At the outbreak of the First World War, four RFC squadrons (2, 3, 4 and 5 Squadron equipped with a wide range of aircraft types) flew to France to join the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Assigned to the General Headquarters (GHQ), the RFC provided reconnaissance during the critical first few months of the war as the Germans sought to outmanoeuvre the British and French Armies. The fluid military situation meant that HQ RFC and its four squadrons moved repeatedly, closely following the GHQ as the fighting edged north towards the Channel ports. Eventually, on the evening of Monday, 8 October 1914, HQ RFC arrived at St Omer and took up residence in a small chateau. The squadrons arrived over the next few days, together with the recently formed HQ Wireless Telegraphy Unit. These aircraft were joined by 6 Squadron who arrived from England with a mixture of BE2s, Bleriots and BE8s and together, they comprised the RFC’s frontline strength until spring 1915.

The BE2 was typical of the early aircraft operated from St Omer 1914-1918

HQ RFC was modest, initially just totalling eight staff officers under the command of Brigadier-General Sir David Henderson, GOC RFC. Even so, the accommodation was extremely cramped, with rooms doubling as offices and bedrooms. Trenchard’s aide, Maurice Baring, wrote a diary which provides a vivid picture of this initial period and an affectionate account of the personalities involved. ‘We arrived at St Omer at 8.30 and took up our residence in a small chateau on the hill between the town and the aerodrome. We didn’t expect to stay there long, so no real steps were taken to make ourselves comfortable at the start. The chateau was a modern stucco building, red and white. Downstairs were two drawing rooms, one bedroom, and a small sitting room. The small sitting room was Colonel Sykes’ office. One of the drawing rooms was made into an anteroom, the other into an office. The bedroom downstairs was Brooke-Popham’s. Upstairs, General Henderson had one big bedroom and a small office. Salmond, Barrington-Kennett and I shared a second, Murat had a third, and the fourth was to be occupied by other staff members”. As it transpired, the Headquarters remained at St Omer until 1916 and returned in 1917, occupying the same small chateau throughout – leased from its owner at a rental of 20 francs per day.

Maurice Baring in 1934

St-Omer rapidly became the RFC’s airhead in France. It was the destination for most squadrons deploying to the Western Front. This, together with the ferrying of replacement and time-expired aircraft and depot test flying, made for a very active airfield. Over the course of the war, thousands of aircraft were ferried between England and France – 3,226 in 1917 and 6,217 in 1918. Given the vagaries of the weather and the rudimentary navigation of the time, the journey was never without its hazards. The deployment of 29 Squadron from Gosport to St Omer in March 1916 resulted in the loss of 14 DH2s en route and was probably the most spectacular example of the difficulties that could arise.

When squadrons deployed, they usually flew their aircraft south-easterly, heading across the Channel, aiming to reach the French coast between Cap Blanc-Nez and Calais and then following the canals south to St Omer. The direct route lay between Dover / Folkestone and Cap Gris-Nez, some 21 miles. Groundcrew, including observers and transport, would travel by sea to Le Havre, Rouen or Boulogne, normally only rejoining their pilots and aircraft at their operational airfield. Individual pilots joining the RFC in France reported to the Pilots’ Pool at St Omer pending allocation to a squadron. The first step for all newly arrived aircrew was to obtain a billeting allocation from HQ RFC – generally in St Omer itself, as the messes around the airfield were invariably full. For many RFC personnel, this was their first time overseas, and St Omer symbolised everything new or different, whether it was the cooking, the size of the bed covers or the washing arrangements!

The sudden influx of military personnel and the increasing demand for temporary and permanent accommodation caused severe difficulties in the town and the surrounding villages. Maurice Baring records numerous incidents in the early part of the war relating to billeting problems. On one occasion, he mentions how he ended a sharp discussion with the Mayor of Longuenesse by holding up a German ten-pfenning piece he had found on the drawing-room floor – only to be chased after by a gendarme who insisted that the Mayor was not a German spy. Another more humorous incident involved the arrival of two old ladies at HQ RFC with a complaint about the behaviour of two officers billeted with them. They would only speak to General Trenchard since it was a matter of ‘grave indelicatesse’. Eventually, it transpired that the officers concerned had washed their socks in the kitchen sink.

As the RFC’s strength grew, so did the size of the headquarters. Although it remained sufficiently small to be able to deploy forward as the operational situation demanded, its role grew in importance as the number of squadrons increased, notably between October 1915 and July 1916, when the frontline strength grew from just over 100 to more than 400 aircraft. With the decentralisation of the RFC into brigades and wings on 30 January 1916, it became necessary to re-organise the headquarters on a higher basis. Until then, responsibility for technical issues had been a subsidiary duty of Lieutenant-Colonel H.R.M. Brooke-Popham, GSO1. The expansion in the front line and increase in operational tempo generated a host of engineering and administrative issues that necessitated a new establishment – organised on the basis of a corps staff – that provided for a Deputy Adjutant and Quarter Master General. Robert Brooke-Popham[Also ‘Air Marshall Robert Brooke Popham was appointed to this new post, in the rank of brigadier-general, from 12 March 1916. An experienced staff officer, Lieutenant-Colonel P.W. Game, was found to take over the operational side of the HQ.

HQ RFC’s day-to-day activities encompassed responsibility for managing the units in the field and the higher strategic direction of the RFC in France, including liaison with GHQ and the French Aviation Service. This necessitated, in addition to technical specialists, intelligence, medical, photography, supply and transport staff, as well as dedicated liaison officers. As the intensity of the air war grew, so did the number of forms and the volume of paperwork to be handled, including the production – from the middle of 1915 – of a weekly communiqué describing RFC operations on the Western Front (familiarly known as Comic Cuts).

Sir David Henderson remained in command of the RFC until 19 August 1915, when he returned to the War Office. He was replaced by Colonel H.M. Trenchard, who was promoted to brigadier-general on 25 August 1915 and major-general on 24 March 1916. Hugh Trenchard remained GOC until December 1917, commanding the RFC through the great battles of the Somme and Third Ypres. Both offensives involved moving the headquarters temporarily from St Omer to bring it closer to the operational area.

First staff of the Central Flying School with Major Hugh Trenchard third from the right.

As a major garrison and centre of British military activity, St Omer attracted numerous visitors throughout the war. This included the Royal Family, who first visited HQ RFC and the airfield on 4 December 1914, when King George and the Prince of Wales arrived as part of a tour of the Western Front. Later visits included that by Queen Mary on 5 July 1917 when, in the company of GOC RFC, she reviewed aircraft at the Depôt and witnessed a flying display. A photographer was evidently on hand as a famous series of still photographs recorded the event for posterity.

Operations 1914-1916

A contemporary sketch of the landing ground at St. Omer indicates how crowded the airfield was in the autumn of 1914. The five RFC squadrons and their transport and tents were deployed along the road (D198E) near the town racecourse. The supply column and transportable sheds were placed at the eastern end of the landing ground adjacent to the main road between St Omer and Abbeville (D928), while the Aircraft Park was set up on the opposite side of the road. The HQ Wireless Telegraphy Unit (later 9 Squadron) occupied the sandpit at the junction of the two roads. These dispositions provided the basis for the much larger site that would develop over the next four years.

Up to this point, the work of the RFC squadrons had largely comprised strategic reconnaissance. However, the role of aircraft in directing artillery fire was becoming increasingly important. For the First Battle of Ypres, all five RFC squadrons were actively involved (2 Squadron arrived at St Omer shortly before the battle opened on 19 October 1914, while 6 Squadron arrived on 21 October 1914) in artillery co-operation and tactical as well as strategic reconnaissance. During the battle, although the bulk of the RFC remained at St Omer, detached flights from all the squadrons were deployed forward to work more closely with the individual BEF Corps. 6 Squadron achieved notable success on 1 November when a two-seat Fokker of FA41 was forced down near St Omer and recovered to the Air Park for examination.

Maurice Farmans used from St Omer 1915

By the time the German attack had been halted in November, it was evident that it would be better if the RFC’s squadrons were permanently located closer to the front line. This move to a more decentralised organisation was formalised on 29 November 1914 with the creation of two separate Wings: No 1 Wing (comprising No 2 and 3 Squadron) under Lieutenant-Colonel H.M. Trenchard with its headquarters at Merville; and No 2 Wing (comprising No 5 and 6 Squadron) under Lieutenant Colonel J. Burke with its headquarters at St Omer. The squadrons had already moved forward: 6 Squadron to Bailleul (where the bulk of 5 Squadron had been operating since 23 October), 3 Squadron to Gouncham on 24 November and 2 Squadron to Merville on 27 November. This left just 4 Squadron and the Headquarters Wireless Telegraphy Unit at St Omer together with detached flights of No 2 and 5 Squadron.

