Probus Club member, retired RAF Wing Commander Bryan Jenkins, gave a presentation to this social club for retired professional and business managers about the foundation of the Royal Flying Corps at the outbreak of the Great War. The corps was viewed by the generals as there to serve the needs of the army.
Bleriot flying across the English Channel in 1910 caused military chiefs to rethink the previous year’s philosophy that aeroplanes could have no use in war. Aviation, in order to progress for military use, had to rethink its design and production. There were no real manufacturing facilities, no aircraft engine industry with much reliance on French aircraft and engines. There were no aircrew training schools and initial thoughts were that pilots should not be aware of the physical limits of their planes as it would impact on their confidence.
Thinking changed from General Haig’s comments in July 1914 that aeroplanes could not be usefully employed in reconnaissance, this was the cavalry’s role; to September that year when aerial reconnaissance enabled the British Expeditionary Force win the battle known as “Miracle of the Marne”. Such flight information enabled the Generals to deploy their forces to maximum effect.
Technical difficulties had to be overcome such as being able to fire guns through the propeller. Initially, this was overcome by having the propeller at the rear of the pilot.
By 1915 the German Fokker Eindecker monoplane was able to fire through the propeller and had superior aerial performance than any British design. Fokker continued with bi-plane and tri-plane designs, the latter made famous by Manfred von Richthofen who was credited with 80 “kills” and became known as the Red Baron.
Early aerial battles against enemy aircraft were not successful. RFC planes strafed enemy infantry and bombed airfields, factories and transportation facilities. The bombs being hand held over the side of the plane as had been the early cameras used in photographic missions although bigger and heavier cameras became fixed to the side of the fuselage.
Training gradually improved, as it needed to be, since the average life expectancy of a pilot on the Western Front was only 23 days. Some pilots only survived for three days. Of 10,000 RFC airmen who lost their lives, 4,000 died in training, 4,000 in post training and only 2,000 killed as a result of enemy action.
Aircraft production was ramped up with the creation of aircraft manufacturing factories but the front line was always waiting for replacements. The main problem was insufficient engines and by 1918 there were over 4,000 planes in storage waiting for an engine.
After starting the Royal Flying Corps in 1914 with 2073 personnel, by the beginning of 1919 there were 114,000 personnel and 4,000 planes in some 150 squadrons. Some 900,000 flying hours had been logged during the war and almost 7,000 tons of bombs had been dropped on enemy positions. Eleven members of the RFC were awarded the Victoria Cross.
John Moore- Brabazon , who had been the first Englishman to fly a heavier than air machine on British soil in 1909 and who became responsible for aircraft production in WW2, summed up the progress made.
“We started the Kaiser war with very little equipment, and not very good equipment at that. Many of the RFC squadrons were equipped with French aircraft. There was, however, during the war an immense concentration upon producing better engines and better machines than anyone else. We ended up that war absolutely supreme throughout the world. We had better machines, better engines and better pilots than existed anywhere in the world”.
As a result of its success the RFC became a fully independent third military sector of UK defence forces and on 1st April 1918 it merged with the Royal Naval Air Service to become the Royal Air Force.