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.