In 1918 Britain was the strongest Power in the air. That position was not won easily or quickly. We had a rough road to travel. In August, 1914, our air strength was less than that of France or of Germany. The four squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps which took the field in August, 1914, were a patchwork body. Two of them were equipped with British machines – B.E.2’s. The others had to depend in whole or in part upon French machines – Bleriots and Henri Farmans. Moreover, not a single one of them all had a British engine. Every machine in our squadrons had a French engine installed in it, mainly the Gnome rotary of 80 horse power. The British aircraft industry was almost non-existent. It was wholly unable to meet even the modest needs of the tiny expeditionary force of the air which left these shores in the first month of the last war.
Steadily we built up a mighty structure of air strength. We owed much to France in the early days. Indeed, for a substantial part of the war we relied upon France for aero-engines and to a less extent for airframes also. Many thousands of French engines had to be obtained for installation in our machines during 1915 and 1916. Aircraft, too, were supplied in considerable quantities from the same source. The Nieuport fighters helped us out of a tight corner more than once. Our total purchases of foreign aircraft, however, amounted to only a little more than 3,000 machines in the four years of the war, as compared with 17,000 engines purchased abroad. It was only in the last year or so of the war that we became wholly independent of France for aeronautical equipment. Seeing how we started in 1914, one can only feel amazement that we should have ended the war with the magnificently equipped air force which we then possessed, predominant in quality as well as in quantity. It was a wonderful effort when all is said and done.
When the war began we had on charge in the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service 218 land aeroplanes, 52 seaplanes and 7 airships, but less than 100 of the aeroplanes were in a condition to take the air. There were 276 officers and 1,797 other ranks in the two Services.
The Sky’s the Limit, J.M. Spaight, Hodder and Stoughton, 1940.
The aircraft illustrated above are owned and operated by the Vintage Aviator, New Zealand.