Charles J Burke

Although the airfield was now less crowded, the large size of the landing ground and the proximity to GHQ would ensure that it remained a focus for RFC activity for the remainder of the war. Unlike many airfields on the Western Front, St-Omer permitted a relatively long take-off run and unrestricted approaches for landing unless the wind was from the north or south. The site was also well served by the proximity to the town of St Omer with its workshops and billets, while it was only a short distance from the Channel ports from where men and materiel could be readily transported by road, rail or canal.

St Omer

The increasing importance of wireless telegraphy saw the formation of 9 Squadron from the HQ Wireless Telegraphy Unit on 8 December 1914. However, as is described in the accompanying article, the demand for wireless was such that flights from 9 Squadron were soon allocated to the individual Wings. In the event, 9 Squadron’s existence was destined to be brief – its success in developing wireless co-operation led to the decision to disband it in the field in February 1915. The wireless flights were absorbed by No 2, 5 and 6 Squadron and a new unit, 16 Squadron, was created from the aircraft and personnel displaced by the ex-9 Squadron wireless flights. 16 Squadron, together with 4 Squadron, was formed into a new (Third) Wing, based at St Omer, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel H.R.M. Brooke-Popham, who led it until 26 May 1915 when he handed over to Lieutenant-Colonel J.F.A. Higgins, prior to succeeding Lieutenant-Colonel F.H. Sykes as GSO1 at HQ RFC.

Shortly after its formation, Headquarters Third Wing hosted a dinner party at the chateau they occupied in Longuenesse, inviting the owners who were living in the town. Unfortunately, the evening became a gastronomic if not a social disaster when the Mess Sergeant and the other staff, under the excitement of the event, consumed more alcohol than was good for them – although the guests of honour seemed unperturbed by the events.

The first months of 1915 were spent in a range of activities, including reconnaissance, bombing, photography, and artillery spotting. Although poor weather limited operations, 4 Squadron was as active as possible, attacking targets well behind German lines and losing both aircraft and pilots. This included their CO, Major G.H. Raleigh, who was killed in a crash at Dunkirk on 20 January 1915 when returning from a raid on Ostend.

Although formed on 10 February, 16 Squadron’s first operational sortie – an escorted reconnaissance of German lines – did not occur until 26 February once their working-up period had been completed. The squadron’s period at St Omer turned out to be brief, moving to La Gorgue on 6 March to join the First Wing. Their place at St Omer was taken by 1 Squadron, equipped with Avro 504s and BE8s, who arrived from England on 7 March 1915.

Spring 1915 saw the beginning of sustained air fighting as a series of offensives was mounted against the German frontline. The RFC was closely involved in supporting the attack against the village of Neuve Chapelle that opened on 10 March 1915. Although the bulk of the air co-operation fell to the First Wing, the St. Omer squadrons played an active role before the offensive ended on 12 March 1915. 1 and 4 Squadrons bombed railway junctions and bridges while 9 Squadron undertook artillery wireless co-operation. During a night bombing operation against Lille on 11 March, 4 Squadron lost all three BE2bs involved, Captain R.J.F. Barton crashed on take-off while Lieutenant A.StJ.M. Warrand and Captain G.W. Mapplebeck were shot down over the target. Warrand was killed, but Mapplebeck evaded capture and later escaped to the UK through Holland. 1 Squadron had more luck on 12 March when Captain E. Ludlow-Hewitt led four BE8s in an attack with 20lb bombs against a railway bridge northeast of Douai and a junction at Don, only losing one aircraft. Towards the end of the month, however, the squadron suffered another loss when Second Lieutenant J.C. Joubert de la Ferte and Lieutenant D.M.V. Veitch were forced to land in Holland, both being interned. [BE8]

Further squadrons arrived at St. Omer in the following weeks to reinforce the RFC. 7 Squadron (RE5s and Vickers Fighters) on 8 April 1915 and 8 Squadron (BE2cs) on 15 April 1915. [RAF RE5] Both units were incorporated into the Third Wing and employed on strategic reconnaissance work and special missions for GHQ – taking the places of 1 and 4 Squadrons who moved forward to the airfield at Bailleul. Shortly before 4 Squadron’s departure, they scored a notable success on 17 April 1915, when Captain R.M. Vaughan and Second Lieutenant J.F. Lascelles in BE2c 1669 forced down a German aircraft in French lines.

The new squadrons arrived in time to help repel the next German attack against Ypres, beginning on 22 April 1915. To interrupt the movement of German reserves, RE5s of 7 Squadron and BE2cs of 8 Squadron left St Omer on the afternoon of 26 April 1915 to bomb stations and trains in the Ypres salient. Similar attacks continued for four weeks until the German attacks ceased on 25 May.

Even before the Second Battle of Ypres concluded, a new Allied offensive had commenced on 9 May 1915 against Aubers Ridge and Festubert. Although the majority of the air support fell to the First Wing, 7 Squadron provided valuable intelligence throughout the battle. By now, the Third Wing comprised No 1, 4 and 7 Squadron – 8 Squadron had joined the Second Wing at Abeele on 1 May 1915 – although only 7 Squadron was resident at St Omer (together with the Third Wing Headquarters). The attack made little progress as the advance was impeded by a shortage of artillery ammunition and poor weather that limited the RFC’s contribution.

By June 1915, there was just one resident squadron at St Omer. Following a reorganisation of the Third Army, Headquarters Third Wing relocated to Beauquesne on 20 July 1915, and 7 Squadron remained behind as the GHQ squadron. 4 Squadron had originally undertaken this role until 7 Squadron replaced it in April 1915. Indeed, until 30 March 1916, when GHQ moved to Montreuil in anticipation of the Somme offensive, at least one RFC squadron was always based at St Omer for GHQ tasks, including defence against German air attack.

The obvious strategic importance of St. Omer meant that it was subject to increasing attacks by day and night as the war progressed. The first recorded incident was on 8 October 1914, when HQ RFC first arrived at St Omer. According to Maurice Baring, the Germans dropped a bomb on the school shortly to be occupied by GHQ – indicating to some at least the miraculous divination of the German Secret Service! After that, air raid warnings occurred regularly, although many were false alarms. Particularly heavy raids were experienced in 1917 and 1918, resulting in significant damage to the town and military installations and numerous civilian and military casualties.

July 1915 saw the arrival of No. 10 and 11 Squadron, but they were destined to spend only a few days at St Omer before they flew on to their destination airfields. A further three squadrons would deploy in this fashion during 1915. This rose the next year to 16 before falling back to 11 in 1917 and a further 11 in 1918. Therefore, although 43 squadrons deployed to St Omer during the war, they were mostly only there for weeks or even days.

7 Squadron remained at St. Omer until September 1915 and the opening of the Battle of Loos. The Western Front was relatively quiet during the intervening period, and the squadron engaged largely in strategic reconnaissance. However, they also faced increasing German opposition to these activities. On 3 July, an RE5 was lost after a reconnaissance of Ghent, and the crew interned in Holland, as was the crew of another RE5 on 21 July. Further combats were reported on 26 and 29 July, with yet another crew shot down and interned in Holland. On 31 July 1915, an enemy two-seater attacked Captain J.A. Liddell and Second Lieutenant R.H. Peck, flying RE5 2457 on a reconnaissance of Ostend. In the exchange of fire, Captain Liddell was badly injured, but rather than land in enemy territory, he managed to fly the aircraft back to a Belgian airfield despite great pain and loss of blood, John Liddell was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery but died from his wounds a month later on 31 August 1915.

7 Squadron’s tenure at St Omer ended on 11 September 1915 when it was replaced by 12 Squadron, under the command of Major C.L.N. Newall, who had recently arrived from England and equipped with a mixture of BE2cs, RE5s and RE7s. Although there was still only an operational squadron based at St. Omer, the airfield remained extremely busy as the work of the depôt continued to expand. However, little, if any, permanent building had occurred, and as one contemporary observer noted, the site was ‘a rather untidy jumble of canvas hangars and sheds around the airfield’.

Like its predecessor, 12 Squadron was employed mainly on long-range reconnaissance tasks. An excellent account of this period (including the workings of GHQ RFC) is provided by Lieutenant R.R. Money, who served as an observer throughout their time at St Omer. Shortly after the squadron’s arrival, it was heavily involved in the preparations for the Battle of Loos[Add date ‘1915’. Could also add casualty figure for the battle]. The opening artillery bombardment commenced on 21 September, including special bombing operations conducted by the Second and Third Wings and 12 Squadron. These attacks were directed at trains on the move, especially in cuttings, and commenced on 23 September – two days before the infantry attack. 12 Squadron undertook three attacks on the opening day and participated in further attacks over the next five days. During one of these raids on 26 September, the squadron experienced its first casualty when Captain F.B. Binney in BE2c 1744 was forced to land behind German lines after bombing a train from 500ft. Further organised bombing attacks took place on 30 September and on 13 October to stem German counter-attacks before the fighting ended in the middle of the month.

