]uvrable Fokker, with its machine-gun synchronizing gear for firing through the propeller, gave the Germans a temporary lead, but by the Battle of the Somme this was outclassed and in 1916 our air superiority became marked. The Royal Flying Corps was by that time organized into Brigades and Wings, one Wing operating with each Army for fighting and distant reconnaissance, and one Wing with each Corps for short reconnaissance and such specialized work as artillery co-operation and contact patrols. Both types of machine took part in bombing operations.

There is generally perhaps a tendency, when reviewing the army and air effort in the war, to deal almost entirely with the Western Front and to forget the prodigious work done in many other theatres.

In 1915 the Royal Naval Air Service carried out all air work with the Army and Navy in the Gallipoli campaign and showed how a single air force could effect really important co-operation with both services. In addition to the normal duties of co-operation with the Army and the Fleet, and in spite of the difficulties of transport, supply and workshop arrangements, photographs were taken from the air of the greater part of the Peninsula, and the original inaccurate maps corrected therefrom; frequent bombing raids were carried out against objectives on the Peninsula, the Turkish lines of communications, and even Constantinople itself. In this campaign, too, torpedoes were used for the first time by aircraft and three ships were destroyed in the Dardanelles by this means. The distance from the hub of affairs, a line of supply about 6,000 miles in length, sickness and the climatic and geographical conditions rendered maintenance very difficult. Sand and dust driven in clouds by high winds greatly shortened the working life of engines. The heat during the summer caused the rapid deterioration of machines, while long oversea flights entailed loss from forced landings. There are many aspects of the deepest interest to be brought out when a complete history of the Campaign in Gallipoli comes to be written. It is true that the Allies would have lost all if they had been defeated in the west, and that the call of the Armies for more and more men and munitions for that theatre was insistent; it is equally true, however, that in France there could be nothing but batter and counter-batter, and the only remaining point where strategic principles could be brought to bear was at the Dardanelles. But what is more relevant to the subject of these pages is that when in future years the story of Helles and Anzac and Suvla is weighed, it will, I think, appear that had the necessary air service been built up from the beginning and sustained, the Army and Navy could have forced the Straits and taken Constantinople. I insistently urged the dependence of the naval and military forces upon air assistance and the necessity for carrying out a strong aerial offensive, especially by bombing, for which the local conditions governing the enemy operations on the Peninsula offered exceptional advantages.

From the autumn of 1915 onwards Egypt became the centre of training and expansion for operations in the Middle East and, as the organization developed, a brigade was formed with Wings in Macedonia, Sinai and a training Wing, which by 1918 had become a training brigade, in Egypt. The work of the Wing sent to Sinai in 1916, and expanded in 1917 into a brigade, is well summarized in the following extract from a telegram received from Egypt on October 3rd, 1918:—

"Before operations commenced our mastery of the air was complete and this was maintained throughout, enabling the cavalry turning movement to be completely protected and concealed. Enemy retreating columns were so effectively machine gunned and bombed by offensive machines that in all three cases the surviving personnel abandoned their vehicles and consequently upset all plans of retirement. An enemy column thus abandoned was seven miles in length."

The Wings in Macedonia and Mesopotamia, though they could not beat the record of the Palestine Brigade, gained a marked supremacy over the enemy. Air operations in East Africa were originally carried out by the Royal Naval Air Service with seaplanes, which in 1915 were brought up to the strength of two squadrons and replaced by aeroplanes under the orders of the military forces, their duties being carried out under the difficult conditions of bush warfare. Valuable work was also done by the Royal Flying Corps squadrons which were sent out to operate in the south.

In addition to these major operations, air forces were used in the expeditions on the Indian frontier, against Darfur and in the vicinity of Aden. Five squadrons were sent to Italy after the Italian retreat from the Isonzo and took a prominent part in the final Austrian defeat; a Royal Air Force contingent was sent to Russia to operate from Archangel; and material assistance was given to France and the other Allies, but especially to the United States in the training and equipment of her air forces.

