The engine had stopped and there was I, suspended in the air with a dead pilot, Huns, bullets, wings all round me and I looked up to the heavens and I said ‘Oh, God help me...’

Listen to the voices of those who were there or read the podcast transcript below.

The First World War saw the use of air power in conflict on a large scale for the first time. Military aviation was still relatively new in 1914. Its uses were not yet clear, and the Royal Flying Corps – the air arm of the British Army – was very small in size. Despite this, once the war was underway, serving in the Royal Flying Corps – or RFC – was an attractive prospect for those living in the trenches on the Western Front, such as Donald Clappen of the London Regiment.

I used to look up and see these machines flying all over the place. We moved further down south, beyond Béthune, and took over some French trenches. But we found them absolutely filthy and we spent most of our time cleaning them out. For the first time in my life I found I was covered with lice. It was then that really made me think that trench warfare was not for me. I used to look up with great envy at these aircraft flying round about, so I immediately put in an application to join the Royal Flying Corps.

Many were eager to join this exciting new service. But not all were immediately successful, such as Arthur Harris – who went on to command the British strategic bombing offensive in the Second World War.

I knew it was no good trying to get onto a horse because horses were out. Then I thought I might try to be a gunner and get a seat on a limber or a horse that way but they seemed to be full up. I went round to the War Office, where I was interviewed by a rather supercilious young man. When I said I would like to fly – which I realised was something else I could do sitting down, not walking – he said, ‘So would 6,000 other people; would you like to be 6,001 on the waiting list?’

New recruits to the Royal Flying Corps first had to be trained. Learning to fly was a tricky prospect for some. Frank Burslem trained at Waddington in Lincolnshire.

I was a very slow pupil. I suppose I was a little bit dense or something like that. Because I took eight hours to go solo, whereas the average was about three hours. I knew of one person who took only twenty minutes to go solo.

Reginald Fulljames had less trouble during his training in 1916.

I certainly took to flying as a duck takes to water. I had no difficulty – or very little difficulty – in landing which is three-quarters of the problem. I took to flying quite quickly as I must have done so because my log book shows that I had a total of 55 minutes dual control only before being allowed to go solo.

A key part of a pilot’s flying instruction was when he was first deemed ready to ‘go solo’. Alan Jackson, who learnt at the Central Flying School at Upavon, described how he felt about this.

Well after a number of hours of dual control and when the instructor trusted you to fly the machine on your own with him sitting beside you, then was the time when he had to decide whether to let you go solo. And one began to realise that the time was coming. And when it actually arrived of course one felt nervous and rather strained with butterflies in the tummy to a certain extent. At the same time, I felt perfectly confident that I could do it. Otherwise, if I hadn’t felt like that, he’d never have let you go up. I remember well that, when I took off the ground and got into the air, I heaved a sigh of relief to think, ‘Well I’ve done it and it’s not so bad after all!’

The main role of military aircraft throughout the war was to undertake aerial reconnaissance in support of ground forces. Information about the enemy was invaluable. Harold Taylor, an observer with 25 Squadron, explained what he would be looking for.

When you went on reconnaissance you had to watch for new trenches, new trains or trains going in any direction, movement of artillery or movement of troops. And if you got back, when we went into the reports room when we got back the joke was that we’d exchange what we’d seen. For instance if I’d seen three trains and my friend had only got one train I used to hand him two trains as well. And of course that meant that everybody had a decent report.

Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a aircraft of No. 85 Squadron at St Omer aerodrome, 21 June 1918. The serial numbers shown on the planes are from the front: C 1904, D 6851, C 1931, B 7870, C 1928, C 6486.
SE.5a aircraft of No 85 Squadron, Royal Air Force at St Omer Aerodrome. © IWM (Q 12051)

The artillery, in particular, benefited from aerial observation, principally through the photographs which showed where to direct their fire. But taking photographs of enemy territory from an aircraft was no easy task, as Charles Chabot of 4 Squadron found.

Taking the photographs was a very pleasant job in the summer time but in the winter, not very funny. Our camera gear was slung over the side of the aircraft, and to work your camera – it was a one plate camera, no repeats at all, one plate camera. You had to take your slide out of the box, your glove off, of course, get it into the camera then wriggle your way through the Archie bursts over your target, take your photograph away from the Archie bursts – I assure you! – close-up the plate, take the slide out of the camera, back into your box. By that time your hand was so cold that over and over again I’ve known my hand to lose the plate as I took it out of the camera. I’ve known myself cry with numbness and pain in my hand and exasperation at losing repeated photographs that I’ve been trying to get. I’ve known myself crying, with tears freezing on the side of my face in the cold blast off the propeller.

