Felton, History Society
The society welcomed Squadron Leader Andy Stewart to its meeting on February 19.
He spoke about the British Air Services in the First World War in a talk entitled Frightening The Horses.
Andy explained that aviation was new in 1914 and the pilots were considered daredevils, due more to the fragile nature of their aircraft, than their style of flying. Accidents were frequent.
Army leaders believed that aircraft could not benefit them and were not worthy of serious consideration.
The Royal Flying Corps of 1914 was only composed of 50 aircraft, used chiefly for reconnaissance. However, the information that one pilot provided about German positions on the eve of the First Battle of the Marne pushed the Germans back from the outskirts of Paris to Belgium. This led to a demand for more air support.
However, Britain was unable to manufacture aircraft and train pilots sufficiently quickly to replace casualties and by the end of 1914 the Corps had only 10 aircraft left.
In 1915 the German Imperial Air Service produced the Fokker Eindecker, which dramatically changed the war in the air. It allowed a machine gun to fire through the propeller without damaging it. British and French aircraft were shot down in large numbers.
This situation lasted until early 1916 when new French and British planes were developed, which were significantly more manoeuvrable than the Eindeckers.
The rest of the war saw similar technological improvements, stimulated by the successes of one side or the other.
In late 1914 the Germans used the air to bring the war to mainland England, using Zeppelins to drop bombs. London, Newcastle and Edinburgh were targeted.
The Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps built airfields to defend strategic targets. Cramlington was the first in our area in December 1915.
When an airfield received a telephone call that a raid was in progress, a pilot would be sent up to intercept. This was very dangerous. Raids were carried out on dark nights and there was no radar or communication with the pilot.
Despite freezing temperatures, his cockpit was unheated, the instruments were unlit and primitive, and his aircraft was flying at the edge of its ability. Landing accidents were numerous.
By the end of the war Cramlington was used as a base for airborne patrolling to detect German shipping and submarines. This, too, was extremely hazardous and required enormous courage as the pilots were flying out of sight of land in a fragile machine, with no hope of rescue.
In 1914 anyone who could afford to pay for flying lessons could join the Royal Flying Corps. It had a Central Flying School, but did not teach pilots to fly. The instructors were frontline pilots who had reached the end of their endurance and had been sent to the school as a rest. They tried to teach the survival skills that new pilots would need, but more men were killed in training than in enemy action.
In an attempt to reduce the number of accidents, the Gosport System was introduced in 1917, which gave students ground-based study and instructed flights. It was so successful that it is still used today.
The image of early aviators perpetuated by films such as Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines implies that they were smartly dressed, young men, fighting in an ‘honourable’ way. In reality, they often lived in rat-infested, waterlogged or frozen tents, and were streaked with the oil that flew into their faces. The fact that it was castor oil caused serious bowel problems.
The extreme cold, oxygen deficient atmosphere and intense concentration required on every flight also caused physical and mental distress, exacerbated by the high casualty rates. Most pilots were killed either falling thousands of feet or being burnt alive in their planes.
Andy concluded by saying that it is vital that we commemorate these conflicts, not just for the effort and sacrifice that our countrymen made, but also to remind us how terrible war can be. As we commemorate the First World War we should spare a thought for the airmen who contributed much to the victory.
The next meeting is in Felton Village Hall on Monday, at 7.30pm, when a short AGM will be followed by Old English, who will be giving a presentation with music and songs about the recruitment of men into the British Army in the 18th and 19th centuries. Non-members £3.