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    London 1918, the Armistice and Gallantry research

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    London County Council in the Great War 1914 - 1918

    LCC index

    CHAPTER VIII

    Royal Air Force.

    Like the Royal Navy the Royal Air Force served on all fronts, but, in view of its extraordinary development during the war, its achievements can best be dealt with as a whole.

    Balloons, manned by detachments from the Royal Engineers, were used in the British Army in 1879, and rendered good service in the Bechuanaland Expedition in 1884 and during the South African War, 1899-1902. The first British dirigible, the Nulli Secundus, was commenced in 1902 but did not make its first flight until 1907. Experiments with army aeroplanes began in 1911 or perhaps a little earlier. The Navy's experiments with dirigibles and aeroplanes date from 1908 and 1911 respectively. About this time only two small airships and fewer than twelve efficient aeroplanes were available for all purposes, but the new service rapidly developed, and on 13th May, 1912, the Royal Flying Corps, with naval and military wings, and a central flying school, reserve and factory, was established. In 1913 the dirigibles were transferred to the Navy, and in June, 1914, the naval wing became an independent force under the name of the Royal Naval Air Service.

    At the outbreak of war practically all the available machines of the R.F.C., forming rather more than three squadrons, crossed to France on 13th August, 1914, under the late Sir David Henderson, the majority landing near Amiens. On the 16th they moved to Maubeuge, and on the 19th made their first reconnaissances. Their value was soon proved for at Mons they were the first to give warning of the French defeat on the British right and of the German attempt to outflank the British left. They also reported Von Kluck's swerve to the south-east from Amiens and the enemy's entrenchments on the Aisne.
    When the opposing armies settled down into trench warfare, reconnaissance, although still most important, became a matter of routine and new features were developed. One of these was the regular photographing of the enemy's lines; by comparing later with earlier photographs the position and nature of his works and the progress made could be recorded. Another task was watching for the gun-flashes which revealed the position of enemy batteries. The fire of our guns was then brought to bear upon these points, corrections to the officers controlling the fire being signalled at first by coloured lights, later by lamps flashing the Morse code, and finally by wireless telegraphy. There had been fights in the air even during the retreat from Mons, but these isolated combats soon developed into systematic attempts to prevent the enemy's machines from reaching our lines. Generally speaking, in the early fights, for fear of shooting away the propeller, only rifles or machine-guns firing to the side could be used. About the end of 1915 a German aeroplane was captured on which the action of the machine-gun trigger was synchronised with the engine, so that bullets could be fired, without damage to the blades, between the moving arms of the propeller. This device was copied and fitted to most of our machines, greatly improving their capacity for the offensive. Small bombs for attacking ground targets were also used as early as the retreat but they were very primitive in construction and limited in action.
    Their size and efficiency, as well as the distance which they could be carried, were rapidly increased, so that from Neuve Chapelle in 1915 all important battles were preceded by aerial bombardments of railway and road centres, dumps, batteries, troop trains, etc. Night flying was introduced early in 1916.

    These developments, spread over 1915 and the early part of 1916, culminated in the preparations for the Battle of the Somme. In this battle also one most useful service was performed by the Corps for the first time. An army's communications are always difficult to maintain, and, during a big battle, the difficulties are increased a hundredfold. The heavy fire cuts all telephone wires, the continual explosions raise clouds of smoke and dust through which no signals can be seen, runners with messages cannot pass to and fro through the artillery barrage. Attacking troops soon get out of touch with the higher commanders, sometimes they are fired upon by their own artillery, at others they are overwhelmed by counter-attacks of which their artillery cannot be warned. The aeroplane contact patrols altered all this. The assault troops, by lighting flares in the bottom of the captured trenches, signalled their position to aeroplanes overhead, and a code of signals was devised covering the most urgent of their needs. The higher command were thus kept informed of the phases of the battle and could do what was best to help the advance.

