CHAPTER XXXVIII. The Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service

The year 1912 was marked by the institution of the Royal Flying Corps. The new corps, which was so soon to make its mark in the greatest of all wars, consisted of naval and military "wings". In those early days the head-quarters of the corps were at Eastchurch, and there both naval and military officers were trained in aviation. In an arm of such rapid - almost miraculous - development as Service flying to go back a period of six years is almost to take a plunge into ancient history. Designs, engines, guns, fittings, signals of those days are now almost archaic. The British engine of reliable make had not yet been evolved, and the aeroplane generally was a conglomerate affair made up of parts assembled from various parts of the Continent. The present-day sea-plane was yet to come, and naval pilots shared the land-going aeroplanes of their military brethren. In the days when Bleriot provided a world sensation by flying across the Channel the new science was kept alive mainly by the private enterprise of newspapers and aeroplane manufacturers. The official attitude, as is so often the case in the history of inventions, was as frigid as could be. The Government looked on with a cold and critical eye, and could not be touched either in heart or in pocket.

But with the institution of the Royal Flying Corps the official heart began to warm slightly, and certain tests were laid down for those manufacturers who aspired to sell their machines to the new arm of the Service. These tests, providing for fuel capacity up to 4.0 miles, speeds up to 85 miles an hour, and heights up to 3500 feet, would now be regarded as very elementary affairs. "Looping the loop" was still a dangerous trick for the exhibiting airman and not an evolution; while the "nose-dive" was an uncalculated entry into the next world.

The first important stage in the history of the new arm was reached in July, 1914, when the wing system was abolished, and the Royal Naval Air Service became a separate unit of the Imperial Forces. The first public appearance of the sailor airmen was at a proposed review of the fleet by the King at a test mobilization. The King was unable to attend, but the naval pilots carried out their part of the programme very creditably considering the polyglot nature of their sea-planes. A few weeks later and the country was at war.

There can be no doubt that the Great War has had an enormous forcing influence upon the science of aviation. In times of peace the old game of private enterprise and official neglect would possibly have been carried on in well-marked stages. But with the terrific incentive of victory before them, all Governments fostered the growth of the new arm by all the means in their power. It became a race between Allied and enemy countries as to who first should attain the mastery of the air. The British nation, as usual, started well behind in the race, and their handicap would have been increased to a dangerous extent had Germany not been obsessed by the possibilities of the air-ship as opposed to the aeroplane. Fortunately for us the Zeppelin, as has been described in an earlier chapter, failed to bring about the destruction anticipated by its inventor, and so we gained breathing space for catching up the enemy in the building and equipment of aeroplanes and the training of pilots and observers.

War has set up its usual screens, and the writer is only permitted a very vague and impressionistic picture of the work of the R.F.C. and R.N.A.S. Numerical details and localities must be rigorously suppressed. Descriptions of the work of the Flying Service must be almost as bald as those laconic reports sent in by naval and military airmen to head-quarters. But there is such an accomplishment as reading between the lines.

The flying men fall naturally into two classes - pilots and observers. The latter, of course, act as aerial gunners. The pilots have to pass through three, and observers two, successive courses of training in aviation. Instruction is very detailed and thorough as befits a career which, in addition to embracing the endless problems of flight, demands knowledge of wireless telegraphy, photography, and machine gunnery.

Many of the officers are drafted into the Royal Flying Corps from other branches of the Service, but there are also large numbers of civilians who take up the career. In their case they are first trained as cadets, and, after qualifying for commissions, start their training in aviation at one of the many schools which have now sprung up in all parts of the country.

When the actual flying men are counted in thousands some idea may be gained of the great organization required for the Corps - the schools and flying grounds, the training and activities of the mechanics, the workshops and repair shops, the storage of spare parts, the motor transport, As in other departments of the Service, women have come forward and are doing excellent and most responsible work, especially in the motor-transport section.

A very striking feature of the Corps is the extreme youth of the members, many of the most daring fighters in the air being mere boys of twenty.

The Corps has the very pick of the youth and daring and enterprise of the country. In the days of the old army there existed certain unwritten laws of precedence as between various branches of the Service. If such customs still prevail it is certain that the very newest arm would take pride of place. The flying man has recaptured some of the glamour and romance which encircled the knight-errant of old. He breathes the very atmosphere of dangerous adventure. Life for him is a series of thrills, any one of which would be sufficient to last the ordinary humdrum citizen for a lifetime. Small wonder that the flying man has captured the interest and affection of the people, and all eyes follow these trim, smart, desperadoes of the air in their passage through our cities.

As regards the work of the flying man the danger curve seems to be changing. On the one hand the training is much more severe and exacting than formerly was the case, and so carries a greater element of danger. On the other hand on the battle-front fighting information has in great measure taken the place of the system of men going up "on their own". They are perhaps not so liable to meet with a numerical superiority on the part of enemy machines, which spelt for them almost certain destruction.

