The De Havilland DH2 Pusher Scout

By Barrington J. Gray and Members of the Cross & Cockade DH2 Research Group.

Captain Lanoe Hawker

24 Squadron RFC was formed on 1 September 1915 at Hounslow Heath aerodrome, Middlesex, from a cadre provided by 17 Sqn RFC. The first CO, Captain A.G. Moore MC, commanded the squadron until 1 October 1915, when he was succeeded by Captain Lanoe George Hawker VC DSO.

Captain Hawker was one of the most distinguished of the junior officers in the RFC, where his aggressive but sensitive nature made him a natural leader well deserving the command of the Flying Corps’ first single seater fighting squadron.

Hawker’s army background was rooted in the traditions of the Royal Engineers, which he joined in 1910. He was an avid follower of developments in aviation, and in the same year, he joined the Royal Aero Club, commencing a course of flying instruction at Hendon with the Horatio Barber School of Flying.

Initially, his training was on a ‘Valkyrie’ pusher monoplane, designed and built by the School’s founder.

Horatio Barber seated at the controls of his Valkyrie Monoplane. Hawker’s first flying tuition in 1911 was on this type of machine. RAF Museum

In 1912, he transferred to the Deperdussin School and succeeded in getting his pilot’s ‘ticket’ on 4 March 1913, thus making him eligible for selection to the newly formed Royal Flying Corps. However, before he could give serious consideration to joining the RFC, he had to complete his passing-out examination as a ‘Sapper’ officer. Promoted to lieutenant on 1 October 1913, he was selected for service in Ireland. In vain, Hawker made several applications for transfer to the RFC, but these were turned down, for the Royal Engineers were loath to lose such a promising officer. Hawker’s persistence finally convinced his senior officers that his future lay in the Flying Corps, and in June 1914, he was overjoyed to hear that his application to join the RFC had been accepted and that he was to report to the CFS in September. Fortunately, the imminent declaration of war with Germany accelerated the official machinery, for on 30 July, Hawker received a telegram ordering him to report to the CFS at once.

2/Lt Lanoe George Hawker, 20 years of age, and the proud new holder of the King’s commission in the Royal Engineers, July 1911. T.M. Hawker

At Upavon, he found the flying training sporadic, for the few ancient Farmans were constantly being crashed by the pupils; nevertheless, if flying was not possible, Hawker sought to broaden his knowledge and skill on any subject remotely connected with aviation, so when he was not in the air he applied himself diligently to the study of wireless signalling, photography, rigging, armament etc.

A Henri Farman used for training at CFS, Upavon T.M. Hawker

By August 1914, Hawker had moved on to more advanced machines such as the BE2, and by the time he had passed out of the CFS on 3 October 1914, he was able to record 25 hours in his flying logbook, which was appended by his flying instructor ‘A very keen and zealous officer with plenty of initiative’.

Hawker in a BE2a at CFS. T.M. Hawker

BE2a being prepared for flight at CFS, Upavon. :T.M. Hawker

Two days later, Hawker was posted to 6 Sqn RFC, and on 7 October 1914, the squadron’s BEs and Henry Farmans set off across the Channel to join the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium. Flying Henry Farman No 653 Hawker successfully made landfall at Ostend and then, flying inland, landed at the squadron’s base at Bruges. However, the stay was brief, for soon, the squadron was forced to retire to Ostend in the face of a rapid German advance.

Entente Cordiale’. Officers from 6 Squadron, RFC visiting Escadrille Maurice Farman 33 at Poperinghe. From l to r, back row: 3rd Awcock, 5th Clarke, 7th Hawker, 8th Kinnear, 11th Hawkins, 12th Hargreaves. Second row: 2nd Bovill, 3rd Capt Bordage, 4th James. In front: Vachell.  T.M. Hawker

Flying the Farman Hawker made several reconnaissance flights from Ostend until 12 October when the squadron moved down the coast to St Pol aerodrome near Dunkirk, and it was while seeking his way to the new aerodrome that Hawker surprised three German ‘Taubes’ over Dunkirk. Hawker’s observer Kinnear fired five ineffectual rounds at the enemy machines, who promptly turned tail and headed for home.

Hawkers Henri Farman on the race course at 0stende. T.M. Hawker

The German advance meant another move, and by 16 October, 6 Sqn was established at Poperinghe, near the ancient town of Ypres.

Hawker, Kinnear and Adamson at Bailleul.  T.M. Hawker

At Poperinghe, Hawker befriended the pilots of a nearby French Escadrille, who gave him some steel darts and an incendiary bomb to experiment with. Hawker had devised a release mechanism, and with the bomb in place, he made for the nearest German encampment. To his dismay, on arrival over the target, he found that the bomb had released itself and was later reported to have dropped harmlessly on a British aerodrome. After this episode, Hawker’s name became synonymous with bombing throughout the RFC.