At the beginning of 1918 the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Force were amalgamated and the Royal Air Force came into existence, and during the year achieved a supremacy more complete than that at any time since the Somme.

The following description gives a vivid idea of air activity at the front in 1918:—

"All day long there were 'dog fights' waged at heights up to three or four miles above the shell-torn battlefields of France, whilst the low-flying aeroplanes were attacking suitable targets from the height of a few dozen feet. Passing backwards and forwards went the reconnaissance machines and the bombers, and along the whole front observers were sending out by wireless to the artillery the point of impact of their shells. Such was the picture of the air on any fine day at the time."

1918, however, saw not only the accumulative effect of the tactical co-operation of aircraft with our armies in the field, but also the formation of the Independent Air Force and the carrying out of the strategic air offensive against centres of war industry in the interior of Germany.

A vast organization was also required at Home to meet the rapid expansion of units in the Field and to supply reinforcements. Thus at the Armistice there were 199 training squadrons, the pupils under instruction including cadets numbered 30,000, and during the war some 22,000 graduated as efficient for active service. At the beginning of the war pilots were sent overseas with only 11 hours' flying experience. This was much too little and there is no doubt that increased training would have ensured fewer casualties. Fortunately, however, the length of training was increased in the latter part of the war and a remarkable advance in training was made possible by the use of an entirely new and extraordinarily efficient system of instruction evolved by Smith-Barry.

The war demonstrated the beginnings of what air power meant, though in November, 1918, it was still in its infancy. Before many years the ability to make war successfully, or even at all, will depend upon air power.

Let us now briefly survey the development of the several duties of aircraft, the evolution of machines and progress in tactics, strategy and the organization of our Air Forces during the war.

I had recognized the great difficulty of mobilizing with the clockwork precision of older units and, in the belief that war was coming, had ordered a provisional mobilization of the Corps some days before it was actually declared. Thanks to this step and to the work done at our Concentration Camp at Netheravon in June, 1914, the greater part of the Royal Flying Corps was enabled to concentrate without hitch at our aerodrome at Dover, and the machines flew via Calais to Amiens on August 13th.



In the event of France and England declaring war concurrently against Germany, the strategic plan agreed to by the British and French general staffs before the war had been that the British Expeditionary Force should be moved to the Le Cateau, Maubeuge, Mons, area and take up a line on the left flank of the French Army near Mons. But England had withheld her declaration until three days after the French, and on landing in France the first words I heard said by a Frenchman were: "Oui, l'armee anglaise arrive mais on a manque le premier plan." It was not until after the arrival of G.H.Q. at Amiens on August 14th that, although late, it was decided that the advanced line should be taken up. The Royal Flying Corps moved by air and road to an existing aerodrome outside the antique defences of Maubeuge 12 miles from Mons on the 16th. On the 19th the first reconnaissance was carried out, and the entire country over which the German armies were advancing, as far as Brussels and Louvain, was kept under observation. One of the best reconnaissances ever made was that of August 21st, which discovered the 2nd German Corps moving from Brussels through Ninhove and Grammont.

From Maubeuge we had to retire on the 24th to Le Cateau, on the 25th to St. Quentin, on the 26th to La Fere, on the 28th to Compiegne, on the 30th to Senlis, on the 31st to Juilly, on September 2nd to Serris, on the 3rd to Touquin, on the 4th to Melun, where we were thankful at last to get orders again to advance on the 7th to Touquin, and on the 9th to Coulommiers, reaching Fere-en-Tardennois on the 12th for the Battle of the Aisne.

Of the many recollections of the early days one which will remain longest in my mind is the terrible sadness of the flocks of refugees, of the poor people we left behind. And the glare of villages burning by the hand of the Boche. It was indeed war.

