Finding Mannock

In case you’re wondering where the S&G has been of late, the answer is somewhere between October 1917 and July 1918. It’s been a protracted stay but well worth the making.

In the spirit of those times, therefore, feel free to enjoy a documentary made by the BBC in 2009, based upon the rather excellent book Aces Falling by popular historian Peter Hart. It’s a little bit schmaltzy in places and frankly re-enactors gazing meaningfully into the camera can make one a bit queasy at times but all in all it does Hart’s work, and that of Joshua Levine, some justice. Plus it’s always nice to see the Shuttleworth Collection’s S.E.5a aloft…

The most important point raised by the film, and about which nothing has continued to happen, is the pressing need to formally identify the body of the aviator ‘Known unto God’ that has lain in Row F, Grave 12 of Laventie Military Cemetery since 1920.

Edward Mannock was a unique individual, a gifted tactician and, quite possibly, the most successful Allied fighter pilot of the Great War. As one of only 19 airmen of the Great War to hold the Victoria Cross, any opportunity for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to right a very obvious wrong can and must be taken before the centenary of Mannock’s death.

Mannock’s body was retrieved and buried by the Germans some 300 metres away from Butter Lane near Pacault Wood. The body of the airman in Row F, Grave 12 was exhumed from a grave 300 metres away from Butter Lane near Pacault Wood.

The German Army’s very precise record of where they buried the body does not tally exactly with the location where the CWG first found him, which has been the major reason cited as to why no further investigation has been carried out. But then the CWG was using a British trench map. By using a German trench map of the same area, the description given takes you pretty much to the original grave site.

The body exhumed in 1920 had no identification about it. The Germans took all of Mannock’s personal effects and identification from his body before burial, which were eventually returned to his family.

Modern science is a wonderful thing. It helped identify King Richard III where he lay beneath a municipal car park in Leicester some 527 years after he fell. To the best of the S&G’s knowledge there should be sufficient living relatives of Mannock to be able to get a DNA profile, exhume the airman in Row F, Grave 12 and confirm, one way or another, who he is.

Only two other candidates remain; these being Sopwith Camel pilots shot down a couple of months before Mannock. Neither of these men deserves to remain nameless any more than Mannock, although the evidence linking them to the German grave at Butter Lane is circumstantial at best.

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The evidence all points to this being Edward Mannock’s grave. Let’s have a definitive answer.

There are other clues to be found, no doubt. For one thing, accounts from local history state that the British aircraft that crashed by Butter Lane was there until 11 November 1918, after which it was pretty swiftly tipped into a shell hole and covered over. Perhaps removable parts were taken as trophies but a dial, a plate and certainly a Hispano-Suiza engine would make itself fairly obvious to ground surveying equipment.

For all that, there might not be any need to go and find any remnants of S.E.5a serial E1295. For the body in Row F, Grave 12 to be that of Mannock, it needs to be the remains of a gangling six-footer who stood out a mile from most of his fellow aviators. In addition, the aircraft was well alight when it crashed and Mannock’s dread fear of burning caused him to keep his Webley service revolver readily to hand in order to end the agony. Even after 100 years, the sort of damage that a .455 bullet does to a skull is clear to see.

‘Mick’ Mannock led by example. He cherished the lives of his men and gave them every possible chance to see the peace that he was convinced would not be his to savour. Yet he flew on, staring his horror of being set alight full in the face until the nightmares became a reality.

He died alone, afraid and practically unheralded. Yes, it would cost money but it would be worth more than 100 of the self-serving commemorations that this country has organised to mark the centenary of the Great War. Worth more than a wild goose chase across Asia looking for buried Spitfires. Worth more than pulling the unrecognisable hulk of a Dornier out of the Goodwin Sands for even the slightest chance to give this most human of heroes back his own name.

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Visiting Captain Ball

This week saw the S&G in the sleepy village of Annœullin in the Pas de Calais, paying a visit to a key figure in the archives – and one set to appear several more times in the weeks and months ahead – Captain Albert Ball.

It had been 28 years since last calling in on the good Captain (the passage of time being rather less marked upon Annœullin than upon oneself). Ball’s grave remained in impeccable condition, standing tall among the simple crosses that fill the rest of the German military cemetery in the village.

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It is 99 years since Ball’s last flight and the discussion over how he ended up inverted in a shallow dive over the fields of this little corner of the Pas de Calais continues to ebb and flow. Indeed, it’s simmering along rather excitably at present; with a few metaphorical low blows and beard tweaks being exchanged between historians.