Needless to say, neither side wanted the other spying on them. As a result, aerial combat soon began when rival aircraft encountered each other. Initially, handheld firearms were used – though, as observer Archibald James explained, they only had limited effect.

We met a German aeroplane at about the same altitude as ourselves, and about the same speed, so that we couldn’t get any closer than 600 yards. I put up my sights on the service rifle to 600 yards and fired six deliberate shots, and was miserable that I didn’t apparently hit him at all. I’ve no doubt I was miles away. We had no conception then at what close ranges it was necessary to shoot to have any effect at all.

Fighter aircraft, fitted with machine guns, were soon developed. In July 1915, the deadly German Fokker Eindecker became operational. It allowed the Germans to dominate the air war by the end of that year. As observer C Gordon-Burge recalled, this had a negative impact on the British.

Of course it was bound to have a demoralising effect on us and indeed it did so. Several squadrons got so badly shot up that the whole of their morale crumbled under the weight of this German armament. And as we were always sent over the other side of the lines to engage the German aircraft it was even worse because if you were engaged and shot down you were shot down on the other side of the lines and that’s a thing that no pilot wanted at any time.

Each side developed new fighter aircraft designs and innovations in an attempt to out-do the other. Cecil Lewis described the armaments on board one of the most effective British fighters, the SE5.

The SE5 had two guns – it had a Lewis gun on the top of the plane with 100 rounds of ammunition in it, on drums, and we carried spare drums in the cockpit. It had a Vickers gun which fired through the propeller by the Constantinescu gear, which was an oil driven gear, which stopped it firing the blades of the propeller off. Those guns could jam and very often did jam and when they jammed in the middle of a fight the pilot was in a very precarious position, as you can understand. The unjamming of a gun when you are flying at a 100 miles an hour plus, with icy hands at 15,000 feet was a very difficult thing because you had to put your hand out round the windscreen, round, round into the wind and get hold of a handle on the gun and try and jerk it over, in order to clear the belt which was a collapsible belt which used to get jammed in the breach.

As the war in the air escalated, dog fights between aircraft became a frequent sight in the skies above the lines. The stakes were high, as Thomas Isbell of 41 Squadron discovered.

Now a dogfight is rather an exciting game actually. You’d dive onto the first Hun you come across, you open out your guns – although you may not have had time to get your guns sighted – and no sooner you’ve got your guns on him, someone else has got their guns on you. Now you can’t stand for that because you know it’s only a matter of a few rounds and you might get your wing blown off. So you turn off and you try to get him off.And then someone else joins in and helps you. And then you go for someone else. But it’s continually turning and twisting and directly and although you’re turning and twisting you spot a black cross and you make straight for it. And it’s just a question of a mix up until a matter of probably five or ten minutes when you think, ‘Well, it’s about that we finished now because our ammunition’s getting dry.’

Great skill and quick wits were needed to stay alive in these clashes, thousands of feet above the earth. Norman Macmillan remembered leading a patrol of Sopwith Camels into combat against German Albatross machines over Ypres.

When we were in striking distance we still had 300 feet in hand, and we went down on them straight away. I led our six Camels straight in amongst them singling out the leader for myself, and went for him with both my guns blazing. The other Camels on either side of me each picked out one of the German aircraft. I dived down and shot that fellow and went on past him down below. The next instant I found an enemy aircraft on my tail and I heard the machine guns rattling and splinters were going off the rear spar of my Camel just inches above my head. I saw the centre section rip up and I turned and swerved and got out of his line of fire and back into position, back into the fight. Within two minutes of the beginning of that fight, there wasn’t an enemy machine to be seen in the sky anywhere.

Experienced fighter pilots soon developed tactics for surviving dog fights. George Jones – who later became an Air Marshal in the Royal Australian Air Force –explained his methods.

The first thing was to sight the enemy before he sighted you if you could and manouevre yourself into a position above him and in the sun – if you could get into the sun. Then to dive at the highest possible speed, each one singled out an enemy aircraft and endeavoured to shoot him down. It usually ended in getting into a tight spiral on the tail of the enemy aircraft or him on your tail if you were unlucky! To endeavour to turn in a smaller circle than he could which enabled you to stay on his tail and pour fire from your two Vickers machine guns into him wherever you could.

