Eyes In The Skies: Air Force, Part 2

March 1, 2004 by Hugh A. Halliday
Enemy positions were also observed with the use of balloons during WW I. This photo was taken in September 1916

The literature of World War I aviation history is filled with accounts of fighter pilots, more particularly the famous aces like Manfred von Richthofen and James McCudden. Canadians are more likely to recognize the name of Billy Bishop than that of Sir Arthur Currie. Yet the fighter pilots were mere spear-bearers in the war. The most important aircrew were elsewhere.

Balloons, used in the French Revolutionary wars and the American Civil War, had been the first military application of air power, and when armies began to explore the use of aircraft it was in their roles as scouts. Italian troops in Libya, between 1911-12, first used aircraft in combat to reconnoitre forts, watch for desert-based raiders and drop primitive bombs. The various participants in the Balkan Wars, 1912-13, also used airplanes as scouts. The first major Allied victory on the Western Front—the Battle of the Marne—was precipitated when Royal Flying Corps pilots reported premature German wheeling movements that exposed the enemy flank to counter-attack.

Once the Western Front degenerated into stalemate, aircraft assumed new roles in partnership with artillery. The great killing machines of 1914-18 were not machine-guns or gas canisters. They were the big guns that bombarded trenches and pounded troops advancing through No-Man’s Land, inflicting 65 per cent of all casualties. The guns fired ruthlessly but not blindly. They bombarded trench systems that had been photographed and mapped by aircraft; they often fired with aircraft calling the fall of shot. The army cooperation aircraft—also called corps aircraft—were the very essence of WW I air power. The fighter pilots existed to protect their own corps aircraft and to destroy or drive off the enemy’s corps aircraft. As such, the “knights of the air” were not central characters but supporting actors in the air war.

Colonel A.G.L. McNaughton, a gunner and one of the Canadian Corps’ most “scientific soldiers,” wrote frequently to air officers commending them on jobs well done. Nevertheless, corps work was often routine. It certainly lacked the drama of aerial combat, which caught the imagination of reporters looking for something bright in the industrial carnage of trench warfare. The cult of “aces” was born amid wartime propaganda that was so effective that 85 years later men still argue passionately about various aces’ “scores” and their relative merits. That the propaganda was also manifestly unfair was recognized even at the time. A cartoon in a French newspaper showed a weary soldier dragging himself out of a trench, one foot on a dead German, his eyes looking upwards. “I, too, have brought down my fifth Boche”, he was saying, “but it will not be mentioned in today’s communiqués.”

The press may have overlooked army cooperation crews; others had less excuse. George Drew, whose 1930 book Canada’s Fighting Airmen inspired another generation in air matters, wrote almost exclusively about the aces. Military officials also winked at the inequities of fame. During WW I, eight Victoria Crosses—a third of the aerial VC awards of that war—went to high-scoring air aces, namely Albert Ball, William Bishop, William Barker, Lanoe Hawker, Alan Jerrard, James McCudden, Edward “Mick” Mannock and Arthur Proctor. Of those, two—Bishop and Barker—were Canadian. Only three VCs went to corps pilots, namely Second Lieutenant William B. Rhodes-Moorhouse of Britain, Captain Frank McNamara of Australia and Canadian 2nd Lieut. Alan McLeod.

As the corps pilots and observers were the essence of Western Front air power, Canadians who served in those roles merit recognition. An overview such as this must rely on a few names to represent the wider community of army cooperation work. Happily, more are presented in the book Canadian Airmen and the First World War. Written by S.F. Wise and published in 1980, it is often praised and seldom read. Another book, The Brave Young Wings, is also well worth reading. It was written by Ron Dodds.

Two Canadians in No. 9 Squadron, Captain James Eric Croden, a pilot from London, Ont., and Lieut. George S.B. Fuller, an observer from Montreal, left some record of their work in the 1964 and 1965 issues of the Journal of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society.