Valuable reconnaissances were made during the whole Retreat from Mons to the Marne in spite of the tremendous difficulties involved by constant movement, transport, and the selection of new landing grounds, but, in the words of Sir John French, "It was the timely warning aircraft gave which chiefly enabled me to make speedy dispositions to avert danger and disaster. There can be no doubt indeed that even then the presence and co-operation of aircraft saved the very frequent use of cavalry patrols and detailed supports." The Royal Flying Corps was an important factor in helping the British Expeditionary Force to escape von Kluck's nearly successful efforts to secure another and a British Sedan.

The reconnaissance resulting in the most valuable information of all, and, I think, during the whole of the war, was that of September 3rd, during the critical operations on the Marne, which formed one of the decisive battles in the world's history, when von Kluck's turning movement to the south-east against the French left was accurately reported and Marshal Joffre was enabled to make his dispositions accordingly. "The precision, exactitude and regularity of the news brought in," he said in a message to the British Commander-in-Chief, "are evidence of the perfect training of pilots and observers." The reports of the German air service, on the other hand, would appear from von Kluck's movements to have been of no assistance to him.

The system adopted from the first was for the pilot or observer, or both, immediately on their return to bring their report to R.F.C. Headquarters, whence the Commander, or his staff officer, accompanied them to G.H.Q., where the map was filled in in accordance with the report. G.H.Q. could then ask questions and obtain any further information which the observer could give, while R.F.C. Headquarters could ascertain what further reports were most urgently required. The form of the reports, which were ready printed, had been most carefully thought out at R.F.C. Headquarters in peace and experimented with at the Concentration Camp.

The maps thus compiled at G.H.Q. from air reconnaissance reports between August 31st and September 3rd were of vital interest, though it was sometimes very difficult to get the information put on the map for prompt consideration. For instance, at Dammartin on the evening of September 1st, when it was thought that German cavalry were within a few miles, G.H.Q. made a very hurried departure, and I was unable to find anyone to whom to give very important reports.

It was at the Battle of the Marne that machines were for the first time allotted to Army Corps for tactical work, while long-distance reconnaissance was carried out by other machines operating from Headquarters. Later on, this system was established as a part of our permanent organization, squadrons being allotted to, and reporting direct to, Corps for tactical reconnaissance, artillery co-operation and contact patrols, and to Armies for longer-distance reconnaissance and fighting.

The last phase of the war of movement was the race for the Channel Ports and it devolved upon aircraft to observe the enemy's movements from his centre and left flank to meet the Allied movement to the coast, to observe the movements of the four newly-formed corps which came into action at Ypres and to maintain liaison with the Belgian and British forces at Antwerp and Ostend. Information was very difficult to obtain and on one occasion I flew from the Aisne to Antwerp, under Sir John French's instructions, in order as far as possible to clear up the general situation when our G.H.Q. was in doubt as to whether Antwerp was completely surrounded or not. It was an interesting piece of work. There was a light drizzle, and the forest of Compiegne had to be flown over at about 200 feet. The B.E. could not make the distance without refilling, and although only a short halt was made at Amiens for the purpose, it was too late to fly direct to Antwerp. Instead, a landing was made in a very sticky field under light plough, which was selected from the air about 4 miles north of Bruges, to which town I rode on a borrowed bicycle. At Bruges there was great consternation and uncertainty as to the position at Antwerp, but the Commander kindly placed a large open car and its very energetic driver at my disposal to try and get through. After many difficulties we managed to find our way into Antwerp by about midnight, and I was received by the Belgian Commander. He explained that though the Germans had broken through the South-Eastern sector and his troops were very hard pressed (and pointing repeatedly to a piece of an 18-inch German shell in the corner of the room, he said, "Mais qu'est-ce qu'on peut faire avec ces choses-la!"), he hoped to be able to hold out for a time. After giving him General French's message and obtaining as much information as possible, I managed to get clear of Antwerp, reaching Bruges again at 3.15 a.m. At 4 a.m. we set out and found a very wet machine in a wetter field and after considerable difficulty and flying through the top of the surrounding hedge, struggled into the upper air on the way back to Headquarters at Fere-en-Tardennois.

