BE2 (no 220) at Farnborough (c1914). (RAeS (NAL))

100 years ago this month, the Royal Flying Corps crossed over the Channel to France at the beginning of the Great War. Captain DAVID ROWLAND FRIN FRAeS describes what happened.

This month is, of course, the centenary of the start of the Great War. On 13 August, it is also exactly 100 years ago since the men of the Royal Flying Corps flew their flimsy, unreliable, unarmed and unforgiving machines from these shores for the first time as part of an overseas frontline wartime deployment.

Getting ready for war

Commander of the RFC, Brig Gen Sir David Henderson. (RAeS(NAL))

On the squadrons, as the plans for the mobilisation of the RFC were put into operation, armed guards ‘lived’ in the sheds (hangars), everyone was issued with field pay-books and live ammunition and ground crew and pilots set about gathering together items of equipment to be carried in each of the aircraft; some were what might be described as ‘standard’ such as maps, goggles, etc, some perhaps less so including rifles and ammunition and a small stove and soup-making material.

Brig-Gen Sir David Henderson, who had helped create and had then nurtured the Corps from the start was appointed to take command of the RFC in the field, leaving behind Lt-Col (later MRAF Sir) Hugh Trenchard as officer commanding the Military Wing of the RFC, effectively commander of the forces of the RFC back in the UK, and Major (later AVM Sir) William Sefton Brancker to look after things in his Department of Military Aeronautics at the War Office.

Vive l’Angleterre

Avro 504 (No 789) at Farnborough in 1914. (RAeS (NAL))

The Headquarters staff of the RFC in the field left their Farnborough base on 11 August, embarking at Southampton and arriving in Amiens on the morning of the 13th. They had been preceded by a small advance party whose task was to prepare the airfield ahead of the arrival of the aircraft and the other elements of the RFC. This unit, led by Major Geoffrey Salmond, and including Capt Charles Longcroft and Lieutenant the Hon Maurice Baring (attached from the Intelligence Corps and a fluent French speaker), embarked at Newhaven in the afternoon of 11 August and became the first unit of the RFC to arrive in France when they stepped ashore at Boulogne the following morning where they were greeted with flowers and shouts of “Vive l’Angleterre”.

Also arriving in Boulogne, but in the afternoon of Thursday 13 August, the day after the arrival of the advance party, were the ground crew and personnel of 3 Sqdn. As with the other three squadrons, having ‘seen-off’ their aircraft from their home base for the flight to Dover, they had departed the aerodrome to embark with their stores, tools, equipment, spares, supplies, horses and vehicles. In the words of one young Air Mechanic, James McCudden: “There were many French people about, who all seemed very pleased to see us, all shouting out something which I could not understand, but it sounded to me like ‘Live long and tear’.” And whenever they stopped on their journey to Amiens they were also “ … piled up with fruit and flowers and kissed by pretty French girls.”

The RFC that went to war that summer was a force of 63 aircraft, 105 officers and 755 other ranks, together with 95 motor vehicles and all of the other equipment necessary to support, maintain and repair this small ‘fighting’ force. This included the Aircraft Park, which was in effect the travelling base of the squadrons, providing reserves of equipment and aircraft, some of which would be transported in crates and the others flown over to France by personnel of the Aircraft Park or by spare squadron pilots. The Aircraft Park embarked at Avonmouth on the morning of the 17th, arriving in Boulogne on the 18th and prompting a signal to be despatched by the port’s landing officer to GHQ: “An unnumbered unit without aeroplanes which calls itself an Aircraft Park has arrived. What are we to do with it?”

Getting all of the squadrons’ aircraft over the Channel, a not insignificant challenge in those early days of aviation, was the focus of attention back at Dover on the evening of the 12th and the morning of 13 August.

The squadrons

Their Majesties King George V and Queen Mary visiting the aircraft Park, Farnborough, 1914. (Henderson on the extreme left with Queen Mary; O’Gorman in the centre talking to the King). (RAeS(NAL))

The first three of the four squadrons that started to gather, in total or in part, on Swingate Down, a field on top of the cliffs at Dover, on 12 August 1914 were No’s 2, 3 and 4 with 5 Sqdn following them a couple of days later.