No. 9 flew RE.8 aircraft—also known as Harry Tate for a music hall entertainer. The plane was slow and unmanoeuvrable, but Croden believed it well suited for its assigned job. One dealt with enemy fighters by going into a stately but very tight turn which German pilots found difficult to match and which exposed the fighter to fire on the beam from the RE.8’s observer. Authorities decided to see whether the two-seater Bristol F.2b aircraft might be better and two were issued to No. 9 Sqdn. for comparative trials. The planes were faster and more responsive on the controls, but he concluded that they lacked the built-in stability of the RE.8 which enabled pilots to fly it “hands off” and concentrate on artillery spotting.

The effectiveness of that spotting sometimes reached the communiqués. One covering Oct. 30, 1917, read: “A very successful shoot with the 21st Siege Battery (9.2-inch) on an active battery was carried out by Lieutenants Turner and Fuller, No. 9. Observations were sent for 40 rounds, two pits were destroyed, one damaged and a large explosion ensued. During the same flight they located by zone call seven active hostile batteries.”

It was remarkable that so much could be accomplished with such primitive communications. The corps aircraft could send reports by Morse code on radios that transmitted but did not receive; the gunners below responded with cloth panels laid out on the ground. A few basic shapes signified the briefest of messages, including “Cannot decipher you”, “Yes”, “No” and “Go Home.” Fuller’s recollections about photo missions were particularly vivid: “Photography was carried out by corps squadrons up to five miles behind the German front line. The camera was operated by the pilot, while the observer was responsible for changing the box of 18 plates after they had been exposed. Without an escort we generally had a rough ride from Archie and the hostile scouts trying their best to prevent us from carrying out the job. (Archie was the nickname for the bursts of anti-aircraft shells. The German type produced black smoke while the British type was almost white.) We crossed the line at 10,000 feet and it took us about half an hour to attain that height. With luck the job would take approximately one hour. During the winter months this task became exceptionally tough on the observer in his open cockpit, who did not get any heat from the engine. Due to the extreme cold on one flight I fired my Lewis gun, then held my gloved hands on the barrel to try to get some warmth to prevent them from getting so numb that I would not be able to change the box of plates.”

One might think the corps aircrew were plodding folk compared to the fighter pilots, but colourful characters appeared everywhere. One such individual was Lieut. Cecil George Durham of Calgary. As a trooper in the 19th Alberta Dragoons and then the Lord Strathcona’s Horse he had earned a Military Medal. He was then appointed a 2nd Lieut. and seconded for duty with the Royal Flying Corps on Oct. 6, 1916. He reported to No. 10 Sqdn. as an observer on BE.2e machines and made a memorable impact. A former colleague recalled him being a “character,” known as “Bull” Durham because he rolled his own cigarettes using a sack of Bull Durham tobacco. He could also recite the Robert Service poem The Shooting of Dan McGrew and did so at every opportunity.

Durham was also a keen corps observer and was awarded a French Croix de Guerre. When recommended it was noted that, among other sorties, he had been in a machine which, on April 8, 1917 descended to a height of 250 feet, 2,500 yards behind enemy lines, to examine the state of wire and defences on Vimy Ridge. The next day, with the Battle of Vimy Ridge raging, he strafed a German artillery battery that was in the act of retiring. Following the war Durham became secretary of the Coal Owner’s Association in Calgary. In WW II he joined the RCAF, rose to group captain and was awarded an Order of the British Empire for services in No. 6 Group and Northwest Air Command.

One major task that had evolved by late 1917 was the contact patrol. When an offensive began and the troops went “over the top” the soldiers were quickly out of touch with the rear. Generals could only guess how far regiments had advanced. Even the artillery had trouble knowing where troops were in relation to the barrage. Hence the use of aircraft to fly low over the battlefield, checking on the tactical situation, warning troops of enemy strongpoints immediately ahead and even taking direct action in the battle. This was hazardous work, entailing as it did very low flying (500 feet on average) with consequent exposure to rifle and machine-gun fire.