Of course, whether he was shot down by Lothar von Richthofen – or anyone else, for that matter – became of little consequence to Ball himself from the moment that he hit the ground. Unless his S.E.5 suffered a structural failure, it is highly doubtful that even Ball knew the real cause of his demise.

Photographing the grave was not a problem but, sadly, reaching the surviving marker of the two laid down at the crash site by Ball’s distraught father, Albert Sr., proved impossible. These photos show the closest that could be achieved.

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To the best of the S&G’s knowledge, Albert Ball Sr. bought the field in which his son died in order to lay the stones that marked where the wreckage lay. With the markers in place – it has never been clear what happened to the second marker – the land has been worked continuously since the Armistice. Despite the agricultural setting it was possible, in 1988, to walk right up to the remaining stone.

As can be seen in the pictures, no such path exists today. For those interested in the inscription, this ‘borrowed’ image might clarify what lies out amid the greenery:

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A quick scout around upon returning to Blighty revealed that, yes, the land was bought by Albert Ball Sr.

On the assumption that nobody in the family has since sold the land back, it can hardly have been the intention that visitors should be deterred from venturing near the marker by an impenetrable army of lettuce.

Of interest was a story in the news for staff at RAF Waddington, where 56(R) Squadron – Ball’s unit of 1917 – is now based. A sergeant with the unit recounted travelling to Annœullin in 2014 for an Armistice commemoration, saying:

‘The next morning the party travelled to the town hall of Annœullin for a meeting with the Mayor and other local dignitaries. As well as discussing our participation in the Armistice parade, we also talked about the future of the field where Captain Ball crashed. Purchased by his father after the Great War, the local population has been maintaining the site ever since. It is envisaged by the local council that a permanent footpath and fence should be erected to preserve the site, and 56(R) Squadron will help facilitate the negotiations between the council and Ball family.’

Of course it is not going to be a high priority for public spending in Annœullin, and the intransigence of French farmers is the stuff of legend, but perhaps for the 100th anniversary of Ball’s last flight such a path could be inaugurated. Such a path might honour not only the loss of the man but also the determination of a bereft father that his son should never be forgotten.

The view from Stow Maries

Word has come in from the outposts of S&G territory – in this case, Essex – of some wonderful goings-on. In this instance it is the restoration of a First World War Airfield to full working order at Stow Maries.

This little patch of farmland, located between the seaside town of Malden and the county town of Chelmsford, is home to some buildings that were erected a century ago for a very particular purpose. These fields were once a hive of activity during the defence of London in the First World War, after marauding Zeppelins became a regular menace during 1915 and the massed daylight bombing raids of Gotha aircraft swept Britain into a state of hysteria.

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The attacking Gotha bombers photographed over London

In September 1916, the hastily-built airfield at Stow Maries received the Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2s of ‘B’ Flight of 37 (Home Defence) Squadron. The favoured route for German raiders was to make landfall on the Essex coast and then cruise down towards Epping Forest in the knowledge that within minutes their bombs would fall near something valuable.

The first commanding officer at the aerodrome was Lieutenant Claude Ridley, who was only 19 years of age. On the evening of 23/24 May 1917 Ridley, promoted to Captain, and Lieutenant G. Keddie made the first recorded operational flight from the aerodrome in response to a large Zeppelin raid targeting London.

Air defence was in its infancy and for every Zeppelin brought down in a sea of falling flame there were hundreds of hours spent by pilots tootling around in the dark. Often they had to light flares on the end of their wings to see the runway on final approach. It was dark and dangerous work but ultimately something of a footnote in the history of the conflict.

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Alone in the great big sky: the solitary life of Home Defence flying re-created

Not that this precluded the growth of Stow Maries, which soon saw ‘A’ Flight of 37 Squadron arrive alongside the rest of the unit. It was a busy time for London and, during the early hours of 17 June 1917, 2nd Lieutenant L. P. Watkins was credited with the downing of Zeppelin L48 at Theberton in Suffolk – the last Zeppelin brought down on British soil before the arrival of the fixed-wing Gotha bombers.

It was these massed daylight raids that caused pandemonium in the capital, and 37 Squadron was in the thick of the action on 7 July 1917 when 22 Gotha bombers made one of the heaviest raids on London. The combination of unreliable engines, numerous landing accidents and increasingly effective Home Defence – not only from the aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service but also the anti-aircraft batteries ringing London – took a heavy toll on the daylight raiders. Soon they were compelled to fly at night and in smaller groups.