    Apart from what was done at Kut, aeroplanes were rarely used for conveying stores; this work was not undertaken until the end of the war and then only upon a small scale. Propaganda literature was often dropped, and from the Battle of Messines, 1917, onwards, enemy troops, whether in trenches, in camps or on the march, were frequently engaged by low-flying planes. One purpose to which aeroplanes were put is of special interest. Our agents were taken behind the enemy's lines, dropped by parachute, and not infrequently supplied with carrier pigeons by the same means. There were rumours that occasionally agents were even picked up after they had completed their task and brought back.

    In the latter part of the war much of the work of artillery observation and of watching enemy movements in forward areas was done by observers from captive balloons. The most successful type was the stream-line shape, designed by Capt, Caquot, a French officer, in which stability was secured by an air-inflated tail with three air-inflated fins of equal size set at angles of 120 degrees. In France these balloons were stationed at frequent intervals along the front, three miles or so in rear of the line, eight or ten being usually in sight at once; they were used on other fronts as well. The occupants ran special risks, for the balloons were tempting targets for the enemy's artillery and aeroplanes, some were struck by lightning and others broke loose in high winds. At sea an adapted type was used for convoy escort work. They were towed by one of the convoy to which they could telephone information concerning enemy submarines. They were also used to support, at a height of some 10,000 feet, the aprons of steel cables with which London was surrounded as a protection against aeroplane attacks.

    The R.N.A.S. was used chiefly for long distance bombing raids, for maintaining coastal patrols by airships and aeroplanes against submarines, for scouting at sea, and for the defence of London and the coast against attacks by air. A list of the raids would fill several pages, so it must suffice to mention here by way of illustration in 1914 alone the attacks on 22nd September on Zeppelin sheds at Dusseldorf and Cologne, and on 21st November on the Zeppehn base at Friedrichschafen on Lake Constance, the combined attack by sea and land on Cuxhaven on Christmas Day and the incessant attacks upon submarine, etc., bases at Ostend, Zeebrugge and Bruges. On 7th June 1915, Flight Sub. -Lieut. R. A. Warneford at Ghent earned the distinction of being the first airman to destroy a Zeppelin in the air, a feat for which he was awarded the V.C. An officer of the R.N.A.S. was also the first airman to sink a submarine at sea, this happening on 26th August, 1915.

    Both the R.F.C. and the R.N.A.S. served in all the main theatres of war, and in each had to encounter new dangers and difficulties. In hot countries, such as Mesopotamia and the tropics for instance, the machines were liable to be clogged with sand, and water in the radiators boiled so easily that flying was usually possible only in the early morning. The intense heat also caused wood-work to warp, and machines of a special pattern in which metal was used instead of wood had to be designed. In Northern Russia, on the other hand, the water in the radiators was liable to freeze and difficult problems connected with lubrication and ignition arose. At sea, and in Egypt and tropical Africa, there was always the risk that the airmen might be compelled by engine or other trouble to alight upon the sea or in the desert or jungle far from human aid. This danger was partly guarded against by carrying on the planes pigeons which could be released with messages for help.

    The division of the air force into two independent parts engendered a healthy spirit of emulation but it also had grave drawbacks. It is obvious that there would be much overlapping, little or no standardisation of equipment, and such keen competition for limited supplies as to prevent either from obtaining all that was desired. To meet these difficulties the Joint War Air Committee was set up in February, 1916, to co-ordinate questions of supplies and design, and three months later an advisory Air Board was formed. The Board's functions gradually expanded, in 1917 supplies were pooled, and at the end of the year Parliament authorised the amalgamation of the two services. The Royal Air Force as thus constituted came into being on 1st April, 1918.

