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Wings: The RAF at War, 1912-2012

Wings: The RAF at War, 1912-2012

by Patrick Bishop

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The Royal Air Force is synonymous with its heroic achievements in the summer of 1940, when Winston Churchill's 'famous few' held Goering's Luftwaffe at bay in the Battle of Britain, thereby changing the course of the war. For much of the 20th century, warplanes were fixed in the world's imagination, a symbol of the perils and excitements of the modern era. Aviators


The Royal Air Force is synonymous with its heroic achievements in the summer of 1940, when Winston Churchill's 'famous few' held Goering's Luftwaffe at bay in the Battle of Britain, thereby changing the course of the war. For much of the 20th century, warplanes were fixed in the world's imagination, a symbol of the perils and excitements of the modern era. Aviators have always seemed different to soldiers and sailors—more adventurous and imaginative. Their stories gripped the public and in both wars and air aces dominated each side's propaganda, capturing hearts and dreams. Writing with the verve, passion and the sheer narrative aplomb familiar to many thousands of readers from his bestselling World War II aerial histories, Fighter Boys and Bomber Boys, Patrick Bishop's Wings is a rich and compelling account of military flying from its heroic early days to the present.

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Atlantic Books
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5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.30(d)

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One Hundred Years of British Aerial Warfare

By Patrick Bishop

Grove Atlantic Ltd

Copyright © 2012 Patrick Bishop
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84887-892-1


Pilots of the Purple Twilight

In the space of three generations flight has flooded and ebbed from the world's imagination. Aeroplanes are part of the backdrop of life and travelling in them has become mundane and usually tedious. Yet a hundred years ago the sight of a rickety contraption of wire and canvas, fluttering and swooping above the fields with a strangely clad figure perched precariously inside, was guaranteed to create great – even wild – excitement.

In June 1910, only twenty months after the first aeroplane made a paltry, 450 yard hop over British soil, Flight magazine reported that 'it is becoming the fashion to consider any openair function quite incomplete unless there is an exhibition of flying to give tone to it'. The editorial was commenting on an incident that had taken place a few days before. At an agricultural show in the city of Worcester a Blériot monoplane 'ran amok'. At the controls was Mr Ernest Dartigan. He was assistant to a Captain Clayton, who had been due to give a 'series of spectacular flights' but had injured himself in a crash the previous day. Rather than disappoint the 14,000 people gathered at the showground, Dartigan had rolled the Blériot out to taxi up and down on the grass. The results were disastrous. Dartigan quickly lost control and the aeroplane charged into the crowd, killing a woman and injuring several others.

At the subsequent inquest, Clayton admitted that he was not a captain at all, but had adopted the title 'for business purposes'. Neither he nor Dartigan possessed a certificate of competence from the Royal Aero Club. The pseudo-aviator did not shoulder the blame alone, however. A Worcestershire County Council official who witnessed the accident told the court that the 'conduct of the crowd was foolhardy in the extreme. [They] insisted upon crowding around the aeroplane and badly hampered the movements of the man who was in control, in spite the efforts of police and officials to keep them back.'

This little tragedy tells us quite a lot about those early days. It reveals the ad hoc nature of primitive aviation, glorious or foolhardy according to your point of view. Everything was necessarily innovatory and improvised. 'Captain' Clayton might have crocked himself in a prang, but the show went on nonetheless. The pressure that Dartigan felt to perform is also revealing. He seems to have considered himself duty bound to give the crowds what they came for. One suspects he also saw an opportunity to indulge his own fantasies. With Clayton indisposed, a splendid opportunity arose for his assistant to shine. From the outset, aviation was in the hands of those with a tendency to show off – frequently with the same sad results as on this occasion.

