early aviation

How The Royal Air Force Was Born

early aviation

Britain was not the only country to form air defences in the early days of airborne combat but it quickly earned a legendary status in the skies. The history of the Royal Air Force reveals how the service began as an effective means of defence.

“If you like to squash yourself very small, and hop in alongside of me when nobody’s looking… get into the forward seat, and just mind where you’re putting that foot, you clumsy old beggar! We don’t want a hole in the fabric just yet, they will come on their own later on!”

That is an excerpt from a letter by Bernard Rice. He wrote home to his father in 1916 and 17, inviting him, on this occasion, to take an imaginary flight in a World War 1 aircraft. 

Joshua Levine tells us in ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’ that this particular letter was undated, unfinished and never sent. Yet it has survived to gives us a window through which to vividly glimpse Rice’s world, and that of all First World War aviators.

He continues:

“’Switch off, petrol on, suck in!’ That is ‘Wind Up’, our pilot. Not a bad lad, but he’s a nasty lust for Hun scrapping. Don’t believe in looking for trouble myself.

“’Contact, please, sir,’ – ‘Contact’ – Whirrrr – Pleasant here isn’t it? Just keep under the cowl (hood), and you won’t get your teeth blown out. But bumpy getting off, eh? Now we’re off the ground. Feel your insides trickling out of your boots? It will take us twenty minutes to get our height, and more if you hang out like that! Keep under the cowl ‘till we’re up, man!’ Plenty of time to admire the country then.”

Once airborne with the imaginary traveller, he says:

“Rather quaint to see the clouds underneath, isn’t it? Sun is nice and bright though, isn’t it? Cold outside the cowl. Those patches of molten lead? Oh, they’re lakes. If you look again, you’ll see that most of them are complete with chateaux, gardens, drive, and trees. Of course you can’t see people, unless they are in bunches. It all looks exactly like that Daily Mail map, don’t you think? The roads twisting about, the villages and towns. It isn’t hard to find where you are, is it, by noting the road ‘shapes’ on the map?

A DH 60 Moth, designed by Geoffrey de Havilland (see below), featured in Out of Africa, which captures the majesty and wonder of early flight

“…The trenches show up well – all white and black lines – don’t they? Good Lord, no! Those aren’t all ours. You will notice there is a narrow strip of brown unbroken earth winding down nearly the centre of all that conglomeration of trenches. That is the ‘no-man’s-land’. You see it is almost a continuous front line, those bits going back are communication, support, and second line trenches. All that muddled looking lot of trenches behind are the foundations which carry that thin front line. You will notice the Hun trenches are just the same.

“…Let’s have a look at the map. Yes, that artillery that we are going to knock out, is over there alongside that long thin wood.”

Rice describes using a wireless set on which he types Morse code to call in his own artillery, which is meant to knock out the enemy’s:

“…Did you see them fire? Four little red spurts?... Now watch the top end of that wood. There, I’ve fired them. It will take about twenty seconds for the shot to get there. Watch carefully. Splendid! See it? That cloud of black smoke and dust that shot up? Right on the target, twenty yards short. I’ll send them that correction and we’ll have another shot.

“I say, do you notice how flat all the country looks. All the hills and downs seem to have flattened out. The earth looks like a great saucer, doesn’t it, sort of coming up to meet the sky on the horizon all around? And do you see how the ground details tails off into a greeny blue form towards the horizon? By jove! Over there! See that strip of pale misty blue between the sky and earth, with a thin broken white line along the top of it? That is the Channel, and the white line is the cliffs of Dover.”

But the picturesque interlude is cut short by the abrupt arrival an enemy aircraft:

“Hi! Look out! Get the gun out. Hun!! Hun!! Quick – onto the side mounting! Now! There go fifty rounds. Some must have hit him. See, he’s trying to get under our tail. Now hold tight, we’re going to dive at him. Whoa! Up!! He’s got a dose! After him! Keep firing. He’s going down – had enough – I wonder if he’s hit? See the signal lights (flares) he’s dropped? Now look out for Archie (enemy artillery shells). Here they come! Crump! Wallop! Hang on tight, we’ll have to do some dodging to get out of this…”

First World War
A diagram of Western Front trenches, what our imaginary airmen were coming to see (image: Jbulera8271)

When it was officially established on April 1, 1918, the RAF was the first ever independent air force of its size.

