One summer’s afternoon, in 1917, Grahame Donald attempted a new manoeuvre in his Sopwith Camel. He flew the machine up and over, and as he reached the top of his loop, hanging upside down, six thousand feet above the ground, his safety belt snapped – and he fell out. He was not wearing a parachute; they existed but were not issued to British pilots in the belief that their availability would impair fighting spirit. Hurtling to earth, with nothing to break his fall, Donald’s death was less than a minute away – but it didn’t come. In an interview given fifty-five years later, he says:
The first two thousand feet passed very quickly and terra firma looked damnably ‘firma’. As I fell, I began to hear my faithful little Camel somewhere nearby. Suddenly I fell back onto her.
The Camel had continued its loop downwards, and Donald claims that he landed on its top wing – which he grabbed with both hands. Hooking a foot into the cockpit, he managed to wrestle himself back in, before taking the controls, and executing ‘an unusually good landing.’
If you were told this story by a man propping up a bar, you might smile politely and check your watch. But if it was told by Air Marshal Sir Grahame Donald KCB, DFC, AFC to a member of staff at the Imperial War Museum, you might feel inclined to believe it.
At the time of his unlikely escape, Grahame Donald was a member of the Royal Naval Air Service, the naval wing of the flying services, but he would not be for long. On 1 April 1918, the RNAS amalgamated with its army cousin, the Royal Flying Corps, to form a new service, the Royal Air Force.
Over the previous three and a half years of the war, the army and navy branches had competed for limited resources, each pursuing its own strategic ends, and it was now felt necessary to impose some kind of unity.
Soldiers and sailors found themselves shoehorned together into an upstart service with no traditions, and many were not happy. One described the Royal Air Force as a ‘complete hotch potch’ whilst another complained that the new blue-grey uniform made him look like an actor in a comic opera. Most, however, were too busy fighting a new kind of war in the skies over France, to concern themselves with the politics of the world’s second independent air force. The Royal Air Force had been pipped at the post. Three weeks earlier, the Finnish Air Force, consisting of one aircraft and a man to fly it, had been formed.
The men who came together to form the Royal Air Force were leaping into the unknown. When the first four squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps flew across the channel to France, days after the outbreak of war in August 1914, it was unclear what role they would play. They began by watching the movements of the enemy, but the generals were not initially inclined to believe reports gathered by ‘fleets of flying birdcages’. The birdcages proved accurate, however, and aerial reconnaissance reports were soon relied on by both sides.
Once cameras were fitted onto aircraft, they were used to map the entire Western Front in minute detail. The changing nature of the conflict gave the aeroplane its second crucial role. As the war stabilized into a stalemate of mud, wire, and attrition, artillery became the army’s most important weapon, and aircraft were used to range gunfire onto enemy positions, by flying over the target, and reporting the accuracy of each shell burst, back to the battery in Morse code.
These jobs (as well as bombing, and, in later years, ground strafing) made up the daily work of the Royal Flying Corps. This work was the reason for its growing importance, and it was to protect the aircraft, and to prevent the enemy from carrying out similar work, that aeroplanes were turned into fighting machines. This is how the great aces came to prowl the skies in search of prey; it is why young men engaged in gladiatorial dogfights to the death.
There were no dogfights at the start, however. In the earliest days, rival airmen would wave as they passed each other, but before long, they began arming themselves with revolvers and rifles. The chance of hitting one moving aircraft from another with a single bullet was minimal, although lucky strikes did occur. Gilbert Mapplebeck was a pilot with 4 Squadron, who was hit in the thigh by a rifle bullet fired from a German machine. He was unfortunate enough to be carrying loose change in his pocket, and the force of the bullet drove a twenty-five franc piece into his groin, slicing away the tip of his penis.
Aircraft were turned more fearsome when mounted with machine guns aimed away from the propeller, but the aeroplane’s fighting potential truly began to reveal itself in the spring of 1915, when Anthony Fokker – a young Dutch designer working for the Germans – perfected a synchronizing gear that enabled a machine gun to fire safely through the spinning blades. The aircraft Fokker had offered his services to the British authorities before the war, and been turned down, and his successful invention now threatened to clear the skies of British aircraft. An arms race took hold, its goal being aerial dominance, and for the remainder of the war, aerial superiority swung back and forth between the sides.
This was a new concept of warfare; one in which progress depended not on past experience, nor on the views of the authorities, but on the initiative of the young airmen themselves. Only they truly knew what could – and could not – be done in an aircraft. In 1914, they decided to toss darts over the side of their machines. By 1918, they were dropping mammoth 1660 pounder bombs on German cities from the bomb racks of their Handley Page heavy bombers. And just as they used initiative in the air, so they demonstrated it on the ground. Individualist, unkempt, lacking in traditional military discipline, First World War airmen represented a new breed of soldier. When Archibald James, a pilot with 5 Squadron, returned from leave, he brought with him eight clear breaches of discipline:
Before returning to France I had bought from the local pack of harriers in Sussex, four pairs of hounds. These I took out with me to France. And when I arrived, they were greeted with a minimum of enthusiasm by my ardent soldier commanding officer. A considerably strained relationship ensued but the hounds were great fun. I hunted hares of which there were quite a number in Bayeux-Armentières sector, with a most distinguished field, beautifully mounted on their first chargers. There were only two or three little thorn hedges in the whole of our area, which extended nearly up to the gun lines. And these we periodically jumped as often as possible to keep up the illusion that we were a hunting club.
It was only an airman amongst First World War combatants who could have attempted to mimic the life of a country gentleman, whilst actively engaged in a struggle as bloody as the hare’s. It was as though the stresses of daily flying might be overcome by a grand gesture, or an imitation of normality. Robert Loraine, West End actor, squadron commander, and wearer of an entirely redundant monocle, built a theatre on his aerodrome, in which he staged anti-war plays, with the parts taken by those airmen who had survived the day’s flying.
The strains that these men were overcoming were huge. During the Battle of Arras in 1917, the life expectancy of a new pilot fell to eleven days. One sensitive man who struggled against his fears was the highest scoring British ace of the war, Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock VC. Tactician, socialist, supporter of Irish Home Rule, Mannock was a spontaneous, working class man, who generously nurtured young pilots, and machine gunned wounded Germans on the ground. He carried a revolver with him into the air, with which to take his own life, rather than burn. Whilst at home on leave, he broke down in front of an old friend:
We were sitting in the front talking quietly when his eyes fell to the floor, and he started to tremble violently. This grew into a convulsive straining. He cried uncontrollably, muttering something that I could not make out. His face, when he lifted it, was a terrible sight. Saliva and tears were running down his face; he couldn’t stop it. His collar and shirt-front were soaked through. He smiled weakly at me when he saw me watching and tried to make light of it; he would not talk about it at all.
Mannock was killed – as were so many other successful pilots – when he broke his own rules of flying safety. His aircraft burst into flames after being hit by ground fire. It is not known whether he ended his own life, or was consumed in the blaze.
And yet, in spite – or perhaps because of – the strain under which they lived, airmen became heroes to the public. In a war in which the majority of fighting was remote and impersonal, they engaged in tactical duels, watching an opponent’s facial expression, circling and straining to get on his tail. Pilots came to be known as ‘knights of the air’. One of these knights was William Leefe Robinson, a man who received the Victoria Cross, not for fighting against other aeroplanes, but for shooting down the first Zeppelin airship over British soil. A mood of euphoria gripped the country in the wake of his act, as though he had personally freed the country from the grip of a tyrant. In a letter to his parents, Robinson wrote:
As I daresay you have seen in the papers – babies, flowers and hats have been named after me, also poems and prose have been dedicated to me. Oh, it’s too much! I am recognized wherever I go about Town, now, whether in uniform or mufti. The city police salute me, the waiters, hall porters and pages of hotels and restaurants bow and scrape, visitors turn round and stare. Oh, it’s too thick!
As a ‘reward’, Robinson was sent out to France, to fly the Bristol Fighter, a prestigious new aircraft. He was shot down on his first flight over enemy lines, and taken prisoner. The prison guards did not bow and scrape. They mistreated him, and he fell ill, dying after his repatriation.
The story of infantry fighting on the Western Front, with its vivid evocations of suffering and wasted life, has captured the modern imagination. Yet taking place above the very same Western Front was a conflict of intense human emotion, of young men growing up in an exciting and terrible world, of chivalry, of fear and danger, of the creation of modern warfare. Twenty-seven years after the end of the war, the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. That event was only made possible by the ‘lessons’ that were learned during this period. The First World War in the Air is a conflict that deserves to be far better known.
Joshua Levine practised as a barrister for several years before becoming an actor and author of seven critically acclaimed histories. His plays have been performed on the London stage and he has written and presented documentaries for BBC Radio 4. He fronted the documentary film Dunkirk: The New Evidence for Channel 4 and most recently he worked as Historical Consultant on Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Dunkirk.
He will be speaking about ‘The Aviation Heroes of the First World War’ at Chalke Valley History Festival on Monday 25th June – tickets are available here.