For the remainder of the year, the squadron continued to undertake defensive patrols and long-range reconnaissance, the latter against increasing opposition from German fighters. A Be2c was lost over Bruges on 19 December during a reconnaissance of Brussels, while an RE7 was shot down on a reconnaissance of Lille on 12 January 1916. Fortunately, no other aircraft were lost before the squadron left St Omer in February to join the newly formed 3rd Brigade.

12 Squadron would stay longer at St Omer than any other flying unit other than 4 Squadron. It was also significant for the events of 3 January 1916 when the bomb store on the aerodrome caught fire. The squadron CO, Major Cyril Newall, broke into the shed with his corporal driver to put out the fire – even though some of the incendiary bombs were already alight. They worked for 10 minutes alone, and for an hour afterwards, Newall, a dirty and blackened figure, took the lead in rolling red-hot bombs out of harm’s way. Both individuals were decorated for this action, Cyril Newall receiving the Albert Medal[Current value of the medal? ].

The significant expansion of the RFC in France also saw the arrival of the first dedicated single-seat fighter squadron, 24 Squadron, on 7 February under the command of Major Lanoe George Hawker. The very next day, the squadron undertook defensive patrols in the protection of GHQ, even though they were still gaining flying experience on type. Unfortunately, they almost immediately lost one of their DH2 fighters in a flying accident at St Omer, the pilot Lieutenant E.A.C. Archer being killed, before their 12 DH2s left for their operational airfield at Bertangles.

With the departure of 12 Squadron to Vert Galant on 28 February 1916, the GHQ role fell briefly to 25 Squadron and then 29 Squadron, both recently arrived from England. As mentioned, 29 Squadron’s arrival was less than trouble-free, and it would not be until 14 April that it could muster its full strength of 12 DH2s. The squadron’s first recorded air combat occurred on 2 April 1916 when Lieutenant G.S. Bush attacked a German two-seater over Ypres – but without effect. On 15 April, 29 Squadron moved to Abeele and, after that, until the return to St Omer of 4 Squadron on 16 April 1918, the airfield did not host any operational squadrons – although it continued to provide a temporary home for squadrons newly arrived from England.

These changes were presaged by HQ RFC’s departure for St Andre on 30 March 1916 in anticipation of the Somme offensive. The event was marked by the presentation of a silver cup to the chateau owners to commemorate the 18 months they had hosted the Headquarters Staff.

Over the following months, St Omer would become an increasingly active repair and supply depot. Although more than 30 squadrons would pass through the airfield over the next two years, most only stayed a few days or weeks en-route to their front-line airfields. For the immediate future, therefore, the airfield would be dominated by the activities of No. 1 Aircraft Depot.

The Aircraft Depot

When the RFC was formed in May 1912, with its constituent Military and Naval Wings, it was recognised that squadrons in the field would need dedicated support beyond that provided by the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough. This task was assigned to the Line of Communications Workshop, later to become the Flying Depôt and, ultimately, the Aircraft Park. Under that title, it was deployed to France on the outbreak of war, reaching Boulogne on 18 August 1914.

When it arrived in France, the Aircraft Park comprised just 12 officers, 162 other ranks, four motorcycles and four aeroplanes in crates. The Official History records that on disembarkation, the port landing officer sent an urgent wire to GHQ, ‘An unnumbered unit without any aeroplanes which calls itself an Aircraft Park has arrived. What are we to do with it?’ Despite the unpromising start, the Aircraft Park soon proved invaluable in the constant struggle to keep the RFC’s handful of aircraft available to support the rapidly moving armies. During the confusion of the first months of the war, the Air Park found itself constantly on the move. However, after five changes in location, it arrived at St Omer by the end of October 1914, where it would remain for nearly four years.

As the war grew in scale and intensity, so did the logistic demands. The Aircraft Park came to resemble, in the words of its commander, ‘A gigantic factory and emporium’, repairing everything from aircraft to wireless equipment and vehicles. The range and quantity of spares to be handled created immense difficulties. The stores section was responsible for requisitions ranging from complete aircraft to horse rakes and lawnmowers for keeping aerodromes trim. By July 1915, the Aircraft Park had become too unwieldy to satisfy the demands placed upon it, a second park being established at Candas to cater for the southern squadrons. Both parks were supplied by rail from port depôts based at Boulogne and Rouen. Even with these changes, it was evident that unless St. Omer and Candas were relieved of some of their heavy repair work and the increasingly large range of stores they were now required to hold, there was no possibility that they could sustain a mobile role. In December 1915, it was decided to convert St. Omer and Candas into fixed supply and repair depots and to create three new air parks in the army rear areas to provide mobile support to the flying squadrons. St Omer was retitled No 1 Aircraft Depot (AD) and Candas No 2 AD.

At this stage, St Omer comprised some 1000 technical personnel (including MT workshops in the town itself on the Rue Therounne and a sub-site at Arques, some two miles away, engaged in kite balloon repair and the production of hydrogen) organised into a wide range of repair and stores sections holding three month’s stock of aeronautical and transport stores. The depot received, modified and issued direct to the front-line new aircraft, maintained an attrition reserve and overhauled and reconstructed aircraft, balloons and vehicles. In this regard, the importance of salvage cannot be exaggerated. Wastage rates at the beginning of the war were relatively low, about 10% per month, but by June 1916, they had reached 47.7% per month, rising to a staggering 64.6% during the Battle of the Somme. To keep 1800 aircraft in the field (the size of the RAF at the Armistice), it was calculated that 1500 new aircraft would have to be delivered to France each month.

The importance of St Omer and its sister depôt 2 AD at Candas in maintaining the operational effectiveness of the RFC during the Battles of the Somme and Third Ypres cannot be exaggerated. In the face of rapidly growing attrition, every aircraft that the depôts could repair or rebuild and every component or engine that could be salvaged was crucial. Thus, during September 1917, at the height of the Third Battle of Ypres, St Omer and Candas, working day and night, issued 930 aircraft, reconstructed 116 and erected 113. By October of that year, the volume of new aircraft deliveries (then averaging 400 a month) and the quantity of repair and salvage work had reached a level that necessitated the creation of a separate Aeroplane Supply Depôt (ASD) alongside the main depôt, responsible solely for aircraft receipt, issues and repairs.

Attached to the Depôt was the Pilots’ Pool that undertook ferry and flight test duties and provided refresher and conversion flying. It also served as a holding flight for recently arrived pilots awaiting posting to an operational squadron. Cecil Lewis, who was based at St Omer in March 1916, describes the airfield as buzzing with activity. Reporting directly to Lieutenant W.F.C. Kennedy-Cochran-Patrick, OC of the Pilot’s Pool, he flew various aircraft types and witnessed comparative trials with a captured Fokker.41 Charles Cochran-Patrick had been based at St Omer since December 1915. His duties were wide and included instructing and conducting experimental trials. However, his most notable achievement was probably the shooting down, on 26 April 1916, of an LVG two-seater FA5 over Hazebrouck while flying his personal Nieuport 16. This was the first and only aerial victory achieved during the war by 1 AD.

Up to this point, the depôt had consisted of only temporary sheds and several Bessonneau hangars. However, contracts were now raised through the RE Works Directorate for the construction of workshops and repair sheds, including a dope shop, carpenters’, fitters’ and sailmakers’ shops, and four small fuselage sheds. Further extensions were provided in 1917, including larger sheds, a Power House and 13 ‘B’ type hangars. The attached sketch[Need the sketch which is not online] shows the site’s layout in March 1918, shortly before being evacuated.

A significant works programme was also put in hand at Arques to cope with the increase in the demand for hydrogen as the number of RFC kite balloon sections deployed on the Western Front rapidly grew from 1916 onwards. Hydrogen supplies had originally been obtained through the French authorities, but increasing difficulties were encountered as consumption grew. It was decided to create a local generating capacity at Arques, adjacent to the canal, some four miles from 1 AD, to provide an assured supply.

Early in 1916, Colonel Robert Brooke-Popham had written to the War Office arguing for the provision of two Silicol Plants and compressors capable of producing 50,000 cubic ft of hydrogen per week. These plants were to be provided by the Admiralty together with the additional gas cylinders to increase the total number available on the Western Front to 8,000. Empty cylinders were delivered to Arques by lorry, and full cylinders returned directly to the kite balloon sections. At this stage, several large balloon sheds had been erected. Over the next two years, numerous additional buildings were constructed to provide for the hydrogen-producing plant and the handling of gas cylinders. In addition, fully hutted camps were provided for officers and other ranks, including WRAF.

Although only small quantities of oxygen were required by the RFC in the first years of the war (in general for welding), with the introduction of higher-performance aircraft from 1917 onwards, an increasing amount of compressed breathing oxygen was required – ultimately reaching 25000 cubic ft per day. The installation of an electrolytic plant at Arques addressed this need – as well as allowing a further increase in hydrogen production.

