By mid July 1914 the prospect of war with Germany and her allies became inevitable and the Royal Flying Corps began to mobilize in order to provide aerial support for the proposed British Expeditionary Force to France.
The Corps had been in existence for little over 2 years and the the aircraft they possessed were still largely experimental and unreliable. None of the aircraft had fixed armament, only three were experimentally fitted with wireless, no British engines were in production and the British aircraft industry was still in its infancy. The RFC had no clear role other than reconnaissance and observation for the Army, and many senior Army officers remained sceptical about the usefulness of the Corps. Many RFC pilots had limited flying experience and training was rudimentary.
Only 6 years had passed since the first powered flight in Britain and 5 since Bleriot had first crossed the Channel by air. The despatch of a significant aerial force to France thus constituted a major and dangerous undertaking. It was one of the first great adventures of the war and presented a challenging test for the fledgling force.
The Royal Flying Corps had been formed on 13 May 1912 from the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers, and on the outbreak of war British military aviation comprised:
1. The Military Wing of the RFC with 4 operational aeroplane squadrons (No.s 2 to 5), a balloon/airship squadron recently converted to aeroplanes (No.1), one squadron in the course of establishment (No.6), and one squadron recently formed (No.7).
2. The Royal Naval Air Service (originally the Naval Wing of the RFC, given independent status on 1st July 1914).
3. The Central Flying School at Upavon.
4. The Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough, responsible for research, development and design.
The RFC had about 147 officers and 1097 men, and possessed a total of around 179 aircraft, many of which were obsolete and experimental designs.
The Navy was responsible for the defence of the British coast. The British Expeditionary Force would thus incorporate the four fully operational RFC squadrons who would leave for France together with a headquarters and a supply of replacement aircraft to be held behind the lines in an Aircraft Park. The development of the remaining squadrons would be suspended in order to make resources available to the mobilizing units.
The war establishment of a squadron, in terms of aircraft, vehicles and men had been determined in advance and a 'mobilization store table' was maintained and updated regularly as they were for the Army, of which the RFC formed a Corps.
The table lists the equipment and tools to be held by each squadron, which initially comprised 12 aircraft in 3 flights of 4 aircraft each.
In 1914 each squadron comprised 19 officers, 2 warrant officers, 21 sergeants and 111 rank and file.
Motor Transport for each squadron comprised 7 light aircraft tenders, 6 heavy aircraft tenders, 4 repair lorries, 3 shed lorries, 4 reserve equipment lorries, 6 trailers and 6 motor cycles. In addition there would be two 30cwt lorries for transporting equipment and supplies.
The mobilization store table included a detailed list of all the tools and other items of equipment to be provided, including such items as 131 pistols, 23 whistles, 65 bars of yellow soap and 192 signal rockets.
An Aircraft Park would accompany the Expeditionary Force with a complement of spare aircraft and mechanics to undertake major repairs. The Park was to have 5 non-flying officers and 6 flying officers, 2 light tenders, 8 heavy tenders, 2 repair lorries 4 motor cycles and 2 reserve equipment lorries.
No.1 Sq had been formed on the 13th May 1912 as an airship squadron out of No.1(Airships) Company of the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers. Its original commanding officer was Capt EM Maitland. On 1st January 1914 the airships had been transferred to the Naval Wing. The squadron was re-established on 1st May 1914 with Maj CAH Longcroft commanding. At the end of July 1914 it possessed a single aircraft (BE2 206) which was used for training purposes.
No.2 Sq had been formed on the 13th May 1912 at Farnborough under the command of Maj CJ Burke. It had moved to Montrose in Scotland on the 26th February 1913 (a major undertaking for the aircraft of the time) and returned south for a training exercise (known as the 'concentration camp') in June 1914 at Netheravon.
The squadron then returned to Montrose before undertaking a further long distance flight to Farnborough on 3rd August 1914 to join the Expeditionary Force.
No.3 Sq had been formed on the 13th May 1912 at Larkhill from No.2(Aeroplane) Company of the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers. It thus claims to be the oldest aeroplane squadron. The first Commanding Officer was Maj HRM Brooke-Popham.
The squadron moved to Netheravon on the 16th June 1913.
No.4 Sq formed on the 16th September 1912 at Farnborough with Maj GH Raleigh as Commanding Officer.
It moved to Netheravon on 14th June 1913. The BE2a machines of 'A' and 'B' flights moved to Eastchurch on 21st July 1914 in order to support the RNAS in home defence during mobilization, with 'C' flight remaining at Netheravon with their Maurice Farman machines.
No.5 Sq formed on the 26th July 1913 at Farnborough with Maj JFA Higgins as Commanding Officer.