Although aerial combat was never the primary role of air power, the heroes it generated became perhaps the most enduring legacy of the air war. The term ‘ace’ was applied to pilots who shot down at least five enemy aircraft. Friederich Lubbert served with Germany’s most famous ace, Manfred von Richthofen.

Of course it was a great honour to be in the troop of Richthofen and it was very interesting the first air fight. We were on the French front in the near of Valenciennes and we had air fights with French, Canadian and British air force. One day, we were together with six pilots and four of them shot down ten French and English. And Richthofen alone shot of them four in one day.

The British, too, had their own flying aces. Thomas Isbell remembered the aggressive skill of one of the most celebrated of these, Major James McCudden VC.

He would lead them in and if one of his flight was getting at a disadvantage with a Hun, heaven help that Hun because he would shoot it down, he had such a marvellous shooting power. I’ve seen McCudden shoot at targets, we’d all go up and we’d fire at the target but McCudden would come down and he’d tear the target to shreds and he had such a wonderful way of shooting. What it was no one seemed to know but he only had to fire a matter or 20 rounds and the machine seemed to fall to pieces.

Smiling Manfred von Richthofen, the Commander of Jasta 11, surrounded by his fellow pilots and his dog Moritz, at Roucourt, France. Left to right: Vizefeldwebel Sebastian Festner (nine victories that month, killed on 23 April), Leutnant Karl-Emil Schäffer (fourteen victories), Oberleutnant Manfred von Richthofen (22 victories), his brother Leutnant Lothar von Richthofen (fourteen victories) and Leutnant Kurt Wolff (21 victories).
German ace Manfred Von Richthofen surrounded by his fellow pilots, at Roucourt, France. © IWM (Q 42284)

New German aircraft meant that the RFC suffered very heavy casualties in the early months of 1917 – particularly during what became known as ‘Bloody April’. Fresh pilots were sent to the front without adequate training, resulting in significant loss of life. This was something that flight commander Gwilym Lewis did his best to counter.

They were shot down pretty freely. I didn’t like this, so any fellow coming out new to my flight as soon as he was ready to go over the lines flew next to me and outside him was an experienced man. And that was our diamond formation. So I look back on that time that I never lost one of these boys who was new to the game. I kept my own eye on them and other people did too. Of course, as soon as they became better acquainted to what was going on, they were on their own then. I don’t mean to say they didn’t get shot down after that because they may well have done. But not during that period. I never lost a new boy.

As well as reconnaissance, aircraft were used to shoot down observation balloons, strafe enemy troops and bomb key objectives. However, accuracy was hard to achieve in bombing raids. Pierre Cheret was a pilot in the French Air Force.

When we had passed the lines we usually had to bomb villages or marshalling yards or roads that was mostly when the German troops were attacking. So we tried to stop the reinforcements to arrive at the front for a few hours or a day or two. That was the idea. So of course we had to bomb railway stations and unfortunately when we had to bomb railway stations our bombing wasn’t always accurate enough, because our instruments were rather primitive. So I am sorry to say that sometimes we did hit some French houses and probably killed even civilians, that I don’t know.

Aircraft were increasingly used to provide direct support to the infantry in combat. During the 1918 German Spring Offensive, Allied pilots – like J Hopkins – were kept especially busy trying to prevent the enemy from pushing forward.

We were given an objective; we had to bomb it as accurately as we possibly could. We had to cross the lines and when we were over the lines, of course, we were subject to enemy gunfire – anti-aircraft – and at the height that we flew in those days, which was not much over two to three thousand feet, we were within machine gun range – and sometimes machine guns could be very troublesome. But we had definite objectives and we had to get there, we had to bomb as accurately as we could and we had to get back.

With growing air activity during the war, losses of aircraft and crew rose on both sides. Observer Ralph Silk was shot down and captured during a photo reconnaissance flight in 1918.

I felt the machine lurch, I turned my head over my shoulder and I saw that my pilot was sunk on the controls. There was a rasping sound and the engine had stopped and there was I, suspended in the air with a dead pilot, Huns, bullets, wings all round me and I looked up to the heavens and I said ‘Oh, God help me’. The next thing I remember was having a sledge hammer blow in my head and I put my hand to my helmet and I found it all jagged and torn, a certain amount of blood. Then I had a blackout, and I fell through the air, I think like a falling leaf or a wounded or injured bird. And I think it was the upward rush of the air that brought me to my senses. I had presence of mind to pull on the joy stick to break the fall and the machine staggered and stalled and fell on some trees.