This is an impressive factoid, though the key terms here are “independent” and “of its size”.

The Finnish Air Force was, likewise, an independent service and it had come into existence three weeks before. But when it had, its status as an air ‘force’ rested on the arrival to the city of Vaasa of a single aircraft.

The idea of air power was also not new. Combatant nations had been in an aviation arms race for years, though this had resulted in air forces that were mere adjuncts of existing services.

Britain’s efforts had resulted in two air arms that were then combined to form the RAF – they were the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the RNAS (Royal Naval Air Service).

In fact, the need to reduce competition between them was a major driver behind amalgamation. So it may not have helped smooth things over when the RFC’s Hugh Trenchard was made commander of the new service.

RAF first marshal of the RAF
Hugh Trenchard, ‘Father of the RAF’ and its first Marshal when the position was established

Joshua Levine’s ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’ sheds light on the atmosphere right after the fusion. The RNAS’ Thomas Thomson seems to have been rather annoyed by the whole show:

“The Navy tradition was very firmly embedded and the Army had a regimental tradition. The ex-RNAS rating would take off his hat to receive his pay, the Army man would keep his hat on. Where the ex-RNAS man would double across the parade ground, the ex-RFC man would march across it. It was absolutely terrible – the biggest pot-mess that I ever came across.”

But there were those who understood the need for the RFC/RNAS combation, like Aubrey Ellwood:

“None of us in the RNAS wanted to be amalgamated. Nor do I expect did the RFC… We were accustomed to our own traditions… But I think we saw the point… we’d learnt that the air had a definite function of its own to perform, apart from just supporting the army or navy, so the obvious thing was to get together and make a service of it.”

Reducing inter-service squabbling was not the only factor either. 

German airship and later bomber raids over Britain had made it quite clear that an independent air force would be needed – both as an effective means of defence, and as its own air raiding force in the future.

It seems obvious in retrospect, but like most new ideas the RAF, and air power in general, was something proponents on both sides had to fight for. As Joshua Levine so brilliantly reminds us, the attitude to aeroplanes in 1914 can be summed up thus:

“The idea of entrusting the role of military reconnaissance to a fleet of flying birdcages was unsettling to the armed forces.”

There wasn’t necessarily universal distrust. The BEF’s Field Marshal Sir John French, for example, seems to have been considerably less trusting of aeroplanes than First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Winston Churchill – who went as far as attempting to learn to fly. 

Early attempts at powered flight do, of course, seem laughable to us now

There had also been a public relations campaign launched by the Daily Mail’s Lord Northcliffe to get greater public and government support the development of early air technology. 

Aware of rapid progress being made elsewhere, he’d grumbled that Britain was “no longer an island” and set up a prize for the first person to fly across the English Channel.

Perhaps a bit ironically, it was Frenchman Louis Bleriot who first completed this feat in 1909, just six years after two men in North Carolina had made all this possible in the first place.

It was there that, before minds could be changed and entire nations and their militaries finally reoriented, the first kind of resistance was conquered: That of air.

Gravity, of course, had already been defeated by hot air balloons, a technology that was well established before the First World War and would lead to the use of airships during it.

But successful powered flight, with an engine, at considerable speed and with a fixed-wing aircraft, had yet to be achieved.

That is until bicycle shop owners Orville and Wilbur Wright came along. According to Levine:

“The brothers believed that the key to successful flight was control of an inherently unstable machine and that the key to control was to copy a bird in flight by warping (or twisting) the machine’s wings. As the wings were warped, the end of one wing would receive more lift than the other and that wing would rise, banking the machine and turning it in the direction of the other. In this way, the machine could be guided onto a particular course, as well as returned to stable flight when tipped by a gust of wind.”

