Learning to Fly — Eight Facts About Britain’s Fledgling Air Force

The RFC started World War One as a small experimental arm of the British army; by 1918, it had become its own branch of the the armed forces. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The RFC began as a small experimental arm of the British military. By the end of World War One, it grown into its own branch of the armed forces. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“The story of the RFC in World War One is that of men who forged the foundations of aerial warfare with their very lives.”

By John Stack

An RFC uniform patch.

A RFC uniform patch.

BRITAIN’S ROYAL FLYING CORPS was formed by a Royal Warrant in April of 1912 — less than a decade after history’s first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In just two short years, the RFC would be at war. Soon, this fledgling band of men and machines would develop into a mighty air armada and ultimately become the famous Royal Air Force. From chivalrous early duals of lone aviators to the massed air battles against Germany’s formidable Jastas, the story of the RFC in World War One is that of men who forged the foundations of aerial warfare with their very lives. It’s a tale of amateurs who became warriors; warriors who became aces; and aces who became legends. Here eight remarkable facts about one of history’s first air forces.

Not everyone in the British military was convinced that the RFC would make a difference in the coming war in France. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Not everyone in the British military was convinced that the RFC would make a difference in the coming war in France. Such naysayers would rapidly be proven wrong. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“A Useless and Expensive Fad”

A 1914 RFC recruiting poster. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A 1914 RFC recruiting poster. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Just shy of 50 aircraft of various designs, the RFC made the war’s first crossing of the English Channel on Aug. 13, 1914 – only five years after French flying pioneer Louis Blériot achieved worldwide fame for accomplishing the same feat. The 1914 transit involved almost the full complement of the RFC at the time. Amazingly, not everyone in the British military appreciated the potential of airplanes. The chief of the Imperial General Staff described flying as “a useless and expensive fad,” while the First Sea Lord was equally unimpressed, claiming that the total requirement for the Royal Navy would be just two planes! By the end of the war four years later, the RFC had grown more than 400 times its original size, totalling some 22,000 aircraft. By 1918, became its own distinct service branch — the Royal Air Force.

The RFC was founded in 1912. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The RFC was founded in 1912. Among its first machines were these Bleriot monoplanes. By 1915, 10 British squadrons were equipped with the French-built aircraft, which had a top speed of about 50 mph. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Dangerous Duty

The first RFC casualties of World War One occurred in England on Aug. 12, 1914 when a crew was killed on en route to the squadron rendezvous before departing for France. In fact, of the 14,166 British pilots who lost their lives in the conflict, more than half were killed during training.

Lewis guns were light enough to be mounted on an airframe, but the weapons presented a host of problems for fliers. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Lewis guns were light enough to be mounted on an airframe, but the weapons presented a host of problems for fliers. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Knights of the Air

The first missions for the RFC, like those of the German air corps or Die Fliegertruppe, were mainly reconnaissance flights. At first, opposing fliers shared the same air space without incident, often waving to one another as they soared high above the battlefields. These gentlemanly exchanges quickly gave way to violence as pilots and observers began firing on enemy planes using pistols, rifles and even shotguns. By 1915, British observers were mounting Lewis machine guns on the sides of their aircraft. Unable to shoot through planes’ propellers, gunners fired their weapons obliquely, making air-to-air kills nearly impossible. And that wasn’t the only challenge. The oil used to lubricate the piston-rod, feed arm and magazines on Lewis guns froze at high altitudes rendering the weapons useless.

The Fokker Eindecker was the scourge of British pilots in 1915. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Fokker Eindecker was the scourge of British pilots in 1915. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Enter the Fighter Plane

The first aircraft armed with a machine gun capable of shooting through its own propeller was piloted by French aviator Roland Garros. With the help of designer Raymond Saulnier, Garros fitted metal plates to the props to protect them from the odd bullet that didn’t clear the spinning blades. It worked reasonably well, but the greatest danger came from the ricocheted rounds, which were liable to fly back and strike the engine or even the pilot! Germany perfected the forward-firing machine gun with the Fokker Eindecker, a monoplane featuring synchronization gear. The revolutionary firing system timed the weapon to shoot through the arc of the propeller without striking it. This allowed pilots to point their planes directly at targets and aim down the forward fuselage. Using these new purpose-built fighter aircraft, Germany won control of the skies over the Western Front until the Allies could come up with newer and better machines.

The brass feared that if pilots had parachutes, many would bail out of their machines the first sign of trouble.

A famous faked photo of a German pilot leaping from his burning kite. Military brass feared that if pilots had parachutes many would bail out of their planes at the first sign of trouble.

No Escape

Despite the fact that a practical parachute was in development during the early years of the war, its adoption by the RFC (aside from its use by balloonists) was dismissed by the Air Board. “It is the opinion of the Board that the presence of such an apparatus might impair the fighting spirit of pilots and cause them to abandon machines which might otherwise be capable to returning to base for repair,” the department concluded. Pilots who lost control of their machines had to choose between leaping to a certain death or riding their crippled birds straight into the ground. Most terrifying of all for aviators was the prospect of burning alive in mid-air if their plane caught fire.

A German flak crew.

A German flak crew.

Beware of ‘Archie’

The RFC’s nickname for anti-aircraft fire was ‘Archie.’ It’s believed that the term originated from a 1911 song by George Robey called “Archibald…Certainly Not.” Legend holds that pilots would sing out the chorus from the popular ditty each time their aircraft avoided an anti-aircraft burst.

A Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2a. Not the Union Jack markings on the tail fin. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2a. Note the British flag on the tail fin. (Image source: WikiCommons)

(Image source: WikiCommons)

(Image source: WikiCommons)

Circular Argument

Initially, British warplanes were marked with the Union Flag on the underside of the wings and on the tail. By 1915, the insignia was replaced with the now-famous roundel after multiple incidents in which ground troops confused RFC aircraft with those bearing the German Cross Pattée or Iron Cross. The now-famous circular insignia was inspired by French tri-colour markings of the time, although the pattern was reversed to a red inner dot and blue outer circle.

British troops ride into battle at the Marne. The Allied triumph there was made possible by reconnaissance aircraft. (Image source: WikiCommons)

British troops ride into battle at the Marne. The Allied triumph there in 1914 was made possible in part by reconnaissance aircraft. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Return on Investment

The RFC proved its value surprisingly early. In fact, British aircraft were instrumental in preventing Germany from capturing Paris and winning the First World War in the opening weeks of the conflict. Having marched his troops to within just 30 miles of the French capital, German Generaloberst Alexander Von Kluck wheeled his army to the south-east, contrary to the Schlieffen Plan, in a bid to surprise the French. In doing so, he exposed his own flank to counterattack. The mistake was discovered by RFC aircraft that located the cavalry vanguard of the German army from the air. French and British troops were redeployed and the resulting ‘Miracle of the Marne’ halted the German advance.

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John Stack is an Irish-based writer of historical fiction. His latest work is Aces Over Ypres. It’s published by Endeavour Press and is available on Amazon. He lives with his family in County Cork. For more on his novels, visit his www.johnstack.me or follow him on Twitter. 

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