Last month’s talk for the Western Front Association took to the air with Peter Trionfi’s Hurrah for the next man to die! relating the development of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), which later amalgamated with the Royal Naval Air Service to form the Royal Air Force (RAF).
The RFC went to war with less than 1,000 officers and men and only 63 aeroplanes in fighting units.
By November 1918, the RAF had about 30,000 officers and over 263,000 other ranks on strength and about 23,000 aircraft.
The First World War started less than 11 years after the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight by the Wright brothers, so it was not surprising for the audience to learn that the early aircraft were very primitive affairs, flimsy and unreliable.
In August 1914, four of the six squadrons which then made up the RFC flew to France to join the British Expeditionary Force.
All were intended only for reconnaissance, but important additional roles soon developed.
There was a mixture of aircraft models – BE2s; Blériot monoplanes; Farhams; Avros; and BE8s.
None was powered by an engine that developed more than about 100hp, consequently no aircraft had a top speed of more than 100mph or so, 60-70mph may have been more typical.
Peter’s illustrated talk focused on the rapid development of new aircraft, their roles and the development of formation flying and co-ordinated air tactics.
Without parachutes and with flying aircraft often armed with difficult-to-reach guns, pilots sometimes had to release their harness to stand and stretch to re-load their Lewis Gun magazines, occasionally with disastrous or near-disastrous results.
Peter told stories of aeroplanes flipping over with their pilots thrown out and helplessly falling to their end while others somehow managed to cling on with grim determination until their plane could be righted and they thankfully scrambled back into their seats.
Britain lost almost 36,000 aircraft during the war, the majority in training accidents.
Aircrew casualties numbered 16,620 killed, wounded, missing or prisoners of war, of which 6,170 were killed.
Peter’s own experiences from when he held a private pilot’s licence allowed him to relate more fully to what pilots of the day had to contend with, and his tremendous knowledge of the subject along with an easy style of delivery thoroughly enthralled an attentive audience.
The WFA’s next meeting, on May 27, will see Craig Weir deliver his talk Nasmith’s E11.
Other forthcoming talks will be on June 24 with Peter Hart (Jutland, 1916) and, on July 22, with Mavis Sellers (Nellie Splindler, the Pride of Yorkshire).
WFA meetings are held at Alnmouth Ex-Servicemen’s Club and start at 7.15pm for 7.30pm. Visitors and new members will be made most welcome.
The suggested minimum donation is £1, to include a light buffet supper.