For a long time the policy of silence and secrecy which screened "the front" from popular gaze kept us in ignorance of the achievements of our airmen. But finally the voice of the people prevailed in their demand for more enlightenment. Names of regiments began to be mentioned in connection with particular successes. And in the same way the heroes of the R.F.C. and R.N.A.S. were allowed to reap some of the laurels they deserved.

It began to be recognized that publication of the name of an airman who had destroyed a Zeppelin, for instance, did not constitute any vital information to the enemy. In a recent raid upon London the names of the two airmen, Captain G. H. Hackwill, R.F.C., and Lieutenant C. C. Banks, R.F.C., who destroyed a Gotha, were given out in the House of Commons and saluted with cheers. In the old days the secretist party would have regarded this publication as a policy which led the nation in the direct line of "losing the war".

In the annals of the Flying Service, where dare-devilry is taken as a matter of course and hairbreadth escapes from death are part of the daily routine, it is difficult to select adventures for special mention; but the following episodes will give a general idea of the work of the airman in war.

The great feat of Sub-Lieutenant R. A. J. Warneford, R.N.A.S., who single-handed attacked and destroyed a Zeppelin, has already been referred to in Chapter XIII. Lieutenant Warneford was the second on the list of airmen who won the coveted Cross, the first recipient being Second-Lieutenant Barnard Rhodes-Moorhouse, for a daring and successful bomb-dropping raid upon Courtrai in April, 1915. As has happened in so many cases, the award to Lieutenant Rhodes-Moorhouse was a posthumous one, the gallant airman having been mortally wounded during the raid, in spite of which he managed by flying low to reach his destination and make his report.

A writer of adventure stories for boys would be hard put to it to invent any situation more thrilling than that in which Squadron-Commander Richard Bell Davies, D.S.O., R.N., and Flight Sub-Lieutenant Gilbert Formby Smylie, R.N., found themselves while carrying out an air attack upon Ferrijik junction. Smylie's machine was subjected to such heavy fire that it was disabled, and the airman was compelled to plane down after releasing all his bombs but one, which failed to explode. The moment he alighted he set fire to his machine. Presently Smylie saw his companion about to descend quite close to the burning machine. There was infinite danger from the bomb. It was a question of seconds merely before it must explode. So Smylie rushed over to the machine, took hasty aim with his revolver, and exploded the bomb, just before the Commander came within the danger zone. Meanwhile the enemy had commenced to gather round the two airmen, whereupon Squadron-Commander Davies coolly took up the Lieutenant on his machine and flew away with him in safety back to their lines. Davies, who had already won the D.S.O., was given the V.C., while his companion in this amazing adventure was granted the Distinguished Service Cross.

The unexpectedness, to use no stronger term, of life in the R.F.C. in war-time is well exemplified by the adventure which befell Major Rees. The pilot of a "fighter", he saw what he took to be a party of air machines returning from a bombing expedition. Proceeding to join them in the character of escort, Major Rees made the unpleasant discovery that he was just about to join a little party of ten enemy machines. But so far from being dismayed, the plucky airman actually gave battle to the whole ten. One he quickly drove "down and out", as the soldiers say. Attacked by five others, he damaged two of them and dispersed the remainder. Not content with this, he gave chase to two more, and only broke off the engagement when he had received a wound in the thigh. Then he flew home to make the usual laconic report.

No record of heroism in the air could be complete without mention of Captain Ball, who has already figured in these pages. When awarded the V.C. Captain Ball was already the holder of the following honours: D.S.0., M.C., Cross of a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, and the Russian order of St. George. This heroic boy of twenty was a giant among a company of giants. Here follows the official account which accompanied his award: -

"Lieutenant (temporary Captain) ALBERT BALL, D.S.O., M.C., late Notts and Derby Regiment, and R.F.C.

"For most conspicuous and consistent bravery from April 25 to May 6, 1917, during which period Captain Ball took part in twenty-six combats in the air and destroyed eleven hostile aeroplanes, drove down two out of control, and formed several others to land.

"In these combats Captain Ball, flying alone, on one occasion fought six hostile machines, twice he fought five, and once four.

"While leading two other British aeroplanes he attacked an enemy formation of eight. On each of these occasions he brought down at least one enemy.

"Several times his aeroplane was badly damaged, once so severely that but for the most delicate handling his machine would have collapsed, as nearly all the control wires had been shot away. On returning with a damaged machine, he had always to be restrained from immediately going out on another.

"In all Captain Ball has destroyed forty-three German aeroplanes and one balloon, and has always displayed most exceptional courage, determination, and skill."

So great was Captain Ball's skill as a fighter in the air that for a time he was sent back to England to train new pilots in the schools. But the need for his services at the front was even greater, and it jumped with his desires, for the whole tone of his letters breathes the joy he found in the excitements of flying and fighting. He declares he is having a "topping time", and exults in boyish fashion at a coming presentation to Sir Douglas Haig. It is not too much to say that the whole empire mourned when Captain Ball finally met his death in the air near La Bassee in May, 1917.