Montrose in Scotland was the home base for 2 Sqdn and they started on their flight down to the south coast (via Farnborough) on the day war was declared. There were some not too serious accidents and mechanical problems on the way but in the end they all reached Dover with a full complement of aeroplanes although not necessarily the ones with which they’d set out from Scotland. The squadron was equipped with BE2 aircraft and was commanded by Major Charles J Burke of the Royal Irish Regiment; an experienced and highly regarded officer who went on to command a wing in France and was later Commandant of the Central Flying School. After the Battle of the Somme, he returned to his regiment and was later killed in action on 9 April 1917, the first day of the Battle of Arras, commanding 1st Bn East Lancs. He had earlier received the DSO.

The departure of 3 Sqdn from its home base of Netheravon on Salisbury Plain started with a tragedy. On 12 August the sun rose on a beautiful summer day as the squadron’s Blériots and Shorthorns were prepared and lined up before their departure for Dover. ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ flights departed in that order, the last aeroplane away being a Blériot XI, flown by Second Lieutenant Robert Skene with Air Mechanic R K Barlow as passenger. Something wasn’t right and he landed again for some correction before taking off for a second time. In the words of Keith Barlow’s friend James McCudden, an air mechanic with ‘C’ flight of 3 Sqdn: “I started the engine, which the pilot ran all out, and then waved the chocks away. They left the ground and I noticed the machine flying very tail low, until it was lost to view behind our shed up at about 80 feet. We then heard the engine stop and following that the awful crash which once heard is never forgotten.” They were the first fatal RFC casualties of the Great War.

The CO of 3 Sqdn from its formation on the day that the RFC was founded was Major Robert Brooke-Popham (later Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham) but he was transferred to the RFC HQ staff on the day war was declared and replaced by Major John M Salmond. The future Marshal of the Royal Air Force and Chief of the Air Staff, Sir John was one of the two famous Salmond brothers who both later became Chiefs of the Air Staff. His brother Geoffrey, a member of the RFC HQ staff in 1914, is referred to at the beginning of this article.

Netheravon was also the home of 4 Sqdn but most of the squadron’s aircraft had already moved from there to Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey on 31July in order to assist the Royal Navy with preparations for the defence of London and to carry out Zeppelin and coastal patrols. The squadron had two flights of BE2s, the third being equipped with MF Shorthorns and was commanded by Major George H Raleigh, an Australian who had served in the Essex Regiment. Major Raleigh died in January 1915 when he was leading a detachment of four aircraft from 4 Sqdn carrying out operations on the coast and returning to their temporary base, his aircraft was seen to descend in ‘uncontrolled spirals’, finally crashing into shallow water just off Dunkerque.

In June 1914, 5 Sqdn of the RFC had moved to its new home at Gosport, and the three Flights departed from there on 14 August, a couple of days later than the other three squadrons, flying via Shoreham to Dover and then on to France. They suffered a few accidents and mechanical failures along the way but Second Lt Wilson was the first to land at Amiens on the 15th, the rest arriving later that day or over the following few days after carrying out repairs or receiving replacement aircraft. Initially, the squadron was equipped with a mixture of MF Shorhorns (‘A’ Flight) and Avros (‘B’ and ‘C’ Flights). It was commanded by Major John F A Higgins DSO who had transferred to the RFC from the Royal Artillery. ‘Josh’ Higgins went on to command an RFC Brigade and to become a Major General in the RAF, serving again and briefly at the outbreak of WW2. He died in 1948.