At its peak, Stow Maries was home to 219 staff and 16 aircraft – centred around all three flights of 37 (Home Defence) Squadron, ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’. It’s original B.E.2 aircraft were replaced first with the B.E.12 and, much later, with the Sopwith Camel.

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Both inside and out, Stow Maries is returning to former glories

Unlike other Home Defence stations which were further developed and would win fame in the later Battle of Britain in 1940 – Biggin Hill, Manston and Hornchurch in particular – Stow Maries reverted to peacetime farming soon after the Armistice of 1918. After 37 Squafton’s departure in March 1919, its buildings were abandoned and forgotten about until a group of enthusiasts happened upon them and discovered what amounted to the only preserved World War 1 airfield in existence.

In the space of four years between 2007 and 2011, six of these buildings were fully conserved and one partially conserved. The decades of neglect were brushed aside and the structures were restored with appropriate materials in accordance with their original construction and architectural detailing.

Now, after venturing down a rather rustic farm track, it is possible to walk into the world of 1917 where the volunteers have now restored the Ambulance Shed and Mortuary, the Blacksmith’s Shed, the Workshop and Dope Shop and the NCO Mess. The Squadron Offices have now been rebuilt and house the museum, while the Workshop and Dope Shop have been conserved to comply with modern workshop environment conditions, but behind the modern internal wall finish is the original fabric untouched.

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Fixtures, fittings and the occasional bit of hardware can now be seen by visitors

Work is indeed undertaken on aircraft at Stow Maries – aircraft of 1914-18 vintage. In the only modern construction to be found at the site you will find hangared an assortment of tool-room copies of WW1 aircraft built by Sir Peter Jackson’s brilliant operation in New Zealand, The Vintage Aviator Ltd.

Recently, Stow Maries hosted its first fly-in for these magnificent aircraft, from where these photos have been provided. Complete with a supporting cast of re-enactors buzzing around the partially-restored Pilots’ Ready Room (the S&G collectively remains a little unsure about the value of re-enactors), the sights and sounds of aviation were laid out for the assembled hordes.

The Bristol Scout, Albatros D.V, and Sopwith Snipe encapsulated the progress made in aircraft design in 1916-18, while the B.E.2 was utterly at home on the field from which 37 Squadron campaigned the type so vigorously against the bombers. It is an amazing sight to see the facilities and the machines in an environment all-but unchanged in a century, and long may the good folk who have brought Stow Maries back to life continue to offer the world such a unique insight into the war.

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There is still much work to be done, the roll-call of buildings requiring or undergoing conservation includes:

  • Office and Communications Room
  • Motor Transport Shed
  • Royal Engineers’ Workshop
  • Generator Hut
  • Reception/Headquarters Building

If there is the will, the energy and the funding available, a further 14 buildings may yet also be saved to complete the restoration, these being:

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  • Officers’ Mess
  • Officers’ Quarters (four buildings)
  • Men’s Accommodation Block
  • NCO Accommodation
  • WRAF Accommodation (three buildings)
  • Water Tower and Reservoir (two buildings)
  • Fuel Store
  • Ammunition Store

To find out more about the airfield, the aircraft, when and how to visit and for news on forthcoming events please visit the website of this remarkable undertaking.

London’s flying past

One seldom thinks of central London as a focal point for aviation. There’s London City Airport, plus the interminable political blathering about where the next major runway should be built to service the city and, for schoolchildren, an occasional visit to the Royal Air Force Museum, Science Museum or Imperial War Museum.

Yet in fact a brisk stroll takes one through what was, a century or so ago, the white hot crucible in which British military aviation was organised – and from the Armistice onwards the peacetime air network would be established that so preoccupies our airport planners of today.

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The Palace of Westminster is a fairly good landmark to get started

For the sake of argument, let’s start at the Houses of Parliament. Indeed, let’s start under Big Ben – if you can fight your way through the seemingly endless turf war between Japanese tourists with their selfie sticks and East European pickpockets – then you’ll soon arrive at the statue of the pioneering politician of air power, Winston Churchill. In his role as First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill showed uncommon vision for the potential of early aviation as a tool of reconnaissance and offensive bombing – resulting in the Royal Naval Air Service being significantly stronger and lighter on its feet than the army’s Royal Flying Corps.

Now head up Parliament Street to the Cenotaph and the beautiful facades of Whitehall abound. Keep going past Downing Street to Horse Guards Parade and there the magnificent War Office building stands opposite, from where the Royal Flying Corps was ultimately managed.

