Pre-World War I
Manned heavier than air flight was barely seven years old when the British Army began to take serious
note of the possibilities and advantages of an air arm. For some years various officers had been involved
in the "sport" of flying, but by 1910, with the pastime strongly established, some came to see the aeroplane
as something more than a toy.
During the autumn manoeuvres of 1910 on Salisbury Plain, the first experiments into scouting and
observation by aeroplanes were carried out, and eventually the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers was
formed on 1 April 1911. The Battalion consisted of the Headquarters and No. 1 (Airship) Coy at
Farnborough, with No. 2 (Aeroplane) Coy at Larkhill.
Eventually however, the Air Battalion was disbanded, and the Royal Flying Corps was formed in its
stead. Under the command of Brigadier General David Henderson, the RFC was a small unit, and was not
intended to become the efficient air arm into which it evolved.
Formed on 13 May 1912, the RFC was composed of a Military Wing, a Naval Wing and a Central Flying
School (up until then, all pilots had paid for their own flying tuition at Brooklands). Command of the
Military wing was given to Captain F.H. Sykes, with the first adjutant being Lt B.H. Barrington-Kennett
of the Grenadier Guards. The two Companies of the Air Battalion became "squadrons" in the new jargon of
the RFC. The Airship Coy became No. 1 Squadron, and the Aeroplane Coy became No. 3 Sqn. No. 2 Sqn was
formed from a nucleus of aeroplane pilots attached to the Airship Coy.
This has led to interminable squabbling amongst the three senior squadrons of the RAF as to who
was first. No. 4 Sqn has no part in these arguments, as it was formed four months later, as part of
the planned expansion of the RFC Military Wing, which was intended to have a complement of just seven
A nucleus of personnel were provided by B Flt of No. 2 Sqn, and No. 4 Sqn was officially formed
at Farnborough on 16 September 1912. This new squadron was placed under the command of Major George
Hebden Raleigh, an Australian serving in the Essex Regiment. Raleigh had been born on 30 June 1878
in Melbourne, and had joined the British Army as a Second Lieutenant on 15 November 1899, right at
the start of the Boer War. The Essex Regiment was heavily involved in the battles that occurred,
and Raleigh gained a most distinguished service record. He was part of the Kimberley Relief Force
under Sir John French, and was seriously wounded in a bayonet charge at Dreifontein.
Raleigh recovered however, and returned to his Regiment in time for the operations in the
Transvaal and served with honour until the war's end, being awarded the Queen's Medal with six
clasps and the King's Medal with two clasps for his distinguished service.
After promotion to Captain in January 1908, Raleigh was posted to the 1st Battalion,
serving in Burma, India and on the Northwest frontier, in what is now Afghanistan. When posted back
to the UK, Raleigh showed an interest in aircraft, learning to fly in his spare time and gaining his
flying certificate in a Bristol biplane on 12 March 1912 at Brooklands, and so was attached to the
Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers. Having served as part of No. 2 Sqn, Raleigh found himself with
the unenviable task of commanding a front line flying squadron with only three people in the world
who had any experience in such matters. Nevertheless, Raleigh set to with a will and the Squadron
was prepared for its duties in a remarkably short time.
By the end of the year 1912 No. 4 Sqn possessed its full complement of aircraft; five Breguets and
a Cody Military, but was partially re-equipped later on with BE.2s and Maurice Farmans.
The Breguets, universally called "Coffee Pots", were a strange aircraft. Control was not by
the usual method of separate movable ailerons, but by a method of wing warping and spring-loaded
Most of what we know of the early history of 4 Sqn comes from the reminiscences of Lt P.H.L.
Playfair in an interview with Flight magazine in 1950: "I was posted to No. 4 Squadron when it was
formed by throwing off a flight from No.2 Squadron, which latter squadron I joined on being seconded
to the RFC from the Royal Field Artillery in August, 1912. The unit was then equipped with BE.2As
and Breguets - the latter a strange aircraft, which to the best of my recollection, had three marked
eccentricities: wheel steering; a very flexible warping wing, so that while taking off there was no
control until flying speed was reached; and a 100 h.p. Monosoupape engine, in which the intake was
through the crankshaft and up through the piston heads. To follow its later career, it went to the
bad completely after it was fitted with a stationary engine; in fact, I think I am right in saying
that hardly one escaped crashing on the delivery flight to Farnborough." Playfair was in fact badly
injured in the crash of one of these aircraft, flown by Lt Chinnery.
The BE.2 was to become the mainstay of No. 4 Sqn operations for the next four years as in fact
it was for the RFC as a whole. Designed by Geoffrey de Havilland at the Royal Aircraft Factory,
Farnborough, it was a large ungainly machine, with a maximum speed of just 70 m.p.h., and was
incapable of flying above 10,000 ft, but it possessed exceptionally stable flying qualities, and
in fact was an excellent platform from which the squadron could carry out its duties. All the
aircraft operated by the Squadron were unpainted, the fabric-covered areas being left in their
natural colours, and the familiar red, white and blue roundel was not yet applied, the Union Flag
being utilised in its stead.
In June 1913, No. 4 Sqn moved to Netheravon, which it shared with No. 3 Sqn, creating a
partnership that has lasted to this day, and began practice flights in reconnaissance and artillery
co-operation roles, flying more than fifty thousand miles during the course of the year.
A great part of the work of the Squadron was experimental. Various duties were assigned by the
Corps Headquarters and that of No. 4 Sqn was to develop the art of night flying with special
reference to landing field location in the dark. These were mostly carried out by Captain G.S.
Shephard of the Royal Fusiliers. The first method tested was with electric lights fitted to the
aircraft, but towards the end of 1913 trials were commenced with Muller parachute flares. It was
found that if the aircraft released a flare at 1,500 ft and another at 800 ft, the aircraft could
descend faster than the flares, and so land with the light coming from above. The methods developed
by the Squadron were adopted as standard procedure by the RFC and were laid down in the RFC(MW)
Training Manual, remaining unmodified all the way through the Great War.
During this time tentative trials were carried out with wireless sets for artillery co-operation.
The success of these is due to two pioneers; Lieutenants D.S. Lewis and B.T. James, both of the Royal
Engineers. Such was the success of the trials that a separate Wireless Flight was formed comprising
of these two officers and Lt S.C.W. Smith of the East Surrey Regiment.
The numbers of personnel on the Squadron had greatly expanded and frequent parades were held.
These showed a plethora of different uniforms, both British and Commonwealth.
The RFC was the only one of the fledgling air services to have its own uniform. This was a
high-necked double-breasted jacket with no exposed buttons. Worn with a swagger cane, breeches,
boots and puttees, the uniform was intended to be worn when flying or working on aircraft, as the
lack of exposed buttons would reduce the chances of it snagging on rigging wires and suchlike.
On active duty, side arms were carried; the service issue Webley revolver was the recommended
weapon for all ranks but again officers were allowed their own choice of pistol, provided that it
would take the standard service 0.455 inch ammunition.
Known as the "maternity jacket" this uniform was compulsory only for other ranks; officers
could wear that of their parent regiment, although many wore RFC uniform when actually flying,
for the reasons related above.
The Squadron at this time listed amongst its ranks many who would gain great distinction in
their exploits, most usually leading to their deaths.
In June 1914, the entire military wing of the Royal Flying Corps was detached to Netheravon
for a month's combined training at a "concentration camp" (to use the phrase in its true military
sense). The camp lasted until the middle of July 1914, when No. 4 Sqn began to prepare for manoeuvres
with the Army.
Immediately after the move, the Squadron began to expand, with new members posted in and
other prospective pilots being given a few flights. One of these was Lt Gilbert Mapplebeck,
who was to become one of the leading lights of 4 Sqn during the early part of the Great War.
Mapplebeck was nineteen years old when he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Special
Reserve of Officers in 1911. The following year he took a course of flying with the British
Deperdussin Aeroplane Co Ltd and received Royal Aero Club certificate No. 386. After being
commissioned as a full time officer in the Liverpool Regiment, he was posted to the CFS at
Upavon, where he got his hands on a visiting 4 Sqn Farman. He promptly crashed this aircraft,
but was fortunately uninjured.
Despite the crash, Mapplebeck was recommended for service in the Military Wing of the RFC
and was posted onto the strength of 4 Sqn.
Taking great delight in his new found profession, Mapplebeck set out to explore the limits
of his BE.2, with a few feats of bravado. Having flown the aircraft to its ceiling of 10,000 ft
and made several long distance flights, he decided to experiment with aerobatics, a practice which
was frowned upon. Eventually, to his joy, he managed to loop the aircraft, but unfortunately was
spotted, by none other than Major Raleigh himself. Raleigh was unimpressed with this display of
youthful exuberance and circulated a letter stating "The Commanding Officer wishes it to be made
clear to all Officers, WO, NCO and AM Pilots that no attempts at "looping" are to be made. Please
acknowledge receipt here on....." Mapplebeck was incensed. In a letter to his mother he complained,
"I think it an awful cheek to say attempt".
Nevertheless, Mapplebeck was adjudged to be one of the better pilots and Playfair, now
recovered from his injuries, was assigned as his observer.
The concentration camp culminated in participation of a review of troops by General Smith-Dorrien
and his staff. This was a musketry salute by infantry followed by hussars, lancers and field artillery
passing in front of the general, who was on horseback. These were followed by a fly past in line ahead
by the RFC Military Wing, each aircraft dipping as it passed the saluting base. Once again, Mapplebeck
brought himself to his superiors attention. He dipped his machine very low, and it was remarked
afterwards that it had very nearly taken the general's hat off! Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe, events
were happening that were to change the face of the world for ever. In Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia,
the Hapsburg heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand, had been murdered by a young malcontent, Gavrilo Princeps.
The rulers of Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia for the murder, an allegation which was totally unfounded,
and looked for ways to gain reparation. They turned for approval to their old ally, Germany, who advised
them to take a hard line against the Serbs, also promising support if Russia should back Serbia. A small
"Balkan quarrel" very quickly became something more serious.
World War I
Threats and political posturing led to both Germany and Russia mobilising their troops, but the Great
Powers in the west, France and Great Britain, seemed to have little to fear until it became known that
the Germans intended to strike first in the west. This was due to a twenty-year-old plan to protect the
Fatherland aiming to crush France, whether or not France was in fact threatening Germany. Accordingly,
on 1 August 1914, Germany declared war on Russia and three days later did they same with France, claiming
as justification that an aeroplane of the Aviation Militaire had bombed the railway between Nuremberg and
Karlsruhe; a blatant lie.
The following day, the German High Command demanded free passage for its troops through Belgium into
France. Belgium naturally refused, and Germany invaded a couple of days later, occupying large areas of
Great Britain had so far held itself aloof from these troubles, but now had found a provocation
which it could not ignore. Alight with idealistic fervour for the rights and neutrality of "little Belgium",
the British government declared war on their oldest European ally, diving headlong into a war in which
Britain had no real quarrel and little hope of winning. The Great War had begun.
With the outbreak of hostilities two officers, Captains D. le G. Pitcher and H.L. Reilly were
transferred from the newly-formed Indian Flying Corps, to the war-time strength of No. 4 Sqn, although
both officers were to be posted away to Egypt once the Squadron had become established in France.
To reinforce the "RFC Naval Wing" (which the Admiralty more properly called the Royal Naval Air
Service) in preparations for home defence A and B flights of No. 4 Sqn moved to Eastchurch on 31 July
1914. From there they carried out defence patrols of the oil tanks at Port Victoria, the airship sheds
at Hoo and the power station at Chatham.
The coastal patrols were to search for any of the dreaded German airships, as Playfair relates:
"Before going to France we were re-equipped with BE.2As and Maurice Farmans. I can remember going out
in one of these from Eastchurch to hunt Zeppelins, armed with rifle and rifle grenades. I think a certain
amount of mental confusion existed in my mind as to whether to throw them or shoot them. Word had gone
forth that a certain gallant CO, whom afterwards attained deservedly exalted rank, had ruled that in the
event of neither the shooting nor the throwing of the grenades attaining the desired result, the
alternative form of attack should consist of ramming the airship head-on. What with one thing and another
I was glad not to encounter any." The ceiling of the Zeppelins was at least twice that of the BE, so an
encounter was rather unlikely, but this was not realized at the time.
Although assigned to Home Defence duties, No. 4 Sqn was earmarked to become part of the British
Expeditionary Forces in France. Along with the other squadrons detailed for overseas service, No. 4 Sqn
received orders to report to Dover in preparation for the move overseas. Capt Reilly flew to Dover in
BE.2 No.474 to enquire about shed accommodation for the aircraft, but was unable to secure any. This
was reported to the War Office on the following day and, with the congestion at the three airfields at
Dover becoming critical, it was decided that the squadron should transfer to France directly from
Eastchurch. A and B Flights flew direct to Amiens (106 miles) on the morning of 13 August 1914, the
groundcrew having left from Southampton the previous day. The commander of B Flt, Capt Shephard in
BE.2a No.320 was the formation leader, and to him fell the responsibility of selecting and marking a
suitable landing area on arrival at Amiens. Unfortunately all did not go as planned. The recently
promoted Capt Cogan suffered engine failure over France and had to force-land in a recently ploughed
field. The remainder of his section, all from B Flt, elected to land also, and all three aircraft
Playfair again; "I can remember being with the aircraft that followed Captain Cogan down to
his forced landing in France, and I can still remember the roughness of the field he was unlucky
enough to choose. I also remember that after refuelling and resuming the flight I was not above
landing again to ask a passing pedestrian the way to Amiens, though this is an episode I have kept
a dark secret until today." A and B Flts fared little better, with their machines being scattered
all over northern France, from Boulogne to Amiens.