Variety was certainly a characteristic of corps work. Pilots and observers might be on a shoot one day, photography the next and a contact patrol the day afterwards. Lieut. William Bruce Ferguson of Ameliasburg, Ont., saw it all. Transferring as an observer from the Canadian Expeditionary Force to the Royal Flying Corps in April 1917, he joined No. 6 Sqdn. the following month. The unit was gradually getting rid of its BE.2e aircraft in favour of RE.8s. He was soon the subject of glowing reports by superiors. Some of his artillery cooperation sorties lasted 31/2 hours, during which he frequently drove off enemy fighters and fired at enemy troops.

On Aug. 23, 1917, in the midst of a trench bombardment and following combat with an enemy two-seater, he climbed along the right wing to reach his pilot’s jammed gun and clear it. At least three recommendations were made before he was awarded a Military Cross on Nov.19, 1917.) An excerpt from one recommendation speaks volumes of his work, although it reads in part as though he were a pilot rather than an observer: “21 September 1917: The 41st Division were to attack at 9.30 a.m. He reconnoitred the position at daybreak and found the enemy trenches strongly held, and estimated a force of 300 Germans formed up at 28.J.21.c to J.26.d (map references). Fearing they would attack before 41st Division was ready, he descended to 100 feet and traversed the redoubt, dugouts and trench which was holding up our advance and by 7:15 was in possession of details of defences and strength of enemy, which he dropped on a map to 41st Division, and reported verbally to General Staff. He returned owing to his rudder controls having been shot away. After reporting he took a fresh machine 10 minutes later and directed a barrage on the threatened point, flying behind the barrage at 2,000 feet for11/4 hours.”

A brilliant example of a pilot engaged in contact patrols is that of Lieut. Douglas Scott Carrie of St. Thomas, Ont. A prewar medical student and then a member of the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps, he had transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in October 1917 and wound up with No. 10 Sqdn. piloting the latest Armstrong-Whitworth FK.8 aircraft, perhaps the finest British corps airplane of the war. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross on June 3, 1919. The London Gazette offered no citation other than “in recognition of distinguished services rendered during the war.”

However, the recommendation that led to this decoration survives, and makes fascinating reading: “For exceptionally gallant and continuous good work and devotion to duty during the period of the British attack which commenced on 28 September 1918, flying frequently at very low heights in the bad weather which prevailed at this time and always under heavy machine-gun and rifle fire from the ground. This officer is conspicuous as an efficient and skilful pilot and he has set a very fine example to the other officers on the squadron.

“He has been engaged, with notable success, on every kind of work which can be undertaken by a pilot in a Corps Reconnaissance squadron, including a large number of successful shoots on hostile batteries and a considerable amount of photographic work. He has also carried out many very successful contact patrols, flying at low altitudes, attacking the enemy’s transport on the road and his men in the trenches and in shell holes and bringing back much valuable information.”

The particulars of a few of these patrols are as follows: “29 October 1918. On contact patrol he located our troops at 13 points in shell holes. Observing a number of enemy troops in a trench, he and his observer attacked them with machine-guns, causing several casualties and chased the remainder towards our own troops who captured them, the officer in charge waving in acknowledgement to the machine. Height, 50 to 1,000 feet.

“14 October 1918. On counter-attack patrol he located enemy troops in several places round Gulleghem, fired 50 rounds Lewis at these causing casualties. He was fired at from seven places on the enemy line. Own troops located on a 4,000 yards line.”

The importance of corps aviation was recognized by the emphasis placed in postwar service training. The small peacetime RCAF could not afford the luxury of preparing for all types of operations, so it chose over the years to concentrate on army co-operation work, from scouting to directing artillery fire. A few Camel and SE.5 fighters served until 1925 for advanced flying practice (but with no air-to-air exercises); a dozen Siskin fighters flitted about from 1928-38, most obvious at air shows. When the forces exercised, however, the RCAF was invariably present in the role that had been deemed most vital in WW I—as scouts for the soldiers and eyes for the gunners.

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