During the Battles of the Aisne and of Ypres strategical reconnaissance was carried out by the few machines available at Headquarters. Shephard, the best reconnaissance officer I have ever known, who was killed later, used to fly his B.E.2 without observer over the greater part of Belgium two or three times a week and always brought in a long, closely packed, and extraordinarily valuable report. Tactical reconnaissance to a depth of 15 to 20 miles was done by units attached to Corps.

After the Battle of the Aisne, which was the turning point in the evolution from the war of movement to trench warfare, pure reconnaissance, though still the basis of air work, tended to become a matter of routine, while many new and specialized forms of it—such as air photography and artillery spotting by wireless—were developed.


Though experiments had been made in the problem of photography from the air before the war, principally by Fletcher, Hubbard and Laws, and its value to survey was recognized, it had not become of practical utility. We only took one official camera with us to France on August 13th, 1914, and it was not until September 15th that the first attempt at air photography was made, when five plates were exposed over positions behind the enemy's lines with very imperfect results. Its great value as an aid to observation in trench warfare was, however, very apparent, fresh brains were brought to the task, Moore-Brabazon, Campbell and Dr. Swan, and by the end of the year better success was obtained, though positions even then had to be filled in by the observer with red ink. Experiments at home during 1915 led to a great improvement in lenses, and at the beginning of 1916 air photography was universal. At the Battle of the Somme new enemy positions were photographed as soon as they were seen, and the camera did invaluable work in the reconnaissance of the Hindenburg Line during the German retreat of 1917, and the taking of over a thousand photographs was a daily occurrence. On September 4th, 1917, a record of 1,805 photographs was made.

The development of air photography, very remarkable in itself, is even more so when it is remembered that the improvement in enemy anti-aircraft guns drove our machines to carry out their work at altitudes increasing up to 20,000 and even 22,000 feet, at which heights the negatives had to be as distinct as those taken at 4,000 in the earlier days of the war.

At the beginning of the Dardanelles operations our apparatus consisted of one camera, a printing frame and a dark room lamp. The first photographs were taken by Butler in April, 1915, from a H. Farman machine at necessarily low altitudes. Butler was wounded in June and was succeeded by Thomson, who alone made 900 exposures and sent in 3,600 prints.

In addition to the assistance of air photography to reconnaissance, the war gave it great impetus as the handmaid of survey and mapping. It was, in fact, the only means of mapping or correcting the maps of country held by the enemy, which in certain cases, as at Gallipoli and in Palestine, were very inaccurate.

By the end of the war photographic processes and equipment had reached a high standard of excellence. There are still, however, certain difficulties in regard to the production of accurate maps, which have not been overcome, the most obvious being the necessity of an initial framework of fixed points and of contouring. The subject is considered so important that an "Air Survey Committee," consisting of representatives of the Air Ministry, the Geographical section of the War Office, the Ordnance Survey, the School of Military Engineering and the Artillery Survey School, has recently been formed. In addition, the School of Aeronautics of Cambridge University is studying the question. The Survey of India and the Survey of Egypt are also conducting experiments.


From the outset, part of the German scheme of tactics was to batter down resistance by means of superior weight of heavy armament, and with the beginning of warfare of fixed position the observation and direction of our artillery fire became as important as distant reconnaissance. Besides its immense value in increasing the effect of the batteries, it had the indirect advantage of more closely binding the ties of mutual understanding between the air and ground troops, a point which fortunately seems to have been misunderstood by the Germans. In September, 1914, the first attempts were made to signal enemy movements from the aeroplanes of a Headquarters Wireless Flight which had been formed for the purpose, and this practice was continued with success throughout the Battle of the Aisne.

In the earliest stages artillery co-operation was also carried out by dropping coloured lights, but from the Battle of Ypres onwards, though for some time very few wireless machines were available, this was effected by wireless or signal lamps. In his dispatch on the Battle of Loos, Sir John French wrote: "The work of observation for the guns from aeroplanes has now become an important factor in artillery fire, and the personnel of the two arms work in closest co-operation."