The move took all day, which is hardly surprising given the state of the aircraft and the
inexperience of the pilots in long cross country trips of this order. However the relocation was
eventually completed in good order with no casualties, and the squadron was fully established at
Amiens and ready for operations the following day. According to the squadron diary, the officers
were given comfortable billets in Hotel de l'Ecu de France whilst the enlisted men slept under
In the meantime, C Flt had moved from Netheravon to Swingate Down, one of the clutch of
airfields at Dover, having to stage through Shoreham, where it became engaged on coastal patrols
in support of the British deployment to France. The flight was later to rejoin the squadron on
20 September by which time the latter was based at Fere-en-Tardenois.
Here is a list of the officers who went overseas with No. 4 Sqn RFC in August 1914: Squadron
Commander: Major G.H. Raleigh (Essex Regiment); Flight Commanders: Captains G.S. Shephard (Royal
Fusiliers), A.H.L. Soames (3rd Hussars) and F.J.L. Cogan (Royal Artillery); Flying Officers:
Lieutenants P.H.L. Playfair (Royal Artillery), K.P. Atkinson (Royal Artillery), R.P. Mills (Royal
Fusiliers, S.R.), T.W. Mulcahy- Morgan (Royal Irish Fusiliers), R.G.D. Small (Leinster Regiment),
W.G.S. Mitchell (Highland Light Infantry), G.W. Mapplebeck (Liverpool Regiment, S.R.), C.G. Hosking
(Royal Artillery), H.J.A. Roche (Royal Munster Fusiliers), I.M. Bonham-Carter (Northumberland
Fusiliers) and 2nd Lieutenant A.L. Russell (Royal Flying Corps, S.R.); Attached: Captains D. le G.
Pitcher and H.L. Reilley (Indian Army); Wireless Flight: Lieutenants D.S. Lewis (Royal Engineers),
B.T. James (Royal Engineers) and S.C.W. Smith (East Surrey Regiment, S.R.). No. 4 Sqn was not to be
stationed at Amiens for long, however. Three days later the majority of the RFC air striking force
moved to Maubeuge, near the Belgian border close to Charleroi, along with their HQ element, again
suffering a certain amount of confusion in the process. A little later the British troops began to
arrive. We find an aviator writing, "We were rather sorry they had come because up till that moment
we had only been fired on by the French whenever we flew. Now we were fired on by both French and
English." As a result of this behaviour of the ground troops, the aeroplanes were now distinctively
marked by having the Union Jack painted on them in the form of a shield. Conditions at Mauberge were
rather primitive, as the airfield was really only the remains of a farm, and enlisted personnel were
accommodated in stables under a barn, while the officers were billeted in the local town. On the
following day, however, many of the aircrew gave up their billets and moved onto the airfield even
though sanitary arrangements were very bad and drinking water was non-existent.
The first reconnaissance mission to be flown by the RFC was carried out two days later, on 19
August 1914 . This was a joint mission between No.3 and No. 4 Sqns, and was intended to provide a general
view of the tactical situation in the area. The 3 Sqn element was provided by Capt P.B. Joubert de
la Ferte, in that squadron's sole Bleriot Parasol monoplane, a rather antiquated design, even for
1914. Joubert de la Ferte was briefed to reconnoitre the area between Nivelles and Genappe, south of
Brussels, and to report on the numbers and disposition of Belgian forces in that area, which had taken
severe casualties and were believed to have withdrawn into the city of Antwerp. Lt Mapplebeck of 4 Sqn,
in a BE.2, was to find out whether the elements of German cavalry reported in the neighbourhood of
Gembloux were still there, and if so, in what force.
The two pilots took off at 0930 hrs without observers and flew together to Nivelles, so that if
anything untoward were to happen and a forced landing were necessary, the one could report on the
position of the other, in which case the mission was presumably to be abandoned. However, the two men
soon became separated from each other and both lost their way. Mapplebeck found himself over a large
town which was in fact Brussels, although he didn't recognise it, but eventually he found his position
at Ottignies, and flew south-east to find Gembloux, where he found a small body of cavalry moving
south-east away from the battle area. He then became lost in cloud and had to follow the Sambre river,
which should have taken him to Maubeuge, but again he lost his way and, embarrassingly, had to land at
the airfield at Le Cateau to ask for directions. He finally returned to Maubeuge at 1200 hrs.
Joubert de la Ferte had attempted to steer through the low cloud but after two hours had landed
in a field at Tournai and had asked various civilians about the Belgian army units, but learned nothing.
After taking off at 1215 hrs he yet again became lost, necessitating another landing at Courtrai at 1400.
Here, the local gendarmerie told him to report to the Belgian Flying Corps HQ at Louvain. Leaving
Courtrai at 1500 he flew a very circuitous path to the west, turned east again and finally regained his
bearings over Nivelles, returning to Maubeuge around 1730. Although failing to find the Belgians, he was
able to report on roadblocks on the way to Brussels. The next recce mission flown by the squadron on 21
August was routine by comparison.
On 22 August the RFC began flying reconnaissance missions in earnest, with twelve being flown on that
day, revealing large formations of enemy troops advancing on British positions in the area of the mining
town of Mons. Capt Shephard and Lt Bonham-Carter had had to refuel at Beaumont and there had learned that
French forces on the banks of the Sambre had come into contact with overwhelming German forces the
previous afternoon and had been forced to fall back. On this day as well the first German reconnaissance
aircraft was seen over the airfield. Various British aircraft took off in pursuit but the enemy machine
had too great a head start and dived to safety over the German lines to the north. On this day also,
Major Raleigh and Lt Small in BE.2a No.299 were fired upon by the French, their machine receiving six
bullet holes. The squadron had modified this aircraft with lights to intercept Zeppelins at night but
this was a useless measure and gained no more success than earlier attempts, as the BE.2a, with a 70 h.p.
engine, was patently unable to gain the height or the speed necessary to catch these airships.
The RFC sustained its first casualty of war on 22 August when Sgt Major Jillings, who was acting as
observer for Lt Noel, both of 2 Sqn, was injured in the hand by small arms fire from German cavalry near
Ghisenghem. Jillings completed his mission, and was later cited for the award of the Victoria Cross, but
perhaps understandably in light of the much greater casualties which were sustained later by the Royal
Flying Corps, this was never awarded.
Two days later the Allied retreat began. Although the British had held Mons, they were on their own
with French troops in full retreat to their right and no cover whatsoever to their left. Aerial
reconnaissance showed large enemy columns moving south with the intention of engaging British forces in
the area of Charleroi. This was in fact von Kluck's Second Korps which could have dealt a severe blow to
the largely unprepared British troops in the area. Capt Shephard, with Lt Bonham- Carter as his observer,
took off at 1545 hrs to report on the German troops, and the crew ascertained that the Germans were in
danger of outflanking the British lines and would soon be in a position to threaten the rear areas.
However General Sir John French had already ordered a retreat and the German blow was never to fall. The
mission flown by Shephard and Bonham-Carter merely proved to all the danger which British forces had been
in and the disaster which had narrowly been averted.
With the German army now thrusting south towards Reims and with Maubeuge directly threatened, a
withdrawal was ordered with 3 and 4 Sqns moving twenty miles east to Le Cateau and 2 Sqn moving to
Berlaimont. This began a round of constant movement as the Allied lines collapsed. Over the next two
weeks 4 Sqn occupied successively aerodromes at Le Cateau, St Quentin, La Fere, Compeigne, Senlis and
Juilly, sometimes for no more than a day. Pilots never knew whether their airfield might not be in the
hands of the enemy when they returned. The squadron's work was carried out under appalling conditions of
hardship for aircrew and groundcrew alike, with the constant threat of another move hanging over their
heads. Indeed, a story is told of two officers returning by car with aircraft spares from Paris to Senlis
in the evening, to find the Germans in occupation of what had been RFC HQ. They were mistaken for German
officers as they arrived. They escaped! However the RFC was to prove its worth as a reconnaissance force
during this period, with the General Staff coming to rely more and more on the aerial reports especially
since reports from the Front were usually inaccurate and disjointed at best.
Squadron morale was boosted on 25 August when a second German aircraft, a Taube, was seen over the
airfield at Le Cateau. Lieutenants Mapplebeck and Atkinson gave chase in BE.2 No.242 and managed to
force the aircraft down near Le Quesnoy, where it and the crew were captured. This didn't prevent
another move to St Quentin later in the day however and twenty- four hours later British and German
forces were engaged in a pitched battle around the former airfield. At this time aircraft had no
armament. Any weapons that were carried by the crew were limited to revolvers or carbines, but these
were mainly carried with the express purpose of self-defence should they be forced down behind enemy
lines. Aerial meetings between British and German aircraft were conducted with gentlemanly respect for
the other side, as befitted these 'Knights of the Air', but with the headlong withdrawal of the allies
in late 1914, this attitude was bound to change.
This then was the origin of the classic 'dog-fight' with the antagonists attempting to force their
opponent to the ground by buffeting him with the slipstream. With the fragile aircraft of the period
this was a surprisingly effective tactic, but was not without its dangers. Although not the first
encounter of its kind, the action on 25 August was to be a harbinger of things to come.
No. 4 Sqn played an important part in detecting and confirming General von Kluck's swerve
south-eastwards which ended the retreat and was followed by the Battle of the Marne. On 6 September,
the first day of the Battle of the Marne, RFC HQ were instructed to provide aircraft for direct tasking
by the First and Second Corps, in an attempt to cut down the time it took to disseminate information to
the troops in contact. Nos. 3 and 5 Sqns provided the bulk of the aircraft for these detachments, with
4 Sqn providing a wireless machine to each detail in order to keep RFC HQ informed of developments. All
aircraft were to return to their respective bases at night, which for 4 Sqn was currently Melun, to the
south of Paris.
Although due to a lack of communication between the French generals Gallieni and Joffre British
forces saw little action, this experiment into decentralisation was a qualified success and General
French gave orders that the arrangement should continue. Squadrons were increasingly to become
identified with certain Corps, so enabling crews to become familiar with the requirements of the
specific units to which they were attached. No. 4 Sqn however was the exception to this rule, with its
aircraft being used in support of the other squadrons, and as such the squadron did not get a chance to
fulfil its envisaged role, that of observing for the artillery, during the Battle of the Marne and had
to wait until the Battle of the Aisne.
By 14 September the Germans had held the limited Allied advance at the Aisne, and proceeded to dig
in. Now the familiar lines of trenches became evident, as the situation stabilised. It was possible to
organise fixed ground stations and 4 Sqn was kept busy observing for the artillery. Lieutenants Lewis
and James came into their own during this period, vindicating their earlier enthusiasm for airborne
observation posts equipped with wireless. The demand for support by 4 Sqn became insistent, and Lewis
and James were constantly in the air. It was during this period that experiments into photographic
reconnaissance were carried out using makeshift equipment.
During September, No. 4 Sqn occupied aerodromes at Serris, Pezarches, Melun, Touquin, Coulomniers
and Fere-en-Tardenois. On 20 September C Flt rejoined the squadron at Fere-en-Tardenois, near Reims.
During their stay at Swingate Down, C Flt had re-equipped with Farman Shorthorns, a pusher biplane of
French design which carried a Lewis gun in the forward cockpit. These were to be the first fighting
aircraft used by the BEF, and were in action by 1 October, when Lt Barton pursued a German biplane for
about ten minutes, but without success, highlighting the main drawback of the Farman design; its lack of
speed. (According to The Daedalus, "there seems to be little doubt, unofficially, that this enemy aircraft
was the first shot down by a British pilot").
On 22 September, one month to the day after Sgt. Major Jillings was injured, 4 Sqn sustained its
first casualty when Lt Mapplebeck was wounded in action. He had been attempting to destroy a German kite
balloon by flying above it and dropping bombs on it. On the way there, in BE.2 No.242, he met with an
enemy aircraft and attempted to gain a position from which he could drop a bomb on it.
Unfortunately, Mapplebeck could not keep out of the arc of fire of the observers rifle, and he was
hit by one round. By an incredible stroke of bad luck, the bullet hit a five franc piece in his pocket
and deposited bits in different parts of his thigh and stomach.
He at first made his way back to Fere-en-Tardenois but being in great pain and weak from loss of
blood, was obliged to land at Dhuizel, which squadron records claim to have been 2 Sqn's landing ground.
Fortunately he recovered from his wounds, albeit after having nine operations to remove pieces of the
coin in his thigh, and was flying missions again within the month. Mapplebeck was the first British
airman to be wounded in an air combat, and while in hospital, seems to have been quite a celebrity.