Built in neo-Baroque style to the tune of £1.2 million, the building was completed in 1906 and featured 1,000 rooms on seven floors connected by two-and-a-half miles of corridors. It was from here that wars were fought and won, occasionally fought and lost – and much of the Empire was policed until 1968. The building was sold on 1 March 2016 for more than £350M, on a long 250 year lease, to the Hinduja Group and OHL Developments for conversion to a luxury hotel and residential apartments.

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The War Office – about to enter conversion to a hotel and residential development

Keep going just a little further and Admiralty Arch appears, with it Admiralty House and all the pomp of the Senior Service that is laid out like a challenge before anyone wishing to travel up the Mall. From here Churchill set about ensuring that the ground was made fertile for developing the first verdant shoots of a modern air force – while the dullards at the War Office retained their faith in horses in the face of mechanised slaughter.

Just like the War Office, Admiralty Arch has already been sold off for transformation into an hotel. The questions raised in parliament about how security for the many state and sporting occasions that run through Whitehall each year, let alone that of the Royal Family down the road, is to be maintained by hoteliers in the face of increased insurgency has never really been answered. But then Whitehall has suffered from more than its fair share of fatheads over the years – as we shall see…

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The buildings around Admiralty Arch were a hive of air-minded activity when Churchill was First Sea Lord. Today it is a Spanish-owned hotel.

From the Admiralty, head up The Strand and there is a large run of shops lying in wait before reaching the Savoy Hotel. The shops stand at street level beneath an imposing facade that was once the frontage of the Hotel Cecil – one of the more remarkable buildings in London.

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The Hotel Cecil was designed in the late 1880s by architects Perry & Reed in a sympathetic ‘Wrennaissance’ style for what was a fantastical barn of a building that would, in its day, be the largest hotel in Europe.

This 900-room leviathan was the pet project of notorious politician, financier, property developer and fraudster, Jabez Balfour. Balfour decreed that the Cecil should be “an abiding memorial of my enterprise” – although a rather more permanent memorial was the penury of the people who had invested in his schemes. The extent of Balfour’s embezzlement – a cool £8.4 million in 1895! – was uncovered during the Cecil’s six-year build.

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The magnificent facade of the Hotel Cecil still dominates The Strand

In a colourful turn of events, Balfour went bankrupt and fled to Argentina, where he was pursued and apprehended by Scotland Yard, brought back to London and sentenced to 14 years of penal servitude. The Cecil was sold for a relatively paltry £1.5 million and the proceeds were redistributed among Balfour’s impoverished investors. The hotel’s construction carried on – although not all of the materials were as grand as had been hoped – but Balfour’s abiding memorial appeared set to remain a white elephant.

Despite recruiting such luminaries of the era as ‘Smiler’ the renowned Indian curry chef or M. Coste, one of the greatest chefs of the late Victorian era, the gargantuan hotel was a commercial black hole. It was therefore fortunate for the owners that war broke out in 1914 and suddenly a pressing need was found to quarter staff and administer the conflict.

In 1916, the increasing importance of the war in the air, combined with the profligacy and wanton disruption that the rivalry between the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service was causing meant that an Air Board should be formed to manage the quarrelling air services in a contained space. In January 1917 it was decided that the space in question should be the Hotel Cecil.

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To the rear, the Hotel Cecil (and the Savoy Hotel next door) fronted the Victoria Embankment

The deep-rooted and bloody-minded rivalry between the two air arms carried on unabated, leading to claims that the occupants of the Hotel Cecil were ‘actively interfering’ with the running of the war. This in turn led to a nickname for their palatial residence: Bolo House, named after the celebrated French traitor, Bolo Pasha.

To digress – Bolo’s conviction was for a remarkable plot in which he was alleged to have travelled to America in order to receive laundered German funds with which he purchased Le Journal newspaper and began printing German propaganda. The evidence, such as it was, could only be described as circumstantial. Bolo’s firing squad was, however, utterly unequivocal.

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The Savoy still looks out over the Victoria Embankment

Back to London, then, and one significant ‘plus’ for men of the air divisions was that if they were required to work in the Cecil they would be quartered next door in the sumptuous Savoy Hotel. Many celebrated airmen of all allied nations, including Eddie Rickenbacker, found themselves enjoying the hospitality of the Savoy, although the Silvertown explosion on 19 January 1917 caused many of the windows to be blown in upon the hapless occupants.