‘B’ stands for ‘Bomb in which Hawker delights’. (From a contemporary RFC alphabet) T.M. Hawker

Hawker continued with his experiments, one of which nearly ended in disaster, for this time, the missiles were Mills grenades. Hawker did not realise that the grenades had time fuses: when approaching his objective, Hawker removed the pins and then found that he had to hastily dispose of them when they all started smoking.

On 24 November, the squadron moved to Bailleul, where, on the last day of the month with 5 Sqn RFC, it became a component of the Second Wing RFC.

In December, Hawker’s Henry Farman was destroyed in a gale, and as a replacement, he was allotted a BE2. Although an improvement on the Farman, it did not suit Hawker’s aggressive nature. Nevertheless, despite the routine work of artillery ranging and photography, he invariably sought and made a practice of attacking every enemy machine he saw.

By 17 February, he was flying the new BE2c, and ten days later, he was flying over the lines, spotting for the artillery during the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. On 2 March, Hawker and his observer had another encounter with two German two-seaters, in which they had an inconclusive exchange of revolver and rifle fire before the Germans retreated.

Hawker’s BE2a, 468 at Bailleul. His album caption reads ..if the focus was a little better you would see 3 eggs between the wheels, intended as a surprise for the other side.’ T.M. Hawker

In April, the RFC received information that a Zeppelin was using a well-defended shed at Gontrode near Ghent. 6 Sqn was ordered to bomb the shed, and the CO, Major Shepherd, selected Hawker as the pilot most likely to succeed in the mission. On 18 April, he was told to find the shed and test the defences. Taking three bombs Hawker located the shed and dropped two bombs from 4000 feet, both he reported falling short of the target. Returning at a lower height, he dropped his third bomb close to the shed but without doing any noticeable damage. Throughout the raid, he was under constant anti-aircraft fire and machine gun fire from a captive balloon. It was reported later that the shed was empty because its occupant, the Zeppelin LZ35, had crashed five days earlier. Nevertheless, the raid demonstrated the vulnerability of the German Zeppelin bases in Belgium and was one of the factors in their removal to Germany, where their effective range was restricted.

Hawker’s bold action was duly recognised, for he was later awarded the DSO for the exploit.

Hawker’s BE2a, 468 at Bailleul. His album caption reads ..if the focus was a little better you would see 3 eggs between the wheels, intended as a surprise for the other side.’ T.M. Hawker

On 22 April, the Germans began a heavy bombardment of Ypres, accompanied by the release of chlorine gas. The allies fell back after the initial onslaught of the attack, and there were fears that the strategically important town of Ypres would fall. During a day of continued heavy fighting, it was difficult to establish the extent of the German gains.

The following morning, Hawker made a solo reconnaissance over the lines under constant machine gun and rifle fire from a line of new trenches the enemy had dug overnight. The hostile fire helped Hawker pinpoint the new enemy positions on his map, to which he appended a situation report with details of the actual extent of the German advance.

Two days later, the allies counter-attacked in an attempt to consolidate their broken lines, and again, Hawker was on reconnaissance to gather information on the progress of the conflict raging below.

Later on the same day, Hawker made another solo reconnaissance, this time much lower, to distinguish the field grey of the enemy from the horizon blue of our French allies. Again, he was met by an intense fusillade of ground fire and was wounded in the heel by a bullet which passed through the floor of his BE. Despite this painful wound and fatigue, he carried out a further reconnaissance over the lines, bringing back many valuable reports.

Hawker’s wound was more serious than first diagnosed, and he was sent home on sick leave. However, his suffering was made more bearable when he was informed that he had been made a Flight Commander with the commensurate promotion to the rank of Captain.

After a month of recuperation, Hawker was back with 6 Sqn flying in his self-appointed low-level reconnaissances, which he carried out along with his normal squadron activities of aerial photography, artillery ranging, flash spotting, and the responsibility of the organisation and administration of his flight.

On 3 June 1915, there occurred a significant event in his flying career when he was ordered to St Omer to pick up a Bristol Scout from the depot. Returning to Abeele with the scout, he demonstrated his enthusiasm for the new mount with a skilful flying display of climbing, turning and zooming over the aerodrome.