German pilot Gustav Lachman was also a casualty of the dangers of flying. He was wounded and shot down in March 1918.

I was ordered to destroy a bridge which was in front of the moving line. It was rather a fairly hopeless order because we had to fly without any fighter protection. I was caught by five Spads – very good single seaters! Flown both by the French and by the British. It was a very brisk and short encounter and I was really a dead duck because my machine was much less manoeuvrable and my observer was soon put out of action by a shot through his chest.

Even if a man survived being shot down by the enemy, such an ordeal could have a huge impact on his mental ability to carry on flying. When Eric Roberts was badly hit by an anti-aircraft shell during a reconnaissance flight in Palestine, it affected his nerves.

I found it terribly difficult to sleep after this incident, getting hit like that. It certainly had a very marked effect, actually, because I found it very difficult to sleep at night, the shock of the thing and so on. I never went to see the doctor until I eventually blacked out at 6,000 feet with two 120lb bombs under me. I got such a fright. With an aeroplane, you were so sensitive to it that as soon as the nose dropped when I sort of dozed off – whatever it was, I don’t know, I blacked out – the nose dropped a bit and I came to. It put the wind up me so much that I thought, ‘Heavens, as soon as I get back, I must go and see the doctor and report to him.’ So I did and he took me off flying and that was the end of my First World War!

Airmen undertook an average of two missions a day. Each time they went up they were under constant threat of being shot down in flames. Frederick Powell described how the men of his squadron coped with this.

Well I think, not only 40 Squadron, but every RFC Squadron, the centre of the squadron seemed to be in the bar. That may offend a lot of people in these days, but it is perfectly true. And when you think of these boys, with the tensions they lived through, through the day, and they came in, in the evening, and then asked about their best friend, ‘Where’s he? I miss old George’. ‘Oh, he bought it this afternoon’. ‘Oh, heavens’. Now the gloom would come into a mess; the morale would die and the reaction immediately was, ‘Well, come on chaps, what’re you going to have?’ That was the sort of spirit that kept going. I still think that it played a magnificent part in keeping up the morale of our troops generally.

By the time the Royal Air Force was formed in April 1918, the Allies had gained control of the air on the Western Front. There was a positive mood when RAF pilot James Gascoyne arrived at 92 Squadron’s base in July 1918.

It was just an ordinary overseas airfield. We had wooden Nissen huts to sleep in. We had a Nissen hut for a mess and we had ordinary hangars, portable hangars, for the aircraft. Nothing very spectacular. We used to have to sleep two pilots to a hut and it was a very mixed squadron. It included Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders, South Africans, one or two English and an Irishman or two; so we were a very mixed crowd indeed and a very, very happy lot. Every pilot in the squadron was right on their toes and morale was very high indeed. You felt you had joined something worth joining.

Throughout the war, pilots and observers flew in basic and often primitive machines. They were affected by weather conditions and operations could be called off if there was low cloud. They were completely exposed to the elements. British pilot Charles Beard described how he tried to keep warm.

In the cold weather, because we had open cockpits, and you had a winter warmer. It was a little cylinder with felt round it filled with a slow burning smouldering material which you kept in your pocket. If your hand got very cold you put your hand in your pocket, take your winter warmer out, have a little warm, pass it to the other one, have a little warm, and put it back again.

War in the air was high risk – but it played an important role, particularly on the Western Front as the ‘eyes’ of the artillery. Although it had its dangers, observer Percy Douglas reflected on the positive aspects of his time with the RFC.

When we were flying at about 17,000 feet it gave you a wonderful feeling of exhilaration. You were sort of, I’m the King of the Castle! You were up there and you were right out of the war. I’d been in the infantry and the Army Service Corps. In the infantry we were always lousy, filthy dirty and very often hungry whereas in the Flying Corps it was a gentleman’s life. You slept in a bed, you put on pyjamas every night, you had a decent mess to come back to. You had about two and a half hours patrol, perhaps, in the morning and two and a half in the afternoon and that was the job. So altogether, it was much more pleasant.

Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there. 

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