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Duration 00:35:58

Britain’s air forces in the First World War

This talk covers the record sources for those who served in the air forces, their formations and machines. It also explores a case study of a famous airman to illustrate some of the inventions and developments that led to final victory in 1918.

Clive Hawkins worked for The National Archives for 37 years and was a military specialist at The National Archives until he retired. He has always had a deep interest in military history and is an avid collector of steel helmets.



Britain’s air forces in World War One: so that’s an opener. Today I’d like to illustrate not just the records of those who served in Britain’s air forces but also the broader collection of related material that we hold here in the archives. Some of the sources may be familiar to you, others possible not. We will be using images drawn solely from TNA [The National Archives] records to highlight the varied range of documents from sources for family historians, operational records and detailed technical data. I will also use a case study of a famous aerial action to show how all of the records can be brought together.

First of all I’d like to look at the sources for the individuals who served. Now you may be surprised to learn that, or maybe not, that that we need to look at army, navy and air force to find all those that served during the Great War. So, just to set the scene, the Royal Flying Corps of the RFC was an existence from 1912 to 1918 and it was the air arm of the army. In July 1914 the Royal Flying Corps the naval wing was detached to form the Royal Naval Air Service. On the 1st of April 1918 the two separate services were merged again to form the Royal Air Force. Men of both services who continued after this date transferred into the new service and were joined by new entrants. So that’s the sort of the basic layout of it.

So starting with the army, as it was originally an army service. First record series I’d like to draw to your attention is WO 339 officer service record. It contains records for correspondence of the regular army and emergency reserve officers who served in the First World War, the content varies enormously from notes supplying date of death to a file of several parts containing attestation papers, records of service personal correspondence and various other information. It covers actually just short of 140,000 officers.

Just to, sort of, highlight this, this record series is in the process of being expanded [December 2013]. So far we have completed about 91,000. In its original format all you had is the reference, the surname and an initial, so you can imagine 140,000 people that’s, it’s going to be a quite difficult if your if you’re searching a fairly common name. The work that we’re doing currently is to expand it by putting in the rank and where we can find them, the full forenames and the regiment. So that should enable people to find their man more easily. So there we are, British army officers, obviously including Royal Flying Corps.

And of course you’ve got the other ranks and a good source for that will be the World War I medal cards because as you can see there they state quite clearly the different regiments of people served, including the Royal Flying Corps, of course, are the soldiers records, the ‘burnt records’, is going to be another excellent source for tracing men that served that served in the Flying Corps.

Moving onto the navy: ADM 188. So the series contains over 600,000 Royal Navy service records for ratings who joined between 1853 and 1923. Some of the records cover periods of service up to 1928. They’re in two basic series, the thing that we’re really interested in is not ADM 139 element of it but ADM 188 which runs from about 1873 to 1923, and importantly you’ll see it says at the bottom there service numbers with the prefix F denotes service Royal Air Force; that’s all part of that.

ADM 273, service records for Royal Naval Air Service officers. Another obvious source. These are the service records for officers who served in the Royal Naval Air Service during World War One. They can also contain details of service before the First World War. The collection in series ADM 273 consists of records approximately 7,500 men. Many officers transferred from the Royal Navy, you can trace their previous service record in Royal Navy Officers’ Service records.

Moving on to the Air Force, AIR 79. Now these are the records that were that came about in April 1918 when the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service amalgamated. So these men were asked whether they wanted to continue in their existing service, army or navy, or did they want to move in to this new this new organization, the air force. It consists of, as regards [to] service numbers, 329,000 service numbers, now not all of them are complete, there are some that are missing but it’s certainly well over 320-325,000 men within. It covers a wide range of subjects, you’ve got their details, their previous occupations, their family, children, where they actually were serving beforehand. So it’s an excellent source not just for military service but also for family historians because it contains quite a lot of information on their home life.

Women’s Royal Air Force records. These are service records of around 30, 000 women who served in the Women’s Royal Air Force between 1918 and 1920. These records from series AIR 8 include volunteers from the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, Women’s Legion Drivers and Women’s Civilian Subordinates. Women were based in Britain at first performing roles such as drivers, mechanics, cooks or office clerks. Later, around 500 women served in France and Germany. After the war Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, Commandant of the Women’s Royal Air Force, was awarded Dame Commander of the order of the British Empire in recognition of her work.

Air 76. So these are the service records for the RAF officers. These service records for officers who served in the Royal Air Force during the First World War [19]14-18. This collection in series AIR 76 consists of the records of over 99, 000 men. The records were created from the inception of the Royal Air Force of 1918. However they include retrospective details of earlier service in the Royal Air Force or Royal Naval Air Service where appropriate.

So you can see there’s a whole range of different record series that you need to look through to try to pin down individuals. Certainly moving forward into the Royal Air Force.

Okay so that covers the basic materials so that when you’re looking for individuals and now I’d like to sort of move on to operational units. What I should say at this point is that I’ve basically been through a lot of records and I’ve picked on things that I’ve found interesting. I’ve picked on a lot of illustrations and so on and so forth just to give a flavour of the sorts of materials that you can find here in general about the Air Service of that time. They’re quite varied and I’ve also gone on to developments and inventions and so on but more of that later. But some of the details here about the Air Force itself. The air forces of Britain had expanded beyond all recognition during the conflict of the war. From just the relative handful of flying machines used for spotting in 1914 to the final days of the Royal Flying Corps, where over 1200 aircraft were deployed in France to meet the German offensive of the 21st March 1918 with the support of the Royal Air Service. And from April these forces combined to form the Royal Air Force as an independent armed service. From small beginnings these services had grown, by the end of the war to an organisation of: 290,000 men; 99 squadrons in France; with 1800 aircraft; a further 34 squadrons overseas; 55 home establishment squadrons; and 199 training squadrons with a total inventory of 22,000 aircraft.

At the end of the war there were 5,200 pilots in service which was just about 2% of the Royal Air Force. In comparison the casualties for the Royal Flying Corps, Royal Naval Air Service, RAF for 14-18 totalled: 9,400 killed or missing; 7,300 wounded. Some 900,000 flying hours on operation were logged, 6,900 tons of bombs had been dropped and the Flying Corps claimed some 7,000 German aircraft and balloons either destroyed or sent down out of control or driven down.

So as regards to operational units, AIR 1 is an excellent source for details. The sort of things you might look for in AIR 27 for the later period – the Second World War and [so] on, AIR 1 contains a large amount of information on the early flying service. You can see this one here, this is dated 1913, it’s a log. You can tell it’s early. Here you could make note progress against the wind. So we’re talking about very early aircraft here. The way they were. You can imagine just from 1913 to how they had progressed getting across the Channel in 1914 to becoming sort of a war winning weapon by just a few years later. A more common source would be AIR 27, this is piece 1298 for number 210 Flying Boat Squadron. Now the vast bulk of the information of the particular squadron will be for the later period, you know, World War Two, late [19]30s maybe. But they often do contain a potted history of earlier service. So you can see here even though it’s not huge you got locations and dates and so on. So as I say here in AIR 27 force for squadron records.

AIR 1/673, the Kite Balloon training manual. Now this contains a list of ratings at Cattle Airship Station – extremely good breakdown because you got all the ratings here, not just as you find in AIR 27 in the later years or mainly air crew. Here you’ve got a complete breakdown of basically the types of jobs that the men were undertaking – riggers, wireless people, drivers, stores, all sorts – with their names, initials and their ranks. It’s an excellent source for finding the workforce if you like, of the unsung heroes, if you like, of the force. Also in AIR 1/673 just to illustrate we’ve got examples of the kit that they were using this type of M-Type Balloon. Quite a lot of detail there, could be of considerable interest for studying that area, model making or so and so forth. And of course it has operations I was saying, has operational information. So…it’s almost like a diary. You can see here in Basket Number 27 Section’s balloon…attacked by a Halberstadt, being under heavy machinegun fire and unable to engage the hostile machine he descended in the parachute and land it safely. So he gives a good a very good, better in many ways than AIR 27, it gives, there are a lot of accounts of day to day activities in quite some detail, for all sorts of different units.

RAF establishments: again in AIR 1, …you get a generic feel for how they were organised. This is just a example of a bombing wing. This is not mentioning individuals as such but it gives the breakdown of the unit, gives the ranks and the different jobs people were undertaking and the numbers of men involved. So it’s a quite an interesting document to get a feel for the way a unit was organised.

In AIR 2, I discovered some maps as well which I particularly interesting. Lympne RAF base – it gives a fairly detailed account of the working of the base, the locations of the various huts installations and it’s got quite a useful key as well…for identifying the different elements of the field.

So with all these records you know, you can pull together, you’ve got the men you’ve got the equipment, you got the way the system is organised and illustrations of airfields and accommodation.

Now in this section, I just wanted to draw your attention to some of the plans of that that we hold here in AVIA 14/3, just to the illustrate the plan B2A. The actual plan probably about half the size of that, maybe …slightly larger. They are extremely detailed so anybody who wants to look into the flying machines that they were using the AVIA series is to be recommended. It breaks down even further into the technical details for cockpit engine layout. Just for this one aircraft I think there were about six or seven separate plans, I just use these to illustrate. Again going back, even some sort of model maker, anything of that sort, these plans are going to be extremely useful. But within AIR 24 this illustrates the performance of the various service aircraft. A lot of the good detail on the aircraft types, their engines, their performance, weight, loadings, so and so forth. So again another very useful source for sort of for broadening the picture or filing out the information.

Development. Again things that I thought were of interest. Now this is an unusual contraption. You often hear people say that they weren’t really taking a lot of notice of aircraft before the war maybe just the sort of a toy, a side issue, but this document illustrates that they were in the years before the war thinking about how they would deal with a combat aircraft because this is a rig setup to test propellers against mass rifle air fire. This is simply a framework with a prop. And they brought up groups of infantry men to fire on the prop. The idea being that the aircraft would be vulnerable, would be attacking head on. They already, before the war, assumed that would happen. Certain elements had assumed that and they were testing the effects of rifle fire and to a lesser degree machinegun fire on props. They actually found that it was a complete failure that it had very little effect to the ranges they were firing at and so I think they just decided that was not a particularly good idea. Just to illustrate that they were considering that well before the war.

Now I would like to look at another development, that of the parachute. Parachutes had been in use for some time by men, manning observation balloons. They tended to be fairly bulky and fixed line type. That’s the rip cord being attached to the balloon basket. The prospect of developing the parachute for pilots had been raised many times during the war by the high commands of both sides but basically they felt that it was a bad idea. They wanted their pilots to struggle with damaged aircraft and to hopefully bring them back down to the ground in one piece. And they felt that by issuing parachutes it would encourage people to bail out and save themselves, foolishly. So this continued thoughout most of the war. Then, the fear of death in a blazing aircraft was such that the pilots, that’s including the ace, Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock carried a revolver. He stated quite clearly that he would use the revolver on himself rather than being incinerated in a blazing aircraft. The British were on the verge of issuing parachutes – actually at the end of the war so we were rather late. The Germans…had issued parachutes and had used them. Even so they were quite dangerous. There were an awful lot of German pilots that were killed trying to use a parachute, they often snagged. They were fixed line types, they often snagged on the aircraft when the pilot tried to bail out. So they weren’t the be all and end all. It’s quite different, in a balloon where you’re in a fairly static position you can jump out of a balloon and descend, but when you’re in a aircraft possibly going out of control, it’s quite difficult to actually get yourself out.

So as I say they were on the verge of issuing at the end of the war. There were two types of ‘chute that were ordered by the British. One was a modified version of a thing called a ‘Guardian Angel’ by Calthrop, another was a Mears type which was…cheaper than the Calthrop and could be rolled across the shoulders. 500 Mears parachutes were on order. Both were in the form of static line and the ‘chute being deployed by the weight of the falling airmen. So they’d actually falling away from the aircraft at one end of the line. As you see with paratroops in World War Two, one end of the line would be attached to aircraft and that would snag the ‘chute open. And they found that most aircraft were suitable for them. They tried them on, certainly SE5s, RE8s, DH9s, found pretty well that they could be applied to most aircrafts. By the time they actually got them into service the war was virtually over, so they didn’t see a lot of use.

Thomas Orde-Lees, sometimes known as the Mad Major. He’d had quite a career, he’d been on Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition, he was the first non-Japanese-born to have climbed Mount Fuji. So he got around quite a bit. He was also a great believer in the parachute and so much so that he actually demonstrated one on Tower Bridge just to prove his point. He went to Tower Bridge and leapt off it and obviously it worked because he survived. But basically when he came back from the Shackleton expedition…he served in the Western Front in the Balloon Corps. Shackleton helped him into that position and he was a very enthusiastic advocate of the early parachute. And here again I think is the earliest photograph I could find MUN 8/20 of those trials – not with a man, these are dropping a weight just to show. You can see they’re deployed fairly close to the ground by modern standards and they deploy pretty quickly.

Now this I put in for interest because they call him the ‘Mad Major’, and obviously people thought that he was fairly cool about parachute drops. Now this is as you see here a pulse rate test before and after. And here we have the Mad Major, Major Orde-Lees, normal pulse rate 58. Pulse rate after quite a lot higher than 58. So I think that in these early days even for people that were…promoting parachute, saying it was great thing obviously found it a fairly testing pastime.

There we are, so it was just medical report AIR 26… of various officers that were descending by parachute from aircraft and balloons. See here he’s made a drop of from a kite balloon and then two drops from an aircraft…

Next thing I’d like to look at the Pomeroy bullet and the Zeppelin. On the morning of January 19th 1915 two German Zeppelin airships, the L 3 and the L 4, took off from their bases in Germany. Both airships carried 30 hours of fuel, eight bombs and 25 incendiary devices. They’d been given permission from the Emperor Wilhelm II to attack the military industrial buildings. The emperor had forbidden an attack on London due to the concern for the Royal family to whom he was related.

The two German Zeppelin airships crossed the Norfolk coastline at around 8:30 pm, having crossed the coast L 3 turned north and the L 4 turned south. The incendiary bombs were dropped to enable the pilots to navigate to their chosen locations of Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn where they dropped their bombs. A total of nine people were killed and some buildings were damaged with the effect of the raid on the population who were used to battles being fought on the Western Front, you know a distant thing, the impact on the public morale was immense. In fact morale dropped and people feared that the raids and that maybe this was the precursor to the Germans invasion.

Further raids were carried out in coastal towns and London in 1915 and 1916. The silent airships would rise without warning and was with no purpose-built shelters people just hid in their cellars and under tables. There were a total of 52 Zeppelin raids that claimed the lives of more than 500 people. Sh the question was how are we going to deal with this?…The war was one thing but public morale was, all of a sudden, dropping. They tried various means to combat them, generally standard artillery mounted on, firing at high angel on the back of a truck but these things haven’t proved to be terribly successful. Standard machine gun bullets against a Zeppelin again not really that successful.

And these photographs I thought were particularly sharp and great illustrations of the time. AIR 1/569 is a soldier’s of residents survey bomb damage to Walters Terrace, Wallace Street, Hull. The bomb left a crater 18 foot in diameter and seven feet deep and destroyed 14 houses and killed four civilians including a three year old Isaac White. These bombs are of considerable power to destroy and raid could destroy 14 houses. You can imagine the impact that would have on the civilian population. Germans had already attacked the Eastern Coast and bombarded places like Scarborough, that was bad enough but to actually come silently in the night and cause this sort of damage, you can imagine the impact.

Just a couple more to illustrate, Great Thornton Street, AIR 1/569, one of the five boys asleep in the room, two in the bed shown where struck with falling incendiary bomb. It crashed through the floor, seriously injuring a woman asleep in the room below. All five boys escaped injured. You can see here the hole in the ceiling where the things come through. It narrowly missed the boys in the bed and actually gone through the floor here and missed. This is AIR 1/569 again, Mr Godfrey Scott and his wife examined the damage caused by the incendiary bomb fell through the ceiling of the home in 54 Walkers Street, Hull. So this is just the, this is… an incendiary, so it’s just the weight of the shell, casing come through without high explosive

Now this is a experimental paper in MUN 7/429, the experimental trial of the Pomeroy bullet. Pomeroy bullet was an explosive machinegun round, deployed specifically for use against the Zeppelin. It was an incendiary bullet developed by New Zealand engineer John Pomeroy. It was quickly adopted by the British to combat the threat that was having such a huge psychological impact on the British public. Filled with nitro-glycerine the bullet ignited the hydrogen gas which escaped from the Zeppelin bags once struck by a bullet. Basically…there was another type of incendiary bullet that we were using, developed by a chap called Brock, and this was what we would now think of as a incendiary bullet. So it’s just a straightforward bullet casing with an incendiary device that burns from the tail. But they assumed, and one would assume, that anything like that entering a bag full of gas would ignite it and just blow the thing to pieces but it doesn’t. For one reason or another going into a dense envelope of gas doesn’t necessarily ignite it. The gas is not inert, obviously, it’s hydrogen, highly dangerous but it doesn’t necessarily. In fact more often than not it does not explode if you do that. So these things would pass through it.

What Pomeroy came up with was an exploding round. So this needed to strike something hard to detonate it. It would literally blow up. And the reason it was a final success was a mixture of incendiary bullet and Pomeroy bullets would rip through the casing of the gas envelopes, the gas would then escape into the cavities and sooner or later one of the Pomeroy bullets would hit a bit of superstructure and explode. It’s when the gas was in its less dense form, when it was leaking out into other areas of the ship that it would ignite. And that’s how, that’s how it proved to be successful.

Pomeroy for his efforts was awarded £25,000 which was a considerable amount sum of money in those days. £20,000 of that, costs and £5,000 was for his own pocket. So you know it was highly regarded and it proved, when it was actually used, it proved we had something that could combat the airship threat. This is just another one from MUN 7/429, it’s Pomeroy you can see. This is Pomeroy himself…explaining how these rounds should be assembled and manufactured. And this is the paperwork, again in the same document MUN 7/429 for the award of £25,000 to Pomeroy for his efforts.

Now, obviously someone had to put, put this into use. And enter William Leefe Robinson. Now..he’d served in the army basically, he wasn’t a flier from the early days. He was born in 1895 and entered Sandhurst 1914 and he was actually serving the Worcester’s, Worcestershire regiment. In March 1915 he went to France as an observer with the Royal Flying Corps to which he transferred. Having been wounded over Lille he went for pilot training in Britain before being attached to the 39 Home Defence Squadron, basically night flying, defending the home island.

This is the man who brought down the first Zeppelin at Cuffley. It was on the night of 2nd, 3rd of September 1916 over Cuffley, in Hertfordshire, Robinson flying a converted BE2c fighter, sighted a German airship, one of 16 which had left bases in Germany for a mass raid over England. This was the wooden frame Schütte-Lanz SL 11. For some time they thought it was another airship, they thought it was the Zeppelin L 2, it was quite some time later they actually realized it was the older Schütte-Lanz. It made an attack from 11,500 feet, raking the airship with machinegun fire with both Brock and Pomeroy ammunition. He brought it down and the 15 man crew were all killed.

This is just to illustrate again, going back to WO 339, it illustrate Robinson’s career. So here we have the paperwork for…I should say that these WO 339s are actually kept for pension reasons and they were weeded in the 1930s but they still contain an awful lot of information, nothing to do with pension, there’s an awful lot service material still in there. So as an example, the paperwork for him entering the Military Academy at Sandhurst in 1914.

I’ve just put this for amusement really, this was the declaration supporting him, he’s obviously well renowned to somebody named Dame Laura Alabaster, she put in a good word for him to, I don’t, can anybody tell me who she was. I’ve tried to find out who she was, she obviously had some clout since she supported him in his position for you know his entering into Sandhurst. It contains all manner of personal things. This is in his own hand here simple letters for, in this case, informing the War Office of his change of address. I should say this is in WO 339/50028. This is shortly after coming out of the Worcesters and arriving for aviation training, 1915.

Now this, I think, is his handwritten account of the attack on the Zeppelin. Say it’s in his file. It’s just on fairly rough paper, very, very hurriedly scratched down. And I believe this is the first account that he made on the landing back on his home base he’s gone straight into his own accommodation. He’s got hold of some paper and he’s made his notes. So that’s a unique document. Within the file also is a proper War Office translation.

The actual shooting down of the Zeppelin was witnessed by thousands of Londoners. They saw the ship blazing in the night sky. People were cheering, they were playing the national anthem, apparently someone also played bagpipes. It was a huge…party. In fact my grandfather was there and saw the thing in the air. He [Robinson] was awarded of the VC and he also received £3,500 as prize money. And he said in brief as it’s rather a long document:

‘I flew about 800 feet below it from bow to stern and distributed one drum among it, alternate new Brock and Pomeroy ammunition. It seemed to have no effect; I therefore moved to one and gave them another drum along that side also without effect. I then got in behind it and by this time I was very close. 500 feet or less below and concentrated one drum part, … concentrated one drum on one part underneath the rear…I was then at a height of 11,500 feet attacking the Zeppelin. I’d hardly finished the drum when I saw a fire at, glow. I a few seconds the whole rear was blazing.’

So it wasn’t an instant thing, …it out, it took two or three drums to of ammunition to this thing and there was certain rounds that come round and have another go at it that he realised that he could see something glowing inside and that was the actual, actual end of the Zeppelin. It caught fire and then descended to Cuffley.

Now after that he continued to fly and was unfortunately shot down and captured. He tried to escape a couple of times. Whether it was a result of that or not or whether it was a result of his notoriety because of the VC he shot down the Zeppelin he wasn’t treated particularly well with the Germans…even by standards of the First World War he was not treated well. His health deteriorated quite badly.

And this, the final document really, you find quite a few of these in WO 339…on repatriation he has to give an account of how he was captured. Other ranks in the army don’t have to do that, captured, fair enough, but if you’re an officer you have to give a full account of how that happened and sometimes they’re very detailed and sometimes they contain maps and plans, obviously this is a different thing, he was shot down so it can be fairly short but that’s his account there of how it happened and when it happened. And this is the recommendation: ‘I recommend Lieutenant WL Robinson’. Robinson, that’s his recommendation there for the Victoria Cross. That’s in AIR 1/547.

And this in AIR 10/21, just to illustrate other things that we hold here. This is the two-seater version but this is… basically the type of aircraft that the Home Defence Squadron was flying. Doesn’t look very much but apparently it’s a very stable aircraft and it has a very good gun platform, hence its use for defending the Southern part of the UK.

And that concludes my talk. So I hope that was of some interest to you all.

Transcribed by Kyra Bains and another volunteer, February 2015.