Historical Periods

First World War: Royal Flying Corps

We represent the air forces of World War One including the Royal Flying Corps, Royal Naval Air Service, French Air Service and the German Air Service. We provide a static display which includes a number of original items, equipment and copies of documentation of that period both for the home front and those in the front line. The group portrays the various uniforms of the air services at that time.


The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was the air arm of the British Army before and during the First World War, until it merged with the Royal Naval Air Service on 1 April 1918 to form the Royal Air Force. During the early part of the war, the RFC supported the British Army, by artillery co-operation and photographic reconnaissance. This work gradually led RFC pilots into aerial battles with German pilots and later in the war included the strafing of enemy infantry and emplacements, the bombing of German military airfields and later the strategic bombing of German industrial and transportation facilities.

A cafe somewhere in France
A cafe somewhere in France.

At the start of World War I the RFC, commanded by Brigadier-General Sir David Henderson, consisted of five squadrons – one observation balloon squadron (RFC No 1 Squadron) and four aeroplane squadrons. These were first used for aerial spotting on 13 September 1914, but only became efficient when they perfected the use of wireless communication at Aubers Ridge on 9 May 1915. Aerial photography was attempted during 1914, but again only became effective the next year. By 1918, photographic images could be taken from 15,000 feet, and interpreted by over 3,000 personnel. Parachutes were not available to pilots of the RFC's heavier-than-air craft – nor were they used by the RAF during the First World War – although the Calthrop Guardian Angel parachute (1916 model) was officially adopted just as the war ended. By this time parachutes had been used by balloonists for three years.

On its inception in 1912 the Royal Flying Corps initially consisted of a Military and a Naval Wing with the Military Wing consisting of three squadrons each commanded by a major. The Naval Wing, with fewer pilots and aircraft than the Military Wing, did not organise itself into squadrons until 1914 separating itself from the RFC that same year. In November 1914 the Royal Flying Corps, even taking the loss of the Naval Wing into account, had expanded sufficiently to warrant the creation of wings consisting of two or more squadrons. These wings were commanded by lieutenant-colonels. In October 1915 the Royal Flying Corps had undergone further expansion which justified the creation of brigades, each commanded by a brigadier-general. Further expansion led to the creation of divisions, with the Training Division being established in August 1917 and RFC Middle East, being raised to divisional status in December 1917. Additionally, although the Royal Flying Corps in France was never titled as a division, by March 1916 it comprised several brigades and its commander (Trenchard) had received a promotion to major-general giving it in effect divisional status. Finally, the air raids on London and the south-east of England led to the creation of the London Air Defence Area in August 1917 under the command of Ashmore who was promoted to major-general.

Two of the first three RFC squadrons were formed from the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers: No. 1 Company (a balloon company) becoming No. 1 Squadron, RFC, and No. 2 Company (a 'heavier than air' company) becoming No. 3 Squadron, RFC. A second heavier-than-air squadron, No. 2 Squadron, RFC, was also formed on the same day.

No. 4 Squadron, RFC was formed from No. 2 Sqn in August 1912, and No. 5 Squadron, RFC from No. 3 Sqn in July 1913.

By the end of March 1918, the Royal Flying Corps comprised some 150 squadrons.

The composition of an RFC squadron varied depending on its designated role, although the Commanding Officer was usually a Major (in a largely non-operational role), with the Squadron 'Flights' (annotated A, B, C etc.) the basic tactical and operational unit, each commanded by a Captain. A 'Recording Officer' (of Captain/Lieutenant rank) would act as Intelligence Officer and Adjutant, commanding two or three NCOs and ten other ranks in the Administration section of the Squadron. Each flight contained on average between six to ten pilots (and a corresponding number of observers, if applicable) with a Senior Sergeant and thirty-six other ranks (as fitters, riggers, metalsmiths, armourers, etc.). The average squadron also had on complement an Equipment Officer, Armaments Officer (each with five other ranks) and a Transport Officer, in charge of twenty-two other ranks. The Squadron transport establishment typically included 1 car, 5 light tenders, 7 heavy tenders, 2 repair lorries, 8 motorcycles and 8 trailers.

At the start of the war, numbers 2, 3, 4 and 5 squadrons were equipped with aeroplanes. No. 1 Squadron had been equipped with balloons but all these were transferred to the Naval Wing in 1913, No. 1 Squadron reorganised itself as an 'aircraft park' for the British Expeditionary Force.

