Thursday, June 2, 2011

British Aviation in the First World War - Pt1


The next series of blogs will examine the evolution of British aviation during the First World War. Ultimately there will be 3 separate but inter-related narratives; the first is a general overview of British WW1 aviation. It is structured as a series of notes supported by 'slides' and was a presentation I gave recently. The second looks at the impact of Trenchard’s policy of the ‘relentless and incessant offensive’  on the RFC/RAF's development. The third picks up the subject of aerial photography and focuses on the interpretation of the photographs during WW1.

The term ‘the industrial battlefield’ has been used to describe the Western Front during WW1 (Bloody Victory: The Sacrifice on the Somme - William Philpott).  Implicit within this description are the technological revolutions that had and did fundamentally change the nature of warfare in the early 20th century.  Nowhere is this more clearly highlighted than in the development of aviation.  The evolution of British Air Power during WW1 clearly illustrates the challenges faced when developing and integrating new technologies into an operational environment whilst in contact with the enemy.

How important was Aviation?

How important was aviation between 1914 and 1918?  The following points serve to illustrate the contemporary perception:

Relative Manpower:
BEF on the Western Front;
·         1914 – 86,000
·         March 1918 – 1,293,000 (x 15 Growth)

RFC/RNAS/RAF (Totals all theatres)
·         1914 – 1,844
·         October 1918 – 291,748 (x 158 Growth)
Financial Investment:
·         ¼ of Britain's military budget in 1918 was spent on the RAF.
·         ½ of the £160 million in contracts [in Britain alone] outstanding at the end of the war were air contracts.

Birth of the Royal Flying Corps

On 9 Nov 1904 the Wright brothers flew a heavier than air aircraft for more than 5 minutes.  By 1908 they were conducting flights with passengers (pilot + a.n.other).  In July 1909 Louis Bleriot completed the first cross Channel flight.  The Channel was no longer an impregnable defence policed by the Royal Navy.

Despite these developments, British government interest in heavier than air aviation was limited.  Finally in 1911 Asquith, following significant pressure, asked the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) to consider the future of aviation.  The CID's sub-committee, headed by Haldane, recommended, in its February 1912 report, that a Royal Flying Corps (RFC) be formed and organised into a Military Wing and a Naval Wing with a Central Flying Training School.  The RFC was formed on 13 May 1912.  It was evident from the start that the 2 Wings perceived the utility of aviation differently.

From an Army perspective Brig Gen David Henderson, and General Staff Capt Frederick Sykes, who were key members on the CID sub-committee, envisaged aircraft carrying out; artillery observation, the prevention of aerial reconnaissance, attacks on an enemy field army and aerial combat as possible tasks, but circumspectly concluded that military aircraft were essentially a RECONNAISSANCE auxiliary for land armies.  In the 1912 army manoeuvres aircraft successfully performed reconnaissance missions and tests were carried out with aircraft carrying bombs and the new Lewis gun.  From the start military (Army) aviation development and procurement was focused mainly on the government run Royal Aircraft Factory.

The Naval wing interest was wider than just reconnaissance.  Churchill believed that aircraft could supersede small cruisers and reconnaissance vessels and protect naval ports.  By Oct 1913 he outlined 3 aircraft types: a scout seaplane, a ship based fighter seaplane, and a home service fighting aircraft for defence and patrol.  This expanded interest led to the Naval Wings collaboration with the fledgling private aviation industry (Short, Avro, and Sopwith) in pre-war experiments with the wireless, machine guns, bombs, and torpedoes.  In efforts to counter the Zeppelin threat it even tested a Vickers 1.5 pound semi-automatic cannon that stopped the aircraft dead in the air causing it to drop 500 feet!  Tests were also conducted on a seaplane carrier, the cruiser Hermes, equipped with Short seaplanes with folded wings.

By 1914 these divergent approaches led to a split within the RFC.  Officially in July 1914 the Naval Wing became the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).  In addition to the operational split, on the eve of war the British aviation industry was fragmented, disorganised, and underdeveloped. Significantly the majority of the aircraft were powered by French made engines.

Next: The Key Players

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