It took the bombing of London in broad daylight by long-range German aircraft to force change upon the Bolo House, brought about by the wave of public outrage against Britain’s inefficient defences against attack. While the administrative work went on that would create a united and independent Royal Air Force, the first ever plotting room was created in the bowels of the hotel in order to marshal defending fighters against incoming arial raiders in a precursor to the famous system employed during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

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The plaque is almost correct – it was the first night raid by German aeroplanes

The German bombing campaign was also nearly the end of the Hotel Cecil, as on the night of 4/5 September the bombers came back for their first nocturnal sortie and managed to plant a 50 kg bomb virtually on the doorstep. The bomb itself landed beside Cleopatra’s Needle on the Victoria Embankment, onto which the rear entrance of both the Hotel Cecil and the Savoy faced.

The blast did kill and maim – a passing tram was caught in the blast, killing the driver and two passengers while blowing the conductor out onto the street.  Today the site is clearly seen by the shrapnel damage that remains upon Cleopatra’s Needle and the Sphinx.

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As for the Hotel Cecil, it served out the war as the birthplace of the Royal Air Force and remained on governmental duties until 1921, when it was used to house the Palestine Arab delegation which arrived to protest the British mandate on the region. The site was then demolished in 1930 – save for the grand facade on The Strand – in order to make way for the beautiful art deco Shell-Mex House which presides over the Victoria Embankment to this day – Shell having provided every drop of aviation fuel used by the allies from 1914 to the end of 1917.

In 1961, after the official separation of Shell and BP, Shell moved its head office to the 27-storey leviathan on the South Bank of the river where it remains to this day. Shell-Mex House was disposed of in the 1990s and today it is known as 80 Strand, home of businesses as diverse as Penguin Books, the Nectar loyalty card and PricewaterhouseCoopers. A small green plaque was erected on the back gate in 2008 commemorating its status as the location where the Royal Air Force was founded.

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The art deco frontage of Shell-Mex House (left) replaced the Hotel Cecil in 1930 to become a major landmark on the Thames, viewed from the bomb-damaged Sphinx

Walking back along the Victoria Embankment towards the Houses of Parliament, a golden eagle soon rises up overhead. This is the memorial erected immediately after the Great War in honour of the fallen airmen whose fate, in almost every instance, was in part decided within the buildings along the route of this stroll around the city.

The golden eagle sits atop an orb, around which a sash is wrapped carrying all the signs of the zodiac. Upon the pedestal, the inscription reads:

In memory of all ranks of the Royal Naval Air Service, Royal Flying Corps, Royal Air Force and those air forces from every part of the British Empire who gave their lives in winning victory for their King and country, 1914 – 1918.

There is also a quotation from Exodus 19: I bear you on eagles’ wings and brought you unto myself. 

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A further inscription was added in remembrance of those men and women of the air forces of every part of the British Commonwealth and Empire who gave their lives in World War 2, although this rather beautiful tribute has long since been overtaken by bigger-budget productions elsewhere, such as the magnificent Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park.

Just before reaching the end of this little walk around the crucible of British aviation, another of those modern memorials stands – that dedicated to the Battle of Britain in 1940. Just a few hundred metres from Westminster station, this low, flat block has the most ornate brass relief that makes an ideal spot to stop and tick off the places seen.

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The Battle of Britain memorial on Victoria Embankment

Westminster and Whitehall are so very ‘pomp and circumstance’ that it is hard to credit the emergence of modern air warfare to buildings more closely associated with Trafalgar and the creation of of the British Empire. Yet it is perhaps an even greater leap to now think of these majestic buildings being turned into foreign-owned hotels for those guests who may be tired of life at the Savoy – or may indeed have something other than tourism in mind for their visit.

Meanwhile, this little patch of London is ripe with myriad stories. Far too many to write in a blog post, a book or even a trilogy. Tripping over them is the ideal way to spend an hour or so messing about by the river…

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Shell-Mex House (centre) and The Savoy standing shoulder-to-shoulder behind Cleopatra’s Needle

Spending the weekend with Albert Ball

For a multitude of reasons, much of this weekend was taken up with old aeroplanes and the men who flew them, not least Captain Albert Ball VC, DSO & two bars, MC – the dashing young ‘ace’ who captivated Britain in the dark days of 1916-17.

With such a title and decorations to his name, one could be forgiven for thinking that this was a career soldier with enormous battle experience – but the Royal Flying Corps wasn’t quite like that. Ball was barely 20 years of age when he sprang to fame.