By March 1918, the St Omer depôts had grown into an immense enterprise. Over 4300 technical personnel (nearly 10% of the total strength of the RFC in France and Belgium) were directly employed in maintaining, modifying, repairing and salvaging aircraft and associated equipment. The scale of this operation and the haphazard development since the beginning of the war did not make for a pretty sight. Based in the Pilot’s Pool during 1917, Arthur Gould Lee described the depôt as an ugly, sprawling place with scores of Bessonneau canvas hangars and workshops with rows and rows of Nissen huts.

The German Spring led to a major relocation of the fixed repair and supply depôts. Even before the full extent of the German advance was known, thought had been given to placing the aircraft depôts closer to the Channel Ports. In late March 1918, 1AD was directed to find a suitable site adjacent to the St Omer to Calais railway and canal or the Calais to Boulogne railway. As an immediate step, a reserve stock of spares was created to keep the northern squadrons supplied if a move was deemed necessary (equivalent to some 250 lorry loads). As the military situation deteriorated, Robert Brooke-Popham decided to implement these plans. The advanced section of 1AD was ordered to Guines on 11 April 1918 – an existing site occupied by 4 ASD – while the stores section went to Desvres. Further moves out of St Omer occurred on 15 April, when 1 ASD and its repair section moved to Marquise and the MT Repair Shops were dispatched to join those of 2AD. The War Diary of the St Omer Area Commandant recorded that the evacuation of the heavy units had proceeded very satisfactorily, 1 ASD being cleared in three days. The evacuation of the St Omer site was completed on 10 May 1918 when the residual depôt elements moved to Guines – leaving only the Hydrogen Silicol plant and tent stores at Arques from the original depôt.

Even amid this turbulence, the supply system did not falter such that 208 Squadron, who had burnt their entire complement of Sopwith Camels when their airfield was overrun in heavy fog on 7 April 1918, was issued by the depôts with 20 new machines within 48 hours.

Operations 1918

With the move of 1AD and 1 ASD, St Omer once again became an operational airfield. This final phase was initiated by the arrival of 4 Squadron equipped with RE8s on 16 April 1918, followed by the SE5as of 29 Squadron on 22 April, the Camels of 210 Squadron on 27 April and the Dolphins of 23 Squadron on 29 April. The latter left within a fortnight, but there would always be at least two operational squadrons based at St Omer for the next five months.

St Omer 1918 RE8 engine being hand turned to prime it with fuel.

4 Squadron was destined to stay at St Omer for over five months, occupying the hangars at the western end of the airfield. Under the command of Major R.E. Saul, it formed part of the Second (Corps) Wing and was employed in direct support of XV Corps. As such, it played an active role in helping to stem the German Spring offensive and supporting the subsequent Allied advances. As a corps squadron, its RE8s undertook a wide range of co-operation tasks, including artillery observation, photography and contact patrols. A high price was paid for this effort. The day after their arrival at St Omer, an RE8 was caught by German fighters and forced to land as both crew members were wounded. A further five casualties were suffered before the end of the month, including three killed. Ground and friendly fire also exacted their toll on the squadron. For example, on 16 June 1918, Lieutenant P. Bertrand and Lieutenant C. Levick were killed when their RE8 suffered a direct hit from a British artillery shell. It is a mark of 4 Squadron’s dedication, and that of the corps squadrons as a whole, that they continued to perform their role in the face of continuing attrition. On 14 September, just two days before 4 Squadron left St Omer, they lost yet another RE8 to German fighters, the pilot Lieutenant T.O. Henderson being wounded and the observer Second Lieutenant F. Butterworth killed. Over the five months at St Omer, the squadron suffered at least 40 casualties, with more than ten aircraft shot down.

The other units that arrived at St Omer were all fighter squadrons. 29 Squadron was still working up, having recently replaced its Nieuports with SE5as. After a series of initial accidents, probably due to unfamiliarity with the new aircraft, the squadron’s combat record steadily grew. By the time they left St Omer for Vignacourt on 11 June 1918, some 19 enemy aircraft had been destroyed or driven down for the loss of four pilots. The squadron’s stay at Vignacourt was brief as they returned to St Omer on 22 July 1918. By now, they were enjoying considerable success, and on the first evening of their return, three two-seaters were destroyed. A further three victories were scored before 29 Squadron left St Omer for the last time on 1 August 1918, joining the 11th (Army) Wing at Hoog Huis.

SE5 and Bristol F2b being serviced. St Omer 1918

The Camels of 210 Squadron experienced mixed success during their month at St Omer. Two days after their arrival, they lost a pilot to AA fire while a further two aircraft were damaged on 6 and 8 May 1918, respectively. Although four enemy aircraft had been claimed destroyed by 15 May, the squadron suffered a serious loss when a pair of Camels collided in the air; both pilots were killed. By the time 210 Squadron left St Omer on 30 May 1918, eight more victories (including a hostile kite balloon) had been added for the loss of two further Camels (one pilot killed in action).

The departure of 210 Squadron saw the arrival of 54 Squadron, but only briefly, before being replaced by 85 Squadron, equipped with SE5as, under the command of Major ‘Billy’ Bishop. Elliot White Springs has recorded how impressed he was at the speed with which the squadron, having received its orders to move from Petit Synthe in the late morning of 11 June 1918, was packed and on the move within a few hours, the aircraft landing at St Omer later in the afternoon.

Notwithstanding the later controversy, it is clear that Bishop set an example of aggressive air fighting during his brief tenure at St Omer. Before his departure on 19 June for Home Establishment, he claimed 13 further aircraft were destroyed to bring his total score to 72. Five of these victories were scored on his last day in command of the squadron.

Bishop’s successor was Major ‘Mick’ Mannock, an experienced fighter pilot with over 50 aerial victories. Mannock did not arrive at St Omer until 5 July 1918, but it quickly became evident that his leadership style was very different to Bishop’s. He spent considerable time developing more effective combat tactics, building a strong team and, in particular, encouraging the younger and less experienced pilots. Even so, he steadily added to his own total before he was shot down by ground fire and killed on 26 July 1918 on an early morning sortie from St Omer in company with Lieutenant D.C. Inglis – but not before he had scored his 61st victory. The Germans found and buried his body, but the burial site was subsequently lost. He is now commemorated with more than 1,000 other airmen with unknown graves on the memorial at Arras.

The loss of Mick Mannock was a severe blow to the squadron, although he would be awarded a posthumous VC in 1919 for his ‘fearless courage, remarkable skill, devotion to duty and self-sacrifice’. Mannock was undoubtedly an inspirational leader who left the newly formed Royal Air Force, an example of professional airmanship and inspirational leadership that would serve it well in the coming years. Command of 85 Squadron passed to Major Cyril Crowe, another successful ace with 14 victories, who led the squadron until the war’s end.

A notable success during Mick Mannock’s period of command was the fight on 24 July 1918 with six Fokker DVIIs (believed to be Jasta 43). At least four enemy aircraft were reported shot down – German records indicate that three were forced to land and others were damaged. 85 Squadron was probably the most successful fighter squadron to operate from St Omer during the war. In addition to Bishop and Mannock, other high-scoring aces included Capt M.C. McGregor and A.C. Randall, as well as Lt A.S. Cunningham-Reid and J.W. Warner. During its stay at St Omer, the squadron claimed over 58 aerial victories (including one Kite Balloon) for the loss of nine pilots killed, injured or POW.

85 Squadron left St Omer for Bertangles on 13 August 1918, being replaced the next day by 41 Squadron, also equipped with SE5as, under the command of Major G.H. ‘Beery’ Bowman. The squadron’s first successes did not occur until 17 August when Capt F.R. McCall claimed an LVG two-seater out of control and Lt W. Shields destroyed a Pfalz scout. However, the day was one of mixed success as the squadron lost one of their most successful pilots, Lt W.G. Claxton, who was shot down and made a POW, and Lt T.M. Alexander, who was killed in combat. A further ten victories (largely Fokkers) were claimed during the remainder of the month for the loss of one pilot, 2Lt A.V.F. Trimble, killed in action. September saw a further six claims, including a balloon destroyed in flames by Capt F.O. Soden on 15 September.

The transfer of 41 Squadron to Droglandt on 20 September, two days after 4 Squadron had also left S Omer, represented the final chapter in the airfield’s close association with the British Air Services. With the German Army in retreat, the fighting was moving steadily out of the effective range of aircraft at St Omer. Although some personnel and units remained well into 1919, including a handful of aircraft, the departure of 41 Squadron’s SE5as effectively marked the end of St Omer as a major airfield and closed an intimate association with the British Air Services that had lasted for almost four years.


I’ve got a windy feeling round my heart
And it’s time that we went home!
I’ve got a great big longing to depart.
Somewhere back to Omer Drome
Huns are diving at my tail.
Wind up – Gee! – I’ve got a gale
Guns are jamming
Pilots are damning
Archies bursting all around us
And observers say
‘Ain’t it time that we came down?’
So won’t you splitass back
Along the track
To my dear old Omer Town?