He wrote to his mother, "This is about the fifth day after receiving my wounds. I am getting on well
and there is practically no doubt of my recovery. I am going to a place near Paris. I am not sure of its
name, but will write you later. The place is Prince Murat's home. I met him sometime over here and he came
to see me when he heard about me and said he would take me there. If you would like to I'm sure you can
come and stay with me. I will speak to him about it. This is really only a clearing hospital where they
bring the wounded only for a day at most as a rule. I was not moved because I was too bad and shall
probably stay here three or four days longer. General French has been awfully kind. He even came to see
me himself and generals pop in quite often to ask me how I am going on." Departures from the squadron
included the wireless section which became part of the Headquarters Wireless Telegraphy Unit formed on
27 September. From this organisation the whole wireless telegraphy organisation of the RFC was developed.
Antwerp fell on 10 October by which time 4 Sqn had moved forwards to Moyenneville. The Germans drove
south towards Ypres, intending to outflank their enemy, with the British moving north with the same
intention. The scene was set for another set-piece battle at Ypres and again the line stabilised. The RFC
squadrons had again detached flights to various corps during the action, but now it was found necessary
to attach squadrons permanently to infantry unit headquarters. The necessity of these detachments,
coupled with the increasing number of squadrons which would be require to keep pace with the army, made
it clear that the RFC was becoming too large to handle efficiently without some intermediate grouping
between squadron and headquarters.
No. 4 Sqn, now based at St Omer, received orders that two flights were to relieve 6 Sqn at
Poperinghe not far from the Belgian coast, and so on 21 October 1914 A and B Flts left to carry out
reconnaissance duties for IV Corps. C Flt, with Maurice Farmans, continued to carry out hostile aircraft
sweeps from St Omer, culminating on 31 October 1914 when Lt Humphries carried out what was probably the first
ground attack mission when '250 rounds were fired at convoy of enemy on the ground'. On October 26th 1914
Capt Crean and Lt Hoskins were shot down by our own infantry, and this tragedy was a final proof that the
Union Jack was a poor distinguishing mark for aircraft, for at a thousand feet only the Cross of St.
George stood out clearly, and this could be mistaken for the German Iron Cross. It was now decided to
adopt the French three- colour circular markings with the colours reversed. A and B Flights returned to
St Omer on 21 November 1914. By this time the BEF was a shattered army. It was now that further
decentralisation of the Flying Corps took place with the formation of wings on 29 November 1914.
Towards the end of 1914, the weather turned bad, causing seas of mud in the trenches and misery to
the troops. The RFC was not to have an easy time of it with a large number of aircraft being wrecked in
storms, 4 Sqn losing three with five damaged on 28 December 1914.
The New Year 1915 was to be the start of the rot for 4 Sqn, as from now on there were to be lives lost
in increasing numbers, although the first three were due to accidents, not enemy action. Lt Chinnery was
killed on 18 January 1915 whilst flying as a passenger in a Voisin which had been collected from Paris, while
the others were killed within two days.
January 1915 also was to see a slight change in the missions flown by the squadron. It had come to the
notice of HQ RFC that the enemy was constructing numerous very large sheds near Ghistelles, and it was
considered likely that this was to become an aeroplane construction and maintenance depot, or even worse,
a base for the dreaded Zeppelin airships. Arrangements were made to attack the installation and this
mission fell to 4 Sqn. Presumably this was felt to be a high value target and as it was so far behind
enemy lines air attack was felt to be the only viable method of destroying it. Therefore on the morning
of 14 January 1915, four aircraft were detached to Ostende, together with their pilots; Major Raleigh,
Captains Mills and Roche and Lt Mulcahy- Morgan, in order to prepare for the attack. The groundcrew
followed behind in a road party: the Adjutant, seventeen enlisted men and a motorcyclist. They took
with them a mobile workshop, light and heavy tenders - and the OC's car. The weather was too bad for
the mission to be mounted, with weather reconnaissance missions being mounted on the following four days,
all to no avail.
The raid was carried out on 19 January 1915 and considerable damage was believed to have been caused.
The attack was pressed home with Cooper bombs which were lobbed out of the cockpit by the pilot, no
purpose- built bomb racks having been received by the RFC at that time. Unfortunately Roche met with
a fatal accident on the way to the objective, his engine failed and the heavily loaded BE crashed.
(The Squadron Diary states "Roche killed by explosion over water".) Morgan lost his way on the return
flight and landed at Boulogne, later flying on to St-Omer, where his engine failed and was duly replaced.
On the following day Major Raleigh, the CO, was also killed when his aircraft fell into the sea
off Dunkerque. Raleigh had been flying the squadron's Sopwith Tabloid, No.386, which he was apparently
unfamiliar with. The following is an extract from a report by Captain F.V. Holt; "At about 4 pm on
January 20th 1915 Major Raleigh reached Dunkerque at a height of about 2,000 ft. The light was good and there
was no wind. He cut off his petrol and commenced his descent with two or three well banked right-hand
spiral turns from 2,000 to about 1,200 ft. He then did a straight glide and was commencing an underbanked
left hand turn when the machine suddenly started very close right spirals and was out of control. At a
height of about 500 ft the spirals suddenly ceased and the machine glided very flat for about thirty
yards. It then suddenly commenced left hand spirals which turned into a straight nose dive twenty feet
from the sea.
"I consider that the first spirals commenced in some way owing to an underbanked turn and that
the pilot then either slipped out of his seat or became giddy. All controls were found to be intact,
the belt fastened but the woodwork to which it was attached had given way. The machine fell into about
two feet of water and it was twenty minutes before the pilot could be got out of the machine.
"Dr. Wells of NAS was one of the first to arrive at the wreck and took charge. Major Raleigh was
taken straight to the Hospital Ship Magic, where he died at 7 pm. He was conscious whilst being taken
to the ship but gradually lapsed into a comatose condition." The detachment was placed under the
command of Capt Holt who flew up from St Omer, and Major Reynolds, the commander of C Flt, took over
the squadron until 29 January 1915 when the new CO, Major C.A.H. Longcroft arrived. Here is a list of the
Squadron's Commanders up to the end of the Great War:
Major G.H. Raleigh September 1912-January 1915
Major C.A.H. Longcroft January 1915-August 1915
Major F.F. Waldron August 1915-September 1915
Major G.E. Todd September 1915-February 1916
Major V.A. Barrington-Kennett February 1916-13 March 1916
Major T.W.C. Carthew, D.S.O. 13 March 1916-September 1916
Major L. Jenkins, M.C. September 1916-November 1917
Major R.E. Saul November 1917-January 1919
Major H.P. Prior January 1919-March 1920.
Longcroft had been one of the original members of the RFC, joining in 1912, and until promotion
to major had spent all his flying career on 2 Sqn, where he became the leading exponent of long-range
flights. In August 1913 he had flown a specially modified BE2 from Farnborough to Montrose in seven
hours and forty minutes.
Dunkerque had come under attack by German bomber formations, and on 22 January 1915 a second raid
occurred. Capt Holt was airborne at the time, patrolling over the town, and he immediately attacked
the formation, achieving little success at first. He was eventually joined by Mills and Morgan who
had hurriedly taken off in a second aircraft when the enemy machines appeared. An Albatross was shot
down by a rifle bullet fired either by Capt Holt or Lt Mills. The machine was captured intact, with
its occupants, as it was the engine which was hit. Together they managed to force down one of the
raiders, which was captured intact, together with the two crew. The Dunkerque detachment rejoined
the rest of the squadron at St Omer on 28 January. By March 1st 1915, the Squadron's Maurice Farmans had
been replaced by Voisins and its equipment in machines was now: seven BEs, four Voisins and one
With General Joffre complaining that the Western Front was being neglected, preparations were
now in hand for a 'push' against the German forces at Neuve Chapelle and the squadron was tasked
with obtaining photographs of the German trenches along the front occupied by the First Army. The
area was photographed to a depth of 1,500 yards behind the front line, and 1:8,000 scale maps were
produced and around a thousand copies issued to each corps. With this sort of accurate information
available for the first time, the attack could go ahead with a much greater chance of success. The
Voisin flight, however, was not destined to take part in the assault, as on 8 March 1915 it was detached
to Bailleul under the command of Capt C.F. Murphy to carry out reconnaissance duties with II Corps,
the remainder of the squadron carrying out strategic reconnaissance and bombing of special objectives.
The assault commenced at first light on 10 March 1915, without the usual preliminary artillery
barrage, as the British Army was suffering a munitions shortage. However this was to catch the
Germans by surprise and the infantry broke through the enemy lines for the fist and only time in the
war. The British then failed to exploit the advantage, giving the Germans time to bring in
reinforcements and so plug the gap. Thus the battle, although lasting only three days, set the
pattern for the later battles at the Somme, Arras and Passchendaele, with initial success being
thrown away in preference for a long drawn out campaign of blow and counter blow, neither side
really achieving anything except raising the body count.
As the attack opened, 4 Sqn were briefed to attack the railway junction at Lille, in the first
organised night bombing raid carried out by the RFC on the Western Front. The three aircraft were
detached to the Town Ground airfield at Bailleul on 10 March 1915, so as to be as close as possible to
the objective. Each aircraft carried two 100 lb Hales bombs on carriers designed and made by the
squadron and use was to be made of a novel method of target marking. Two electric signalling lamps
were placed five miles apart on a line between Bailleul and Lille as a guide to the pilots, with the
furthest just short of the front line. As the flight was timed to arrive over the target at dawn and
so take off was to be carried out in darkness, each aircraft was fitted with cockpit lights and each
pilot carried an electric signalling lamp on his back for air-to-air communication.
The mission commenced at 0445 hrs on 11 March 1915 with Capt Barton and Lts. Mapplebeck and A.St.J.M.
Warrand as the aircrew. Unfortunately Barton's BE.2 was wrecked soon after take off, probably due to
engine failure. Mapplebeck had to put back with engine trouble. Warrand was seen to pass over the
first light and twenty minutes later two explosions were heard. This presumably was the attack on
Lille, but Warrand never returned, it later being found that he had been shot down by Archie.
Mapplebeck, his engine repaired, started out again at 0530 and was also seen to fly over the first
light, but he also failed to return.
Happily Mapplebeck survived his crash and managed to evade German search parties and made his
way to a house that he had spotted where he was given food and shelter. The Frenchman who befriended
him took him to Lille and introduced him to the Mayor, M. Camille Eugene Jacquet, who in turn lent
him clothes, also arranging for him to cash two cheques, with which he bought further clothes in
Lille. Being fluent in French, Mapplebeck was able to walk quite freely around Lille, but the
Germans knew he was in hiding and published notices offering a large reward for anyone giving
information leading to his arrest, and threatening that anyone found helping him would be shot.
Mapplebeck therefore left Lille on foot, and crossed the Dutch border at night, returning
to London in April 1915. M. Jacquet was arrested by the Germans and charged with having concealed
French and British soldiers and having helped them to escape. Accordingly, on 22 September 1915,
he and three other inhabitants of Lille were executed by the Germans on charges of 'espionage', an
act of casual brutality which was to become all too familiar twenty years later. Fortunately
Mapplebeck was unaware of this and on his return to London was awarded a bar to his Distinguished
Service Order. He was returned to flying duties and on his next flight over Lille dropped a
message addressed to Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria,the commander of the German VIth Army,
apologising for his apparent rudeness in not coming to pay his respects in person and pleading as
excuse, his hurried departure from Lille.
This message was picked up and duly delivered to the Prince, but his remarks were not reported,
at least not in any official document.
A rather over-dramatised and imaginative account of Mapplebeck's adventures was later published
in one of the London picture papers, and is included here; it is entitled "Air Stories by a Pilot":
"....I'll tell you a true story," said one man. "It's about an RFC man named Mapplebeck, a fine
fellow; he's dead now, though." "It all happened one very misty morning. Mapplebeck was up on a
reconnaissance trip; his engine went wrong and down he had to come a good ten miles behind the
German lines. He landed safely and had just burnt his machine when he saw three figures coming up
out of the fog. He fled and hid himself in a ditch hard by. He was in it for the whole of a blessed
day and night. We've since heard that there were close on five thousand Boches searching for him the
whole time. When he found the coast was clear he crept out of the ditch and marched off boldly down
the road until he met a friendly Belgian peasant, from whom he wheedled an old suit of clothes, and
thus dressed he walked on nearly to Lille.
"Here he did a silly thing. He got on board a tramway car bound for the city. The car was full
of Prussian officers, and when the conductor came for his fare he was startled. Then he had a
brain-wave; remembering that every town in Belgium possesses a glorified market square, he said,
"A la grande place, s'il vous plait," and pulled out a handful of silver coins to pay the man. Such
a thing as a silver coin hadn't been seen in Lille for months, ever since the Germans had captured
it in fact; but, fortunately, the Prussians were too much occupied in their own conversation to take
"Arrived in the city, luck again favoured him and he obtained shelter in a garret for three
weeks. From the window of the garret he was able to make notes of enemy guns, ammunition columns,
supply wagons, troop trains, troops, aircraft; everything in fact. Then the police grew suspicious
and he was forced to clear out hurriedly one night. After leaving the city he had a terrible time.
Right across Belgium he tramped, always at night and every moment in fear of his life, feeding on
anything he could find - refuse thrown to the pigs and stale bread thrown away by the soldiers.
Footsore and hungry, he at last arrived at the Dutch frontier, where he had another agonizing wait
for a day and a night in a ditch.