    The R.A.F. continued to develop the work of its predecessors but no details call for special notice except perhaps the part played by the Force in the final defeat of the Turks in Palestine. The neighbourhood of the enemy's aerodromes was patrolled so effectively that none of their machines would venture out. After the main battle on 19th September, 1918, our aeroplanes patrolled the only road leading to the crossings of the Jordan and, by systematic bombing and machine-gun fire, reduced the defeated troops into a mere rabble which on the arrival of the cavalry and infantry surrendered without attempting to resist. Similar but less complete results followed the defeats of the Bulgarians at Lake Doiran in September, 1918, and the Austrians at Vittorio Veneto in October, 1918. The Germans in their final retreat on the western front were protected by rain and ground mists from a like fate.

    In June, 1918, the Independent Air Force, succeeding long-distance bombing units of the R.N.A.S.; was formed for a definite purpose — the bombing of German munition works. Much good work had already been done, for during the previous eight months, which included the severe winter of 19 17-18, 142 raids, of which 57 were in Germany, had been made. The work of the R.A.F. can best be summarised by stating that in five months 550 tons of bombs were dropped, 160 by day and 390 by night, and that of this amount 220 tons were dropped on aerodromes. Special attention was devoted to railways and to blast furnaces, the reason for this being that the Germans were very short of rolling stock, and serious damage would therefore lead to important results. A section was formed for bombing Berlin. The necessary machines, each with four engines of 375 horse power, were not received until the end of October, and, although all ranks worked day and night to equip them for their task, they were not ready until the Armistice was about to be signed.
    A few figures will help to illustrate the surprising growth of the R.A.F. and its equipment. At the beginning of the war the R.F.C. and the R.N.A.S. comprised only a few hundred officers and men ; at the Armistice there were in the R.A.F. some 28,000 officers and 264,000 other ranks, making a total of nearly 300,000. In 1914 only 40 pupils could be dealt with at a time; in 1918 30,000 cadets were under instruction at once.
    In 1914 the R.F.C. had four squadrons - up to strength and the R.N.A.S. rather fewer. In 1916 the R.F.C. had 21 squadrons in France, eight in the Middle East and a number at home. By March, 1918, these numbers had risen to 76 and 14 respectively, with 22 for home defence and special training. In November, 1918, the number of squadrons was over 200, with another 200 for cadet training. The number of machines had increased from less than 100 to about 22,000. The machines had also improved. In 1914 the best machine had a speed of 73 miles an hour and a climbing capacity of 3,000 feet in nine minutes; by 1917 speed had been doubled and climbing capacity trebled. In place of a single engine of 70 horse power, the most powerful machines were fitted with two engines of 275 horse power each and even four engines of 375 horse power each. The potential output of complete machines rose from 50 to 3,500 a month and of engines from 14 to 3,000 a month. The weight of the heaviest aerial bomb, which in 1914 was about 14 lbs., increased in 1915 to 100 lbs., in 1916 to 336 lbs., and in 1918 to 1,600 lbs., or three-quarters of a ton. The seven airships of 1914 had increased by 1918 to 103, including five rigids.

    H. G. Hughes (R.N.A.S., Tram.) was killed on 26th April, 1915, in a flying accident at Southampton Water, Lieut. F. E. Hollingsworth (R.F.C., Stores) on night patrol in France on 15th September, 1916, Lieut. A. I. McKimmie (R.F.C., Educ.) on 23rd May, 1917, in a flying accident near Poperinghe, Lieut. E. Churcher (R.F.C., Educ.) on 14th July, 1917, in the same way at the same place, Lieut. J. W. Todd (R.F.C., Tram.) on 28th September, 1917, in a flying accident in Norfolk, Lieut H. V. Thornton (R.A.F., Educ.) on 10th May, 1918, while flying over the Austrian lines in Italy, Lieut. S. \V. James (R.A.F., Educ.) on 9th June, 1918, in a flying accident near Taranto in Italy, Lieut. C. V. Todman (R.A.F., Educ.) on 3rd August, 1918, in a fight against three German aeroplanes, and Capt. F. Jefcoate, M.B.E. (R.A.F,, Educ.) on 14th February, 1919, in a flying accident in Palestine.