The Wright brothers’ first successful powered flight

The laws of physics they had to work with were later encapsulated perfectly by 18-year-old budding airman Ernest Tomkins. He recounted how a recruiting sergeant had asked him about his essay ‘The use of aircraft in modern warfare’:

“He said, ‘What makes an aeroplane fly?’ I said, ‘Air has weight. It will resist motion. Flight is secured by driving through the air a plane inclined upwards and forwards of the direction of motion’.”

This is noteworthy not only because of Tomkins’ advanced knowledge, but also because he’d acquired that expertise despite a very rudimentary education. The military, like Edwardian society in general, was divided amongst class lines and the flying services were no different: Pilots were usually officers whilst riggers, those who looked after their planes while grounded, were from the ranks, and therefore poorer social backgrounds.

And sometimes these social distinctions caused unnecessary barriers. The BBC’s Timewatch, in an episode entitled ‘WW1: Aces Falling’, relates how fighter ace James McCudden was offered command of the elite 85 Squadron. 

But, his 50-plus kills aside, the squadron itself rejected him. The reason? He was the son of a mere NCO and had therefore not received a public school education.

The depiction of renowned fighter aces in Blackadder is an exaggeratation, and not just for comedic effect – in reality, the British tried, at first, to suppress the idea of the lone hero; for their part, the Germans encouraged it

Conversely, for those ‘in the club’, who’d gone to places like Eton, Harrow, Charterhouse, Radley and others, getting in and being accepted was relatively easy. Frederick Winterbottom remembers:

“There was a very nice young cavalry officer who was interviewing possible candidates for the Royal Flying Corps. He noted my shoulder straps, and he said, ‘Ah, you’re Gloucester Yeomanry. You ride a horse?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I do.’ ‘Do you know where the pole star is?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I think I could find it.’ ‘You’ll do,’ he said.”

Correspondence therefore reflects this class distinction. Some pilots’ letters had the childish quality common to upper class young men from such public school backgrounds, such as Albert Ball:

“Am feeling very poo-poo today. Five of my best pals were done in yesterday, and I think it is so rotten.”

One is simultaneously struck by both the apparent immaturity of Ball and his amazing stoicism, or was it simply emotional repression?

Either way, apparently managing to contain the death of five friends, this side of Ball is difficult to reconcile this with someone who, in the same sentence, summons an image of university-aged Sebastian in ‘Brideshead Revisited’ - requesting a hairbrush from a barber so that he may use it to smack the bottom of his naughty teddy bear Aloysius.

While the class system was being challenged by men like Tomkins and McCudden, behind the scenes there was a war being waged for better technical innovation.

Geoffrey de Havilland, designer of the World War 2-era de Havilland Mosquito, was one of the designers at the Army (later Royal) Aircraft Factory set up at Farnborough in 1911. 

Workers there found themselves hemmed in by the factory charter. This limited aircraft manufacture to only the conversion of existing aircraft and not the design nor construction of new ones.

Yet, de Havilland and his colleagues found a workaround:

“We weren’t supposed to design new aeroplanes but we could reconstruct them from a landing wheel or a few old bolts from a crashed machine. In this way… we designed and built several new aeroplanes.”

One of these would go on to serve at the beginning of the war:

“When I’d been at Farnborough for about a year, we designed the BE1. We did it by taking a small part of a broken-down French Voisin and reconstructing it into something totally different. The BE1 was quite a successful aeroplane but it was unstable –meaning that you had to control it all the time. I was not very interested in stability until Edward Busk, who had studied the theory of stability, joined the Factory. He took the BE1 and applied his knowledge to modifying it in order to get stability. He moved the lower plane back about three feet, which was equivalent to moving the centre of gravity forward, he fitted a bigger span tailplane, he fitted a fin in front of the rudder and we ended up with a really stable aeroplane. It was quite astonishing to be able to get into this machine, after the unstable machines of the early days, and fly around with hands and feet off indefinitely. That machine eventually became the BE2c and it was really the start of practical, stable aeroplanes.”