"Late in the evening the sentry paused on his beat to light his pipe; this was Mapplebeck's
opportunity. He dashed across the frontier. It was a moonlit night and the sentry fired three shots,
missing him each time. He crossed Holland; heaven only knows how; reached a seaport town, stowed
himself aboard a fishing smack to England, and reported himself to the astonished officials at the
War Office. His death had been announced three weeks before." The attack on Lille was therefore a
failure, but later efforts of this kind found more success, and one of the lessons learned was that
bombing the enemy's roads and railways was an important part of preventing his movement of
reinforcements. No. 4 Sqn returned to its primary duty of strategic reconnaissance, but detached
three aircraft to Boulogne to protect the ammo dump there from aerial attack.
Meanwhile, other members of the Squadron were having similar bad luck. 2nd Lt AJ Capel, time
and again was forced to put non-committal entries in his log; "...attempt at reconn in morning....
Clouds.......attempt at reconn in afternoon.....clouds again.....Landed with engine failure. Came
back in car. No reconnaissance......". His frustration grew and grew until he had to let off steam.
Unfortunately, the rest of the British Army did not seem to appreciate his April Fool joke of
dropping a football over Allied positions on the first of the month! On 21 April 1915 the squadron moved
from St-Omer to the Town Ground, Bailleul and operating with 2 Wing, gradually took over the
artillery observation duties of 5 Sqn, working alongside 5 Sqn until its observers got to know the
area. On the 26 April 1915 the squadron finally took over the aerial work with III Corps, allowing 5 Sqn
to be withdrawn for re-equipment. On this date it again came under the command of 3 Wing.
Meanwhile, the squadron had increased its toll of enemy aircraft. On 17 April 1915, Capt Vaughan
and 2 Lt Lascelles were engaged on a reconnaissance near Bruges when they met a German Aviatik
recce machine. Lascelles was carrying a cut down Lee Enfield .303 service rifle and he engaged
the enemy with this, firing a total off twenty-four rounds. The German pilot was killed in the
exchange and the Aviatik crashed behind French lines, the observer being captured. The BE.2 was
shelled from the German lines, but the crew managed to complete the mission.
During the second Battle of Ypres on 22 April 1915 the squadron carried out its role of
reconnaissance and artillery observation for III Corps. This battle saw the first use of poison
gas by the Germans, which punched a large hole through the British lines, which the Germans failed
to exploit, but once the initial confusion was over, 4 Sqn were able to track the gas clouds from
the air, so giving warning to the units on the ground.
During May 1915 the squadron received a solitary Caudron G.III aircraft, and later on in June 1915,
it also acquired a Morane H, both outdated French aircraft and so apart from a handful of BE.2s of
various marks, the squadron complement was composed of a mish-mash of antiquated French designs, a
situation that was not to change for another year.
Although suffering many trials because of the lack of modern aircraft, 4 Sqn continued to
provide badly needed reconnaissance information, although often this was not used to its best
advantage, with the British commander in chief, Sir John French, preferring the old- fashioned
frontal assault, which time after time decimated his armies for the gain of no more than a few
yards of territory. Strangely the Germans favoured similar tactics and so only hours later would
mount a counter attack and throw the British back, both sides losing thousands more men in the
process. However on 9 May 1915 the 6th Division forwarded a letter to the squadron CO, Major Longcroft,
from the Brigadier General commanding the 16th Infantry Brigade thanking "the observer and member
of the Flying Corps for getting us the most excellent photographs of the enemy's trenches about
Rue de Bois, Large Farm and Wez 'Macquart'", the observer being Lt A.H. Parker.
With the war progressing in its own way, not entirely under the control of either the Allied
generals, or those of the Central Powers, the Flying Corps began to exert a steadily increasing
influence on the conduct of ground operations. One of the greatest problems of controlling an
assault had been that of keeping the commanders in the rear in touch with events at the Front
Line. Sometime during May 1915, HQ RFC realised that aircraft could be utilised to observe troops in
action and report on the progress of the assault using wireless. This type of mission was termed
the 'contact patrol' and although tried tentatively at this time was to be a frequently occurring
aspect of 4 Sqn operations during the Battle of the Somme.
On 23 June 1915 the squadron was tasked with a reconnaissance to observe railway movements through
a cutting on the Leuze-Tournai line, in order to ascertain the chances of finding and attacking
German supply trains in this cutting. Low clouds caused the failure of the mission, which was
rescheduled for the following day, again failing for the same reason. No flying was possible due to
high winds on the following two days, but on 27 June 1915 a BE.2 flown by Cpl Judge with Lt Parker as
observer, successfully completed the mission on the third attempt after a flight of nearly four hours.
It was now that the Germans began to increase their air activity and to challenge British air
superiority, by introducing the first effective fighting machine, the Fokker E.I. This was a light
monoplane designed by the Dutch engineer, Anthony Fokker, and built in Germany. Although it
possessed no particular merit as an aircraft, its big advantage was its armament. Whereas other
scout aircraft had been fitted with a gun offset from the airscrew disc, with consequent aiming
problems, the Eindekker as it became called, had a gun firing through the airscrew and the Fokker
mechanical interrupter gear, which prevented the gun from firing when one of the propeller blades
was in the way. This was indeed a breakthrough as it allowed the pilot to point his machine
directly at the enemy, so increasing the likelihood of a hit.
The Germans also altered their organisation to give the flying units more flexibility. From
July 1915 the first Fokkers were attached to the reconnaissance Feldflieger Abteilungen (Field
Flying Sections) in much the same way as escort flights were attached to RFC squadrons, but as
production increased these aircraft were grouped into autonomous Jagdstaffeln (Fighter Squadrons).
RFC losses in the air mounted steadily during this period as although stable and an excellent
reconnaissance machine, the BE.2 which was the mainstay of the British squadrons, was no match for
a determined Fokker pilot. It became necessary for the fighting machines to escort the
reconnaissance missions, but even these were at a disadvantage. Towards the end of the year aerial
combat emerged as a definite branch of the work of the RFC and the necessity for specialisation
became very apparent. The equipment of each squadron with a single aircraft type became a priority,
but it was not until the beginning of the following year that this became a reality. In the meantime
Allied aircrew losses during the 'Fokker scourge' became considerable. The arrival in France on 25
July 1915 of the first real fighting squadron, 11 Sqn equipped with the Vickers FB.5 Gunbus, did little
to redress the imbalance, mainly because of the unreliability of the Gnome Monosoupape rotary engine,
a problem which it shared with most British aircraft of the period.
Unfortunately, Captain James, an original member of the Squadron and one of the two wireless
pioneers, was killed by a direct hit in the air over Velorenhoek in the Ypres Salient during July 1915.
By now the RFC headquarters staff found that many units were becoming out of touch with the
overall aims and achievements of the Flying Corps. Accordingly, a weekly communique was issued
presenting each days situation. The first communique was issued on 28 July 1915 and 4 Sqn gained
the following mention: "In front of the IIIrd Army area a machine of 4 Sqn, proceeding on
reconnaissance, met and pursued a hostile machine. The latter met another machine of 4 Sqn piloted
by Lt Weir, observer Lt Hankin, who opened fire on it. At the same time a second German machine
came up and joined in the fight. Eventually both German machines dived, apparently undamaged, in
order to escape." The type of enemy aircraft was not recorded, but they were unlikely to have been
Fokkers, however the incident does serve to show the new-found aggression of the German pilots.
Communique No.2 also makes note of 4 Sqn, referring to two separate combats on 29 July 1915, one of
which involved one of the new Fokkers. Capts Reese and Kennedy attacked the enemy aircraft which
retaliated, damaging the British aircraft and then disengaged to land at the German aerodrome at Cambrai.
August and early September 1915 were rather quite as most of the military action was concentrated in
the Dardanelles, but 4 Sqn aircrew were again involved in aerial combat on 11 September 1915. Capt Halahan
and his observer, Lt Evans, were engaged in a reconnaissance north of Bapaume, when they were attacked
by an Aviatik reconnaissance machine. The German opened fire prematurely, but Evans immediately
returned fire. The Aviatik was much more manoeuvrable than the British BE.2c and so the German
disengaged and then threw overboard two silver balls, which burst into white smoke. Correctly assuming
that this was a signal to the German gunners giving the height of his aircraft, Halahan dived two
hundred feet when seven shells burst around his aircraft. Uninjured, Halahan and Evans continued to
engage the Aviatik which dived and landed in a field south of Bapaume. It is not clear if the machine
was damaged in any way.
No. 4 Sqn had in the meantime undergone changes both in its command, location, and commanding
officers. Having been transferred to 3 Wing, it was returned to 1 Wing for two days in July 1915 and then
went back to 3 Wing. A move to Vert Galand was carried out on 20 July 1915, only for the squadron to move
again on 5 August 1915, this time to Baizieux, north-east of Amiens. The new squadron CO, Major F.F. "Ferdie"
Waldron took over on 21 August 1915, but was himself replaced by Major G.E. Todd on 29 September 1915, when he
went on to command 1 Reserve Sqn. Waldron was an Old Etonian and when he eventually took command of 60
Sqn he called for as many of his fellow Etonians as he could, even poaching them from other squadrons!
A rather interesting sideline to the squadron's operations at this time was the development of techniques
for the covert landing of agents in enemy held territory. Very little has come to light about this type
of operation, but it is known that the first attempt to land an agent was carried out by Capt Mulcahy-Morgan
of 6 Sqn. Whilst a lieutenant, Mulcahy-Morgan had served with B Flt of 4 Sqn, and was in fact one of the
original members of the squadron to have transferred from Eastchurch to Amiens. The attempt unfortunately
ended when his BE.2c crashed into a tree, injuring both men, but a few nights later the first successful
placement of an agent was carried out by 2nd Lt J.W. Woodhouse of 4 Sqn. The official report reads:- "Lt
Woodhouse left the Baisieux landing-place yesterday evening at 4.30 pm accompanied by an agent. The agent
was dressed in French uniform with plain clothes underneath and took with him two baskets of pigeons; one
of these was carried on his lap and one on the plane outside the fuselage. Lt Woodhouse climbed to 6,000 ft
and flew to the area S.W. of Serain (10 miles S.E. of Cambrai) at which point the agent had reported a good
landing-place. On coming down to 1,000 ft, however, Lt Woodhouse was fired on from Serain and saw some carts
moving on the road to the S.E. of the village. He therefore decided to try one of the other areas
recommended by the agent, and as the later had appeared very reluctant to go anywhere farther south, he
turned N.W. to Bantouzelle (eight miles south of Cambrai), landing at the S.E. corner of the wood to the
south of this name at about 5.30, just as dusk was falling "a ground mist assisted to conceal the operation.
"The agent was very quick in getting clear with his pigeons into the wood, but owing to a steep glide
in landing, the forward cylinders got too much oil, with the result that they cut out and the engine
stopped. The throttle had been set so that the engine would just run with all cylinders firing.
"The agent meanwhile had reached the wood, but seeing that Lt Woodhouse was in difficulties started
to return. Woodhouse, however, sent him back to the cover of the wood, and after putting his gloves into
the air intake pipes, sucked in petrol, and started the engine himself, getting into the aeroplane as
she moved off. The tail skid had previously been prepared so as to hold on to the ground as much as
possible. On getting up to about 100 ft, Lt Woodhouse found that his engine was missing badly due to
over-oiling; he therefore landed again, and by dint of running the engine all out on the ground for short
bursts, used up the surplus oil. At about 5.40 p.m. he started again and returned to our lines in the
direction of Albert. It was, however, very dark, and in the neighbourhood of Maricourt he lost his
bearings and eventually landed in the dark at about 6.40 p.m., about 16 miles east of Amiens. He landed
safely, but broke his propeller; how this breakage occurred he could not say.........
"I consider that Lt Woodhouse deserves very high commendations for his coolness and determination,
particularly in refusing the assistance of the agent when his engine stopped, as he thereby very much
increased the agents chances of escape." The report is dated October 4th 1915 and signed "W.S. Brancker,
Lt Col, commdg. 3rd Wing".
The French General Joffre had been pushing once more for a combined offensive on the Western
Front and so plans were laid for a two-pronged attack by the French into Champagne, and by the
British towards Arras. The attack began on 25 September 1915 and the French immediately got a rude shock.
Although they overran the German front line, there was a second fully prepared defensive line behind
it, which broke the French assault.
The British fared no better. Joffre had stated that the attack should be made at Loos and
despite the objections of Sir John French, this went ahead. Using poison gas, and in many instances
gassing their own troops, the British surged through the German lines and almost penetrated the second
line. However, the reinforcements which had been brought up to exploit the breakthrough got tangled up
with the first echelon of troops and just as the assault petered out, the Germans counter-attacked.
The Allies made no gain at all, there had simply been pointless slaughter.
No. 4 Sqn were involved in the Battle of Loos from the start. Before the opening of the offensive
six aircraft each from 4 and 8 Sqns attacked the railway line between Douai and Valenciennes with
the intention of denying the enemy the use of the line to bring up munitions and reinforcements
from Mons and Namur. Capt Brock of 4 Sqn was fortunate enough to find a supply train, and he
attacked this with his sole 100 lb bomb from a height of 200 ft. The centre portion of the train was
wrecked, but the forward section steamed away and Brock continued to attack with 20 lb Cooper bombs.