6 Squadron, RFC aerodrome at Abeele, Belgium in 1915. The curved road in the lower half of the picture marks the French border. T.M. Hawker

Hawker was keen to get the Bristol suitably armed, and with the aid of one of the squadron’s mechanics, he fitted an angled bracket mount to support a Lewis gun, which was carefully aligned to fire forward outside the propeller arc. This arrangement was not wholly satisfactory, for when attacking an enemy machine, it was necessary to approach the quarry with a sideways crablike manoeuvre. Several inconclusive engagements were made with the Bristol, which Hawker flew alternately with his reconnaissance patrols on the BE2c and FE2a.

He quickly gained experience with the Bristol and the gun mount, and in a letter home on 8 June, he expressed his delight with the new machine:

‘…I have badly frightened one or two Boches but have not yet had the luck to knock them out, I’m afraid. It is quite exciting diving at 120 mph firing a machine-gun! She is a little beauty and climbs like anything, it’s like going up in a lift for the first thousand – a process which hardly takes a minute! and makes the spectators gape…’

Later in the month, his spirits were somewhat dampened when he turned his Bristol over after hitting an unseen wire fence whilst landing. Single seat scouts were scarce at that time, and Hawker feared this accident would bar him from flying scouts. However, much to Hawker’s joy, the Wing Commander, Colonel Burke, made arrangements for the damaged machine to be replaced by a new Bristol Scout ‘C’ 1611.

A despondent Hawker (hands in pockets) gloomily watches the squadron mechanics remove the engine from his wrecked Bristol Scout. T.M. Hawker

Local French troops gather to see the wrecked Bristol Scout being dismantled. T.M. Hawker

Straight away, Hawker had a Lewis gun mounted on the scout in the same manner as his first Bristol.

Throughout the early part of July, Hawker flew regular patrols and reconnaissances without any engagements with enemy machines. The middle of the month was rainy with strong winds, but by the 25th, the weather had improved, and in the early morning, Hawker set out on his Bristol Scout to patrol the German lines close to the Ypres Salient. Flying at 10000 feet, he saw a German machine over Passchendaele.

A German anti-aircraft battery fired shots to warn their machine of Hawker’s presence, and, in consequence, he had to fire at the enemy from a range of 400 yards. The enemy machine dived away with Hawker in hot pursuit, firing a whole drum at the fleeing German.

Twenty minutes later, he surprised another enemy machine over Houthulst Forest, but this quickly drew out of range by diving steeply and was able to escape. Climbing to 11000 feet, Hawker saw another enemy machine being engaged by British anti-aircraft fire over Hooge. Carefully stalking the enemy aircraft, Hawker manoeuvred himself into the sun and dived to the attack, holding his fire until he was 100 yards away from his target. The stream of bullets hit the German machine, which dived down out of control, then burst into flames and turned over, throwing out the observer. The stricken machine finally crashed in the British front lines, 1000 yards east of Zillebecke.

Returning to Abeele, Hawker experienced the mixed emotions of exaltation on the successful shooting down of an enemy machine and the revulsion at the manner of the death of the German observer. Later, the body of the observer was recovered, and on his person, they discovered a map with the location of several important German artillery batteries, which was of immense help to Army Intelligence. The fate of the German aircraft was also witnessed by thousands of British troops, including the Commander of the Second Army – General Plumer – who sent his congratulations to Second Wing HQ.

Hawker’s successful action on 25 July and his brilliant reconnaissance work had also been noted by higher authority, and he was informed that he had been awarded the Victoria Cross. The award, gazetted on 24 August 1915, was the first VC to be awarded for aerial combat.

Bristol Scout ‘C’ in which Hawker fought his VC action on 25 July, 1915. The Lewis gun is angled to clear the propeller.  T.M.Hawker

Still alternating his flights between the Bristol and the FE, Hawker, with Lt Payne as his observer, had a successful encounter with two German artillery observation machines on 2 August. He related the events in a letter home:

‘…last Monday in an FE on our way home, we came up behind a couple ranging. Left No 1 diving steeply after 140 rounds, attacked and chased No 2 well home till we got too low over their lines – 5000 – and later attacked a third, who made off at once into clouds. We since heard No 1 landed behind their trenches (confirmed by King’s Own Regiment) so evidently we at least did in his engine –  unluckily there was a strong wind in his favour…’

A further series of successful engagements occurred on 11 August when flying an FE with Lt Noel Clifton as observer Hawker reported:

‘6 to 6.45, then 7.15pm. Reconnaissance: Houthem- Zonnebeke at 8 to 7000. Later Lille- Roubaix at 9000.