The RFC's first casualties were before the Corps even arrived in France. Lt Robert R. Skene and Air Mechanic Ray Barlow were killed on 12 August 1914 when their probably overloaded plane crashed at Netheravon on the way to rendezvous with the rest of the RFC near Dover.[10] Skene had been the first Englishman to do a loop in an aeroplane.

On 13 August 1914, 2, 3, and 4 Squadrons, comprising 60 machines, departed Dover for the British Expeditionary Force in France. The 5 Squadron joined them a few days later. The aircraft took a route across the English Channel from Dover to Boulogne. They then followed the French coast to the Bay of the Somme before travelling inland by following the river to Amiens. When the BEF moved forward to Maubeuge the RFC accompanied them. On 19 August the Corps undertook its first action of the War with two of its aircraft performing aerial reconnaissance. The mission was not a great success. In order to save weight each aircraft carried a pilot only instead of the usual pair of pilot and observer. Because of this, and poor weather, both of the pilots lost their way and only one was able to complete his task.

Original WW1 Weapons - Hotchkiss, Maxim machine guns
Original WW1 Weapons — Hotchkiss, Maxim machine guns.

On 22 August 1914, the first British aircraft to be shot down by the Germans was lost. The crew, pilot Second Lieutenant Vincent Waterfall and observer Lt. Charles George Gordon Bayly of 5 Squadron flying an Avro 504 over Belgium were killed by infantry fire.

Also on 22 August 1914, Captain L E O Charlton (Observer) and his Pilot, Lieutenant Vivian Hugh Nicholas Wadham made the crucial observation of the 1st German Army's approach towards the flank of the British Expeditionary Force. This allowed the BEF Commander-in-Chief Field Marshal Sir John French to realign his front and save his army around Mons.

Next day on 23 August 1914 the RFC found itself fighting in the Battle of Mons and two days after that the Flying Corps gained its first air victory. On 25 August Lt C.W. Wilson and Lt C.E.C. Rabagliati forced down a German Etrich Taube which had approached their aerodrome while they were refuelling their Avro 504. Another RFC machine landed nearby and the RFC observer chased the German pilot into some nearby woods.

After the British retreat from Mons, the Corps fell back to the Marne where in September the RFC again proved its value by identifying von Kluck's First Army's left wheel against the exposed French flank. This information was significant as the First Army's manoeuvre allowed French forces to make an effective counter-attack at the Battle of the Marne. Sir John French's (the British Expeditionary Force commander) first official dispatch on 7 September included the following: "I wish particularly to bring to your Lordships' notice the admirable work done by the Royal Flying Corps under Sir David Henderson. Their skill, energy, and perseverance has been beyond all praise. They have furnished me with most complete and accurate information, which has been of incalculable value in the conduct of operations. Fired at constantly by friend and foe, and not hesitating to fly in every kind of weather, they have remained undaunted throughout. Further, by actually fighting in the air, they have succeeded in destroying five of the enemy's machines."

Early in the war RFC aircraft were not marked with any national insignia. Union Flags markings in various styles were painted on the wings (and sometimes the fuselage sides and/or rudder) at a squadron level when RFC aircraft were fired upon by "friendly" ground forces – but the large red St. George's cross was liable to be mistaken for the crosses on German aircraft. By late 1915 the RFC had officially adopted the familiar French cockade (roundel) marking, but with the colours in reverse order (blue circle outermost). Contrary to usual French practice at the time, this was applied to the fuselage sides as well as the wings. Largely to avoid "friendly" attack in the air, the rudders of RFC aircraft were painted (again, in order to match those of their French allies) with the red, white and blue stripes of the tricolour.

Later in the war, a "night roundel" was used for night flying aircraft – especially the Handley Page O/400 heavy bombers. This dispensed with the (very conspicuous) white circle of the "day" marking.

On 17 August 1917, South African General Jan Smuts presented a report to the War Council on the future of air power. Because of its potential for the 'devastation of enemy lands and the destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale', he recommended a new air service be formed that would be on a level with the Army and Royal Navy. The formation of the new service would, moreover, make the under-utilised men and machines of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) available for action across the Western Front, as well as ending the inter-service rivalries that at times had adversely affected aircraft procurement. On 1 April 1918, the RFC and the RNAS were amalgamated to form a new service, the Royal Air Force (RAF). The RAF was under the control of the new Air Ministry. After starting in 1914 with some 2,073 personnel, by the start of 1919 the RAF had 4,000 combat aircraft and 114,000 personnel in some 150 squadrons.

View First World War events gallery >