Another crew, Capt Cooper and 2 Lt Ridley, reported being attacked by three Fokker biplanes, and they
were obliged to jettison their bombs and fight their way out. Ridley opened fire with the Lewis gun
and drove the enemy away. While crossing the lines to return to Baizieux, they saw an LVG C.II, a
rather ungainly German reconnaissance machine, and recrossing the lines, engaged it. The unfortunate
German pilot appeared not to see the approaching BE.2c and Ridley was able to open fire from a range
of 100 yards. The LVG attempted to evade, but to no avail as Ridley continued to fire, and eventually
It was intended to repeat the Douai railway bombing mission the following day, but this was
prevented by bad weather. The repeat mission was carried out on 25 September 1915, however, despite the
low clouds and constant rain squalls. Lt Horsfall gained a direct hit on a stationary train with a
100 lb bomb, but the relevant communique makes no mention of this, stating only that "the line was
damaged in several places".
On the 26th Septrember 1915, 4 Sqn moved their attentions to the Roisel-Cambrai-Douai line and again caused
damage to the railway. Capt Halahan missed a train by ten yards but the resulting explosion damaged
a bridge. He experienced heavy Archie and his observer, Lt Mitchell, was wounded with the aircraft
being badly damaged.
These attacks were repeated throughout the battle, but were insufficient to stop the Germans
bringing up adequate reinforcements. The artillery observation missions were carried out as normal
throughout the height of the battle, and although the assault was a failure, General Sir John French
was moved to write "This wing...(i.e. 3 Wing)...performed valuable work by undertaking distant flights
behind enemy lines, and by successfully blowing up railways, wrecking trains and damaging stations on
his lines of communications by means of bomb attacks." Towards the end of 1915, 4 Sqn became more
integrated as a Corps squadron with 3 Wing. Bombing missions on a larger scale than before became the
norm, with the whole wing being tasked, rather than individual squadrons, and formations of between
ten and twenty aircraft were likely. Air combats also increased in prominence with Allied machines
taking a heavy toll from the aforementioned Fokkers, but strangely, the aircraft from 3 Wing seemed to
live a charmed life, taking very few casualties in comparison with the other Corps squadrons. This
was probably due to the tactics used, with 11 Sqn providing a fighter escort for each of the big
missions flown by 3 Wing.
However, it was not all plain sailing. Capt Fiennes and Lt Paterson were attacked by a German
biplane on 22 October 1915, and were unfortunate enough to be caught outside of their fighter cover. This
seems to have been another reconnaissance machine, with the German pilot just trying his luck, and
after a few desultory exchanges, the German withdrew.
On 30 October 1915, 3 Wing attacked a German observation balloon. This was a risky business at the
best of times, with the winch position being surrounded by a large number of anti-aircraft guns, and
was usually left to the scout squadrons who attacked with Buckingham incendiary ammunition. However,
on this occasion, the attack was made by slow moving reconnaissance machines which dropped bombs on
the balloon. This was at best a haphazard method of attack, and despite two attempts, neither the
balloon nor its winch were damaged. Amazingly, there were no losses from this raid, but one wonders
whether this was in fact authorised by Wing, as it seems a foolhardy venture.
No more success was found on 6 November 1915, when 3 Wing attacked a large hutment area at
Achiet-le-Grand. The raid was planned to consist of three waves, one at dawn, another at midday and
the third, carried out by 4 Sqn, during late afternoon. The second and third waves were to be given
fighter cover by 11 Sqn, and the plan was very carefully orchestrated. However, as was commonplace
during this time of year on the Western Front, the weather took a hand. Although the first wave took
off into clear skies, there was a bank of mist over the target and damage was consequently small. The
weather then closed in and the second wave was cancelled, but matters improved around 1400 hrs and
fourteen aircraft from 4, 8 and 13 Sqns took off to deliver the third wave. However the objective was
hidden by clouds and the attack failed. Although some pilots claimed to have hit the target, most lost
their way and jettisoned their bombs.
The mission was repeated the following day, but once again mist and low cloud hampered efforts.
Results were better this time however, with thirteen bombs finding the target. No. 4 Sqn yet again moved
their base on their return, this time to Allonville, a move of only five miles.
The tempo of 3 Wing operations increased dramatically in the next few weeks. November 8 1915 saw an attack
on the Headquarters of the German XIVth Reserve Corps at Baupaume, and a raid on the aerodrome at
Bellenglise on the 11th November 1915. Again this was to be an all out effort, with all three of the 3 Wing Corps
squadrons timed to attack at the same time, in order to swamp the enemy defences. But yet again the
weather was to play a part, and most machines lost their way in cloud, with all experiencing difficulties
in returning to their bases, due to exceptionally high headwinds.
Second Lieutenants Whitelock and Balmain had a lucky escape on the 25th November 1915. While engaged on an artillery
co-operation sortie between Bray and Albert in BE.2c No.2001, they were attacked by an enemy aircraft, of a
type unknown to them. No sooner had they driven it off than they were attacked from above by an Albatros,
which they also drove off. A third aircraft attacked from behind and Lt Whitelock managed to disengage,
having expended all their ammunition. Considering discretion to be the better part of valour, the mission
A third raid on Achiet-le-Grand was mounted later in the afternoon, and 3 Wings' fortunes were better,
with the target being wrecked.
Capt Halahan secured a place for himself in history when he survived an attack by a Fokker on 28th
The enemy was again driven off, and Capt Halahan gave chase but it seems that the Fokker pilot did not
intend to press the attack anyway, as he was probably out of ammunition. This combat was duly reported in
the RFC Communique, which by now was turning into a mere propaganda leaflet, with British victories being
reported, but the horrendous toll on the RFC strangely not mentioned. In fact so divorced from reality were
these becoming that the men on the squadrons referred to them as 'Comic Cuts'.
December 8th 1915 was a busy day for 3 Wing with three raids being mounted, one on the aerodrome at
Hervilly and two separate ones on the stores depot at Miraumont, considerable damage being inflicted on both
Once again the French General Joffre was pushing for 'just one more' combined offensive on the Western
Front, but this time he intended the British to bear the brunt of the attack. His venue for the assault was
at the junction of the British and French lines on the Somme river, a point which had no particular
strategic significance, but just seemed a good idea at the time. British reactions were non-committal, but
Joffre was insistent, and preparations began for what was to become known as the 'slaughterhouse of a
The year ended routinely for the squadrons of 3 Wing, with another attack on Achiet-le-Grand on the
13th December 1915, and a second raid on Hervilly the following day. Second Lieutenant Woodhouse, of agent dropping fame,
claimed to have probably brought down a large German biplane on the 28th, but this was not confirmed.
The first six months of 1916 were notable for the unfavourable weather, many sorties having to be
curtailed. A large raid was organised by 3 Wing on January 17 1916, this being an attack on the stores depot at
Le Sars. Later on in the same day 4 Sqn received a new CO, Major V.A. Barrington-Kennett.
The squadron returned to the routine of artillery co-operation work, and on the 28th January 1916 were able to
assist in counter-battery fire, having spotted the position of enemy guns in mist from their gun flashes.
The Royal Flying Corps now consisted of nearly thirty squadrons, a far cry from the seven that had
flown to France in 1914, and a further decentralisation was considered necessary. Consequently at the end
of January 1916 the Corps was organised into three Brigades, one to each army of the BEF. Each Brigade
consisted of two wings and an 'aircraft park' to repair battle damaged aircraft and to supply
replacements. One of the wings carried out artillery co-operation and close reconnaissance work and was
designated the Corps wing. The other carried out reconnaissance and patrolling duties directly under
the command of the relevant army headquarters, and were designated the Army wing. No.3 Wing became a
corps wing and with 12 (Army) Wing formed III Brigade under the command of the Third Army. This was not
to be for long however, as on 1 March 1916, 3(Corps) Wing was detached for duty directly under the Fourth Army,
and eventually became the Corps wing of IV Brigade, which was formed on April 1st 1916.
The night of 19th/20th February 1916 saw an attack by Capts Tennant and Horsfall of 4 Sqn on the
aerodrome at Cambrai. Although Horsfall's bombs refused to release, Tennant made a successful attack from
an altitude of thirty feet, his machine suffering damage from his own bombs in the process.
Operations continued routinely until March 13 1916 when the CO, Major Barrington-Kennett, was killed in
a Bristol Scout while in pursuit of an enemy aircraft. The squadron command was taken over by Major
T.W.C. Carthew, DSO.
The tempo of operations was now reduced as the focus of the Western Front shifted to the battle
around the French fortress of Verdun. The German attempt to take the citadel was unnecessary, and it
soon became a battle that was fought for the sake of fighting, with the objectives of both sides being
quickly submerged under a welter of bodies.
The RFC Communiques during this period were reduced to reporting on the activities of the Corps
squadrons, having before concentrated on the glamorous air-to-air exploits of the fighter squadrons.
Accordingly 4 Sqn gained two mentions in Communique No.33, one for an operation on 9 April 1916 when the
squadron directed fire from a battery of 8-inch Howitzers, completely destroying an enemy gun
emplacement. The remainder of April 1916 was dogged by typical European spring weather, which gave the
RFC chance to rotate personnel back to the UK for some well deserved leave, but the war in general
seemed to be going badly for the Allied Powers. Verdun, although not taken by the Germans, was soaking
up tremendous amounts of French troops and the morale of the French army was beginning to crack.
The RFC suffered another blow with the loss of Colonel D.S. Lewis, killed by a direct hit over
Wytschaete in April. Lewis had been one of the leading lights in the development of air-to-ground
wireless telephony when he had been a member of the 4 Sqn Wireless Flight.
The German General in charge of the Verdun campaign, Falkenhayn, seemed to have tired of the
battle and so moved his troops back to other parts of the Western Front. This was viewed with some
trepidation by the British commander, Sir Douglas Haig, who now decided to open an attack of his own.
Having seen Joffre's plans for an attack on the Somme, he came to believe that a decisive breakthrough
could be made there, a belief which was not shared by his subordinates, who nevertheless loyally
supported him. Joffre himself did not believe in the efficacy of the plan but was content to leave
things alone, realising that if the attack went ahead, the British would again pay the price and maybe
take some of the pressure of his own beleaguered divisions. The ordinary British soldiers were led to
believe a great victory was in the offing. The Somme was no longer of any strategic significance. It
had been chosen in December 1915 simply as a place where Briton and Frenchman could fight side by side,
but by the middle of 1916 the French divisions had been cruelly crushed in the hell of Verdun and had
little stomach for further bloodshed. Worse, the German defenders were well dug in, holding all the
Nevertheless, the plan went ahead and Haig gave orders for preparations for the 'Big Push'.
British skirmishing operations were increased around the Somme, and the Germans naturally moved in
reinforcements and strengthened their defences. The outcome of this being that the British provoked
their enemy into fortifying the very point that they were to attack.
With the increase in operations, 4 Sqn again found itself carrying out reconnaissance missions
over the German trenches, and on 25th and 26th of June 1916 a concerted effort was made by all Brigades
to clear enemy kite balloons from the front. On the first day three balloons were attacked by IV
Brigade, with 4 Sqn tasked as a back-up in case the Nieuport scouts which were the spearhead of the
attack failed to bring the balloons down with their Le Prieur rockets. In the event all three balloons
were brought down in flames by the scouts.
July 1916 was a watershed both for the Allied Expeditionary Force and for the Royal Flying Corps.
The generals in command of the AEF finally gave up any ideas they had for a quick breakthrough and an
ensuing war of movement, settling instead for the kind of war that Joffre had secretly envisioned all
along; a war of attrition. The remainder of the Great War on the Western Front was characterised by a
succession of set-piece trench battles leading to massive casualties on both sides with little or no
gain in territory for either antagonist. The horrors of trench warfare that had been experienced on the
Marne and the Aisne were to be repeated over and over again, but on a vastly greater scale.
The RFC started to change its method of operation. Gradually squadrons became more specialised,
keeping to their own clearly defined roles. With the Order of Battle now standing at twenty-seven
squadrons with 421 aircraft, the Corps could afford to allow this kind of specialisation as there was
usually a trained squadron available at any specific area for any particular mission.
However for the average man in the squadron, this was all to go unnoticed, at least for a while,
as he was too busy coping with the slaughterhouse of a generation, The Battle of the Somme. Major-General
Trenchard, the new commander of the RFC, had adopted a policy of unremitting aerial assault on the enemy
during the coming battle, and each member of the Corps was determined to do his part.
The first phase of the battle commenced at first light on 1 July 1916, with the end of an artillery barrage
that had pounded German positions for the last five days. However the attack itself did not commence
until full daylight, when thirteen British divisions went forward into the jumble of shell craters
and barbed wire that had been the German front line, only to find that the very shell-holes provided
excellent cover for enemy machine gunners.
No. 4 Sqn flew several contact patrols in support of the British advance, despite the very cloudy
weather, providing valuable and accurate reports of the progress of the assault, and in a number of
cases making bombing attacks on German artillery batteries, to mostly good effect. A few machines had
been modified with extra fuel tanks, allowing missions of a previously unheard of duration to be flown,
Lieutenant A.C. Jowett flying a contact patrol of over five hours. Another pilot, Capt C Hiatt, carried
out a special reconnaissance of Thiepval from a height of only 600 feet, which left him open to small
arms fire from every quarter. However he completed his mission successfully, furnishing excellent
details of enemy troop dispositions in the area.
All was to be in vain however, for by the early afternoon the battered survivors of the assault
were back in their trenches, having been repulsed by a combination of the terrain and a devastating
number of enemy machine guns arrayed against them. The British had suffered 60,000 casualties in one
day - 20,000 of them killed - and had no territory to show for their efforts. This was to be the
heaviest loss suffered in a single day by a British army or by any army in the Great War. The generals
had boasted of a great breakthrough but had only succeeded in decimating their front line divisions,
but it was too late now. With a sick inevitability, the tragedy of 1 July 1916 was repeated day after day.
No. 4 Sqn was transferred to 15 Wing on the following day, together with 15 Sqn, and on 3 July 1916
the wing was detached from IV Brigade to the Reserve Army, for duties as a Corps squadron. There was
to be no let up in the round of contact patrols and artillery observation as the Reserve army was
committed to the assault just as deeply as the other armies. Second Lieutenant R.C. Stoddard and 2nd
Lt J. Quinlan were reported missing from an artillery observation mission. Casualties rose sharply
now with six men being lost in three days, and several aircrew returned from missions with severe
injuries from shrapnel bursts or rifle fire. The battle dragged on through July, and the squadron
carried out its endless series of contact patrols, observation sorties, special reconnaissances and
bombing missions, prompting the Corps Commander, X Corps, to telegraph his "personal congratulations
to No. 4 Squadron for reconnaissances done during contact patrol work".
By the 20th July 1916, German scouts were to be found in force along the reserve army front and the
squadron lost a machine to a Fokker; the pilot, 2 Lt Randall, being killed. This however did nothing
to lessen the tempo of operations in the unseasonably bad weather. Communique No. 45 states; "The
weather almost entirely prevented work before the evening (of the 22nd July 1916). 4 Sqn, however, succeeded
during the morning in carrying out six urgently needed registrations on trenches round Pozieres......
Twice during the day (of the 24th July 1916) machines of 4 Sqn went down to 700 feet and opened machine-gun
fire on horsed transport on the roads leading east from Courcelette scattering the transport in both
cases. Pilots: Capt Sutton and Capt Whittaker; observers: AM Pateman and Lt Brewis..........4 Sqn
did a great deal of counter-battery work (on the 25th July 1916) with considerable success. At one time four
machines were working simultaneously. Direct hits with ....... howitzers were obtained on five or
more batteries and ammunition was exploded in three places........Capt Maltby and Cpl Wilson of 4 Sqn,
carried out a successful shoot with the 67th Siege Battery obtaining 9 direct hits on a trench." The
same Communique reports that 2nd Lts Steytler and Robertson were reported missing on the 25th July 1916. and
that Lt Hughes had been wounded by Archie.
The unfortunate losses of both personnel and aircraft were made up, with the squadron being
issued with various newer versions of the BE.2. The latest model, the BE.2e, was a single-bay
derivative of the 2c with redesigned wings and an uprated engine. However, the performance gains
were negligible and the 2e was still woefully inadequate to cope with the new breed of German
scouts such as the Pfalz D.III and the Fokker D.III which were just about to be released to service.
Both these new types had twin synchronised machine guns and a performance range unmatched by any
Allied aircraft. However the appearance of the aircraft, if not the capabilities had changed. Up
until now most of the RFC reconnaissance types had been left unpainted, and the clear doped linen
colour had been found to stand out against the dull colours of the terrain being overflown,
providing a beacon for any marauding German scouts. Experiments into tinted dopes had been carried
out for some time at Farnborough, and two colours had been settled upon, PC10 for most aircraft
with PC12 for various special applications. The majority of aircraft were finished in PC10 on all
upper surfaces, which was a drab green colour applied when the aircraft frame was covered with
fabric. This tended to give the aircraft a rather smart appearance although in service the dope
tended to fade to a browner tone. Nevertheless, the desired effect was achieved and the aircraft
became much harder to spot from above. Squadron markings also came to be applied for the first
time, in the case of 4 Sqn these being a simple white band around the fuselage just forward of
Smart-looking aircraft were not the main concern of an active squadron in the field however,
an the cry went up for improved aircraft types. The word came back that something better was just
around the corner. So it was, but 4 Sqn was not to receive it.
All through August 1916 the battle raged, and 4 Sqn persevered with its woefully inadequate
mounts. The pressure of operations did not slow, and neither did the dangers to the aircrew; on
the 22nd August 1916 Capt Whittaker and 2 Lt Stevens were attacked by a Fokker D.III and an L.V.G. C.V in
quick succession, but managed to drive both off. On the return flight they spotted another Fokker
and managed to engage it, forcing it down out of control. Also on the same day 2 Lts Jarvis and
Collenette met another L.V.G. whilst on artillery patrol near Courcelete. They broke off their
patrol and followed the enemy aircraft in the direction of High Wood, emptying two drums into it.
The L.V.G. promptly crashed, but Jarvis and Collenette were forced to return to Baizieux, as their
machine had been heavily damaged in the engagement. This kill was later confirmed by witnesses on
Air combats continued with mounting frequency during September 1916, with Sgt Pateman and Lt Duke
claiming a kill over Pys on the 2nd and two combats on the 6th September 1916, both leading to another score for
4 Sqn, which now seemed to be carving a niche for itself among the Corps squadrons in terms of enemy
Far from tapering off, the Battle of the Somme only seemed to increase and expand its horizons,
although to no purpose. On 15 September 1916, Haig unadvisedly committed his few tanks to the fray. Watched
closely by 4 Sqn's contact patrols, they moved through the German lines, despite many mechanical
difficulties, and finally succeeded in punching a hole in the defences. However Haig had neglected to
support the tanks with infantry, and a great opportunity to break the deadlock was squandered.
Covering missions by 4 Sqn were numerous, and Major Carthew, the squadron CO, gained note by
machine-gunning enemy anti-aircraft batteries.
The Germans now appeared to be throwing all their reserves of aircraft into the battle, and
from the 17th September 1916 extremely large formations of enemy aircraft were evident. RFC aircrew losses took
an upsurge, and an assessment of confirmed aircraft losses shows the balance in the Germans favour.
Air superiority had been lost and the RFC was again taking a beating.
As the battle dragged on into its fourth month, the weather increasingly affected the air war,
but the needs of the troops on the ground dictated that missions be flown in all sorts of weather,
suitable or not. The daily grind of contact patrols and artillery spotting sorties continued, but due
to the reduction in air combats, the horrific toll that the squadron had been taking was thankfully
lessened. During September 1916 there was only one casualty; AM Thake, a conscripted observer, being
killed on the 25th September 1916.
The final allied attack took place on 16 November 1916, but this like all the ones before was a dismal
failure. The Battle of the Somme died a natural death two days later, and there were none who mourned
its passing. The front had advanced five miles at its furthest point, and the British had sacrificed
some 420,000 men. The French had gallantly added to the body count with a respectable score of 200,000
but the Germans swept the board with a devastating 450,000. The cream of European manhood had been
systematically decimated on the banks of the River Somme.
It has been widely supposed that the high casualty rate was only suffered by the troops in the
trenches, but as was shown earlier, this is patently untrue. The Royal Flying Corps suffered horrific
losses in the air. The front line squadrons lost 782 aircraft either shot down or struck off charge
due to damage. As the Corps only started the battle with 421 machines, it can be seen that the
attrition rate was 185%, the equivalent of five aircraft being lost every day. However, while the
aircraft could be replaced with relative ease, the same was not true of the experienced aircrew.
Of 426 pilots available to the Corps on 1 July 1916, 308 were killed wounded or posted missing during the
battle. No. 4 Sqn alone lost over a dozen aircrew.
Many of the squadron's methods were improved during the course of the battle. At the beginning
of July 1916, apart from a few experimental wireless installations, all contact with the troops on the
ground was by the use of the signal panel method that had been pioneered by the squadron before the
war, but by the close of the battle, artillery observation machines were regularly using wireless.
Capt J.C. McMillan became one of the leading proponents of airborne wireless telegraphy, and it was
possible to tell if he was in the air by listening in. McMillan seems to have had a reputation for
being a little eccentric, and it has been claimed that when interested in a shoot "he used to leave
his BE to itself and would crawl halfway down the fuselage to see the burst", a feat which was
perfectly possible given the stability and docile flying qualities of the BE.2, although what his
observers thought of his antics has been lost to posterity.
Another pilot who achieved distinction for his artillery work during the battle was Capt A.A.
Walser. His exploits were regularly reported in the RFC Communiques, which alone was some mark of
his prowess; the Comic Cuts rarely relating details of such unglamorous duties. Walser was especially
successful with the 13th and 33rd Siege Batteries, and their accuracy when he was spotting for them
became almost legendary. The gunners nicknamed Walser "The OK King", and he was frequently requested
in preference to other pilots who were perhaps equally as competent. The difficulties of such
artillery co-operation work should not be underestimated. The on-board wireless set used on these
sorties was a heavy and bulky affair, which reduced the performance of the aircraft still further.
The aerial was a 120 foot length of steel cable with a 2.5 lb lead weight at its end. This had to be
wound out by hand after the spotting machine was in position. For the best reception by the ground
station, the aerial had to be kept straight and parallel to the ground, so the best method of
achieving this was to fly a slow figure of eight course in the general area of the target. Sudden
changes of attitude in flight were to be avoided, as not only did this reduce the effectiveness of
the transmission, but it could also cause catastrophic damage to the airframe. Aircraft engaged in
these duties were extremely vulnerable to both anti-aircraft fire and to the depredations of German
The establishment of large German scout formations, the so-called "Flying Circuses", boded ill
for the future as many missions could not be flown under the cover of friendly fighters, but for now
the air war settled down again, as both sides took stock of the situation.
For 4 Sqn there was a brief respite and a chance to rest, many personnel being granted leave.
Major Carthew was promoted and posted back to the UK, and his place was taken on the 20th December 1816 by Major
L. Jenkins, who as a Captain with 15 Sqn, had received the Military Cross.
So 1916 ended quietly, or at least as quietly as the Western Front could be. But there was much
more in store for the following year; 1917 was to see the end of the old world society and the
beginning of a new order. The United States of America was to reverse its isolationist policy, and
Russia was to be torn apart by a revolution which has irretrievably changed the face of the world.
On 31 January 1917 the Germans finally did what they had been threatening for months and commenced
unrestricted submarine warfare; all shipping, including neutral, would be sunk on sight in the
declared war zone of the eastern Atlantic. This total blockade was seen as the only possible way of
bringing Great Britain to her knees, but in fact it had exactly the opposite effect. On 2 February 19217,
the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Germany, but still hoped to avoid being dragged
into the war. These hopes proved unfounded however, for American shipping was being sunk, and on 6
April 1917 President Wilson finally and reluctantly declared war on Germany.
Back on the Western Front however, problems were again increasing for the Royal Flying Corps.
In the see-saw fortunes of the battles in the air the RFC was again at a low ebb. During December 1916 and
January 1917 more than half of the RFC casualties had been brought down behind British lines, and stocks
of replacement aircraft were getting very low. Moreover, supplies of fresh aircraft from factories
in England had fallen well below expectation and the much vaunted new designs were still not ready.
Trenchard wrote to London;"You are asking me to fight the battle this year with the same machines as
I fought it last year. We shall be hopelessly outclassed, and something must be done....." Indeed
something had been done. Updated versions of aircraft types already in service had been made available,
albeit in small numbers. Unfortunately for 4 Sqn this meant deliveries of the BE.2g, a machine that was
almost identical to the current BE.2e's and one that offered no performance gains whatsoever. In fact
due to the law of diminishing returns, there was little more that could be done with the design, but
still there was no sign of a replacement.
Missions continued, and the Squadron still paid a toll in casualties. On 28 January 19172nd Lt P.C.E.
Johnson went missing in action and on 3 February 19217 Capt McMillan's luck finally ran out. He was wounded
by shrapnel from a close Archie burst whilst on an artillery shoot and despite managing to return to
his base, he died of his wounds three days later. January 1917 ended with the Squadron again on the move,
this time to Warloy, about ten miles north-east of Amiens.
The new Allied commander, Nivelle, had taken advantage of the confusion in the higher ranks which
had resulted in his appointment and was about to order yet another push. However it was not to be.
Unbeknown to the Allies the Germans had been preparing a defensive line, the "Hindenburg Line", some
fifty miles behind their front line, and on 17 March 1917, they quietly withdrew to it, leaving a dead zone
in which every building had been destroyed, every road mined and every well poisoned. The Germans did not
withdraw in full view however, and made every effort to destroy any reconnaissance aircraft they found; 4
Sqn lost 2nd Lts Bourne and Taylor on a recce mission on this day. The Allied advance began the following
day. No. 4 Sqn carried out many contact patrols and reconnaissance mission, reporting movements and many
large fires in the enemy's rear areas.
The lines again settled down, and the Allies fell back into their old patterns and prepared plans for
yet another phase in the interminable round of offensives, this time at Arras No. 4 Sqn became heavily
involved in the softening-up of the Germans, conducting many bombing missions against troops and
transports in the Cambrai area. Two other notable targets attacked during this phase were the ammunition
dump at Iwuy and the aerodrome at Eswars. The BE.2 was found to be wholly inadequate for missions of this
kind, suffering terrible losses against determined opposition and so many of these missions were carried
out at night.
Although 4 Sqn was losing many pilots to enemy action, that is not to say that these were the only
losses. Like all active flying units, 4 Sqn suffered its share of accidents, and a bad day was had on 24
March 1917 when 2nd Lts Low, Gibson and Boon were lost in separate accidents. The accident rate of the RFC has
never received much publicity in relation to active units (that for training units is well known, a pilot
was very likely to be killed in an accident as aircrew were sent to the front with as little as twelve
hours flying experience), but in some cases squadrons were losing as many men in accidents as they were to
enemy action. This is a horrendous loss when one considers that in the first three months of 1917, the RFC
lost 249 aircrew killed or missing.
This is nothing, however, to the losses suffered in April 1917. The Germans made an all out effort
in the air, and this cost the RFC 316 men and 224 aircraft in one month, later to be called "Bloody April".
During this time 4 Sqn was involved in the usual ceaseless round of contact patrols and artillery spotting
for the Battle of Arras, which commenced on the 9th. Lt J.H. Brink was wounded by shrapnel over the front
and later died of his wounds, while two days later Lt F.L. Kitchin was reported as missing in action.
Squadron records are very sparse for this period, an indication of the workload, but it is safe to presume
that these were not the only losses to the Squadron.
On the night of 30 April 1917, No. 4 Sqn again paid a visit to Epinoy aerodrome as the follow-up wave to
an attack by the FE.2b's of 18 Sqn. The 4 Sqn contingent consisted of four BE.2s and three 112 lb and
fourteen 20 lb bombs were dropped on the target. On the return flight a 112 lb bomb was dropped onto a
train that was observed north-west of Marquion, causing a fire, and a number of strafing attacks were
made on transports and troops as targets of opportunity presented themselves.
May 1917 saw the start of the re-equipment programme for the Royal Flying Corps. In an attempt to
wrest the control of the air from the Germans, the Western Front was flooded with modern British designs.
The bomber squadrons received the excellent Airco DH.4, one of the designs which gave Geoffrey de
Havilland his immortal position in the annals of British aviation. Fighter squadrons gained the SE.5a,
the Sopwith Camel and the Bristol F.2b, all designs which have since passed into legend. The Corps
squadrons too were re-equipped, but here the imbalance was not redressed nearly as well. No. 4 Sqn
received its first twelve RE.8s towards the end of the month. The RE.8 was in fact nothing more than
an enlarged version of the venerable BE.2. It appears that although the designers at the Royal Aircraft
Factory had listened carefully to the scout squadrons, the Corps squadrons had once again been left out
in the cold. Either the DH.4 or the F.2b would have been ideal for the Corps squadrons; in fact the F.2b
was capable of outclassing the newest German scouts, but instead No. 4 Sqn was left to soldier on with
an aircraft that would have been easy meat for an earlier generation of enemy scout. The fact that they
would have to face the new Albatros D.III in these already obsolescent machines left many aircrew
distinctly non-plussed. On the plus side the Harry Tate's excellent stability made it suitable for the
artillery spotting role, and it was armed with a synchronised Vickers gun for the pilot as well as the
usual Lewis gun on a flexible mounting for the observer.
The new RE.8s were marked as the BE.2s had been, with PC.10 upper surfaces and clear-doped lower
surfaces. The RFC roundel was applied in the normal six positions and a revised rudder flash with the
red band to the front was adopted to prevent confusion with French machines. The squadron marking of a
white band in front of the fuselage roundel was retained. No. 4 Sqn eventually reached its full
complement of twenty- four machines towards the end of July 1917.
No. 4 Sqn moved with its new mounts to Abeele on 30 May 1917, and came under the auspices of the
2nd (Corps) Wing, II Brigade, for duty with II Corps in the action against the Messines-Wytschaete
Ridge. For all the change of scenery, there was no change in the losses inflicted upon the Squadron,
2nd Lts McNamara and Fletcher reported missing on the 2nd and Lt Mutch and 2nd Lt Taylor being killed
on the 6th June 1917.
June 7th 1917 saw a spectacular success for the Allies. The ridge at Messines, to the south of the Ypres
Salient had over the past two years been a thorn in the Allies side. Towering above the surrounding plain,
it was an ideal observation point, and from it the Germans could observe events behind British lines with
impunity. It had to be taken, so a novel plan was evolved. Nineteen deep mines were dug from the British
front lines under the German positions and they were filled with a million pounds of explosives. At 0310
hours on the morning of 7 June 1917 they were detonated simultaneously, the sound of the explosion was clearly
heard in London. The German front line was devastated and British troops, observed by machines of 4 Sqn,
simply walked in and occupied the entire ridge for minimal casualties. However this was not a viable
method of prosecuting the war, and further actions of this kind were not contemplated. The war once again
settled down to its familiar routine. British strategy was at its lowest ebb and with the lack of a
workable plan Haig fell back on the old methods and proposed a frontal assault at Ypres.
No. 4 Sqn meanwhile had again been transferred, this time to the 15th (Corps) Wing, V Brigade,
although operations were still conducted from Abeele.
1st Air Mechanic Monty M V Pocock MM RFC
July 12th 1917 saw an event which although common was still welcome; the recommendation for a medal
of a member of 4 Sqn. This time however, the medal was to be the Military Medal and it was actually
awarded. The man involved was 1st Class Air Mechanic Montague Vincent Pocock, one of the most junior
members of the Squadron, and the report states; "For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. On
June 25th 1917 near VOORHEZEELE while receiving the wireless signals from an aeroplane for a siege battery,
which was carrying out a shoot with aeroplane observation, his wireless aerial was cut by hostile shell fire.
1st Class Air Mechanic Pocock mended his aerial under heavy fire and continued receiving the signals with
only a slight interruption to the shoot. On several occasions he has repaired his apparatus under fire."
The award was recommended by Brigadier-General Longcroft, an ex- commanding officer of 4 Sqn, who now was
the Commander of the 5th Brigade, RFC.
(Click to see more information on Monty Pocock.)
Much has been said regarding the difficulties of the aircrew when engaged in artillery spotting, but
the wireless operators on the ground had problems of a similar magnitude. Although on the strength of a
squadron, they were detached to siege batteries of the Royal Artillery and so were exposed to greater
dangers than other members of the groundcrew. Their living quarters were invariably bad, and with each
man being responsible for the maintenance and operation of his equipment, his workload was high.
The equipment comprised a "Wireless Set Receiving Mark 3", which was essentially a powerful crystal
set, and a thirty foot mast which broke down into eight sections. This was used to support the aerial,
which had to be at right angles to the Front and sloped down to an eight foot pole near to the wireless
operators position. The operator was in telephone contact with various batteries and as such could be
responsible for a large portion of the Front. But his difficulties did not end there. German aircraft were
also engaged on artillery spotting duties, and obviously the sighting of his mast would indicate to them
the presence of a high value target. A wireless ground station would be very likely to come under sustained
artillery attack, and the operator had two alternatives; direct his aircraft to find the battery which was
shelling him, and engage it with counter-battery fire, or to pack up, lock stock and barrel, and move his
post to a new site. This would entail the laying of new telephone cables to the batteries under his control
and so the post would be effectively neutralised for a period even if the equipment was not destroyed.
The wireless operators of the RFC could indeed identify with the troops in the trenches.
By 25 June 1917 Haig had announced his readiness for a new assault, and preparations were made with, again,
no attempt at secrecy, leading the Germans to prepare also. The assault started on 31 July 1917, and although
officially called the Third Battle of Ypres, it was more commonly known as the Battle of Passchendaele.
The assault was a failure from the start; the British advanced less than half a mile before being held by
determined opposition. The whole of the Front Line was pounded by shellfire, and with the heavy rainfall
this degenerated into a sea of mud. Men found that their advance was hampered as they sank up to their
waist, the edge was lost and the attack faltered. The clouds were seldom above 1000 ft, but contact patrols
were still flown as the RFC tried to pile on the pressure. Of forty-four patrols flown by aircraft of V
Brigade on 31 July 1917, fifteen were by 4 Sqn, with the usual casualties being sustained; Lt J. Longton and 2nd
Lt T.L. Carson were reported missing. The work had by necessity to be carried out at very low level, and
all aircraft were heavily engaged by enemy small arms fire.
As the battle progressed, 4 Sqn became more involved in bombing raids, what would today be called
Battlefield Air Interdiction. Missions were flown against enemy airfield, and against concentrations of
troops waiting to be moved into the line. On 16 August 1917, 2nd Lt D.R. Starley and his observer, Lt E.C.R.
Grimwood, were carrying out one of these "counter-attack patrols", when they were bracketed by Archie.
Their aircraft had two longerons, a main spar, two wing struts, a cabane strut and an aileron control
cable cut through, and Grimwood was injured and the wireless apparatus destroyed. Despite his wounds,
Grimwood managed to compile a written report in flight, and this was dropped at Divisional Headquarters,
and the pair returned to Abeele, Starley making a safe landing in his almost uncontrollable machine.
Not surprisingly, the RE.8 was so badly damaged that it was struck off charge, but the incident does
show the strength of the design, which slowly gained a grudging respect from its crews.
The following day however, 2nd Lt C.A. Barlow was not so lucky, as his aircraft was shot down
over enemy lines, and he and his observer were killed.
The weather all the way through the Battle of Passchendaele was exceptionally bad, but this did
not keep the Squadron on the ground. Unfortunately, the German scouts were not grounded either and on
the afternoon of 3 September 1917 three of them found Lt G.F. Ward and Sgt W. Studholme in RE.8 A4651.
They attacked and the British aircraft was brought down; Ward suffered minor injuries, but Studholme
succumbed to his wounds two days later. He was only nineteen years old.
On 4 September 1917 Lt-Gen Jacob, the commander of II Corps wrote to the commander of V Brigade,
commending the work of 4 Sqn: "All the officers......have done consistently good work, particularly
Captain CT Vachell and Second Lieutenant Woodcock, who have in addition done several most valuable
contact patrols. But I bring the names of (various) officers forward now because of the work they
carried out on the 24th August 1917. On that date the enemy heavily attacked my line and placed a triple
barrage behind it. It therefore became most difficult to obtain information and of the utmost
importance to ascertain the situation on the front of the Corps. A raging gale was blowing at the
time with gusts, which according to weather reports amounted to 60 or 70 miles an hour. Three times
in the course of the day contact patrols from No. 4 Squadron went out, and on each occasion despite
the severe weather conditions most accurate information was brought back of the position of our line."
Around this time the Squadron was transferred to the 2nd Wing, II Brigade, but again continued to
operate from Abeele throughout the remainder of the battle. The British mounted a final attack on 7
November 1917, and took the ruins of the village of Passchendaele, and the battle finally ended on the
10th November 1917. The British line was extended into an awkward salient, and 300,000 casualties were taken,
men whose sacrifices were forsaken the following year when the gains of Passchendaele were
abandoned without a fight in order to shorten the line.
On 11 November 1917 4 Sqn lost yet another renowned member when 2nd Lt Grimwood was reported as
missing in action. The squadron had been in the front line continuously for over a year and now
was due for a well deserved rest. Accordingly, on 18 November 1917, it was transferred to the 1st
(Corps) Wing, I Brigade, and moved to the airfield at Chocques. While not withdrawn from action,
the tempo of operations was decreased and the establishment of the Squadron was temporarily
reduced to eighteen machines and twenty pilots with a similar number of observers.
At Chocques the Squadron was given respite and could attend to the finer things in life.
A Flt had as their Officers Mess President a Second Lieutenant J.W. Baker. Baker was given bare
Nissen hut, a mess steward and a cook. With these meagre facilities he was expected to organise
a home for fourteen officers, but was filled with such fervour for his charge that he declared in
a letter home, "It's going to be some Mess though, when it's furnished and running smoothly. The
men want things done in the most aristocratic way possible, so I have been rushing around buying
furniture and crockery, hiring pianos and buying gramophones." Funds for the Mess were no problem,
Baker having access to a fund held by the Field Cashier, but difficulties arose with the
accommodation. What does one do with merely a rude hut? Baker's answer was to cover the curved
roof with white cloth and the wall with a black fabric panel which was itself covered with Harrison
Fisher pin-ups. Any remaining areas of bare wall were hidden behind green canvas. These efforts are
all the more admirable when it is considered that this was Baker's secondary duty, carried out in
his spare time from his main duty as an observer on active missions.
On 2 December 1917 Major Jenkins was succeeded as CO by Major R.E. Saul, who had come from 16 Sqn.
The year finished with the Squadron being returned to active duty, although it remained at Chocques.
On 1 January 1918, A Flt of the Squadron was detached to the north of the line in Flanders. The
detachment was tasked with the aerial support of a Portuguese Division, but the marriage was not a
happy one. The detachment expanded and eventually split into two flights until it was eventually
raised to squadron status in its own right. Designated No. 4A Sqn, the aircraft sported three white
bands on the underside of the rear fuselage. No. 4A Sqn remained with the Portuguese until the end of
March 1918 when it was relieved by 42 Sqn and disbanded, the majority of the personnel and aircraft being
returned to the parent squadron. This was just in time as the Germans struck at Hazebrouck in early
April 1918, and the Portuguese lines collapsed, despite the best efforts of the RFC.
Meanwhile the parent squadron carried on operations from Chocques at a steadily increasing rate.
Events in the outside world, such as President Wilson's proposed peace plan and the end of the war in
eastern Europe with the signing of the Russo-German armistice, did little to decrease the burden. The
Germans appeared to be losing their morale, but still the fortified trench lines were a hard nut to crack.
However the Germans had one last shock for the Allies. Towards the middle of March 1918, the RFC Corps
squadrons had detected evidence of a massive German build up behind the lines, and the RFC was ordered to
intensify their policy of maintaining the offensive in the air. The enemy reinforcement was charted by the
Corps squadrons, 4 Sqn included, and from the intelligence which was furnished, it was deduced that the
Germans would attack in the area of St.Quentin. No. 4 Sqn carried out numerous counter-attack patrols in
an attempt to harass the enemy troop movements. These missions intensified after the German blow fell.
The morning of 21 March 1918 dawned foggy, which was a stroke of luck for the Germans, as this was their
predetermined time for attack. An artillery bombardment of incredible ferocity blasted the British line
and the subsequent assault overran the British forward trenches and the line began to crumble. The dense
fog remained and most of the RFC was obliged to remain on the ground. Those pilots who did get airborne
were unable to carry out contact patrols with any great efficacy.
By the time the fog cleared the German forced had made a decisive breakthrough into the British rear
areas. The war had developed into one of movement, one for which the British were not ready. Their troops
were trained in the rigours of trench warfare and were unprepared for the different problems which battle
in open country conferred upon them. Consequently the British troops withdrew far further than they needed
The RFC valiantly tried to stem the flow. Troop concentrations were strafed and bombed, even at night.
These attacks were at first carried out on moonlit nights only, but such was the necessity for them that
they came to be flown every night with the aid of Michelin parachute flare which were dropped by a
While the RFC was put under pressure again, events were coming to a head in London which would open
the way for the expansion of British air power.
During the summer of 1917, German Gotha bombers had raided London in force, in broad daylight and
totally unopposed. The resulting deaths had caused a public outcry for immediate retaliation against German
cities and for an inquiry into the incidents. The British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, had appointed South
African Boer War veteran Jan Smuts as head of the inquiry committee, and the report into the committees
findings was on Lloyd George's desk inside of two months.
Smuts had formulated a plan to reorganise the whole of the British air services, into a unified force
which would become capable of being the main arm of Britain's defences. He also recommended that the
existing Air Board, a committee with severely restricted powers, be raised in status and powers to become
a separate Air Ministry, with the brief of dealing with all air-related matters, and of formulating British
air policy. Unfortunately, Smuts had based his views on one false premise; that of the production
capability of the British aircraft manufacturers given the Air Ministry a striking force of 3000 long range
bombers within a few months of being given the go ahead. True, there were aircraft such as the Vickers Vimy
and Handley-Page O/100 on the drawing board at that time, but Smuts' predictions were pure imagination.
Trenchard however knew the truth of the matter, but was not averse to having a separate air service
- in fact this had always been his intention. In his efforts to bring Smuts' suggestions to fruition, he
was aided by his predecessor, Sir David Henderson, of whom Trenchard later said,"(He) had twice the
insight and understanding that I had. He was prepared to run risks rather than lose a chance that might
never come again. He did so with no thought of self-interest, and it is doubtful whether the RAF and
Britain realises its debt to him, which is at least as great as its debt to Smuts".
During late 1917, the Smuts Air Report had been hotly contested and debated in Parliament,
supporters of both the Army and Navy being opposed to the formation of an autonomous air arm which they
had little hope of exercising any control over. The main proponents of the new service were mostly
politicians who saw a method of gaining greater say with at least one arm of the services than had been
their due so far; the War Office under Lloyd George had lately been exceedingly high-handed in its
dealings with the Government.
On October 1917, the chairman of the Conservative party, Andrew Bonar Law, announced that the Air
Force (Constitution) Act was about to be introduced. It was passed through both the Commons and the Lords,
and received Royal Assent on 29 November 1917, empowering the King to bring the Air Force into being. The
Air Council was formed on 2 January 1918, and although reluctant to leave his command in France, Hugh
Trenchard was appointed the first Chief of the Air Staff, but managed to get himself succeeded by
Major-General George Salmond two weeks later. The final barrier to the formation of the Air Force was
overcome on 7 March 1918, when King George V declared his "Will and Pleasure that the Air Force to be
established pursuant to the said Act shall be styled the 'Royal Air Force'". Finally on 1 April 1918,
the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service amalgamated into the Royal Air Force; the first
fully autonomous air service in the world.
Monday April 1st, 1918, was not a red letter day for the men of the squadrons of the newly styled
Royal Air Force. They were far to busy fighting the Germans to worry about that sort of thing. The
Germans had pushed the Allied lines back over a hundred mile stretch of the Front, but at no time had
they made a decisive breakthrough. However, the morale of the German troops was low and the advance
was starting to falter, and on 5 April 1918 they were halted. The landing ground at Abeele was now
dangerously exposed, and so the decision was taken for No. 4 Sqn to be moved to Treizennes, about
twenty miles to the south-west.
The move was made in good order on 8 April 1918 and the Squadron was back in action the following day
when Capt Stevenson and Lt Baker carried out a contact patrol over the front line at 700 feet, and other
machines harassed the enemy's positions with gunfire and Cooper bombs.
The following day, two officers, Lt H.G. Burgess and 2nd Lt J.L. Parren were tasked with liaising
with their usual gun battery. They travelled up to the front, and were experiencing first hand the
difficulties faced by the artillerymen when they encountered a problem that they had not expected. The
Germans had taken advantage of the easterly wind and laid a gas cloud in front of the battery. Presumably
Burgess and Parren did not don their respirators in time and were gassed. Fortunately they were not
killed, but the Squadron had lost another two valuable members when they were invalided back to England.
Stevenson and Baker again flew a contact patrol on that day, and came under heavy small-arms fire.
Baker was later cited for the Military cross for this and other actions which he took part in. The medal
citation reads; "(He) remained over enemy lines taking notes until quite dark, when he returned with his
machine riddled with bullets. On every flight he obtained most important information, which was dropped
at headquarters, and throughout the period his work has been magnificent." An interesting point here is
that Baker's log states that they landed after dark at "the retreat aerodrome at Treizennes." Baker was
apparently unaware that this was in fact the Squadron's new home base, and is a pointer to the amount of
stress the air and groundcrews were under.
Both men were again in action on the 11th April 1918. This time they never went above 500 feet, sometimes
operating at 150 feet, well within range of small arms fire. Baker composed his report in flight, and
the whole was dropped at Corps Headquarters, so giving virtual real-time information. However, they were
not content to just observe, and played a very real part in the battle; Bakers log-book states
cryptically, "Sent two SOS calls on enemy attacks which were repulsed." Be that as it may, the Allies
were once again on the defensive as the German offensive reopened, this time in Flanders. It began to
look as though the Germans might finally push through to Paris, and Haig was moved to issue his famous
order of the day; "With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us
must fight to the end". At had apparently escaped his notice that this was exactly what the troops in
the field had been doing for the past four years.
No. 4 Sqn soldiered on and again entered a phase of extremely high casualties but their efforts
paid off; by 29 April 1918 the German advance had been halted yet again. Squadron morale started to lift,
but was dealt a cruel blow on 30 April 1918: Lts Sweeny and Girdlestone, together with their observers,
2nd Lts Stack and Homersham, were all killed in a mid-air collision between two RE.8s.
May 1918 looked set to be a relatively quiet month, but unbeknown to the Allies, Ludendorff,
the German commander-in-chief, was moving his troops south in great secrecy. On 27 May 1918 the French
were shocked by a thunderous artillery barrage on the Aisne, as Ludendorff put into action his plan;
Operation "Hagen". Fourteen German divisions attacked the French lines and advanced ten miles in a
single day, reaching the Marne a week later. Once again the Germans had broken the stalemate. Many
squadrons were forced to move to landing grounds away from the fighting, and for a short while the
Air Component was once again a mobile force, just as it had been in 1914.
Although "Hagen" had been a nasty shock to the Allies, luckily it did not present too much of
a threat. The French lines held, although they had in many places been severely tested. Foch however
had not used the full amount of his reserves; they sat idly by and watched the carnage. The Germans
kept up the pressure, and every Allied army in France was forced to react.
The main thrust of Hagen was against the French, but that is not to say that the British were
given a respite. The Germans kept up the pressure and it seemed like victory was as far away as ever.
No. 4 Sqn kept on with its, by now familiar, daily grind. The loss rate of aircrew in no way lessened,
with eight aircrew lost in June 1918 alone.
The German attack showed signs of faltering towards the end of the month, although the Allies
could gain no advantage from this. It seems that the German troops were suffering from morale problems,
but these were brought on more by the shortcomings of their own leaders than by anything that the Allies
had done. However the Allies took their chance; the French counterattacked along the Marne on 18 July 1918
and the British followed suit on 8 August. The British attack was different from all those that had gone
before. It was in fact the first large scale armoured assault in history. Four hundred and fifty-six
tanks were used to break through the German defences and commence an advance towards the Hindenburg line.
The RAF was heavily engaged in the support of this assault, carrying out the now customary contact
patrols and also using phosphorus bombs to screen the approach of Allied armour from the waiting enemy.
The Corps squadrons were also tasked with interdiction of the escaping German troops on roads and
bridges leading away from the battlefield. This they carried out to great effect, but the German air
service again played a part in the events that were to unfold.
Although heavily outnumbered, the Jagdgeschwadern were equipped with excellent aircraft such as
the Fokker D.VII and the Dr.I, the famed Triplane. These came up in great numbers to contest the airspace
over the battlefield, and they all made their mark. The British armies in France gained a victory on the
ground, but the RAF had taken a beating in the air; 45 aircraft were lost and 52 were so badly damaged
that they had to be struck off charge. The records of 4 Sqn are sketchy about this period and in fact no
mention is made of any losses of aircrew or aircraft, but it seems that as the Squadron was heavily
involved in the fighting that a few casualties would have been taken, especially in view of the fact that
the enemy scouts were mostly now equipped with a new uprated engine, which would have opened the
performance margin further. Indeed such was the imbalance between the RE.8 and its adversaries that some
RAF aircrew were beginning to consider themselves as "dead meat".
Most of what has been written about British aviators in the Great War has centred around the Scout
pilots, with names such as Mannock, Mc.Cudden and Ball being frequently mentioned. Their bravery and
almost cavalier attitude are legendary and it is usually forgotten that for every ace, there were another
thirty men who did their job and gave their lives with the same devotion to duty. The corps squadrons,
4 Sqn included, did not have the glamorous appeal of the scout units, but they could be counted on to
take their chance when it showed itself. Opportunity knocked for 4 Sqn in the late stages of the war.
On 4 September 1918 Lts E.L. Barrington and W.C. Greenaway took it upon themselves to become fighter
pilots. They were on artillery patrol when they saw a German kite balloon working some distance behind
enemy lines. Although the RE.8 was patently unsuited to the task, they gave chase and brought the balloon
down in flames, escaping seemingly unscathed from the barrage of Archie that greeted them. they were not
to have it all their own way however, as while they made their escape, they were ambushed by seven Fokker
scouts. Their aircraft was forced down and wrecked, but happily both Barrington and Greenaway survived,
albeit with serious injuries.
Possibly encouraged by the thought of their colleagues, two more 4 Sqn aircrew attempted a similar
feat on 3 October 1918. Lts H.N. Loch and E.A. Garrison were engaged in a long-range artillery shoot when they
noticed an RE.8 of 53 Sqn being attacked by six Fokkers. They went to its assistance, but the attack
looked set to be a failure when the pilots gun jammed. The observer, Garrison, kept up a steady stream
of fire however, despite being badly wounded in the stomach. Eventually he was hit in the wrist by an
explosive bullet and was forced to cease fire, but by this time the enemy scouts had been driven off.
Their aircraft was severely damaged, but Loch managed to keep it in the air and brought it back safely
to Ste-Marie-Cappel, where the Squadron was now based. The aircraft was so badly damaged that it had to
be written off, but the RE.8 crew survived the encounter.
The war as a whole was finally beginning to turn the Allies' way now. Ludendorffs troops had
fallen prey to their own bad morale, and were retreating in droves. Allied to that pressure from the
German population forced their leaders to seek an immediate Armistice, but the war was not to end yet.
Over a month was to elapse while the governments of four countries argued over the finer points of the
Armistice document, and still men died.
No. 4 Sqn alone lost two pilots killed and three injured in that month, one of whom was gassed.
The war of movement continued as well with the Squadron moving to Ascq. However the Armistice finally
came, although it was to late for 2nd Lt J.G. Leckenby who was killed two days before the cease-fire
and was the last 4 Sqn casualty of the Great War.
Click to see Part 2 - Between the Wars
Click to Return to 4 Sqn History Index