Perils facing First World War flyers

Alan Fendley during his talk to members of Morpeth Rotary Club
Alan Fendley during his talk to members of Morpeth Rotary Club

Morpeth Rotary Club

No parachutes for the British – this was the intriguing title used by Rothbury historian Alan Fendley for his talk about First World War flyers to Morpeth Rotary Club.

Alan is Branch Chairman of the Royal British Legion and has served with the RAF.

It is a fact that during the First World War no British RFC, RAF or RNAS pilot was allowed to use a parachute. Observers in battlefront balloons had them as it was very common for aircraft to attack them, but their parachutes were on a fixed line that opened them up as they jumped.

Parachutes had been used since the 1870s following the development of hot air balloons and their use as circus attractions. Leo Stephens in 1907 used one strapped to his back with a grab-line to pull it open.

Freefall descents took place in the early 1900s with a parachute that could be opened at a set time, but senior Army officers saw this as a stunt and nothing to do with flying.

The first powered flight in 1903 by the Wright Brothers only went as far as the length of the wingspan of a modern Boeing 747.

The first cross-Channel flight by Bleriot in 1908 crashed into Dover and there was some panic as our secure ‘moat’ had been breached.

1911 saw the first aircraft use for offensive action when Italians bombed Turkish peasants. The Germans developed non-rigid airships and the Royal Engineers Air Battalion was set up. They operated small airships, balloons, man-lifting kites and small aircraft, with a main purpose of spying on the enemy.

In 1912 a Major HM Trenchard, of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, joined the Central Flying School at Upavon near Salisbury and later commanded the RFC in France.

At the end of the First World War, the RFC, still under the Royal Engineers, merged with the RNAS to form the RAF. Trenchard was later known as the Father of the Royal Air Force. There is still a building called a Trenchard Shed at Acklington.

The prime purpose of the aviators in the First World War was always reconnaissance. On June 28, 1914, there was a trial mobilisation of the RFC. Aircraft had propellers that pushed them forward, not pulling them as now, and could do about 90mph on a good day. Many were designed by a committee and did not perform well.

Planes designed by Geoffrey de Havilland were an exception and he tested them all himself. Another successful plane was the FE2 pusher which allowed a gun at the front.

At the start of the war we had 45 aircraft. They were pointed towards France and set off. Two did not arrive as they came down in the Channel. Trenchard demanded aggressive aircrews that would fight for air superiority.

Early combat was primitive. Sometimes if you met a German you just waved. Some pilots tried to throw bricks at the enemy’s propeller. Eventually the British took .303 rifles and tried to shoot them down.

The Germans had a very successful plane in the Fokker Eindecker. The Dutch designer had taken the design to the UK and told of a gun that fired forward through the propeller. It is very basic engineering, but they thought he was mad so he took his design to the Germans.

The British had seven months of heavy casualties. They used DH2 single seat pushers fitted with a Lewis gun, but the guns kept jamming and had to be fixed while being flown, and they were still not allowed to have a parachute.

A pilot told an MP to inform Westminster that they were not being killed, but were being murdered. Pilots expected to be killed in three to four months, which later went down to seven weeks.

In December 1916, 499 pilots and observers were lost in three months and 250 were unfit to fly. They were regarded as lacking moral fibre when they had in fact suffered nervous breakdowns.

Pilots got so cold they had to be lifted out of their planes and some got frostbite.

Australian mechanic and pilot, Syd Cotton, once had to take off in a hurry still in his overalls covered with grease and found this was a great protection against the cold. Syd Cotton flying suits were then used up to 1942.

Selection for flying training was very crude. They thought that Army cavalrymen would have the best aptitude. There was no standard flying manual or aptitude test. Instructor jobs went to people who needed a rest or were mentally gone.

The job was one of the most dangerous in the RFC and training planes did not have dual controls. You had to have flown 15 hours to be an instructor. All aircrew had to agree a wreath payment from their wages.

1917 was a difficult year, although they used two-seat DH aircraft, with the pilot firing through the propeller. The observer also had a gun with which he frequently shot the tail off. If the pilot was shot, they crashed.

The FE5a was the ultimate fighter and had guns on the wings, although that made them difficult to fix if they jammed.

One of the most decorated airmen of the First World War, Captain A Ball, died aged 20 when his aircraft had a mechanical fault and crashed. Von Richthofen said he had been our best pilot. Over a five-day period 75 machines and 105 pilots were lost, with 73 missing.

German flyers were allowed parachutes during the war and one saved Hermann Goering. The British hierarchy took the view that if pilots were given the means of escape, they would not be as aggressive and would be tempted to leave the machine when it still might be saved.

There was some truth in the statement that available parachutes were too bulky and heavy, and likely to catch on the plane, but it is difficult not to agree that the British approach was uncaring, unfair and unreasonable.