21 miles of open sea

Maurice Farman S11 Shorthorn (No B4722). (RAeS(NAL))

The 13th of August was another fine summer’s day; just what was needed for going flying in the aircraft of 100 years ago, although the odds that the engines of all the aircraft involved would keep going over the open sea for the 20 minutes or so between Dover and Cap Gris Nez, let alone the rest of the flight to Amiens, were not good. Shipping on the Boulogne route was alerted to look out for aircraft ditching in the Channel and the airmen were issued with car inner tubes to be inflated (by mouth of course) and worn around their middle in case the unlucky aviator found himself experiencing an unplanned swim. 3 Sqdn’s ‘C’ Flight commander, Capt Philip Joubert, recalls it: “. . . was certainly very difficult to wear in the tiny cockpits of the aircraft of that day. As he crossed the French coast one pilot found the Cap Gris Nez lighthouse so inviting an object that he spent a little time trying to drop his inner tube, like a quoit, on to the spiky top.”

The planned route for all aircraft was to follow the French coast south from Cap Gris Nez until they came to the Somme estuary and then to turn left until they reached Amiens.

The first to leave at 06.25 was 2 Sqdn led by Major Burke who intended to lead the Corps’ senior squadron into history by being the first ever to land on foreign soil on active service in war time. One of his more competitive and determined pilot officers had other ideas and soon after making landfall, set a direct course to Amiens, thus ‘cutting the corner’ created by the Somme estuary.  As Major Burke approached the aerodrome at Amiens he realised that the pilot he thought had had to carry out a forced landing en-route was in fact about to land a couple of minutes or so ahead of him, at 08.20. This was Lieutenant Harvey-Kelly flying BE2a No 471. Hubert Harvey-Kelly, originally of the Royal Irish Regiment, went on to command 3 Sqdn later in the war and was shot down and killed when he was CO of 19 Sqdn in April 1917. Major Harvey-Kelly DSO is buried in Brown’s Copse Cemetery.

Next to leave between one and a half and two hours later was 3 Sqdn, arriving at Amiens about 11am and followed sometime later still by the two-thirds of 4 Sqdn that were to be part of the first deployment, together with machines from the Aircraft Park and the Wireless Flight. By the end of Thursday 13 August, the fighting forces of the RFC that had set off that day had crossed the Channel without a casualty; some had had to force land and were carrying out ‘field repairs’  and would catch up in a day or so. Very nearly 50 aircraft sat in the evening sun of France awaiting the rest of 4 Sqdn, the aircraft of 5 Sqdn and the stragglers who had not made it at the first attempt.

Into the line

Royal Aircraft Factory BE8 (‘Bloater’) prototype in its original condition. (RAeS(NAL))

On Sunday 16th, in poor flying weather, the ‘lead’ squadrons set off for the flight to the aerodrome at Maubeuge, some 10 miles south of Mons, where the BEF was assembling. As these first aircraft left Amiens, the Corps suffered its first fatalities since crossing the Channel when 2nd Lieutenant Copeland Perry, a young officer of the RFC Special reserve, was killed along with his mechanic, AMII Herbert Parfitt, after leaving Amiens in a BE8 ‘Bloater’ (a replacement aircraft from the Aircraft Park) that appeared to stall. Perry was the first British Officer killed on active service in France during the Great War.

Over the next few days, as personnel and aircraft settled in, most of the remainder of the four squadrons arrived. The weather was fine again, the only ‘cloud’ being the reports of German progress in Belgium and it was clear that the war would be coming to them before too long. They were anxious to prove their worth, and the valuable contribution that aviation could make to the effectiveness of the fighting forces on the ground.

They didn’t have long to wait.

Just the beginning

Royal Aircraft Factory, Farnborough, from the air (c1914).  (RAeS(NAL))

The Battle of Mons started on 23 August. The RFC, the four squadrons still operating in the most part as one unit, played an increasingly significant role in the fighting withdrawal of the BEF and the subsequent advance to the north-west. Finally, as the trenches were dug creating the Western Front and 6 Sqdn arrived, they were reorganised into Wings and dispersed to different airfields.

Over the next four years that nascent ‘efficient aerial service’ grew into a force of nearly a third of a million officers and men, 378 squadrons and around 22,000 aircraft.  

Second Lieutenant Robert Skene and Air Mechanic Keith Barlow were just the first of some 6,000 RFC, RNAS and RAF airmen killed while flying in combat or otherwise over the same period; around 4,000 of those on, or over, the Western Front or other theatres of war. 

31 July 2014