The eldest son of a Nottingham politician, Ball was not a gifted academic but made best use of his passion for internal combustion and his natural sporting prowess. The war granted him an opportunity to do something really exciting with both these skills – to fly aeroplanes and shoot down enemy machines, which for many months he relished.

His preferred method of attacking aircraft was either to dive into the middle of a formation where the enemy gunners were afraid to fire for fear of hitting one of their own aircraft, or to approach from below and fire upwards before his prey even knew he was there. Ball usually flew bare-headed and alone, undaunted by taking on odds of ten-or-more-to-one.

He was also rather a handsome young chap, and apparently made the most of every opportunity that opened up for him among the eligible ladies of England. It turns out that as detailed a diary was kept of his conquests on leave as of his victories in the air – and that his antics were something of which his father vigorously disapproved.

“I have fooled two girls that you know of, and of course I have made heaps of other girls think I liked them that you don’t know of,” Ball confessed in a letter to his father.”I really do feel a bit of a rotter, but I really mean to stop now – in fact I will try.”

Evidently, this was one battle that young Albert could not win.

One of Ball’s private diary entries recounted his father sharing a compartment on the train with a young lady and, in the course of their conversation, the Royal Flying Corps came up – something upon which the girl had quite a bit to say. When Ball Sr. asked how she came to know so much about the air war, she said proudly: “I’ve just spent the weekend with Albert Ball.”

The stolid sepia images that are left to us, and Albert’s more widely-known correspondence (dashed as it is with liberal amounts of ‘absolutely ripping’ this and ‘topping little’ that), portray a world far removed from our own times. And yet there was colour aplenty, and vibrancy and mischief – the sort of thing that makes history all the more entertaining.

Celluloid dogfights: a brief history

With a title that sounds like a b-side from the late David Bowie, the S&G reflects upon the too-few attempts to portray World War 1 in the air on the silver screen.

In many ways it is a tragedy that stories of the young pilots in peril during World War 1 have not received as much of the high quality of storytelling as their counterparts in the trenches. Perhaps it is the lack of poetry. Perhaps it the combined legacy of Biggles, Snoopy and Captain Flashheart that serious depictions of the airmen of the great war are so few and far between.

Whatever it is that has caused this massive gap in popular culture is utterly and fundamentally wrong-headed. Here endeth the lesson, now let’s watch some aeroplanes and dream of the day that Peter Jackson actually gets on with making the ultimate cinematic tribute.

Grand-daddy of them all is Howard Hughes’s movie Wings (1927), featuring a whole lot of veteran pilots flying war surplus aircraft. Even then, genuine machinery was becoming hard to come by and one could never mistake California for Passchendaele in a million years but enough about this epic film was authentic in a way that nobody since would ever attempt to match.

The advent of World War 2 somewhat stifled demand for movies about World War 1. Not until the 1960s was there another blockbuster about flying over the Western Front and it came in the form of The Blue Max (1966), starring George Peppard. As with Wings, the aerial sequences were filmed for real, with just enough authentic-looking replicas of Fokker Dr.Is, Fokker D.VIIs, Pfalz D.IIIs and S.E.5as to conceal the makeweight Tiger Moth contingent in the rear. The back screen projection for the actors’ close-ups look rather quaint in this day and age but it was a stronger film than it receives credit for.

Fast forward to 1975 and you have the hottest star of the era, Robert Redford, lighting up that million megawatt smile as The Great Waldo Pepper; a tale of barnstormers in the midwest in the days after World War 1. In the final section of the film, director and writer George Roy Hill goes all-out to recreate the filming of Howard Hughes’s Wings – including putting his actors into biplanes for their close-up shots. It is a riot that quickly gets out of hand when Waldo, the ace in his own mind, goes head-to-head with Ernst Kessler, the German ace of aces…

George Roy Hill went out of his way to celebrate the World War 1 airman in war, in peace and most importantly in popular culture while, at the same time, the British took a very different approach. The movie Dawn Patrol (1975) and the BBC TV series Wings (1976-77) attempted to tell the story of the air war as sneering social commentary. Both appear to have been written by North London socialists in penance for Britain’s imperial past. Jeremy Corbyn probably has the DVD box set of Wings in pride of place on his Soviet-era wall units. Ghastly.

After decades of silence about biplanes (and triplanes) over the Western Front, in came Hollywood with a bright young star, James Franco. Predictably, this is a tale of how Americans tried to win the war before Woodrow Wilson had got under starter’s orders. Flyboys (2006) was loosely based on the story of the Escadrille Lafayette in 1916-17 and is actually a good deal less infuriating than it might have been – although the speed of the CGI Nieuports and Fokkers seems to owe more to Star Wars than to The Blue Max.

And finally we have the slightly poetic violence portrayed in The Red Baron (2008) – a German movie filmed in English to try and maximise the international audience.

There is an awful lot to commend this one, but despite being a veritable feast for the eyes it’s all a bit flat with no edges whatsoever, turning the real-life Red Baron into something of a gauzy nonentity. There are moments of beauty that the PlayStation graphics of Hollywood would have overlooked but, oddly, if I were trying to conjure up some enthusiasm for World War 1 flying in someone without much exposure to it, I’d play something else. This film just isn’t quite as good as it could have been, in the same way that Flyboys isn’t as bad as it should have been.

It is quite interesting to see how techniques – and the speed of the aircraft – have changed over the years. So too are the perspectives of the film makers themselves. As the centenaries continue to roll round over the next couple of years, these films may well be dragged out of the hangar on occasion. As the remaining links between our lives and those that the films attempted to portray slip deeper beneath the waves, that is something of a worry. There really was so much more than any of what the movies have given us. Future generations may as well study Snoopy…

 

The centenary of air power

In 2016 there will be many anniversaries to be marked in what is the centenary of one of the busiest and most tragic years of the First World War. One consistent theme through the year is the fact that it marks 100 years since military aviation came of age and was organised along clear lines of aircraft design, production and front-line tactical use.

When Europe descended into war in the summer of 1914, the sole purpose of aircraft was to act as a forward scout, observing the enemy’s movements and reporting back to their masters, whether on land or sea. From this limited brief, individual enterprise was then primarily responsible for increasing that scope of services to the bombing of selected targets and the interception and destruction of enemy aircraft.

Until 1916, the primary aircraft were observation machines designed for the purpose of reconnaissance, with a few faster ‘scout’ type aircraft being fitted with machine guns in an effort to shoot the enemy’s machines down. But then in 1916 a diverse array of specialised aircraft types was conceived, designed and built at an utterly phenomenal pace, identifying and fulfilling the same roles that air forces have performed from that day to this.

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The Nieuport 17 was one of the first of a new breed of aircraft to emerge in 1916

Between New Year and the summer of 1916, ‘scout’ aircraft evolved into the thoroughbred fighter and this was deployed in dedicated squadrons whose existence was purely to attack enemy aircraft. Despite the rise of the fighter, the standard two-seat military aircraft design remained the most numerous of all the types in service, but was sub-divided into pure reconnaissance machinery, light bombers and the first generation of multi-role strike aircraft.

Fighters made for good propaganda – with the scores of individual units and, more importantly, their leading pilots – becoming an obsession on both sides of the lines. Germany had already enshrined its first ‘aces’ Max Immelman and Oswald Bölcke as heroes of the age, and their achievements inspired other young men to follow them.

Soon Britain would be cheering Albert Ball to the echo and France would fall under the spell of Georges Guynemer, but there was of course the thorny problem of how to bring news of the death of these supposed supermen. Georges Boillot, the lion of Peugeot’s pre-war Grand Prix team and one of the early French aces would be killed in May, his compatriot Jean Navarre would be invalided out of the front line a month later. Max Immelman would die in June, followed by Bölcke in October.

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Georges Guynemer was one of the ‘superstar’ pilots to emerge in 1916

While the headlines and newsreels were dominated by the dashing single-seater pilots, still greater significance was the appearance of the first strategic bombers – heavyweights designed to carry the maximum destructive payload for the furthest distance. From the start of the year when bombs were being dropped by hand onto enemy troop emplacements and aircraft sheds, both sides on the Western Front had the fundamental capability to reach the capital cities of their respective enemies and reduce areas of them to rubble.

Designing individual aircraft types and then producing them in volume was one half of the equation. So too was the production line of young men to fly and fight in these machines, resulting in a giant leap forward in aircrew training in order to fulfil the new roles and to plug the gaps in front-line squadrons that would inevitably occur as the air war grew more effective at killing these magnificent men in their flying machines.

The first records of how many men were to be required to fly these aircraft began in July 1916, and over the course of the next six months it was shown that the inclusive total of killed and missing was 419 men, which represented one casualty per 206 hours flown by the RFC. The number of men in the air would increase, as would the number and frequency of losses, in line with the growth of the combatants’ air services.

A thumbnail sketch of what happened in each month of 1916 now follows. In the course of the next 11 months or so, the S&G will be returning to some of the aircraft, airmen and stories of the time to commemorate this most remarkable year in the history of mankind.

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The perspective of war on the land and in the air changed forever in 1916

January

  • Requirement for large scale night flying instruction recognised by British Air Ministry to counter the threat of Zeppelin raids on London and other UK targets
  • Nieuport 17 fighter prototype flies
  • Junkers J.I all-metal monoplane fighter prototype flies
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In Britain, early 1916 was spent worrying about Zeppelin raids on the home front

February (Battle of Verdun begins)

  • Germany commissions squadrons consisting purely of single-seat scouts tasked with shooting down enemy aircraft – the first fighter squadrons
  • Airco DH.2 fighter enters service with the Royal Flying Corps – Britain’s first dedicated interceptor
  • Sopwith 1½ Strutter light bomber reaches Royal Naval Air Service squadrons in France
  • Sopwith Pup fighter prototype flies

March

  • Royal Flying Corps establishes the first Home Defence squadrons around London
  • Nieuport 17 fighter reaches Armée de l’Air squadrons in France
  • Fokker D.II fighter reaches German Air Service squadrons in France

April

  • Royal Flying Corps aircraft fly supplies to the besieged city of Kut in eastern Iraq – the first airlift in military history
  • Spad S.VII fighter prototype flies
  • Gotha G.II heavy bomber prototype flies
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Gotha’s new series of heavy bombers would bring terror from afar

May (Battle of Jutland)

  • Sopwith Pup fighter reaches Royal Naval Air Service squadrons in France
  • Sopwith Triplane fighter prototype flies

June (Battle of Mecca)

  • Royal Flying Corps conducts intensive reconnaissance of the Somme valley in France and targets German observation balloons and aircraft which might be able to capture information about preparations for the coming assault
  • Royal Aircraft Factory RE8 reconnaissance prototype flies

July (Battle of the Somme begins)

  • Royal Flying Corps provides 105 aircraft in the front line supporting the July 1 assault with artillery observation, reconnaissance and ground attack missions
  • Royal Flying Corps begins detailed measurement of the casualties suffered to measure training requirements and tactics
  • Fokker D.I fighter reaches German Air Service squadrons in France
  • Albatros D.II fighter approved for service use and begins equipping fighter squadrons
  • Fokker D.III fighter prototype flies
  • Felixtowe F2 flying boat prototype flies
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The Albatros D.II placed attacking speed over dogfighting manoeuvrability

August (Battle of Doberdò)

  • Royal Aircraft Factory BE12 reconnaissance aircraft reaches Royal Flying Corps squadrons in France
  • Spad S.VII fighter reaches Armée de l’Air squadrons in France
  • Gotha G.II heavy bomber reaches German Air Service squadrons in the Balkans
  • Airco DH.4 bomber prototype flies

September

  • Manfred von Richthofen, the future ‘Red Baron’, scores his first victory in air combat
  • Gotha G.III heavy bomber reaches German Air Service squadrons in the Balkans
  • Fokker D.III fighter reaches German Air Service squadrons in France
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Manfred von Richthofen (right) inspects a captured Airco DH.2

October

  • Bristol F.2B multi-role fighter prototype flies

November (Battle of the Somme ends)

  • German Air Service forms ‘England Squadron’ of Gotha heavy bombers for the purpose of attacking London with large-scale bombing raids
  • Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 fighter prototype flies
  • Albatros D.I fighter enters service with German Air Service squadrons in France
  • Royal Aircraft Factory RE8 reconnaissance aircraft enters service with Royal Flying Corps squadrons in France

December (Battle of Verdun ends)

  • Sopwith Triplane fighter reaches Royal Naval Air Service squadrons in France
  • Handley Page 0/100 heavy bomber enters service with Royal Naval Air Service squadrons in France
  • Sopwith Camel fighter prototype flies
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The first of the mighty S.E.5 fighters

Many anniversaries are to be planned, commemorations made and aircraft flown – including a Scottish-built Sopwith 1½ Strutter recreation and the return of the Sopwith Triplane to flying duties for the Shuttleworth Collection after its 2014 landing accident. Much to see and do, particularly at Old Warden in the UK and, doubtless, Peter Jackson’s brilliant facilities in New Zealand. And of course at all the commemorations planned this year. We will do our best to keep you up-to-date on what’s happening.