Aircraft being churned out were classified according to the following system: BE (Blériot Experimental) were ‘tractor’ biplanes with two wings and a propeller at the front; FE (Farman Experimental) were ‘pusher’ planes that had their propellers behind the fuselage; SE (Santos-Dumont Experimental) had their elevators, which control the plane’s altitude, at the front; and the RE (Reconnaissance Experimental).

First World War
Replica of a BE2c (image: Alan Wilson)

Reconnaissance was, of course, the principle object of air power over the battlefield. It’s not surprising then that the very first RFC injury was sustained in this way:

“On 22 August, while observing a cavalry detachment approaching Mons, (Sergeant-Major David Jillings of 2 Squadron) was struck by a rifle bullet fired from the ground. According to his casualty form, he was the victim of a ‘G.S.W. [gunshot wound] in Buttock’. According to Archibald James, he was offering up a generous target: 

“’David Jillings, a grand looking Guardsman, had an enormous posterior. And when flying as an observer within rifle-fire distance of the ground – that’s less than 3000 feet – he was hit in the bottom. And the only known topic on which David Jillings’ sense of humour was always lacking was in the fact that he’d been wounded in his enormous posterior.”

It wasn’t unusual at this early stage of the war for airmen to be hit by ‘friendly fire’. This is because the first planes weren’t emblazoned with clear markings and so infantry fired at anything going overhead.

One British pilot struck by French fire was Gordon Bell, a former motor car racer. 

His aeroplane smashed into a tree but, luckily, he was lobbed well clear. A nearby English staff officer wondered over to him and asked:

“I say, have you crashed?”

Bell, who stuttered habitually, responded:

“No!... I always b … b … bloody land like that!”

We must remember though that, much of the time, aerial combat was not humorous, but utterly terrifying. 

Even when not involved directly in combat, an aviator’s life was perilously close to being extinguished (the life expectancy of new British pilots in 1917 was just 11 days).

Cecil Lewis recounted how pilots were at constant risk of being struck by shells from the very artillery guns they were meant to be ranging for:

“Out of the corner of my eye, when I wasn’t really looking, I saw something moving like a lump. I really didn’t know what the devil it was. It was mystifying. Then I looked again and focused, and about a hundred yards ahead, there was the business part of a nine-inch howitzer shell right at the top of its trajectory, at about 8000 feet, just where we were. It had come up like a lobbed tennis ball, and it was going quite slowly at the top of its trajectory. It was a pretty hefty bit of metal, and it was turning before it gathered speed again. And this was such an extraordinary thing to see –because no one imagines they’d ever see a shell. However, there it was –and then there were two or three more, and you could follow them right down to burst.”

Elsewhere, he says:

“The artillery had orders – we were told – not to fire when an aeroplane was in their sights. They cut it pretty fine. Because one used to fly along the front on those patrols, and your aeroplane was flung up by a shell which had just gone underneath and missed you by two or three feet. Or flung down by a shell that had gone over the top.”

What’s more, this was unremitting:

“…the machine was continually buffeted and jumping as if it was in a gale. But in fact it was shells. You didn’t see them, they were going much too fast… and having got out of the buffeting, you thought, ‘Heaven’s alive! I’ve come through that!’ because so many of the boys, my best observer, many of my friends, were hit by this barrage and destroyed.”

World War 1
British FE2s fly against German Albastros Scouts – the Baron von Richthofen was wounded in this 1917 air battle (image from ‘FE 2b/d vs Albatros Scouts’ by James F Miller © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

To reconcile this with his earlier observations, we must presume that he was able to observe howitzer shells because they were flung up at a higher trajectory, thus slowing down at the apex of a steep arch before falling back down. Regular shells would have been spat out at lower angles, and therefore faster speeds.

On this occasion, Lewis had been taking photographs, but observation also involved artillery ranging, as mentioned.

Initially, a system of coloured flares was introduced for this – one colour for north, another for south, and two more for east and west. In this way airmen could help gunners recalibrate their weapons when they missed a target.

But a more sophisticated method was clearly needed and eventually machines were carried up on which to type out Morse code.

