World War One in the Air

Report of a talk by David Keen on 26 March 2019.

By Jean Gardner

This report first appeared in Newsletter 138 in August 2019

David Keen our Curator gave a fascinating insight into how war was affected for the first time by the ability to fly. He explained how early flight began in the 1780s with the Montgolfier brothers and their hot air balloons, followed by hydrogen balloons, man-lifting kites and airships. The drawback with these craft was that only the airships were steerable. But the advantage of being up in the air was the increased field of vision. The real breakthrough came with the first sustained and controlled flight by the Wright brothers in 1903.

War in the air

Military aviation had begun with balloons on Salisbury Plain but communication was a problem. They relied on a telephone line dropping down to earth to report what they could see, which limited their movement. Airships were being developed at the same time, the enormous ‘Nulli Secundus’ was cut in half and extended which resulted in it being overweight and crashing.

Photo:His Majesty's Airship No.1 (Mayfly)

His Majesty's Airship No.1 (Mayfly)

It was removed from its floating hangar, September 1911, with unfortunate results

The much lauded ‘Mayfly’ (His Majesty’s Airship No. 1 nicknamed Mayfly, as in ‘may fly’ - Editor) failed and the navy gave up on airships (*see photo at the foot of this page). Their development persisted until the 1930s when the ill fated R101 crashed at Beauvais and they were abandoned. At the same time the army built experimental aeroplanes at Farnborough and tested them on Salisbury Plain.

Photo:Bristol Boxkite

Bristol Boxkite

Photo:'Nulli Secundus' (British Army Dirigible no.1

'Nulli Secundus' (British Army Dirigible no.1


When the First World War broke out a mixture of aeroplane types took to the skies to be joined later by the more famous types such as the Bristol Boxkite and the Sopwith Camel. At first they were used for observation but soon they were shooting at the enemy. Each plane had a pilot and a gunner but soon the gunner and his Lewis gun became superfluous. The planes were fitted with interrupter gear enabling the pilot to point at the target and fire through the propeller. Pilots clocked up high scores of 'kills'. Mick Mannock VC with 60 victories and Albert Ball with 44 were leading British Aces while on the German side the Red Baron, the famous German Ace, had the highest score of all with 88. Aerial reconnaissance revealed the devastation below and why only tanks could negotiate the battlegrounds. The Royal Flying Corps was totally mechanised using lorries and motorbikes, no horses.

Formation of the Royal Air Force

The Royal Naval Air Service operated kite balloons to provide a wide field of vision and could pick out submarines by the wake from the conning tower. The RNAS also attacked enemy aircraft, strafed enemy observation balloons and hunted down airships. Merging with the Royal Flying Corps they formed the Royal Air Force on 1st April 1918. The first Chief-of-Staff was Lord Trenchard. Their pale blue uniform was surplus stock made for the Russian forces who were due to enter the war but they were never used because hostilities ended. David finished his talk by showing us a floor length leather flying coat. His grandfather was a mechanic and one day a pilot came into his shop without enough money to pay for his purchases. He left his coat as a deposit promising to pay when coming back for it. He never returned. 

Photo:The disaster

The disaster

This page was added by Rosemary Ross on 24/09/2019.

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