The Royal Flying Corps was created in May 1912. During World War One, the Royal Flying Corps became the eyes of the British Army directing artillery gunfire, taking photographs for intelligence analysis and taking part in dogfights with the German Air Service.
The Royal Flying Corps was officially formed on May 13th 1912 and was part of the British Army. Its first commander was Brigadier-General Sir David Henderson and it was spilt into two parts. One part was the Military Wing (of the Army commanded by Major Sykes) while the other was the Naval Wing (of the Navy and commanded by Commander Samson). By 1914, the Naval Wing was put under the direct control of the Royal Navy and the Royal Naval Air Service was formed.
In view of the fact that flying was still very much in its infancy – the first powered flight by the Wright Brothers had been in 1903 – the first aeroplanes used by the RFC were crude. The RFC also used balloons to bolster its work. Aeroplanes such as the Airco DH2 were airworthy but not really capable of engaging in classic aerial combat. Therefore, the initial work of the RFC in World War One – directing artillery fire, photographic reconnaissance etc – meant that in the early stages of the war, engagement with the enemy was more by accident than design. This changed when Hugh Trenchard was put in charge of the RFC. He required the pilots to be far more aggressive in their approach but it was costly in terms of men and aeroplanes lost.
The RFC first went into action on August 19th 1914, six days after leaving the UK for its base in France. The way the pilots got to their base near Amiens is indicative of just how crude the aeroplanes were then. The pilots flew from Dover to Boulogne and then along the coast to the mouth of the River Somme. They then followed the river inland to Amiens. Poor weather was, of course, a cause of many flights being cancelled. On August 19th, two aeroplanes took off to take reconnaissance photos but such was the weather that one of the pilots lost his way and only one pilot was able to complete his mission.
While this may not have been the most auspicious of starts, the RFC did play an important part in the First Battle of the Marne. While the RFC’s aeroplanes were not exactly combat-worthy, they could act as the forward eyes of the Army. It was information from RFC pilots that told the generals on the ground that the German First Army was preparing to attack an exposed French position. Such information allowed the French to re-deploy its men so that they could successfully counter the German First Army. The importance of what the RFC had done was recognised by the commander of the BEF – Sir John French – who issued the following dispatch:
“I wish particularly to bring to your Lordships’ notice the admirable work done by the RFC under Sir David Henderson. Their skill, energy, and perseverance have been beyond all praise."
As with many aspects of warfare, the impetus to develop and modernise weaponry, meant that aeroplane development during World War One was extensive. The multi-purpose role of aeroplanes in the first months of 1914 was replaced by the development of aeroplanes that had very specific roles. The era of the fighter plane and the bomber was ushered in and the aeroplanes that graced the RAF (introduced on April 1st 1918 to replace the RFC) at the end of the war were in total contrast to those that had flown in the RFC in August 1914. The transformation in just four years was huge.
Much of the credit for the development of the RFC has been given to Hugh Trenchard. He was very much a driven man. Whether this had anything to do with his early background when his family went bankrupt and he felt that he had to always prove himself is difficult to know. What is known is that Trenchard had very specific views as to the direction the RFC should go. While the British media glamorised pilots as “knights of the air" and many aces became household names, Trenchard had a less romantic view as to how the RFC should perform.
On May 31st 1915, a German Zeppelin attacked London after travelling 400 miles without being attacked by Allied forces. In the subsequent bombing raid, 5 civilians were killed and 35 were injured. By the scale of what was occurring on the Western and Eastern Fronts, the casualties were tiny. However, the impact on Londoners was huge. Suddenly warfare had arrived in the capital of the UK. On June 13th 1915, 14 Gotha bombers attacked London. A bomb hit an infant school in Poplar and 18 children were killed and many were injured. While the government-controlled media concentrated on the evils of the German nation, the people of London started to fear what they called “frightfulness" from the air. The desire for revenge was overwhelming and it found support from Trenchard. He believed that an enemy’s government could be severely weakened if civilians became specific targets. Trenchard believed that a civilian population that feared constant attack would be enveloped in panic and that the government of that nation would have to take heed of this. While the pilots of the RFC – especially the fighter pilots – had taken on a heroic stature amongst the public, Trenchard developed a philosophy that ‘Bomber’ Harris was to adopt and adapt in World War Two.
The RFC was meant to have played a vital role in the Battle of the Somme. A seven-day Allied artillery bombardment of German lines was meant to have destroyed German machine gun emplacements and trenches in general. Allied infantry attacked on the assumption that after seven days such targets had been destroyed. This was meant to have been confirmed by reconnaissance flights by the RFC. However, low July cloud meant that such reconnaissance flights could not take place and in this sense the huge infantry attack that followed the artillery bombardment moved forward blind and on the assumption that all was well. However, throughout the whole of the Somme campaign, the RFC lost 800 aeroplanes with 252 crew killed (July-November 1916).
Probably the major problem faced by the RFC was that the Germans were developing far more sophisticated aeroplanes at a far greater rate when compared to the RFC. The German ‘Albatross’ was a much better aeroplane than anything in the RFC. In April 1917, the RFC lost 245 aircraft with 211 aircrew killed and 108 taken POW in what became known as the “Fokker Scourge". During the same month, the RFC only shot down 66 German aeroplanes.
Such losses spurred on a desire to modernise the RFC. By the summer of 1917, the RFC was equipped with aeroplanes that were at least the equivalent of what the Germans had. Both the Sopwith Camel and the Bristol Fighter were considered to be excellent aeroplanes and after ‘Bloody April’ RFC losses drastically fell while enemy ‘kills’ increased.
In August 1917, the government received a report from General Jan Smuts that a new air service should be introduced that would be the equal of the Army and Royal Navy but separate from both. The government took onboard the views of Smuts and the Royal Air Force was introduced on April 1st 1918. Its first commander was Hugh Trenchard.
During World War One, the RFC, RNAS and RAF lost a total of 9,378 men with 7,245 wounded. Some 900,000 flying hours were logged for the duration of the war and just under 7,000 ton of bombs had been dropped on enemy positions. Eleven members of the RFC were awarded the Victoria Cross and some of these pilots became household names – Albert Ball and James McCudden being just two examples.