Royal Flying Corps song, circa 1916, sung to the tune of ‘My Old Kentucky Home.’

No aeroplane could ever be singled out as the best of anything; it depends upon what criteria are employed by which to judge, and with almost every aeroplane having its faithful advocates, no definitive answer can ever be possible. However, although  it is a very subjective question, some types stand out above the rest  as serious contenders for the title, and so, without offence to those whose favourites are not included, this short list of possibles, in no particular order, is offered from which you can make your final selection;

  • The Sopwith Camel, which is widely believed to have the most effective, downing more enemy aircraft than any other type
  • The Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a, which was easy to fly, highly manoeuvrable, and provided a steady gun platform
  • The SPAD XIII, which saw service with the Air Services of France, Britain and the USA, and of which more were built than any other design
  • The Fokker DVII, the only single design to be named in the Treaty of Versailles that formally ended the war as having to be handed over to the victors

Now, look at each in more detail and make your own decision as to which was the best;-.

Sopwith Camel

The Sopwith Camel looked just as pugnacious on the ground as it was in the air. Its name was derived from the ‘hump’ which enclosed the breeches of its twin Vickers machine guns, and although officially designated the Sopwith F.1, it never anything but the Camel to the RFC.

First entering service in May 1917, the Camel was highly manoeuvrable but tricky to fly as almost all of its mass, the engine, fuel, armament, and pilot, was concentrated in the forward section of the fuselage, making trimming it for level flight difficult. In addition, the gyroscopic effect of its spinning rotary engine made it sluggish in a left turn but able to turn very rapidly to the right, faster than any other aeroplane of its time, albeit with a nose-down tendency during the turn. These handling characteristics could catch inexperienced pilots unawares, and casualties among novice pilots were high, leading to the allegation that the type was as dangerous to its pilots as it was to the enemy and yet, in the hands of a skilful pilot, it was considered to be one of the most superb fighters ever built.


Lean, mean fighting machines; A line up of S.E.5as of 32 Squadron, their identities crudely erased by the official censor.

Among the fastest aircraft of the war, with a top speed of almost 130 miles per hour, the S.E.5a proved stable, docile, and yet sufficiently manoeuverable to be very effective in combat, thus allowing relatively inexperienced pilots to achieve combat victories whilst remaining a favoured mount of many of the top scoring aces, some of whom achieved many combat victories with it. Its stability in flight made it a good gun platform and allowed enemy aircraft to be engaged at longer ranges than other types, giving its pilots an obvious advantage.

Many of Britain’s greatest aces, including James McCudden and Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock flew the S.E.5a, whilst Major Sholto Douglas, who rose to high rank in WW2, claimed it was the most beautiful aeroplane he ever saw.

Its safe handling characteristics made it pleasant and fairly easy to fly. Post-war, a number made their way onto the civil register with private owners and the sky-writing company founded by Major savage, remaining active until the late 1920s.


Like the S.E.5a, the SPAD XIII was designed around the innovative Hispano Suiza V8 engine and proved to be a steady gun platform and was sturdy, dependable, and difficult to shoot down. It was manufactured in greater numbers than any other type, of any nation, with well over 8,000 being delivered before the war ended.

The type equipped almost every fighter squadron of the French Air Service at some point and was used in large numbers by both the RFC and the USA and in smaller numbers by the Italian Air Service, with many pilots achieving high scores whilst flying it. Both of America’s top scoring pilots, Eddie Rickenbacker and Frank Luke, flew SPADs, as did many French aces, including Georges Guynemer, Charles Nungessor, and Rene Fonck.

It continued in service with the French Air Service until well into the 1920s.

Fokker DVII 

The Fokker DVII proved itself a match for any allied fighter.

A latecomer to the War, the DVII entered service in May of 1918 but quickly established itself as a formidable opponent to the various allied fighters it met over the skies of France.

It employed a thicker wing section than had previously been normal, which not only eliminated the need for most of the bracing wires that were a standard feature of other biplanes but gave a much gentler stall and a reduced tendency to spin but which even allowed the machine to ‘hang on its propeller’ long enough to fire upwards at an enemy overhead, giving the machine a huge advantage in combat.

The type eventually supplied more than 40 Jastas of the German Air Service, and almost 800 were in service at the front when the war ended.

Post-war, some 150 examples were shipped to the USA, with Great Britain, France and Canada also receiving captured examples to test. The type also saw service with several other European nations.

In November 1911, it was announced that the War Office was to hold a competition to select the most suitable aeroplanes to equip its air services. The location for the trials was to be at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain, where some members of the Air Battalion, the forerunner of the Royal Flying Corps, were already in residence.

One of the two Bristol Coanda Monoplanes built especially for the competition outside the sheds at Larkhill. They showed excellent workmanship but were both bought for use by the RFC. At the time this photo was taken, its crew’s attention was being taken up by something, or someone, on the ground behind it.

Details of the competition, including all rules, entry requirements and prizes, were published in Aeroplane and Flight magazines. All competing aircraft were required to be delivered in a packing case suitable for transport by rail or sea, and their assembly to flying condition was to be timed. They should have accommodation for a pilot and a passenger, who should be able to communicate effectively and should be provided with dual controls. Parts were to be interchangeable, and the engine should be effectively silenced. Each machine should be able to stand on the ground with the engine running without moving. Machines should be able to climb to 1000 feet in no more than five minutes, reach a height of 4,500 feet and fly for three hours, fully loaded.

Originally planned to begin on 1 June 1912, the start was delayed until July, then until August to give manufacturers more time to prepare new designs. A total of 31 aeroplanes were formally entered, although, despite the delayed start, only 25 turned up at Larkhill and of these, only 22 undertook any of the tests. None of the entrants had fitted silencers to their engines, and few, if any, had provided dual controls.

Since 1910, there had been a steadily growing collection of sheds at Larkhill, and, to provide accommodation for the competing aircraft, these were temporarily vacated, with the British & Colonial Flying School, which was based at Larkhill, moving en masse to Brooklands, where it had another branch. More space was needed, and an additional row of sheds was erected behind the existing ones. These were later relocated to Farnborough. Tents were provided for the many mechanics attending upon the competitors, while most of the owners and their pilots took rooms in nearby inns and hotels.

The competition was to be judged by Brig-Gen Sir David Henderson (Director of Military Training), Major F.H. Sykes (Officer commanding the Royal Flying Corps, Military Wing), Captain Godfrey Paine RN (Commandant, Central Flying School), and Mervyn O’Gorman (Superintendent, Royal Aircraft Factory). The judges’ secretary was Carden ( Assistant Superintendent, Royal Aircraft Factory).

Unfortunately, the weather that August was the worst on record, with steady rain and high winds, severely limiting the time available for flying and delaying the whole competition.

Logically, the competition began with the quick assembly test results, which varied considerably, with the six men of the Avro team assembling their machine in just 14½ minutes. Yet, it took almost nine and a half hours to rig the Maurice Farman.

The Avro crew had their entry fully rigged and ready to fly in just 14½ minutes. The only aircraft with an enclosed cabin, it met all the requirements for crew protection and ease of communication but, badly underpowered, it faired poorly in many of the performance tests. However, it had the lowest fuel consumption of any competitor.

The view from the cockpit was assessed by standing the machine on a squared grid and counting how many squares could be seen from the cockpit. With its exposed pilot’s seat, the Cody pusher did particularly well in this test, while the mid-wing monoplanes all scored very badly.

Glide angle was measured by a special device created by the Royal Aircraft Factory, which marked attitude against time. A barograph was provided for the machine undertaking the three-hour test to establish that the height of 4,500 feet, which was needed to place the aircraft out of range of small arms fire from the ground, had been achieved. The Hanriot monoplane proved to be the fastest over the measured course, reaching 75.4 miles/hr, but its rotary engine could not be effectively throttled back, so its minimum speed was a little less although, at 364 feet/min, it also had the fastest rate of climb.

Cody had the shortest landing run on both grass and plough as his machine was fitted with a kind of plough brake. There was remarkably little variation in glide angle, with eight entrants meeting the set minimum of 1 in 6, albeit each by a fairly narrow margin, whilst the others recorded angles of between 1 in 5.9 and 1 in 5.3. The 60 hp green engine of the Avro had the lowest fuel consumption at 4 gallons/hr, whereas Cody’s 120 hp Austro-Daimler consumed just over twice as much.

Although one entrant, a French-built Deperdussin monoplane, had completed all the tests by 10 August, others, plagued by engine problems or waiting for better weather conditions, took far longer, and it was not until 27 August that the competition was finally able to be brought to a close. Only nine competitors had completed all the tests.

A Deperdussin monoplane was awarded second place and a Prize of £2,000. It and another example were bought by the War office. However, one crashed soon after and, in part, led to a temporary ban on the use of monoplanes by the RFC.