By the Battle of the Somme artillery co-operation had assumed very large dimensions. For instance, on September 15th, 1916, on the front of the 4th Army alone, seventy hostile batteries were located, twenty-nine being silenced. Counter-battery work was so effective before the offensive which opened on the Ypres front at the end of July, 1917, that the Germans withdrew their guns and the attack was delayed for three days in order that their new positions might be located.

Recognition marks on aeroplanes were at this time, and indeed throughout the war, a matter of great difficulty. It had been suggested before the war that they would not be necessary, but the reverse was found to be the case, as even with the distinctive marks which were adopted our machines were often fired at by British troops, and we should undoubtedly have lost very heavily if we had flown over our own lines with false marks, as was suggested, or none.


The bombing operations, which reached their climax in the raids on German industrial centres in 1918, arose from very primitive methods used at the beginning of the war. During the retreat from Mons a few hand grenades were carried experimentally in the pockets of pilots and observers, or, in the case of the larger varieties, tied to their bodies, and these were dropped over the side of the machine as opportunity occurred. At the Marne, for instance, small petrol bombs set fire to a transport park and scattered a mixed column of infantry and transport. I think I am right in saying that the first German bombs were dropped on us—unsuccessfully—at Compiegne on August 29th, 1914. It was not, however, until the beginning of 1915 that special bombing raids were started by the Royal Flying Corps, one of the first places to be attacked being the Ghistelles aerodrome in West Flanders.

The most important bombing operations and raids into Germany in the early days of the war were carried out by the Naval Air Service, units of which landed at Ostend on August 27th and operated with the Royal Naval Division from Antwerp. They were subsequently withdrawn to Dunkirk to form the nucleus of an aircraft centre from which excellent work was done in attacking the bases established on or near the Belgian coast from which German submarines and airships conducted their operations.

Just before the Germans entered Antwerp, the first raid was made against a German town, one machine reaching Dusseldorf, when it descended from 6,000 to 400 feet and dropped three bombs on an airship shed.

From the end of 1914 onwards the activities of the Royal Naval Air Service in this theatre of operations continually increased, the chief objectives being the gun emplacements at Middelkerke and Blankenburghe, the submarine bases at Zeebrugge and Bruges, the minefield and dock of Ostend, the airship sheds near Brussels, and the dockyards at Antwerp. The first airship destroyed in the air was attacked over Ghent.

An interesting experiment was the attempt by the R.N.A.S. at the Dardanelles to sink the heavy wire anti-submarine net, which had been stretched on buoys across the Straits at Nagara by the Turks, by means of parachute bombs.

To return to the Royal Flying Corps. During 1915 railway junctions were the principal bombing objectives, and raids were carried out on an ever-increasing scale, formations of fourteen to twenty machines taking part. At the Battle of Neuve Chapelle for instance, the railway junctions at Menin, Courtrai and Douai were attacked. One officer of No. 5 Squadron, carrying one 100 lb. bomb, arrived over Menin at 3,500 feet, descended to 120 feet, and dropped his bomb on the railway line. The first V.C. of the Royal Flying Corps was obtained at the Second Battle of Ypres by Lieutenant W. B. Rhodes-Moorhouse, who in bombing Courtrai came down to three or four hundred feet, under heavy fire, but piloted his machine 35 miles back to Merville at the height of a few hundred feet, and died a few days later from his wounds.

One of the most instructive features of the Battle of Loos in September, 1915, was the definite co-ordination of bombing attacks with army operations. Many types of machines, belonging both to Army and Corps Squadrons, carried bombs in order to destroy dumps, communications, cut off reinforcements, and the like, while at the Somme bombing was carried out by formations of Wings. In October, 1917, 113 tons, and for a period of six days in March, 1918, 95 tons, of explosives were dropped. This illustrates the enormous progress of bombing which was so largely resorted to in the later stages of the war. The hand grenades of 1914 had become bombs weighing three-quarters of a ton: the pilot's pocket a mechanically released rack: and aim, assisted by instruments, was becoming fairly accurate.

1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse