Volume 1 of 6 volumes about the early years of the Royal Air Force
Man has dreamed of flight from the moment he first beheld the freedom of the birds of the air. Having resolved the practical problems of becoming airborne, it was not long before applications were considered which led to the development of aviation for use in warfare. Manned observer balloons provided a ‘birds-eye view’ of the battlefield for gathering invaluable information for commanders on the ground. When powered flight became a reality during the early years of the 20th century, it was, once again, as ‘scouts’ that aircraft found their first role; spotting for the artillery and gathering detailed dispositions and movements of enemy troops. Aeroplanes first went to war in Libya in a small conflict between the Italians and the Ottoman Turks in 1911-12, but the great war in Europe that erupted in 1914 would see an enormous acceleration in air power. More varieties and models of aircraft were developed. They became fighters and bombers, and many nations developed their own specialised corps to meet the demands of this new dimension in the waging of war. This multi volume history tracks in detail the development of the RFC, RAF and Royal Naval Air Service throughout the First World War and is an essential addition to every library of aeronautical warfare—especially in the year of the centenary of the birth of the Royal Air Force. Contains images not present in earlier editions of this work.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket; our hardbacks are cloth bound and feature gold foil lettering on their spines and fabric head and tail bands.
Pilots who went out soon after dawn on the morning of the 4th found a thick mist over the river Marne extending to the depth of a mile on either bank, but various columns were seen stirring out of bivouacs on the north of the river and there were other movements well to the south of the river. At 12.20 p.m. Lieutenant R. P. Mills saw movements between Bellot and Rebais and artillery in action on the high ground one mile south-east of Bellot. In the afternoon there came fuller reports of movements towards the Petit Morin. The situation as traced at Royal Flying Corps headquarters on the night of the 4th from observations made during the day is very accurate. It shows that the German Ninth Corps, which had secured the crossings at Château-Thierry on the previous evening, had progressed to near Montmirail; that the Third and Fourth Corps had got well clear of the Marne and were about and across the Petit Morin; and that the Second Corps and Marwitz’s cavalry were held up at the Marne east of Meaux.
Von Kluck had marched into a bag between the Fifth French Army on the Marne and the newly formed Sixth French Army advancing to the Ourcq. Just at this time the German Supreme Command seems to have become aware of the danger threatening the German armies on the right wing. On the night of the 4th of September orders had been sent out from German First Army headquarters at La Ferté Milon, detailing the movements to be made on the following day. These movements had already begun when at 7.15 a.m. on the 5th fresh instructions arrived from the Supreme Command ordering the First and Second Armies to remain facing the eastern front of Paris; the First Army between the Oise and the Marne, occupying the Marne crossings west of Château-Thierry, and the Second Army between the Marne and the Seine, occupying the Seine crossings from Nogent to Méry. This led, says von Kluck, to ‘the difficult backwards wheel of the First Army’, and to what he calls ‘the important events that occurred during the second week of September’—events known to history as the Battle of the Marne.
Von Kluck allowed the original movements ordered for the 5th to be carried out, and, he says:
The conclusion of this advance marked the culminating point of the operations of the First Army.
On this same day General Joffre told Sir John French that he intended to take the offensive forthwith as the conditions seemed favourable, and on the morning of the 6th this offensive opened.
The main work of the Royal Flying Corps throughout the days of the retreat was reconnaissance, and enough has been said of their reports to show that Sir John French was well served by his new arm. He had been warned before the Battle of Mons, not only of the heavy movement on his front but of the enveloping attempt on his flank, and throughout the retreat he was punctually informed of von Kluck’s enveloping efforts. The change of direction made on the 31st of August was immediately seen and reported. Von Kluck’s renewed pursuit of the British on the two following days did not escape observation. Finally, the German swerve to the left on the 3rd of September was closely followed from the air.
These are the main conclusions that come from a study of the air reports of those days. General Headquarters were perhaps at first a little shy of trusting the air reports, but they realised their value during the retreat, and paid more and more attention to them—an attention which found practical results in the operation orders issued. The Royal Flying Corps played their part in helping the British Army to escape. Further, they were making themselves, and were improving in skill every day. The lessons learned on the retreat from Mons bore their full fruit at a later period, when the officers of the original squadrons held the command of those Flying Corps units which operated in the mobile campaigns of distant theatres of the war.
Their work during the retreat was done under difficulties. There were alarms at Compiègne of Uhlans seen in the vicinity of the aerodrome, and a guard was provided from the Camerons. Major B. H. Barrington-Kennett remarks on the difficulty of defending a Flying Corps camp from attack by cavalry. It would seem advisable, he says, when camped in an open aerodrome to park the aeroplanes inside a laager formed by lorries and cars. The headlights of the cars would lighten a good field of fire, and would probably, if switched on at the approach of cavalry, cause the horses to stampede. The Royal Flying Corps, he adds, should be armed and practised with machineguns and rifles, so that they may protect themselves without asking for an escort.
At Juilly on the 1st of September there was another alarm. The country to the north was thickly wooded, and German cavalry, which proved later to be those escaped from the affair at Méry, were reported within a few miles, with no British troops between. General Headquarters at Dammartin-en-Goële, some two miles away, hastily took their departure, and the Royal Flying Corps transport was sent off at once to Serris. But the aeroplanes could not leave, for already it was dark. The suggestion was made that the aeroplanes should fly off in the dark, but fortunately, says Major C. J. Burke, this was not attempted.
The Flying Corps stood to arms to defend itself. A sunken road running east and west past the aerodrome was occupied, rifles and ammunition were served out to the mechanics, and machine-guns were set in position. After a time, a troop of North Irish Horse arrived, to aid in the defence. All night watch was kept, but the German cavalry did not appear. In the morning, for the first time since the beginning of the retreat, there was no ground mist, and the machines got away at once.