And then there is the woman whose eagerness to get close to the action proved fatal. There were many more like her in the crowd. Photographs of early displays show broad-brimmed bonnets scattered abundantly among the flat hats and homburgs. Women did not want to just watch what was happening. They were eager to take part. Almost from the beginning adventurous females were clamouring to 'go up', despite the obvious dangers, first as passengers, then as pilots. At the same time as the Worcester air show, the first flying school was opening its doors at Brooklands motor-racing circuit in Weybridge, Surrey. Mrs Hilda Hewlett, a forty-six-year-old mother of two who was the first woman to gain a Royal Aero Club certificate, co-owned it with her French lover.

What was it that drew the crowds? In part they had come to witness what was manifestly a great step forward in the history of mankind. The skeletal monoplanes and biplanes, constructed from homely materials of wood, canvas and wire, had realized the ancient human dream of defying gravity. They were oddly beautiful and the men who flew them seemed to earthbound mortals like elevated beings.

The spectators also enjoyed the frisson of danger. Newspapers – then as now eager to create alarm – presented flying as a suicidal activity. Some claimed that the crowds went to air shows in the base hope that someone would come a cropper. The chances were high. Early aviators showed an almost insane disregard for risk.

Even in this company of daredevils Sam Cody, a naturalized American who was the first man to fly in Britain, stood out. In a routine accident in the spring of 1912, while instructing Lieutenant Fletcher in his biplane, nicknamed the 'Cathedral' on account of its comparatively impressive size, Cody was 'thrown out and fell a considerable distance, sustaining injuries to his head and legs'. He continued in this nerveless fashion until he met his death in August 1913 over Laffan's Plain near Aldershot, in an accident apparently caused by a panicky passenger, who wrapped his arms around him so tightly that he was unable to operate the controls.

Pilots seemed to consider even the most basic safety measures unmanly. In August 1912 an Australian aviator called Lindsay Campbell was killed in a crash at Brooklands. Medical evidence at the inquest recorded he had fractured his skull. Campbell had not been wearing a helmet. A correspondent to Flight noted that 'aviators, and especially English aviators, have a constitutional objection to wearing helmets for the reason apparently that ... it is too much a concession to the idea of danger.'

Aviation was married to death from the start, but there was nothing morbid about the instant fascination felt by the public. The instinct that pulled in the air-show crowds and that swelled the ranks of aero-modelling clubs, inducing people to subscribe to a crop of aviation magazines, was optimistic and life-affirming. It was the sense of possibility, the feeling that the frontiers of existence were expanding, that gave them a thrill. They recognized, even if they did not understand, the enormity of what was happening and accepted that for things to progress, risks would have to be taken. A great enterprise was worth sacrifices. Men would die, but not for nothing.

Few of those doing the flying had much idea of where aviation would lead. It was enough that humans could now take to the air. All most of them asked of an aeroplane was that it allowed them to get as close to the sensation of flight as the laws of nature allowed. In 1946, two years before his death, Orville Wright was guest of honour at a military conference in New York. The American air ace Eddie Rickenbacker hailed him as a visionary who had foreseen how aeroplanes would transform the twentieth century. But Wright told Rickenbacker that he was talking nonsense.

'Wilbur and I had no idea aviation would take off in the way it has,' he said. 'We had no idea that there'd be thousands of aircraft flying around the world. We had no idea that aircraft would be dropping bombs. We were just a couple of kids with a bike shop who wanted to get this contraption up in the air.'

Poignantly, given what was to come, the Wright brothers believed that their invention might actually reduce the incidence of war. They cherished the thought that 'governments would realize the impossibility of winning by surprise attacks ... no country would enter into war with another of equal size when it knew that it would have to win by simply wearing out the enemy.'

The joy that aircraft excited was almost immediately matched by unease. Long before the Wright brothers got airborne, a great English poet had glimpsed one directionin which the aeroplane would take us. In 1835 Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote a poem, Locksley Hall, in which the narrator tells how he

    ... dipt into the future far as human eye could see,
    Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;

    Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
    Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales ...

However, it was not this benign presentiment of celestial trade routes that would be remembered so much as the couplet that followed. For he also

    Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain'd a ghastly dew
    From the nations' airy navies grappling in the central blue.