  1. The FE met, attacked and drove off an Albatros over Houthem.
    1. It was then attacked by two Halberstadt Scouts and an Albatros over Polygon Wood. Luckily, they did not all come within range at the same moment. After a fight lasting 20 minutes, they all retired.
    1. The FE then attacked an Aviatik over Houthem and left in a nose-dive.
    1. This left only one and a quarter drums of ammunition. Between Lille and Roubaix at feet, the FE was attacked by a very fast scout monoplane, which tried to get behind the FE. I turned the FE very sharp and succeeded in facing it. The scout crossed about 50 yards in front, firing at us. The FE kept head on to the scout, suddenly nose dived absolutely vertically for about 4000 feet and then seemed to flatten out a bit’.

The monoplane was in fact the first Fokker that Hawker had encountered, and was later reported to have crashed over Lille.

By September 1915, the RFC was expanding rapidly, and Hawker had now served with 6 Sqn for nearly a year, and his CO Major Shepherd, although loath to lose such an able officer, recommended that Hawker be promoted and given command of a squadron in England. This, he hoped, would give Hawker a well-earned rest.

Hawker was subsequently posted to Home Establishment on 20 September 1915.

On arriving at Hounslow, Hawker found that 24 Sqn had no Flight Commanders and that only one of the six aircraft on charge was airworthy. He realised that a considerable amount of work would be necessary before the squadron could function satisfactorily, for additional to the normal programme of pilot training to reinforce RFC squadrons overseas, the squadron was also required to train instructors for night flying on Avros and BE2cs, so that they in turn could train other pilots in anti-Zeppelin work.

The squadron was also responsible for the manning and maintenance of night flying grounds at Wimbledon, Sutton’s Farm (Hornchurch), and Hainaults Farm, Essex.

After the excitement of active service flying in France, Hawker found his work dull and demanding. However, the tedium was broken on 5 October when he was summoned to Buckingham Palace to be invested by the King with the Victoria Cross and the Distinguished Service Order.

Captain Lanoe George Hawker VC, DSO, RE and RFC, October 1915. T.M. Hawker

Later in the month, increased Zeppelin activity saw Hawker virtually on duty for twenty-four hours of the day. Anxious to oversee personally all facets of the squadron’s operations, he put himself under intense strain. Fortunately, relief from most of the irksome administration was accomplished by the newly appointed ‘A’ Flight Commander – Captain E.H. Mitchell MC – who had transferred to 24 from flying BE2cs in 4 Sqn RFC.

With Mitchell’s help, Hawker was able to concentrate on building a tip-top training and defence squadron, and by the middle of October 1915, the official history states: the squadron’s aircraft complement consisted of 3 Curtiss’, 1 Caudron, 3 Avros, 1 Bristol Scout, and an undisclosed number of Martinsydes. and Farmans.

While in France, Hawker had gained a well-earned reputation as an innovator, especially in improvements he had made to aircraft in regard to bombing techniques and the mounting and sighting of machine guns.

These activities were noted in official circles, and on 10 November 1915, Hawker was requested to advise the War Office on the suitability of various gun synchronising gear for firing a machine gun through the propeller, which were then currently being experimented with by a number of inventors. The synchronising systems then under development were the British Vickers-Challenger, Scarff-Dibrovski, Sopwith-Kauper, Ross and Arsaid, and the French Alkan. Unfortunately, all these systems were designed for belt-fed machine guns of the Vickers Maxim type, which were considered to be too heavy and unwieldy compared to the lightweight drum-fed Lewis machine gun, which was favoured by the RFC at that time.

Hawker was well aware that in aircraft design that, the tractor layout had proved infinitely more efficient from the aerodynamic point of view than the pusher layout. But, due to the lack of suitable gun synchronising gear, the pusher designs were considered the viable alternative because it was easier to mount a machine gun in the nose of a pusher machine, and to date, the Vickers FB5 – with Lewis gun armed observer/gunner – had proved effective against the German aircraft that the RFC was encountering in the latter part of 1915 – including the synchronised fixed gun of the Fokker Eindecker.

The outcome of Hawker’s discussions with the War Office is not known, but Hawker’s personal opinion was that despite its aerodynamic shortcomings, the pusher aircraft made up for its deficiencies with its good all-round visibility from the cockpit, a feature of paramount importance in a fighting machine.

Ultimately, a Bristol Scout was satisfactorily fitted with a Vickers gun and synchronising gear, but this aircraft did not arrive in France until 25 March 1916, and it was not until August that the Vickers gear was used in any noteworthy quantity, and then mainly on the BE12s of 19 and 21 Sqns.

Hawker dressed for altitude – with leather leggings and a goatskin jacket adapted by the RFC from the ‘latest’ in flying apparel. T.M. Hawker

To read the full article, please purchase the back issue of Cross & Cockade International Journal, Vol 20, No.03, 1989