Learning Morse was a bit daunting, but Frederick Powell remembered how men in his unit managed it: 

“We sat for a long time with these little electric buzzers learning Morse code. Actually, what we did was to smoke cigarettes and tell smutty stories, until we suddenly found that nobody knew anything about Morse. As a result, instead of going into the hut and just going ‘Bip-de-de-bip bip, buzz-buzz’, we suddenly thought, ‘We won’t tell all these stories other than through the buzzer’. And as soon as we got to a four-letter word, we found it very easy to write down the answer. We told all our stories on Morse. Anybody who spoke during the session had to put half a crown into the box. In no time at all we all learnt our Morse…”

As the war went on, working with artillery in a ground attack role also became commonplace. To be more precise this might mean going under artillery, which was known as flying in ‘the tunnel’.

Norman Macmillan’s description of it is downright hair-raising:

“We were told that the height of flight of the field gun shells was 600 feet above the ground. The guns were ranged practically wheel to wheel along the front on which we were engaged. Our task was to fly into the tunnel, below the flight of the field gun shells, look for any target we could see… Shoot it up, flying through the tunnel and come out the other end.”

Germans were sometimes left unaffected by barrages, especially at Passchendaele where the shells sunk into the mud before exploding. Flying through the tunnel gave British pilots a chance to take these men out before they shot at soon-to-be-advancing Tommies

The trick was:

“We were warned that we must not try to fly out sideways. If we did, we would almost certainly meet our own shells in flight and be brought down by them… Once we entered the tunnel there was nothing for it but to carry on and go through to the very end.”

Simple in principle, but in practice:

“…instantly we were in an inferno. The air was boiling with the turmoil of the shells flying through it. We were thrown about in the aircraft, rocking from side to side, being thrown up and down. Below us was mud, filth, smashed trenches, broken wire, broken machine-gun posts, broken limbers, rubbish, wreckage of aeroplanes, bits of men…”

World War 1 air war
The Sopwith Camel, Britain’s principle aircraft from mid-1917 on (image from ‘Sopwith Camel’ by Jon Guttman © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Airmen doing this had no time to circle back. They surveyed the shattered landscape quickly, sprayed any targets they saw until they ran out of ammo, then zipped out the other end less than 10 minutes later. 

Macmillan described the battlefield as one of the evilest things he’d ever seen.

It wasn’t just the artillery either. 

On the first day of the Battle of the Somme a series of mines were blown underneath the German lines before the attack commenced. The first of these, set off at the Hawthorne Redoubt at 7:20 am, is described in Steve Hurst’s ‘The Public Schools Battalion in the Great War’: 

“A blunt mass of earth, chalk, debris and smoke rose high into the air… The shock wave, transmitted through the earth, was so severe that trench walls and parapet shook. Men (huddling on the British) fire-step felt their limbs shake and their teeth rattle. A young Middlesex soldier, standing with one foot braced against the trench wall, suffered a broken leg.”

Cecil Lewis recalls what it was like to experience one of these mine blasts from the air. The particular explosion he describes happened 10 minutes later at La Boiselle: 

“…suddenly the whole earth heaved, and up from the ground came what looked like two enormous cypress trees. It was the silhouettes of great, dark cone shaped lifts of earth, up to 3, 4, 5000 feet. And we watched this, and then a moment later we struck the repercussion wave of the blast and it flung us right the way backwards, over on one side.”

As well as getting dangerously close to artillery, airmen were also required to get dangerously close to each other.

This, though, was deliberate – the best way to survive a dogfight - in fact, the only way - was to turn and engage the enemy.

Cecil Lewis also described attack formations and dogfighting:

“Our business was offensive, that is to say we used to climb up to get height on this side of the lines and then, when we’d got our height, go over and look for trouble… And our eyes were, of course, continually focusing, looking, craning our heads around, moving all the time, looking for those black specks which would mean enemy aircraft at a great distance away. And we’d be, perhaps, between clouds, and not be able to see the ground, or only parts of the ground which would slide into view like a magic lantern screen or something, far, far beneath. Clinging close together, about 20 or 30 yards between each machine, swaying, looking at our neighbours, keeping our throttles, setting ourselves just right so that we were all in position.”