This was a remarkable prophecy – that once the opportunity arose, the sky would become a battlefield. It would come to pass only eleven years after that first callow skip over the sands of Kitty Hawk. The yearning to fly was very old, but the itch to fight was older. Aviation's passage from innocence to experience was depressingly swift.

It was apparent immediately that the invention of the aeroplane raised important military possibilities. In terrestrial warfare possession of the high ground brought benefits, notably the ability to calculate the enemy's strength and work out what he was up to. Hovering over the earth increased the purview dramatically. After hot-air balloons appeared in France in 1783 they were soon put to military purposes. Gasbags, tethered to the earth, were seen intermittently around battlefields throughout the nineteenth century. Spotters, equipped with spyglasses, yelled down to the ground details of what they could see of enemy movements and dispositions. Unlike balloons, aeroplanes could move about under their own power and seemed able to do the job of reconnaissance better.

Their arrival, however, provoked unease among a significant section of the British military establishment. The army was slow to accept change. Reconnaissance had always been the preserve of the elite cavalry regiments. This attitude was summed up in a story that their officers were concerned that noisy aeroplanes would 'frighten the horses'.

Initially it seemed as if aircraft might turn out to be merely a passing craze. Early aero-engines were weak and unreliable, prone to chronic overheating. As performance improved, however, the realization grew that aeroplanes would shape the future – political, economic, social and military.

In July 1909 Louis Blériot flew across the Channel in a monoplane of his own design. It looked like a dragonfly, or a Leonardo da Vinci drawing. Wonder at this achievement was matched by apprehension. Leading the pessimists was H. G. Wells whose science-fiction novels had given him the standing of a seer. The day afterwards he judged Blériot's feat to be a blow to British prestige. 'We have fallen behind in the quality of our manhood,' he wrote in the Daily Mail. 'Within a year we shall have – or rather they will have – aeroplanes capable of starting from Calais ... circling over London, dropping a hundredweight or so of explosive upon the printing machines of the Daily Mail and returning securely to Calais for another similar parcel.'

The Mail's proprietor Lord Rothermere was a noisy advocate of 'air-mindedness'. It was he who had put up the £1,000 prize that inspired Blériot's attempt. The fact that a Frenchman had won it seemed proof of his conviction – echoed by Wells – that national virility was drooping. Britain was lagging behind in the air race and an urgent effort was needed to catch up.

The perils of complacency were apparent across the water that Blériot had conquered. A few weeks after the historic flight a Grande Semaine d'Aviation was held at Reims. It was a heady event, watched by hundreds of thousands. Spectators drank the local champagne, dined in a 600-seat restaurant and cheered on the aviators, on occasion becoming so excited they swept through the barriers to mob their heroes. Fliers arrived from all over the world to take part in races offering lavish prize money. An American, Glenn Curtiss, whose receding hairline and chin made him look more like a bank clerk than a knight of the air, triumphed in the main event, a time-trial, beating Blériot with an average speed of less than 50 mph.

The show nonetheless established France's dominance in the air. All but two of the twenty-two aviators were French. Most of the power plants in use were Gnome rotary engines, developed by the Paris-based Seguin brothers. These engines did what the name suggests, revolving around a fixed crankshaft. The propeller was simply attached to the rotating engine. Despite the oddness of the concept to modern eyes, they were efficient and comparatively light. The Seguins used nickel-steel alloy, machined to give the optimum power-to-weight ratio, and the fact that air cooled the spinning cylinders removed the need for water jackets. Among the spectators was David Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer. He left with the conviction that 'flying machines are no longer toys and dreams ... they are an established fact.'