When the Judges had assessed all the results and had completed their deliberations, Cody was declared the winner and was awarded a total of £5,000 in prize money. The Deperdussin monoplane, which was placed second, won £2,000, and the remaining aircraft which had completed all the tests were awarded £100 each.

Crowds surround Cody’s winning machine. When the King congratulated S.F. Cody he addressed him as ‘Colonel’, a title to which he was not strictly entitled but which he adopted thereafter.

The Monoplanes, such as the Depperdusin, the Hanriot and the Bleriots, if judged simply as flying machines, were probably better aircraft but had scored badly on the view from the cockpit, their poor speed range, and their rotary engines’ lack of speed range and heavy consumption of both petrol and oil.

Since the rules guaranteed a production order for the winner, the War Office, although aware that the Cody aeroplane was not what they wanted, bought just two with Cody, who had made no drawings, needing to retain the competition machine as a pattern from which to build another. Several other aeroplanes, including two British-built Deperdussins and the two Bristol Coandas, were also purchased, but the War Office was generally dissatisfied with the outcome and placed further orders for Royal Aircraft Factory designs, which may have been what it had planned to do all along

In May 1914, Archibald Montgomery Low demonstrated a primitive form of television, which he named “Televista”. It employed a selenium semiconductor to convert light into electrical impulses but proved too slow to cope effectively with moving images. After the outbreak of war, he tried to adapt his ‘Televista’ system into a range finder to control coastal batteries. In 1916, when the Zeppelin raids were causing widespread concern, he was approached by Col Cadell, then Director of Aircraft Equipment, to see if he could adapt his wireless system to remotely control a flying bomb which could be guided into position close to an enemy airship and then exploded, thus destroying it. Low happily transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, enjoying what he regarded as its youthful enthusiasm and infectious camaraderie.

Archibald Low at work on some of his wireless apparatus.

Based at the experimental unit at Feltham, Low worked in comparative secrecy to develop his apparatus. Gen. David Henderson, Director General of Military Aeronautics, suggested that the device be named the “Aerial Target” so that, should its existence become known to the enemy, it would be thought to be some drone for gunnery practice – and by that name, it has always been known.

Low devised, making the best possible use of the technology then available, a variable spark transmitter and receiver, which allowed sequential control of a number of servos, which, in turn, controlled the rudder and elevator. Providing control in the rolling plane would have rendered response much slower, so it was decided to make the vehicle inherently stable so that it would bank automatically.

The first attempt was made by assembling an aeroplane out of spare parts, but this failed to take off as the engine’s ignition system caused interference with the wireless signals, so, in January 1917, Low met with designers at the Royal Aircraft Factory who devised a small shoulder wing monoplane powered by a 35 hp twin cylinder engine and fitted with a skid undercarriage. Take-off was to be along a track, and, in active service, the device would not be required to land, so no wheels were provided.

Six examples of the drone were built, to which the serial numbers A8957-8962 were assigned, although it seems that these were never painted onto the aircraft. The completed machines were sent to Feltham for the wireless systems to be fitted, and then, on 5 July 1917, the first was taken to Northolt for assembly and testing.

One of the six ‘Aerial Targets’ inside the workshops. The lines running chordwise on the wings and vertically on the rear fuselage are the wires that acted as the wireless’s aerial.

The next morning, the fuel tank was filled, the centre of gravity measured, and the tailplane incidence set in accordance with the results of wind tunnel tests to maintain level flight. Engine problems delayed take off until late in the afternoon, by which time it was discovered that the wings had warped from being stood all day in the sun and so had to be trued up. Finally, by 6.30 pm, all was ready, and although the wind was gusting at up to 15 miles/hr, it was decided to conduct the test anyway. However, further engine problems delayed the test until 9.15 pm. The machine took off after travelling about half the length of the track and began to climb at an increasingly steep angle. Although the ‘elevators down’ signal was immediately sent, the machine stalled and crashed before it could be acted upon. The problem, it was later decided, lay in a difference in flying characteristics between the model with which the wind tunnel tests had been conducted and the full-sized machine.

The second example was tested on 25 July when, after the wireless had been fitted, the tanks filled and the centre of gravity measured, the tailplane incidence was set, and a take-off was attempted. This time, the machine accelerated down the track, the tail lifting as it did so, and on reaching the end of the track, it carried on, tail high, across the field until its progress was halted by a wire fence, with sufficient resulting damage to end the trial.

Two days later, another Aerial Target drone was taken to Feltham and made ready for testing the following day. With the wireless system fitted and the tanks filled, the centre of gravity was found to be in exactly the same position as on the previous trial, and so the tailplane was confidently set at a slightly more negative angle. This time, the machine had accelerated to close to take-off speed when the engine began to misfire, reducing the speed. At the end of the track, with the machine still on the ground, the undercarriage collapsed, breaking the propeller. Nonetheless, from its attitude on the launch track, the team concluded that the tailplane setting was now correct. However, although seemingly on the point of a successful launch and a real trial of the wireless control system, the tests were discontinued, possibly because it had been found practical to bring down Zeppelins by more conventional means.

The three undamaged airframes remained at Farnborough, and on 21 January 1918, a request was made to be allowed to continue the trials, but this was not sanctioned. Instead, sometime after the end of the war, an attempt was made to convert the device into a self-contained flying bomb to be launched from a ship. In 1924, a new airframe with a more powerful engine was designed, but again, the trials were discontinued when apparently on the point of success.

One of the original Aerial Targets, believed to be A8962, was later converted into a manned aeroplane by adding wheels, providing a cockpit placed at the centre of gravity, and including conventional flight controls, including ailerons. The machine passed through the hands of several owners before being acquired by a Mr Shelley, who transported it back to his home in Billericay by removing the wings and towing the fuselage behind his car, a passenger in the backseat holding the tailskid, with the tailplane over his head. Shelley never flew the aeroplane nor placed it on the civil register, and it was eventually broken up and the engine sold.

When the RFC went to war in August 1914, none of its aeroplanes was fitted with any armament; neither were those of the other participant nations, allied or enemy. However, aerial combat, with hand-held weapons such as pistols or rifles, soon developed with the belligerents flying on parallel courses like warships of old and taking pot-shots at each other.

The most numerous aircraft types in service with the RFC in France at this time were variants of the Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2. in which the observer occupied the forward cockpit, more or less at the centre of gravity, with the petrol tank beneath his seat so that trim was unaffected as fuel was used, or if the machine was flown solo. In this position, he was surrounded by the struts and wires of the wing structure, limiting his field of fire. However, when lightweight machine guns began to be carried aloft, various gun mounts were devised to overcome this problem as far as possible.

Based on a 1911 design, the BE2 had the passenger in the forward cockpit, which made sound aerodynamic sense but made defence against an attack from the rear rather difficult.

Then, in the summer of 1915, things began to change with the introduction of the single-seat fighter equipped with a fixed machine gun, synchronised to fire straight ahead through the propeller disc. Now, the pilots of such aircraft could attack from any direction and obviously chose directions from where their prey could not easily fire back. German pilots such as Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke began to build up what was, for the time, impressive scores of British and French aeroplanes brought down, and, by early 1916, the ‘Fokker Scourge’ as it became known, was causing some concern.

On 22 March 1916, Noel Pemberton Billing, the newly elected MP for East Hertfordshire, caused a sensation when, in Parliament, he made the following speech;

“…I do not intend to deal with the colossal blunders of the Royal Flying Corps, but may I refer briefly to the hundreds, nay thousands of machines which have been ordered and which have been referred to by our pilots as ‘Fokker Fodder’. Every one of our pilots knows that when he steps into them, if he gets back, it will be more by luck and by his own skill than by any mechanical assistance he will get from the people who provide him with machines. I do not want to touch a dramatic note this afternoon, but if I did, I would suggest that a number of our gallant officers of the Royal Flying Corps have been rather Murdered than killed…”

Pemberton-Billing had previously been a soldier, a police officer, an aircraft manufacturer, and an officer in the RNAS before entering politics and now, despite objections from other members, continued his accusations in Parliament until he convinced them to hold an enquiry into the affairs of the Royal Aircraft Factory. Still unsatisfied, he continued his campaign until another enquiry was announced, this time into the management of the Royal Flying Corps itself.

Noel Pemberton Billing, accused the RFC of murdering its pilots by sending them out in unsuitable aircraft, such as the BE2s.

The first enquiry was chaired by Sir Richard Burbidge, then managing director of the famous London department store Harrods, and was instructed to;

To enquire and report whether, within the resources placed by the War Office at the disposal of the Royal Aircraft Factory and the limits of the War Office order, the organisation and management of the Factory are efficient and to give the Council the benefit of suggestions on any points of the interior administration of the Factory which seem to them to be capable of improvement.