In position meant about 16,000 feet, from which Lewis and his comrades were soon in contact with the enemy: 

“It’s not really possible to describe the action of a fight like that because, having no communication with each other, we simply had to go in and take our man and chance our arm, and keep our eyes in the back of our heads… So the fight began... and engaged and disengaged with bursts of perhaps 30 or 40 rounds, tracer ammunition, so that there was always some idea of where you were fighting. Because your sights were really no good in these quick dogfights. There wasn’t time to focus (on) anything. It was just snap shooting.”

World War 1 aerial combat
Artist’s impression of a dogfight (image from ‘World War I’ by Ken Hills © Cherrytree Press Ltd)

And in no time at all, of course, complete chaos reigned: 

“…the whole squadron would enter the fight… in good formation. But in half a minute the whole formation had gone to hell. There was nothing left except chaps wheeling and zooming and diving on each other’s tails. Perhaps four in a row, you know: a German going down, one of our chaps on his tail, another German on his tail and another Hun behind that.”

Death was moments away:

“Extraordinary glimpses one got. People approaching head on, firing at each other as they came and just at the last moment turning and slipping away. A fight lasting ten minutes or quarter of an hour, would come down from 15,000 feet to almost ground level. By that time, ammunition exhausted, guns jammed and there’d be nothing left to do but to come back home again. Because you only had two hours’ petrol anyway, so you couldn’t stay up for very long.”

In this case, as Lewis points out, the collective slipping away seems to have been forced on all participants by dwindling ammo and fuel. 

But were those conditions not present, the desperation of these air duels must have been what prompted the apparently near-suicidal behaviour – like flying at opponents head on and only missing them at the last second.

The reason for this was that, if caught and shot from behind, an aeroplane was only going one way – and very often it plunged the thousands of feet to earth whilst its pilot was engulfed in flames. 

Although cockpits could have been modified to carry parachutes they weren’t because commanders didn’t want to encourage bailing out instead of engaging the enemy and/or limping back with a damaged plane.

So it’s no wonder some pilots took pistols up with them. Many no doubt preferred blowing their own brains out than plunging to earth in a burning plane.

It’s a sign of progress, then, that 100 years on, commanders caught being as callous about safety as they were in World War 1 would today be criminally prosecuted. 

World War 1 aerial combat
A Fokker Dr I fires at a Sopwith Camel (image from ‘Sopwith Camel vs Fokker Dr I’ by Jon Guttman © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

As we know, progress also continued in aviation, with the Second World War seeing, at the start, advanced versions of the propeller planes developed during the First. 

A few years on and both sides were producing the first jets. 

Commercial passenger flights also became more commonplace.

One of these flights was boarded, in 1946, by an aging Orville Wright. 

He and his brother had sold their aircraft to the US Army back in 1909 but then became bogged down by the litigious nature of patent law and lost interest in the field.

But after World War 2, Orville was to be an honoured guest at a military conference in New York.

During the trip there, Wright was accosted by a friendly air hostess. Apparently having no idea who he was, she said:

“Are you enjoying the flight?”

He told her he was. 

Then she asked him:

“Have you flown before?”

For more, read ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’ by Joshua Levine (also known as ‘Fighter Heroes of WWI: The untold story of the brave and daring pioneer airmen of the Great War’) – click here for the audiobook.

For a pictorial history of the First World War that is suitable for the children of any servicemen or women, get ‘World War I’ by Ken Hills from Cherrytree Press Ltd.

Other featured artwork comes from Osprey Publishing’s ‘Sopwith Camel’ and ‘Sopwith Camel vs Fokker Dr I’ both by Jon Guttman, and ‘FE 2b/d vs Albatros Scouts’ by James F Miller.

* This is an edited version of an article that was first published in 2018.

A look at a Sopwith Pup, the forerunner to the Sopwith Camel

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