Above all they were a military fact. By the end of that year the French army had 200 aircraft in service. The Germans – Britain's rivals in a crippling naval arms race – were exploring another field of aviation. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, a southern German professional soldier, had seen military reconnaissance balloons in action while attached to the Union army during the American Civil War. Over the next four decades he advanced the concept, developing an airship constructed around a rigid aluminium frame covered with fabric, kept aloft by hydrogen cells, controlled from an underslung gondola and shaped like a cigar to provide aerodynamic efficiency. Zeppelin's airship was intended as an instrument of war and the German military bought its first one in 1908. The following year they went into commercial service.

It wasn't just the French and the Germans. The Italians had shown far greater energy and imagination than the British in their response to flight, establishing their own military aviation service, equipped with balloons, in 1884. In October 1911 they became the first to employ aeroplanes in war, flying bombing sorties against the Turks during a colonial squabble in Libya, which, although of minimal effectiveness, produced wild projections from the growing claque of air-power advocates of what warplanes might achieve.

It was only in that year that the British government moved to make up for lost ground. In April 1911 an Air Battalion was formed inside the Royal Engineers. Until then military aeronautics had been confined to a small unit which experimented with balloons and man-lifting kites from headquarters at Farnborough, near the army's headquarters in Aldershot, Surrey. Its balloon factory produced small, non-rigid airships and from 1910 a handful of experimental aeroplanes. The chief designer – and test pilot – was Geoffrey de Havilland, a vicar's son and engineering maestro, who went on to become one of the great names of British aviation. The Aircraft Factory, as it became, was superintended by Mervyn O'Gorman, a dapper Irish civil engineer, described by a contemporary as a 'thruster, possessing brains, flamboyance, courage and imagination'.

The Air Battalion was staffed by mechanics drawn from the Royal Engineers. The task of piloting aircraft was deemed to be a job for officers. Initially there were no aeroplanes for the volunteers to fly. The quality of the early training was apparent in a report in Flight of 25 June 1910. 'At last an official start has been made with the instruction of British Army officers in the art of flying,' it ran. 'On Monday evening the Hon C. S. Rolls [of Rolls Royce fame] visited the balloon factory at Farnborough and explained to a number of officers ... the workings of his Short-Wright machine which has been at the balloon factory for some time.' However, 'no attempt at flight was made.' Instead 'the motors were started up and the method of handling the machine was demonstrated.'

The Short-Wright was one of only a handful of assorted flying machines available, and if O'Gorman had his way the factory – despite its name – would not be making up the shortfall. He regarded his establishment as a research and design centre rather than a production line, so training craft had to be bought in from private aviation companies.

The navy had viewed the birth of aviation coolly. When the Wright brothers approached the Admiralty in 1907 with a view to selling them their invention they were told that 'in their Lordships' opinions aeroplanes would not be of any practical use to the naval service'. Events made continued indifference impossible. It was obvious to the open-minded that aircraft had the potential to transform warfare at sea.

The navy's preoccupation with the activities of their German rivals meant their attention was first focused on airships. Concern at the appearance of the Zeppelin had led to the Admiralty ordering a rigid airship of its own, Naval Airship No. 1, popularly known as the Mayfly, and built by Vickers at Barrow-in-Furness. The nickname would turn out to be tragically appropriate, given its ephemeral life span. The specifications kept changing as the navy sought to load it with more and more equipment. The framework, made from a new alloy, duralumin, was too weak to bear the extra weight. On 24 September 1911, when the Mayfly was towed out of her shed, stern first, for what was supposed to be her maiden flight, she crumpled and sank, her back broken by three tons of surplus equipment.


Excerpted from Wings by Patrick Bishop. Copyright © 2012 Patrick Bishop. Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Patrick Bishop has been a foreign correspondent since 1982, covering numerous wars and conflicts around the world and he has reported from the front line of almost every major war of our era. In the last six years he has emerged as a military historian of the first order with his top-ten bestsellers Fighter Boys and Bomber Boys, which cast new light on the men who fought in the Battle of Britain and the Strategic Air Campaign against Germany. He is also the author of the much-praised Battle of Britain and 3 Para.

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