The Burbidge Enquiry worked with commendable speed and delivered its report just six weeks after its appointment. This was later made public and stated that, although some of its management structures were overly complicated, The Royal Aircraft Factory was generally efficient and should continue in its current role, which it defined as including;

To conduct experiments and produce designs suitable for manufacture.
To set standards of workmanship, design, and performance.
To manufacture spares of all kinds.
To assist in keeping the government free from the pressure of monopoly prices.
To report on inventions and new devices.
To effect repairs where these could not be carried out economically by industry.
To assist trade and industry by producing drawings and standardising parts.

A recommendation that a board of management should replace the single superintendent was also made but was not adopted. However, Mervyn O’Gorman, who had been superintendent since 1909 and under whose direction the Factory had grown from a staff of 100 to over 4,000, was replaced by Henry Fowler, formerly chief engineer of the Midland railway Company.

The second enquiry into the affairs of the RFC was conducted by six men, four of whom were lawyers, and was chaired by a high court judge, Mr Justice Bailache. Those interviewed included Gen Sir David Henderson, Director General of Military Aeronautics;  Mervyn O’Gorman, Superintendent of the Royal Aircraft Factory; and Dr Glazebrook, Director of the National Physical Laboratory, as well as representatives from the RFC and from Industry.

Their final report, which was made available in December 1916, found no fault with the management of the RFC and suggested that the Royal Aircraft Factory was best judged by its principal achievement, the B.E.2c with the 90 hp R.A.F.1a engine; it was strong, aerodynamically sound, and its drawings were so detailed that many firms which had never previously built aeroplanes were able to do so. One of the trade witnesses interviewed, Algernon Berriman, chief engineer at the Daimler Company, was quoted as saying;

‘The R.A.F. engine and the B.E.2c aeroplane have their defects, but they form a combination that has been instrumental in enabling the Royal Flying Corps to perform invaluable service in France’.

The report found no support for Pemberton-Billing and dismissed his accusation of murder as “An abuse of language.”

 But by this time, replacements for the B.E.2 had already been designed, approved and were being manufactured.

In October 1917, Sir William Weir, a Scottish industrialist who was then Director of Aircraft Production at the Ministry of Munitions, began to place orders for a new engine which, although unproven, promised a quantum leap in power output and thus in aircraft performance. The engine had been designed in response to a request for aero-engines producing at least 300 hp, weighing no more than 22 lbs per hp and with an overall diameter of under 42 inches so that they would fit in existing airframes.

An original Dragonfly cylinder designed with the unusual valve springs used by Bradshaw to keep the overall diameter down. One expert later described the cylinder head layout as “Probably the worst example of air-cooling ever used on a production engine.”

Four designs were submitted, three of which had 14 cylinders arranged in two rows and one, from ABC motors, for a 9-cylinder engine, the brainchild of the company’s gifted designer, Granville Bradshaw, which promised to deliver 340 hp and yet weigh less than 600 lbs. These figures, together with the fact that a single-row design was obviously easier to build than one with two rows, were enough to persuade Weir to adopt Bradshaw’s design and a prototype was ordered. Since ABC Motors lacked the facilities to build it, the job was entrusted to Guy Motors, who hand-build it in just 28 days, a feat for which Weir promptly sent a congratulatory telegram to the company.

The Nieuport Nighthawk intended to replace the S.E.5a as one of the RAF’s front-line fighters. Granville Bradshaw, the designer of its Dragonfly engine, is the small man with glasses standing at the right of the picture

The prototype appears to have run sufficiently satisfactorily to convince Weir that the design was viable. In January 1918, he decided to phase out production of those engine designs he considered obsolescent and to concentrate production on just four types, the V12 Rolls-Royce, The six-cylinder inline Siddeley ‘Puma’, the 230 hp Bentley BR2 rotary, and ABC Dragonfly, which between them were intended to power all front line aircraft in 1919.  In addition to the batch of 1000 Dragonflies already on order with Vickers, orders were placed with 16 other contractors for almost 11,000 engines, of which at least 4135 were to be delivered by 1 June 1919.

With the promise of significantly increased performance that this new engine offered, many new aircraft were designed around it. Henry Folland, designer of the S.E5a, who was now chief designer at the Nieuport and General Aircraft Company, planned to use it to power the Nighthawk, a fighter which he hoped would replace his own S.E.5a in front-line service. The Siddeley Siskin was another Dragonfly-powered fighter design, and the Sopwith Company produced a whole range of designs around the new radial, including the Dragon, a Dragonfly powered version of the Snipe, which was already on order. The Armstrong-Whitworth Ara, the Austin Greyhound, The Avro Manchester, the Bristol Badger, and numerous others were intended, if selected for production, to be powered by the Dragonfly too.

The first flight of the Sopwith Dragon, a Dragonfly-powered version of the successful Sopwith Snipe, which the Dragon would have superseded had its engine proved reliable.

However, as the first production examples became available for bench testing, it became obvious that all was far from well; the engines overheated so badly that carburation was adversely affected, causing irregular running. At first, Weir accepted the problems as no more than teething troubles and remained confident that they could be resolved, but things got worse rather than better. Power output was well down on Bradshaw’s promise, producing only 276 hp at the design speed of 1660 rev/min. although 295 hp was possible by running it at 1750 rev/min. But there was worse to come, for at that speed, it overheated so badly that, in the right light, the upper parts of the cylinders could be seen glowing a dull red.

The R.A.E. at Farnborough designed a new cylinder head which eliminated the cooling deficiency, albeit at the expense of an increase in the overall diameter of the engine to well beyond the specified 42 inches and also increased the weight, which in production form, now totalled 662 lbs.  Now able to be run consistently, the engine’s final problem was discovered; It had been designed to run at the critical torsional-vibration frequency, a fate which other engine designers had avoided merely by chance as this form of vibration was little understood at the time. Eventually, new pistons, together with crankshaft balance weights, reduced the effect of the vibration somewhat and thus modified, the Dragonfly could usually produce 300 hp at 1800 rev/min, but failures remained frequent, and it became clear that no amount of development could ever make it reliable.

Only 23 Dragonflies had been delivered by the time of the Armistice, with a further 15 examples joining them by the end of 1918 and yet a total of 1147 were delivered before production was finally cancelled. In December 1918, sample engines were delivered to a number of companies planning to use the Dragonfly in their designs. A few examples of the Nieuport Nighthawk did enter service, but its active life was understandably short-lived, distinguished only by some success in post-war air races where the sacrifice of reliability in favour of performance was more readily accepted. Prototypes of other Dragonfly-powered designs, including the Sopwith Dragon, Westland Weasel and Bristol Badger, were delivered for testing, but only a few Dragons were ordered, and none of these saw service. Instead, the peace-time RAF was obliged to continue using the same types as it had flown during the war for some years to come. As the official history of the air-war states, “Had the war continued into 1919, the failure of the Dragonfly would have put an effective brake on the expansion of the air service.”

Fortunately, the War ended before the effects of this disaster could affect the outcome.

Allegations have frequently been made that this simple life-saving device was deliberately withheld from Great War aircrew lest it should lessen their aggressive spirit and become a means of avoiding aerial combat. The story has been repeated time and again over the years, often in the same cliched phrases until it has become part of aviation folklore, but is it true?

The concept of the parachute has been known for centuries; one design is illustrated in Leonardo de Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus of 1492 and another in Machinae Novae of 1595, but only with the advent of the hot air balloon in 1783 did any opportunity to employ such a device arise. After experiments with animals such as sheep or dogs, the first human descent was made on 22 October 1797 by Jacques Garnerin using an umbrella-like parachute comprising 32 stiff ribs hinged from a flat wooden disc and covered in cloth. By the early nineteenth century, such descents had become a fairly common fairground attraction.

The early parachutes used were very bulky, and their attachment to the balloon that had carried them aloft had to be severed with a knife, rendering them unsuitable for emergencies. By 1887, Tom Baldwin was granted a US patent, No 10937, for a “Limp Parachute” and the following year had replaced the original flat cloth circle with a dome-shaped canopy with a small hole in the crown for stability. Further developments followed, but the device remained bulky, difficult to put on, and suitable only for pre-planned descents from a stable platform such as a balloon or piloted aeroplane. Escape from a stricken aeroplane was still not practicable.

In England, the principal advocate for the parachute in the early years of the 20th Century was Ernest Calthrop, a retired engineer, who developed a static line parachute which he named the “Guardian Angel” and which was used by William Newell on 9 May 1914, when he made the first parachute descent from an aeroplane in England. There was no suitable seat or stowage for the parachute on the chosen aircraft, a Grahame-White Biplane, and Newell took off perched on the undercarriage with the ‘chute bundled up on his lap. Although the Royal Aero Club awarded Newell their silver medal for the feat, the event was scarcely mentioned in the press. Undeterred, Calthrop continued to develop his invention, eventually cutting its weight to almost a third of its original 98 pounds. He also improved its opening speed until he could confidently state that it would never fail to open within 100 feet of its initial drop, provided it had been properly packed. However, its packing was admittedly a complex process.