The squadron moved to Netheravon on the 28th May 1914 and again to Gosport (Fort Grange) on the 6th July 1914.
No.6 Sq was formed on the 31st January 1914 at Farnborough with Commanding Officer Maj JHW Becke.
In August 19145 most of the squadron personnel were transferred to the mobilizing squadrons in order to make up the required numbers, and the remaining staff were placed in charge of the Expeditionary Force landing ground at Dover.
The squadron moved to Netheravon on the 21st September 1914 and crossed the Channel to Bruges on the 7th October 1914.
No.7 Sq was the last squadron to form before the war, being created on the 1st May 1914 at Farnborough under the command of Maj JM Salmond. Its formation was suspended on the 8 August and it reformed on the 29th September.
The squadron left for France on the 8th April 1915.
The principal aircraft types in service with the RFC at the start of the war were:
Designed by the Royal Aircraft Factory, this was a 2 seat observation aircraft fitted with a 70hp Renault V8 engine. About 90 of this version had been built, and production of later versions was commencing. Later versions became the mainstay of the RFC during the early years of the war.
This was one of two French aircraft types produced by the French Farman brothers (born of British parents). It was a slow (45mph), open boxkite 2 seat machine used for training. It was powered by a 70hp Renault V8 engine driving a 'pusher' propellor. The 1913 (S.7) model was known as the Longhorn due to its protruding skid. The skid was shorter on the 1914 (S.11) model, known as the Shorthorn and having an 80hp Renault V8. The Maurice Farman was not considered a 'war' machine and initially none were taken to France.
Slightly more advanced and faster than the Maurice Farman, the Henry ('Henri') Farman was powered by an 80hp Gnome rotary driving a 'pusher' propellor. It had a forward nacelle for the 2 man crew and thus was one of the few types that could mount a forward firing gun.
Several models were in use, displaying little external variation from the machine Bleriot used to make the first Channel crossing in 1909 except for their more powerful 50hp or 80hp Gnome rotary engines. The 50hp single seat machines were considered unsuitable for war use. One single-seat 80hp 'Parasol' Bleriot went to France with the Expeditionary Force, the remainder of the fleet being 2 seat Bleriot XI machines with 80hp Gnome rotaries.
The BE3 was a development of the BE2 aircraft, but with a 80hp rotary engine in place of a standard V8. It was nicknamed the 'Bloater', and this name was inherited by its successor the BE8. Three BE8 machines accompanied the Expeditionary Force but two early accidents earned them a bad reputation.
This was a 2-seater Scout with an 80hp Gnome. Later versions of the aircraft were fitted with dual controls and in this configuration the aircraft became the standard trainer of the RFC and RAF.
4 Tabloid aircraft fitted with 80hp Gnome rotary engines were sent in cases with the EF. This tiny single seat aircraft was built for speed and was the forerunner of the famous Sopwith fighters. In Navy service it was known as the Sopwith Baby.
Products of the Royal Aircraft Factory, the RE series were designed as reconnaissance machines, the RE1 having a 70hp Renault engine and the RE5 a 120hp Austro-Daimler.
All of the Expeditionary Force aircraft were powered by French engines, there being no reliable British engines in production at that time. Indeed many subsequent British engines were licence produced versions of French and Spanish engines, or developments of French designs.
The military wing of the RFC, comprising squadrons No.1 to 7, plus the Central Flying School, had about 147 operational aircraft available at the end of July 1914. This total includes experimental and training types plus unserviceable machines.
None of the aircraft had protective armour or fixed armament. However each officer carried a revolver and before departure Geoffrey de Havilland had demonstrated how to mount a rifle on an aircraft.
29 Maurice Farman
22 Henry Farman
48 aircraft were required to equip the four squadrons, and a 50% reserve capacity was to be taken by the Aircraft Park. Thus 72 aircraft in all would be needed to make up the expedition. It was logical to standardize the equipment being sent to France as much as possible in order to minimise the level of spares, and leave behind the older and slower types such as the Maurice Farman and 50hp Bleriot machines. After eliminating unserviceable and unsuitable aircraft there was a significant shortfall of machines available to the squadrons.
The deficit was overcome by transferring all the serviceable aircraft from the Central Flying School to the Military Wing, impressing into service suitable privately owned machines, and speeding up the delivery and acceptance of new machines. Orders were placed with British manufacturers for new aeroplanes and the Expeditionary Force were authorised to acquire further machines from French manufacturers upon arrival in France. In all 20 machines were transferred from the Central Flying School, 16 were impressed from private owners and 19 new aircraft delivered during the days that followed before departure. The RNAS also acquired machines from private owners.