Pilots of the R. F. C.


Officers and Men of the Royal Flying Corps with Their Machines

On the right is a sergeant of the R. F. C., wearing the new badge of a propeller on his arm. He is saluting two aviation officers, one dressed for flying, the other wearing the flying certificate badge. On the right is an army B. E. biplane, with its four-bladed propeller and two seats for pilot and observer. This type, it is stated, is becoming more and more the standard pattern of machine for use by the R. F. C. On the left is a Bleriot monoplane and in the air a Henri Farman biplane.
‘Earl Kitchener and the Great War’, 1916.

One of the first honours of 1916, if not the very first, was the Military Cross awarded to Captain W. D. S. Sanday, who went out on January 1 in a very high wind to observe the fire of a battery near Hulluch, and owing to the clouds was forced to fly at a height of no more than between 800 and 900 feet. Nothing daunted by the heavy rifle-fire to which he was continually subjected, he did not return until he had enabled our battery to score several direct hits.

One of the youngest heroes of the Buffs, Second-Lieutenant Frank Hudson, attached to the Royal Flying Corps, was similarly decorated in the early months of this year for skill and gallantry on several occasions. “This young officer”, to quote from the Gazette, “is only eighteen years of age, but has many times driven off enemy machines and twice forced them to the ground.” Once he was severely wounded in the head, but successfully completed his aerial reconnaissance, although after recrossing our line and landing at an aerodrome he at once lost consciousness.

More dramatic still was the magnificent feat of Lieutenant M. Henderson, of the Seaforth Highlanders and Royal Flying Corps, who was struck by a shell from a German anti-aircraft gun [21 Feb 1916]. The shell passed through the nacelle of Lieutenant Henderson’s machine and took off his left leg just below the knee; but in spite of this he succeeded in descending from a height of 7000 feet and landing 3000 yards behind our line, thus saving his aeroplane and the life of his observer as well. For this he received the D.S.O.
‘The Great World War Vol. V.’ The Gresham Publishing Company Ltd, London. c. 1917

A choice of legs

From ‘For Ever England’, J.E.B. Seeley, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, 1932.

I have named Bron Herbert as one of my most intimate friends. He had a leg shot off in the South African War but that did not prevent him from raising and commanding a troop of Yeomanry, formed from the men of the New Forest, where he had a house and spent much of his time. During this period he succeeded to an old title and became Lord Lucas [1905].

I happened to be in command of the Regiment during the whole period that Bron was with his New Forest men. He would come to me of a morning, when we were at our annual training, and say to me : “I want to ask you a very confidential question. At to-day’s manoeuvres, had I better wear my walking leg or my riding leg? Because, as you know, I cannot walk with my riding leg and I cannot ride with my walking leg.” Then I would tell him, so far as I could foretell, which leg he would want. If I had guessed wrong, and told him the wrong leg, he would be hopelessly crippled, and suffer great pain, but this never stopped him going on with the manoeuvre. I have often begged him to get on his pony and ride home, when he found himself commanding a dismounted troop, with his riding leg, but always he steadfastly refused. The only real row we ever had in all these years of friendship was when I tried to insist, on one of these occasions.

Meantime, he was immersed in political work as a Liberal…..

When the World War broke out he tried by every means to get accepted for some combatant force, but of course no doctor would pass a one-legged man. So, when Asquith invited him to join his Cabinet as Minister for Agriculture, he accepted. Thus the crown seemed to be set on his political career, and one would have expected him to decide to devote his whole energies in that direction. Not so Bron in time of war.

He was doing very well in his post, but all the time he was learning to fly. One day he came to the Prime Minister and astonished him by saying that he had qualified as a pilot, and had reason to believe that he would be accepted for service in the Flying Corps at the Eastern theatre of war. He therefore tended his resignation, and off to war he went.

Herbert later transferred to the Western Front, having acquired a “flying leg…. a further addition to his equipment”, and on 3rd November 1916 was shot down and killed.

The French Connection

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.

A reproduction WW1 B.E.2c biplane by the Vintage Aviator, New Zealand.

A reproduction B.E.2c

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.

Nieuport 11

A replica Nieuport 11 in Italian livery

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.