William Newell perched on the undercarriage of a Grahame-White biplane with his parachute in his arms before making the first descent from an aeroplane in England on 9 May 1914.

Following official trials in 1915, orders were forthcoming for parachutes for use by balloon observers, but they were considered too bulky to be carried in the aeroplanes of the day. In any case, aerial combat, had yet to become sufficiently commonplace for the need for parachutes to become obvious to either the high command or the aircrews themselves.

An observation balloon observer is about to make an ascent. His “Guardian Angel” static line parachute is fastened to the outside of the basket, its considerable bulk making it unsuitable for use by aeroplane crews.

A Balloon observer descending by parachute, as often happened if the hydrogen balloon caught fire.

Further trials took place early in 1917 with the pack suspended beneath the fuselage of a BE2c, and the final and most spectacular demonstration of the Guardian Angel’s speed of opening was made in November 1917 when Major T. Orde-Rees made a jump from the upper walkway of London’s famous Tower Bridge. The drop available was just 140 feet, but the parachute was fully deployed before its user plunged into the Thames. Still, no orders ensued as the device was still a static line design, needing the users’ falling weight to pull it from the pack and requiring very complex packing.

BE2c no 1165 with a parachute suspended below the fuselage during trials made in 1917 at Chingford. Although the design had improved over that issued to balloon observers, the device was still far from a practicable proposition for use in aeroplanes.

Ernest Calthrop later claimed to have heard it stated that “possession of a parachute might impair a pilot’s nerve when in difficulties so that he would make improper use of his parachute,” but did not say who had made the statement. This allegation, usually expressed in these same or remarkably similar words, occurs in many books covering the subject. It has become common to attribute the remark to General Hugh Trenchard. Thus, in his “History of the RFC”(published in 1965) Geoffrey Norris states; 

“In only one aspect of the air war was Trenchard wrong. The parachute was already a well-known and proven device for saving life in the air, but Trenchard, true to his spartan upbringing, would not have it in the Royal Flying Corps.”

Similarly, Trenchard’s biography, Andrew Boyle, stated that;

“Trenchard’s attitude to parachutes was characteristically spartan; his balloon observers, being defenceless, were issued them, but not his airmen.”

But firstly, as we have already seen, at the outbreak of the war, the parachute was still far from proven as a life-saving device. Secondly, this attribution is extremely unlikely since, when such a decision might first have been taken at the start of the war, Trenchard was adjutant of the Central Flying School and so was far too junior at the time to have been able to exert that kind of authority. Later in the war, when General E. M. Maitland ( who in 1913 had been the first Englishman to make a parachute descent from an airship) proposed the appointment of a committee to investigate the adoption of parachutes, Trenchard who by then was commanding the RFC in France, did nothing to hinder its formation nor its investigation.

Furthermore, the War Office Records, as available at the National Archive, have been closely examined on numerous occasions and by many different researchers without any evidence ever being found to support the allegation that some authority, whether corporate or individual, deliberately prevented the issue of parachutes. Indeed, the news in mid-1918 that Germany’s air service had adopted the Heinecke backpack parachute brought about a sudden outbreak of frenzied activity on the part of what had, by then, become the Royal Air Force to develop their own parachutes. Still, by then, it was already too late as the war was already drawing to its close. And the Heinecke version was far from perfect, failing its users at about one time in three.

The story that parachutes were deliberately withheld is no more than what is known today as an urban myth.

Rip-cord-operated parachutes were developed by the Irving Company and began to be issued to the Royal Air Force air crew in 1925.

Major Orde-Rees jumps from the upper walkway of London’s Tower Bridge in November 1917. Although the drop was only 140 feet, the parachute opened in time to allow him to reach the chilly waters of the river Thames unharmed.

On 6 September 1912, Captain Patrick Hamilton of 3 Squadron RFC was flying a Deperdussin Monoplane, serial number 258, over Graveley, near Hitchin, with Lt. Wyness-Stuart acting as his observer when there was a loud report; the machine was seen to wobble suddenly, then collapse and break into several pieces. Both officers fell to the ground and were killed instantly. At the inquest, Fritz Koolhoven, the machine’s designer, offered the opinion that the part of the Gnome rotary engine had come adrift, torn through the cowling, and caused damage to the bracing wires. This theory was supported by Major Robert Brooke-Popham, the squadron C.O., who had been flying nearby at the time of the accident. The accidents committee of the Royal Aero Club, which investigated the crash, concluded that the propeller had broken, causing damage to both the cowling and the bracing wires.

A Deperdussin monoplane similar to the one in which Captain Hamilton and Lt. Wyness-Stuart lost their lives. The Inquiry concluded that some part of the engine or propeller had broken off, flown upwards and damaged the bracing wires supporting the wings.

Four days later, on 10 September, the RFC suffered another double fatality when a Bristol Monoplane No 263, which was being flown from Larkhill to Cambridge by Lt. Edward Hotchkiss to take part in the annual manoeuvres crashed near Oxford, killing both Hotchkiss and his passenger, Lt. C. Bettington. The result of the Royal Aero Club enquiry was that a quick-release fitting, to which the bracing wires were attached, had failed in flight.

Both aeroplanes had been competitors in the recent Military Aeroplane competition and had only joined the RFC at the beginning of September.

Bristol Coanda monoplane No. 263 during the Military Aeroplane Competition with its competition number on the rudder. Taken over by the RFC, it crashed on 10 September when a bracing wire attachment failed.

That these two fatal accidents, occurring within a few days of each other, had both been caused by structural failure prompted a swift reaction and on 15 September, Col. J.E.B. Seeley, Secretary of State for War, issued an order banning RFC pilots from flying monoplanes of any kind. 

A committee, chaired by R.T. Glazebrook, head of the National Physical Laboratory, was appointed “to enquire into and report upon the causes of recent accidents of the Royal Flying Corps and the steps, if any, that should be taken to minimise the risk of flying this class of aeroplane.” Other members included Major R. Brooke-Popham, C.O. of the squadron to which both aeroplanes had belonged, Lt. Spenser Grey RN, Brig.-Gen David Henderson, Mr F.W. Lanchester, Mervyn O’ Gorman, Superintendent of the Royal Aircraft Factory, and Major F.H. Sykes, commander of the RFC (Military Wing).

During their investigations, the committee interviewed eyewitnesses to the crash and expert witnesses, including Col. Holden, who had chaired the Royal Aero Club inquiry and representatives of the Bristol, Deperdussin and Gnome companies. Members also visited Larkhill to examine aeroplanes similar to those in which the four unfortunate airmen had met their deaths. An accident on 13 September when a Nieuport monoplane had suffered engine failure and made a forced landing, fortunately without injury to its pilot, was also examined.

The committee’s report was presented to the Government on December 3, 1912, and made public in February 1913. It concluded that “these accidents were not primarily due to causes dependant on the fact that the machines were monoplanes.”

The report also stated that; “Considerable attention has been given to consideration of the relative strength of the monoplane and the biplane. It will be generally agreed that the biplane possesses certain obvious advantages. The bridge girder construction possible in its main spars and struts admits of ample strength… The Committee are, however, of the opinion that it is quite possible to construct a monoplane so that it shall have adequate strength.” The report then went on to describe ways in which this strength could be achieved.

Regarding the monoplanes already in service, the Committee recommended that they be carefully inspected by a skilled engineer and, if necessary, modified to bring them within the report’s recommendations. This inspection was done, and the Royal Aircraft Factory made any necessary modifications before the machines returned to active service.

It has been stated by the eminent historian C.H. Gibbs-Smith that the ban on the use of monoplanes was not only “foolish” but that the development of the cantilever monoplane was significantly retarded. This allegation has since found support in the works of other writers. It has almost become an accepted tradition in British Aviation history. However, some of these writers appear confused over which crashes initially led to the ban, making it difficult to place any credence on their conclusions. 

Some of the RFC’s monoplanes gave sterling service during the opening stages of the war, with, for example, the RFC’s first ever wartime reconnaissance mission, on 19 August 1914, being carried out by Capt. Phillip Joubert de la Ferte in a Bleriot XI, accompanied by Lt. G.W. Mapplebeck in a B.E.2a. However, the shape of the aeroplane’s immediate future had been set by such designs as the Royal Aircraft Factory’s B.S.1 and the Sopwith Tabloid which introduced single bay wing bracing, greatly reducing drag, and allowing the biplane to take over the role of fast scouts in which the monoplane had previously held sway.

Although most new designs were now biplanes, the monoplane continued in RFC service throughout the war, initially with Bleriots, then with Moranes. Although the Bristol M1 monoplane of 1917 was thought to have too high a landing speed for the airfields on the Western Front, the type saw service in the Middle East, where landing fields were larger.

Only with the development of thicker aerofoil sections, allowing the employment of deeper, stronger spars, did the cantilever monoplane become truly viable. If British aircraft designers were slow to embrace the layout, it owed more to the inertia that forms part of our national character than to a brief temporary ban in 1912.